When Vladimir Putin took in a Paul McCartney concert on Red Square nearly two decades ago this month, Andrei Makarevich rocked out next to the Russian president as the ex-Beatle performed an encore of “Back In The U.S.S.R.”
Five years later, Makarevich -- one of Russia’s best-known rock stars -- played a Red Square concert in support of Putin and his handpicked placeholder successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and said he truly supported the ruling duo.
But since Russia’s seizure and occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014, Makarevich has become an open critic of Putin’s expansionism. And after the Russian leader launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February, the rock star has a message for those who embrace Putin’s war and the Latin letter “Z” that the government deploys as a patriotic symbol.
“They can f**k off,” Makarevich, founder of the legendary Russian rock band Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), said in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language channel run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
Like several other prominent Russian entertainers, Makarevich, 68, has decamped to Israel since Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Some of these celebrities -- such as Makarevich’s fellow rock star Boris Grebenshchikov and showman Maksim Galkin -- have been openly critical of the war, a position now fraught with legal risks under a snowballing crackdown on dissent in Russia.
The invasion, Makarevich says, became a red line for him.
“Before the hostilities started, before people started dying, I could fully understand that people can hold different views of the same thing. But when it suddenly turned into war, and someone shouts, ‘Right on!’ -- then I just cross this person out,” Makarevich said.
‘Much Worse’ Than 1968
Makarevich, who says his musical career was inspired by The Beatles, founded his band Time Machine in 1969. And while the band was admired by many in the underground Soviet rock scene, it was never deemed subversive by authorities and even went on to achieve mainstream status.
In a 2008 interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Makarevich defended his decision to play the Red Square event in support of Medvedev’s presidency, calling Putin’s anointed candidate the most reasonable and acceptable choice.
But three years later, when Putin opted to return to the presidency, Makarevich expressed disillusionment, saying Russians were “being robbed of what was left of our electoral rights."
Following Makarevich’s criticism of Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, Kremlin loyalists branded him a traitor, and his concerts were canceled.
While Russian officials have denounced what they call cancel culture targeting Russians and Russian culture in the West following the Ukraine invasion, Makarevich told Current Time that he has not experienced this personally since leaving Russia.
“I travel around the world a lot now and am invited to give concerts. I’m traveling to Cyprus now. Georgia is calling. They probably wouldn’t be calling if there was some kind of ‘canceling’ of Russian culture,” he said.
Makarevich likened Russia’s war against Ukraine to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 but said the current war is “much worse.”
“What is happening in Ukraine is much worse in terms of the scale of misery than what happened back then in Prague,” he said.
Amid mounting evidence of war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, Makarevich said he couldn’t speak on behalf of Russian soldiers but said that they should not carry out criminal orders.
“That is on their conscience. That is their decision,” he said.
Russia has denied targeting civilian areas in a war it insists on calling a special operation, though reporters -- including RFE/RL correspondents on the ground -- have documented numerous cases of such attacks. Moscow has also spread demonstrably false conspiracy theories claiming incidents involving potential war crimes were staged by Ukraine.
Asked whether he envisions any scenario in which he would not return to Russia, Makarevich said: “I don’t even think about that.”
“I am waiting for events to unfold that I, unfortunately, cannot influence,” he said.
Makarevich added that he continues to follow the news about the war.
“I feel the same as I did on day one [of the war]: It’s disgusting,” he said. “That’s all I can say.”