Singing Russia’s identity
With his blonde dreadlocks and a rocker’s leather jacket, Shaman sports the extreme, futuristic face of the Russian identity, moving away from the West by aping it in every detail, but in an "I am Russian" version. The videoclip with the new anthem that has taken Moscow by storm alternates frenzied fans and wheat fields.
Since New Year's Eve to past Easter, the folk-rock song Ya Russkiy (Я русский, I am Russian), by young singer Shaman (stage name of Yaroslav Dronov), has become Russia’s new anthem, reverberating in every Russian school, from elementary to high school, listened to, taught and loudly sung, played during President Vladimir Putin's New Year address to the nation, the “Year of Victory", the refrain “I am Russian, and I push to the end!” repeated over and over.
The 30-year-old pop star, with his blonde dreadlocks and wearing a rocker’s leather jacket, plays deafening concerts in fully packed stadiums in front of wild crowds of young fans who catch him when he throws himself from the stage, following the tritest of habits of the music business.
Shaman represents the extreme, futuristic face of the Russian identity, as it moves away from the West by aping it in every detail, but in an "I am Russian" fashion.
Russia’s official anthem, which the singer performs in a rock version, is solemn music, the same music as the Soviet anthem, but with different lyrics that extol “Russia — our sacred state, Russia — our beloved country. A mighty will, great glory — These are yours for all time!”
In one YouTube video, Shaman shows off the land to be protected, alternating images of cheering fans and vast wheat fields.
In the song he says: “I breathe this air / The sun in the sky looks at me / The free wind flies over me / It is just like me”, followed by the refrain: “I am Russian, I push to the end / I am Russian, I got my blood from my father / I am Russian, I am lucky / I am Russian and I don't care if you don't like it / I am Russian.”
Towards the end of the clip, with fans going crazy, words appear – “Somewhere in America”, followed by the iconic Hollywood sign in Los Angeles and a black couple in a car, “Ya Russkiy” blaring out of the car radio. The video ends "Somewhere at the end of the universe,” with an alien spaceship tuning in to the Earth picking up Shaman's song with a bunch of aliens strutting their stuff on a dance floor.
With such a second-rate song, Russian propaganda appears to be transcending all geographical and spiritual limits, expressing its supreme ideal. And this is not a first. Back in 1983, many Russians took to "L'italiano" (The Italian) by Toto Cutugno, which many can still sing by heart, especially its catchphrase “Sono un vero Italiano” (I am a true Italian), which in their minds, after all, is like shouting, “I am Russian".
For Russians, identity is not about genes. The Russian worldview is not one of a “superior race”. Nor is it about geography, except for the feeling that they are citizens of a country “without boundaries”. In doing so, they share a similar type of self-consciousness as Italians, who live in a strip surrounded by seas and so cannot see boundaries, holding in the recesses of their minds the memory of an ancient universal empire.
Culturally, Russians and Italians are close, from Dante and Leonardo da Vinci to Pushkin and the writers, artists, musicians and even politicians who tried to imitate the Italian glories of the Renaissance. Or perhaps the earthly glories of joyful leaders, whom Putin himself took as a model at the start of his career.
In fact, proclaiming one’s "Russianness" elicits rather uncertain and disjointed reactions, beyond what propaganda tries to exalt.
In a parody of Shaman’s song, Russian comedian Alexandr Gudkov posted a videoclip with a song titled Ya Uskiy (Я узкий, I am narrow) lampooning Ya Russkiy, producing so much glee that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) launched an investigation against him for "extremism", while one member of the Russian Senate, Yelena Afanasyeva, called on the Prosecutor’s Office to charge him with “Russophobia”.
Gudkov fled Russia for a while, but eventually went back home, careful to keep a low profile and not touch any patriotic nerve, which is more sensitive than that of the Americans when it comes to jokes about sexual genders.
The grotesque aspects of identity affirming statements do not even require any ironic twist, since others are shouting "I am Russian” without being Russian, people like Brazilian footballer Claudinho, who does not even speak Russian (but knows a thing or two about roubles), and Kremlin-honoured American actor Steven Seagal, who likes to repeat everywhere, "I am one million per cent Russian”.
The actor, who has played in many high-octane action movies, not only says he is Russian by descent, which is doubtful, but claims to have been educated in the atmosphere of the traditions and values of Russia, as he said recently at the International Congress of Russophiles, held in Moscow a few weeks ago.
When he was invited to Kalmykia in 2007, he told the astonished audience, "I am a Russian Mongol!” Seeing the bewilderment on people’s faces, he corrected himself and said: “I am probably Kalmyk".
The Russian identity, the Slavophile samobytnost (самобытность, originality), is not about nationality, but an ideal, a moral and political orientation, more akin to sports cheering or youthful musical frenzy than to any ethnic or civic affiliation.
The Russian language itself does not help. The word Natsional'nost (Национальность, nationality) is not the same as grazhdanstvo (гражданство, citizenship); the former refers to a person’s ethnicity, which was duly indicated in Soviet passports: Soviet citizen, Russian, Tatar, Chechen, or other ethnicity.
For this reason, one cannot easily define as “nationalism” Russia’s traditional ideology, which tends towards imperialism. Things are muddled further by the difference between tsarstvo (царство, tsardom), rooted in the word tsar (Caesar), one who rules a kingdom, and Imperiya (Империя, empire), which Peter the Great imposed in the 18th century to indicate a more Western type of polity, a more modern version of a Roman emperor (imperator) rather than the Russian tsar of old.
Thus, for any of Russia’s supreme leader, in any age, shouting Ya Russkiy causes a certain identity crisis, all the more so if it has to be defined with decidedly imported terms, such as "party secretary" or "federal president". Even the title “patriarch”, which is a bit better, is not originally from Russia, but it can at least be attributed to more ancient times, closer to the age of Abraham than Constantinople.
In lieu of “Orthodoxy”, a Greek word, Russians prefer sobornost (соборность, spiritually joint community), a Slavophile term hard to define, which refers to a kind of "mystical union", not so much around the dogmas of faith, as a submission to the hierarchy of “all the Russias", another term very dear to spiritual leaders, but one that sows further confusion.
For ordinary people, being "Russian" can mean many things. First of all, it can mean being born in Russia, to Russian parents, raised speaking the Russian language.
To this we must add being in sync with Russian culture and sensitivity, having an emotional relationship with Russian history, remembering the battles of Borodino against Napoleon and Stalingrad against Hitler.
Not all "ethnic" Russians have all these traits since some Russians have been Francophile and preferred Western culture anyway.
Broadly speaking, "real" Russians are supposed to live in Russia, but even this is not absolute; some may be the children of Russians living abroad, educated by their Russian family, without ever setting foot in Russia.
The diaspora goes from the United States to the Baltics or Central Asia, and citizenship in this case does not erase nationality, ethnic self-identification.
Another group is constituted by those who say "I am Russian" like Steven Seagal, as an ideological statement, to be "on the side of the Russians". It is enough to prefer Russians to Americans to be taken into the Russian fold, whatever one’s birthplace or passport.
At the start of the new millennium, T-shirts that said Ya Russkiy were sold all over the world, on the initiative of the ultra-nationalist “Russian Marches" movement, for whom it is enough to be politically pro-Russian to be counted among the “real Russians”.
Indeed, not even political support is needed, just showing some sympathy and closeness is enough, because Russians are people of heart; in the end, it does not matter so much how you think, as long as you love us and drink a nice vodka with us.
The singer Shaman is a good example of a true Russian. For a decade he tried every way to break into show business, going on every TV talent show, singing his own version of the most popular tunes, from pop to romantic, without great success.
When state propaganda started looking for a "true patriotic singer", since all the big stars had stepped aside, Yaroslav seized the moment, proposing pieces that exalted the special military operation and the greatness of the Russian army, and finally made a breakthrough, becoming the "truly Russian voice". This goes to show that it is not enough to consider yourself Russian, other Russians must recognise you as such.
Today Russians are increasingly mixed among the many Russified "nationalities", from Asia and the Caucasus to the Finnish north and the Tatar Urals, from the Sino-Japanese Far East to Siberia, melting pots of ethnicities and origins.
To make matters even more complicated, in Russian, a distinction is made between ethnic Russians, russkiye (русские) and holders of Russian citizenship, Rossiyane (россияне) who in reality are anything but Russian. In the end, probably the guy who shouts Ya Russkiy does not know who he really is and especially does not who his brothers are.
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