The Russian Optimist: An Interview With Opposition Rocker Yuri Shevchuk
Yuri Shevchuk performs unplugged at a protest rally on Pushkinskaya Square in 2010 after police didn’t allow musicians to set up electronic sound equipment. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze.)
“What will become of our country and of us?”
Russian rocker Yuri Shevchuk first asked that question in his song “What Is Autumn?,” written during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now he’s asking it again in Putin-era Russia.
With the exuberant stage presence of Bruce Springsteen and the activist politics of John Lennon, Shevchuk has been a leading voice of the Russian opposition since well before the start of mass protests in December 2011. It was Shevchuk, after all, who broke up the flow of a televised meeting with Vladimir Putin in 2010 with pointed questions on free speech and government abuse, one of the only times Russia’s leader has been publicly debated in such a manner.
Shevchuk and his band, DDT, are well-known among Russian listeners for a string of classic songs stretching back to the early 1980s. They’ll bring their new concert program, Otherwise, to New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom this Sunday, attempting to get around the language barrier with video art and printed translations of the lyrics.
In an interview with The Nation, Shevchuk discussed youth politics, Pussy Riot and why he’s hopeful the Russian opposition movement will continue to grow. Cynicism and greed are going out of style, and Russia’s youth are asking what will become of their country and of them, Shevchuk says.
KvH: What do you think of the recent ban on American adoptions of Russian children?
Yuri Shevchuk: We’ve got to raise the quality of healthcare, and then perhaps there won’t be any need for Americans to adopt Russian kids. Over the past five or six years, DDT has participated in charity events run by Chulpan Khamatova to improve healthcare for sick kids; we collected money to build a children’s oncological center. We’ve done a lot of work.
KvH: You said in an interview, perhaps it was on Echo [Moskvy radio station], that the new generation in Russia is more politicized.
KvH: I thought so. How can that be?
I’m kidding, of course. The new generation is not exactly politicized. The point is that every generation lives in a given time period, but all people are different.
We’ve taken [this year’s concert program] to over sixty cities in Russia and abroad. Everywhere I’ve spent time after concerts talking to young people. Active young people, the ones with a youthful glint in their eye. They are of course more politicized than the generation of the early 2000s and 2010s. That was a very cynical time, and young people were mostly interested in themselves.
Now, in the 2010s, I think we’ve reached kind of a breaking point with the charismatic part of the young generation, progressive young people. I remember I was hanging out with the leaders of the [radical performance art] group Voina back in 2010, and…I asked them, “What is it that you want to achieve?” [Pussy Riot member] Nadya Tolokonnikova, [environmental activist Yevgeniya] Chirikova and Voina, they replied that they wanted to make politics “fashionable for young people.” It’s true that they’ve succeeded at that.
In the past two or three years, a lot has changed. Young people have started to ask more profound questions. They don’t want to leave the country. The slogan of the 2000s was “Get rich.” Now this has become secondary and the main question is, “What will become of our country and of us?”
Overall in Russia, things are going well, in my view. Because there’s this dialogue going on, this struggle for civil liberties. Russia is emerging as a state. Well, yes, there are reactionary forces, that’s happening, too. You can look at the world through dark glasses, thinking that everything is bad, terrible. But if you do this, you’ll lose everything, the future. These progressive young people are afraid of nothing.
AL: On the one hand, young people all know when there’s a protest happening and go to it, but on the other hand, it seems like they’re not ready to sacrifice the way Soviet dissidents did. The government is cracking down on all these rallies, and people are asking what will come next.
You have to delve into history here. There’s been a change in the political structure, which happened very recently. We haven’t lived in a real democracy for one second. It’s been pseudo-democracy. Before, we had communism, with a prefix “feudal” in front of it, now we have a feudal democracy, the so-called “sovereign democracy.” Young people sense the truth, as they can at that age. They know who is true and sincere, and because the leaders of the opposition are tainted by the privatization [of the 1990s] and have sins hanging on them because, of course, they lived at that time, the people don’t trust them.
The bourgeois democratic revolution that took place in Russia in 1991, it held great promise. I remember those eyes; I was on the barricades back then, too, when everybody wanted civil rights and liberties, and more liberal conditions, and wealth. But the leaders of that revolution, they went ahead and created new owners.… In six months, they gave all the assets to former Young Communist League activists and forgot about civil liberties in the process. The people didn’t get property nor civil liberties, nor new civic institutions.
Of course, now the situation in the country is such that I think we need to rebuild trust in the word “democracy” among ordinary people, which is what DDT is doing with its art.… It’s a lot of work. You have to talk, explain, do kind of educational work. So many times, our people have been grabbed by the throat and jerked this way and that, and now there is a huge reservoir of mistrust for the authorities, and for the opposition. No one trusts anybody.
KvH: I want to ask you about patriotism. You have your own conception of it, and Putin has his. This topic is very much in play in Russia now. What’s your definition?
I think being a patriot is great. But not for show. The government does it for show, they hang it like a poster on every fence. This is a profanation of patriotism that has endured from the old communist regime. My own patriotism, and that of my friends, is expressed in the songs that we’re going to sing:
Our patriotism doesn’t run high,
It’s not a glass raised at a banquet, or a nude dancer.
It’s not anthems, marches or the debris of speeches.
It’s simple, naive and perhaps even ridiculous.
But it’s not a nightstick, it’s not a nation and its leader,
It’s not an iron flower in a granite hand.
It’s where we go to bury the rain,
It’s the sun dipping into a river.
KvH: What about your attitude toward the Russian Orthodox Church? Is it hard to be a believer?
If you want to know, I’ll tell you that the church as an institution was destroyed by its construction projects. Imagine the tens of thousands of churches that had to be rebuilt. The old ladies didn’t have that kind of money to give to the church. So the priests went to the rich, to gangsters, to government officials and to bureaucrats.
The priests, some of them, lost their sense of reality … They started to think more about business, about building one bell tower after another and gilding them. They began to bless cars for gangsters, their wheels, then their dachas, and even their guns. It’s terrible.
But not all of them, of course. I know plenty of younger priests who do not share the ideology of the Moscow Patriarchy. They serve our crippled country, the country that is exhausted by all this, by various social woes, by the perestroikas and God-knows-what government, by civil wars.… These priests are good, young, smart, not interested in money. The future of Christianity in Russia belongs to them and not to those merchants. In short, there is a struggle here, like everywhere, an internal struggle.
KvH: Did Pussy Riot play a role in all this?
I know many priests who were opposed to putting those girls, the Pussy Riot girls, behind bars. I talked on the phone with them a lot, and many think that jailing them was, first of all, a blow to the faith, to its authority among the people. That’s how it happens sometimes. They wanted to punish one group of people, and instead they punished themselves.
AL: Should they have been let go?
Of course. My friends among the young priests all think so.
KvH: Is it true that Putin called you after that dinner when you confronted him?
Putin didn’t call, he sent me a cable. A week later.
KvH: What did he say?
He wished me good health. He wrote that—I don’t remember exactly—he understands there are people who share my point of view in the country, and he should be in contact with them and hear what they have to say. And he wished me good health. I still have that cable somewhere.
AL: Do you think you had gotten through to him?
Judging by what’s happening now, no. Not yet.
AL: What about the future of the opposition? Will there be some sort of breakthrough, or will it develop gradually?
As for the opposition, the euphoria of the past year is flagging a little, so to speak. But that’s normal. You take a breath, and then you have to breathe out. Many people in the opposition are thinking about things, they’ve gained some experience, not much, but they have, and that’s very important. On the one hand, there’s history, and on the other hand, there’s personal experience, which is also history but felt with your own heart. The opposition will get wiser. It will seek new ways to struggle. … It will develop in spite of everything.
AL: What about the nationalists and fascists who have joined in the rallies?
I don’t like it, to be honest, when everything is in one pile. There’s the opinion that we should all band together to get rid of Putin. But what comes next, though? Anything could happen. A radical could come to power who would be a thousand times worse than Putin. We know our history, how things can turn out in Russia, God forbid. There’s so much anger because of the hard struggle for survival, and it could easily turn out like the Weimar Republic in the late 1920s. There’s no need to rush. There is a Russian saying: “You should rush only when you’re catching fleas.” We shouldn’t rush, or turn radical.
KvH: Do you think that art can change the political system?
I want Russia to get into a more creative mood. What’s lacking in our country is a creative spirit for people to share new ideas, to carry them out, to argue—within the confines of the law, of course—to live and breathe. Knowing history, I believe that this will come. You know, there are two ways of looking at our history, a pessimistic way and an optimistic way. Total pessimists say that all reforms and good things in our country lead to terror, and optimists say that all terror ushers in reforms. So, go ahead, choose.
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