The Russian shanson can be heard on radio and television shows, at mass events like political rallies, and even at the Kremlin. Anastasia Gordienko provides the first full history of the shanson, from its tenuous ties to early modern criminals’ and robbers’ folk songs, through its immediate generic predecessors in the Soviet Union, to its current incarnation as the soundtrack for daily life in Russia. It is difficult to firmly define the shanson or its family of song genres, but they all have some connection, whether explicit or implicit, to the criminal underworld or to groups or activities otherwise considered subversive. Traditionally produced by and popular among criminals and other marginalized groups, and often marked by characters and themes valorizing illegal activities, the songs have undergone censorship since the early nineteenth century. Technically legal only since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the shanson is today not only broadly popular but also legitimized by Vladimir Putin’s open endorsement of the genre.
With careful research and incisive analysis, Gordienko deftly details the shanson’s history, development, and social meanings. Attempts by imperial rulers, and later by Soviet leaders, to repress the songs and the lifestyles they romanticized not only did little to discourage their popularity but occasionally helped the genre flourish. Gordienko also investigates the shanson as it exists in popular culture today: not divorced from its criminal undertones (or overtones) but celebrated for them. She argues that the shanson expresses fundamental themes of Russian culture, allowing for the articulation of anxieties, hopes, and dissatisfactions that are discouraged or explicitly forbidden otherwise.