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What Would You Ask Putin? Rock Veteran Shevchuk Makes Most Of Rare Opportunity

Yury Shevchuk (right) delivers a speech, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) listens during a charity event for children's cancer in St. Petersburg on May 29.
Yury Shevchuk (right) delivers a speech, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) listens during a charity event for children's cancer in St. Petersburg on May 29.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Opportunities to see Russia's Vladimir Putin confronted by his critics are rare. But during a weekend charity event in St. Petersburg, the prime minister was on the receiving end of surprisingly harsh questions about media repression and government's crackdown on public protests like the March of Dissent demonstrations.

Putin surprised many on hand by voicing support for public protests, saying they "point to critical issues the authorities should pay attention to." Putin also acknowledged he was aware of growing public discontent in the country.

Many of the sharpest questions came from veteran rock musician Yury Shevchuk, who also made headlines in March when a concert video showed him harshly criticizing the country's "brutal, cruel, and inhumane" system. Tatyana Voltskaya of RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Shevchuk about his meeting with Putin. (Here's the Russian-language exchange, which was broadcast on state television.)

RFE/RL: You told Putin that one of his aides called you ahead of the meeting and asked that you not ask pointed or difficult questions. Putin replied that it was a provocation, and that it couldn't have been a member of his staff.

Yury Shevchuk:
That was his joke, his comeback. To which I replied that probably it was some idiot playing a joke. In fact, I think...well, what can I think if I spent half an hour on the phone being told which questions not to ask?

RFE/RL: And what were your overall impressions of the conversation with Putin?

The discussion wasn't as long as I would have liked. There were a lot of questions I wasn't able to ask. But I did manage to ask the main one: in what kind of country are our children going to live?

I talked about a dark, corrupt, unmerciful, and soulless country. With miners who go to work like penal battalions sent to their final battle. With a polarized society where there are princes and noblemen -- with party membership cards or without, with flashing blue lights on the roof of their cars -- and the ordinary toiling population?

The only condition for getting out of this situation is equality before the law, democracy. Putin agreed with me that without equality before the law, without democratization of the country, Russia has no future. Those were his words.

RFE/RL: Regarding the March of Dissent, were you satisfied with his answers?

Of course I wasn't satisfied. Why? Because when he said that the "marches" shouldn't get in the way of dacha-goers or sick people being taken to the doctor, I simply didn't get a chance to respond.

After all when some kind of bureaucrat arrives, then the whole city shuts down and everything stands absolutely still. [Actor] Oleg Basilashvili supported me.

There was also a conversation about the city, about the destruction of architectural monuments, about the construction of the Gazprom tower, and so on. He also didn't answer to any of that. He said that was for the city administration to resolve.

'Better To Talk Than Fight'

RFE/RL: And what was he like as a person? We've been reading his comments everywhere, but you were able to actually look him in the eyes.

When I asked him, "Are you aware that the protest element in society is growing?" I looked him in the eyes. He, sighing very heavily, whispered yes. And he wasn't pretending.

The prime minister knows about it -- and that's probably already a pretty good thing. But on the other hand, it's not clear what our leadership is going to do about it. In a word, what took place was the kind of traditional conversation that's been going on between artists and authorities for the past 200 years. A lot of people were talking, and I also spoke.

RFE/RL: Do you think there was a point to doing it?

Of course.

RFE/RL: As you remember, there was a meeting between Putin and a group of writers. Some of the writers refused to go, citing fundamental reservations.

That's their right. For me, I believe that you have to talk about these things. It's better to talk than to fight.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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