Vasily Shumov: Life Gets More Hellish

By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
Published: November 5, 2014 (Issue # 1836)

Vasily Shumov, the frontman of Moscow-based rock legends Center (“Tsentr” in Russian), was in St. Petersburg last week to give a glimpse of his new solo album, “Basustica.” With its title stemming from the words “bass” and “acoustic,” it features Shumov singing and playing bass, a drum machine, and some electronic effects.

The local concert, which took place at VynillaSky, a new music bar and record shop on Ligovsky Prospekt, also featured Center’s older songs adapted by Shumov for his new sound concept.

“Not every Center song can be performed this way,” Shumov told The St. Petersburg Times the following afternoon, sipping tea at the Deti Raika cafe on Ulitsa Rubinshteina.

“The songs that could be adapted are the ones that have very simple chord structures; where there are not many chord changes and which were considered to be monotonous back then. But now they turned out to fit well.”

“Basustica” was released officially on Soyuz Music on Sept. 14 alongside Center’s live recording made at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology in town of Dolgoprudny 20 kilometers north of Moscow in December 1982.

“It was an official festival which lasted several days with many bands playing — after which Center became known in Moscow and across the country, even if it remained an underground band,” Shumov said.

“For me it was also memorable for the fact that it was under the threat of being canceled all the time, because Brezhnev died when the festival was being planned. As a matter of fact, people thought that everything would be banned and canceled. And every band would be banned, too. It went along, nevertheless. But I remember this gray feeling of uncertainty.”

According to reports, the Moscow launch concert for the album sent people dancing, while in St. Petersburg they absorbed the music while sitting quietly.

“Stylistically, it has some house music and minimal techno tracks, which implies a non-sitting venue,” Shumov said. “In Moscow, there were several people who already had an idea of ‘Basustica’ and they started dancing immediately. Perhaps they had taken something as well. And the rest followed suit. It was curious, I felt like I was a DJ, but a DJ with words, with some meaning, not just one who waves his arms. Everybody was happy.”

Although “Basustica” is a far cry from the band’s early new-wave style, Shumov describes it as rock music.

“Essentially, it’s rock, because rock music includes everything now. Everything that exists can be called rock music and yesterday’s concert was rock music, too,” he said.

“In Russia, rock music is some compositions that contain some poetry in the Russian language. The Russian peculiarity is that people remember lines from the songs rather than rhythms or riffs.”

As with Shumov’s previous albums, “Basustica” is a series of pointed comments about Russia’s current social situation, starting with the opening track, “No one could care less.”

“No one could care less but life becomes more hellish by the minute,” it goes. “Crimea Television,” which refers to the Kremlin’s propaganda celebrating the annexation of Crimea, was posted on YouTube on Apr. 13.

According to Shumov’s notes to the track, it is about a “man who has become the product or even the victim of totalitarian propaganda that pours out at him from the television screen. There is more and more totalitarian propaganda in the spirit of the U.S.S.R.’s darkest times on Russian television. Nightmare, insanity and shame — all rolled into one!”

Shumov’s previous works were “I Feel Good, Vol. 1 and 2,” two albums released in 2011 and 2012 on the wave of mass anti-Kremlin protests triggered by the disputed parliamentary and presidential elections. While the first included protest songs, the second — made after the protests had been shut down — was largely about heavy drinking.

As a producer, Shumov also released “White Album,” a collection of songs donated by bands in support of the Russian protest movement.

“2011 and 2012 were interesting because it was a time when people hoped for some change for the better, and the people who wanted the changes had absolutely idealistic and peaceful ideas, with which they took to the street and appealed to the authorities,” Shumov said.

“For that they received a nasty KGB-style answer. They were betrayed and deceived. That’s what we have now. The KGB men who sit in the Kremlin have deceived people. Instead of a peaceful movement and appeals to authorities like ‘Let’s change something because it’s not possible to live like this any longer,’ people now feel anger. When people are deceived, it does not end there — even if they dispersed for a while. That’s the situation where we are now.”

According to Shumov, polls showing the Russians’ overwhelming support of the Kremlin cannot be trusted.

“A person cannot have a rating of 85 percent in a democratic country,” he said.

“It can be only in countries like North Korea. Brezhnev had about 100 percent and Ceausescu had about 90 percent just before he got shot. It’s part of the propaganda machine. If anyone decides to do a major work, which could be called ‘Power Usurpation, Establishing Totalitarian System and Personality Cult in the 21st Century: A to Z,’ starting from 2000 up to now, it could be put in the section ‘R’ — Ratings.”

“If they come with up real ratings, they would receive a fire safety inspection and be closed in no time. There’s no difference between the agencies; they are all identical. They want to get their salaries and they do what is expected from them, or they are given the desired results in advance. A man who has never taken part in any public debates cannot have any rating in a normal society. Because he is not a politician, but an usurper, a tyrant.”

In the new avant-rock piece “Turned Soviet” — which is not on the album but was performed in St. Petersburg — Shumov refers to artists and bands who demonstrated their loyalty to the Kremlin. He argues that they are biased by interest like in the Soviet times.

“I don’t understand why the aura of an independent person has been created around Boris Grebenshchikov lately,” he said.

“For me, Grebenshchikov is a representative of Putin’s system, he is the same as many others, except he is not his official endorser. The last thing I read about him was that he entertained a group of Putin officials when they came to St. Petersburg. He’s not different from [pro-Kremlin pop-folk singer Nadezhda] Babkina in this respect. He is trying to be smart, but essentially he is like them. He is not against them.

“He may have spoken against the war, but he never objected to the usurpation of power, to the effective abolishment of elections, to the personality cult in the making, to the fact that a creeping coup took place in this country. I’ve never seen him taking part in any protest. He is just a little cleverer than the whole bunch. He did not perform at Seliger [a pro-Kremlin youth camp] but to me he is the same. He did not act in any other way. If you’re not against it, you’re for it.”

Shumov appears untouched by the recent politically-motivated concert cancellations for several Russian rock acts, most notably Andrei Makarevich, over their opposition to Russia’s interference in Ukraine.

“Makarevich is a representative of Putin’s music stratum, just like Grebenshchikov,” he said.

“He performed at Red Square to honor the so-called election of President [Dmitry] Medvedev [in 2008], he was fully involved in it. He said in interviews that he supported Putin. Now, just because he used to be one of them, he had courage to say something and he is getting punished. Not because he is an opposition leader but because he was one of their own: ‘How dare he?’ It’s like Stalin’s repressions against the other Politburo members. In 2011 and 2012, he not only kept his mouth shut but said, ‘We don’t need any revolutions’ and ‘I don’t go to any protests.’ These are inner clashes of a group that are starting to fight each other.”

For Shumov, “turning Soviet” means suppressing one’s beliefs and joining the ruling system.

“I had a friend in the early 1980s who was interested in music and at some point she said, ‘You know, I’ve decided to join the party,” he said.

“It was 1983 or 1984, the dark times when there was no sign of perestroika, when they blacklisted rock bands, and after much hesitation she decided to join the system. The same is happening now. At some point, they decide to ‘turn Soviet’ and start shouting “Crimea is ours,” etc. The other way is to take to drinking, which is much more honorable, because ‘turning Soviet’ is just a goddamned shame.

“The difference from Stalin’s time is that there are new media sources and everything is recorded. When it all ends, how will they explain it to their children and grandchildren. Will they say that they were tortured into shouting ‘Crimea is ours’? Or did they receive a grant for their new project or something?”

According to Shumov, the artists’ answer to the current situation should be a total refusal to cooperate with the system.

He referred to the ongoing controversy of Yelizaveta Glinka, also known as Doctor Liza. Famed for her charity activities, she recently stated her support for the Kremlin, apparently to help ill children in eastern Ukraine.

“While helping dozens, she legitimizes a system where millions receive no medical aid at all. [Actress Chulpan] Khamatova appeared in a video in support of Putin to help some children. But by legitimizing the system, she legitimized the Dima Yakovlev law [prohibiting foreigners from adopting Russian orphans], because of which children died. That’s what she’s responsible for.

“A person is not required to climb the barricades but to show some minimal human dignity and take a civic stance. You should not justify yourselves by saying that you want to preserve your small income.”

But despite seeing Russia’s current state in dark tones, Shumov remains optimistic.

“Essentially, the world gets better. Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union are gone, because you cannot cancel social development laws — just like you cannot cancel the universal law of gravitation,” he said, raising a teaspoon and dropping it. It fell.

Vasily Shumov’s “Basustica” is available on iTunes, Google Play and Spotify, among other services.