In December of 2022, political rapper NOIZE MC released a live-recorded track entitled, “Cooperative Swan Lake.” (On January 12th, a studio version has now been released)[aa]. Taking inspiration from the historical (failed) coup d’etat which ousted the last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev from power in August of 1991, the track talks about the event in passing. However, there are clear undertones of contemporary politics at play. To understand what this situation and how NOIZE MC contextualized the period in his track, I’ll first explain what the whole situation is and then answer a series of questions regarding several aspects before going into the rap version. It’s fascinating to note the role that Tchaikovsky’s ballet played in cementing this period in the cultural memory of Russians. Just take a look at a post by Artemy Troitsky in the beginning of this year in response to Belarus’ pro-Russian support:
What is “Cooperative Swan Lake”?
This name was given to the failed coup d’etat by Vladimir Kryuchkov, Yuri Plekhanov, and others from August 19th to the 22nd of 1991.
Anti-Gorbachevism had been building over the past few months, and by June it was extremely palpable that even the leader himself began to know that his days were limited. In July, he had a meeting with Yeltsin and Nursultan Nazarbayev about a change in ministers, although the meeting had been tapped by KGB officials. At this point, Gorbachev had begun to suspect that Kryuchkov and Dmitry Yazov could not be trusted. On August 4, Gorbachev would leave on holiday in Foros. However, as early as the 5th a collective of people including Kryuchkov and Yazov began working on how to remove the leader from office. On August 17th, the first of several critical meetings were organized to figure out just how to best remove Gorbachev. By the 20th, it had been planned.
Having caught Gorbachev in a dacha in Crimea while on vacation, publically stated to have some disease and organ failure although many did not believe this claim, in his absence this allowed the newly formed State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP, nicknamed the “Gang of Eight”) to take power. Valery Boldin, assistant to Gorbachev, was tasked with giving the dethroned leader an ultimatum. Either release power or it will be taken. A state of emergency was announced by Valentin Varennikov (many details can be found here). However, this would ultimately fail, the leader refusing to sign anything, and on the 22nd Gorbachev would return to work, quickly relieving both Kryuchkov and Plekhanov from their roles, jailing several others.
What’s The “Swan Lake” Element?
The Swan Lake component, although tangential, helps to show how Russian music culture has been used in various contexts to highlight culturally poignant moments but undergo a radical recontextualization in the process. The symbol of Swan Lake, thanks to this moment, is now associated with the State Emergency Committee because they had arranged a “funeral program” in memory of several leaders including (Leonid) Brezhnev, (Yuri) Andropov, (Konstantin) Chernenko. These men caused a tremendous amount of suffering and created a period which, for many if not all, did not invoke happy or even safe memories for the residences of the USSR. However, the latter two (in a morbid sort of way) is responsible for the development of Russian hip-hop culture.
The sublime beauty of Swan Lake became antithetical to the ugliness of the leaders being remembered, and with the coup surrounding the tone-deaf programming, the music gained a completely different demeanor. However, as some of the dancers expressed, the relationship shouldn’t politicize the ballet, although the ballet itself became a mighty symbol during the Soviet Union. Dance scholar Maria Goltsman notes that the ballet became synonymous with the Russian soul during the Soviet Union and a shining example of the splendorous quality of Russian culture for foreign audiences. As she writes, “And it was considered to be loved by all the Soviet people as well. It was usually shown to all kinds of eminent foreign guests and during all international tours.” Speaking about the power of the contrasting realities, Goltsman remarks on the powers of surreptitiousness that the broadcast of “Swan Lake” held, “it served as a cloak, with the television screen masking reality.“
The broadcast from the 18th to the 21st of August of 1991 made at the Bolshoi Theatre, was aired for three days in a row, again sullying Tchaikovsky’s music and the memories of the period with a tenuous mixture of out-of-step beauty mixed with brutal politics. Even worse was the fact that any and all other broadcasting for three days was not available, and thus one was forced to bear witness to this sour-tasting funeral service coupled with some of Russia’s most beautiful music. The performance was originally scheduled for two weeks prior to the coup, and yet miraculously it was not aired until the 19th. The airing was included on the “Musical TV Theatre,” and members of the Bolshoi hadn’t even realized the gravity of the scenario as they were on tour in Latin America at this time. In recollection, lead Natalia Bessmertnova decouples the ballet from politics, arguing it was just serendipitous that such things lined up.
The original footage is hard to find but in this video you can see some, the fragment being the “Danse des petits cygnes” from the second act, an ironic piece given the theme of the ballet, an echo of how young swans gather together for safety.
Noize MC’s Rap Reimagining
Lots of have been said already about Noize MC and his political activism through his music, scholars of Russian hip-hop taking note of his prolific status and historical positioning.[b]
Independent research into the historical legacy of censorship in Russia has revealed that he was the first, officially, that was censored by the state due to expressionary concerns.[aa] Throughout the decades, Noize MC has involved himself (and been drawn into) sociopolitical dissention of nearly every kind, but mostly dealing with Putin and the rampant fraud within the Russian state. After a full year of warfare between Ukraine and Russia, in late December Noize MC released the track “Cooperative Swan Lake.” This came only a month after being labeled the dreaded, if legendary status, of “foreign agent.” Other notable rappers to hold the title include the Oxford-educated rapper Oksimiron, FACE, and the controversial pop rapper Morgenshtern.
The Russian authorities, especially exasperated by the war, have tried to control the narrative and regulate what is and is not shown in terms of popular music within the country. Everything from radio, television, music, and journalism have faced their own types of censorship. In Noize MC’s case, given his musical genre (of which he interpolates with rock among other influences), given his political position his future in Russia is effectively over. During the summer, he relocated to Vilnius, Lithuania, following a wave of hip-hop emigres like FACE, Timati, Kizaru (although he left in 2014), as well as Yuri Dud (a high-profile journalist), among other social figures. Thus, Noize MC is not afraid of talking politics through his art and is not mild in expressing his own, controversial, beliefs.
The track reads as a one-way conversation of sorts, Noize MC berating the listener for their inability to see or hear the situation at end. He is trying to wake up the populace but they are not listening, “I would like to talk to you – But the TV is too.” The first stanza is very powerful, Noize MC noting how Russia has changed but in the antithetical direction. He sees Russia changing and yet negates the way things are, “In all its negative growth – I negatively agree with everything.” The second stanza is, again, as strong as the first. Noize MC is pleading for the populace to wake up, “Where have you been for 8 years [referring to the Russo-Ukrainian War], you fucking nonhumans!” The second verse is Noize MC’s bitter acceptance of the inevitable outcome, the populace will remain asleep and entranced the swans dancing on the screen. The TV speakers have become the watcher’s mouth and they are no longer able to think or even speak for themselves.
Watch For Yourself!
- GOLTSMAN, Maria. “Symbols of the Soviet Empire: Dying Swan,” in Eva Naripea, Virve Sarapik, Jaak Tomber (eds.), Koht ja Paik/ Place and Locations. Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics VI, Tallinn, 2008, 307-313.
- Ibid, 310.
aa. In August of 2010, Noize MC was censored for the crime of “petty hooliganism.” This, of course, applies to a wide variety of activities and thus, clear determination of what the crime is must be applied to each case. This resulted in a ten-day jail sentence, of which was served in full.
b. One prominent study that I reach for is Dr. Phillip Ewell’s 2018 chapter, “Russian Rap In The Era of Putin” in Hip Hop at Europe’s Edge.