The fervent ‘akyns’ of war. Ilya Shablinksky – on the role Z-writers and musicians play in Russian propaganda

21 November 2023

By Ilya Shablinsky


Moscow prosecutors are currently scrutinizing one of the interviews, posted by journalist Yury Dud, for evidence of the crime envisaged under Article 280.3 of the Russian Criminal Code on ‘discrediting’ the armed forces of the Russian Federation. They promise to have it sorted by December. 

According to a TASS report, it is Dud himself who is being checked out rather than the people he was interviewing – Viktoria and Vadim Tsyganov. This is somewhat amusing but shouldn’t come as a surprise. The couple are well-known supporters of the war in Ukraine, worshippers of Putin and writers of songs about the Wagner Private Military Company, the Donbas etc. 

It seems to me that this is a phenomenon that also contains the essence of the times: keen supporters of the ongoing war have already emerged among Russia’s singers, artists and writers. I am referring here specifically to those who seem entirely sincere in welcoming the daily slaughter, who have already managed to speak out more or less at length, using the reasoning advocated by propaganda or coming up with arguments of their own. 

Of course, they don’t particularly want to expatiate on the topic of the war, much less answer questions, especially questions raised by presumed opponents, like Dud himself. For the most part, we learn about the stance of well-known supporters of the war and the Russian authorities from their social media posts and sometimes from brief utterances and appearances in the state’s propaganda media or even at pro-authority meetings.

Can it be said that most well-known writers and performers are stricken with this ‘Leni Riefenstahl‘ syndrome? Of course not. I think the majority prefer to keep quiet, storing up outrage and anger but retaining the possibility of working and performing and of contact with the public.

The authorities take the behaviour of the stars of popular culture extremely seriously, demonstratively encouraging Z-enthusiasts and making the lives of those who dig in their heels as complicated as possible. And again, giving those who have condemned the war the opportunity to mend their ways and redeem themselves in the eyes of those at the top. This matters to the authorities. 

One striking example is the Donetsk performance of the group, Zveri, whose lead singer, Roman Bilyk, had previously condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The musicians have not commented on their appearance in the Donbas. Similar conditions were set for, say, Diana Arbenina and Yuri Shevchuk and his group DDT. Shevchuk declined to accept these terms and all his group’s concerts have been cancelled. It seems this action will become part of his legend that has now been evolving for more than 30 years. Following the ban on his concerts, Shevchuk had a heart attack and is still recovering: DDT’s upcoming concerts have been cancelled.  

More often, however, performers agree to everything. Probably grudgingly and even through gritted teeth. Particularly memorable are those who demonstrated a distinct heightened enthusiasm, glorifying the war and their ruler. And moreover, casting themselves as participants in or initiators of the destruction of a neighbouring country that had long had ‘fraternal’ status.

History is familiar with similar cases. Even today they give us a chance to pass authentic judgement on the correlation between talent and moral callousness. At the forefront, as was also the case in the past, are writers who have assumed the role of troubadours or, more accurately, akyns of the war. In Soviet times, this Kazakh word really caught on. It was bestowed upon creatives who sang the praises of the authorities and their actions.

Take the writers, Zakhar Prilepin and Mikhail Elizarov. Their utterly imperialist stance (imperialism is no longer a term of abuse to them) developed absolutely without Putin. They were always that way. The practical Prilepin has proposed a fairly detailed programme of changes in Ukraine: ‘The streets should be renamed, all monuments pulled down and the curriculum in schools and universities replaced, as well as the Kyiv Academy of Sciences broken up so that they can’t write this any more. That’s what denazification looks like. It can’t be done any other way.’ And he issued a very serious warning: ‘If they don’t surrender, the same will happen in Kyiv as happened in Mariupol, only worse. As happened in Grozny – there will nothing of Kyiv left.’ There you have it.

Prilepin, to be fair, acknowledged that adopting a new reality once war had started called for certain moral efforts: ‘We, the vast Russian state, are firing on cities and pursuing tank columns, And, of course, it took some time to get over the moral sensation. But, of course, I didn’t let on that inwardly it was such a struggle…’ Now, of course, everything is already fine: ‘I do not feel any remorse for all that has happened. It happened and now we must thoroughly clean up after ourselves… We have not only played some part in the story that began in 2014 – I was one of those who initiated it…’

Mikhail Elizarov, meanwhile, with the war already under way, launched what his comrades-in-arms described as the Z-fighters’ self-deprecating identification of themselves as Orcs: ‘Remember, brother, how we crushed the Elvish scum.’ He has also  spoken out even more clearly: ‘Ukraine needs to cease to exist, it needs to commit suicide, dissolve, burst, disappear. It has lost the karmic right to exist.’ 

The essence of the current Z-akyns was formed long ago and without any propagandists on TV. They are the real, genuine instigators of the war who espouse an entirely malign imperialism. They don’t need any propaganda. They themselves are ready and able to promulgate the bombing of cities or, let’s be precise, the energy infrastructure. They need seizure of others’ territories and the triumph of the brute force that acts in their name.

And here one must admit that these authors, rather popular in the pre-war era, express the vicious joys and aspirations of a part of the Russian public. To seize, to destroy, to humiliate, to put their foot on someone else’s chest. No ‘defence of the Donbas’ is required here. That is, government arguments could be mentioned, but are almost useless now – after Donbas towns and cities have been literally demolished: Mariupol, Volnovakha, Severodonetsk, Bakhmut, Marinka and Avdeevka. A list that is far from complete.

These are precisely the creators of the new imperial ideology. Their creativity has reached its pinnacle.

Other Z-enthusiasts from the drama or music scene may not claim to be the rulers of Ukraine’s fate, but they are happily and willingly repeating propaganda formulas, sometimes creatively developing and supplementing them.

Once again, the authorities put a lot of importance on this support by artists. In most cases, it would be satisfied with things such as Oleg Gazmanov’s ‘Go, Russia!’ and the anthem ‘Wagners’ by the same Tsyganova.  Or at the very least, with brief slogans at pro-government rallies like those used by the staunch Putinists, the artists Vladimir Mashkov and Ivan Okhlobystin, to entertain the people.

However, the ardent and lengthy arguments of our artists are not always beneficial. Dmitry Pevtsov decided to condemn Russians who are against the war and Putin. He remembered visiting the hospital: ‘These cries of ‘stop the war’… I will answer to you: people, the president is doing exactly this. He ‘stops’ the war, he ‘stops’ the genocide in Donbas… I was in hospitals and I saw wounded soldiers. I was there where the guys were severely wounded: without arms, without legs, young. And I would like these ‘no to war’ people to look these guys in the eyes and explain their actions.’

The defender of the government and president did not see a direct connection between the war he glorifies and what he saw in the hospital. Well, if he doesn’t see the connection… What can you do?

Or take the very good actor Aleksei Shevchenkov, who played the main roles in the drama based on Astafyev’s novel The Cursed and Murdered and in Andrei Smirnov’s anti-Bolshevik saga Once Upon a Time There Was a Woman. He recorded a video in which he almost enthusiastically shouts addressing the Russian soldiers occupying Ukrainian cities: ‘Brothers! I bow to you for cleansing the land from these freaks, from these subhumans… We are just now working on a film about the fight against the Bandera people in post-war times… Just crush them! Destroy them!’

The simplest question – Is he an idiot? – should not be a substitute for a much more important question: What does this actor and millions of his peers know about how Moscow’s envoys, the Red Conquistadors, acted in Ukrainian towns and villages in the 1930s and in those post-war decades? How many millions of peasants did they kill at the walls of barns and starve to death, taking away grain? How many lives did their 70-year hold on Ukraine as part of the Bolshevik empire cost it?

Viktoria Tsyganova and her husband had a somewhat similar story. Giving free rein to their feelings and words, they talked for three hours and as is usual with Dud, they revealed themselves and similar authors who glorify the war from a certain side. A side that should not be shown. Here is the invisible but omnipotent world government, the omnipresent Jews, for whom a certain government, as it turns out, is clearing a place, here is a sledgehammer as a symbol that can be equated with the Apple’s symbol and much more.

I don’t know what the prosecutors will decide by December. They’ll probably open a criminal investigation against Dud.

What can be said in the meantime?

Let us recall a small legal aspect. Justification, praise or even glorification of aggressive war, calls for waging such a war, for unconcealed atrocities can be equated to the atrocity itself. In fact, that is why in the Criminal Code Article 353 on initiating a war of aggression is found next to Article 354 on calls for such a war.

A large-scale bloody tragedy is unfolding before our eyes, in the context of which dozens of private dramas related to the servicing of a criminal regime attract, perhaps, relatively little attention. Yet in the history of the other great war in Europe, the one that was considered the last, the images of film director Leni Riefenstahl and, say, theatre director Gustaf Gründgens, who glorified the Third Reich in various forms, found their place. Both of these names are bound up with indelible shame. It is shameful to serve the regime that unleashed a savage bloodbath and cruelly punished all those who disagreed with it.

Gustaf Gründgens, however, did some good by standing up for several opponents of that regime and even getting them out of prison.

In Soviet times, some authors favoured by the authorities sometimes stood up for outcasts and ‘renegades’. Rarely, but they did.

For the Russian akyns of this war, no one can make any such claim.

Translated by Melanie Moore and Ecaterina Hughes

Leave a Reply