Rammsteinus Politicus

An upcoming concert of German musicians has become almost a political issue for Belarusians.

Rammstein, widely known for their “not for all” music and performance, have, for the first time, included the Belarusian capital Minsk on its European 2009-10 tour list.

This March, heavy metal basses and fireworks of the new program “Liebe ist für alles da” are to challenge Belarus’ brand new Minsk-Arena, which is said to be one of the largest music and sport venues in Europe. Though the tickets for the March 7 show were quite expensive by Belarusian standards – from about 30 to over 100 USD – they were snapped up within a few days. Local fans cannot wait to see the performers on Belarusian soil for the first time. Everything seemed to be arranged and agreed upon, including Rammstein’s famous fireworks show, which often attracts increased attention from local fire-fighting services.

However, less than a month before the show the mood in Belarus has changed, and Rammstein’s appearance on the Minsk stage with their original program is under question. It all started with a joke. Somebody known as “mojo_fm” posted to his Live Journal [social networking site] a fake address of Belarusian veterans demanding that the Rammstein concert should be banned on ethical grounds, which raised a flood of public discussions among bloggers. In fact, the veterans did make a real address to the presidential administration with the same demand some time later, but that went unnoticed. The rumors say that similar addresses have been made by the representatives of the Orthodox Church and religious NGOs, a number of psychologists’ and teachers’ associations, some of which are considering an opportunity to address the General Prosecutor’s office to make a legal assessment of Rammstein’s show program according to the Belarusian legislation.

Then action was taken by the Belarusian Public Council on Morals – a non-state body representing some of the best-known and most reputable Belarusian public figures, including the heads of the Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities in the country. At a sitting held on Friday, February 19, they concluded that Rammstein’s show includes actions that contravene moral and ethical standards. “The decision to organize Rammstein’s concert in Minsk is a mistake that could turn out to be extremely costly for us. According to the Council members’ opinion, the band’s music is blatant propaganda for homosexuality, masochism and other perversions, cruelty and violence”, the document said. Besides this, the musicians were accused of sympathy for Nazism. The members of the Council were indignant at the fact of staging such a controversial show in the year of the 65th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and during the Orthodox and Catholic Lent.

Obviously understanding that it is too late to call off the concert, the head of the Public Council on Morals, Nikolay Cherginets, proposed to hold a preview of the show that Rammstein are scheduled to perform in Minsk. “I understand that the tickets for the Minsk concert are sold out. That is why we should make a preview of the show, and negotiate with it so that there will not be propaganda of immorality and violence on the Minsk stage”, he said.

Rammstein indeed are the owners of a very controversial reputation. The musicians’ lyrics are full of coarse language and much of it is devoted to the topics of homosexuality and other non-traditional sexual experiences. The band’s music is widely popular among extremist groups. For instance, police found that the Columbine School massacre in 1999 was partly inspired by Rammstein songs. The band’s live shows are even more dubious. It is not uncommon for Rammstein members Till Lindemann and Christian “Flake” Lorenz to imitate sexual intercourse right on stage, with Lindemann ejaculating from a dildo right on the fans, who are screaming with delight. In fact it is for those activities (“obscene conduct”) that Rammstein were arrested for one day after their concert in the USA in 1999, and since 2001 they have not toured in that country.

As for the current show – “Liebe ist für alles da” – in many ways it goes far beyond what the band has done so far. One of the songs from the album – “Ich Tu Dir Weh” – was banned in some European countries, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The new disk itself was also banned from public distribution and can be bought by adults only. A video for the song “Pussy” was recognized as pornographic and banned from demonstration not only on TV, but also on YouTube.

Art and politics

The actions of the Public Council, which are difficult to ignore, have put the Belarusian authorities in the limelight. The main question is whether the state will react to concerns of considerable part of Belarusian society. In this situation, Belarusian opposition groups have taken the role of the main critics of a possible interference with the show. In fact, Belarusian opposition made Rammstein another symbol of its fight against the “regime” and for “European values”. Belarusian political analyst Yury Shevtsov says, with reference to opposition media, that “Belarusian opposition has in fact spoken in support of all the elements of Rammstein’s activities and show. They fancy themselves to be elite ‘Europeans’, as opposed to the regressive and Moscow-oriented authorities. So, they cannot demand that Rammstein’s show be called off anyway.”

Thus, opposition groups propose an alternative to the authorities: either they censor Rammstein’s show and will be accused of breaching freedom of expression, or they do nothing and thus “listen to the progressive parts of society” (accumulated by opposition, of course).

However, the alternative proposed by opposition groups is a fake one. If the authorities do nothing in this situation, they would be ignoring the opinion of a large part of Belarusian society, which stands on traditional values. On the other hand, some restrictions do not contradict European values, so praised by opposition groups in Belarus. It is known that the recent shows in Dortmund, Germany were, in fact, censored by the federal authorities. They made each member of the band sign a written guarantee that they would not play any song from the new album that had been censured in Germany, otherwise the band would have been issued a 10,000 euro fine. In addition, fans under 18 had to be accompanied by a parent or guardian, so everybody needed their passports to buy tickets and to attend the concert.

In this situation, the “progressive” line taken by the opposition may in fact be “regressive”. Proving that Rammstein has right to express themselves is one thing. Proving that their music and performance complies with moral and ethical values is another. Will opposition activists, in an attempt to be more European, come to the concert with their families, including parents or children (in fact, Belarusian children may come to the concert – tickets were sold there without age limit)? You must be sure that, in your perception of European values, it is appropriate to do that.

Progressive in power

At the same time, the fight of the opposition against the “regime” looks strange with the news that the organizer of the Rammstein show in Minsk is the Republican Palace of the Presidential Administration. That puts the state and the opposition in the one camp, and parts of Belarusian society that are concerned with the ethical side of the show in another. We may only guess why the Presidential Administration did not bother to check what kind of show Rammstein is bringing to Minsk (maybe, Lukashenko or his sons like their music?). But it is clear why Belarusian authorities did not pay attention to the issue until they got a sign from the civil society representatives – unlike other concert managers, the Republican Palace does not have to get a “tour license” from the local authorities (this time from the Culture Directorate of the Minsk executive committee). Yury Shevtsov points out that “what we can see in Belarus is the problem of the Western culture phenomenon coming to the country, where the ‘checks and balances system’ to act against extremes is not yet fully formed.”

However, it is hard to believe that somebody inside the Belarusian Presidential Administration decided to invite Rammstein precisely to undermine the moral standards of Belarusian society. As usual, the main factor is that of cost-effectiveness. Minsk Arena was one of the greatest construction works in Belarus over recent years, and the first concert of foreign performers there must be something extraordinarily sensational and profitable. Besides, it is easier and usually cheaper to attract foreign celebrities to your country while they are touring. All this pointed to Rammstein, which had scheduled its tour across Europe for these months, and at the same time is popular enough in Belarus to pack Minsk Arena to the rafters, in spite of high ticket prices.

Some say that Rammstein’s love of scandalous behavior is nothing more than postmodernist sarcasm; others treat the band’s work as an example of a new world outlook. In Belarus, it may become a test for Belarusian authorities. They are used to noticing the opposition as it manages to earn some place in the public life of the country. Will they listen to the voice of the other part of Belarusian society which constitutes the basis of their legitimacy?

Darya Sologub for RT