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“To hell with the old house – we’ll rebuild it,” said Oxxxymiron in his 2022 music video “OYDA” as he walked through the streets of Saint Petersburg, fully aware there are no hopes of returning to Russia after its release. Like numerous others, he now bears the label of a “foreign agent”, a badge of honour awarded by the Russian state to the ones speaking up against the war in Ukraine. Since February 2022, artists such as Monetochka, FACE, and Noize MC have been united by the shared mission of anti-war activism, hosting charitable concerts and issuing public statements while in forced exile. However, by the end of 2023, it is evident that Russians in exile are facing war fatigue: both artists and their listeners. Regular releases are overshadowing anti-war music, while artists have embarked on world tours with no mention of proceedings going to charity. Did they simply move on, or is the situation more complicated than it seems?

Although unknown to many, the Russian musical scene was not blind to politics and human rights issues pre-2022. Music that mocked or rebelled against the state, police, and politicians resonated with younger Russians. Electro bands like ICE3SPEAK garnered public attention to police brutality in their 2018 music video “Death No More”, viewed by millions. The hip-hop scene, renowned for its love for dissing the state, came up with powerful tracks like FACE’s “Humorist”, mocking censorship and foreshadowing the upcoming war. Oxxxymiron’s 2021 album “Beauty and Ugliness” contained notes of foreshadowing, calling out security services for persecuting musicians and pointing out that the “screws are being tightened” by the government.

The invasion of February 2022 took everyone by surprise. Artists previously known for being in the opposition, or at least not pro-state, began speaking up on social media and stage. In the following month, anti-war musicians fled the country in haste, leaving everything they lived for behind. By April 2022, Noize MC and Monetochka hosted concerts in the EU to raise money for Ukranian refugees, and FACE, alongside other Russian-speaking rappers, performed for a similar cause in Warsaw. One anti-war music video, interview, concert, and social media post followed another, marking 2022 as a year of powerful musical activism.

This activist wave has noticeably calmed down since 2022 to what now can be called war burnout. Despite commendable efforts and thousands of euros raised to help Ukrainians, the war sees no end. As many artists left in haste, so did their audience. Russian musicians mostly perform for post-Soviet block immigrants, many of whom are newly relocated Russians fleeing conscription and the regime. Several have now returned to Russia, unable to afford to live abroad, or moved to other countries, away from Europe. It’s no secret that the audience is exhausted from terrible news and constant turbulence, seeking to talk and hear about something other than the war – and the artists have to entertain. We now see rock legend Zemfira and punk-rave band Little Big touring not just in Europe, but across the globe. Proceedings are no longer going to charity, but it is hard to blame artists for wanting to make profits from their work. After all, it’s difficult to advocate for a cause that renders all activists completely powerless, especially when the rest of the world appears to have moved on.

Although the anti-war music movement has not made any tangible contributions to the crisis apart from supporting refugees, it still holds importance. Understandably, the world often views all Russians as supporters of the state, which was reinforced by their reluctance to condemn or protest against the invasion. In a way, artists in exile combatted this misconception, seeking to demonstrate that there are Russians who are strongly against it, all gathered under one roof to jam to some politically dissident music. Even if these efforts to change public perceptions failed, the anti-war anthems surely made some Viktor Tsoi-level history.

Cover photo: Noize MC by Викиенот

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