MOSCOW – For nearly two decades he was Russia’s most popular, high-earning, and, to his critics, most cynical rock star. Acclaimed by millions for his foul lyrics and gritty authenticity, he packed stadiums across the country and raised extra cash at small private concerts for Kremlin-friendly tycoons.
“Yes, I am a cynic. This is a philosophical and clinical school. It’s a diagnosis, ”said Sergei Shnurov, the long-time front man of the ska-punk band Leningrad. “From my point of view, we definitely don’t have enough sober cynicism.”
But after a round of farewell concerts last year – all sold out – 47-year-old Shnurov even shocked his normally imperturbable audience. He changed his wardrobe, ditching sleeveless undershirts and baggy shorts in favor of office attire. left St. Petersburg, his beloved hometown; and began working behind a tidy desk in Moscow as the newly appointed general producer of RTVi, a rather boring, family-friendly television station that frowns while swearing in the air. He even tries to quit smoking.
Before taking the job, he almost never watched TV and hadn’t owned a TV in more than a decade. State channels, he said, are mostly unobservable propaganda festivals, and anything interesting can be found on the Internet.
The station, which was founded in 1997 by the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, who has since been in exile and is now privately owned by a Soviet émigré living in California, targets Russian-language stations in the USA, Israel and Europe. It has “no connection at all,” Shnurov told RT, the infamous Kremlin-funded propaganda channel targeting foreign viewers.
He said he would like to change the name to avoid any association in people’s minds with RT, which he later set up and “stole” the name. RT, he added, “is absolutely a propaganda channel” and has given its station’s brand a bad name.
His transformation is an abrupt change for a rocker whose songs include classics like “In Peter, You Drink,” a celebration of St. Petersburg’s taste for alcohol and the intoxicants preferred in other Russian cities, with so many swear words that he is was taken to court for profanity. (He avoided the belief by arguing that the curses are an integral part of his artistic creation and are not intended to offend anyone in particular.)
His breakthrough album released in 1999 – shortly before Vladimir V. Putin, also from St. Petersburg, became President of Russia – was called “Cursing Without Electricity”.
For his many critics in Russia’s liberal opposition, who have long viewed the star as a greedy opportunist, his recent metamorphosis is just another step on what prominent actor and theater director Evgeny Grishkovets viewed as a long journey from rock’n ‘ Roll Pirate has described “Too” a cynical businessman who despises his own audience. “
Mr Shnurov reacted to the director’s damn judgment like many things: he wrote a sardonic poem and posted it on Instagram.
And whatever Moscow liberal intellectuals may think of him, Mr. Shnurov, whom most Russians know simply as “Shnur”, can be sure that he has a far larger following across the country than any combined.
This is largely due to his pioneering work in an immensely popular genre of Russian music video that combines sophisticated production with catchy melodies and storylines that appeal to the hopes and frustrations of so many Russians.
One hit, Exhibit, about a young woman preparing for a date with a wealthy client in the filthy apartment she shares with her mother, has been viewed more than 164 million times on YouTube.
As a teenager in St. Petersburg in the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union broke up, he moved between two very different worlds: a rebellious music scene adored by Viktor Tsoi, a singer from St. Petersburg whose song “I Want Change” became the anthem a generation; and Mr. Shnurov’s parents, engineers who worked in the Soviet defense sector.
His mother had a job in a secret company that made computers, his father in one that made communications equipment. His grandfather was a highly decorated Soviet officer, and the family, although not rich, had an apartment in the center of St. Petersburg known at the time as Leningrad.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, Shnurov said, came as a shock to everyone, including those desperately seeking change, replacing “romantic illusions” with vast new perspectives tarnished by cynical calculations.
“In my life, money has even changed five times. Money always seemed like something that should last forever, ”he said. “Your own identity changes and you become a different person.”
His talent for moving with the times has earned him the reputation of a sell-out in opposition circles that always goes with the flow. This is especially true for supporters of Aleksei A. Navalny, the anti-corruption fighter who was treated in a Berlin hospital after a German poisoning attack with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military as a chemical weapon.
When asked about Mr. Navalny in an interview shortly before the attack, Mr. Shnurov mocked the opposition leader as a “mirror image” of Mr. Putin and dismissed him as a cultic figure who does not tolerate contradiction and demands support as a “matter of belief” from concrete political proposals Cut.
After Mr Navalny fell ill with the poison on a flight back to Moscow last month, Mr Shnurov quickly revised his views. In another poem posted on Instagram, he lamented that “death is everywhere in the form of poison” and that the sinister habits of “Comrade Chekist” – a reference to former KGB officers like Putin – “would make the Medicis jealous”.
Mr. Shnurov never rated persistence as a virtue. “The whole world has become a carnival today – everything is theatrical,” he said, noting that Russians who watch state television one day will watch videos denouncing the Kremlin on Mr. Navalny’s YouTube channel the next day .
He’s not sure why he got on TV, other than wanting a change after more than two exhausting decades as a drinking rocker. The move also followed a major break in his personal life with his marriage breakdown in 2018 and his quick remarrying to a new woman, his fourth.
Artemy Troitsky, a former music critic and concert promoter who was friends with Mr Shnurov until they dropped out after the rocker made derogatory comments on Mr Navalny’s protests in 2011 and 2012, said he was confused by Mr Shnurov’s career change. One possible reason, he said, is that Leningrad has lost steam in recent years. “Now he’s trying some new tricks.”
“After knowing him well in public and in private for many years, I don’t trust this guy,” said Troitsky. “He’s extremely talented, but also extremely cynical, and even though he sings songs laden with F-words, he always knew how to make money and play it safe.”
So far, however, Mr. Shnurov has rocked the boat in his new job.
One of his first projects was a trip to Khabarovsk to make a documentary about a sudden outbreak of protest in the remote region of Russia’s Far East. There was widespread suspicion that he was sent there by the Kremlin, but he insists that it was not and the program he produced is unlikely to have resonated with Russian officials.
This was followed by an investigation by RTVi into the cause of protests in the Bashkir region. It showed environmental activists asserting themselves and defeating wealthy business interests, government officials and security forces.
In contrast, state-controlled television silently suppressed protests in Khabarovsk and Bashkiria, which explains why a recent public opinion poll found that 62 percent of Russians did not even know there had been protests. RTVi does not have a license to broadcast inside Russia, but its programs can all be viewed on the Internet.
Another project by Mr Shnurov is to recruit more nervous journalists for the station. He said he tried to hire Ivan Golunov, who wrote groundbreaking reports of the criminal infiltration of the funeral home in Cahoots with the security guards and was subsequently arrested on trumped drug charges.
Mr Shnurov said he was delighted when Mr Putin first took power in late 1999, largely because his move to the Kremlin brought a great victory for St. Petersburg in its long battle with Moscow over which city is more important , but also because the head of state “offered Russia a new opportunity” after a decade of false starts under President Boris N. Yeltsin. But he’s been disappointed. Today, he said, “Putin represents only a fog.”
“The system has to change,” said Shnurov. “The system always has to change. If something doesn’t change, it will be changed. “
Sophia Kishkovsky contributed to the reporting.