Despite claiming that he’s not a politician, Yury Shevchuk, frontman for the legendary Russian rock band DDT, is quite vocal when discussing political topics. Speaking recently at the Brooklyn Public Library, Shevchuk said he and his band are seeking to bring about democratic change in Russia through music. Nikola Krastev caught up with Shevchuk in New York right before the start of his U.S. tour.
RFE/RL: When you meet fans, what kind of questions do they most often ask you?
Shevchuk: Most of the questions lately touch on politics, the opposition, the authorities, what’s going to happen to the motherland and to us. The three fundamental questions that have always haunted the Russian intelligentsia: What is to be done? Who is guilty? And what will tomorrow bring? These questions have been asked for at least 200 years. I am trying -- sometimes as [19th century revolutionary Nikolai] Chernyshevsky, sometimes as [19th century writer Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, sometimes as [19th century writer Lev] Tolstoy, to reflect on these issues.
I am a citizen. I am not a politician. I’ve never been a member of any political party. I was kicked out of the Komsomol for writing songs, so there you go. I am a citizen. I think one needs to defend one's civic positions. The flag of civic mindedness should fly over my roof and over your roof as well.
RFE/RL: How do you envision a developed civil society?
Shevchuk: A civil society is not some kind of feeling in the collective unconscious. It is not something archaic. A civil society is a community of people who are equal before the law and the law helps them to live together. I dug into this and got as far as Aristotle and his writings about the state. A civil society is a community of people who are not indifferent, who are not cowards.
This is not a society where people’s attitude is: "It’s neither my headache nor my piece of cake." A civil society is a community of active people. These are people who love their motherland but this is not a poster love, this love is genuine. So this is a union of love and conscience. I think it will happen in Russia. It is an inevitable historic process.
RFE/RL: Is there a progress in Russia regarding peoples' civic awareness?
Shevchuk: Well, just three years ago it was very quiet regarding the civic awareness. People were concerned only with themselves, with their families, with money. Even those who were creative, even those who were charismatic -- they too were indifferent.
Today, I think, lots of people have somehow grown up, they started thinking about the future. Maybe it has something to do with the predicted end of the world [in 2012]. Anyway, lots of people started thinking about the motherland and about themselves, about what kind of Russia their kids will grow up in and live in. I am talking about trivial things but it’s true. It’s so nice to see that people are not indifferent, that the number of those who are not indifferent is rising.
Why is there such an explosion of volunteers? The frightened Duma cranked out legislation to channel this feeling of civic awareness, to codify it in a rigid legal framework. These are indications that society is awakening and that people are beginning to think. All my friends and acquaintances were so squeamish before when talking about politics. Their attitude was "Oh, politics, this is filthy." All of them have now realized that you are filthy if your politics are filthy.
But if you try to live an honest life then your politics are honest too. In other words, it is not possible to live without politics because politics makes it possible for us to coexist together, as was noted by Aristotle.
Yury Shevchuk performing with DDT in 2010
RFE/RL: How would you compare the Russian youth in the 1990s with young people today?
Shevchuk: Young people today are less romantic. I guess it’s because they have the experience of a generation. The Russian youth of the 1990s was all hurrah, freedom, and rock 'n' roll -- a brotherhood all together.
It was similar to what was happening in the West in 1968. It was awesome. I vividly remember Kyiv in 1991 when we descended on the city from St. Petersburg. It was a rock assault: Boris Grebenshikov and Akvarium, Televizor, DDT, and Alisa. We played at the Sports Palace. It was a revolutionary rock festival [called] "Long Live Freedom." The venue was sold out instantly, 10,000 people.
I remember a cop backstage, he was totally shocked by what he was seeing. He took out his pistol and pressed it against his temple [and said] "I’m going to shoot myself." We were like "Wait! What’s up? Why do you want to kill yourself?" And he says: "I don’t understand what’s happening to our country." We convinced him not to shoot himself, poured him some vodka, and at the end he was weeping and left.
Those were the days -- vibrant, stormy, juicy, full of hope. Nowadays, there is less hope. The young people today realize, I think, that the fight for civil liberties is a considerable risk. On the other hand, these young people are active, they are more down-to-earth. The cynicism of the previous generation is less pronounced today and I am very glad.
RFE/RL: In what specific ways do you see the civic engagement of young people today?
Shevchuk: It’s an interesting process. I can tell you about some youth volunteer organizations, for example Nochlezhka (Shelter), a nonprofit that helps homeless people. The young people from Nochlezhka are providing various services for these street people like helping them obtain passports [Editor's note: identity papers].
Not all of these people have found themselves on the street because of their own failures. There are all kinds of circumstances in life. There are also young people volunteering in cancer wards, volunteers who helped dig out the mudslides in Crimea, and volunteer firefighters.
To be socially engaged has become trendy and modern. It is being perceived positively among the youth and we know how sensitive young people are toward trends, so there are changes. Something has cracked and is shattering and there are green roots of social engagement growing through the asphalt of insensitivity and indifference.
RFE/RL: What is the catalyst for the changes among the young people that you describe?
Shevchuk: Because they want to live in Russia. I know plenty of young people who are not thinking of leaving the country. In the past America was the huge banner of the West because no one in Russia had any idea what America was. It seemed like a paradise, the promised land. But then people found out bit by bit and realized that there are many problems in America as well.
Probably the essence of these problems is different, but human society is imperfect. It is imperfect everywhere. And human relations are so complex. People don't always treat each other as brothers, comrades, or friends. Sometimes it’s kind of the opposite, especially here [in New York], in capitalism’s den.
Anyway, I can see now the longing for [spiritual] light among young people and I am so happy to see it. But it’s not possible for the whole country to radically revamp itself in two weeks and become a paradise. We still have a lot of work to do. I see among many of the young people a sense of empathy and compassion. These are very significant human traits which have now returned.