(Moscow) – Russian authorities have been interfering with performances of rappers and other musicians popular with younger audiences, forcing them to cancel concerts in acts of censorship that violate freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today.
According to Meduza, an independent online media outlet, from October to December 2018, at least 36 performances in cities across Russia were cancelled due to official intervention. Many of the targeted performers are part of Russia’s rap and hip-hop scene, and several are punk rock or electronic groups. In most cases, the authorities claimed they were upholding laws protecting children from the promotion of suicide, narcotics, and other harmful substances. In some cases, they claimed performances risked violating Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda.”
“Russia’s authorities are censoring music under the guise of protecting children,” said Tanya Lokshina, Europe and Central Asia associate director at Human Rights Watch.
The concerts were cancelled or broken up by police, Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, local prosecutors’ offices, municipal authorities, and Rospotrebnadzor, Russia’s consumer protection bureau.
Typically, the authorities pressured venue managers to cancel performances by issuing official warnings citing child protection or threatening to close the sites if the concerts went ahead. Officials also used such pretexts as alleged bomb scares and sanitation violations. In some cases, complaints filed by groups of concerned citizens apparently triggered the authorities’ actions.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six lawyers and one tour manager for artists who had particularly serious problems. Human Rights Watch also examined six warnings issued by the authorities to performance sites in six cities and gathered information regarding forced cancellations of concerts from the recording artists’ social media pages and the news media.
One of the hardest hit was Husky, one of Russia’s most popular rappers. Venues in Togliatti, Volgograd, Vologda, and Samara cancelled his concerts under pressure from the authorities. Police in Rostov-on-Don broke up his concert. In Krasnodar, one site cancelled his performance, then police broke up his concert at another site and arrested him as he sang to his fans in the street. Outraged by his arrest, a group of rappers organized a solidarity concert in Moscow.
“[Husky’s] freedom to express himself and make a living are [in jeopardy],” said Oxxxymiron, a top Russian rapper, in a video posted on his social media page. “This is lawlessness. I don’t share some of [Husky’s] views but… I think it is absolutely necessary to help him in this difficult situation. This is not so much about Husky, but about all of us, and the future of music in Russia.”
Authorities in Nizhny Novgorod pressured two sites to cancel performances by IC3PEAK, an electronic duo. Two sites cancelled their bookings in Kazan, and authorities broke up their performance at a third. In Perm, three sites cancelled, and law enforcement officials kept the group under surveillance. A venue cancelled a booking in Novosibirsk, where the police detained IC3PEAK for three hours after they arrived, and another venue cancelled a booking in Krasnoyarsk. In Voronezh, Rospotrebnadzor threatened to close a concert venue and the police attempted to break up their concert.
Three sites cancelled bookings by Friendzone, a band popular with teenagers, in Krasnoyarsk. In Kemerovo, police, municipal and prosecutor’s office officials coerced the site management to cancel one hour before a Friendzone performance. They ignored the group’s offers to change the original 12+ age tag to 16+ or 18+. Sites in Vologda and Volgograd also cancelled performances because of official pressure. Friendzone’s manager cancelled the remaining nine concerts on the group’s tour because they did not seem feasible under such circumstances.
The cancellations were accompanied by extensive news coverage and a crescendo of government officials and policymakers condemning rappers and other performers popular among younger audiences.
Vitaly Khmelnitsky, a senior Interior Ministry official, said during a December 7, 2018 roundtable discussion in the lower house of Russia’s parliament that “this [music] should not expose people’s disgusting and low vices, pushing them to commit crimes, but [instead] cultivate the values of leading a decent, full and healthy life, serving the country...”
By late November, several officials had spoken out against the cancellations. President Putin’s Special Representative on Culture compared prohibiting rap music to the ban on certain rock musicians in the USSR in the 1980s. And Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration said, “We must be able to work with modern youth culture,” and that banning concerts was “nonsense.”
In December, President Vladimir Putin said that rap music was based on drugs, sex, and protest, but suggested that cancelling concerts was “inefficient” and that authorities should instead “lead [performers] in the right direction.”
In January, the federal prosecutor general’s office instructed its regional branches to determine whether the wave of cancellations was lawful. There has not yet been any public information on actions taken by the offices’ inquiries.
Neither Husky, IC3PEAK, nor Friendzone, tried to tour in January and February, so it is not clear whether they will face more interference. However, on February 13, Makroconcert, an arts and entertainment company in Kaliningrad, stated that a concert by Allj, a hip-hop performer, scheduled for February 16, had to be cancelled “due to pressure” from governmental agencies and nongovernmental actors. The head of Makroconcert, the concert organizers, said that the pressure was triggered, among other things, by a public petition calling on officials to cancel the concert because such art “runs contrary to [Russia’s] cultural policies,” and stating that Allj’s music is a “damaging influence” on children and adults.”
Freedom of artistic expression is part of the broader right to free expression protected under international law, including Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In her March 2013 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, noted that “artists should be able to explore the darker side of humanity, and to represent crimes or what some may consider as “immorality” without being accused of promoting these.”
“Russia’s authorities should stop censoring concerts,” Lokshina said. “Their actions aren’t protecting anyone and are instead violating free expression.”
The 2010 Law #436-FZ on Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development bans the dissemination among children of information and images pertaining to suicide, drug use, and the like. In 2012, it was expanded through the adoption of Law #139-FZ mandating the creation of a blacklist of internet content harmful to children and a regulation introducing age-specific advisories for publications, broadcasters, films, performances, etc. In 2013, parliament adopted Law #135-FZ, widely known as the “gay propaganda ban,” to prohibit promoting among children “the denial of traditional family values,” and “non-traditional sexual relations.” Article 6.17 of Russia’s Administrative Code prohibits dissemination among children of prohibited materials, including those that have obscenities or encourage consumption of alcohol and or prohibited substances.
Husky (real name Dmitry Kuznetsov) became widely known among Russian rap and hip-hop fans after the release of his 2011 debut single “7 October,” coinciding with Putin’s birthday. The song depicted a king at a feast while his subjects live in poverty. In January 2018, Husky was named Russia’s third most popular rapper in an online survey. His videos and lyrics are rich in metaphors, and include graphic, violent, and sexually explicit imagery. His music videos have garnered millions of views, and he has over 243,000 followers on VKontakte (VK), a prominent social media site.
On October 26, Husky’s planned concert in Togliatti was cancelled. According to social media posts by Husky and the concert’s organizers, the cancellation allegedly followed a warning from the prosecutor’s office to the concert site. Husky wrote on his VK page that the prosecutor’s office objected to his song “Poem about the Motherland,” which included the line, “Remember how you died and we ate your flesh?”
Two weeks before a November 4 Husky concert in Samara, the local prosecutor’s office inspected the venue to ensure “compliance with the rights and lawful interests of minors and youth” and issued a written warning because it used a 16+ age marker on ads for the concert, rather than an 18+ age marker. The venue informed the concert organizers that it could not accommodate the event.
In mid-November, YouTube blocked one of Husky’s popular music videos, “Judas,” for users accessing it from Russia “upon [government] demand.” On January 9, Russia’s media and communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, clarified that the Interior Ministry issued the order to block the video because it contained information about drugs. The video includes some images of people rolling and smoking cigarettes. It remains inaccessible on YouTube in Russia.
On November 20 in Rostov-on-Don, two policemen and several nonuniformed officials appeared at a venue just before the start of Husky’s concert. Husky’s tour VK page said that they handed Husky’s manager a written warning about extremism and regulations on public gatherings. The venue administration asked Husky and his team to leave and stopped admitting people into the hall. The electricity in the hall was cut and the microphones stopped working. Husky entertained his audience in the dark without a microphone.
Husky’s concert in Krasnodar was scheduled for November 21, but the club cancelled at short notice after a warning from the local prosecutor’s office that some of Husky’s songs included “calls to suicide, violent actions, manifestations of extremism, and propaganda of narcotics.” Husky’s managers moved the concert to another site, but just after the sound check ended the electricity cut out. Eventually, Husky went outside, where his fans gathered, and he jumped on the roof of a car and started performing. The police pulled Husky off the car and dragged him away.
Husky’s lawyer, Alexey Avanesyan told Human Rights Watch:
The [concert] organizers called me at 7:30 p.m. and said that there were Cossacks, some militia, and policemen gathered by the club and a big crowd of people with tickets waiting by the entrance but…the electricity got cut off … They asked me to come and sort things out, and when I arrived… I saw him [Husky] climbing on the car... He began singing and everyone started singing along… It was 8:40, and by 8:42, the police … dragged him by his feet, they twisted his arms behind his back.”
Husky spent the night in custody. On November 22, a court in Krasnodar sentenced him to 12 days in detention on charges of “minor hooliganism.” Husky’s managers had to cancel his concerts planned in six other cities. On November 26, the court annulled the sentence and Husky was released. Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of RT, the Russian government’s television network, tweeted that Husky’s early release was the result of “two, three” Kremlin officials who liked his music personally intervening in the case.
Husky’s troubles did not stop after his release. Agents arranged a concert in Vologda on December 2, but several days before the event, media reports said the administration for the club where he was to perform contacted his manager saying they had to cancel the performance as the prosecutor’s office and police threatened to close the club down.
Friendzone’s music is influenced by acoustics, pop, rap, and punk. The music is primarily aimed at teenagers and covers themes of adolescent angst, with references to high school discos, sexual frustration, alcohol, and smoking. Their music videos and promotional materials are infused with candy colors and “bubble gum pop’” visuals. The group’s rising popularity is evident from their fast-growing page on VK. The page was created in April 2018 and now has nearly 360,000 subscribers. Their biggest hit to date, “Boychik,” has over 11 million views on YouTube.
Anastasia Zaytseva, the group’s tour manager, told Human Rights Watch that Friendzone’s November-December tour was ruined because local authorities had issued warnings to the venues, alleging that because Friendzone’s performance was marketed as open to ages 12+ (16 is the age of consent in Russia) it could put them in violation of child protection laws, including the gay-propaganda ban. In the warnings, four of which are on file with Human Rights Watch, local authorities allege that the group’s music incites children to drink alcohol, use other banned substances, contemplate suicide, disrespect traditional family values, and engage in “non-traditional sexual relations.”
Zaytseva said that in their communications with the venue owners, the authorities invariably exhibited special concern about Friendzone’s song “The Bottle,” which involves a group playing “spin the bottle,” the bottle pointing at two girls, and the girls kissing. The lyrics of the song include, “And I can’t forget her lips on my lips, Spin the bottle!” and “Love is independent of sex."
Zaytseva told venues the band would exclude that song from the program, as well as any other songs the authorities thought inappropriate. She also suggested changing the concerts’ age tag to 18+. However, the venues were sufficiently intimidated by the warnings and believed that there would be repercussions for hosting a Friendzone performance.
In some cases, venues cancelled the concerts at the last minute. In one case, they contacted the manager in advance of the scheduled performance.
On November 12, the group was scheduled to give a concert in Krasnoyarsk, but the venue administration suddenly cancelled. The group found another site, but it also cancelled. The tour manager found a third, but one hour before the soundcheck, Zaytseva found out that the prosecutor’s office called the venue’s manager for “a meeting.” Zaytseva told Human Rights Watch that she rushed there. Officials did not allow Zaytseva into the meeting, but afterwards one official showed Zaytseva a copy of the official warning that had been handed to the venue manager, which said that holding the concert would amount to several violations of Russia’s child protection laws. The document, which Zaytseva photographed, and which Human Rights Watch reviewed, states that the local children’s ombudsperson had filed a complaint alleging that Friendzone’s songs “propagates alcohol, suicide, etc.” and that concert tickets were sold “with the 12+ age marker.”
A local anti-drug group, “Anti-Dealer,” applauded the cancellation and claimed that it had alerted the authorities in Krasnoyarsk that Friendzone is an “abomination” and that “singing to children about drugs, same-sex love, and debauchery is a crime against the nation.” They also called on “other cities in Siberia” to ban Friendzone’s scheduled performances.
On November 13, Friendzone was preparing for a concert in Kemerovo. Less than an hour before the performance, the venue’s manager told Zaytseva, “We received a phone call from the [city’s] administration. Your age requirements aren’t appropriate.” Zaytseva suggested raising the concert’s age requirement to 18+. But after a municipal official arrived at the site with a written warning, along with numerous officials from the police and the prosecutor’s office, the manager told Zaytseva and the band to leave.
The day before a Friendzone concert in Vologda scheduled for December 4, the venue’s management received a written warning from the local prosecutor’s office about the 12+ age marker. The management rejected Zaytseva’s proposal to raise the entry age to 18+ and cancelled the performance. The warning indicated that the prosecutor’s office had received an alert about the planned concert from the local children’s rights ombudsperson.
Several days before a Friendzone concert scheduled in Yaroslavl for December 5, the local prosecutor’s office contacted the organizers, claiming the program was inappropriate for children. The organizers responded by marking the event as 16+ and excluded several songs. However, Zaytseva said on December 5, the venue’s management received calls from “about 10 official agencies,” including the prosecutor’s office, the fire department, and the anti-extremism police, announcing ad hoc inspections of the venue and “even the food control agency, which suddenly needed to inspect the kitchen.” Friendzone did not want to put the venue in jeopardy and cancelled the concert.
Friendzone also cancelled a concert scheduled for December 6 in Ivanovo, alleging “pressure and threats by law enforcement agencies.” “Going ahead with a concert under these circumstances is simply impossible,” the group posted on its VK page. Then, the rest of tour was cancelled.
IC3PEAK, a duet of Anastasia Kreslina and Nikolay Kostylyov, describe their style as “Russian horror hip hop.” Their songs typically deal with topics deemed controversial, including politics, LGBT issues, and drugs. Their recent videos are gothic in style. Some of the images seem intended to shock. IC3PEAK’s VK page has 167,198 subscribers. Their most recent album, Fairytale, includes their biggest hit, “Death No More,” which was issued at the end of October 2018 and had close to 19 million views by mid-February.
In the video for “Death No More,” Kreslina drenches herself in kerosene on the steps of the Russian government headquarters and Kostylyov lights a match; then they are shown pretending to eat raw liver in front of Lenin’s mausoleum and playing patty-cake while sitting on the shoulders of two men in riot police uniform outside FSB headquarters in Moscow. The clip also includes images of them drowned and burned to ashes. The lyrics include references to police round-ups, suicide, destruction, and drugs.
Following the release of “Death No More,” IC3PEAK faced interference by authorities with their concerts in at least 10 Russian cities.
A few days before IC3PEAK’s scheduled November 22 performance in Nizhny Novgorod, local Emergencies Ministry officials arrived at the site and pressured the management to cancel the event. On November 19, the tour organizers made arrangements with another venue, but fire safety inspectors arrived there and demanded that the concert be cancelled, threatening to close down the club for supposed violations of fire safety regulations. At the last minute, the organizers found another site, where IC3PEAK eventually performed.
Human Rights Watch spoke with Timur Miftakhutdinov, a lawyer with Agora human rights network, who represented IC3PEAK in Kazan. Miftakhutdinov described the pressure brought to cancel IC3PEAK’s concert in Kazan, scheduled for November 23. Miftakhutdinov said the municipality called the club and pressured the management. IC3PEAK moved the concert to another site outside the city center. However, shortly before the sound check, municipal officials, FSB, and police arrived and demanded that they cancel. IC3PEAK moved the concert to yet another site, but 30 minutes into the performance, Miftakhutdinov said, authorities arrived, made the club shut off the electricity and forced everyone to leave. Police claimed there had been a bomb scare, but Miftakhutdinov, who was at the concert, said the police at the venue did not behave as if they were genuinely responding to a bomb scare.
The electricity was turned off, so Nastia [Kreslina] sang “Death No More” a capella [and in the dark]. Once the track finished, people started leaving. By the time police entered the venue almost everyone left… As we were leaving, a police colonel walked in saying “Out! Out!” If there were reasons to fear an explosion, it’s a demining specialist, a canine team who should be coming in, not a police colonel…
In Perm, where IC3PEAK had a concert scheduled for November 27, two venues cancelled due to pressure by authorities, said Olga Bederson, another lawyer with Agora who represented IC3PEAK in Perm. She said the group managed to line up a third site, but at about 7:30 p.m., an hour before the performance, an FSB agent accompanied by police officials entered the club and met privately with the club’s manager. When the meeting ended, the manager told IC3PEAK the concert would not take place. Police officials ordered the fans to leave, threatening those reluctant to leave with public disturbance charges. People started leaving.
Bederson said that some law enforcement officers in civilian clothes forced IC3PEAK into the club’s fenced-in backyard and one claimed he had orders to “take them outside the city limits.”
Bederson, who arrived at the venue at around 8 p.m., said:
[I said] “The guys have train tickets from Perm [by train] for tomorrow. Why take them outside the city?... What are they accused of?... And the man said, “They are not accused of anything,” but he needed to accompany them “in the interests of their safety.”
Eventually the group was allowed to leave the premises. Bederson, who maintained contact with the group until their departure from Perm the next day, said that security officials followed IC3PEAK’s taxi, parked by their lodging, waited there all night, and followed the group to the train in the morning.
On November 29, the prosecutor’s office in Tyumen issued a warning to the site Dom Pechati, where IC3PEAK was scheduled to perform on November 30, alleging that the concert could violate child protection laws, and also noting that it had not undergone a terrorism safety check, mandatory for a place where large numbers of people gather, and that because it lacked a security certificate it could not hold “a mass event” (i.e. a concert). Dom Pechati went ahead with the concert.
On November 28, according to media reports, a venue in Novosibirsk informed IC3PEAK’s tour manager, Oleg Mitrofanov, they were canceling the concert planned there for December 1. The venue’s administration refused to comment on the reasons behind the cancellation. The tour manager found another venue. On December 1, police detained IC3PEAK at around 6:00 p.m. when they arrived in Novosibirsk.
Police approached the group when they got off the train and claimed that the police dog smelled something suspicious in IC3PEAK’s luggage. Police handcuffed Kostylyov and took him and Mitrofanov to a nearby precinct. Kreslina immediately called their local Agora-affiliated lawyer, Valentin Demidenko, who arrived promptly.
Demidenko told Human Rights Watch that police detained Kostylyov and Mitrofanov in connection with an alleged “anonymous alert about drugs.” The police searched both men and their luggage, found nothing, and released them without charge three hours later. Demidenko said police at the station were polite but did not provide any information as to the identity and affiliation of the officers who had arrested the men. After IC3PEAK’s release, they performed at the second venue without disruption.
On December 2, IC3PEAK had a concert scheduled in Krasnoyarsk, but the site management cancelled the day before, alleging wiring problems. Shortly after IC3PEAK and Mitrofanov arrived in Krasnoyarsk, local anti-extremism police called them and suggested a meeting. The tour manager met with police, together with Vladmir Vasin, an Agora-affiliated lawyer in Krasnoyarsk.
Vasin told Human Rights Watch that the police were polite, said they would be monitoring the concert, and promised that as long the 16+ age restriction was observed, IDs checked, and alcohol consumption not excessive, “there would not be any problems.” Several other venues refused to host the concert, which eventually took place without incident.
On December 6, in Voronezh, a Rospotrebnadzor official arrived at the club where IC3PEAK was scheduled to perform that evening, saying he had to run tests due to an alleged food poisoning complaint. According to IC3PEAK’s local lawyer, Nikita Chermashentsev, the official then left without drawing up any documents. Police arrived there about an hour later, shortly before the performance was scheduled to start. They told the management that the Rospotrebnadzor official had filed a complaint alleging that the club had prevented him from carrying out his duties. Police also showed a Rospotrebnadzor order to temporarily close the bar. “I spoke to one of the officers privately,” Chermashentsev told Human Rights Watch. “He explained that they received an order to prevent the event from happening.”
Police blocked the fans from entering the club, but Mitrofanov led 50 to 70 fans through the back door, and the group played almost a complete album for them.
“If a Rospotrebnadzor [official] were prevented from conducting an inspection… I very much doubt that [police] would come,” Chermashentsev said. “And even if they did, there wouldn’t be so many of them, and not as quickly [as in this case].”
IC3PEAK’s remaining four concerts in December took place without disruption. On December 23, IC3PEAK wrote on their VK page:
Thanks to the publicity in the media and the help of human rights defenders, the last few concerts of the tour in Russia avoided the censors and were held without problems. When it became clear that the security forces would interfere with us absolutely everywhere, we could have simply cancelled the tour. But we decided to see it through until the end, to be an example and show that you cannot ban music.