DDT frontman Yuri Shevchuk speaks about the brazen Kremlin leadership and mass and civil society in Russia
The Russian rock band DDT finished its tour around Ukraine with new programmes – “Inache” (Different) and “Solnyk” (A solo concert). Capacity crowds and almost three hours of highest-calibre intellectual interaction. Yuri Shevchuk’s songs and recitative poems are his pain, his desperate cry about life in Russia, a country he sees as a “woman with a smashed face.” He spoke with The Ukrainian Week in a small dressing room in the Lviv Opera Theatre.
U.W.: When we listen to your songs, particularly new ones, we are struck by the pain for Russia that pulsates in every line.
Yes, it hurts. It hurts badly. I am a patriot of my country. Incidentally, [Vladimir] Putin is, too, but we have two different types of patriotism. Putin and his colleagues are jingoists and embrace the patriotism of marches and posters showing a very nice person who is absolutely empty inside. There is nothing there except words. My patriotism is this pain. I have a personal need to feel in my heart the entire guilt that my country may have. This is the way it should be – apply your heart to all the failures and problems and not only to the good things, which we also have. This is true patriotism, in my opinion. It is the patriotism of an artist, citizen and simply a human being. You have to be a real person who sees a real world.
I recently attended the burial of film director Sergey Govorukhin who had just turned 50. His heart failed – he took everything that was going on in the country too close to his heart. I have lost many other friends like that in the past while. I even have this line: “With salvos of thousands of shrill-gorged heart attacks our fathers met the new day.” There is a loud cry of such heart attacks across entire Russia, because conscientious, honest people are going under.
U.W.: What will Russia face after Putin’s victory?
The brightest of futures, but we will all be blinded by its light. In general, please don't doom our country like this, leaving it no options. You shouldn't say anything like this, because words are material. For example, he [Putin] will not overcome me. And even being president, he will not be able to overcome several million wonderful Russian citizens. And this is already a lot.
U.W.: Social thought in Russia harbours two myths: Western-type liberal democracy and a paternalist society ruled by a tsar. Do you see a third option?
There is a line in one of my songs exactly about this: “We very much want to believe in something else, but how can we drink from this bottomless cup?” I am saddened by Russians’ perpetual faith in a good tsar. I'm irritated when our Kremlin leadership, in its words, busies itself with saving Russia and, to make matters worse, forces people to believe it. There is too much mythology in everything. Perhaps this is how my compatriots escape from reality. Every person, to say nothing about bloggers, mythologises himself. The current situation in Russia is itself a great myth.
U.W.: Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the founders of the dissident movement in the USSR, recently said about you: “Yuri Shevchuk has a very strong personality. And if the situation in Russia deteriorates, he can lead a crowd with his abilities.” What do say to this?
OK, I agree. I will be a commander of a guerrilla unit. I'm joking, of course, so that I would not perpetuate the myths we talked about. On a serious note, as long as there is no shooting, everything will be peaceful. If, however, something like that happens, every participant of these events will have to make a choice between good and evil every minute. And this is horrible torment, believe me. I've been in hotspots and I saw this choice with my own eyes – I would not wish it to anyone. At the same time, I can say that if the Fatherland is in danger, we will take adequate actions, even though I have great faith and pray that nothing of the kind would ever happen and that God would grant peace to Russia so that everything would be civilised. The experiences of 1991, and even more so those of 1993, should not be repeated.
I remembered tonight during the concert how a conflict erupted in Karabakh in 1988 and then spread. I've also said that there has to be a revolution of spirit rather than looting and rebellion. Our Kremlin authorities say that revolution and rebellion are the same thing. Unfortunately, many perceive a revolution of the spirit to be exactly like this, but these are people with very small brains. Today Russia is a corrupt, unspiritual country that has no mercy for people. Society has been stratified into princes, with or without party membership cards, and ordinary, hard-working people. The only solution to this situation is equality of all before the law and democracy. The country does not have a future without this.
I have never belonged to any party and never will, even though people have invited me and told me it's necessary. People have even collected signatures to have me registered as a presidential candidate. I declined, of course. Now if I imagine myself as a president, I would, first of all, secure absolute freedom of press as it is fixed in the Russian Constitution. Then I would eradicate corruption but, most importantly, I would invite young people – intelligent, independent and unspoiled – to take key posts.
U.W.: Is there a possibility that Russia may break up, considering the division line you mentioned that still exists in the minds and hearts of people?
A corrupt official on the other side of the barricades is the same Russian citizen as the rest. The problem lies elsewhere – corruption has permeated everything so much that it has become “corruption in the law.” The situation is the same in Ukraine, by the way. It is extremely difficult to eliminate, but it can be done. It takes a great desire and hard work. Many of my acquaintances who accept bribes are burdened by this fact. It’s a moral burden. They’ve found themselves in a system where you simply cannot survive otherwise. If you exit the system, your family will begin to starve and your entire life will break down. The system of mutual responsibility does not forgive treason.
U.W.: What needs to be done to overcome the system?
The authorities have to be closer to people and stop their intrigues. Everyone can tell when the government is lying. People in Russia — and in Ukraine — no longer believe the government, but they are forced to endure the lies. We have lost trust among people, and on all levels at that. We need to restore this trust and also education. In order to overcome the current system, the country has to be led by people who have a deep desire for these things to happen, and only then does it have to pass the necessary legislation. No violence will work here, because it takes trust.
American economist Francis Fukuyama aptly notes in his novel Trust that the concept of trust has completely disappeared in both Russian and Ukrainian economy and politics. There’s no trust between a worker and his employer, between lower-level and senior bureaucrats and so on. And it is true of all spheres – there is no trust between a captain and a soldier, either. Now Fukuyama estimates that trust accounts for 20 per cent of GDP. The lowliest of workers in Japan enjoys so much trust that he can stop a conveyor belt at a plant without hesitation in case of a failure. If you try to do the same here, they'll kill you. What I'm getting at is that everyone in Russia has to change, and we should begin with ourselves. Everyone excels at accusations in Russia: this man is a jerk and that one a moron and so on. But the accuser himself has stolen something small – whatever he had the guts to steal.
I live in a countryside dacha. My neighbour cut down two trees. His boss cuts down trees by the thousands. The scale is different, but the essence is the same. So when we say that we have a dirty government, it means that we ourselves are dirty. If we become cleaner, politics will be cleaner; otherwise it won’t be able to rule over us. This is what we should be working on. What I busy myself with at every concert in Russia and the former Soviet Union is bringing out the good in people. For example, today in the Lviv audience, just like anywhere else, there was a bunch of people dressed in bulletproof vests of the government up to their ears. And I was so happy to see their faces finally express some emotion. I'm proud of doing this work: talking about understanding, trust and love – not the kind of love that pop songs are about but love on a different level.
U.W.: You have said on numerous occasions that there are many thinking and honest people in Russia. Are the recent protests evidence of nascent and long-awaited civil society?
This is the continuation of labour, because the first time we went into labour in 1991, we failed and the baby died as a result. Now we have conceived a second time, and the process will be normal. I'm sure of this. Right now I’m standing with flowers by the maternity house, waiting for the baby to be presented. It's going to be a big baby, at least five kilos.
The better part of young people who think, analyse and understand everything have already been born in Russia. And in general there are many smart people.
When there's a fire in the state, something needs to be done. You've got to awaken some civil spirit in yourself. The entire country is sick and tired of this brazen government. Just like many other Russians, I am for fair elections. The protests in Bolotnaya Square were orderly with no fights and no display of brazenness. I think we could have seen a nascent civil society even earlier, when we fought for the Khimki forest near Moscow. My fellow citizens saw that there were people who came to fight for trees, skies and freedom. They began to believe that it was up to people to purify the country and change things for the better.
U.W.: Many people say that the white ribbon movement in Russia is the movement of the bourgeois intelligentsia. Do you agree?
No, I don't. I have been thrown here and there a lot in my life, so I saw and talked to a huge number of people who have now joined this movement. For example, I know many dissenting military men, doctors, teachers, taxi drivers, drivers and simply workers. The differences between strata have nothing to do with it, because all hell broke loose, as they say, in Russia: people are no longer willing to put up with the feudal society which has been built in the country.
U.W.: Are the Russians content with this society in terms of financing?
We shouldn't draw a front line that splits our own country and our own people, and all the more so social classes or professions. Believe me, there are enough jerks in my own profession, i.e., among musicians. But everyone is used to putting all the blame on special services.
We recently had a concert in Stavropol, and I was approached by serious guys in suits after the concert. They had the best places in the parterre. And they whispered into my ear: “We, too, are against United Russia.” They only spoke into my ear because they were officials. I was also approached by FSB majors who said: “We’re sick of it.” I know countless operatives who are honestly trying to fight corruption. We sit in the kitchen and they tell me that they opened 50 cases against bribe takers they had caught red-handed. They handed over the cases to the Prosecutor's Office, and everyone was released. In general, both Russia and Ukraine still rests on these kinds of simple and honest civil servants.
U.W.: What does “Different” mean? Different from whom?
“Different” means for, not against. It means “for a different Russia” in which citizens would ask themselves at least some questions rather than be content with answers the government feeds them. In general, a person begins from an ability to stop and think: “To be or not to be?” These are the questions that shape personality, and when a person also begins to seek answers to these questions on his own, it is simply beautiful. But it also means living in a different way. It means not buying everyday, commercialised banalities that turn people into nothing more than more objects of mass consumption in a consumer society. Viktor Pelevin wrote in his last novel that is ridiculous when an artist or painter begins to speak against the consumer society. That's a good point, actually, but for some reason I don't feel like laughing. Unlike Pelevin, I’m saddened, because the power of advertisement is such that you look at people you know and see that they are different; they have changed completely. We need to protest, and this is where I will debate with Viktor. I will try to beat his intellectual pessimism with the optimism of my idealism.
U.W.: Where do you get the courage to not stick to old hits but involve new young musicians and together produce programmes as good as the best in the West?
It's not courage. It's just creative discontent that pesters me and Konstantin Shumailov and Lyosha Fedichev with whom I have made “Different.” If you consider creative pursuits the main thing in your life, how can you simply strum the guitar without putting your soul into what you're doing? In this case there's nothing left for you to do except to simply put yourself on a treadmill and live with it. Drink a shot and do another concert. I recently found myself in the same dressing room with [Andrey] Makarevich before some performance. He was sitting there all sombre and then asked me: “Will you drink?” I said: “No, I don’t drink.” And he said: “And I can’t love humankind without 50 grams.”
I believe that we need to live a full life every day. There has never been a paradise on earth. There is a struggle between good and evil in every person. Sometimes we fall, sometimes we rise. But the main thing is to work.
Alexey Fedichev, guitarist, DDT:
Rock music is conditioned by the times and their demands. It was mainstream music when it responded to the protests that were growing in society. It was in a steep decline until recent times, but now it is experiencing a certain revival. One person or band can hardly change anything here. We simply need to work and do our thing well.
We are not stupid and we understand what way to move. There are different situations in DDT, but most of what we do are group decisions and ideas. Yuri Shevchuk and I belong to different generations but perceive each other the way we are. We are essentially an opposition music band. Of course, we already have problems, but why should we be afraid?
Frontman and founder of the rock band DDT, a musician, poet and composer.
1957– born in Magadan Region to a Ukrainian father, whose parents had been exiled to Kolyma, and a Tatar mother, whose parents had been exiled beyond the Arctic Circle
1979 – graduated from the Faculty of the Arts and Graphics, Bashkir Pedagogical University
1980 – DDT gives its first concerts
1982 – the first protest song about the Soviet war in Afghanistan; Shevchuk is summoned by the KGB
1987 – moves to Leningrad where he works as a street sweeper, stoker and night watchman and writes philosophical, social and lyrical songs
Since the 1990s – tours former Soviet countries and the rest of the world: Germany, France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Finland, Hungary, Israel, Japan, the USA, Canada, Australia, etc.
1993 – open resistance to the Russian government over the war in Chechnya
1995 – makes a trip to Chechnya, performs before soldiers and videos tragic events
1999 – publishes the first book of poetry Zashchitniki Troi (Defenders of Troy)
2004 – performs on the Maidan in Kyiv to support the Orange Revolution
2007 – receives the Triumph award but at the same time almost all his songs are banned from broadcasting in Russia by censorship
2009 – publishes the second book of poetry Solnik (A Solo Concert)
Since 2005 – participates in protests, sharply criticises the Russian government at concerts and in his numerous interviews
Shevchuk has released a number of DDT albums and solo albums. He has played in many films, composed music to them and done voice-over for historical TV projects