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Leningrad 2/2

The story behind Warsaw-Moscow-St Petersburg journey to Leningrad's concert.

Story by Marcin Konkel December 29th, 2016

Read part 1 (on Moscow and Russia in general).

When in Peter...

It was early morning. Provodnik has entered the compartment with breakfast. Simple pancake-like dish with a dip of jam. It was still warm. We also ordered tea and coffee for which we had to pay for some small amount of roubles. The tea was served in traditional metal “baskets” with various patterns and a large RZD logo on it. Oh, how I wish I had one of those… Of course, you could buy them but for around 2500 RUB (40 EUR). Are you kidding me? I later saw the same design for 1200 RUB (20 EUR) in a small shop on one of the metro stations in Moscow.

Anyway, in around 20-30 minutes we were to arrive at our destination. Slowly but consequently, with little sleep behind us, we were settling in with the morning routine. The breakfast was tasty. The portion was enough to give us some energy in the morning. Having eaten and packed we were waiting for the arrival. Others in their compartments were doing the same.

5 minutes have passed and the train from Moscow slowly entered the platform at Moskovsky railway station. "Priviet Saint Petersburg!” - I said to myself. It was exactly 7:56 and an anthem was playing. It was the customary "Hymn to the Great City" composed by Reinhold Glière in 1949 and adopted as the hymn of Saint Petersburg in 2003. One could feel the pathos yet people were just walking as usual. This has been driving my curiosity even further. It was still early morning but and it was still dark outside. We’ve moved some 600 km North so it would be logical to anticipate that the day would get shorter in the winter time.

Our apartment was to be ready at around 10:00 so we had plenty of time to have a breakfast and a coffee. We were to spend the next three days on Rubinsteina street. The same one mentioned by the taxi driver in Leningrad's video clip "В Питере - пить” (en. In Peter - drink). Sorry to, perhaps, spoil the moment but it was a pure coincidence we’ve chosen this location. As it later turned out it was one of two most popular streets in the city packed with the most trendy and extraordinary restaurants, pubs and bars in the city.

Getting back for a moment to the anthem. The video you watched at the beginning of this story was called the unofficial anthem of Saint Petersburg by Ivan Urgant, of the popular show "Evening Urgant" (ru. Вечерний Ургант). If you watch few of their shows and then switch to "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” on NBC or few other late night shows on American Television you might find some resemblance. Still the resemblance is done in a really tasteful way.

So.. When you’re in Petersburg do what the people in Petersburg do.

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Through a cab window towards Hermitage

Yeah, and what is that they do? Well.. One perspective would be from a driver of a cab that picked me and Dorian up from a pub on the outskirts of the city one day. We wanted to check something on random and this pub seemed to fit. Anyway, we entered a cab and the Konstantin, our driver, started the conversation in Russian with “Ahh! You're going drinking!”. We did not discourage him from that scenario. From our 15 min ride to the city centre we got to know where's the best Shawarma (apparently a popular and easily accessible form of lunch), his discredit towards the new ladies on vocals in Leningrad, that they went more commercial. We also learned about good brands of vodka (like Stolichnaya and few others) and that Zelenaya Marka is shit. He pointed us to few (excellent as he said) strip clubs as well. We did not ask for any of this information but Konstantin was an honest fellow and surely wanted only good for us. It was, sadly, time to get off and the conversation has suddenly broken. We went to use this acquired knowledge he shared to some limited extent...

When you're walking in Saint Petersburg, in the centre and within quite a long radius, is all beautiful neoclassical architecture that can be admired whenever you look and, especially, on Nevsky Prospekt which is the main street of the city. For those loving Empire-style buildings and monuments - you will be more than content. The city itself has also dozens of monuments, venues etc. (around 250 in total) associated with the life of Lenin.

What’s more, five days after Lenin's death in 1924, Petrograd (holding this name since 1914) was renamed to Leningrad. This includes Aurora, a cruiser that is the symbol of the October Revolution and, probably, the oldest ship in the Russian Navy. It’s also the name of the album that Leningrad band issued in 2007. In 1991, during the first Russian presidential elections, the city changed its name back to the historic Saint Petersburg.

As for the city of culture - perhaps the biggest advantage of the city is the Hermitage. Similar in some ways to Louvre in Paris it holds an impressive collection of arts of a various kind from all over the world. That much gold, though, I think I haven’t seen in Louvre… Only more I have witnessed in Tsarskoye Selo but I will refer to it later on as first it’s the concert that was the prime reason for coming to St. Peter’s.

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Hermitage can be called "the Russian Louvre". I'd reckon that Louvre is much more known than a museum in Saint Petersburg. That being said it was actually created as a reply to the French estate. It's one of the largest and historically oldest museum in the world and founded by Catherine the Great in 1764. I was established when Catherine purchased 225 Western European Paintings it has laid the foundations for future further development.

The building itself does not look as good as Louvre (if I was to compare). It does not give the same effect and splendour. It's different but also consistent in terms of how certain parts of emperors palaces were constructed in this region as, for instance, the mentioned Tsarskye Selo. On the other hand, it has certain things that distinguish it from the French equivalent leaving the latter in a futile comparison. Therefore, treat it as something different yet of similar significant cultural meaning.

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Inside the Winter Palace.

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Palace Square surrounded by neoclassical architecture. If you want to rest after a demanding walk in Hermitage choose CoCoCo at Voznesensky prospect 6. You will get an utmost interesting menu with such artistic delicacies as "My mother's favourite flower" (ru. Мамин любимый цветок). The restaurant is run by Mathilda Shurova - wife of Sergey Shnurov, Leningrad's frontman. The service is impeccable and on par with higher end restaurants.

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#ленинградашоу

Leningrad band (ru. Группировка "Ленинград") lead by Sergey "Shnur" Shnurov will be celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2017. Their concert schedule is packed full for the next year. Among many, they will visit Poland, Germany and France. 20 years is a long time in concert, especially with the energy and tempo these guys present. There are 17 band members today according to the band's official page. From what I reckon, the core is since the very beginning.

Sergey once said:



We are not really making music, by and large, what we do is performance art using musical instruments.

This is true. It's not only the catchy songs they create but it's also (or mainly?) the energy that is generated on their concerts thus the hashtag #ленинградашоу meaning roughly Leningrad's show. Each concert today starts with this tune.

Some people say, they have commercialised nowadays but among the fame (that goes strongly across the motherland) surrounding them they seem to be also down to earth people. This, and the lyrics they use might be the cornerstones of their popularity, not only in the country but also abroad. There are also more ambitious works but, most of them, don't go mainstream.

A piece of the rarities might be the song Айседора - a song about Isadora Duncan, an American dancer born in California and living in the Soviet Union from the age of 22. She was in love with Sergei Yesenin who she later married. She died in an accident and Sergei is thought to have committed suicide years back. On the day of her death, she wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf that became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle of a hurling car that broke her neck. The lyrics go (loosely translated): "Stay home, invite guests. It's hard to escape your faith.". In Russia, the story of Isadora and Sergei was one of livelier stories back in the days on which Sergey Shurov touched.

Svoboda

"To be different is to be always alone.

You can choose between poverty and prison.

Nobody gets the freedom for free.

Freedom has no exits and entry.

(...)

I cannot say, but I can hear.

I've saw as a rat transforms to a mouse.

Something, what can't be wiped, no matter how hard you try,

My freedom is inside of me."

Svoboda (ru. Свобода meaning "freedom") is, on the other hand, a kind of hymn, memoir, statement on the fact that freedom does not come without a price and it's always a tough road to choose. It's also one of the most popular of Leningrad's repertoire from the 2005 album Khleb (ru. Хлеб, meaning 'bread').

Paweł, who I recently met, has written a nice recap of the band's road to fame on his blog (in Polish, a worthwhile read). As he stated in his piece: "they are hyper-popular, characteristic, defiant and disgustingly Western in their Russiness". I don't know if I would agree with that but surely they're in the musical business and take hold of it professionally. Sergey has become Man of the Year 2016 of GQ magazine with this year's earnings of 11 million dollars according to a recent Forbes article and asking $100 000 for a concert. Yet, in my mind, he's still got it. The artistic vibe, the humour, the actual reflection and commentary on society with it's quirks - it's all there. Of course, he's not the same man in terms of sharpness of lyrics or the chosen subject. He's a sort of musical artist, slash businessman now. Paweł quotes that many believe the band ended with their 2000 album Дачники (en. Cottagers) but I don't want to dwell too much on that. If you like their music, do check out their earlier work as it differs from the current one and you be the judge.

Getting back to the concert itself...

There was lots of people heading down to Ice Palace (ru. Ледовый Дворец). Most of them going by metro and queuing around 20-50 meters in front of the entrance. On the way there many stalls with Leningrad's merchandise like scarfs, t-shirts, flags (small and big ones), some flashy led things and... a bus with a girl dancing around a pole on it's roof in, what I think was, minus 5 or 10 degrees centigrade. I guess that was kind of a warm-up party back there.

Inside a regular security and ticket check and we're in. Inside a brass band playing some of Leningrad's songs instrumentally on the stage. The stage itself was.. 360 degrees. Every corner of the arena with sitting space was almost packed. Around the stage with every minute there was more and more people coming. We found ourselves some premium spots next to the stage with a perfect view of the band. It was no more than 20 minutes then the lights went down and the show started.

After the first part (they divided it into three parts with 15-20 minute breaks) I was already contented. I heard "В Питере - пить" on which I was waiting, in particular, was several times in pogo with the locals and saw the beautiful lights on the song "Простo". It was all perfect at the time. Dorian recapped the moment:

"And then Sergey Vladimirovich Shnurov shouted few sentences from the stage that I did not understand. The whole Russian nation hang on to his every word as if Putin, in his own flesh, was making a speech. When he finished there was silence. After a moment a hum and whispering could be heard and Russians lifted their mobile devices. They turned on their flashlights and started to light the arena. A glow has spread over the crowd of the Ice Palace in Saint Petersburg resembling those lights that can be seen on the far north in certain parts of the year.

One woman pulled out her lighter out but after a frown from her husband quickly put it back and from the depths of her handbag she pulled out an iPhone.

And the show went on..."

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Shurov few times referred to the crowd as "family". They were playing in their hometown. It is always a special experience and this was the first one when they used the stage. There were plenty of cameras on the spot. I hope they will make good use of them and issue a DVD or at least a video clip. We'll see. Maybe it will be a part of a special album for the 20 years of being on the stage?

The concert was available for all over 18 years old. All their songs contain tons of explicit lyrics. They were once banned for this from playing in Moscow prior to 2005 as Yury Luzhkov, mer of the city, has forbidden any concerts of the group. He said that the decision was of moral reason. Shnur has shared a breakdown of the percent of curse words on each of the band's album since 1999. You can find more in an article "Сколько мата в текстах песен группы "Ленинград" on dp.ru.

Маловато что-то мата.

A photo posted by Shnurov Sergey (@shnurovs) on

The man who sings

Leningrad is part of something larger in Russia. The underground music and what people call Blatnyak. As Russia-IC reads: "Blatnyak (criminal folklore) is the song genre that sings of life and customs of the criminal world, originally meant for the milieu of prisoners and people close to the underworld.". The style has evolved and simple backyard songs, songs of the people and for the people were also classified in this genre. They were not played on the radio or on television. They were off the charts and underground. The full name of Leningrad is Gruppirovka Leningrad. Gruppirovka instead of the popular gruppa also connects to the underground movement. For the purpose of this story, I have contacted Peter Rippl, a Frankfurt-based visual artist. Peter has made a movie "No trust. No fear. Ask nothing." (ru. Не верь, не бойся, не проси) that was screened in many cities over Russia and Germany. It is a set of interviews with people who represent Russia's underground back in the days. Mr Rippl also did a separate documentary on Leningrad called "Leningrad - The Man Who Sings". Both productions were made when the band did not yet enter the mainstream as we see it today. As for Blatnyak, Peter mentions that:

"Most of these songs are from people which had not been in labour camps. They have this background, but the songs are composed in Russian cities. Petersburg in particular and a lot has came from Odessa with this mix of Jewish, Slavic and Gypsy folk. In Piter [Ed. common short-name for Sankt Petersburg] it was Rudi Fuks [Ed. Рудольф Фукс - Rudolf Fuks] who recorded many of this type of songs with Arkady Severny. This is, as Rudi told me, Blatnaya Romantika. Underground culture."

I've asked Peter two questions that were making circles in my head after the concert.

Marcin: What were your impressions of the Leningrad band back in the days of "Leningrad - The Man who Sings" and when you're observing them now? What has changed?

Peter: The film we shot was "Leningrad - The Man who Sings" (named after a famous Alla Pugacheva song). It was 2006 when we started and Sergey was already a star in Russia. When we walked through the streets of Saint Petersburg almost everybody turned around. Even when we were not filming. Sergey is easy to work with when everything is like he loves things to be. During that time it was just like this.

We stayed at his flat and he was staying somewhere else. To meet him was not easy because he had no phone at this time and you had to call Andromeditsch [Ed. Andrei Antonenko - one of the band members playing keyboard, tuba, accordion and helping with arrangements] or the office. Sometimes, when he was not up for shooting he asked us to just go for a walk. And this is a key personality trait - he does everything only for the pleasure of it. When they do a rehearsal everything must be fun.

If a song (and they are all written by Sergey) is not easy or simple to perform, they do another one, they don't try it over and over again. Everything that he does must be fun. Easygoing. As he says: "Prosta" meaning "simple". The way we live, the way we work. He is the boss. He is Leningrad. He writes the songs. And he want's to have fun.

I can see that, even until now, he is the guy who has fun. On stage. It is much more professional today, though. They changed the drummer, eliminated all instrumental solo parts and so on. Now Sergey performs for the audience, back in the days he performed for himself and for the other musicians. You can see it in the film. It was more like a personal party. They drunk and made music. He told me, that if they are cranky they play a bad concert. This happened often. But nowadays he is always in good shape and in good mood. He gives the audience what they paid for.

In 2008 he felt like repeating himself. Having no more ideas. For this reason, the band split at the end of our shooting. The reunion came as Sergey watched our finished film at home and called Miksher [Ed. Alexey Kalini, band member playing percussion] and told him: "Just saw the film, that was so much fun. Let's try again. What do you think?". Then they started again in 2010. That's a true story. Hahaha.

M: What do you remember most about Sergey Shurov? What was it that stuck in your mind?

P: Seryoga is funny. All the time. He curses a lot of course and he needs his audience. He is very keen and often very brilliant. I learned a lot from him. On the other hand, he is a maverick. When they don't make music everybody goes their own way. Andromeditsch is a very close friend of him.

M: Thank you Peter for sharing your experiences!

For those of you that are interested more in the productions, you can see one of the trailers below as well as purchase the movie here (with German subtitles).

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god Damn cold

The rivers in Saint Petersburg, which is located at the Finnish Bay, stop once every year. In the wintertime, when it's getting colder and colder, they freeze due to low temperatures and not so lively current of Neva river. At the very beginning the sight is like the one below. The residues of the initial ice keep stacking on the banks and as the season is ripe they completely block it. The water freezes overnight. Partially and then in full. Not so rarely one can walk or even drive through the ice. In the North East of Russia the weather quite well resembles Stockholm in Sweden. By the way, Stockholm and Saint Petersburg lie almost on the same geographical latitude. When it's cold, it's god damn cold. When it's warm, it's fairly warm. Personally, having been raised on the Baltic Sea coast, I prefer it that way. I liked walking in the evening through all the bridges and along the neoclassical architecture. It then reminded me a bit of Paris. It's not the same though. It's different through Russian lens.

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17:55 to pushkin

Having seen the concert (epic!), Hermitage, countless bars, restaurants, talks we hit it off to Tsarskoye Selo (meaning "Tsar's Village"). It part of the town of Pushkin thus ask for it in RZD ticket office. A round trip tickets are cheaper.

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Tsarskoye Selo (en. the royal village) is a World Heritage Site. The whole complex together with parks, armoury and adjacent buildings is huge. This whole estate was a present Catherine I (future Empress) by Peter the Great in 1708. It suffered being plundered by Germans in 1941 during the II World War. The whole complex since was steadily being rebuilt including the ostentatious Amber Room which was restored (in 2003) with the utmost diligence and is the most lavish this I saw to date. It's packed with gold and various types of amber. Before it was looted it was considered an "Eighth Wonder of the World". For this alone, it's worth to pay the high admission fee.

Walking on the premises is free of charge and many people, whole families go there to seek some time to think and stop. Same did we - Dorian, Zuza and Andrzej (seen in the photo) and myself.

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epilogue

Since my first journey and setting foot at Domodedovo International Airport two years ago, during the Trans-Siberain railway journey, I started to be fascinated by Russia. Their mindset, the mentality of people living there. There was always some uncertainty in the air. An aura or vibe that made you think and reflect. It was amplified by situations that regularly don't happen in the West like people not making much out of a burning garbage, security guards not paying attention to "beeping" gates at a metro entrance or a woman riding a horse on the pavement, excessive drinking, living in fear. Sometimes they convert to laugh, smile, curiosity or drama. Some can be distinguished as those that just "happened", occurred and, often, don't do much harm to anyone. We, Europeans, have made ourselves entangled in overcomplicated cages that crippled us rather than gave us more freedom over time. Ruling after ruling we became less practical and more directed. I'm not saying anarchy, totalitarianism or any other way of holding a country is valid better. Restoring a certain balance in ourselves is, though.

When in Russia I've experienced that the openness of people, certain freedom at times and very little freedom in other cases make this country unique, vivid and interesting. The sense of collectivism that Vladimir Putin has referred to in the past has quite some influence on the country. Another thing worth noting is that Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Putin meaning that you should not look at the whole country through its leadership.

During my journeys, so far, I discovered mostly the good sides of Russia or those that fascinated me enough not to consider them as negative. If I were to spend there half a year or more in one place that would probably alter my perspective. There is some manipulation in media, derelict buildings, falling apart infrastructure, unfriendly amenities, people from administration without smile making sure you don't do stupid things. This time I knew the language (much) better. As I was the only speaker of it I had lots of opportunities to brush up the skills. That made me discover and understand more, break the ice with strangers quicker. I learned more about the mentality, culture and approach to things. I will continue and certainly be back to explore further having in mind the cons but living on the pros. Maybe Murmansk in spring 2017?

As Ryszard Kapuściński, a renown Polish reporter, once said:

"A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over because the film of memory continues running on the inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.”

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POST SCRiptum

20 лет на радость!

The whole Leningrad's concert experience in Saint Petersburg was recorded by several cameras. The material was the basis of the video on the band's 20 years of artistic performances celebrations called: "20 лет на радость!".

Footnote: Nikon D750 + Tamron 24-70 f2.8 + Samsung Galaxy S5 / November 2016
Saint Petersburg, Russia