The Siberian city might appear a musical backwater, but it doesn’t sound like one, says SOPHIA DEBOICK
The winter temperature plummets to 20 below zero in Novosibirsk and as the capital of Siberia it is a place easily associated with the inhumanities of Tsarist-era penal colonies and the Soviet Gulag. In fact Novosibirsk – the third biggest city in Russia – is an outpost of human excellence and a scientific and cultural powerhouse in an undeniably harsh part of the world. And while the city lies 2,000 miles across the vast expanse of Russia from Saint Petersburg and Moscow with their world-famous opera houses, it has a musical pedigree to challenge them both.
Novosibirsk lies getting on for halfway along the Trans-Siberian Railway and it owes its existence to it, the city growing up around the bridge over the Ob river that was built in 1893 to facilitate the new rail route spanning the country from Moscow to Vladivostok. The city’s gargantuan railway station is one of the largest in the country. Painted an unforgettable shade of mint green, its waiting rooms are hung with crystal chandeliers.
While the Russian Civil War brought widespread destruction to Novosibirsk, under Stalin it was the railway that enabled the city to recover and become an industrial powerhouse. It was a vital munitions centre in the Second World War and later the factories and powerplants were joined by university buildings and research centres as the ‘Academic City’ of Akademgorodok was founded there in 1957 – a symbol of the post-Stalin ideological thaw.
By the time the first foundation stones were being laid at Akademgorodok, another Novosibirsk institution had already been founded which would make a large contribution to the city becoming a centre of high musical achievement. The Novosibirsk State Conservatoire, named after Russian classical great Mikhail Glinka (in fact from the Smolensk region in Russia’s far west), was founded in 1956, and has produced many celebrated classical musicians in the decades since.
Odessan conductor Mark Gorenstein studied his craft at the Novosibirsk State Conservatoire in the 1980s and is now principal conductor of the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, itself founded by the Azerbaijani conductor Arnold Katz (Katz became a professor at the Conservatoire and Novosibirsk’s imposing modern State Concert Hall that opened in 2013 bears his name). Tenor Vladimir Galuzin from Rubtsovsk, a mere 300 miles from Novosibirsk, graduated from the Conservatoire in 1984 and was first captivated by opera when he saw Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Novosibirsk Opera House as a youth.
Soprano Galina Gorchakova, the daughter of opera singers, moved to Novosibirsk as a child to train and sang all over the world in the 1990s as a celebrated performer of the Russian operatic repertoire. Violinist Vadim Repin, born in the city in the early 1970s, studied at the Conservatoire under the renowned violin teacher Zakhar Bron, as did Repin’s contemporary and fellow Novosibirsker Maxim Vengerov, while the younger Mikhail Simonyan now carries the torch for Novosibirsk-born and Conservatoire-educated violinists.
But Novosibirsk’s classical cred predated even the Conservatoire. Its opera house is the largest in Russia, with a dome twice the size of that of St Paul’s Cathedral. Building began in the 1930s on the city’s sweeping central Lenin Square, but the opera house was not completed until the war in Europe was nearly over. In the meantime, the building provided a refuge to Russia’s musical heritage, both living and dead.
Just like many of the factories in the west of Russia that were packed up wholesale and shipped east as the Wehrmacht advanced, in 1941 the Leningrad Philharmonic were also sent east to Novosibirsk. Their conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, clearly anticipating a long stay, brought not just his wife but his mother and his several pet cats with him, and the orchestra played more than 500 concerts in the city throughout the war, including a performance of Shostakovich’s new Leningrad symphony in July 1942 with the composer in attendance. They gave several performances in the unfinished opera house itself.
But the half-constructed opera house also became the refuge of historic instruments from the museums of Moscow and Leningrad, including the piano of Catherine the Great herself, when it became the final destination of ‘museum trains’ from those bombarded cities. The Soviets, appreciating how deeply ingrained in the Russian soul music was, clearly deemed it as important an asset to the country’s wartime morale as weapons and machinery were to its military might, and Novosibirsk proved vital to the preservation of Russian music during that conflict.
But on the eve of the break-up of the Soviet system Novosibirsk also became associated with musical iconoclasm. Post-punk visionary Yegor Letov was born in Omsk, 400 miles away from Novosibirsk, but in this part of the world considered a neighbour as the next major city, and he got his musical education by virtue of his older brother, Sergei who was studying at the mathematics and physics boarding school at the Novosibirsk State University in Akademgorodok. There was looser censorship there and Sergei – himself now a free jazz musician – sent Yegor records by The Who and other western groups which would be a major influence on him.
Aged 20, Letov founded Grazhdanskaya Oborona (‘Civil Defence’), also known as GrOb (Russian for ‘coffin’), a musical project with an ever-shifting line-up, with his friend Konstantin Ryabinov. Inspired by punk, psychedelia and the poetry of the Russian Futurists, Letov poured his incandescent rage at the restrictions of the Soviet system and the frustrations of life in Siberia into the raw sound of Poganaya molodyozh/ Optimizm (‘Filthy Youth/ Optimism’), GrOb’s first recordings. They were made in Letov’s home studio in his father’s Khrushchev-era prefab apartment building in Omsk and put out on illicit tapes.
In 1985 Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party and perestroika and glasnost were in sight, but the loosening of restrictions on freedom of speech was still only an idea. This was proven when Letov and Ryabinov – a couple of dissidents who wrote songs that were non-conformist, lewd or just plain disturbing in their weirdness – were targeted by the KGB. Letov was sent to a mental asylum and Ryabinov was drafted into the army. The recordings they had made were seized.
But Letov was not easily put off, and recorded five albums of material over just a few weeks after his release in mid-1987, songs like Totalitarizm (‘Totalitarianism’) railing against the system once more. That summer he appeared at Siberia’s first rock festival, held in Novosibirsk, which was a foundational event for a burgeoning Siberian punk scene. Soon two natives of Novosibirsk would team up with Letov, the guitarist Dmitry Selivanov and punk poet Yanka Dyagileva, who already enjoyed an underground reputation for her folk songs and nihilistic lyrics.
The following year the demobbed Ryabinov rejoined GrOb and the album Vsyo idyot po planu (‘Everything is Going According to Plan’) appeared. The title track – considered their signature song – reflected on the break-up of the Soviet system. Selivanov’s suicide in 1989 and Dyagileva’s drowning in 1991 brought tragedy to GrOb, but the Novosibirskers had made a key contribution to a band whose anti-authoritarianism remains inspiring to those still struggling for freedom in Russia today. Another Novosibirsk native, Natalia Chumakova, the band’s bassist and Letov’s wife, is caretaker of the band’s legacy after Letov’s own untimely death in 2008.
Novosibirsk continues to be a powerhouse of Russian music of all stripes. The indie and electro-rock of Hot Zex and Punk TV, both the projects of Vladimir Komarov whose teens began as the Berlin Wall came down, as well as the electronica of Siberian Son and Shifted Reality, and the avant-garde jazz of Roman Stolyar show that Novosibirsk is no stagnant backwater but a musical jewel in the middle of the five million square miles of Siberia.