In memory of Yanka

You should absorb God. Through your bare feet in the snow, not through some personal verbal bullshit.

Yanka Dyagileva

As a memory studies researcher, like many of my colleagues, I pay particular attention to the mention of monuments and memorial plaques in the news. As someone who wrote a Master of Science thesis on Russian rock music, however, I was double-intrigued to learn recently that last month, the municipal authorities of the city of Novosibirsk refused to grant permission for a memorial plaque to Yana (Yanka) Dyagileva. She was a talented but amateur poetess, declared the commission, and her fan base is too localized.

I find this alleged localization particularly curious, given that my teenagehood thousands of miles away was marked heavily by her songs. Yanka (Russian: Янка) was one of the best-known representatives of the Siberian underground rock scene. She was born in 1966 and drowned in a river in 1991, a few months before her 25th birthday. The circumstances (and even the exact date) of her death were never determined. But it is one of the reasons cited by the commission in its refusal: “She may have quit life voluntarily”.

Other reasons include the fact that her house is old and will be torn down anyway; that the proposed design of the plaque is imperfect; that plaques are meant for “outstanding statesmen or public figures”; and that Yanka herself would have recoiled from the idea of memorializing her name in this manner. Of these objections, only the last one is reasonable. After all, she was known to reject all requests for interviews, on principle.

YD: “We can chat, sure, but not a single line should appear in a newspaper.” — Journalist: “But why? Maybe you don’t need it, but others do?” — YD: “Those who need it will figure out on their own who – and why – I am.”

Those who call Yanka an “amateur poetess” should remember that she navigated a profoundly male-dominated underground music scene, and managed to do it in a way that keeps her on our playlists to this day. Among parallels drawn between her and more successful, more famous Western singers, the comparison to Janice Joplin was perhaps most frequent. (Update: one of the commentators below believes Patti Smith to be a better comparison.)

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At around twenty years of age, in 1986, Yanka lost her mother to cancer. Next year, at the 1987 Novosibirsk rock festival, she met and fell in love with Yegor Letov (1964-2008), the rebellious and intellectual punk leader of a rising-to-fame protest band called Grazhanskaia Oborona (Civil Defense). Its name is often conveniently shortened to GrOb (Russian for coffin). The vocally anti-establishment Letov was a recent survivor of torture by the state’s system of punitive psychiatry. Thus began Yanka’s ascent in the rock scene.

Her complicated romantic (and artistic) involvement with an intense man like Letov served to lift her to the heights of poetic and musical productivity, but ended in severe depression. Existing accounts of varying plausibility testify to the extent of difficulties in their relationship, and today some continue to debate the ups and downs of Letov’s role in Yanka’s life.

Their best-known, politically charged duet.
At 2:40 their voices diverge (beautifully, I think).

In his own recollections of those years, Letov described himself as zloebuchii, which I am entirely unable to translate (a f*cking f*ck, maybe?), but which wouldn’t surprise anyone remotely familiar with his fierceness. And Yanka, though she gave no interviews, did write a friend in 1988 (in my translation):

From Moscow everyone will go to perform in Kharkov, and I’m thinking of heading to Piter [St. Petersburg] — if, of course, nothing changes, since everything changes every two hours… Devil himself would break a leg in our relationship.

Yanka and Letov with the rest of 'Civil Defense'

Yanka and Letov with the rest of GrOb (Civil Defense) 1980s

In music, they didn’t quite see eye-to-eye. Letov found Yanka’s way of entering the stage too timid, for instance; he wanted the audience to feel more raw power. And he was known to be unreservedly critical when displeased.

“Yegor greatly facilitated her creativity as a process of struggle; he led her through a serious school of survival in dealing with him,” said Anna Volkova, Yanka’s friend and Letov’s next long-term partner (I translate from vk.com/yegorletov) —

It was a masculine community, a severe one, and you had to prove that you are not weaker than they, you had to be equal — that’s how I think Yegor affected Yanka and her poetry.

“I used aggression to make up for the sorrowful, passive and pitiful declaration of the world’s unfairness, which irritated me about her work,” Letov said of their performances. “Our combined result […] went higher, deeper and farther.” At various times, she both liked and resisted this influence.

He recalls lying on the floor on their mattress in a lousy mood one night, grumbling at length about Yanka’s alleged screw-ups during a concert. She paced around in the dark for a long time, silent, listening. Suddenly, he literally lost his breath. She kicked him. Hard. Knocked the “lousiness” right out, he adds half-jokingly.

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Letov

Yegor Letov

After her death, Letov objected vehemently to the popular take on Yanka as a tragic figure attached to him and (as some felt) brought down by him: “She lived her own life. She didn’t actually need me. […] It is incredible how inaccurately people perceive us, in such barbaric, wacky notions. […] She was the most joyous person ever. More full of joy than all of us combined, don’t you get it?” In the same extensive interview in 1999, he insisted that her death was anything but a suicide:

Let’s put it this way: she was absolutely reckless about people, as in, she was never afraid of anyone. I kept telling her: “You fool! These are people; run from them!” — every time. […] Maybe [she came upon] some drunk group…

At the same time, when asked about Yanka’s creative potential in 1990, Letov said in another interview: “I really like her work, but it may be coming to an end. She stopped coming out of depression.” They were no longer together at that point, though many would say that she never ceased to love him and to be affected by his hold on the music circles they continued to share.

When he died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 43 (The Guardian ran this obituary, which makes no mention of Yanka), I happened to be living among a group of artists-slash-hippies in Moscow. I remember hearing from beyond the cigarette smoke that day: “Letov has died”. I sighed: “That’s pretty bad.” They shook their heads: “No. It’s a disaster. An era has just ended.”

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Bashlachev

Alexander Bashlachev

Yanka’s closeness with rock-poet Alexander Bashlachev, whom she met in 1985 and who fell to his death in 1988 (also under undetermined circumstances), was an immense influence in her life as well. According to Letov, “she idolized him”. According to Volkova, “she was a lot more impressed with Bashlachev than with Yegor. […] He influenced her very differently.” His work was, most sources agree, her model of what poetry should be. Incidentally, many contemporary critics would now second that opinion.

Various rumors of the extent of their relationship circulate among their fans. We do know that Yanka was profoundly affected by her encounters with Bashlachev in 1987. In the beginning of that year, as he was sinking into depression, she came to his concert, and they had a conversation that “turned her world upside down and started her new life,” recalled Volkova. Different sources describe her state after that day as shock and astonishment. She began to take her own poems more seriously as a result of this friendship.

Later that year, having already met Letov, Yanka brought him to what turned out to be one of Bashlachev’s final performances. But by that time her beloved SashBash was all but stifled by the depression that was about to claim his life. The concert failed. Letov’s reaction was, shall we say, predictable. Yanka took it hard. She wrote eight of her best-known songs that night. A few months later, Alexander Bashlachev was gone.

“He has paved a path, and it’s time for me to follow. I bring everyone only trouble and suffering,” she is remembered as saying in the following years. Her poems dealt increasingly with falling and death, and she took to using the masculine form of Russian verbs (poshel instead of poshla, for instance). Some would say that she never entirely recovered from this loss.

I don’t talk much anymore, because everything feels like a lie, and if you don’t lie you hurt everyone. (Letter to a friend, 1988)

Allegedly, two weeks before her disappearance in 1991 Yanka took a vow of silence, which she kept to the end. On May 9 she walked into a nearby forest and vanished. Several close friends, including Letov, reportedly received a loving postcard from her on the following day. She was missing for eight days before a fisherman found her on May 17. Her body had floated over 40 km (25 miles) down the Inya River. No clear cause of death was announced. She was buried in a closed casket.

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Siberia’s raw, authentic, almost shamanic force hit Russia’s cultured westlands — St. Petersburg and Moscow — through Yanka’s music. “Spiritually anemic and exhausted, Moscow dove into Yanka like into some Renaissance,” recalls journalist Sergei Gur’ev, adding rather menacingly: “We ate her up.”

Despite my long-standing love for Yanka’s impassioned songs, I don’t quite know how I feel about the memorial plaque initiative. I would personally want to see it happen, but I doubt she’d be up for it — she comes, after all, from a highly unofficial epoch. She would probably just laugh at the notion. Then again, memorialization is not for the dead; it’s for the living. One thing I do know, however, that I never again want to hear someone argue that she was known “locally”. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Thus this blog entry.

A bright mind leads only to poverty and prison,
A free head leads only to ditches and trenches,
A beautiful soul leads only to scabs and lice,
And universal love leads only to bloodied muzzles.

One can find an in-depth coverage of Yanka’s life here (in Russian). In 2006, a Polish magazine called Lampa ran a “Siberian ballad about Yegor and Yanka” — cover – page 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5  (Syberyjska ballada o Jegorze i Jance, in Polish).

On 4 July 2013, British band Massive Attack played a song by Yegor Letov (“Всё идёт по плану”) and a song by Yanka (“Печаль моя светла”) during their concert in Manchester (Lenta.ru). Scottish singer Elizabeth Fraser, of the Cocteau Twins fame, helped with Yanka’s song. Both were performed in Russian.

Watch Yanka Dyagileva sing (below), as recorded during a festival of acoustic rock in 1990 — starting with the “timid” stage entrance that Letov took such issue with. I’ve translated the lyrics, though I doubt the attempt does her justice. See the last of the Lampa pages (above) for the Polish version. Some insist that this song was inspired by Bashlachev, particularly the line: “You’ll see the sky, and I will see the ground on your feet”. At 0:08 of this video, she is announced simply:

“Yanka”

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… Along the Tram Rails

Let’s go together for a stroll along the tram rails
And sit on the pipes at the start of the circular highway
The factory’s black smoke will be our warm breeze
A yellow traffic light — our guiding star

If we’re lucky, we won’t return to our cage till nightfall
We must be able to burrow quickly into the ground
And stay there while black cars ride above us
Carrying away those who couldn’t or didn’t want to wade the mud

If there’s time, we’ll keep crawling along the tram rails
You’ll see the sky, and I will see the ground on your feet
We’ll need to burn our clothes if we ever come back
If the blue caps don’t get us at the door

And if they do, be silent about our stroll along the rails
It’s a sure sign of crime and schizophrenia
Iron Felix will grin at us from the wall
It will be a long, fair punishment

For our walk along the tram rails
A just punishment for a walk along the rails
They will kill us for walking along the tram rails


   

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17 thoughts on “In memory of Yanka

  1. More like Patti Smith than Janis Joplin. Janis was much more of a pop artist. Patti was very lucky to live through her youth, and a great poet and singer. Yanka has a lot of the same energy as far as I can see.

    Liked by 1 person

      • “Jesus Died for Somebody’s Sins but not Mine” but it is more her attitude in live performances of total confidence and individuality. She is famous for her version of Bruce Springstein’s “Because the Night” as well as Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, but she was a wild and free spirit poking holes in the fabric of rock music.

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    • Excellent article, Tanya – I only recently heard of GrOb from a comments by Nadya & Masha of Pussy Riot. Then I discovered Yanka and have been plastering links to her songs & lyrics all over Facebook. (I guess you know the plaque finally went up on her old house in Novosibirsk, just a few weeks ago. There’s even a Youtube clip on it.)… and important insight from Katrina as well – It’s important to appreciate the micro-macro link when looking at mental disorders. It would be interesting, though, to read the correspondence between her and Letov, but I heard that it is all in the possession of his widow, and I’m going to take a wild guess and opine that he left her strict instructions about keeping it secret indefinitely. “Ambiguity…,” quoth Emo Phillips, “the Devil’s volleyball.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve heard of Grob, but not of Yanka. Many thanks for this. Those who held Letov responsible, what were their arguments?

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    • That opinion was probably best expressed by Nick Rock’n’Roll, a former friend of theirs. In a public interview only a few weeks afterwards, he said:

      This is for you, Yegor dear: you are responsible for everything that happened to Yanka, you injected that girl with your misanthropy. And when you spoke of committing hara-kiri in front of the entire world, one guy nearby said: “You wouldn’t do anything like that, Letov, because you have no idea what that means. But Yanka — she would.” […] I knew her a different person. Have pity on others, Yegor dear, because escalation of pain will always be nothing but emotional fascism.

      Needless to say, Letov never forgave the accusation.

      I should perhaps add that the question of responsibility in such cases is a mega-tricky subject, really. No one ever came to any agreement about it. Thank you again for reading.

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  3. Seems so often to be the case that conflict and shock, after a lifetime of subterranean grumblings of discomfiture, are what finally drive art out of us and into the open. This pattern seems especially common for women, because our default setting in most modern cultures is not artist, but muse, or bovine labourer and nurturer. It takes a lot to chivvy us out of those more accepted roles. According to your telling of Yanka’s story, a charismatic but abusive partner was that source of conflict and shock. It’s a pity that we are acculturated such that we need to undergo a trauma to set art flowing. Art is natural. The creative spirit flows through us like breath, from our first breath. The hellish logics of misogyny, capitalism, totalitarianism dam it up. Then some shock breaks us open. Most of us, I think, would prefer to make our art AND have the peaceful life. But for that, we’ll all have to be revolutionaries, and carry our own little fragile envelopes of peace and happiness into the middle of the battle, if we can.

    If Yanka committed suicide, that’s very saddening. As you suggested in your last comment, I think it’s generally wise to avoid attributing somebody’s suicide to the actions of a particular person or group. The blaming of Aaron Swartz’s suicide on JSTOR was one example. It doesn’t answer the question of why some people subjected to cruelty and difficulty end their lives, while others don’t. And blaming one individual or group ignores the more diffuse, systemic violence to which we are subject. A sensitive soul like Yanka probably felt bombarded all her life. I’m so glad she turned some of that bruising into art, and I’m so sorry that, for whatever reason, she didn’t stick around longer.

    Thanks for an elegantly-written and thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reading this and hearing what little I have so far about her life and their lives together, the story there is so mysterious and quite sad. Both their music is very good and in different ways. I’m new to listening to both of them and just found this while looking around online. Thank you for translating the song you did, as well.
    As much as it’s a terrible fate she met, I’m also glad to’ve found out about her music and share in appreciating it with others still around listening. And it’s good to hear from neuropsychsoc’s comment that the plaque did actually go up.

    Liked by 1 person

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