Boris Grebenshikov, the anti-Putin, anti-war 'poet laureate of Russian speakers' exiled from Russia comes to Armagh, Belfast and Dublin: 'The Chieftains opened Irish beauty for me'

Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov, exiled from his homeland as a 'foreign agent' because of his pro-Ukraine, anti-Putin stance, comes to Armagh, Belfast and Dublin this weekend. Robert McMillen talks to him about his love of Irish music, which started with The Chieftains in the 70s...

Boris Grebenshikov has been described as 'the poet laureate of the Russian-speaking peoples'. He comes to Armagh, Belfast and Dublin this weekend
Boris Grebenshikov has been described as 'the poet laureate of the Russian-speaking peoples'. He comes to Armagh, Belfast and Dublin this weekend Boris Grebenshikov has been described as 'the poet laureate of the Russian-speaking peoples'. He comes to Armagh, Belfast and Dublin this weekend

Boris Grebenshikov has to be one of the most intriguing artists I've ever interviewed.

I was unaware of this giant of Russian rock music until Flook flautist Brian Finnegan mentioned him to me.

Brian plays with BG+, Grebenshikov's new band who are doing two gigs this weekend, one in Belfast and one in Armagh.

First, as usual, the backstory: Boris was born in St Petersburg and celebrated his 70th birthday, not at home in Russia but in London where he has lived since 2020.

He is no friend of the Russian authorities who have listed him as a 'foreign agent' yet Grebenshikov still loves his native country.

I mention that the Irish have a very strong sense of identity which we express in our traditional music, in our songs, in our relationship with the land and some of us express it in the indigenous language of Ireland. But what does Boris feel about his homeland? What does being Russian mean to him?

"There's a whole gamut of possible answers, but for me being Russian is to be a citizen of the whole world," he replies.

"Being born Russian, you can't help it. Dostoevsky once famously said: 'The Russian longs for worldwide happiness and he won't settle for anything less. To be a real Russian is to be a brother to all nations, a universal man.'"

The full quote continues: "This is so because our destiny is universality, won not by the sword, but by the strength of brotherhood and our fraternal aspiration to reunite mankind." Boris shares Dostoevsky's view on non-violence.

"It's definitely the opposite of what the world sees at the moment, but this is what I always felt in my soul. For me The Beatles, Pushkin, Yeats, Claude Monet, Shakespeare, Shishkin, Aznavour, The Chieftains and Bhagavad Gita belong in the same garden – and this is my soul and my homeland," he says.

"And yes – Russia possesses an amazing beauty that it can offer to the world; only now it's concealed by the bloody terror and shame of these wars."

Boris and a few friends started a rock band way back in 1972, when Leonid Brezhnev was Russian president.

Although it was a time of optimism on the world stage – Nixon visited Moscow that year for talks on curtailing nuclear proliferation – life for ordinary Russians was stifling, so Boris and his friends set up a rock group.

While it would be easy to think that the band got together to take on the establishment, that wasn't the case.

"We did not have any aim then," says Boris.

"There was no other way to live but to live creating our own music. We never for a second thought of entertaining people: we needed to be one with the magic.

"Music was our way out of drabness of Soviet confinement. Political and social matters didn't even register with us; we needed to be free as much as we needed to breathe."

Over the 51 years since Aquarium were set up, the music has evolved and the line-up has gone through many changes but the magic still happens – even a moment in the studio or on stage, according to Grebenshikov – but all good things come to an and and Aquarium has hit the end of the road.

"At 70 one's need to live communally and share everything with your brethren is not that strong as it was at 20," says Boris.

"The band used to be my family; with the passing of time, everyone changed and grew apart in his own way so now it's all about music – but I still miss the commune.

"With the ones who are in all parts of the world, we play together; the ones who stayed in Russia I try helping as much as I can."

Of course, our conversation moves to the current war between Russia and Ukraine.

Grebenshikov does a lot of work for the people of Ukraine – which of course earned him the title of 'foreign agent', amongst other things. Where did his strong support for Ukraine come about?

"It's the choice between being a decent human and an animal," he says.

"One respects the laws everybody agreed on – the other is moved by instincts and relies only on brute force. History lessons should not be disregarded."

Indeed, Boris is about to release Heal The Sky, a compilation album featuring tracks from friends and luminaries including Dave Stewart from Eurythmics, Jackson Browne, Transglobal Underground, Lisa Gerrard, Christy Moore, The Waterboys, Crowded House and many more. All proceeds will go to The Ukrainian Children's Hospital in Kiev.

Grebenshikov is also a man on a spiritual journey with interests in Sufism, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism: "All religions/movements teach one thing – try to make life even a little bit better for those who you can reach."

While reading up on the world's religions, Grebenshikov also listened to a lot of different types of music, including Irish, and found a way to have Armagh Pipers Club alumnus Brian Finnegan as part of the newly-styled GB+ band.

"The Chieftains opened Irish beauty for me back in the 70s," he says Boris.

"Since then I try to be aware of all the new music coming from Ireland and that's how I discovered Flook. So I was listening to them for a year or two – and then I was offered a chance to get together a dream band for the London Royal Albert Hall concert dedicated to my friend and teacher Sri Chinmoy. Brian's name came up and I went, 'Yes...'

"And on the first ever rehearsal we had, Brian started playing on one of my old songs and suddenly the magic that laid dormant in the tune came alive.

"Now we've been playing together for 15 years. I wanted to make him feel Russia: and longed to make Russia feel the real magic of his gift so they would hear what real magic is. He adds pure unadulterated beauty."

In what promises to be three great nights, GB+ are playing at Aonach Mhacha in Armagh on Saturday December 2 and in the Empire Music Hall in Belfast on Sunday December 3. Tickets are £40, or £20 for Ukrainians. Boris also plays in Opium in Dublin on Monday December 4.