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Führer and his Shaman. How the Kremlin recreates Nazi aesthetics in music for war propaganda

Yaroslav Dronov, known as Shaman in the music world, recently released a music video titled My Battle on YouTube. Interestingly, when German subtitles are enabled, the title translates to “Mein Kampf.” He has become a prominent figure in the Z-patriotic genre within the military-era music scene, often referred to as the “symbol of special operations.” Shaman's music videos have garnered significant attention, amassing tens of millions of views, although it's worth noting that they also receive more dislikes than likes. Russian teachers have been encouraging schoolchildren to engage with his songs by raising their hands, adding to his popularity. Moscow's law enforcement authorities have been playing his music during bar raids, indicating its connection to state propaganda efforts. Using music as a tool for promoting ideas is a long-standing practice in state propaganda, and the current Russian government is no exception to this trend. However, despite attempts to cultivate a new generation of Z-artists for propaganda purposes, it appears that these endeavors have not achieved the desired success thus far.

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  • Raise your hand

  • “It's as if someone dictated to me from above”

  • “Almost paid homage to a well-known Austrian painter”

  • Orthodoxy, plagiarism, nationality

  • Will there be a “Z-star Factory”?

  • Silence is golden

Raise your hand

In Kazan, a recent incident caused a scandal when a video emerged online, showing a teacher at Lyceum No. 186 instructing students to raise their fists, resembling a Nazi salute, while singing the song I am Russian by the popular artist Shaman. Some students refused to comply with the gesture, leading the teacher to insist, “Raise your hands. The gesture should be towards the sky, towards NATO!” The video triggered outrage among Tatar-speaking parents who found the gesture, the song, and the coerced participation of their children unacceptable, as well as the fact that their children were forced to sing “I am Russian.”

Both the school and regional authorities provided implausible explanations for the incident. Initially, the school's principal claimed that the students themselves had chosen the “popular song” for a patriotic event named “Big Break.” Later, the education authorities stated that the raised fist was simply a “vocal performance enhancement.” Additionally, the school issued a statement, asserting that the raised fist “relates to the symbols of ancient Assyria” and symbolizes unity and resistance against violent actions, without specifying who might perpetrate such actions against the Kazan students.

Children at the Kazan Lyceum
Children at the Kazan Lyceum
Source: DOXA

Yaroslav Dronov has remained silent on the use of his songs for the “raising of fists.” He did not comment on the actions of Moscow law enforcement, who forced patrons at bars like La Virgen and Underdog to perform I am Russian and Birches by the group Lyube during raids in March. They also attempted to play Dronov's compositions during raids on Open Space, but they couldn't get the music system to work.

While the artist is not responsible for what happened at the Kazan school or the Moscow bars, people expected some form of response from him. However, it is evident that the authorities specifically choose his compositions both for patriotic education and for “musical repression.” Shaman has solidified his position within Putin's propaganda, thanks to his songs and, more notably, his music videos.

“It's as if someone dictated to me from above”

Shaman is the unrivaled star of the Z-patriotic music scene. No other names come close to his recognition and popularity. Hailing from Novomoskovsk in the Tula region, Dronov has been performing on stage since the age of four. From 2013, he participated in various singing competitions like Factor A and The Voice, with mixed success. However, his true fame came with the start of the war. One of Shaman's main hits appeared on YouTube on February 23, 2022 – just a day before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Shaman has been performing on stage since the age of four; however, his true fame came with the start of the war

The singer admits, “I composed this song recently and unexpectedly for myself! It's as if someone dictated it to me from above,” unintentionally revealing perhaps more truth than intended. The song Vstanem (We Will Rise) was played on the radio, at numerous patriotic events, and even, in its entirety, on the Vesti Nedeli (News of the Week), which was unprecedented in this propagandistic news TV show before.

Soon, other patriotic songs were “dictated from above,” with the main ones being I am Russian, followed by Confession, My Russia, and We. Shaman participated in an unprecedented number of state-sponsored events at the highest level, which were approved at the top. He stood on the same stage with Vladimir Putin at a concert celebrating the annexation of the occupied regions of Ukraine on September 30. On September 22, in occupied Crimea, he performed the Russian national anthem on the Day of the State Flag. Previously, he performed at the Luzhniki Stadium during a rally-concert commemorating the eighth anniversary of Crimea's annexation.

Shaman performing the song Vstanem at a Kremlin concert
Shaman performing the song Vstanem at a Kremlin concert

Each of his music videos indeed amasses millions and even tens of millions of views. Vstanem has 49 million views, I am Russian 39 million, Confession 9 million, and My Russia 7.4 million views. While at the beginning of February 2022, the singer had around 300,000 subscribers on YouTube, he now has more than 2.1 million subscribers.

Interestingly, despite his fame, a large fan base, and millions of views, many of the artist's music videos on YouTube have received more dislikes than likes, or their numbers are roughly equal (YouTube has removed the ability to see the number of dislikes, but it can still be done by using certain add-ons). As of June, Shaman's main hit I am Russian had 947,000 likes and 991,000 dislikes. The recording of him performing the Russian national anthem received 98,000 likes and 146,000 dislikes. The controversial video We, which led to accusations of using aesthetics reminiscent of the Nazis, received 185,000 likes and 204,000 dislikes. The second version of the video, filmed on Red Square, had an even larger gap, with 138,000 likes and 285,000 dislikes, meaning the latter outnumbered the former by a factor of two. The same situation applies to the artist's newest music video, Honey, with 73,000 likes and 160,000 dislikes.

“By the number of dislikes, Yaroslav can only compete with Timati and Guf and their infamous song about Moscow,” says music critic Alexander Umanchuk.

Interestingly, “pre-war” hits have almost no dislikes.

Shaman at a graduation party in Moscow
Shaman at a graduation party in Moscow
Source: StarHit

Before September 2022, Victor Drobysh worked with Dronov. Now, it's Igor Matvienko, the producer of Lyube. In March, his production center won a 28.7 million ruble ($319,000) grant from the Presidential Foundation for Cultural Initiatives for the ethnographic opera project Prince Vladimir for. Shaman will play the main role.

Curiously, unlike the works of other Z-artists, Dronov's songs are highly abstract, according to music critic Oleg Karmunin:

“In his songs, there are no references to the authorities, Vladimir Putin, or special operations. Instead, they contain more general phrases such as 'We are great' and 'Russians move forward,' which can be open to various interpretations, even as protest songs. For instance, Vstanem could take on the role of an opposition anthem when perceived differently.”

Another expert, Denis Boyarinov, agrees:

“There are some references to patriotic propaganda clichés, like 'God is with us' or 'We don't live on our knees', which is about Russia rising from its knees. But such ideas and sentiments can exist in any country that feels proud. The propagandistic elements in Shaman's music are primarily seen in his music videos.”

“Almost paid homage to a well-known Austrian painter”

Shaman's music videos are frequently seen as tools of propaganda. The abstract visuals in these videos lend a pro-authority interpretation to the song's lyrics, occasionally evoking an ominous atmosphere. The song We became the center of controversy, with not one but two provocative videos produced for it.

Much like Vladimir Putin, the singer appears to have a preference for significant dates: We was released on Adolf Hitler's birthday. Dronov expressed his desire to “unveil the meaning of the song, which encapsulates my understanding of the national idea and elements of our cultural identity, in the heart of the Russian capital.” However, many users, including Z-patriots, interpreted the music video as embodying the cultural code of a completely different, non-existent state. They accused the artist not only of exploiting nationalism, as seen in I am Russian, but also of incorporating elements of Third Reich aesthetics.

Even Z-patriots noticed Third Reich cultural references in the song We

“Wearing a leather jacket, military boots, and an armband, all on the birthday of the Austrian painter!” – wrote a user on social media. Another user shared their thoughts on the video, saying, “Seeing the armband, I almost paid homage to the well-known Austrian painter.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of similar comments can be found under the video on YouTube.

“Have you seen the movie Cabaret? Compare Shaman's outfit to that of the young German boy. It's a perfect match,” writes a user in the comments on a local community post. The parallels between the singer and the Nazi youth, who sang the song Tomorrow Belongs To Me in the film, have been extensively discussed online. People have noted not only the visual similarities between the performers and the framing of the shots but also the shared themes in their songs—a call for unity against adversity, descriptions of “their homeland” in the verses, and the central idea that the future of their respective countries (Russia in We and Germany in Tomorrow Belongs to Me) belongs to the young generation.

“Everything is there: the image, hairstyle, head movement, camera angle, and the armband in the colors of the flag. And the cherry on top—it was posted on YouTube on April 20, Hitler's birthday,” wrote fact-checking journalist Ilya Ber. Even the former pro-Russian Ukrainian deputy Oleg Tsarev couldn't ignore it and stated that Shaman is portrayed as Adolf Hitler in the video. “I was shocked by his music video. I was uncomfortable with such a cosplay,” he said.

 Internet users have compared Shaman to the singing Nazi youth from the movie Cabaret
Internet users have compared Shaman to the singing Nazi youth from the movie Cabaret

The music video pushed Shaman to the brink of controversy. In the Kursk region, users called for replacing the singer's songs with “harmless” ones by Oleg Gazmanov and Lyube, which have universally accepted content, during the events on July 1, the Day of Remembrance for Veterans of Combat Actions. However, the outrage seemed to fizzle out without further action.

It is known that the official representative of Shaman, media manager, and member of the Public Chamber, Anton Korobkov-Zemlyansky, was involved in the making of the video. He was listed by the Forum of Free Russia as one of the “1,500 war instigators.” Korobkov-Zemlyansky denounced Valery Meladze after he chanted “Glory to the Heroes” at one of his concerts. He also submitted a petition to the Investigative Committee, asking them to investigate a school where teachers allegedly sabotaged propagandistic “lessons on important matters.” The denunciation was prompted by an article published by “Meduza.” On social media, Korobkov-Zemlyansky refers to himself as a “journalist, patriot, and Kremlin supporter.” He ardently supports Putin, regularly writes and speaks about it, ridicules the slimmed-down Mikhail Saakashvili, and accuses Ukraine of being ready to “cause another Chernobyl.”

Shaman has not disclosed who came up with the idea to use controversial imagery in the music video. Music critic Denis Boyarinov speculates that the process of making the video might have been influenced from “outside”:

“Shaman looks like a member of Hitler Youth with his new hairstyle, bangs, white-painted jacket reminiscent of the Wehrmacht uniform, and an armband that appears to be Hitler-like but with the tricolor. If such images are suggested to him by the presidential administration, then they're doing, in my opinion, a very damaging job.”
The video We shot in Skolkovo
The video We shot in Skolkovo

The Third Reich aesthetics are clearly not Dronov's idea, according to the critic Karmunin. He believes that the singer himself considers it nothing more than a form of sensationalism:

“Entertainers on the TV channel Russia often present themselves in a peculiar and comical manner, like the 'new Russian grannies' or Stas Mikhailov with his large cross and colorful jackets. Similarly, Shaman belongs to this circle of performers. He does not comprehend the significance of the Third Reich imagery,” Karmunin says. “His performances are meant for women aged 45+ and hold no connection to promoting anything Nazi-related. Instead, he views his style as visually appealing, stylish, and reflective of a vibrant entertainer.”

Overall, Shaman's music videos are poorly made, the critic says. In his opinion, those who worked on the videos tried to convey the idea of unity and promote it, but the concept ultimately fell flat:

“He walks across Red Square alone, which makes the concept of 'we' feel out of place. The lack of a united presence throughout the video detracts from the intended message. If he had started alone and then more people joined him, with the whole Red Square coming together by the end, that would be 'we'. Instead, he starts alone and remains alone until the end. Only passersby turn their heads awkwardly. It's just disappointing to see the level of skills of the video makers who collaborated with the performer.”

The second version of the music video was filmed in Skolkovo. In this setting, Shaman appears amidst futuristic interiors and is surrounded by child prodigies. One of the participants is Fyodor Simonenko from the Bryansk region, who was awarded the “For Courage and Bravery” medal. All the attributes, such as the armband on the bicep, leather jacket, and hairstyle, are still present. The children with detached expressions, dressed uniformly, also evoke clear associations.

Blogger Gleb Klinov remarks that the video seemed to convey a message: if you possess the talent of Korolyov (the renowned Soviet rocket engineer) and the intelligence of Vavilov (the eminent botanist), you must be prepared to march in step with others and dress uniformly from childhood. While it's unlikely that Shaman intended this meaning, the video appeared to depict such an image.

The lingering doubts about the team's intentions behind the imagery were dispelled with the release of the music video titled Moy Boy (“My Battle”).

Orthodoxy, plagiarism, nationality

The experts interviewed by The Insider agree that the reason for Shaman's popularity, surprisingly, lies in the artist's uniqueness and intriguing sound, which is not present in other Z-musicians. As a performer with a higher musical education, having graduated from the Gnesin Music Academy, Shaman is well aware of and employs “hooks” that captivate the listener. He also doesn't shy away from borrowing elements from more renowned colleagues.

Shaman's songs incorporate various elements of “folklore” and romanticism, which represent certain aspects of national identity, ethnomusicologist Ekaterina Romanova told The Insider:

“For example, the vocalization in the song We bears a striking resemblance to traditional melodies played on the zhaleyka or horn. Both I Am Russian and We are built entirely on the Aeolian natural minor scale (with lowered 6th and 7th degrees), which is the most characteristic scale in Russian traditional folk music. In the songs Confession and My Russia, a descending sequence is used, a well-established and widely known 'hook' that easily captivates the listener and embeds itself in their memory.”
A still shot from We Russia
A still shot from We Russia

“There are no complaints about the quality of vocals. Shaman's voice is well-trained, with a good range and clear intonation. Everything that a vocalist should have in working order, he has,” Romanova says.

The artist has also been accused of plagiarism, particularly in Vstanem, which bears similarities to Oleg Gazmanov's Ofitseri (Officers). “The first thing that catches the ear is the same key of the songs and the guitar picking played in a similar manner. The choruses of Shaman and Gazmanov indeed start with exactly the same chord sequence,” says Ekaterina Romanova. “However, the harmony in the intro and verses of the two songs is different. In terms of musical value, Ofitseri clearly comes out as the winner in this comparison.”

The notion that Shaman might have copied his major hit I am Russian has sparked extensive discussions, with some calling it a plagiarism of Bon Jovi's iconic It's My Life. While these two songs are composed in different keys and have distinct melodies, Romanova points out that the chord progression in the chorus (considering the relationship between the scale degrees) is undeniably identical.

It is claimed that Shaman's major hit I am Russian is a plagiarism of Bon Jovi's iconic It's My Life
“Moreover, in terms of harmony, I am Russian is far more simplistic than It's My Life. In Shaman's song, the same sequence of chords is simply looped throughout, whereas in Bon Jovi's hit, there is a different structure between the verses and the chorus, the expert explains. The chorus in It's My Life is also more intriguing, with the 1st and 3rd lines being identical, while the 2nd and 4th lines omit one chord, adding musical diversity. Plus, in I am Russian, the chord progression remains unchanged throughout the entire song, with all the lines following the same harmony from start to finish.”
Shaman in a Russian field, the I am Russian video
Shaman in a Russian field, the I am Russian video

Although Shaman has collaborated with producers known for their loyalty to the Kremlin, it is difficult to categorize him as a purely “Kremlin project,” according to all the experts interviewed by The Insider. While it is likely that there is some level of influence or involvement, Shaman doesn't entirely fit the mold of a product manufactured by the Kremlin's PR machine. If he were a complete Kremlin creation, he wouldn't have achieved such popularity because the state is not adept at handling musical propaganda, suggests Denis Boyarinov.

“Everything else that people do in this genre adheres strictly to the clichés. But Shaman brings something fresh, which is what attracts people. Currently, he successfully combines the spirit of... If you were to blend Lyube and Ivanushki International from 20 years ago, you'd get something like Shaman,” Boyarinov says.

Will there be a “Z-star Factory”?

Clearly, the Russian authorities have an interest in Z-songs, as evidenced by their attempts to control such content from within the Presidential Administration. However, Denis Boyarinov believes that these efforts are likely to be doomed to failure, and even with the strongest desire, they cannot create a “Z-star factory” in the Kremlin.

One example of such experiments could be seen in the story of the band PosleZavtra (After Tomorrow), Boyarinov says. They initially started with lyrical rap back in 2002 but disappeared from the music scene. Suddenly, with the onset of the war, they resurfaced as Z-rap performers. Their social media pages and songs now serve as a massive propaganda platform, filled with clichéd slogans and devoid of any signs of original creativity, such as “For Putin!”, “For the President!”, “With God on our side!”, along with themes like “We're up against over 50 countries” and “The Pope is wrapped in an LGBT flag.”

“This relatively unknown group immediately made it into the prominent September 30th concert <in support of the annexation of the occupied regions of Ukraine to Russia—The Insider>. Although they do not enjoy clear audience support, rap, especially within youth culture, cannot tolerate insincerity, and among rappers, no one said anything in support, except for the rapper Rich. Even Husky, with his controversial stance (the rapper supported the special operation), has songs that are rather observational, like reporting. But with these guys seem to produce staff tailored by the presidential administration,” Boyarinov says.

Even if the government were to hire top producers like Matviyenko and Fadeev, who already work on government projects, establishing a conveyor belt production of new stars would still be impossible, according to the critic.

“The government may allocate a considerable budget for this, but it will most likely just dissolve into the pockets of those involved in the process, and there won't be any real product,” Boyarinov says. “The government can tighten censorship, block inconvenient artists from state-controlled media. However, in the era of the internet, this approach doesn't work as effectively. The show business in Russia remains primarily commercial, not entirely suppressed by the government.”
Even if the government were to hire top producers like Matviyenko and Fadeev, establishing a conveyor belt production of new stars would still be impossible

Shaman experienced pressure as well. After refusing Vladimir Kiselyov's offer to travel to Donbass in the summer of 2022, his songs disappeared from the airwaves of Russkoye Radio, and his participation in the RU.TV awards was revoked. In winter 2023, the musician eventually performed a series of concerts in the annexed territories of Ukraine, including Luhansk, Mariupol, and Henichesk. As a consequence, Latvia banned him from entering the country “indefinitely,” along with other musicians and journalists who openly supported Russia in the war.

“Shaman has somewhat become a hostage to his patriotic image. Many people admire him for his lyrical songs and romantic themes. I think he has become a bit too absorbed in this whole situation,” says music critic Oleg Karmunin. According to him, the performer has been trying to distance himself from expressing any political views on the war, both in his lyrics and interviews.

The fact that Shaman became the only new all-Russian level star on the Z-patriotic scene indicates the lack of a massive public demand for such music, Boyarinov suggests.

“Otherwise, we would encounter this Z-song phenomenon on a much larger scale,” the expert believes. “Currently, its limited presence and the lack of unity among these songs as part of a specific genre scene suggest that it is more of an isolated occurrence rather than forming a distinct musical movement.”

Denis Maidanov, the video Sarmatushki
Denis Maidanov, the video Sarmatushki

The patriotic songs of Denis Maydanov never gained national prominence – his performance against the backdrop of Sarmat missile images was labeled on social media as “cringeworthy.”

Among the well-known Z-musicians today, mostly old names remain, still producing the same “old songs about important matters,” like Chicherina, Oleg Gazmanov, and the band Lyube, which is considered Putin's favorite group. In the past year, they earned 14.5 million rubles ($161,000) from government contracts, which is four times more than the previous year. This indicates that the state is willing to pay for such music, unlike regular listeners.

Silence is golden

After the start of the war, most musicians in Russia simply remain silent about it, the music critic Oleg Karmunin says.

“There are those performing in Tbilisi, there are those performing at the Day of the City concert in Tver, and then there are all the other comfy guys who simply sing fun songs at summer festivals and remain silent about the war.”

In his opinion, only this has helped them preserve their career, money, and the opportunity to perform. The wave of Russian festivals shows that the longer the artist remains silent, the more invitations they receive to events.

The longer the artist remains silent, the more invitations they receive to events

“The most ideal way to maintain a career in Russia is to say nothing,” Karmunin remarks. “They are criticized for it, but it is impossible to do anything about it, like imposing sanctions, for example. It's not a matter of morality; it's a matter of preserving income for the artists.”

This scenario suggests that the Z-elevator, designed to propel artists to success, isn't effectively functioning. According to streaming service data, Russian listeners seem predominantly apolitical. The year-end results from music platforms in 2022 showed no presence of either anti-war or pro-war performers, with the celebration being dominated by the most apolitical artists like Anna Asti and Instasamka.

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