The Russian Singer Shaman Changes His Tune to Support Putin
MOSCOW — He cuts the figure of a typical leather-wearing pop star heartthrob. He has a fan base of young and middle-aged women who bring him flowers and stuffed animals when he performs. But Yaroslav Y. Dronov, better known by his stage name, Shaman, is also beloved by an exclusive and powerful Russian fan base: the Kremlin.
The young singer’s star has been rising as the war in Ukraine continues into a second year and Mr. Dronov aligns his music with Moscow’s party line. When Vladimir V. Putin staged a patriotic rally last month coinciding with the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Mr. Dronov performed “Vstanem,” or “Let’s Rise,” a ballad of gratitude to veterans, just before the Russian president came onstage.
And when Mr. Putin celebrated the annexation of four Ukrainian regions in late September, Mr. Dronov, 31, shared the stage with him, singing Russia’s national anthem while his trademark blond dreadlocks fell into his eyes.
More and more, as the Kremlin seeks to remake the country’s institutions to comport with Mr. Putin’s militaristic worldview, cultural figures in Russia are picking a side. Many have chosen to leave the country because of political pressure or to signal their disagreement. Others have spoken out against the war, only to see their concerts or exhibitions canceled. They include musicians, theater directors, actors and artists.
But many have stayed and are aligning their art to Mr. Putin’s messaging — out of either pragmatism, pursuit of wealth or true conviction. As the Kremlin seeks to win over Russians in support of the war, performers like Mr. Dronov have become willing — and sometimes well-compensated — messengers.
“Shaman is a very interesting phenomenon from a cultural and sociological point of view, but I think that he is not a single phenomenon. He is a continuation of a long-lasting evolution of Russian subculture, a nationalist and parafascist one,” said Ilya Kukulin, a longtime cultural historian at Moscow’s National Research University Higher School of Economics and now at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
The shift to more nationalistic themes has been lucrative for Mr. Dronov. Apart from regular features on national TV, he was placed on a list of recommended artists to perform at official New Year celebrations. He is often invited to state-sponsored shows. For instance, the cultural center for the city of Cherepovets paid 7.5 million rubles, about $100,000, for a concert, of which 5.5 million rubles went to Mr. Dronov.
Fees for private concerts are usually not disclosed, but in October, the Russian media listed Mr. Dronov as among the top five most in-demand acts since the war, with an estimated cost of 55,000 euros for a private concert, almost $60,000.
Patriotic, Kremlin-backed pop music isn’t something new for modern Russia, where Mr. Putin has ruled for almost 23 years and where performers favored by the government were always at least moderately nationalistic or militaristic.
But Shaman is different. He belongs to the freer culture of independent pop music, which thrived despite increasing censorship until February 2022, when the invasion of Ukraine began. It exists today in a diminished form, and while he has not started a wave of young overtly patriotic followers, he is pulling independent music in Russia closer to the Kremlin.
His success prompted some of his rivals from the old guard, already close to the Kremlin, to reshape their work to stay in favor. Oleg Gazmanov, 71, re-recorded one of his hits, “Russian Soldiers,” about the glory of Russian fighters, with a modern video that features the same 1980s glam rock camp Shaman uses in his own video. Another longtime star, Dima Bilan, released his own nationalist song, “Gladiator,” with an introduction that sounds far-right themes.
Mr. Dronov’s song “Vstanem” was released on Feb. 23, 2022, on the eve of the invasion. He wrote it for Defender of the Fatherland Day, a Russian version of Veterans Day, and in an interview with a Russian website late last year said he believed it “was dictated to me from above.”
The events of the following months ensured that it became a hit with patriotic hard-liners and ordinary Russians alike. In June, it became the first song ever played in its entirety on “News of the Week,” a program led by Russia’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselyov.
The song, which celebrates fallen soldiers, has become a soundtrack to the current war, and its wide reach on social media is evidence of its importance to the Kremlin’s wartime communication strategy.
What the Kremlin wants Russian people to feel, said Mr. Kukulin, the historian, are “the emotions of overcoming, of resistance to any obstacles and self-confidence that all obstacles will be defeated.”
For his fans, it works.
“When I found out about Yaroslav, I was filled with feelings of purity, light, joy inside, the same way I feel in a church,” said Alina, 38, who attended a recent concert in the Russian resort town of Rosa Khutor, near Sochi, on the Black Sea. “It seems to me that he is the one who has such a mission to ignite people inside.” She declined to give her last name for privacy reasons.
The success of “Vstanem” and its airing on national TV last June was followed a few weeks later by another patriotic anthem by Mr. Dronov, “Ya Russki” (“I Am Russian”), with a campy music video that since then has registered 28 million views on YouTube. “Ya Russki” doesn’t mention the war, but its goal is clearly to unite Russians against the “collective West,” as Mr. Putin calls it, with lines like “I am Russian, to spite the whole world.”
Mr. Dronov’s spokesman declined requests to interview him. In comments he made to the Russian website, he said: “Every moment each of us has to make a choice. People made their choice — this is their way, and I made my choice — and this is my road.”
Mr. Dronov’s music resonates with the public not just because of his messaging but also because he is very talented, said Anna Vilenskaya, a Russian musicologist in exile.
In his shows, he interacts with his fans by bringing the microphone to audience members to sing with him, and he accepts presents between songs as his admirers rush the stage.
“I don’t know any other song with such an effect,” Ms. Vilenskaya said, calling both “Vstanem” and “Ya Russki” “absolutely genius.” She recalled playing the song to a class full of antiwar students who felt a strong reaction to the music despite their revulsion to the lyrics.
“For many people, it is something unholy, because they like this song with their bodies but they hate it in their minds because they know it is about war and about a lie,” she said.
Soon, “Ya Russki” was everywhere. In celebration of National Unity Day, more than 10,000 people from across Russia’s 11 time zones were organized to perform the song, with some included in an official clip promoted on state television. Teachers have encouraged students to study the songs as an example of patriotism.
In October, Mr. Dronov received a prize at the Russian Creative Awards ceremony, which Mr. Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Sergei V. Kiriyenko, handed to him personally.
It was the culmination of a long road for Mr. Dronov. He pursued music from the age of 4, studied in musical high schools and universities and appeared on Russian versions of “X Factor” and “The Voice,” finishing second in both competitions.
In 2020, Mr. Dronov changed his name to Shaman and started promoting his own songs. They still had almost no hints of patriotism and simply followed global trends, and they didn’t get much attention.
Then he released “Vstanem.”
Less than a week later, just days after the invasion, Vyacheslav V. Volodin, the chairman of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, called on cultural figures to determine their positions on the war.
“Today is the moment of truth,” he wrote on his Telegram channel. “Everyone must understand: Either we will rally around the country, overcome the challenges, or we lose ourselves.”
Two days after Mr. Volodin’s imperative, Mr. Dronov performed his first major solo concert in Moscow, and then began a cross-country tour.
The money to be made is substantial, but having the Kremlin as a patron can be a tricky endeavor.
Mr. Dronov has already made an enemy of Vladimir Kiselyov, the head of Russian Media Group, which was overhauled in 2014 to incubate patriotic art. In November, Mr. Kiselyov questioned Mr. Dronov’s patriotism because he had not performed in occupied Ukraine. His songs were no longer played on the company’s radio stations.
In January, Mr. Dronov traveled to the occupied Ukrainian cities of Mariupol and Lugansk, playing for soldiers.
Despite Shaman’s overall influence, his hold over Russia’s youth, the demographic most likely to oppose the war, is not pervasive, analysts say. A year in, Shaman is the only young artist writing the soundtrack of wartime Russia, and the prospect for a youth-driven wave of musical nationalism is uncertain.
It’s something the Kremlin seems to have recognized. The Ministry of Culture recently announced plans for what it called “agitation brigades” to promote pro-war artists, possibly in hopes of repeating Shaman’s success story.
Valerie Hopkins reported from Moscow and Rosa Khutor, Russia; and Georgy Birger from Istanbul. Alina Lobzina contributed reporting from London.
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