Shevchuk as the Anti-Putin

The New York Times reports:

REVERENCE for Russia’s leaders, be they czars, general secretaries or presidents, has never come easily to Yuri Shevchuk. A bespectacled, slightly graying rock star, Mr. Shevchuk has spent much of the last three decades growling into a microphone in an effort, he says, to awaken in his compatriots a passion to break from their long history of bowing to heavy-handed authority.

These days, at 53, Mr. Shevchuk remains a guttural voice of defiance, just as he was when he began dodging Soviet censors by holding secret concerts in apartments throughout Russia in the early 1980s. But now he rails against Vladimir V. Putin’s government in his packed shows and openly scorns other musicians he accuses of selling out.

Last month, he put his preaching into practice, stunning Russians by making an off-the-cuff speech against official abuses during a meeting with Mr. Putin himself.

“I have questions, honestly speaking,” Mr. Shevchuk told the prime minister at the meeting. “They’ve accumulated for some time, and I will use this opportunity.”

The confrontation was broadcast on government-controlled television, and the video uploaded to Mr. Putin’s Web site, sending Kremlinologists into a tizzy.

Sipping instant coffee in the kitchen of his St. Petersburg recording studio last week, Mr. Shevchuk played down the significance of the exchange, suggesting that he would have gone further if he could have.

“I asked questions,” he said. “But I was not able to ask every question.”

Seated beneath a clock that ticks backward, Mr. Shevchuk spoke of a 1,000-year-old split between Russia’s elite and everyone else. Mr. Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, and the country’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, are just the latest incarnation of the aloof and disconnected authority that has stymied Russian society for centuries, Mr. Shevchuk said.

“Earlier it was on horses, and now it’s in a Mercedes,” he said. “The essence hasn’t changed.”

That is certainly not to say, however, that there has not been some progress.

Mr. Shevchuk’s maternal great-grandfather, a Tatar Muslim spiritual leader, was killed in Stalin’s purges. His paternal grandfather, a Ukrainian Cossack, met the same fate, and his family was exiled to one of the epicenters of the gulag prisoner system, the far eastern province of Magadan, where Mr. Shevchuk was born in 1957.

Though he studied to be a painter — some of his work hangs in his studio here — Mr. Shevchuk said he was drawn to rock ’n’ roll as a way to escape the morass of 1970s Soviet Russia, the Brezhnev era of stagnation.

“The sound of the electric guitar with fuzz freed our generation from this darkness and slavery,” he said. “We sought out the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and Van Morrison, and we were thankful for every song because it was fresh. It was the energy of modern times.”

In 1980, he founded DDT, a band that ultimately became a mainstay of the perestroika-era rock scene in St. Petersburg, though it did not play its first public concert until 1987, when Mikhail S. Gorbachev began easing the stultifying restrictions of Soviet rule.

“There was a list of banned groups in the culture department of the Central Committee, and we were not permitted to play in the Soviet Union.”

Mr. Shevchuk and DDT spent seven years bounding around the country, playing underground shows wherever they could — even in forests — to avoid the K.G.B. In 1985, the secret police did catch up with him. He was called in for a meeting in Ufa, a city in the Ural Mountains where his family had settled.

Because of his music, he had been fired from his regular job as an art teacher, he said. “And then they threatened me with prison for not working.”

He was told to leave Ufa or face arrest, and so moved to St. Petersburg. It was here in the dingy, smoke-filled clubs of Russia’s cultural capital that Mr. Shevchuk and a small group of musicians began performing the songs that helped shape the coming revolution.

IT was a generation of “romantics and idealists,” Mr. Shevchuk said. But the results turned out less rosy than expected.

With new freedoms, Russians got economic collapse, rampant corruption and criminality, two wars in the separatist southern region of Chechnya, and a string of deadly terrorist attacks born of those conflicts. The chaos led to the rise of Mr. Putin, and even Mr. Shevchuk said Russia needed a strong leader at the time. The problem, he said, was that Mr. Putin took hold and never let go.

In addition to heightened pressure on journalists and opposition figures, Mr. Shevchuk and other musicians describe a kind of soft censorship on performers that accompanied Mr. Putin’s rise to power and has continued under President Medvedev.

The music critic Artemy Troitsky described it as “a kind of secret protocol” between artists, musicians and the authorities. In return for avoiding criticism of Russia’s leaders, performers are invited to lucrative government-backed concerts and corporate parties. “Shevchuk is one of the very few people who dared to break this secret protocol,” Mr. Troitsky said.

Mr. Shevchuk says his refusal to toe the line has cost him. Though he retains a fairly large fan base, his concerts are rarely televised. He has accused radio stations of censoring his songs — a recent tune that includes the line “When the oil runs out, our president will die” is rarely played.

Mr. Shevchuk has refused to take part in government-sponsored events and has lashed out at musicians who do. Shortly after manicured elections ushered Mr. Medvedev into power, he took part in a large antigovernment protest in St. Petersburg.

SO it was perhaps an exercise in futility when an official called Mr. Shevchuk recently with a warning not to ask contentious questions a day before he was to join several other intelligentsia types for tea with Mr. Putin.

Leaning over a table laden with fresh flowers, strawberries and sweets, Mr. Shevchuk denounced abuse of power, restrictions on free speech and the “rich dukes with their privileges,” as an uncomfortable-looking Mr. Putin stared into his tea. “The only way forward is making everyone equal before the law, both the dukes and the common people,” Mr. Shevchuk concluded.

Unaccustomed to such a public dressing down, Mr. Putin snapped back, defending the police, but also the people’s right to demonstrate against the government. Protesting to “draw the government’s attention to some problem, there is nothing wrong with that,” he said. (A day later the police broke up several opposition rallies, arresting more than 100 people.)

Perhaps it was a testament to Mr. Shevchuk’s status here that in the presence of Russia’s most powerful man he could say things that if shouted in downtown Moscow could get someone tossed into a police van.

Or maybe it showed that the authorities view Mr. Shevchuk as harmless.

Whatever Mr. Shevchuk’s popularity, Mr. Putin is Russia’s biggest celebrity, and no amount of criticism has eroded his support.

Mr. Shevchuk acknowledged that his influence and that of other musicians had eroded since the perestroika days. His latest project, which will be the first major album by DDT in five years, will capture some of this frustration. And events in Russia will help determine what he calls it.

“The working title is ‘Before the Flood,’ ” he said. “But now I am thinking of a new name: ‘Tomorrow Will Be Different.’ They are both the same, but in the second name there is more hope.”

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