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'A Revolutionary Element': How One Small Record Label Bucks The Trend In Putin's Russia

Oksana Boda says she founded the 9January record label to support "vulnerable groups."
Oksana Boda says she founded the 9January record label to support "vulnerable groups."

With President Vladimir Putin pushing his vision of Russia as a bastion of “traditional” national values, ethnic and sexual minorities have found themselves increasingly marginalized in a country where anything or anyone who does not toe the Kremlin line is considered a threat.

But one small record label in Russia’s Republic of Udmurtia, some 1,200 kilometers east of Moscow, has been bucking this trend. The founder of 9January tells RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities what it’s like running an alternative music outlet that “supports vulnerable groups” in Putin’s Russia.

Born into an ethnic Tatar-Udmurt family in Izhevsk, the capital of Udmurtia, Oksana Boda remembers how her relatives celebrated traditional holidays when she was growing up. They also regularly sang songs and spoke to each other in Tatar, one of Russia's minority languages, which is also spoken in the Volga region.

But, growing up in Russia, where the status of ethnic minorities has been gradually eroded since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, the 32-year old businesswoman and LGBT activist admits that she was slow to embrace her heritage.

“I hated it as a child,” she says. “It was not cool.... I told everyone that I was ethnic Russian. I denied my roots for a very long time, and I only realized how cool it was as an adult, when I was in the process of becoming acquainted with Tatar culture.”

The turning point for Boda came when she attended a concert by musicians from the ethnically mixed North Caucasus city of Nalchik, who performed and sang traditional songs, which she says moved her to tears and inspired her to delve more deeply into her own native traditions.

At a time when she was carving out a career in business after studying advertising, she found her intensified interest in Tatar music and culture gave her an opportunity to also satisfy her creative impulses by backing local artists.

“I wanted to support creative businesses,” she says. “At first, I helped artists, organized exhibitions, and then I switched to music and took up festivals, concerts -- not for imported acts, but for local, young, small-scale performers. It turned out that this was very interesting, and gradually the idea of creating a label appeared.”

WATCH: Pushner, an indie-pop Udmurt band signed to 9January:

When it came to setting up the label with some colleagues, she took inspiration from the neighborhood in Izhevsk where she was raised. Although she says the rough-and-ready Bummash district didn’t have the best reputation, she remembers it as a vibrant place with lots of young people constantly playing guitars in the courtyards.

After she discovered that the street she grew up on had been named in memory of the Bloody Sunday massacre of protesting workers in St. Petersburg on January 9, 1905, she thought this “historical revolutionary element” would also make it an ideal name for the progressive record label she wanted to establish.

An Alternative Manifesto

Since it was launched in 2021, 9January has provided an outlet for many artists offering something different in Russia’s increasingly constricted cultural space.

WATCH: The Kalmyk-inspired music of HAGRIN:

Unusually for a record company, it has published an 11-point manifesto outlining its core beliefs and objectives, including supporting diverse musical forms while promoting local artists and the domestic music industry without any reactionary “hatred towards major metropolises or the West, but in cooperation with them.”

“Our main value is supporting vulnerable groups. These are women in music. These are indigenous peoples,” says Boda. “We have already released music in Tatar, Udmurt, and Kalmyk. And, of course, we support LGBQ+ people, who are especially vulnerable now.”

In keeping with its progressive ethos, 70 percent of the musicians whose work has been released on 9January are female, 20 percent are indigenous artists, 5 percent are queer and nonbinary, and the rest are exponents of other regional forms of music.

Acts who have appeared on the label include the indie-pop Udmurt outfit Pushner, the Kalmyk-language HAGRIN, the Izhevsk meta-pop combo Deneeva, and Post-Dukes, a folktronica group who perform in the Udmurt language.

WATCH: The folktronica group Post-Dukes:

Battling Sexism

In addition to supporting the culture of embattled minorities, Boda says her label’s support of female artists is also extremely important in an environment that is often rife with sexism.

She cites the example of one songstress who told her that she had been inundated with offers from “managers” who offered to promote her in exchange for sex. Boda says the singer decided to work with 9January precisely because she knew such a situation would not arise there.

“In addition to sexual harassment, women’s skills are often devalued in the music industry,” says Boda. “It’s said they only know how to sing and don’t understand anything else. But there are a lot of female professionals on our label -- producers, sound engineers who write music themselves, and so on.”

Getting Back To Her Roots

Boda’s work with 9January has also dovetailed nicely with her ongoing exploration of her Tatar and Udmurt heritage, which she had previously been dismissive of but which she now really values, even as indigenous cultures struggle to hold their own in an increasingly predominant Russian milieu.

“It’s sad to see [this culture] disappear,” she says. “My grandmother passed on recipes to me, told me Tatar fairy tales, and now I’ll forget it all, as if it didn’t exist? This is very painful.”

Given that she herself is half Tatar and half Udmurt and is now taking Tatar lessons with her girlfriend, Boda says 9January’s efforts to popularize the indigenous languages of Russia and keep them culturally relevant is something that is also close to her heart.

WATCH: Dying To Keep A Language Alive: Scholar's Suicide Shakes Udmurtia (from 2017):

Dying To Keep A Language Alive: Scholar's Suicide Shakes Udmurtia
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“The extinction of languages is a problem in many regions,” she says. “And music is very good at showing that language is alive -- that it can be used, and not just observed in some museums. That the native language is about ‘now’ and not about ‘before.’

“We had a case where the music of one of our artists inspired a listener -- a Russified Udmurt -- to learn her native language. And for me this is the best possible outcome.”

As a businesswoman, however, Boda is quick to point out that supporting the native heritage of her region also has commercial benefits.

“Even from an economic point of view, it is useful to preserve culture,” she says. “To popularize domestic tourism and travel to the republics to eat chak-chak or perepechi. But the main thing for me, of course, is the inner, emotional value of all this.”

A Difficult Environment

Being a small label, 9January is not a huge money-spinner by any means, but it has the freedom to only sign artists who share its core values, providing them with assistance in recording and mixing, promoting their work, and ensuring that their output appears on all major streaming platforms, including Apple Music, Spotify, VK Music, and Yandex.Music.

Some of the bands in the 9January stable, such as Where Is The Phantom, have garnered millions of plays on Spotify and the label has generated some modest profits, much of which it uses to support charitable causes, particularly NGOs fighting violence and discrimination against women, indigenous peoples, and LGBT people.

Although 9January had already been operating in a difficult environment after it was established three years ago, things have gotten even worse since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

With the Kremlin hardening its stance on civil society and LGBT activism, Boda herself has had to leave the country as she was in serious danger of being arrested if she remained. Moscow’s “gay propaganda” laws have also forced the label to reduce its activity and remove some of its artists from various platforms, so as not to put musicians remaining in Russia at risk.

Despite these setbacks, however, she is hopeful that the label can regroup and continue to be relevant.

“Our team is tired, and now we need to deal with burnout in order to support both colleagues and musicians,” she says, before adding that they fully intend to eventually “return to work with renewed vigor.”

Written by Coilin O’Connor based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities. The name of the journalist who wrote the original article has been withheld for safety reasons.

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