The Poet and the Tsar

When Putin sat down to tea with artists and musicians before a charity concert last month, he could not have expected difficult questions, writes Olga Sherwood. He had not counted on DDT's Yury Shevchuk, who found the courage to stand out from the crowd and launch a memorable and principled criticism of the current political course. The article was first published on July 1st, 2010
Olga Sherwood
23 August 2010
Last Sunday, 22 August, more than 2000 people gathered in Moscow's Pushkin Square to protest the building of a motorway through a protected forest in the northwestern Moscow suburb of Khimki. For months local ecologists have been appealing to Moscow authorities and the Kremlin to change the motorway route and save the endangered natural environment. After the Sunday meeting there was to have been a concert by musicians supporting the protesters

Demonstration chanted “Send the route around the forest” and  “Russia without Putin”.

The concert was banned by the Moscow authorities who did not allow the musicians to set up their electronic equipment. Veteran rock musician Yury Shevchuk, lead singer of the rock band DDT and well known for his support of human rights and free speech, nevertheless sang songs without a microphone and strummed an acoustic guitar. He told the crowd he was taking part in the protest because nature in Russia is dying. 

"We musicians wanted to put on a concert to defend nature, the fields, forests and Lake Baikal.  Khimki forest has become a symbol for everyone," Shevchuk said.

Shevchuk made waves in May when he took part in a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He openly challenged the country's authoritarian leader, saying demonstrations in Russia are broken up by "repressive" security services.

Following the Aug. 22 Moscow meeting, openDemocracy Russia is bringing back two of its old articles: one written by Elena Chirikova, the leader of the Khimki forest movement, and the second giving an account of Yuri Shevchuk's meeting with Vladimir Putin.


It has been almost a month since Russian rock icon Yury Shevchuk broke with the traditions of official Russian round-table discussions and explicitly challenged Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on his record. Shevchuk’s surprise intervention continues to be discussed over kitchen tables, in the press and on the internet; and much more than any of the protocol question-answers that have for several years characterised public presentations of Russia’s ruling tandem.

Yury Shevchuk takes on Vladimir Putin (in Russian)

In one fell swoop, Shevchuk destroyed the rules of Kremlin etiquette. He discussed a call from the prime minister’s assistant, namely a request not to ask controversial questions. Putin’s reaction - “that’s a provocation” - immediately and dramatically revealed the falseness of his position, as did his impolite riposte: “excuse me, what’s your name?” (Putin could not have been unaware of his name: he had a list of the people invited). Some commentators said Putin was shown up: what good is a ruler, especially a former intelligence officer and employee of the “organs”, who cannot identify one of the most popular people in the country?

Shevchuk, with complete self-possession, began to ask about the things no longer asked in Russia. He challenged Putin on freedom of speech, freedom of information and the press; he asked about Russia’s civil society, and the equality of everyone before the law. Why do miners go to the quarry as if to their certain death? Why has the police turned into a punitive body? Why are peaceful protestors meetings dispersed with such abandon? Does the government’s current plans include serious and honest democratization of the country?

The Prime Minister replied as if he were reciting by rote: “without normal democratic development, the country will not have a future… but a professional approach required a balanced analysis of both the legal and economic situation… you can’t paint all the police with the same colour…”. It is clear to most that the shadow of general secretaries of times past appeared in the Kremlin some time ago, dictating every words and intonation of Russia’s current politicians. The only people such speeches fool are the philistines who sit at home, brainwashed by television.

Only naïve people can expect the truth from the ruler. Shevchuk is not one of them, an important fact in itself given the rare open opposition to this flow of nonsense.

I should perhaps remind the reader that the event took place in St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theater, before a charitable concert held in aid of children suffering from cancer. The prime minister’s image makers decided that this was a convenient point for him to “meet with the intelligentsia” at an informal roundtable, to show the government’s concern for children to the people of Russia once more. A transcript was not only posted on the Prime Minister’s website several hours later, but it was also widely distributed on other sites. I received a link from a friend living in London when I turned on the computer at 9 a.m. I could only read it and weep. Apart from the organizer Chulpan Khamatova, only Shevchuk looked dignified in this discussion.

So what were the Prime Minister’s advisors thinking? It is instructive that organisers limited themselves to the bohemian set. Certainly, these are people who are naturally impulsive and clown-like. However, more importantly, they are essentially performers - dependent on TV popularity and directors - and used to taking orders. They are not representatives of the intelligentsia in the classical sense of the word, whether that be writers, scholars, doctors, teachers, architects, serious composers, theatrical and cinema producers. A talk with these people could go off course and cover industrial problems. The conversation with artists and musicians was obviously supposed to be purely of a propagandist and glamorous nature.

Instead the tea party went “mad” once Shevchuk rejected the established rules of procedure. He spoke about much more than freedom and rights of the individual, concerning himself with what we call “the fate of Russia”. A fate that still makes many people who have not yet lost the ability to think to get very nervous and even drink. Unfortunately, with each passing year, the question takes on a more “inherently Russian” feel. Other nations, so the kitchen table discussion goes, are capable of progress and a humane attitude, but we are not.

Shevchuk, leader of rock group DDT, differs from these people in that he openly talks of his concerns, both to his many-thousand-strong audience sat stadium concerts, and now to the first (officially second) face of the nation. Shevchuk has, over the course of his life, taken the opportunity to speak, ask and even instruct. He has been able to do this thanks to a talent as a musician and poet and also charisma as an honest person. People trust him, and consider him to be genuine. He is very popular among the young, and also among people up to the age of 55-60, who have followed Shevchuk’s musical career from the beginning, and consider him to be a continuation of the great Vladimir Vysotsky.Autumn” by DDT
Shevchuk’s life is quite typical for the Soviet Union. While that country’s body was disfigured by wars, famine and barbed wire, and its spirit (in the religious sense) reduced to state atheism, its “head” (i.e. the Soviet intelligentsia) always knew that children had to be taught.

Yury Yulianovich Shevchuk was born on 16 May 1957 in the village of Yagodny in the Magadan Oblast, in one of the northern fringes of the GULAG. His mother’s father, the Tatar Akram Gareev, moved there voluntarily from Ufa to avoid repressions. (In one interview, Shevchuk said that his great-grandfather was a mullah, repressed in the 1930s). Yury’s mother, Faina Akramovna, was a radio operator, publisher of a wall newspaper, and occasional amateur singer (she later became an artist). Yury’s father, Yulian Sosfenovich, was an officer, reseve major and disabled veteran of the Great Patriotic War, originally from Ukraine. Throughout his formative years, Yury had contact with exiled political prisoners, who were generally thoughtful and highly cultured.

In 1964, the family moved to Nalchik in Kabardino-Balkaria (North Caucasus), where Yury went to school, started drawing and playing music. In 1970, the family moved again, this time to Ufa, Bashkiria. Both Ufa and Nalchik are cultural mixing pots, inhabited by a multitude of national minorities. From childhood, Shevchuk saw the ways of life of different peoples, as he later did in the large (essentially multi-ethnic) cities of Moscow and Leningrad, in which everyone lived alike and called themselves “Russians” (apart from Jews, whose identity was simply glossed over).

In Ufa, Yury played and sang in a school music group, but actually enrolled to study as a drawing teacher in the faculty of art and graphic design of the Ufa pedagogical institute. He acted in student theatre, wrote and performed his own songs, and even won a prize at the Bashkiria political song competition. In 1980, he started a group which recorded its first album at the Bashkiria television recording studio, which was known as DDT-1.

Two years later, the group were unexpectedly announced winners in the national “Golden Tuning Fork” competition, with news of their victory being published in the Soviet youth newspaper “Komsomolskaya Pravda”. In order to take part in the competition, the group had to come up with a name, calling itself “DDT”. Everyone in the country knew the abbreviation stood for a powerful chemical insect powder, used to kill cockroaches and other nasty insects; while the idea of “poisoning with insect powder” was itself often used in Soviet sketch pieces and cartoons in unmasking peoples “vices”. In this way, and perhaps not entirely consciously, Shevchuk announced a position on the side of the dissidents (the only possible one for a rock star).

A short while later, the group secretly recorded a second album - “The Pig on the Rainbow” - distributing around the country to underground fame. They courted controversy. One concert - at the Ufa palace of oil workers - caused such a scandal with the local authorities that Shevchuk was forced to move to Cherepovets. It was there that he recorded his third album, simply entitled “Compromise”. 

In May 1983, DDT played at the main stadium of the country - Luzhniki in Moscow - at the festival “Rock for peace”. While the concert was filmed by central television, Shevchuk and his band members did not see themselves on screen, since their songs were simply cut.

A new stage in Shevchuk’s life began in 1985, when he moved to Leningrad with his family. At the time, a move to the city with its “second culture” and “culture of the underground” was the only possible path for an artist. Leningrad had become a city of artists, poets, musicians, writers, photographers and independent film directors: a community of rebels who did not want to work within the confinements of official socialist realism. Of course, the KGB kept the “underground” under close observation, and did its best to restrain it, often by using methods of intimidation. It was, however, powerless to ban the movement completely.

Yury Shevchuk and DDT thus became part of the legendary Leningrad rock club, which included such musicians as Boris Grebenshchikov, Sergei Kuryokhin, Viktor Tsoi, Konstantin Kinchev, Mike Naumenko, Alexander Bashlachev, Vyacheslav Butusov and dozens of other groups and musicians. Shevchuk, like others, worked as a janitor, stoker and night watchman, working not to serve the regime, but real people. They earned some money, and had a lot of free time to write songs and rehearse.

The situation had already begun to change as the regime entered its final years. In spring 1987, Shevchuk and DDT were headliners at the 5th Leningrad rock festival. The same year, they recorded a song - “I received this role" - on the official government record label Melodiya (with 1.5 million copies made). This single joined Viktor Tsoi’s “Changes!” and Boris Grebenshchikov’s “Train on fire” in becoming hits for a generation.


The song telling the story of a drinking session at the home of a corrupt FSB general

After that came the “bandit” years of the 1990s. And then the fat “zeros” with the power vertical, breadwinners and freeloaders. It is extremely unfortunate that many creative figures joined this very vertical, while leaving their former colleagues unfunded and unable to make a film, stage a large-scale production or gather together an orchestra… Mass culture killed the culture of the masses - even if it was Soviet culture - and pop began to rule.

Rock music has also changed drastically since the end of the Soviet years. Typically, its most talented practitioners died young (or killed themselves): Tsoi, Bashlachev, Kuryokhin, Naumenko, and then Ilya Kormiltsev, Yegor Letov along with many others are no longer with us. Some repeated the fate of European rebels: they grew up, started a family, and abandoned their art as an open protest. Some have disappeared into the shadows. Andrey Makarevich is now a TV cooking show host.

Shevchuk is in the trinity of headliners of modern Russian-language rock. Their respective roles are, it seems, clearly defined: Boris Grebenshchikov has turned to neutral-philosophical “Russian Buddhism”; Konstantin Kinchev of Alisa has taken up an aggressive Russian Orthodox stance, in full support of Putin’s government; while Shevchuk has abandoned lyricism to take a civic position. Shevchuk follows in a worthy Russian tradition that has existed in Russian poetry since the time of Pushkin, who described his main achievement as “in a harsh age… [glorifying] freedom and ... mercy for the fallen”.

Even though the popularity of Russian rock is lower than in the perestroika years, each member of this trinity is still able to garner huge audiences in countries of the former USSR and among emigrants abroad. Rock musicians are very much part of the machine of show business now; and expensive ticket prices have caused many young people to doubt the sincerity of highly-paid “idols”, singing as they do about equality and brotherhood.

On the other hand, we see a return of what has, since the time of Pushkin, been referred to as the dilemma of “The Poet and the Tsar”, i.e. when the regime feels it is necessary to ingratiate itself with the favourites of the electorate, put medals on their chests and shake their hands. Everyone can see this, but it is hard to blame the artists. Their choice is clear: if you try to protest, the hand of “administrative resource” will immediately show you its power; you will no longer be shown on TV, and you will find it difficult to work as an artist.

You won’t see Yury Shevchuk on television. You will see him consistently, openly and fearlessly talking and singing about what he sees as the “monstrosity” of Russia. There is not a single controversial topic he has not examined, whether that be Chechnya and the army or the preservation of historical monuments and St. Petersburg in general. Surprisingly enough, there are only two artists of this kind in the whole country – the other one being famous film director Alexander Sokurov, who never misses an opportunity to tell high-ranking officials and the people exactly what he thinks about the fate of Russia. Sokurov’s audience is the thinking elite of society; and not the crowds of people who gather at huge concerts or listen to Shevchuk on their earphones.

Shevchuk (it is no coincidence that he once worked as a teacher) talks with his young listeners not only through songs and poems, but with direct words (which are widely known thanks to YouTube clips). Not only does the 52-year-old musician unmask what he describes as a “harsh, brutal political vertical”, but he also tells young people, with the tone of a parent: "think with your head, love your country, and take responsibility for it and for yourself”. In his words, “the songs you sing will determine the country you live in”.

Do people listen to him? Obviously not everyone, but it is interesting to note that leading government figure and businessman Alfred Kokh recently used a verse from Shevchuk’s song “When the oil runs out” when analyzing the Russian economy in his blog on Russian e-zine www.slon.ru.

“Rock ‘n’ roll’s dead, but I’m not just yet” Grebenshchikov sang back in 1983. Five years on, with the Soviet system in real decay, this sounded a touch too dramatic. However, with the regime once again destroying the underground and taming protest, the slogan sound once again has purchase. With his work, Shevchuk has shown that rock music is possible when “something is bad”

Shevchuk is clearly very much “alive”, and not only as a lyricist: his actions clearly match the words he sings. He helps young musicians. In January 1995 he flew to Chechnya, to the area of military actions, where he sang for Russian soldiers and local residents. He also went to Tajikistan (1996), Kosovo (1999, 2000) and Afghanistan (2002). He speaks at dissidents’ meetings and other civic events. He takes part in charity concerts, playing solo and together with DDT.

And, as we know, one of these charity concerts became famous – not for the amount of money that was raised for sick children, but for the dialogue between poet and ruler. The former asked: “How much longer?”; and the latter, of course, could not reply.

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