MOSCOW — For almost 20 years, he was Russia’s hottest, highest-earning and, to his critics, most cynical rock star. Celebrated by tens of millions for his foul-mouthed lyrics and gritty authenticity, he packed stadiums throughout the nation whereas raking in additional money from small personal concert events for Kremlin-friendly tycoons.
“Sure, I’m a cynic. It is a philosophical and medical faculty. It’s a analysis,” mentioned Sergei Shnurov, the longtime frontman for the ska-punk band Leningrad. “From my perspective, we undoubtedly wouldn’t have sufficient sober cynicism.”
However after what was billed as a farewell round of concerts final 12 months — all sold-out — Mr. Shnurov, 47, has shocked even his often unshockable public. He modified his wardrobe, dropping sleeveless undershirts and saggy shorts in favor of workplace put on; left St. Petersburg, his beloved hometown; and began work behind a tidy desk in Moscow because the newly appointed normal producer of RTVi, a relatively bland, family-friendly tv station that frowns upon on-air swearing. He’s even attempting to give up smoking.
Earlier than taking the job, he virtually by no means watched TV and had not owned a tv set for greater than a decade. State channels, he mentioned, are largely unwatchable festivals of propaganda, and something fascinating could be discovered on the web.
The station, established in 1997 by the since exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky and now privately owned by a Soviet émigré who lives in California, goals its programing at Russian audio system in the US, Israel and Europe. It has “no connection in any respect,” Mr. Shnurov mentioned, to RT, the infamous Kremlin-funded propaganda channel focused at international audiences.
He mentioned he wish to change the title to keep away from any affiliation in individuals’s minds with RT, which he mentioned was arrange later and “stole” the title. RT, he added, “is a propaganda channel, completely” and has given his station’s model a nasty title.
His transformation is an abrupt shift for a rocker whose songs embrace classics like “In Peter, You Drink,” a celebration of St. Petersburg’s style for booze and the intoxicants favored in different Russian cities, and have so many profanities that he has been taken to courtroom on obscenity costs. (He prevented conviction by arguing that the curses are a vital a part of his creative oeuvre and never geared toward offending anybody specifically.)
His breakthrough album, launched in 1999 — shortly earlier than Vladimir V. Putin, additionally from St. Petersburg, grew to become Russia’s president — was known as “Cursing With out Electrical energy.”
For his many critics in Russia’s liberal opposition who’ve lengthy considered the star as a grasping opportunist, his newest metamorphosis is simply one other step alongside what the outstanding actor and theater director Evgeny Grishkovets has described as a protracted journey from “rock ‘n’ roll pirate” to “cynical businessman who despises his personal public.”
Mr. Shnurov responded to the director’s damning judgment as he does to many issues: He wrote a sardonic poem and posted it on Instagram.
And no matter liberal Moscow intellectuals would possibly consider him, Mr. Shnurov, whom most Russians know merely as “Shnur,” could be assured that he retains a far greater following throughout the nation than all of them put collectively.
That is due largely to his pioneering work in what grew to become a massively well-liked style of Russian narrative music movies that mix slick manufacturing with catchy tunes and story strains that talk to the hopes and frustrations of so many Russians.
One hit, Exhibit, a few younger lady getting ready within the grungy house she shares along with her mom for a date with a rich suitor, has been considered greater than 164 million instances on YouTube.
An adolescent in St. Petersburg within the late 1980s because the Soviet Union was falling aside, he moved between two very totally different worlds: a rebellious music scene that worshiped Viktor Tsoi, a fellow St. Petersburg singer whose track “I Want Change” grew to become the anthem of a technology; and Mr. Shnurov’s mother and father, engineers who labored within the Soviet protection sector.
His mom had a job in a secret enterprise that made computer systems, his father in one which produced communications gear. His grandfather was a extremely adorned Soviet officer, and the household, although not rich, had an house within the heart of St. Petersburg, which was then often called Leningrad.
The Soviet Union’s collapse, Mr. Shnurov mentioned, got here as a shock to everybody, even these determined for change, changing “romantic illusions” with huge new vistas of alternative clouded by cynical calculation.
“In my life, even cash has modified 5 instances. Cash all the time appeared to be one thing that ought to final endlessly,” he mentioned. “Your personal id adjustments, and also you change into a distinct individual.”
His knack for shifting with the instances has left him with a popularity in opposition circles as a sellout who all the time goes with the move. That is significantly the case amongst supporters of Aleksei A. Navalny, the anticorruption campaigner who was treated in a Berlin hospital after what Germany says was a poisoning assault with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military as a chemical weapon.
Requested about Mr. Navalny in an interview shortly earlier than the assault, Mr. Shnurov derided the opposition chief because the “mirror picture” of Mr. Putin, dismissing him as a cultlike determine who brooks no dissent and calls for help as a “matter of religion” disconnected from any concrete coverage proposals.
After Mr. Navalny fell ill from the poison on a flight back to Moscow final month, nevertheless, Mr. Shnurov swiftly revised his views. In another poem posted on Instagram, he lamented that “dying is in every single place within the type of poison” and that the sinister habits of “Comrade Chekist” — a reference to former Ok.G.B. officers like Mr. Putin — “would make the Medicis jealous.”
Mr. Shnurov has by no means rated consistency as a advantage. “The entire world right this moment has change into a carnival — every part is theatrical,” he mentioned, noting that Russians who at some point watch state tv will the subsequent day watch movies denouncing the Kremlin on Mr. Navalny’s YouTube channel.
He’s obscure about why he moved into tv, past saying that he needed a change after greater than two exhausting many years as a hard-drinking rocker. The transfer additionally adopted an enormous rupture in his private life with the collapse in 2018 of his marriage and his swift remarriage to a brand new spouse, his fourth.
Artemy Troitsky, a former music critic and live performance promoter who was a good friend of Mr. Shnurov’s till they fell out after the rocker made disparaging feedback about protests led by Mr. Navalny in 2011 and 2012, mentioned he was mystified by Mr. Shnurov’s profession change. One doable purpose, he mentioned, is that Leningrad has been dropping steam in recent times, so “now he’s attempting some new tips.”
“Having identified him properly for a few years, each publicly and privately, I don’t belief this man,” Mr. Troitsky mentioned. “He’s extraordinarily proficient but in addition extraordinarily cynical, and regardless of singing songs loaded with F-words he has all the time identified learn how to become profitable and play it secure.”
To date, nevertheless, Mr. Shnurov has been rocking the boat in his new job.
Considered one of his first tasks has been to journey to Khabarovsk to make a documentary a few sudden burst of protests in the remote region of Russia’s Far East. There was widespread suspicion that he had been despatched there by the Kremlin, however he insists that was not the case, and this system he produced is unlikely to have discovered favor amongst Russian officers.
After this got here an investigation by RTVi into the reason for protests within the Bashkiria area. It featured environmental activists standing their floor and defeating rich enterprise pursuits, authorities officers and the safety forces.
State-controlled tv, in contrast, has blanketed the protests in Khabarovsk and Bashkiria in silence, which explains why a latest opinion survey discovered that 62 p.c of Russians weren’t even conscious there had been any protests. RTVi doesn’t have a license to broadcast inside Russia, however its exhibits can all be considered on the web.
One other of Mr. Shnurov’s tasks is to recruit extra edgy journalists to the channel. He mentioned he had been attempting to rent Ivan Golunov, who did groundbreaking reporting on felony infiltration of the funeral enterprise in cahoots with the safety officers and was subsequently arrested on fabricated drug charges.
His largest rent up to now, nevertheless, has been Nina Kandelaki, a outstanding TV presenter and entrepreneur who is healthier often called a glamorous fashion icon than as a hard-hitting journalist.
Mr. Shnurov mentioned he was delighted when Mr. Putin first took energy on the finish of 1999, largely as a result of his transfer to the Kremlin scored an enormous win for St. Petersburg in its lengthy wrestle with Moscow over which metropolis is extra necessary, but in addition as a result of the chief “provided a brand new likelihood” for Russia after a decade of false begins beneath President Boris N. Yeltsin. However he has grown disenchanted. In the present day, he mentioned, Mr. Putin “represents only a fog.”
‘‘The system should change,” Mr. Shnurov mentioned. “The system should all the time change. If one thing doesn’t change, then will probably be modified.”
Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.