Yana Stanislavovna Dyagileva’s extraordinary career lasted only four years, from 1987 to 1991, but it was long enough to establish ‘Yanka’ as an underground rock icon in the waning days of the Soviet Union. She was born in the industrial Siberian city of Novosibirsk on September 4, 1966 and grew up in a one-story wooden house without indoor plumbing. This much is known about Yanka’s youth: she preferred boots to high heels, took piano lessons before switching to guitar, she kept to herself and filled notebooks with poetry. After high school, Yanka enrolled in a local engineering institute, in part to stay close to her mother who was dying of cancer. The technical coursework did not hold her interest. She quit the institute in her second year and began immersing herself in the local punk scene. In 1985, at a house show in Novosibirsk, she met legendary punk-folk singer Sasha Bashlachev, and this friendship both changed her life and drew her deeper into the Russian rock underground. But it was Yanka’s complicated relationship with another man, Igor Letov, lead singer for the seminal Siberian punk band Civil Defense, that led to her musical career.
They met at the first Novosibirsk Rock Festival in 1987, and a few months later Yanka joined Letov in his native city of Omsk. It was a short stay; Letov ran into trouble with authorities from the local Department for Internal Affairs and, shortly after Yanka arrived, she and Igor fled Siberia together. According to Letov’s recollections, they “travelled the whole country, lived with hippies, sang songs on the street, ate whatever God provided, stole food from the markets….” Yanka and Igor lived on less than 40 cents a day, eating in municipal cafeterias and sleeping in basements, abandoned train cars, and attics.
It was on the road with Letov that Yanka began performing in public as a backup vocalist for Civil Defense. By the end of 1987 she was writing her own songs. Once it was safe to return, she made her first recordings in Siberia, with Letov’s help, and also formed her own short-lived band, the Great Octobers. This marked the start of four feverish years spent crisscrossing the Soviet Union by train, first accompanying Civil Defense and later simply as Yanka, performing mostly in people’s apartments, dormitories, and the occasional local House of Culture. She recorded when she could, and the best versions of many of these songs survive only as live takes captured on a cheap portable cassette player. None of Yanka’s recordings were released commercially during her lifetime, but they circulated hand-to-hand as samizdat and she acquired a devoted cult following.
And the music? You could compare Yanka’s brash vocals to Patti Smith’s, or trace her breathless strumming to the Russian bard tradition. But Yanka truly created her own genre, a hybrid of Siberian punk, traditional Russian folk, and western rock. She married surreal lyricism to haunting melodies, mirroring influences that ranged from the Velvet Underground to field recordings of the Russian folk songs she collected in Siberian villages. Her songs are ironic tangles of communist slogans, Russian fairy tales, Soviet army anthems, and apocalyptic impressions of a faded nation. They conjure the low ceilings and teacup-strewn kitchen tables of shabby Khrushchevkas. These songs are postcards of Yanka’s inner state, deeply personal and perhaps, by definition, untranslatable.
As Yanka’s fame grew, the Soviet Union unraveled. So did her closest friendships. Sasha Bashlachev committed suicide in 1988, and Yanka’s relationship with Letov, which was never easy or well-defined, fell apart a year later. She continued to tour and record, but battled heavy bouts of depression. After what would be her final public performance, at a rock festival in Irkutsk, Yanka returned home to Novosibirsk. She made her last recordings there in 1991. Eventually she moved back to the wooden house on Yadrinsovskaya Street where she had spent her childhood, becoming increasingly isolated and turning down invitations to perform. On May 9th, 1991, Yanka disappeared while taking a walk near her father’s summer home. It is believed that she drowned in the nearby Inya River. She was 24 years old.
What remains in the wake of this remarkable life? Twenty-nine original songs, a handful of covers, and a book of poetry. I am but one of a legion of fans, and it is honestly beyond me to encapsulate or explain Yanka’s legacy. The only way I can describe what Yanka’s music means to me is to say that it is the sound of a woman who struggled to define herself, against every expectation, and won. –Alina Simone