Special Report: Inside Belphegor and Incantation’s Censorship Struggles in Putin’s Russia

Paraphrasing Marx, Lenin once wrote: “Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze.” Strong words, but they came from a man who that same year rent apart the Church and the State, supplanted a king and left an indelible mark on his motherland, not to mention history itself. Now, a year shy of the Bolshevik Revolution’s centennial anniversary those old bedfellows—the Church and the State—are warming up to each other all over again in Putin’s Russia.

Shadows of the Ancient Empire
A law passed in 2013 declares that any, “public actions… with express purpose of insulting religious beliefs” are federal crimes in Russia. Another forbids, “the incitement of ethnic, racial or religious hatred.” Those who break that law can face up to five years in prison. That’s right—in a Russian prison. All this may come as a shock to many readers who’ve likely attended at least a few shows where the guitar amps were adorned with inverted crosses and vocalists tore apart bibles on stage, but such antics have potentially dire consequences in modern Russia. While something so severe as imprisonment has yet to happen to any extreme metal musicians, Behemoth were detained overnight for having the “wrong visas” in 2014. They are now officially banned in Russia. That same year, Cannibal Corpse suffered last-minute show cancellations on their tour through the Russian Federation; the venues cited “technical issues.”

Russia has certainly come a long way since 1977, when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were the first non-Soviet band to tour the USSR. But with these censorship laws and mounting threats of violence against metal bands from Orthodox Christian groups, it’s beginning to seem like the Iron Curtain still stands, at least for some.

Discipline through Punishment
On April 19, 2016, members of Belphegor (accompanied by Karl Sanders of Nile) found themselves accosted by a man drunk off his ass on that ol’ “spiritual booze.” Meet Anatoly Artyukh: As active chair of the Orthodox Christian nationalist group Narodny Sobor (a so-called “non-governmental union composed of more than 200 movements and organizations supporting the unity of the Russian nation and the protection of . . . traditional values: patriotism, family, culture, honour and faith”), Artyukh’s a regular Fred Phelps, except he’s a barrel-chested Russian with a mug like a fist and a taste for wearing all black like he’s some kind of Bratva hitman. And—as recent video evidence and some research shows—Artyukh’s way more confrontational than Phelps ever was; exploits include, but aren’t limited to, campaigning for laws against homosexuality and participating in “witch hunts” for gay school teachers. And, now, spitting in the face of Austrian musicians.

At Pulkovo Airport, while an underdressed Sanders looked on—seemingly nonplussed by the foreign exchange—Artyukh spat in the face of Hel “Helmuth” Lehner, the guitarist/vocalist of Belphegor. Video of the incident detonated across metal blogs the next day and, besides killing a buzz or two, comments section harpies everywhere got so bad Helmuth felt obligated enough to explain why he didn’t strike the man in an international airport in Russia, saying that Artyukh approached him with his “hand in his pocket,” as if “he had a weapon.” Thankfully, it wasn’t a weapon in his pocket, just a hard-on for conservative hooliganism. But Artyukh’s influence no doubt had a large part in the cancellation of that evening’s Belphegor and Nile show.

“I thought [Artyukh] was the driver waiting to bring us to the hotel,” Lehner tells Decibel. “When he spoke to me in Russian, I said, ‘English,’ and he spat on me. I gave him a light kick and spat back at his rotten face. He then ran to the police and told them that I had hit him hard. What a pathetic liar! They managed to get our show in St. Petersburg canceled, which really pissed me off. We always enjoyed playing in that city in the past.”

Bear in mind, also, that the guys in Belphegor didn’t just miss out on a killer time in St. Petersburg. Show cancellations mean the band doesn’t get paid, nor do they get the chance to sell any merch. And merch sales are the bread and butter of international touring musicians.

Deliverance of Horrific Prophecies
Meanwhile, already on tour in Europe and headed for a stint throughout Eastern Europe with dates in Russia, U.S. death metal stalwarts Incantation are hearing all about the confrontation.

“We heard the news and [saw] the footage of the airport incident about a week prior to the start of our five Eastern European shows,” Incantation drummer Kyle Severn explains. “We thought it was fucked up, of course, but then again, it was only two people trying cause problems, and [we] didn’t really see it as a big threat. We were not going to let some asshole activists stop us from playing death fucking metal for our fans in Russia.”

But see, that’s where the video footage can be deceiving. Because according to Lehner, “the zealots had been speaking with other people beforehand, who could have been associated with them. If so, they were probably waiting to see if I would get into a fight with the piece of shit who confronted me.”

Nor was it exactly smooth sailing for Belphegor and Nile after making it out of St. Petersburg. “The St. Petersburg concert was canceled just a few hours before Belphegor was scheduled to play,” Lehner says. “The next day we traveled to Moscow, arrived there hoping for the best. I have to say that Moscow has one of the most intense crowds worldwide, so we were prepared for a great ritual. Unfortunately, everything went downhill this time around. One hour prior to the show, the venue ordered us to remove the already hanging backdrop, told us that stage props such as sculptures and crosses were forbidden and I was not allowed to do vocals for the track ‘Lucifer Incestus.’ We also received a document written in Russian detailing things I was not permitted to do while performing.” Lehner also relates how just a half an hour before Belphegor performed, “people” confiscated the passports of members of Belphegor, for whatever reason, although they were later returned.

“A couple people stood on the balcony to watch and film our entire set,” says Lehner. “They threatened to end the show if they found anything offensive. During the second track, the sound engineer was forced to mute the vocals for the rest of the show because of our lyrical content. We were outraged by the entire experience. Later on, we were informed that we would be unable to play in Yekaterinburg [on April 21] and Krasnodar [on April 23].”

While Incantation’s shows went smoother than Belphegor’s, they too had their impediments and shady characters. But according to Severn, there were “lawyers from both sides” working it out so that “shows could go on without any serious threat.” 

One of the agreed upon stipulations was that Incantation, in Severn’s words, “were not allowed to say ‘Fuck Christ’ or ‘Hail Satan.’” The drummer laughs: “But what these activists didn’t realize is that we don’t chant [any of that] onstage anyway.” However, another agreement made between the lawyers would get in the way of Incantation’s performances. “We were not allowed to announce our song titles in full,” Severn explains. “We agreed to these terms so that the show could go on. So, in St. Pete, John would just announce the song as a partial title and we would then blast into the song. This was really weird and uncomfortable for us.” So, the following night in Moscow they took a good ol’ American, take-no-shit approach and played their set the way they would “anywhere else,” and, according to Severn, “there were no problems.”

Incantation's Russian-mandated altered song-titles/set list
Incantation’s Russian-mandated altered song-titles/set list

That is, besides the preemptive cancellation of their performance in Minsk, based on the fear that all the “drama” would affect ticket sales. Not to mention the abounding censorship in St. Petersburg. The tour can only be considered partially successful. While no direct threats were made against the inveterate death metallers, or any of their Russian fans that we know of, Severn relates how outside the Moscow venue there was “a small group of protestors” and “about 60 police.” The atmosphere within the venue was no more welcoming. “Inside the club,” Severn recalls, “was like out of a mobster movie with suit-and-tie security everywhere you looked.”

United in Repugnance
The solution seems simple enough. Don’t play Russia. Right? Or take the John McEntee approach. According to the founder/guitarist/vocalist of Incantation, the last time Incantation played Russia was in 2007 when they were part of The Flaming Arts Fest and it was “a great experience.” “Like the current tour, the Russian crowd was awesome,” McEntee says. “In St. Petersburg we did have a visit from the morality police or something to that extent. I didn’t know who they were until they left. Surprisingly they just seemed like some nice people wanting to say hello to the band before we played. I guess we passed the morality test—cool.”

While McEntee’s easygoing nature helped the band navigate potentially treacherous waters, put yourself in the high top sneakers of a Russian metalhead. For a bigger show featuring the likes of Nile and Belphegor or Incantation, the current best-case scenario entails being surrounded by security and police. Sure, Russians don’t have it as badly as metalheads do in Iran, where the government and police have carte blanche to enforce whatever laws they want, however they want; where performing and/or attending metal shows or even wearing a metal shirt can get you arrested, if not executed. But with guys like Anatoly Artyukh on the crusade, that doesn’t seem so far off.

One Russian metalhead friend, who, incidentally, wishes to remain anonymous, says that organizations like the Narodny Sobor are “just provokers” and that with this article we’re “doing PR work for the freaks.” But that’s a narrow-scoped assessment coming from a person who lives in one of the most brutal nations in the world (just ask opposition leader Alexei Navalny). Nor is this just about Satanic metal shows getting canned. This is about governments restricting their peoples’ freedom of expression, what we call in America an inalienable right. Maybe today it’s only the outsiders catching the boot heel to the teeth, but censorship is a slippery slope and beneath it is the ice cold bloody pool of totalitarian fascism.

“Throughout history, religions and governments have [censored] and continue to censor creative works all around the world,” Lehner concludes. “If more fanatics like the ones who confronted us get into power, we’ll start seeing books, paintings and music banned and burned again. Their movement is already dangerous. It is of the utmost importance that artists have freedom of expression.”

Incantation: From Russia, with DEATH FUCKING METAL!
Incantation: From Russia, with DEATH FUCKING METAL!