How’s your Russian pop culture checklist doing these days? Let’s take a look…
You’ve watched some movies in Russian? Check.
Exploded from the cuteness of popular Russian cartoons? Check (and still picking up the pieces).
Found a couple favorite new TV shows? Check.
Now, maybe you’ve gotten a taste of a few popular Russian songs and you’re hungry for more? Great!
There’s a whole world of contemporary Russian music to discover, and today we’re looking at eight of the most important singers learners should know. It’s pop culture cramming time!
Why Do You Need to Know Russian Singers?
When Russians gossip about pop stars, you won’t be left in the dark.
Pop culture references are the bane of every language learner. One minute you’re nodding, smiling, picking up about 95% of what someone’s saying, and then—wham! A name is dropped, and you’re lost. Of course, that’s always going to happen, even in your native language—but you can still be better prepared by getting to know major Russian pop culture icons.
Russians love to get out the guitar and sing—you can join in!
At the beach, around the campfire or at a barbecue—at some point, someone’s probably going to bring out a guitar and play while others sing. Don’t feel left out! If you’re familiar with Russian musicians, you’ll be able to recognize the songs, request your favorites and maybe even sing along.
More importantly, Russians are really impressed when you know their music. It shows you’ve taken an interest in their culture and have done your homework.
Listening to music in Russian helps you learn faster.
Russian is a work-intensive language to learn, and it’s no joke. Grammar alone is a seemingly never-ending Everest to climb, not to mention the endless nuances of which word to use and when. If you’re learning through traditional means, you can get discouraged—fast.
Listening to Russian music can help you avoid discouragement in two ways: (1) it’s fun, so it feels less like studying, and (2) it reminds you that Russian is a living language, not an undecipherable code in a textbook. When you’re having fun and actually engaging with a living language, you relax and learn better, faster.
How to Use Popular Music to Improve Your Russian
Listen on repeat, and try to understand a little more each time.
Choose a song you like and listen on repeat until you could recognize it anywhere. Don’t worry about studying the lyrics yet—but do challenge yourself to pick up at least one or two more phrases each time you listen. Doing this will help you learn to recognize a word the moment you hear it, which is very useful for conversation.
Just getting started in Russian? No sweat—listening on repeat will get you used to hearing the language in an authentic context, and it will acquaint you with the sounds, rhythms and tones used by native speakers.
Dig deeper into the lyrics.
After you’re pretty familiar with the song already, check out the lyrics online. Are there any new words? Mystifying phrases? Unconventional uses of grammar? Take note of these things and look them up in a Russian-English dictionary (or, if you’re at a higher level, a Russian-Russian dictionary). For some things, like slang and cultural references, you might have to consult with a teacher, tutor or native speaker.
Use FluentU for your musical learning adventures.
FluentU provides an engaging and accommodating language learning experience in a special way.
Studying lyrics is super easy with FluentU’s interactive captions, which allow you to hover over or tap on any words or phrases you’re curious about for definitions, images and additional information—you can ditch the dictionary altogether!
A FluentU account even gives you access to customized quizzes that are ideal for song-based self-study and testing your ability to produce the language you learn through music.
Now you should be armed with a whole arsenal of new words, structures and expressions—right? So what do you do with them? Practice, of course!
If the words don’t come up in conversation, one way to get practice is simply to sing the song. (Even if you only dare do it in the shower!) You can sing along with the recording, or—if you play an instrument—it’s even better to memorize the song and then learn to accompany yourself. This way, the song really becomes part of you. (And it’s a great skill to show off to your friends.)
8 Famous Russian Singers All Language Learners Need to Know
1. Влади́мир Высо́цкий (Vladimir Vysotsky)
Vysotsky isn’t just a famous singer—he’s a legend. As one of my friends put it, “Он классика, поэт!“ (He’s a classic, a poet!)
In his musical career, which spanned the 60s and 70s, he wrote over 700 songs and poems, many of them critical of the Communist system and the hardships of life in the Soviet Union. He also sang in a unique, rough style—often drawing out consonants, rather than vowels—and used street language, making him a decidedly “anti-establishment” singer.
To this day, he’s a cultural icon. Russians who play the guitar often learn his songs as a matter of course. Singers continue to emulate him, and you can find collections of his work in the poetry section of Russian bookstores.
Obviously, you’ll have a lot of Vystosky songs to choose from, but you can start with a pair that represent two sides of Vysotsky’s work: the serious and the humorous. A more serious classic is “Песня о друге” (Song About a Friend), about true—and false—friendship. On the lighter side, you might enjoy “Утренняя гимнастика” (Morning Exercise), a funny song narrating an exercise routine.
2. А́лла Пугачёва (Alla Pugacheva)
Another iconic name in Russian music is Alla Pugacheva, who also got her start in the 1960s. Since then she’s sold record numbers of albums and has won several awards.
Like Vysotsky, Alla Pugacheva is an absolute must-know. Her private life is a frequent subject of gossip and jokes in Russia, so even if you don’t know her music, you can’t not know her name.
Still, don’t miss her music! You can hear Alla’s alluring mezzo-soprano on the soundtrack of the film “Ирония судьбы, или С лёгким паром!” (The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!), which is a staple at New Year’s. I personally recommend the song “Мне Нравится” (I Like…), a gorgeous романс (musical romance) based on a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva.
Another song you might check out is “Миллион алых роз” (Million Roses). This is a навязчивая мелодия (earworm, catchy song) if I ever heard one. Cultural tip: The lyrics reference the story of Georgian artist Niko Pirosmani, who fell hopelessly in love with a French actress and filled the square in front of her hotel with roses.
3. Филипп Киркоров (Philipp Kirkorov)
Philipp Kirkorov is well known for his 11-year marriage to Alla Pugacheva, which makes him the subject of gossip and jokes. Still, over and above the fame in connection to his ex-wife, Kirkorov is a pop star and public figure in his own right, complete with a “bad boy” persona and frequent controversies.
Basically, he’s a face you’ll come to recognize on Russian tabloid covers.
If you’re not sure where to start with Philipp Kirkorov, try “Снег” (Snow), a romantic and emotional song from 2011. Then there’s the quirky “Индиго” (Indigo) from 2015, which comes with a truly bizarre music video.
4. Виктор Цой (Viktor Tsoi)
In case you thought Russian music was all about pop, I must introduce you to rock icon Viktor Tsoi. He was the lead singer and songwriter of the revolutionary post-punk band Кино (Kino, or Cinema), which rose to popularity in the 1980s.
Tragically, Viktor Tsoi died in a car accident at the age of 28—but his music and persona continue to influence Russian rock. Walls of graffiti are devoted to remembering Tsoi, and he lives on in the slogan “Цой жив!” (“Tsoi lives!”). His music is still popular for new generations of musicians, and you might hear it played in the streets of a Russian city.
To get started, check out his hits “Кукушка” (The Cuckoo)—my personal obsession—and “Хочу перемен” (I Want Change).
5. Земфира (Zemfira)
One super-cool contemporary artist influenced by Viktor Tsoi’s legacy is Russian female rocker Zemfira. She’s a bit of a rarity in a musical scene dominated by female pop singers, but that just makes her all the more interesting—and the more worthy of your notice.
Besides Tsoi and his band Kino, Zemfira was also influenced by Nautilus Pompilius, Aquarium and Radiohead. She was active in music from childhood, but her musical career really took off in the late 1990s, especially after the song “СПИД” (AIDS) in 1999. As you might imagine from the title, this was a controversial song—and therefore worth knowing about. The chorus is dark, but easy to learn and remember:
А у тебя СПИД, и значит, мы умрём. (But you have AIDS, and that means we’re going to die.)
A more recent song from Zemfira is “Хочешь?” (Do You Want To?) which is catchy, popular and fairly simple in terms of vocabulary, especially for intermediate learners.
6. Дима Била́н (Dima Bilan)
Dima Bilan is known globally for his performances in Eurovision—winning second place for Russia in 2006 with “Never Let You Go,” then finally winning with “Believe” in 2008. He sings in Russian, English and even Spanish.
Actually, he’s known as the “Russian Iglesias,” because, well… check out his videos and you’ll see why!
Besides singing, Dima appeared on the big screen as the male lead in the 2016 film “Герой” (The Heritage of Love), a historical romance set during the Russian Revolution. He’s also a coach/judge on “The Voice Kids” in Russia.
It’s worth checking out his Eurovision songs—for example, “Believe”—to get to know his style, although those songs are in English. To hear him singing in Russian, try his light romantic hit “На берегу неба” (Between the Sky and Heaven) or the more recent “В твоей голове” (In Your Head).
7. Ню́ша (Nyusha)
If Dima Bilan is the “Russian Iglesias”… then Nyusha, in my opinion, is the Russian Britney Spears.
In many ways Nyusha is a typical female pop star, relying on sex appeal, catchy tunes and music videos packed with scintillating dance moves. That said, her songs are catchy… and very popular. Nyusha has eight number-one singles under her belt, which is the highest number in Russia.
Like most pop singers, her songs tend to have simple, repetitive choruses that are great for learners. For example, one of her more recent hits, “Где ты, там я” (Where You Are, There Am I) has a very simple chorus that even beginners could sing along to:
Пускай всегда, где ты, там я (Let me always be where you are)
Твоя любовь — моя весна (Your love is my spring)
Another song to check out is “Выбирать чудо” (Choosing a Miracle), one of her biggest hits so far—and one of her most popular YouTube videos.
8. Сергей Лазарев (Sergey Lazarev)
Another Eurovision veteran, Sergey Lazarev represented Russia in the 2016 competition in Stockholm with the song “You Are the Only One.” Long before Eurovision, however, Lazarev had been successful as a member of the group Smash!! and also enjoyed a thriving solo career.
A lot of his songs are in English, but he has plenty of Russian hits, including the super-catchy “Это всё она” (She’s All That)—don’t miss the music video!—and “7 цифр” (7 Wonders).
Just for fun, you might also want to check out his appearance on the TV show “Призрак оперы” (“Phantom of the Opera”—a musical competition), singing the Russian romance “Дорогой длинною” (Those Were the Days).
So there are eight Russian singers for you to add to your pop culture checklist—and that’s only a start. There are plenty more names in a variety of genres, both classic and modern.
Keep experimenting and discovering. Music is an excellent doorway into an unfamiliar culture, and the more you know, the more doors you’ll open!
Randi Anderson is a writer, teacher and traveler hooked on language learning. She has studied several languages, most recently Russian—which she learned while living and working in Siberia. You can follow her writing and other adventures on her website, RandiAnderson.com.
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