MOSCOW — For nearly two decades, he was Russia’s most popular, highest-earning and, to his critics, most cynical rock star. Celebrated by millions for his foul-mouthed lyrics and gritty authenticity, he packed stadiums across the country while raking in extra cash from small private concerts for Kremlin-friendly tycoons.
“Yes, I am a cynic. This is a philosophical and clinical school. It is a diagnosis,” said Sergei Shnurov, the longtime frontman for the ska-punk band Leningrad. “From my point of view, we definitely do not have enough sober cynicism.”
But after what was billed as a farewell round of concerts last year — all sold-out — Mr. Shnurov, 47, has shocked even his usually unshockable public. He changed his wardrobe, dropping sleeveless undershirts and baggy shorts in favor of office wear; left St. Petersburg, his beloved hometown; and started work behind a tidy desk in Moscow as the newly appointed general producer of RTVi, a rather bland, family-friendly television station that frowns upon on-air swearing. He is even trying to quit smoking.
Before taking the job, he almost never watched TV and had not owned a television set for more than a decade. State channels, he said, are mostly unwatchable festivals of propaganda, and anything interesting can be found on the internet.
The station, established in 1997 by the since exiled oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky and now privately owned by a Soviet émigré who lives in California, aims its programing at Russian speakers in the United States, Israel and Europe. It has “no connection whatsoever,” Mr. Shnurov said, to RT, the infamous Kremlin-funded propaganda channel targeted at foreign audiences.
He said he would like to change the name to avoid any association in people’s minds with RT, which he said was set up later and “stole” the name. RT, he added, “is a propaganda channel, absolutely” and has given his station’s brand a bad name.
His transformation is an abrupt shift for a rocker whose songs include classics like “In Peter, You Drink,” a celebration of St. Petersburg’s taste for booze and the intoxicants favored in other Russian cities, and feature so many profanities that he has been taken to court on obscenity charges. (He avoided conviction by arguing that the curses are an essential part of his artistic oeuvre and not aimed at offending anyone in particular.)
His breakthrough album, released in 1999 — shortly before Vladimir V. Putin, also from St. Petersburg, became Russia’s president — was called “Cursing Without Electricity.”
For his many critics in Russia’s liberal opposition who have long viewed the star as a greedy opportunist, his latest metamorphosis is just another step along what the prominent actor and theater director Evgeny Grishkovets has described as a long journey from “rock ‘n’ roll pirate” to “cynical businessman who despises his own public.”
Mr. Shnurov responded to the director’s damning judgment as he does to many things: He wrote a sardonic poem and posted it on Instagram.
And whatever liberal Moscow intellectuals might think of him, Mr. Shnurov, whom most Russians know simply as “Shnur,” can be confident that he retains a far bigger following across the country than all of them put together.
This is due largely to his pioneering work in what became a hugely popular genre of Russian narrative music videos that combine slick production with catchy tunes and story lines that speak to the hopes and frustrations of so many Russians.
One hit, Exhibit, about a young woman preparing in the grungy apartment she shares with her mother for a date with a wealthy suitor, has been viewed more than 164 million times on YouTube.
A teenager in St. Petersburg in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union was falling apart, he moved between two very different worlds: a rebellious music scene that worshiped Viktor Tsoi, a fellow St. Petersburg singer whose song “I Want Change” became the anthem of a generation; and Mr. Shnurov’s parents, engineers who worked in the Soviet defense sector.
His mother had a job in a secret enterprise that made computers, his father in one that produced communications gear. His grandfather was a highly decorated Soviet officer, and the family, though not wealthy, had an apartment in the center of St. Petersburg, which was then known as Leningrad.
The Soviet Union’s collapse, Mr. Shnurov said, came as a shock to everyone, even those desperate for change, replacing “romantic illusions” with vast new vistas of opportunity clouded by cynical calculation.
“In my life, even money has changed five times. Money always seemed to be something that should last forever,” he said. “Your own identity changes, and you become a different person.”
His knack for moving with the times has left him with a reputation in opposition circles as a sellout who always goes with the flow. This is particularly the case among supporters of Aleksei A. Navalny, the anticorruption campaigner who was treated in a Berlin hospital after what Germany says was a poisoning attack with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military as a chemical weapon.
Asked about Mr. Navalny in an interview shortly before the attack, Mr. Shnurov derided the opposition leader as the “mirror image” of Mr. Putin, dismissing him as a cultlike figure who brooks no dissent and demands support as a “matter of faith” disconnected from any concrete policy proposals.
After Mr. Navalny fell ill from the poison on a flight back to Moscow last month, however, Mr. Shnurov swiftly revised his views. In another poem posted on Instagram, he lamented that “death is everywhere in the form of poison” and that the sinister habits of “Comrade Chekist” — a reference to former K.G.B. officers like Mr. Putin — “would make the Medicis jealous.”
Mr. Shnurov has never rated consistency as a virtue. “The whole world today has become a carnival — everything is theatrical,” he said, noting that Russians who one day watch state television will the next day watch videos denouncing the Kremlin on Mr. Navalny’s YouTube channel.
He is vague about why he moved into television, beyond saying that he wanted a change after more than two exhausting decades as a hard-drinking rocker. The move also followed a big rupture in his personal life with the collapse in 2018 of his marriage and his swift remarriage to a new wife, his fourth.
Artemy Troitsky, a former music critic and concert promoter who was a friend of Mr. Shnurov’s until they fell out after the rocker made disparaging comments about protests led by Mr. Navalny in 2011 and 2012, said he was mystified by Mr. Shnurov’s career change. One possible reason, he said, is that Leningrad has been losing steam in recent years, so “now he is trying some new tricks.”
“Having known him well for many years, both publicly and privately, I don’t trust this guy,” Mr. Troitsky said. “He is extremely talented but also extremely cynical, and despite singing songs loaded with F-words he has always known how to make money and play it safe.”
So far, however, Mr. Shnurov has been rocking the boat in his new job.
One of his first projects has been to travel to Khabarovsk to make a documentary about a sudden burst of protests in the remote region of Russia’s Far East. There was widespread suspicion that he had been sent there by the Kremlin, but he insists that was not the case, and the program he produced is unlikely to have found favor among Russian officials.
After this came an investigation by RTVi into the cause of protests in the Bashkiria region. It featured environmental activists standing their ground and defeating wealthy business interests, government officials and the security forces.
State-controlled television, by contrast, has blanketed the protests in Khabarovsk and Bashkiria in silence, which explains why a recent opinion survey found that 62 percent of Russians were not even aware there had been any protests. RTVi does not have a license to broadcast inside Russia, but its shows can all be viewed on the internet.
Another of Mr. Shnurov’s projects is to recruit more edgy journalists to the channel. He said he had been trying to hire Ivan Golunov, who did groundbreaking reporting on criminal infiltration of the funeral business in cahoots with the security officials and was subsequently arrested on fabricated drug charges.
His biggest hire so far, however, has been Nina Kandelaki, a prominent TV presenter and entrepreneur who is better known as a glamorous style icon than as a hard-hitting journalist.
Mr. Shnurov said he was delighted when Mr. Putin first took power at the end of 1999, mostly because his move to the Kremlin scored a big win for St. Petersburg in its long struggle with Moscow over which city is more important, but also because the leader “offered a new chance” for Russia after a decade of false starts under President Boris N. Yeltsin. But he has grown disenchanted. Today, he said, Mr. Putin “represents just a fog.”
‘‘The system must change,” Mr. Shnurov said. “The system must always change. If something does not change, then it will be changed.”
Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting.