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Moscow attack: Was the band Picnic deliberately targeted? – DW – 03/25/2024

On the evening of Friday March 22, at around 8 p.m. local time, the Moscow concert venue Crocus City Hall became the scene of a bloody attack — the exact background of which is still the subject of speculation. At least 137 people were killed in the massacre, while many others are in critical condition. They were awaiting a concert by the Russian rock band Picnic, which was due to start at 9 p.m. 

‘Wash yourself with your own blood’ 

Russia has been in a state of shock ever since. While the whole world is expressing its sympathy, rumors and false information are making the rounds. Four Tajik suspects have been brought before a court in the Russian capital. They were formally accused of involvement in a terrorist attack by the Basmanny district court on Sunday evening and face possible life imprisonment. At the same time, people are wondering why the terrorists chose this particular event. Was the attack aimed at the band Picnic? 

“Fear nothing, fear nothing — no fire, no ringing shadow. You are no longer a rosy child. Wash yourself with your own blood in the morning. And shake the blossoming day.” These are some of the lyrics of Picnic’s new song, which was released on March 7, 2024, on the band’s YouTube channel. 

Those lines sound almost prophetic now. A message posted on the band’s website reads, “We express our deepest sympathy to the families and friends of the victims. We pray for the speedy recovery of the injured. We are deeply shocked by this terrible tragedy and mourn with you.” The band’s musicians were unharmed because they were able to hide in the dressing room.

Picnic is a veteran band in Russia, with origins in progressive rock. Founded in 1978 in St. Petersburg, which at the time was still called Leningrad, the band initially named itself Orion. It changed its name to Picnic in 1981. Both monikers go back to the typical Soviet rock scene trick of choosing names that sound Western but cannot be banned. 

Member of rock band Picnic, Edmund Shklyarsky playing guitar on stage.Edmund Shklyarsky and Picnic had to perform underground for yearsImage: picture alliance/Photoagency Interpress

In the 1980s, however, Picnic ended up on the list of bands that were denied major public appearances. The musicians and their audience therefore lived out their love for role models such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones in rock clubs, sometimes underground. Singer and songwriter Edmund Shklyarsky has been the band leader since 1982. The son of a renowned scientist and a concert pianist, Shklyarsky attaches great importance to his Polish roots and his Catholic faith. From an early age, his sources of inspiration were not only the Rolling Stones and The Animals, but also Russian avant-garde poetry. 

Picnic members considered Putin loyalists

In May 2023, Russian writer and nationalist activist Zakhar Prilepin praised the band’s leader, who rarely makes punlic statements. Prilepin said that Shklyarsky was an active supporter of the “special operation” in Ukraine, and had even made donations. Prelepin judged that this was the “normal position of a Russian man and a Russian musician.”  His comments were neither denied nor confirmed by the members of Picnic.

Their being booked to perform in a venue as renowned as the Crocus City Hall near Moscow can be seen as proof of the band’s loyalty to the Russian state — which had demanded a clear commitment from the country’s rock and pop scene, especially when the war against Ukraine began. Musicians and bands who positioned themselves against the war — including Russian stars such as Boris Grebenshchikov (Aquarium), Yuri Shevchuk (DDT) and Zemfira — had to leave Russia and suffered setbacks to their career. Russian pop diva Alla Pugacheva has sharply criticized the Putin regime from abroad. 

The members of Picnic all dressed in black, with black tophats and sunglasses, standing against a stylized sunrise backdrop. Singer Edmund Shklyarsky, front, has runes written in gold on his collar.Did the terrorists deliberately target Picnic?Image: Piknik

On the other hand, stars loyal to the regime have been rewarded with lucrative performances and awards. The approximately 6,200 tickets for the Picnic concert on March 22 were almost sold out, as was a planned second gig on Saturday. Ticket prices ranged from the equivalent of €100 to €300 ($108 to 325) and according to advertising the band was to be accompanied by a symphony orchestra and a “spectacular stage and light show. ” 

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Picnic had been added to the list of artists who were unwelcome there because of its repeated performances on the occupied Crimean peninsula, including in Sevastopol.

On Saturday, numerous interview requests, including from DW, were met with a statement of grief and shock. On Sunday, Edmund Shklyarsky released a video message. “I would like to express my condolences to all the victims and relatives of this terrible and senseless tragedy,” he said, adding that no words have yet been invented that could resurrect people and comfort their fellow human beings. 

Whether there was special significance in the terrorists’ choice to attack a concert by this particular band remains a matter of speculation — as does the question of whether Crocus City Hall played any special role as the target.

A concert venue of superlatives 

Crocus City Hall is a state-of-the-art concert hall on the grounds of an exhibition complex and is probably the most prestigious stage in the Moscow area for musicians. With a capacity of 5,000 to 10,000 people, it is much larger than a traditional concert hall.

People lay flowers at a makeshift memorial to the victims of a shooting attack at the Crocus City Hall concert venue in the Moscow Region, Russia, March 23, 2024.Mourning the victims of the terrorist attack at Crocus City HallImage: Piknik

Completed in 2009, Crocus, as it is known for short, quickly became one of Russia’s most important concert halls. Located some 20 kilometers from the Kremlin, the venue can be reached within 30 minutes from the city center, depending on Moscow’s notorious traffic jams. It’s only faster for residents of the affluent suburbs in the west of the city who prefer to attend concerts there.

The excellent public transport links could have been an argument for the terrorists to choose Crocus City Hall for their attack. In addition, security precautions on the outskirts are not as strict as in the center of Moscow.

Cultural events canceled in Russia

The concert hall belongs to a group of companies owned by the Azerbaijani-Russian construction tycoon and oligarch Aras Agalarov and his son Emin, a businessman and singer. There were jokes when it opened that Aras Agalarov had built his son a stage.

Miss Universe 2013 Gabriela Isler and Donald Trump give the thumbs-up gesture.In 2013, Donald Trump appeared on stage at Crocus City Hall with Miss UniverseImage: imago images/ZUMA Press

In recent years, however, Emin Agalarov has put his pop career on hold and concentrated primarily on the development and marketing of the Crocus. Over the years, internationally renowned acts, including Scorpions, Smokie, the Pet Shop Boys, Nazareth and a-ha, Sting, Elton John, Thomas Anders and Vanessa May, have performed here. In 2013, Donald Trump even strayed onto the stage, as a special guest at the Miss Universe final. 

A look at the program for Crocus City Hall gives a good insight into Russian society, which oscillates between denial of reality and resignation: Concerts by regime-compliant musicians alternate with blockbusters such as Japanese drum shows or women’s stand-up comedy shows. For now, all major events have been canceled, not only at the damaged Crocus City Hall, but throughout theaters, cinemas and museums in Russia.

This article was originally written in German.

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