One of the biggest names in Russian rock music — perhaps the biggest of all — is now listed as a “foreign agent” in his homeland, a designation that taints Boris Grebenshikov as an anti-patriot, even a traitor. The charge meets with an amused shrug. “Ah, I’m always on a list!” he says, laughing. “In the ’70s I was on a list of forbidden people. In the ’80s I was there. It’s all right.”
Grebenshikov, 69, is famous throughout the Russian-speaking world as the leader of the band Aquarium. They pioneered the rock scene that emerged in the USSR in the 1970s. Initially a semi-clandestine version of western hippy music, especially prog and folk-rock, acts such as Aquarium captured popular imagination in the 1980s as harbingers of a new Russia. They were like the pied pipers of perestroika. But Grebenshikov has fallen foul of officialdom once again with the return of authoritarianism.
The ministry of justice in Moscow declared him a foreign agent in June for speaking “in foreign countries for the purpose of providing financial assistance to Ukraine” and for criticising Russia’s war against its neighbour. Formerly based in St Petersburg, Grebenshikov hasn’t been to Russia for more than a year and a half. Prospects for doing so are remote. “It may be a bit dangerous,” he concedes.
Since 2019, he has lived in London with his wife, Irina. He speaks in English on a video call from his flat in Earl’s Court (an in-person meeting had to be cancelled after I caught Covid). Contrary to his grandee status, Grebenshikov has a warm and informal manner. His is a face of laughter lines rather than frown lines, although there are moments when his features lose their brightness and acquire a graver look.
One such occasion comes as he talks about the war in Ukraine. He has many friends there. “They don’t understand why they’re being bombed,” he says. “I think it’s not even a grave injustice, it’s an insult to humanity. A war without any reason at all.”
His new project Heal the Sky is raising money for Ukraine’s largest children’s hospital. It’s a compilation of songs by western musicians, including Jackson Browne, Marianne Faithfull and Richard Thompson. Grebenshikov makes appearances too, including a track with Dave Stewart, Stevie Nicks and Ukrainian singer Serhii Babkin.
BG, as he’s known to fans, has curated the compilation, due for release later this month on Bandcamp. A number of its participants are known to him personally: in 1989 he teamed up with Stewart, formerly of the Eurythmics, to make an English-language album. In their new joint number “War Song”, Grebenshikov sings, in Russian: “The day will arrive, and the war will become a dream/And in the sky the light will return/But it is just where my home once was/It’s no longer there.”
The lines were inspired by photos of bombed buildings, including a friend’s childhood home in Kherson. “This is not a house any more, it’s a hole. I’ve seen whole theatres be destroyed in Ukraine — we played in them,” he says emphatically. “I know these places very well.”
Before the war Grebenshikov frequently toured Ukraine, both as a solo performer and with Aquarium. “The reaction to our band in Ukraine was even more welcoming and loving than in Russia sometimes. It was just amazing,” he recalls. But he can’t see himself playing there now. “Half of Ukrainians think, ‘Oh, a good Russian is a dead Russian.’ I’m getting a lot of mail like this.”
Other celebrated Russian musicians have also raised their voices in opposition to the war. The pop singer Alla Pugacheva, among Russia’s top-selling artists ever, now living in Israel, dared the authorities to add her to the “foreign agents” registry last year when she spoke up against the invasion. Others, however, have either kept their heads down, or are actively collaborating with the Kremlin and its “Z”-themed propaganda.
The last Aquarium concert in Russia took place in St Petersburg the night before the invasion in February 2022. “Some people in my band, in Aquarium, they suddenly became Z patriots,” Grebenshikov says. “It’s like playing Woodstock and saying, ‘Yeah! Kill and rape the Vietnamese!’ Something that doesn’t go well together. I’m sorry for these people. What else can I say? Some people think, some people do not.”
He has since retired the group and is currently touring as BG+. London is his base, but he insists that he doesn’t live there as an émigré or exile.
“Actually, no. I prefer to live and work in London because it suits me much more than being in St Petersburg. I’ve been working here since 1988,” he says. Born in the year Stalin died, he spent decades unable to leave Russia. “For more than half of my life I was behind a wall, and then suddenly I could leave. So it’s my choice.”
When I interviewed Grebenshikov in 2015, he had recently been denounced as a fascist sympathiser by a pro-Kremlin television channel for playing a benefit gig on behalf of Ukrainian refugee children. Yet he didn’t want to be seen as a political figure. “I’m not taking a stand, I’m trying to behave normally,” he told me back then.
On being reminded of this, he replies: “Well, it seems that I was quite wise in 2015. Being in my position, it’s very easy to write topical songs. Hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, will react to it immediately and go, ‘I’m with you’ or ‘I’m against you.’ But the songs tend to fade away very quickly. I don’t like that! I want my songs to remain!”
He is celebrated for his allusive, metaphysical writing style. The idea of home turns up repeatedly in his work, not only as a place of shelter and identity but also oppressiveness, somewhere to escape from.
“At the moment, the country that I was born in and the country that I love is” — he pauses — “in a very sad, tragic position. Millions and millions of people are afraid to think, afraid to speak out. We all know that silence is like cancer. It eats you from within and kills you. And that’s what’s happening. So I’m thinking not only of ways to help Ukrainians but Russians as well, because they are in a terrible position.”
He cites Socrates’ concept of eudaemonia, which he translates as being in good spirit. “That means when you live your life knowing that you did everything you could and everything that you feel is right. That’s what Aquarium and I have been doing for the last 50-plus years. In a country where you cannot trust words, you cannot trust anything, we were looking to establish the way of life which is true. This is what home is.”