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Russian Musicians Play Their Part On Both Sides Of Political Divide

  • Daisy Sindelar

Yury Shevchuk sings on Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow at a meeting on August 22 to protect Khimki Forest.

Yury Shevchuk sings on Pushkinskaya Square in Moscow at a meeting on August 22 to protect Khimki Forest.

Aleksei Vanchugov fondly remembers rocker Yury Shevchuk as a hero of his youth.

"When we were studying in school and at the institute, Shevchuk for us was the best," says the 33-year-old St. Petersburg native. "We listened to all his new songs and learned to play them on the guitar when we were drinking."

Now it's politics more than music that occupies Vanchugov's thoughts.

Trained as a linguist and literature expert, but now working as a supervisor at a glassworks factory, Vanchugov is a dedicated member of Petersburg's growing activist class.

He participates in the Strategy-31 protest movement and attends rallies like the October 9 demonstration against plans to build a controversial Gazprom skyscraper in the heart of his historic hometown.

Vanchugov, like the thousands of Russians who in recent years have abandoned civic complacency in favor of civil engagement, has changed.

And so has his boyhood idol, Shevchuk, who has become one of the most outspoken voices of Russia's growing protest culture. At a time when many other established musicians have chosen to align themselves with the state, Shevchuk has spoken out on such hot-button issues as Moscow's Khimki Forest highway project, police abuse, and the right to peaceful demonstrations.

Price Of Notoriety

The 53-year-old rocker was the undisputed star of this month's Petersburg rally against the Gazprom skyscraper, calling on the crowd to help preserve the city's famous skyline before gamely strapping on a guitar and agreeing to sing "Motherland," his best-known song from the early days of Russia's post-Soviet transition.

Shevchuk cut his performance short after breaking a string on his guitar, and somewhat wearily declined to continue even after a bystander offered him a substitute. It's been a busy year for the gravel-voiced singer, who continues to record and tour with his 30-year-old band, DDT, even as he throws his weight into civic activism.

Such activities have earned him little affection among the ruling elite. In perhaps his most notorious move, Shevchuk challenged Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the issue of police violence against peaceful protesters during a televised charity event in May. That confrontation -- which captured Putin in a rare moment of public discomfort -- cemented Shevchuk's reputation as a government pariah even as it sent a signal to supporters like Vanchugov that this was a man worth following.

"This is a person who enjoys a great deal of authority; he has the status of a man who can speak directly to Putin," Vanchugov says. "It's clear that after that conversation with Putin, he probably won't be given any more such opportunities. Those channels are going to be closed to him. He already hardly shows up on television, and he's barely on the radio, except for maybe some of his old songs."

'Hand-Fed Poets'

Shevchuk was notably absent when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a professed rock fanatic, gathered with a clutch of the country's best-known musicians earlier this month for a highly orchestrated evening of beer, songs, and innocuous political talk.

A number of Shevchuk's contemporaries were in attendance at the October 14 meeting, including Andrei Makarevich of the band Mashina Vremeni and Boris Grebenshikov, the lead singer of Akvarium, who in the volatile '80s and '90s had matched DDT in his popularity with the public for anti-Soviet anthems like "Train on Fire."

Grebenshikov, a Petersburg native, used the meeting with Medvedev to ask almost apologetically about the issue of the Gazprom skyscraper. But for skeptics like Vanchugov -- who referred to the collected crowd as "hand-fed poets" -- Grebenshikov's presence at the gathering confirmed his reputation as a Kremlin lapdog, something akin to Elvis Presley meeting then-President Richard Nixon at the White House.

Grebenshikov's bizarre confession -- on the occasion of Putin's 58th birthday this month, about having had a "fantastic" dream in which he and the prime minister had journeyed through the communal apartments of Russia by boat -- only deepened that impression.

Medvedev meets with rock musicians Andrei Makarevich (left) and Boris Grebenshikov (right) at Rhythm & Blues Cafe in Moscow on October 11.
But Sergei Chernov, a music critic whose critical write-up of Medvedev's rock-and-roll meeting drew an angry letter from Makarevich, says in fact, such gatherings are "nothing new" -- and neither is Grebenshikov's political about-face.

"There's nothing shocking in this now," says Chernov, who adds he was "much more surprised and upset" five years ago when Grebenshikov and other musicians met with Vladislav Surkov, the powerful first deputy Kremlin chief of staff. "That was surprising to me, because Grebenshikov in particular, during the Yeltsin era -- and of course during the Soviet years -- was very critical toward the government. His music, the songs that he wrote, were critical of the entire situation in Russia. So in 2005 everyone was horrified by what was going on, with him meeting with the gray cardinal of the Kremlin."

Kremlin Line

Surkov, an unabashed music fan who is considered the Kremlin's main ideologist, attended Medvedev's meeting with the musicians last week, and has close ties to many rockers -- even penning the lyrics for an entire album by the band Agata Kristi.

For musicians, close ties to the state have long meant better career opportunities -- recording contracts, large performance venues, and prominent placement on radio and television. Such meetings are also useful for the state. In rubbing shoulders with the country's best-known rockers, the Kremlin may hope to demonstrate its relative hipness as presidential elections approach in 2012.

In the shorter term, state-friendly musicians can also prove a valuable asset in the war of words over burning political issues like the Khimki controversy. Sergei Shnur, formerly of the ska-punk band Leningrad, uses his music to openly mock government opponents like Shevchuk, as in the song "Khmiki Forest," in which he suggests some of the forest's defenders are positioning themselves as the "last democratic singer" simply to sell tickets.

Some musicians pride themselves on staying outside of politics altogether. Aleksandr Sklyar, the lead singer of the band Va-Bank, toured with the "Vote Or Lose" voter-drive campaign in the 1996 presidential elections, which pitted a resource-rich Boris Yeltsin against a host of underdog competitors, including Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.

But these days, Sklyar, who frequently performs as a solo artist, is critical of Shevchuk and others for participating in demonstrations like the August protest in central Moscow against the Khimki highway project. (Sklyar was not invited to Medvedev's musical gathering but says he is not "fundamentally opposed" to such meetings.) He says he believes that all artists have the right to their own political views but should use their music -- not activism -- to express it.

"You could see at this rally a very clear political dimension, which is something I don't want to be a part of. I believe that creative people must be independent," Sklyar said in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service. "I didn't celebrate the destruction of the communist regime just in order to join another political movement now. I prefer to be alone -- a man outside parties, movements, and politics. Everything I want to say, I say in my songs."

Turn It Off!

But that, say some observers, is precisely the problem. Forget the storm of controversy over the political activities of Russian musicians, they warn. There's something far more distressing afoot -- the mediocrity of the music itself.

Rock critic Artemy Troitsky, who has ruled over the Soviet and Russian music scene for decades, is sanguine to a point about Medvedev's meeting with Grebenshikov and the other musicians. They can meet with whomever they like, he says -- if only they would write better songs.

"I think that for every artist, their main goal is to write and record good songs. Songs with meaning, songs which can say something to people," Troitsky says. "My main embarrassment is that most of the famous rock bands of the '70s and '80s here in Russia now are really kind of lazy, self-indulgent, soft, and boring. For me, this is more the source of disappointment about those guys. The fact that they met President Medvedev, I'm not too bothered about that."

Makarevich, whose pop-style music was considered inoffensive and mainstream even during Soviet times, has rarely offered social commentary in his songs. Grebenshikov, who has ventured into Buddhist and Hindu mysticism, has maintained a highly metaphorical -- some would say impenetrable -- lyrical style, but has steered away from political themes.

Among the transition rockers, it is mainly Shevchuk who has kept his sharp tongue, with openly provocative lyrics like, "When the oil runs dry, our president will die."

But if the older generation of artists has lost its edge, their are hopes that up-and-coming musicians -- who effectively use the Internet as their main publicity vehicle and are less beholden to the state for concert halls and recording studios -- will offer a fresh wave of rebellion.

Sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky, a former dissident who confesses a greater affinity for the Beatles than for either Akvarium or DDT, says it is the young generation of artists who will deliver Russia into a new political age.

"It's different musicians -- look at Lyumen, look at Barto, look at Noize MC, look at Lyapis Trubetskoi. They're the ones who are now filling this [political] niche," says Kagarlitsky. "There's a new generation that, incidentally, is pretty critical, pretty negative, when it comes to the older generation. They write about different things, they have a different dialogue and different behavior."

New Generation

Ivan Alekseyev, the 25-year-old rap artist better known as Noize MC, has gained the spotlight as the most searing of the young musicians. He gained instant fame in March with a song that detailed a head-on automobile accident involving the vice president of the LUKoil energy giant that left two women in the other car dead. The crash was quickly blamed on the car driven by the women, despite witness accounts that described the LUKoil official's chauffeur-driven Mercedes as speeding through the opposing lane in an attempt to avoid midday traffic.

Alekseyev's song, "Mercedes-S666," which was accompanied by a video that included graphic footage from the crash site, tapped into rising public anger toward the Russian elite -- and made an instant star of Noize MC. Several months later, Alekseyev was briefly jailed after mocking the police at a concert in Volgograd. That resulted in another critical song, "10 Days (Stalingrad)." Most recently, he has joined forces with another outspoken band, the Belarusian group Lyapis Trubetskoi, with a biting commentary on the state of the Russian nation, "Bolt":

It is uncertain whether artists like Noize MC will be able to motivate the country's youth to become politically active rather than simply disaffected. Older activists like 33-year-old Vanchugov describe their younger peers as rebellious but aimless, with no distinct political views. Troitsky, too, warns against overestimating the role of music in Russia's protest culture, saying it is mainly the government itself that is fueling the desire for change.

"There is some connection and some mutual admiration between politically oriented musicians and politically oriented youth crowd," says Troitsky, who has himself become a prominent member of the opposition, frequently appearing with Shevchuk at public protests. "But I still think that the biggest inspiration for the new young political movement in Russia are actually the deeds of Putin and Medvedev."

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelena Vlasenko contributed to this report from Moscow

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