Twenty years ago this month, Yanka Dyagileva, Siberian punk-folk singer and owner of one of the rawest voices I’ve ever encountered, played her final set of concerts. Six months later she would be dead, an apparent suicide, her body pulled from an icy river near her hometown of Novosibirsk.
Although her music had never had an official release in the Soviet Union - indeed she had spurned the opportunity to become a recording artist for the state record company Melodiya – her hypnotically low-key songs would not be forgotten.
Yanka was part of the brief flowering of a genuine musical underground that occurred during the final days of the Soviet Union and the early years of the new Russian state. With society in a state of upheaval, groups like Kino, Akvarium and her sometime lover Yegor Letov’s magnificently uncompromising punk rock ensemble Grazhdanskаya Oborona captured perfectly the confusion and excitement of a country that had no idea where it was heading. The era was to Russia what the sixties were to the West, and the music was just as vital.
“When I fell in love with Yanka's music, I knew nothing about her life or her role in Russian rock history. The connection was entirely musical,” U.S.-based, Ukrainian-born singer Alina Simone - the author of a 2008 album of Yanka covers - told me.
“As I learned more about her life story, as well as her significance and uniqueness as a Soviet artist, I also came to feel strongly that this work deserved to be known more broadly. Americans, unsurprisingly, know next to nothing about Soviet sub-culture or Russian rock…”
In 1985, Yanka met Alexander Bashlachev, a Volgograd region native with a toothless grin whose gravely voice and rough acoustic tunes had made him one of the leaders of the new rock scene. The meeting was a turning point for her, and she dropped out of college and began performing at “apartment concerts,” the domestic gigs that gave an opportunity to perform for musicians unable, or unwilling, to satisfy the demands of the Soviet censors.
Although Yanka would refuse to release her music on Melodiya, in 1987 she went into the studio to record her first album – Ne Polozheno! (Not Permitted!). The result, a 20-minute lo-fi masterpiece of brooding, occasionally profane, songs was sold at concerts and circulated on cassette across the Soviet Union.
But Yanka would refuse to give interviews to promote her growing status in the Soviet rock underground.
“We can talk, of course, but nothing should appear in the paper…those who need to know who I am and what I’m about will work it out for themselves,” she was reported as telling a music journalist in 1990. “I hate the in-crowd,” she went on, “those people are burying rock.”
It’s hard to imagine a talented, yet reclusive figure like Yanka managing to remain out of the limelight in today’s world of electronic Internet bleating and media overload. As a recent article in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper pointed out: “Since Yanka Dyagileva sang in 1988 ‘The television is hanging from the ceiling, and no one knows how f***ing low I’m feeling’ a lot has changed. Firstly, TVs are usually put on the wall these days, and now, thanks to the electronic social network, you can easily let all and sunder know just how ‘f***ing low’ you are feeling.”
I first came across Yanka’s music in St. Petersburg in the winter of 1997, and would spend whole afternoons wandering around the frozen city with her on my Walkman (remember them?). It was tough for me back then to grasp everything she was saying, and I would stop off in small cafes, pull out my dictionary and slowly translate her words.
“From a beautiful soul, only sores and lice, from universal love, just mugs covered in blood.”
Her words, though, were almost impossible to do justice to in English. Or, as Simone put it: “Yanka's lyrics are like surrealist poetry, littered with idiomatic expressions, phrases borrowed from old Komsomol songs, folk ballads, Red Army slogans, etc.”
The 1988 suicide of Bashlachev hit Yanka hard, and she is reported to have entered into a period of depression that lasted until the end of her life. Her final album, Styd I Sram (Shame and Disgrace) was a more polished affair than her earlier work, and her arrangements had begun to take on a more traditional form. “The water will come, and I will sleep,” she sang in the last song she ever recorded.
The words would prove to be a portent of her death. On May 9, 1990, Yanka set off for a walk from her family’s dacha near Novosibirsk. Her body was discovered 8 days later in the Inya River. She was 24. Suicide was suspected, but investigators were unable to determine precisely the circumstances of her death. More than 1,000 people attended her funeral.
In 2008, shortly before his own death from heart failure at the age of 43, Letov remastered all of Yanka’s recordings and several concerts, the subsequent releases adding to the posthumous popularity of the red-haired, punk rock poetess from west Siberia.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.