/ 14 November 2023

Russian band sings songs against war

To the left: The three members of the band Arkadiy Kots have been forced to leave Russia because of their progressive politics. Photo: Arladiy Kots Band archive

Arkadiy Kots a leftist Russian band to use in arguments with people who claim Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ilk are not right-wing nationalists but progressive socialists. 

The band, which describes itself as “folk-punk, combat folk and bard-core”, had to flee their motherland because of their progressive politics. 

Formed in 2010 on a wave of anti-Putin protests, the group is named for the 19th-century Russian poet Arkadiy Kots — famous for translating The Internationale into Russian. His version became the first official anthem of the Soviet Union in the early 20th century.

The band has three key members: Kirill Medvedev (poet, translator, activist), Oleg Zhuravlev (sociologist, activist) and Nikolay Oleynikov (artist, activist).

“We sing songs against war, we sing the songs for self-determination of people, we sing the songs for the feminist struggle and of the workers’ struggles for union rights,” Oleynikov explains in voice notes to me. 

He highlights two songs. From their anti-military repertoire there is their version of Boris Vian’s Le deserteur, and in Koyla Woodpecker, “we sing about the crisis of the military nationalist propaganda”, an enormous brainwashing that hits the whole educational system in Russia.

In 2011 and 2012, Arkadiy Kots’ version of Luis Llach’s L’Estaca went viral during the anti-Putin protests in Russia. In 2015, the band released their second album, Music for the Working Class, a collection of workers’ movement songs.

Their single, Boss Wants Me Workin’ Till I Die, became the soundtrack to the massive rallies against the infamous pension reforms in Russia, in 2018.

Oleynikov is involved in two other arts collectives. 

One is called Chto Delat. It means “What’s to be done?” and is the title of Vladimir Lenin’s political pamphlet published in 1902, as well as the title of a 19th-century novel by Nikolay Chernyshevsky. 

This collective was founded 20 years ago and is made up of 10 members — artists, philosophers, a poet and a choreographer.

“We are working in a field of contemporary art, politically presumed and left-wing oriented,” says Oleynikov. “We have created an initiative that is called School of Engaged Art.”

But when the invasion of Ukraine happened, two members were raided and the School of Engaged Art was forced to shut. Many participants managed to flee, some to former Soviet republics such as Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and others to Germany.

Oleynikov was working in Senegal when the hostilities broke out. 

“I did not go back to Russia ever since the full-scale war started … I managed to apply for an asylum in Italy.” 

There he has started an initiative called Free Home University, which is “employing various artistic/pedagogical methodologies to face the local and global political challenges”. 

“The phenomenon of displacement, migration, poverty, rural cultures, agriculture that is in crisis because of the global warming — all the crises are interconnected because of capitalism.”

After all he has gone through Oleynikov remains an idealistic artist. “Art is a learning tool, and, in this sense, we still believe in the transformative power of art,” he says.