< SWITCH ME >

It's 20 years since the Iron Curtain came down, but today's Russia still remains a very remote place for many Europeans west of Kiev. We're probably more familiar with Tolstoy or Dostoevsky's characters than with the Russians of today. When Christian Diemer met a group of young musicians in St Petersburg, he stumbled into a disturbing world of new experiences. Here he brings us a unique insight into modern Russian subculture: it’s a story of snow, beer and music…

St Petersburg, 17th of January 2009.

It's at a party at a foreigners' student hostel that I get to know Pasha Leningradsky, my Russian friend. With his straggly, white-blond hair, pale face and red eyes, there is something profoundly Dostoevskyan about him. Of course, he's drunk. He stares at a Hungarian girl, with a disconcerting expression of greed, affection and despair, for minutes on end, without saying a word. His pal, Jeff, is leaning in the corner; in the middle of the party he reminds me of the almost-dead grandmother in David Lynch's Eraserhead, whose only sign of life is the smoking end of a cigarette stuck between her motionless lips.

"Pasha likes you," he brings out after a while, his empty gaze resting on the Hungarian girl. "He is too shy to tell you himself."

pasha
Photo: Christian Diemer
"Pasha Leningradsky, my Russian friend"

No idea who invited these two to the party. When a Australian student is firmly convinced that I am Lev and not Christian, I notice that there are even more of Pasha’s Russian friends here. Lev, with whom I actually share only somewhat longer, blond hair, could be Pasha’s luckier twin; with bright, vivid eyes he has the look of a poet, and with a resonant voice of enraptured passion he talks me into reading Bul'gakov.

Somehow he actually does seem to be a poet, and somehow Pasha and his apathetic friend seem to be musicians. Pasha wants my mobile number to meet up with me and drink beer. If he calls, maybe I shouldn't go there alone, I think. Hell knows what they might want.

Bugry, 28th of February 2009.

I've forgotten Pasha when he calls, five weeks later. His instructions are simple: they're drinking beer at his place, and I'm to come and join them. I have a laptop and a camera in my backpack, I'm wearing expensive clothes. I say yes.

From Nevsky, the fashionable luxury boulevard in the pulsating city centre, I head outside, a seemingly endless series of metro stations I’ve never heard of. When I come back to the surface, I find myself in a vast desert of concrete monoliths – the outer district of the huge city, and in the snow-covered dark one can guess how this was once meant to be futuristic. But I'm still only half way to Pasha: now it’s bus 99 with a driver from the 1001 nights, and instead of being robbed I am invited to Samarkand, the driver’s hometown. I feel as if I've passed the end of the world when the sign "St Petersburg," crossed through, drifts past outside. Beyond the end of the world comes the end of the bus line. A few veterans are darting through the snow, bad roads, low houses, a chimney: Bugry, that’s where Pasha lives.

"I feel as if I've passed the end of the world."

At his place, there is a girl baking bliny (Russian pancakes) and there are his friends, smoking and drinking. I can hardly understand anything of their slang. I can see that they talk about me, they call me the "Nemets," the "German," but whenever I ask, I am assured that everything is fine. Pasha is the only one to take the trouble – from time to time – to try and "translate" their language into the couple of sounds and words I might understand. I'm to make myself at home, so much I can make out, I'm to take everything I want, cigarettes, beer, food, cats, beds, without asking, and if anything disturbs me I'm to give a clout to the one responsible; he would love to accommodate me for the next week, if I wanted.

bugry
Photo: Christian Diemer
"Bad roads, low houses, a chimney: Bugry, that's where Pasha lives."

I am irritated by this aggressive hospitality, even more because at the same time I still fear for my laptop. I mean, I don't know these guys at all, I have hardly seen them before, I don't understand what they're talking about. What I know, see and understand is that they are people I would normally never be in contact with. Not only because they are Russian - I have a few Russian acquaintances, but they are different. I can’t even tell whether they hate me for me being obviously Western and wealthy, or if they make fun of me because I'm a foreigner and that slow in the uptake, maybe they would just like to be by themselves. Or maybe not, maybe they really want me to be here with them. They seem to find it very surprising that I help the girl prepare the bliny, but somehow I am longing for someone closer to me. I do not feel at home but exposed to an environment that is unsettlingly distant from my own.

And yet there is something warm. The family's apartment, somewhat untidy due to the parent’s absence, is something one could call cosy. The furniture, which almost looks like cheap Biedermeier, the wide beds in the dim sleeping rooms, somewhere I find a shabby teddy bear. The cat is hovering around, occasionally shouted at by Pasha from the kitchen. Orange streetlamps with a halo of illuminated snowflakes are looking distantly through the windows… all this evokes deep inside me the vague feeling of home.

Next evening I come again. That's when they start playing the music. All of a sudden, two guitars, rather out of tune, are picked up from somewhere on the floor, the girl does the percussion – on a pot. A rough Russian rap is improvised, I don't understand a lot, it is about sex, about work, but I like it. I stay overnight, ending up on a sofa next to the girl, while Pasha and his friend keep smoking, drinking, and obsessively playing chess during the entire night.

"A rough Russian rap is improvised, I don't understand a lot, it is about sex, about work, but I like it."

At 7 o’clock I hear them talking in the kitchen, "where is the Nemets, could he sleep, why didn't he sleep in one of the beds," so I get up. They're drinking beer. More friends from the neighbourhood arrive, a big political discussion starts. We agree that both Hitler and Stalin were "bol'shye izpolzovannye gondony" (big used condoms). But this seems to be pretty much all we have in common. American hypocracy has found its master, they shout, if they go on like that, Russia is going to fuck America (I've forgotten the Russian expression, it was somehow more vivid). Look at the war in Georgia. The girl basically agrees with me that no war at all would be even better than Russia fucking America. What about Europe? If we switch off your oil, it will be very bad for you. World War 3 will take place in Europe – so we are good friends. They invite me to a weapon museum, but I am too dazzled to join them. Coming home, I feel: maybe that was my most merciless experience of how contradictory Russia is. And maybe the most warm-hearted and authentic one.

* * *

St Petersburg, 12th of July 2009.

It's at his concert that I see Pasha again, after four months. I have been to Germany, Spain, France, Ukraine. I have become a lot more fluent in Russian. Pasha hasn't forgotten me. The beer is cooled for me, he had always written.

The location is a pivny dom, a beer cavern, in quite a central neighborhood. And there they all are, Lev, Jeff, Duff, Maks, Vitka, Sveta… And there he is, Pasha, staring at me as if he can't believe that I am really there, without saying a word. First I think he is completely drunk, but he isn't, he is going to perform. We embrace and for a little moment we stagger, I really like him, I like his pale, somehow swollen hands, they do not look healthy. They all seem to have been waiting for me. Pasha brings forward a matter of considerable seriousness. I, as a living exemplar of a German, am to translate and recite their poem in German. It starts: "I am a sexual fascist." Just a joke, they tell me. I like the rest, it is a coarse, somehow cryptic poetry, it seems far away from evoking cheap national clichés. They all wait for me, they all go in with me.

"It is a coarse, somehow cryptic poetry."

The concert. Pasha is huddled over his laptop, mixing seemingly endless tapeworms of biting electronic noises, Maks claws out an ever-changing ostinato figure on a miniature keyboard, from time to time Duff throws harsh beats into the frozen monotony. No text, no rhythm, no melody. Two pieces, each half an hour long. After some time I get up along with Jeff – the one with the Lynchesque emptiness of expression – walk to the stage, read the text, walk back, and we drink our beer. So does the audience, most of them seem to know each other, there are friends, brothers, couples, they talk loudly, but they seem to appreciate the noisy art.

Duff
Photo: Christian Diemer
"From time to time Duff throws harsh beats into the frozen monotony"

 Bugry, 25th of July 2009.

Even with the roads burst open and the deserted chimney, Bugry is quite an idyllic place in summer. I have told them that I'm writing about them, they provide me with material. The video, for example, that should have been shown during the concert and the poem. It didn't work, because Pasha is a "kashyol" (idiot). In the video: pornographic sequences from the internet, displaying women of different provenance, alternating with swastikas in all forms and sizes, flashing, rotating, on condoms. It doesn't fail in its shocking effect when an interracial sex scene is cut through by the black-and-white image of Hitler with Nazi salute.

"I feel cheated. I had thought of them as my friends"

I feel cheated. I had thought of them as my friends and I had thought they thought of me as a friend, not as a Nazi. So why did they plan to show me up in a concert as the "Nemets" with swastikas on the screen behind him? There it is again for a moment, this feeling of being an outsider, a foreigner, particularly a German foreigner, in a very alien environment. Just a joke, they explain. The connection between pornography and fascism: the fascist tries to conquer the whole world. The sexual fascist tries to conquer the whole world in order to rape all women. They even seem to like the idea. The connection between pornography, fascism and Germany? Germany is the country of the best pornographic movies. The first thing I hear. Are the porn sequences they used in the video German? No.

I ask Duff’s girlfriend, a tender girl easily to fall in love with. She didn't know the video before. Women are different, she says. Some might like being treated like that. She does not. For her, sex is something between herself and Duff, not to be exhibited. What about Duff? He likes pornographic movies, to watch beautiful woman. What?!! The two are young, but they have been together for four years and they look like if they might stay together for another while. And Pasha? He doesn’t care. If you come home, open your beer, switch on the porn, it’s just like switching on the light, the television. You don't watch. You drink beer, you talk to your friends, that's what counts. Pasha is 21, he has been married and divorced, he has a little child he'll never see again

i am a sexual fascist. i am a patriot.

you are black, like tar, you are red, like blood, you are white, like milk, you are yellow, like the sun.

sex – that is a particular nation,

sex – that is a particular colour, like a sack, like glass, like water.

a condom is not particularly transparent. i don’t like condoms of black colour.

a colour shall be a colour, a colour shall remain a colour.

the instinct doesn’t see the colour.

a condom has no soul, no logic, no colour.

i do care, it’s not all the same for me, it doesn't make fuck all difference.

sex – that is an artistic revolution.

one woman shall there be.

one man shall the woman love.

one woman shall the man love.

we build up, you destroy.

we build up, you destroy.

we build up, you destroy.

we are the army of the sexual fascists,

we are not black, we are not white, we are not red, we are not yellow,

we are different, we are of a different colour, the colour of the air.

Just a joke? "Sex is an artistic revolution," they write in the poem. They say they wanted to create something new, something to stun the audience. Pornography and Hitler. An elixir which German contemporary avant-garde also counts as part of its arsenal and claims to be high culture. The same poem also presents the opposite view: "one woman shall there be. one man shall the woman love. one woman shall the man love." And the fascism? "sex – that is a particular nation, sex – that is a particular colour […]. instinct doesn’t see the colour. a condom has […] no colour." Sex as a means to overcome nationalism and racism? Or love? "we build up, you destroy. we build up, you destroy. we build up, you destroy. […] we are not black, we are not white, we are not red, we are not yellow, we are different, we are of a different colour, the colour of the air."

They show me older records. Some punk, hard core stuff, mostly American. They don’t like it any more. They gave up having a ordinary band name, they adopted various names, "myzhiki igrayut i poyut," a working title: "men play and sing." They are planning to embark on an absurd theatre project with video and music, about the four elements, living together, coping with each other. They want to do something of their own, something Russian. They don't need America.

Duff_Anya_Pasha
Photo: Christian Diemer
Out on the lake: Duff, Tanya and Pasha

World War 3? "No, understand, we don't have anything against America. America is fine. We like all people. But we are just… Russian." I understand.

Then we go out on the lake, my Russian friends and me.

Out on the ...
Out on the lake Out on the lake
Duff
Duff Duff
Duff in con...
Duff in concert Duff in concert
Pasha
Pasha Pasha
Sasha, Pash...
Sasha, Pasha and Lenin Sasha, Pasha and Lenin
Bugry in th...
Bugry in the sun Bugry in the sun
Bugry: the ...
Bugry: the view from Duff's window Bugry: the view from Duff's window

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