Suicide really isn’t war: megalomania, counterculture and the joy of metal music in the Soviet Union

By Dawn Hazle

Popular music presents a problem to authoritarian regimes: by its nature it either has to be controlled, or banned. Yet, control requires a lot of resources, and simply just pushes the problem underground.  In the Soviet Union, both approaches were undertaken: popular music was controlled through state-sponsored Vokal’no-Instrumental’nyi Ansambl’ (VIA) groups and everything else was banned.  Consequently, anyone who didn’t fit the bill simply went underground and, due to pressures, ignorance or lack of enforcement, they went often unpoliced and proliferated.

Russian metal music was one such disregarded and, therefore, underground genres. It grew in a similar way to Western metal music and was inspired by Western metal, but also

AriaFest concert in Moscow (November 2015)

by Russian rock. Metal and rock, intentionally or not, are forms of ‘counterculture’ that provide an alternative to the dominant culture, and in the case of Soviet Russia, to official Soviet culture. One of the first bands in the Soviet context to establish themselves solely in the genre of metal are Aria, still going strong today and regarded as the Russian Iron Maiden. On 31 October 1985 they released their first album, Maniia Velichiia (Megalomania), in magnitizdat format.


Upon a cursory glance at the tracklist (in Russian), it is clear there is more to this album (and by extension, to the band) than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll: the final track, ‘Pozadi Amerika’, with its generally recognised translation ‘America is Behind’, looks much like an anti-Western song.[1]  But a closer look at the lyrics shows something altogether different: it is merely describing a man reading a travel magazine. The song talks about the world being laid out in front of him, and this sense of ‘pozadi’ is lost in the translation .

Another potentially anti-Western song is ‘Zhizn’ Zadarom’ (‘Life for Free’). A simple reading of the lyrics shows this is not necessarily inaccurate, as there are lines such as the following:

Wisdom, beauty and talent – all overshadowed by the pricelist And it happened that he gave his life for nothing

But a simple reading is not enough: this denunciation of Western decadence can also be accurately applied to Soviet officials and the privileges that they enjoyed. The eponymous instrumental, ‘Maniia Velichiia’, can also be read this way: highlighting not only capitalist decadence in its harsh guitar entry but also Soviet megalomania as the near-operatic vocal chorus becomes ever louder.

The album moves further into anti-Soviet territory with ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ (‘Tusks of Black Rocks’).  This song contains the following lyrics:

He shouts to the gods: “I have no more need for you,

I can understand everything and do it myself!”

The cry’s echo was picked up at the same moment,

Carried away and smashed on a glacier


A rock cracked and an avalanche came down

And carried him away like a grain of sand

This appears to represent the leaders of the atheist Soviet Union, now beginning to pay the price after turning their backs on their people as they have turned their backs on God: the

AriaFest Concert, Moscow (November 2015)

economy was in terrible shape, food imports had increased and relations with the West had soured.


In an interview I conducted with the writer of these lyrics, Alexander Ielin, in November 2015, he assured me the intention was largely anti-war. I have found this hard to fathom in ‘Pozadi Amerika’, but the lyrics of ‘Bivni Chernykh Skal’ and ‘Volunter’ (‘Volunteer’) could easily be interpreted as such.  One song which makes this anti-war stance particularly clear is ‘Eto Rok’, with its dual-meaning title (‘This is Fate’ or ‘This is Rock’). The last verse reads as follows:

It is enough to put on a brave show, the fate of all of us is as one Suicide really isn’t war, Not Waterloo, or even Armageddon There is not and never will be a winning side

I do, however, urge you to listen to the song: the lyrics given here paint a dreary picture (this part starts around 3:48) but the musicians are clearly enjoying themselves during most of the song. This, after all, is usually the point of this kind of heavy metal: to have fun, share that joy with others and ignore those who don’t like it.

Bio: Dawn Hazle is a part-time Master of Arts (by research) student in Russian & Slavonic Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her research interests include Russian heavy and power metal, Tolkienism and the convergence of myth and reality. Her current study is investigating the influences on Aria’s first album, Maniia Velichiia, in the contemporary late Soviet climate. You can find her on Twitter at @keletkezes, and find out more about her interests on her blog.


[1] (see the album’s reviews on Encyclopaedia Metallum – in Russian)

Full Image Attributions

Image 1 & 2: created and provided courtesy of Dawn Hazle


Max Nordau’s pre-Fascist Discourse of ‘Degenerate’ Art and the Authority of Scientific Language

by Charlotte Armstrong

The notion of ‘degeneracy’ in music has often been associated with Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party’s attempts to galvanise public hatred of music deemed ‘un-German’ at the Degenerate Art Exhibit in 1938. However, in an interview for the documentary Forbidden Sounds: Composers in Exile, Hans Ulrich Engelmann said:

‘It is not Hitler’s or Goebbels’ fault that after 1945 the appreciation of contemporary music did not increase much […] the word ‘degenerate’ is still used by the older generation, especially in Germany. But I must emphasize, we don’t get much further if we believe that it is purely a legacy of the Nazis. The Nazis simply picked up on it.’[1]

Indeed, whilst the classification of certain art as ‘degenerate’ is almost exclusively associated with the Third Reich, discourses of degeneration in fact emerged within mid-19th century scientific contexts, and were translated into artistic critique as early as the 1890s. Such discourses  condemned artists and artworks deemed to pose a threat to ‘healthy’ aspects of society, due in part to the contamination of the artist by negative aspects of modernity.

Perhaps the most influential of these works was written by the physician Max Nordau in 1892. Degeneration, or ‘Entartung’, ­drew its conclusions on degeneracy in the arts from the

Max Nordau. Source: Wikicommons

bio-medical foundations of degeneration theory, and utilised the language of science and medicine to associate certain artworks with the idea of ‘sickness’.

As a physician, Nordau believed that it was his duty to undertake the ‘long and sorrowful wandering through the hospital’ of European culture, and to diagnose the ‘severe mental epidemic’ of the contemporary arts.[2] Suggesting that ‘we now stand in the midst of a severe mental epidemic; of a sort of black death of degeneration and hysteria’, he lamented that civilised society was growing ‘fatigued and exhausted, and this fatigue and exhaustion showed themselves in the first generation, under the form of acquired hysteria; in the second, as hereditary hysteria’.[3]

For those who theorised artistic degeneration, the legitimacy of medical expertise enabled them to make claims about society that were crafted from medical language. By adopting the biological language of disease, Nordau was able to harness the authority of science in his attempt to prove that the cultural avant-garde was an atavistic and regressive influence on the masses.

During the nineteenth century, doctors were regarded as forward-thinking men of reason and science, and were characterised by their specialised knowledge and commitment to serving others. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept a scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, physicians became accustomed to methodically describing diseases, thus developing an esoteric medical language which was utilised and shared amongst other doctors to classify and treat disease. The development of complex medical language began to elude patients, thus placing the doctor in a position of power

Poster for the ‘Degenerate Art’ Exhibition, Dusseldorf, 1938. Source: Wikicommons (Reproduced under the Fair Use Rational for the purposes of critical commentary)

and trust.

Foucault has considered the doctors’ associated power of ‘governance’ over their patients.[4] The innate authority of doctors helps to explain Nordau’s use of medical terminology: his reliance upon the works of notable exponents of socio-biological degeneration theory highlights his attempts to measure subjective, artistic value by using an objective, scientific paradigm. As such, Entartung spoke largely to a public who would eagerly accept scientific validation of their growing anxieties and prejudices.

Degeneration warns against the infectiousness of degenerate art and literature, but for the author, music is perhaps the most noxious of all. The distinct approach to artistic criticism conceived by Nordau in his Entartung became increasingly adopted in music criticism following the publication of the work.

In 1912, the Austrian composer and conductor Felix Weingartner suggested that ‘in general terms something is wrong and somewhere things are rotten in the development of music today […] music must become healthy again’.[5]

The notion of degeneracy had begun to appear in German music criticism from the closing years of the 19th century, and continued to be a prevalent theme in the years leading up to

Richard Wagner. Source: Wikicommons

the Second World War. The fact that musical ‘sickness’ became an increasingly popular concept around this time was due – at least in part – to the influence of works that engaged with the concepts of decadent and degenerate art.

Alongside the growing prevalence of ideas about the dangers of ‘diseased’ music, the insidious nature of Nordau’s rhetoric is evidenced in the adoption of the notion of degenerate art by the Nazis.

The Nazi Party would not acknowledge Nordau, perhaps because of his Jewish heritage and his role as a Zionist activist, or even conceivably because of his derision of Wagner and Nietzsche. Nonetheless, the value they awarded to German artworks that celebrated the ‘blood and soil’ ideology echoed Nordau’s derision of late 19th-century decadent culture. It certainly seems likely that, as Richard Taruskin wittily imagines, ‘many copies of Dr Nordau’s Entartung must have fed Dr Goebbels’s bonfires even as the book’s theses were being oh-so-selectively appropriated to fuel the latter’s propaganda mill’.[6]

Charlotte Armstrong is a PhD student in the Department of Music at the University of York. Her research takes place at the intersection between opera studies, disability studies, and the history of science and medicine. In her thesis she considers early-twentieth-century discourses of disability, disease, and degeneration, and their relationship to the presence of a ‘degenerate condition’ in Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, with a particular focus on the representation of physical disability in these operas. You can find her on Twitter: @CharlotteArms


[1] Verbotene KLÄNGE: Komponisten im Exil, directed by Norbert Bunge and Christina Fischer-Defoy (Vienna: Winklerfilm, 2004), DVD.

[2] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 537-538.

[3] Nordau, Degeneration, 40.

[4] See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 159-198 and Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A. M. Sheridan (London: Routledge, 2003), 8-9.

[5] Felix Weingartner, “Zurück zu Mozart?” in Akkorde: Gesammelte Aufsatze (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Hartel, 1912), 108-112, quoted in Leon Botstein, “Nineteenth-Century Mozart: The Fin-De-Siècle Mozart Revival” in On Mozart, ed. James M. Morris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 204.

[6] Richard Taruskin, ‘The Golden Age of Kitsch’ in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, ed. Richard Taruskin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 243.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: via Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under fair use rationale

Image 3: Franz Hanfstaengl [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monumental time and the Soviet dream: music and (a) post-Utopian temporality

(Source: Public Domain Pictures)

By Claire McGinn

The ‘language’ of music is demonstrably unlike the language of literature. Still, music is considered to be as potently (if less specifically) ‘expressive’ a medium as literature. It should, therefore, not be overlooked as a ‘social text’ in its own right;[i] if literary works from the Soviet-controlled Baltic states can be read as postcolonial, [ii] it stands that other contemporary arts could be similarly loaded.

While it can’t articulate the referential specificities of verbal language, music, as a temporally framed and linearly experienced medium, is a performative embodiment of such fundamentals as the quality and direction(s) of time(s).

One example of a goal-oriented music (and/or mode of listening) with apparent ties to goal-oriented currents of thought is the case of Mozart and the Enlightenment.[iii] We can reasonably expect that, in Classical music in this vein, loose ends will be tied up: goals will be implied, progressed towards, and ultimately reached. Musical motion (harmonic, melodic, etc.) will be meaningfully directed and fulfilled through departure from and journey back to a ‘rightful’ home key or tonal area.

For the purposes of this discussion, the teleology characteristic of some strands of Enlightenment thought will be considered commensurable with currents in ‘modernism’ (when provisionally defined as one half of a dichotomy completed by postmodernism).

Within this ‘Enlightenment’ framework, the presumed time of these ideals is felt as a deliberate movement through or against something to become the master of nature and history. Meanwhile postmodernism’s time is ‘outside’, unconcerned with (rather than ‘against’) the entropic or hostile forces that threaten to sabotage the realisation of anthropocentric Enlightenment goals. In this sense, a conceptualisation of time with the implication that humans can shape their own destiny is more likely to characterise a conquering power than a conquered one.[iv]

Composer Veljo Tormis (Source: WikiCommons)

Conversely, postmodern/postcolonial temporality may constitute a disruption of, or disregard for these narratives; a transcendence of antagonistic linear time in favour of the endless stasis and cycles of the temporality that Kristeva describes as ‘monumental time’.[v]

The meaninglessness of, or play on, linear historical narratives is a recurring theme in postcolonial literatures.[vi] Maire Jaanus suggests that monumental time, conceptually or aesthetically speaking, is the time of Estonia. As explained by the narrator of the postcolonial Estonian novel Piiririik, ‘historical time has been the imperialist’s time, the conqueror’s time, and therefore it is not his [the Estonian’s] time.’ She proposes that Estonians ‘have had little opportunity to demand much of reality or of historical-linear time, because these could not yield much’ and that, as a result ‘they have always remained acquainted with monumental time.’[vii]

So what would a musical monumental time look like? Music by Arvo Pärt and Veljo Tormis – two internationally renowned contemporary Estonian composers – is commonly described as ‘mystic’, ‘minimalistic’, and ‘ritualistic’. Circular shifting; static harmony; symmetry; continuous repetition of short units, and a sense of ‘not going anywhere’ lend these works a monumental temporality.

Arthur Versluis claims that the Soviet utopian dream (the establishment of a perfected communist society) was a type of ‘secular millennialism’: the belief that history is directed towards an inexorable goal or end-point. Such belief systems in practice have historically been characterised by a tendency towards fundamentalism and even violence; the erasure of obstructive ‘heretics’ supports the suggestion of parallels between religious and Marxist determinism and dictatorship.[viii]

Soviet teleology in these terms is a ‘lunatic meta-narrative’,[ix] the disavowal of which is generally held to have been characteristic of late twentieth-century postmodernist thought. This fixation on an ‘end’ can be mapped onto music in the sense that the latter is temporally bounded or ‘framed’ in a similar fashion to historical or literary narrative. You could say of either musical or narrative content that it starts [here], travels [this way] through [these points], and ultimately ends [there] – or, alternatively, that it starts [here] doing [this], stays [there] doing [that], and repeats for [however long].

Thus, monumental time is outside the historical time of Soviet millennialism. If ‘post-’ is understood as ‘against-’ or ‘outside of-’, it follows that the temporality of this music is a post-utopian time.

Claire McGinn is a first year PhD student at the University of York (Music department), funded by WRoCAH. With the title ‘Ritual, time, and space in post-Soviet Baltic music’, she is studying music by composers from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania written from around 1991 to the present day. More generally, she is interested in exploring fundamental concepts like repetition and how these might function in music as reflections of the same phenomena as manifested in wider (historically- and culturally-inflected) spheres of art and thought. 


[i] See John Shepherd, Music as Social Text (Cambridge, 1991).

[ii] For analysis of Baltic postcolonial literature and cultural thought (as well as the question of whether or not ‘postcolonial’ is an appropriate label in this context), see Violeta Kelertas (ed.), Baltic Postcolonialism (Amsterdam, 2006).

[iii] See Nicholas Till, Mozart and the Enlightenment (London, 1992).

[iv] Maire Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time and Monumental Time’, in Violeta Kelertas (ed.), Baltic Postcolonialism, (Amsterdam, 2006), pp. 219, 221.

[v] Maire Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time’, pp. 213-4. For more detail see Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’ (transl. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake). Signs 7/1 (1981): 13-35.

[vi] Brian Edwards, Theories of Play and Postmodern Fiction (London, 1998), pp. 86, 103-4, 126, 203; see also Jaanus ‘Estonia’s Time’.

[vii] Jaanus, ‘Estonia’s Time’, pp. 218-219; 221.

[viii] Arthur Versluis, The New Inquisitions: Heretic-hunting and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Totalitarianism (Oxford, 2006), pp. 58, 67, 88.

[ix] Ibid., p. 149.

History Matters: ‘On the Language of “Authoritarian” Regimes’

Written by Hannah Parker, this post originally appeared on the University of Sheffield’s History Matters blog on February 25, 2016

On February 12 2016, Steph Wright (who works on disabled veterans of the Spanish Civil War) and I held a conference on ‘The Language of Authoritarian Regimes’. The day aimed to explore the creation, dissemination and reception of discourse in regimes commonly considered to be ‘authoritarian’ from an interdisciplinary perspective; to discuss how to effectively analyse discourse through a range of different sources; and to understand any broad parallels that can be drawn between different regimes. 1

The speakers addressed a fascinating range of topics, covering Soviet literacy campaigns and the texts of Soviet citizens; the ‘emancipation’ of Tunisian women to create a modernised national identity; personal naming and mental health discourse in Franco’s Spain; music and ballet in the Soviet Union; Nazi language in the context of historical discourse analysis; and the translation of foreign texts for Soviet citizens.

Though there was clearly much ideological variation between the different regimes discussed, many of the processes occurring within these societies were in fact very similar, and so I’ve taken the liberty of articulating some of my own, quite general observations. The workshop originated in an interest Steph and I share in the ways citizens negotiated and shaped the discourses of gender and citizenship they were presented in our respective research fields. I was aware, based upon my own research into Russian women’s self-perceptions and social roles, of the degree of ‘negotiation’ of authoritarian government and discourse in the Soviet Union, but after listening to the other papers delivered, I was struck by the extent to which this process of negotiation was a key feature of authoritarian societies more generally.

Zhenshchina na rabotye

Due to these processes of negotiation, a common feature of the running of ‘authoritarian’ regimes is risk management. Inherent to the nature of all the regimes and societies discussed at the workshop was the task of balancing policies geared – often very sincerely – towards politically ‘emancipating’ a population, and managing this sense of ‘emancipation’ so as to maintain the acquiescence of the people.

Within this process, literacy, language, arts, and practices of personal naming were all key strategies for interaction with the discourse of a regime, through which citizens could express identity, dissent or compliance. These strategies also presented the regimes with a significant problem: how to manage these interactions, and the risks posed by the ways in which they contributed to a sense of discursive heterogeneity which coexisted uncomfortably with the idea that there should be a ‘homogenous’ character to state, society and the arts.

International LiteratureSamantha Sherry’s paper on the translation of foreign literature in the Soviet Union, and its inherent challenges, encapsulated this risk management problem precisely. Officials feared ‘opening the floodgates’, so to speak, to Western influences and so they censored foreign texts by removing not just whole passages or texts, but manipulating the entire ideological premises to ‘complement’ the broader principles and finer details of Soviet ideology.

The interdisciplinary element of the event worked really well, and definitely broadened my perspective on discursive matters within and between authoritarian regimes. In particular, the papers given on the development of Soviet ballet, and the use of time in the choral music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the importance of conceptions of time, movement, and space as a ‘language’ to negotiate dominant discourse.

The concept of monumental time as the time of oppressed people, discussed by Claire McGinn in her paper on the music of Veljo Tormis, highlighted the dichotomy of time in application to both state and society. All of the societies in question sought to ‘modernise’ or ‘mechanise’ their populations in some way: a future-driven linear historical time characterises state discourse and understandings of ‘progress’ in authoritarian (and ostensibly many other twentieth-century) regimes.

Oppressed people on the other hand belong to monumental time – devoid of the linear regularisation of historical time – which is something the Tunisian state arguably sought to address in its framing of the 1956 personal status code, attempting to link the modernisation of the Tunisian state to concepts of kinship to create.

To some extent this is also reflected in the development of ballet in the early Soviet Union: the use of folk dance, the reworking of old narratives, as well as the evocation of non-verbal discourse all functioned as a means of negotiating life under such severe creative restrictions. And this speaks directly to the problem of ‘risk management’ with which policy makers – and censors – in these states sought to grapple.

The papers delivered on the day have brought me closer to an integrated understanding of ‘authoritarianism’ as a social and discursive phenomenon, and have added invaluable insight to my own research on the reception of Soviet gender ideology by ordinary women. Steph and I were also delighted with the variety and cohesiveness of the programme overall, for which our guest speakers are entirely responsible.

Based on the success of the day, we will be starting a blog based on the same theme. Any relevant contributions would be much appreciated, so please send any expressions of interest to or!

Hannah Parker is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on the reception of gender ideology by women in early Soviet Russia. Steph Wright is a WRoCAH-funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield. She’s researching disabled nationalist veterans and perceptions of masculinity in Franco’s Spain. You can find them both on twitter @_hnnhprkr and @EstefWright. A full list of speakers and their papers can be found in the conference programme.

Header image: Language of Authoritarian Regimes poster, courtesy of Guy Parker.

In-text image 1: Women at work in a large textile factory. Picture extracted from the article ‘Woman at Work’, from “Женский журнал” (Women’s Journal), 1928.

In-text image 2: Internatsional’naia literature (International Literature) No. 1.