Wed, 04 Oct 2023

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- The first word in Russian rapper-in-exile Morgenshtern's latest hit music video is unsurprisingly a curse word.

After that, things get very weird indeed.

Shot in Uzbekistan, his music video Black Russian is the latest collaboration between Russian musicians and Central Asian creatives at a time when growing censorship and the war in Ukraine is stifling Moscow's music business.

To be sure, cultural exchanges with Russian stars of any kind have become something of a hot potato in Central Asia's largest cities amid passionate divides over the war.

But with more than 6 million hits in its first few days online, Morgenshtern's latest viral video might prove a good advert for regional talent as well as some of the sights less seen in tourism-hungry Uzbekistan.

Video grabs -- Alisher Morgernshtern and Sharip Serik in the Russian hip-hop star's _Black Russian_ clip.

Born Alisher Valeyev in Ufa, the capital of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan, Morgenshtern is one of Russia's most famous artists.

But he is very much unwelcome there.

In late 2021, Morgenshtern fled Moscow just as it seemed he was on the verge of being charged for criticizing the Kremlin's extravagant approach to commemorating victory in World War II.

And he slammed the door shut the following year after releasing an anti-war song following Moscow's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In May 2022 he was designated a 'foreign agent' for political activity.

Yet even he must be wondering how he came to be making a video that involves a massive, bloody brawl breaking out inside the iconic, Soviet-built Physics of the Sun Institute that is now run by Uzbekistan's Academy of Sciences.

Morgernshtern and Serik in the Russian hip-hop star's Black Russian video, shot at the Physics of the Sun Institute outside Tashkent.

Morgenshtern is not the only Russian musician who has found himself in less familiar surroundings in the last year or so.

Danya Milokhin, 21, also features in Black Russian, blasting at Morgenshtern with a bazooka before the clip ends with the rapper recuperating in the mountains outside Tashkent, swearing at a fish on his plate who is begging him not to eat him.

Milokhin left Russia after the invasion began with other members of a TikTok house show that had a wide viewership in Russia.

He settled in Kazakhstan's biggest city, Almaty, and while there released Vypusknoi (Leavers Party), a music video set in a Kazakh school.

Last week, Milokhin posted social media photos indicating he had recently returned to Moscow.

All-Star Cast

That would be a bigger risk for the much-tattooed Morgenshtern.

While the previously politically ambivalent pop star had apologized for his comments about World War II commemorations, it proved too late.

Kazakh youth dance in Danya Milokhin's clip, filmed in a school in Almaty.

Powerful Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin said his office was already looking into the case, and hinted that the star might additionally be under investigation for promoting drug use on social media -- a threat that later became a formal charge.

After settling in the United Arab Emirates, Morgenshtern appeared to fire back at Bastrykin in a video called Home.

'Bitch it isn't true, the only thing I sell on social networks is my [f***ing] self,' he sang in the clip.

That song, which has racked up 26 million views on YouTube, involved a car-dancing cameo from Abdurozik, a social media celebrity from Tajikistan.

Black Russian, the clip shot in Uzbekistan, features two Kazakh stars -- the well-known actor Sharip Serik and Zhenis Omarov, aka Zheka Fatbelly, a comedian who made his name on Instagram and is now the face of a chain of doner kebab houses and ice cream parlors.

At one point in the clip, Serik, dressed in a police uniform, breaks up Morgenshtern's revelry, issuing a foul-mouthed tirade against the singer before headbutting him and sparking a massive fight.

Noticing fellow Kazakh Omarov on his way in, Serik comments: 'Oh fatty, you're here too!'

With their millions of followers on social media, Omarov and Serik's participation will not come cheap.

Sharip Serik and Zhenis Omarov in the Russian hip-hop star's Black Russian video

And the lengthy credits for Black Russian suggest that it is probably one of Morgenshtern's most expensively assembled to date.

The Tashkent-based studio Abstract Visuals helped produce the video, which was also a promotion for a mobile telephone game called Black Russia, described in one review as 'a cool gangster game in which races, adventure games, role-playing quests, and gang wars are harmoniously intertwined.'

The real stars of the clip though, are the locations.

'I Don't Care About Him Or His Activities'

The Physics of the Sun Institute is a solar research facility wrapped in more than 10,000 small mirrors that the Atlas Obscura website describes as 'like something straight out of a science fiction novel.'

'Built during the Soviet era, this complex construction of mirrors and steel continues to serve the purpose of exploring the use of solar rays.... Wandering through the massive array of mirrors is a once-in-a-lifetime experience as this [solar] furnace is one of only two ever built,' Atlas Obscura writes.

Tajik social-media celebrity Abdurozik and Morgenshtern in the music video Home

Black Russian ignores the exterior of the building but shows viewers inside the institute, which is pretty impressive, too.

Almost as iconic, at least for fans of Soviet postconstructivism, are the ruins of the 1930s Chirchikstroi Hotel, which authorities in Tashkent Province declared unrestorable in 2021.

Disappointing heritage activists, the provincial government said the property where the ruins are located will host 'a modern boxing school and educate professional boxers, whose fame will spread throughout the world.'

Morgenshtern brought his fight there first.

Russian singers both for and against the war in Ukraine have seen their shows canceled in Central Asian countries of late and Morgenshtern is not an exception.

His presence at a concert in Russian ally Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, this summer was deemed inappropriate 'because there is a criminal case opened in Russia against Morgenshtern,' Kyrgyz Culture Minister Altynbek Maksutov said at the time.

During the same period, 60-year-old crooner Grigory Leps had a concert in the Kazakh resort town of Qonaev canceled after an uproar over the performer's shows of support for the war.

In contrast, Morgenshtern's viral video has so far elicited little discussion at all in Uzbekistan, according to popular blogger Nikita Makarenko, with an article about it on the private news website generating 'no interest.'

'There was no reaction at all. No bloggers wrote anything. I am [also] kind of neutral. I don't care about him or his activities,' Makarenko said.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

More Beijing News

Access More

Sign up for Beijing News

a daily newsletter full of things to discuss over drinks.and the great thing is that it's on the house!