MOSCOW – When the Russian duo "dark rave" Nastya Kreslina and Nikolay Kostylev got off the train for their concert in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, the police were waiting on the frozen platform. They were asked for their passports, Kostylev was handcuffed and taken to the local police station.
Police said they received an anonymous call about drug possession. But Kreslina and Kostylev, whose experimental performances as an IC3PEAK electronic duo present provocative, morbid and often horrible themes, claim that the real reason for their arrest is their art.
During their tour all over Russia, which began last month and took place from the city of Kazan to the Volga, in the Far East of Siberia, six of their 11 concerts were canceled. Club owners were forced not to host them and were threatened with fines and closures.
"We have not received any official statements, no letters, nothing," Kostylev told The Associated Press about the harassment. "These are just random methods of fighting against the art."
In recent months, Russian musicians have experienced a surge of pressure from the authorities, with a series of cancellations of concerts and arrests that have provoked an outcry from critics who see it as an expression of censorship against Russian artists.
The crackdown evokes the restrictions imposed by the Soviet period on the music scene, when Communist Party leaders led rock musicians as an ideological threat underground. More recently, it follows the imprisonment in 2012 of members of the punk band Pussy Riot and other harsh measures taken by the government of President Vladimir Putin to strengthen control of the country's cultural scene – reflecting the concern over the broad reach of musicians and their questioning of official policies.
Last month, a rapper known as Husky, whose videos have been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube, was arrested after an impromptu performance when his show was closed in the southern city of Krasnodar from the country.
The 25-year-old rapper, who is known for his words about poverty, corruption and police brutality, was preparing to go on stage on November 21 when local prosecutors warned the meeting venue that his act contained elements of this that they called "extremism".
Husky climbed into a car, surrounded by hundreds of fans, and chanted, "I will sing my music, the most honest music!" Before being taken away by the police.
A court sentenced Husky to 12 days in jail for hooliganism, but he was released four days later, hours before a solidarity concert organized in Moscow by a group of popular hip-hop artists who were protesting against his detention.
However, official pressure on the artists continued.
On November 30, rapper Gone.Fludd announced the cancellation of two concerts, citing the pressures of "every conceivable police department", while the famous hip hop artist Allj canceled his show in the arctic city of Yakutsk after receiving threats of violence.
Other artists were also affected – the pop sensation Monetochka and the punk band Friendzona were among those who had seen their concerts banned by the authorities last month.
In the case of IC3PEAK, in addition to their detention in Siberia on 1 December, the artists have been hunted for weeks by the police and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor body of the KGB. Kreslina said that the authorities used "old, tried and tested Soviet methods" to repress the musicians accused of having overstepped.
"We do not want to stop playing," she said. "But we think the situation is getting worse."
Their video clips use occult images and "slaughterhouse", often showing them in troubling forms drinking blood and eating raw meat. They believe that their most recent, which merged gruesome images of the couple lying in coffins with the bottom of the seat of the security service of the FSB, is what has upset the authorities
Kreslina and Kosylev maintain, however, that their work is aimed more at undermining popular perceptions than at making an overtly political statement.
"We take people out of their comfort zone because it helps them think, it opens up new feelings and emotions," Kostylev said. "If people are afraid of your art, you are probably doing the right thing."
Boris Barabanov, editorialist in the music of Russia's leading business daily Kommersant, said the feedback would only feed "harder and harder" songs and encourage greater resourcefulness to get around the restrictions.
Unlike the Soviet era, when top rock leaders had forced Soviet rock stars to go underground, "all musicians are equal before the main content distribution channel – the Internet," Barabanov said.
"All that is prohibited encourages the imagination," he said, adding that the groups would begin to change their names and hold secret concerts to escape the police.
Less than an hour after they were released in Novosibirsk, Kreslina and Kostylev performed in front of a crowd of 300 people in an abandoned loft on the outskirts of the city.
As a result of so many obstacles, they now know how to organize secret safeguarding concerts. The details are sent on an encrypted email application and users bring their own lighting and sound systems.
"People go crazy, it's a big adventure for them, people like what's forbidden," Kreslina said.
"It's a great way to say thank you to the government," added Kostylev.
It is unclear whether the recent crackdown was directed by federal authorities or under the impulse of overzealous local officials.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who, along with her compatriot Maria Alekhina, spent nearly two years in prison for "insulting religious feelings" and for her provocative performance in 2012 in the largest Orthodox Cathedral in Moscow, was fueled by the fears of the Kremlin.
"The artists they banned have a stronger, more lively, more angry, more convinced and more reliable electorate than Vladimir Putin's," Tolokonnikova said. "They are starting to feel competition in the Kremlin and the FSB headquarters."
Barabanov, the music columnist, has a different point of view.
"I do not think the authorities want to ban a particular genre of music and I do not think it's a planned campaign in advance," said the Kremlin . "It is more likely to be a matter of stupidity among regional officials."
Margarita Simonyan, head of the state-funded RT television network with close ties to top Kremlin officials, said Husky's release came after government intervention.
And last week, the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service proposed to create grants to support local rappers, while the Kremlin advisor and former Minister of Culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi, defended rap as an art "no not neglect ".
Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of a major Russian television news program, also came out in defense of the rappers, claiming that they represented an extremely popular subculture that "should not be harassed".
Trifon Bebutov, the former digital publisher of Esquire Russia, saw in all this a sign that "the Kremlin is trying to find a way to cooperate and engage in dialogue with popular artists".
The popularity of musicians among young Russians and the possibility of multiplying uncomfortable ideas for the government are worrying the Kremlin, he added.
"It seems that the government is really afraid of an audience that it does not have the ability to control, it fears being prompted to act, to protest," Bebutov said.
Testifying to this broad audience, the tickets sold out in just three hours for last month's solidarity concert by three of Russia's leading hip-hop artists to protest Husky's arrest.
Between them, the rappers have an audience of several million people, as well as the hearts and minds of young Internet-savvy Russians who do not consume state media like the older generation.
The message they heard was clear.
"This concert is not just about Husky," rapper Oxxxymiron, 33, told the crowd. "It's about the artists who have faced this in the past and, I'm afraid, for artists who might be in the future. It is the freedom of society. "
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