For weeks he lied in bed at a London hospital, almost motionless and frail, with severe and constant pain, as a rare and terrible illness gnawed at his body. Every day he became paler and weaker, fighting with all his depleting strength, but unable to cope with an incurable disease. He was once a well-known figure in Russia and even beyond. In the last few years he was occasionally mentioned in the news, but more recently, just as he became suddenly ill, he fell into obscurity. Even before the deadly disease hit him, he faced severe financial problems and an uncertain future. Over the past few years he lost important supporters and sponsors. And then the disease took hold of him. After a few weeks of relentless pain he died, without ever leaving his bed. Far away from his hospital, in Russia (as well as in Russian-speaking communities around the world), his death was the biggest and most tragic news story of that day.
No, I am not talking about the "former spy" (as the western media erroneously keeps calling him) Alexander Litvinenko, whose hospitalization with radioactive poisoning, and subsequent death, in November 2006 sparked a firestorm of controversy all over the world, a new surge of Russia-bashing and vastly diverging conspiracy theories.
I am talking about someone much more important than that. Ilya Kormiltsev, who died in London on February 4, after a rapid and terminal bout with a spine cancer, which was diagnosed just a few weeks before his death.
I know I should care more about the late Litvinenko - if only because it's the humane thing to do. His death was brutal, awfully premature and unnecessary. But frankly, I don't care much, though I can wholly sympathize with Litvinenko's surviving relatives. He was a poor sod caught up in some really dirty intrigues well over his head; a little sprat who thought it would be cool to swim among sharks and try to behave like one of them.
Kormiltsev was a completely different type of man. His name is almost unknown among English-speaking readers. But for many Russians of the generation that is currently in the 30-45 years old range, Ilya Kormiltsev was one of the key symbols who defined the perestroika era, and their youth. He was the poet who wrote most of the lyrics for the legendary "Nautilus Pompilius" rock band. There hasn't been anything like it ever since.
Thanks in a large part to Kormiltsev and "Nautilus," the grim and cold industrial city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) during 80's became the capital of the new Russian rock scene, with Leningrad the second city, and Moscow a distant third. Yekaterinburg's scene was a kind of Russian version of Motown, and for about a decade it produced a dazzling variety of bands, most of which used Ilya Kormiltsev's lyrics for their best songs. There was something about Sverdlovsk at that time - in addition to having the best of the Russian rock, it produced two top politicians: an opposition leader and then president, Boris Yeltsin, as well as Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Prime-Minister during the Gorbachev era, as well as other politicians, writers and public figures.
In addition to "Nautilus" (actually before it) came "Urfin Juice," "Chaif" and "Nastya" Poleva. All of them were "alternative" in a hard, uncompromising sense. The most known (and much less political) of them was Nastya Poleva, a performer of sophisticated art-rock. Some compared her to Kate Bush (I like her much more than the witchy Bush).
"Nautilus Pompilius" was mainly a product of two people - Kormiltsev and Slava Butusov, lead singer and guitarist, who wrote most of the music scores. Butusov in fact could hardly sing for shit. If he were to appear on "American Idol" he would be booed off the stage. At times it was almost painful to listen to his voice without a heavy studio remix. But the songs (both music and especially lyrics) and Butusov's stage presence -- forceful, austere, and sphinx-like -- produced a huge, instant and lasting impression.
The "Nautilus" was born in early 80's in smoke-filled dorm of the Ural Institute of Architecture, where Butusov was a student. Most of the songs were incredibly daring for that time, mixing scathing social satire with dark musings, unthinkable just a few years before. But the local Party authorities (headed by Yeltsin at that time) were unusually permissive, and "Nautilus" never suffered any serious censorship. As late as the end of the 1986 such liberalism towards ballsy rock was hardly known outside of Sverdlovsk and narrow circles of Moscow rock clubs. Then, in 1987 Nautilius' popularity exploded, as the perestroika-era awakening, and the urge to smash ideological dogmas appeared perfectly in synch with the "Nautilus" message. At the end of 1987 the most explicitly political, anti-soviet song, "Chained Together," was shown on the main Soviet TV channel. Two rock-bands with forceful political message began to dominate the music scene then -- "Kino" of Viktor Tsoi and "Nautilus." Tsoi died tragically in 1991 in a car accident, and still commands a kind of Kurt Cobain-like cult following among his fans. But most of the "real intellectuals" considered Nautilus, and especially Kormiltsev's lyrics, to be far superior to those of the "Kino" and the rest of the pack.
The most famous (chart-wise at least) of Kormiltsev's compositions was actually a love song. But there wasn't anything happy and sugary about it. The song, "I Want To Be With You," was a descent into the abyss of a crazy, hallucinatory and suicidal teenage love affair, set against the urban jungle and the social breakdown of the late-Soviet era. No other poet I know ever managed to describe this, the torture and desperation of youthful hormonal hell, woven into chaotic social surroundings. Not at least since Vladimir Mayakovsky's pre-revolutionary poems, such as "The Cloud in Pants" and "The Flute of My Spine." We - my generation - came out of "the room with a white ceiling, with a right to hope" (the refrain from that song) the same way as the first generation of the 19th century Russian intelligentsia and revolutionaries was said to come out of the Gogol's "Overcoat."
In a 1988 in a poll by Komsomol'skaya Pravda, 87% respondents voted "I Want To Be With You" as the best song of the year on a scale not seen before or since. The next year the best-voted song could not have been more different from Nautilius'. It was a silly sweet crooning by a boy-band "Laskovy Mai" (the Tender May). It was one of the first signs that society was beginning to tire of perestroika's struggles and intellectual turmoil, and was beginning to accept the crude, shallow, manufactured entertainment that has dominated ever since.
Kormiltsev didn't do well financially, despite huge success of the songs he wrote in the 80's and into the 90's. The USSR at that time wasn't exactly a place where copyright and intellectual property rights were scrupulously guarded, and where the authorship of music or lyrics could bring one fair royalties, not unless he remained a popular performer himself. Kormiltsev continued to write songs for "Nautilus," which broke up and reformed several times up through the end of 90's. Some of those songs -- "Titanic," "The Sweet Vampire," "Wings" and others -- were just as great as those from its heyday in the mid-80's. He wrote and translated poetry as well as prose, though none of it became as well known as his lyrics for "Nautilus" (and "Nastya").
Earlier this decade he started a publishing house "Ultra.Kultura" which achieved cult status for publishing the most radical, shocking, out-of-mainstream books, from opposition writers Limonov or Prokhanov to the writings of Islamic extremists, skinheads and antiglobalists, as well as ideological tracts for the "orange" youth movements, and translations of the "Marijuana: the Secret Cure" and such. As Russia's social mores began to tighten during the Putin's era, "Ultra.Kultura" was attacked for "propaganda of pornography and drug use." Some of its books were confiscated by authorities. The publishing house also struggled financially. It was recently taken over by a much bigger publishing house, and is more likely to pursue a more cautious, commercial editorial line in the future.
Most of the famous "alternative" rock musicians from the 80's era, such as Andrei Makarevich of "Mashina Vremeni" or Boris Grebenschikov of "Aquarium," have since mellowed out, and now appear regularly on insipid daily talk shows, ranging from cooking programs to fashion and travel, as well as milking a rapidly growing market for 80's nostalgia.
Not Kormiltsev. As his face and body acquired middle-age paunch and soft wrinkles, he became an increasingly radical, cranky, sardonic misanthrope. He alienated many people, including those who worshipped his songs, with snide remarks and personal attacks - to such an extent that some otherwise reasonable fans of ex-"Nautilus" even gloated about his illness and death in the Russian blogosphere.
Kormiltsev himself maintained an account on LiveJournal. Last summer he ranted against his former mate Butusov for performing old "Nautilus" songs at the summer camp of the pro-Putin youth movement "Nashi" :http://karmakom.livejournal.com/32923.html.