As a Russian-American, I’ve always been very conscious of myself: What exactly does it mean to be Russian? Composer, musician, electronic artist and touring member of Dirty Projectors, Olga Bell moved from Moscow to Alaska when she was seven years old, and her new work, Krai, is a massive conceptual exploration of her native homeland. In a recent interview Bell said Krai was “40 minutes of me reckoning with my Russianness.” That intrigued me.
My Russianness is maybe more complicated than Bell’s. My family comes from a nomadic tribe of farmers who traveled all around Russia and Eastern Europe in search of fertile land and freedom. After wandering for many years, they finally settled in southern Ukraine, outside of Odessa. I’ve often wrestled with my identity, because although my family came from Ukraine and lived there for hundreds of years, they distantly originated somewhere in Germany. They were strangers in their own land — in Ukraine, they were called “Nemets” (the Russian word for “Germans”) and given different rights from other Russian people. Germans considered them Russian, had nothing in common with them, even spoke a different language. My family’s identity was constantly confused and rejected. They were Russian through and through, for that was the only motherland they knew. But they were often treated as outsiders. After Stalin came to power, the Russian government threatened to rip them from their land and exile them to Siberia. They fled to the U.S. — a country that would happily take them for whatever they were.
My family always felt at an arm’s length from Russia, only because Russia never fully accepted them as their own. But when I visit Russia, it feels profoundly innate, like home — the smell of borscht and golubtsy, ever-flowing black bread and dill – for me, my Russianness was in the food and culture. Growing up, my family was proud to be American, because it was the only land that fully embraced them regardless of their nomadic ethnicity. But there was always a shadow of the old country in our traditions.
I’m not sure about Bell’s relationship with the motherland; maybe it’s more cut-and-dried. But experiencing Krai was like having reassurance in my identity. Russia is such a vast, diverse landmass, with different populations of migrant people borne out of isolation and searching, just like my family. Bell explores this diversity in nine songs, each devoted to a disparate region, or krai, of Russia, and sung entirely in Russian. She starts the journey in Krasnodar, on the far western tip of the country. The music starts out with a synthy, eastern, Morricone twang. It feels mysterious and a little lonely, like tumbleweeds across an open plain. All sound comes to a halt and Bell marks her first words: “Одна в степи дороженька …” (“One path lies in the steppe…”) Following a Cossack as he travels across the steppe, Bell’s voice slowly layers and builds in harmonies, like a lone wanderer finding company along the way. We then move to the Altai Mountains, in south central Russia. A high drone and throat singing weave throughout feral yips and a bouncy jaw harp. The music has an incredibly visual effect; it paints landscapes of an inhospitable eastern forest, with stacks of Bell’s voice wailing like wolves in the night. She sings with yearning, “Так земли моей дыханье отзывается во мне.” (“So the breath of the land is echoed in me.”) The majesty and immensity of the mountains is the religion of those whom it surrounds.
Next is “Perm Krai,” starting off with a busy drumbeat and pads of synth. It’s the first real upbeat moment on the record, the picked-up pace resonating with the excitement and migration of the Cossack people of Perm. Bell sings a story about Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich, who suggests a new move after summer’s end — he brainstorms all the possible routes: The Volga River? The Yaik River? To Kazan City? The opportunity of change causes a flurry in Bell’s arrangement, with a choir of vocals building in fervor. “Stavropol Krai,” the fourth song, is interpreted through a short traditional fable of three archangels meeting a sinful soul who does not want to go to heaven and instead seduced by the material world of gold and silver, and the Czar’s friendship. An IDM-flecked beat underscores the cold, stuck trap of the earthly world.
Onward to Siberia — in “Krasnoyarsk Krai,” the music meanders without anchor, like a traveler lost in the frozen taiga, the boundless forests of Siberia. She begins and ends the song with “Стылая тайга, сотни верст пути ” (“Icy taiga, endless miles to go…”) The circular lyrical theme creates a sense of bewilderment and impending defeat. Jumping all the way to the farthest stretches of the eastern coast, “Primorsky Krai” resonates with a Far Eastern influence in both texture and harmony: Big toms pound with anxious strings and synth, creating a charged momentum. As the final destination of the Trans-Siberian railroad, one could imagine the excitement of a train roaring to its last stop, opening the door to new adventures after much anticipation. “Zabaikalsky Krai” is based on “Душа Моя Прегрешная” (“My Sinful Soul”), an old Orthodox hymn. As Zabaikalsky was the ancient home of an exiled Russian Orthodox sect, this movement takes on a pious, sacred mood, with tribal drums, organ, and glockenspiel.
Arguably the most striking song on the record, “Khabarovsk Krai,” starts with cut-up, almost martial drums. It feels both frenetic and euphoric as waves of Bell’s echoed voices wash in and out as her voice repeats with great intensity: “Ты Россия , мать Россия, мать Российская земля” (“You, Russia, mother Russia, Russian motherland.”) This seems like Bell’s strongest declaration to her native land. She grapples with the very port in Khabaraovsk that took her to America when she was seven years old, singing, “Down the river go boats/carrying Russian people to the sea” — looking back at Mother Russia, and ahead at a new and unfamiliar world. Finally, we end the journey in Kamchatka, a volatile, riotous ending as it bangs with rolling toms, eventually crashing into themselves in a fury of broken electronics and vocal grunts. Bell’s many voices twist around each other in a pitched choir, building with insistent toms and spurts of synth to a wild climax, falling apart all at once with the final words “Матушка Русь!” (“Mother Russia!”)
Once the record ends, you suddenly feel jolted by reality, like coming out of a good book or an afternoon nap. Bell’s musicality is brave and sharp. Her use of unconventional time signatures and Eastern modes is refreshing and evocative in emphasizing her strong narrative. Russia is an ambitious beast to tackle, and the mere idea of chipping away at such a vast subject seems like an overwhelming task. But here, Bell is able to use her classical training and unique sonic palette in a way that truly allows her to flex her muscles as a composer. As I listened through Krai, it felt deeply personal. Not just for Bell, who used this work as a method to understand herself better, but in listening and experiencing her Russia, it gave me insight into understanding my Russia. My family were often shy in talking about their past, because I think they struggled with their identity as much as I do. Krai channels many cultures that feel worlds apart, yet all exist within the same borders. It made me realize my Russianness isn’t much different from the one Bell sings about. Fundamentally, I think we all share the same wandering, enigmatic and unbreakable Русская душа (Russian soul).