During the second half of the 1980s, the liberalizing reforms of perestroika ushered in a renaissance period for the Soviet Union’s nascent rock scene. Bands that had gotten their start in underground apartment concerts could court mainstream success at rock clubs in the western Russian centers of Leningrad, Moscow, and Sverdlovsk under the watchful eye of state security. If the music of the degenerate West could not be eradicated, they reasoned, the KGB could curtail its harmful influence by supervising concerts, ensuring that politically dubious or stylistically unorthodox groups remained in the margins.
Yet in the western Siberian cities of Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Tiumen’, where no such officially sanctioned venues existed, young rockers captivated by Western punk bypassed the censors by remaining underground and creating music openly critical of the Soviet system. The most well-known figure in this emerging punk counterculture was Igor Fёdorovich (“Egor”) Letov (1964-2008), who in 1984 founded the band Grazhdanskaia oborona (Civil Defense). The group’s early work – at times bizarre, often defiant – caught the attention of the KGB, and a year after the band was founded, Letov was forced into a psychiatric hospital for three months. Years later, he described being injected with “super-strong doses” of antipsychotics by authorities intent on “lobotomizing” him, transforming the punk rebel into a compliant citizen. It was in the psychiatric hospital that Letov began to pen the sharply political songs for which he would soon become notorious, excoriating the empty symbols of the late Soviet period, the obedience of the system’s subjects, and the state’s ability to induce individuals to commit unthinkable violence against one another. “In order not to go crazy,” he wrote, “I had to create.” His creation – Grazhdanskaia oborona – would go on to become the quintessential political punk band of the Soviet era.
I begin with this anecdote not only because of the historical context it provides – or because the idea of forced treatment in a Soviet asylum remains perversely fascinating – but because at age 21, the same age as Egor Letov during his stay in the psychiatric ward, I was writing a 100-page undergraduate thesis on Grazhdanskaia oborona. I became accustomed to mentioning this coincidence as a way of showing that I was aware of the absurdity of my situation: amidst state repression, it hardly seems likely that Letov would have envisioned that his song texts would become the object of academic study. The contrast between Letov and myself, however, has become emblematic for me of a deeper disquiet I have experienced during my interactions with his music. The creator of the songs that enraptured me had suffered for his defiance toward the Soviet state; who was I, a young American woman with only a few years of Russian under my belt, to interpret his work?
This question of authority – and the subsequent fear of misrepresentation – had preoccupied me ever since I began listening to Grazhdanskaia oborona as a second-year Russian student. The sweltering July night I first listened to “Vsё idёt po planu” marked the opening of a new dimension of Russian-language music for me, rich with Letov’s mockery of official doctrine, evocative vocabulary, and literary allusions. His style was raw, uncensored, and unmistakably punk, but his language revealed intellectual depth behind the howls about totalitarianism. It was Grazhdanskaia oborona that inspired me to create a weekly college radio show dedicated to the music of the Soviet underground. Under the pseudonym of DJ Katya, I played more-or-less obscure Russian-language punk rock and interspersed it with background on the musical groups and select lyric translations.
Even amidst the thrill of playing Grazhdanskaia oborona, among many other fascinating bands, on the radio, I was troubled what I regarded as my own tendency to oversimplify Letov’s life into a caricature of heroic dissidence in opposition to a faceless Soviet regime. It was easy to repeat the same striking anecdotes: the psychiatric hospital, the months spent on the run after riotous concerts. It was harder to reconcile the image of Letov as an anti-Soviet rebel with his ardent communism following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, particularly given that the “canonical” dissidents revered in the West, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, unequivocally rejected communist ideology. This paradox of Letov’s life and work – anti-Soviet on the surface, more nuanced beneath –inspired me to analyze the songs of Grazhdanskaia oborona in an academic context, examining Letov’s role as a sort of illiberal dissident.
Although the prospect of analyzing Soviet punk rock in an academic context thrilled me, it also presented me with a daunting task, one into which I had made only a few brief forays: translating Letov’s work into English. At the same time as I hoped that my research would focus more on the political aspects of Letov’s song texts rather than their poetic devices or any intrinsic literary value, a large part of my work hinged on examining his lyrics. By translating them, I could lend credence to my argument to speakers of Russian and English alike. I can’t speak with complete certainty, but it seems accurate to say that this is something Letov would have hated. In a 1990 interview, he declared that he was “extremely against the texts of [his] songs being published anywhere,” that “they weren’t written for that purpose.” To Letov, lyrics presented merely as poetry were deprived of the necessary context of musical performance: “the energy of the performer, the melody, the harmony, the rhythm.” I was keenly aware of this dilemma while analyzing the lyrics of Grazhdanskaia oborona songs; I had listened to them more times than I care to admit and could recall all the harsh guitar, mocking laughter, and inexplicably catchy melodies, and I feared that a reader presented only with the lyrics would remain unfamiliar with these elements no less essential to my understanding of Letov’s work. In my mind, this “loss” would only be magnified by English translations of his lyrics: stripped not only of their musicality but of their language as well.
I’d made a few previous attempts at translating Letov’s work: three of his poems, which I read at Oberlin College’s annual Jed Deppman Translation Symposium; and one song, “Necrophilia,” which I recited with glee at a Valentine’s Day poetry reading after billing it to any acquaintances who would listen as “the song about sex with dead Lenin.” What all these translations had in common, however, was an element of performance. In these situations, I could gesture, pause for dramatic effect, or grin in anticipation of my audience’s laughter when a swear word was coming up (“Fuck – I’m a necrophiliac, I love myself!”). Intonation could, at least on some level, substitute for melody.
Yet the translations that I was tasked with completing now were a very different sort of performance: academic, not literary. My goal was no longer to entertain or inform but to construct and support an argument. The result felt frighteningly patchwork-like: a scrap-pile of meaningful phrases and significant lines torn out of context and sewn together so that I could make some larger point about Letov’s creativity. In the text of the paper itself, no more than six lines of a song appeared consecutively; some songs were presented only as a few crucial phrases. I recalled more than once Letov’s criticism of individuals who attempted to publish his works as poetry and couldn’t help but think that at least they had kept his work whole, uninterrupted – and, for that matter, Russian. The snippets of English that appeared in my analysis (with the Russian text relegated to parentheses) seemed utterly alien from the songs that had captivated me years ago.
In order to compensate for the lack of musical context and the shift into a dissimilar language, I found myself more or less subconsciously reverting to translations that retained the rhythm of the original lyrics – and inevitably convincing myself out of it later. This was partially brought on by my distress at how ridiculous certain lyrics seemed when translated into English. The rhythmic, six-syllable “Vsё idёt po planu,” the title of Letov’s best-known composition, became a bumbling, eleven-syllable “Everything Is Going According to Plan” that I could hardly imagine the frontman of a punk band shouting out before an audience of discontented youth. In a moment of desperation, I considered replicating the rhythm of the Russian lyrics as an attempt to convey how Letov performed them, but the result was all the more bizarre. Translating the pseudo-slogan “zdorovo i vechno” as “healthy and forever,” for instance, relayed both the literal meaning and rhythm of the original phrase, and yet its ominousness, its disdainful sneer toward the decaying Soviet system, was missing. In the end, I chose to render the phrase as “great and eternal” – not quite aligned to the rhythm of the Russian text but far more attuned to its function as a condemnation of power. Even the many-syllable “Everything Is Going According to Plan” came to seem fitting, an impermeably bureaucratic phrase spat out amidst condemnations of Soviet militarism and the dream of a communism that would never come.
Aside from these brief excerpts, I selected four Grazhdanskaia oborona song texts and translated them in their entirety. While selecting a few vital texts for translation required some paring down, it also allowed me to present lyrics in full rather than as a miscellaneous collection of phrases. Readers, including those without knowledge of Russian, could thus examine his works for themselves based not only upon isolated sentences but on cohesive texts. Moreover, the four texts together provide a progressively more ambiguous look at Letov’s work. The first, “Totalitarianism,” is constructed around straightforward condemnations of Soviet power – a compliant populace caught up in a “syndrome” that makes them complicit in the system’s abuses. “We all approve of totalitarianism!” Letov snarls. The imagery of specifically Soviet oppression permeates many of his works in the latter half of the 1980s, perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in the aforementioned song “Great and Eternal,” where the state’s subjects have lost their humanity to the point of complete erasure:
Concrete freedom reigns in cast-iron cities
Posters control valiant minds
Inertia operates obedient bodies
And we don’t exist, we don’t exist, we don’t exist, WE DON’T EXIST!
The party is the wisdom, honor, and conscience of the epoch
Great and eternal
Great and eternal!
Later songs, however, suggest that his animosity is directed not only toward the Soviet regime but towards all government; he urges his listeners to “kill the state in themselves” (ubei v sebe gosudarstvo). His famous declaration, “I will always be against” (ia vsegda budu protiv), becomes an apt summation of his politically enigmatic image: a perpetual rebel who refuses to be complacent with power, no matter what name it takes.
Ultimately, my central dilemma in translating Letov’s lyrics was less one of practical decisions – adherence to literal meaning, mimicry of the original rhythm – and more a question of ethics. Despite my passionate interest in Grazhdanskaia oborona and my desire to continue to examine Letov’s music in an academic context, I have difficulty picturing myself publishing any of my translations of his lyrics. The gulf between the furious Russian punk songs and the English-language verses I produced from them threatens to overwhelm my enthusiasm for acquainting a wider audience with Letov’s work. At the same time, I remind myself that my translations of the songs of Grazhdanskaia oborona could serve not as a corruption of Letov’s intentions but a continuation of them. Just as his recordings passed from hand to hand throughout the Siberian punk underground almost four decades ago, I can only hope that my translations of his work might circulate on a similarly close-knit level, inspiring in others the same fascination that I experienced, and perhaps providing a new perspective on what it meant to be politically defiant in the Soviet Union and today.
Katie Frevert is a 2022 graduate of Oberlin College, where she majored in Russian and East European Studies and Creative Writing. Her undergraduate thesis, entitled “‘Kill the State in Yourself’: Totalitarianism and the Illiberal Dissidence of Egor Letov,” was awarded highest honors.