The Music of “Losers” and Unexpected Victories

The Memory of Peter Mamonov († 7/15/2021)

How great it is to be real. To say what you mean. To speak the truth. To be on the move. And to suddenly turn towards Christ. On the ninth day after Peter Mamonov’s death, when he stood before the Lord, the musician Alexander Yarchevsky remembered the newly-reposed.

​Peter Mamonov ​Peter Mamonov     

For him, eccentricity was a tool, a demarcation line of the freedom he advocated

Alexander, tell us please, how do you remember Peter Mamonov?

—I met Peter sometime in 1985. There was a Rock Laboratory organized at some Komsomol cell in 1985. It was the equivalent of the Rock Club in St. Petersburg. There were already dozens of groups then, and they had nowhere to play. So the Komsomols decided to have rock parties at their places… They had a competition, and then the best bands played at a final concert. The show was closed out by a band called Zvuki Mu…

It was a shock! For absolutely everyone! It was something completely extreme and unprecedented. Sophisticated people, who knew the St. Petersburg scene, weren’t just shocked: There were such “Persians”, bold and free, in Moscow too—they were saying something like this. For all its anti-musicality—and it was, in fact, not a musical group—the sound and effect were so highly professional, so honed that people didn’t even understand what was going on. But the thing is that during their performances, something HAPPENED. Others could be refined as they liked, with their technique of execution, and so on, but nothing happens. Just vibrations in the air, and that’s it. But Petya’s antics always caught everybody’s eye.

Zvuki Mu and producer Brian Eno. Mamonov is in the center Zvuki Mu and producer Brian Eno. Mamonov is in the center     

Zvuki Mu was such a punk act, when through the negation and exit from total unification a man seeks first a man, then himself, and then—the Truth. It’s just that many people, having initially embarked on this destructive path, don’t reach the end: Sometimes they drink, take drugs, or, conversely, having stuffed themselves on all this protest, they end up disposed towards some stupid “normal” adult conformism. And Petya managed to straighten this extremely curvy path: He screwed up, and he repented. He had such strength and spirit, and just vitality, despite his puny appearance. And he was able to share this trajectory with others. He was an incredibly pliable and artistic person. And no matter what persona he put on, he somehow amazingly always remained himself.

The Komsomols who gathered us then all tried to tame us somehow, make us good soviets, make us conform. They arranged some kind of gatherings that we had to attend. There was some Elena Opryatnaya running all this then—I don’t know where she is now, whether she’s alive. I remember she suddenly decided to get acquainted with everyone. The meeting, agenda… Some slogans, shouts, appeals: “Come on, let’s all be friends!”—such propositions were put forward. Petya got up and said: “What’s with you, really? You believe this garbage? No one’s going to become friends. We’re all egotists.”

That is, he was always direct, pulling no punches. He went against the grain, not worrying about anyone’s opinion, fearing nothing. His eccentricity was rather a tool, a demarcation line of the freedom he advocated, the ability to always tell the truth.

It’s bitter for a Russian to sober up in America

In America In America     

The second time I ran into him was five or six years later. I was playing in a different group then. Fate brought us to the States on a big tour. We toured for about a year. We played during the arrival of Gorbachev, already the ex-President by then, to Washington, where some kind of summit was held at that time.

And so, in the summer of 1990, I was walking down the street in Ann Arbor, a college town in Michigan, when suddenly I stumbled upon a billboard with guess whose picture? Petya’s! As was usual for him then—in some convoluted prose, with his band next to him. At the bottom it said: “Zvuki Mu,” with an explanation: the Russian Talking Heads. They really were similar in some ways: Although, how could our continents, so different then, give birth to such protest twins? Their singer David Byrne is very similar to Petya. Although Petya, of course, always was and remains unique. But there’s still some kind of commonality between them.

Of course, our band went to the Zvuki Mu concert. That’s where we finally got to meet everyone. I remember Petya was quite withdrawn; he was in a terrible mood. He was giving up alcohol cold turkey. Their producer Brian Eno told him he had to be sober on stage. Petya listened, but these were completely different concerts—you can’t pull the stunts Petya used to pull when you’re sober. He probably had to look for some other means, some ways of existence, of contact with the audience… And he was in this process of rebirth.

What he wouldn’t do on stage What he wouldn’t do on stage     

I realized that something serious was happening to all of them. The guys were all kind of… not themselves. Perhaps there had been some disagreements among them—the group was already on the verge of collapse. Perhaps money played a role—someone always wants to get more. Their drummer stayed in America then. And Petya always defended Russianness—he didn’t even sing anything in English there. Categorically. The country’s falling apart—and so what? “I like the music of ‘losers’ the most now,” he said spitefully.

The method of punks and fools for Christ

And then, I remember, suddenly there was a period when Petya completely disappeared somewhere. It was a shame that such a bright group disappeared. Even on stage, he created various images of people who are insanely unlikeable to us in life, although there were always such people, especially in the late Soviet-perestroika-post-Soviet atmosphere. Although I don’t know that this was all entirely eradicated—it’s just that people are now adapting to new circumstances under different masks. Petya tore off all these masks. He absolutely mercilessly pulled up all this scum, screaming and convulsing from the light, for all to see, flung right into the floodlights. He got used to it. He represented those who cause disgust: profligates, drunks, smart alecks, vulgar people… Some clapped—for some it was his artistry, for others—who knows… Petya called all this fire and contempt, and these insane raptures upon himself. It’s the kind of method the punks have always used…

And the fools for Christ.

—He played precisely on the negative strings of perception—he condensed everything to a monstrously loathsome outrage at times, but thereby scooped all this filth out from souls. All the same, all this is inside us—it’s just that we tolerate these snakes within ourselves. And he was already throwing himself into these abysses. And we would have to deal with all this hell of ours; he also shouted this filth at himself from other people’s souls. It was an abuse that not every “soldier of Christ” comes to—they’re simply afraid.

Confession in front of everyone

Alexander Yarchevsky Alexander Yarchevsky Archimandrite Lazar (Abashidze) wrote about this: “Christianity is fearful.” But it’s precisely then that it’s Christianity, when there is a courageous, forceful struggle, strengthened by the help of God, to overcome these hellish depths of ours. One of the saints has the expression that every man must wage war against his own satan. Otherwise, you simply don’t get beyond the Pearly Gates.

—Peter was trying to convey something like this. It’s one thing to squeeze something out of yourself about your sins while under the priest’s stole, in a barely audible whisper, and it’s another to confess in front of all and one for all. He took all of this filth on himself, condensed it as much as possible, so no disguise was possible any longer, and simply vomited it all up for everyone. And there was more repentance in this than in, “I have go to Confession,” when people just say time and again: “Well, I guess I have to say something…”

And keep in mind, Petya, having already embarked then on this harsh path, fought one-on-one with this whole dark hydra of the lowly and empty.

The effect of the “present absence,” as they say about it, or “Russian folk hallucination?”

—Yes, but many people still didn’t understand him then: Why is he doing this? The entire Fronde of officialdom always kept their eye on Zvuki Mu as unreliable and undesirable. Considered them forbidden. Their concerts were closed one way or another. And there were no clubs then. They sang at Sasha Lipnitsky’s place—also a founder of Zvuki Mu (he drowned this year, saving his dog on the Moscow River)—they played at his dacha on Nikolina Hill.

And there were no interviews then! So you can’t explain why you’re doing all this. No, he smashed all cliches, and sometimes just took the heat; but sometimes he just...

He moved straight ahead, always in motion

—“He gave His cheeks to be slapped and did not turn His face away from spitting” (cf. Is. 50:6), as the prophet of Christ once foretold.

—All his life Petya walked along narrow paths, unknown to many of us. He sought them out. He read the Holy Fathers, delved into everything, and investigated: He wanted to get to the very heart of everything, as the poet says. He was distrustful of other people’s experience, in a good way. He tried everything; experienced everything.

So all of this was bequeathed to us! Vladyka Alexei (Frolov) always says in his homilies: Christ lived life on earth for us—what is set out in the Gospel is not just an historical testimony—it’s about the life of every one of us. Otherwise: Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name?... (Mt. 7:22), and in response: I never knew you (Mt. 7:23). St. Symeon the New Theologian says that at the Dread Judgment, everyone will be tormented not for how much he fasted, prayed, what he did or didn’t do, but solely for whether you’re like Christ—like a son to a father.

—Petya was always and everywhere direct, frank, eccentric. In the underground, and later, in the Church. But, no matter how anyone interpreted it, he himself always pursued some internal goals of his own. To others, something from outside might seem objectionable, but, in fact, he simply moved ahead, saving time by taking a detour. He was always in motion.

Then, I remember, Zvuki Mu broke up. Petya himself seemed to disappear into thin air. Everyone already began to forget about him. Although, before that, he’d already appeared in the film “Needle” (1988), where, again, he played a nasty subject—a drug dealer. He played this terrible character wonderfully.

It just occurred to me that working on all these scumbags probably teaches Christian honesty best of all. Every time we commune, we confess: “sinners, of whom I am first.” And if you don’t consider yourself the last of creatures, then you’re lying!

—And he truly didn’t shy away from these disgusting roles—perhaps he already had this intuition and longed for this new dynamic of repentance.

Something I liked recently: Igumen Peter (Mazhetov) in the Urals, rehabilitating, simply resurrecting young people—former alcoholics, drug addicts—shot a clip with some guys called “Swift Style,” with the explanation: “The eagle takes off. The crane, in order to rise up into the sky, scatters. And the swift must drop low in order to fly. In the same way, many of us must come to know the depths of our falls for the sake of the spiritual life.”

—He was always such an extreme investigator, interested in all kinds of abysses. But he knew how to get out of them, while many others don’t make it back. He was simply open to any experience, completely fearless.

What hasn’t been said about him throughout his life… It seemed to many in the musical crowd that, for example, when he would appear on screen, this guy just needed to make some money—that movies pay better than music.

A turn—not 180, but 360°

But he didn’t become a big star, right? He wasn’t in a constant flow of movies? He just treated his movie roles as a side job.

—Yes, and that’s why there was a lull again. Then he suddenly appeared again in “Taxi Blues” (1990)—the directorial debut of his childhood friend Pavel Lungin (their mothers were friends). And later there was an even greater furor over his work “The Island” (2006). And then again their film “Tsar” (2009).

A scene from “The Island” A scene from “The Island”     

It also became known that Petya was already connected with the theater. This was a different tone of revelation: The theater stage is not the rock stage, and not a film set. He started slowly revealing himself as a man seeking God, becoming religious. As always, he was unlike anyone else—to others it seemed like some kind of mockery. It was too strange to imagine how someone could so sharply, if judged from the outside, so suddenly make such a u-turn.

A turn—not even 180, but 360°, when you’re internally reborn, and externally free on the whole radius and spectrum of expression!

—I was already married by that time. My wife and I were already active in the Church and had a ton of kids. I felt like I’d already grasped everything—I was super-duper Orthodox. And then suddenly there’s Petya! Oh, what he did to us, like always! It all seemed like a farce to me at first. But then I started paying more attention to what he was saying, how he conveyed it… I was shocked, because I still thought it could be a trick: “But this is a truly searching person!”

A scene from Tsar A scene from Tsar     

Perpendicular to ideology

Yes, and that’s what you can’t find, try as you might.

—He started to remind me of Fr. Dmitry Smirnov.

They were friends. Yes, you can feel the influence. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were mutual. Both were lively, sensitive, flexible in combat, able to learn from others: They had some turnarounds, examples, and techniques in common.

—The secular public attacked Fr. Dmitry for saying some accusatory things. Although often his, yes, back-handed phrases were simply torn out of their pastorally and yet wisely constructed context, where he tried to offer support, so the person on whom all this fell wouldn’t immediately break down, finally understanding what was what. Fr. Dmitry opened the eyes of many to the truth. But not everyone was ready for this… And those who didn’t chicken out, he was ready to care for in a fatherly way, to tinker with them, to help them get on their feet regarding their Christian life, to determine which path is salvific for them. Petya simply didn’t need such a helping hand. He himself was a master. Although he obeyed, and humbled himself.

And he still acted the fool for Christ…

—They didn’t pounce on him this way. Fr. Dmitry had his sacred dignity—like a red flag for bulls; but about Peter, there was simply chatter behind his back: “What on earth is he saying?…” “This dude’s just confused,” “It’d be better for him to sing some songs! He’s so good at it!” and so on.

But he knew how to mystify. Three years ago, for example, he suddenly put on the play “The Adventures of Dunno.” He learned the text of an entire children’s book! And he did all the roles himself so fantastically, just reading the text to music, that it was another hitherto unknown Mamonov.

The book is also allegorical. Petya was always non-ideological, as if deliberately perpendicular to ideology. So he put all of this into his stage decision. The part called, “Dunno in the Sunny City”, is a variation on the theme of a “bright future,” which is what our generation was completely fooled by. And Petya was not slow to repay! A phrase can always be pronounced in different ways. He simply turned every line inside out, as if to say, “Here, look at everything that’s inside…”

I don’t think he was an ardent anti-communist, but all this falsehood drew him out. He understood perfectly well what the communists had done to the Church…

To all of Russia.

—Yes, and it’s clear that Petya never sympathized with these villains in power. So the performance was as if based on children’s material, but it definitely wasn’t just child’s play. He never calculated, worrying about what they would think of him, or what would come next. He didn’t have an ounce of worry about whether something bad would come of it!

Peter Mamonov Peter Mamonov     

On a first-name basis with St. Isaac the Syrian

His last performance was, “How I Read St. Isaac the Syrian.”

He’s basically the most difficult Christian author!

—He often quoted him in his interviews, quite organically, easily. It was obvious that he was imbued with this experience. Petya was in a dialogue with this Holy Father, on a first-name basis with St. Isaac the Syrian. But he was still able to talk with everyone—with any trash with holes in his veins, getting drunk… Or, conversely, he could reprimand some Church pharisee.

Petya was a man of dialogue. He knew how to listen when there was something to listen to. If necessary, he could also strike with a word to bring someone to their senses. He was a man of direct action.

He even tried to turn some unpleasant questions addressed to him around so that dialogue could still take place and get to the point. And this is a universal principle. Otherwise, if you haven’t learned how to communicate with people or yourself honestly your whole life, how can you stand in prayer with God? Just mumbling something? Who needs that? Is it pleasing to God to listen to this gibberish? Just wanting to read the texts so the service can be over sooner… Such deafness and dumbness—and in the Gospel the Lord delivers from such people as from possession (cf. Mk. 9:25)—also strained Petya in other “believers,” as did the thoughtless denial of God, the Church, in rabid partiers.

That’s why the audience was indignant at his performances, meetings, concerts—including both Church people, who’d say, “What is this he’s doing?” and it’s ardent opponents: “He’s read too much of that Syrian…” You have to somehow rise above the vomit, to hear and perceive something there. Clean your ears. Come to your senses. Stand up straight. You don’t mosh to the words of St. Isaac the Syrian. It’s understandable—some people were displeased.

On the way to his funeral, I got acquainted with some guys—they themselves are already fifty, rock musicians. “Where are we going?” they asked, glancing around. “Donskoy Monastery.” “We’ve never been there.” I said, “They have the relics of Patriarch Tikhon there.” They looked at me with perplexed, deliberately concocted faces: “Relics? What is that? Who…?” And these are adults.

Petya went through it all. But still, everything has its time. Sometimes he could act in an affected manner, like a drunk with his beloved bottle of vodka, or something else (Alexander hums a flighty tune). But after that, he went up a stunningly steep hill.

A man who thinks, prays, and fights with his passions every second

That’s the “present absence” effect!

—That’s right—boozing people still “respect” him out of inertia: “Our dear father!” And then: “Ah, Petya…”—they say, looking all around—“And where is Petya?!” He’s been sober for a quarter of a century already, and they’re still drinking.

And he’s already in the Kingdom of Heaven! On the ninth day the soul contemplates Paradise and ascends to the Lord. But have people tried to understand him the way he was before he died?

—Who knows, people are all different. He himself said, in a hall with several thousand people, that if one or two people are pierced through—with something about God or the Church—then glory to God! Most people just need these “foolish games”—a way to entertain themselves. Maybe someone will listen to something from one of his interviews now.

He had numerous conversations in the last few years when you could openly talk about the most important thing, explain something. And he would go to people from whom others shy away . Like his interview with Ksenia Sobchak. Everyone knows the methods of secular journalism, how interviewers provoke their interviewee to get the reaction they want; they manipulate. Petya never gave in to these provocations.

What always captivated me about him: Petya was a man who thinks, prays, and fights with his passions every second. It’s monstrously difficult to restrain yourself with those who don’t understand you at all and don’t even intend to make such an effort, but are clearly mocking, directly bragging, imposing the role of a half-wit on you.

It’s the simple pride of everyday life—you have to expose someone so he’d be worse “than my beloved me, ”… But Petya was somehow immune to such attacks, harassment?

—Yes, he had humility, a burning spirit of love for everyone, the desire to constantly become better simply incinerated all these attempts to mock him right before our eyes. Petya was a very powerful Russian man. A. great man. And now they’re carrying him off…

(And we heard: Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal… and then, at the same time, applause).

Olga Orlova
spoke with Alexander Yarchevsky
Translation by Jesse Dominick


dan8/13/2021 12:02 am
Memory Eternal Petr Mamonov! Please pray for us sinners! May the story of your life help us all in our wanderings through this valley of tears.
Platon Karataev8/10/2021 12:32 am
This is the best article I have read on anything, in some time.
Fr William Bauer8/7/2021 5:59 pm
This is the strangest article I have read for some time, excepting, of course the articles that indicate Biden won the election. I wondered how there were no saxophones in the band.
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