Sex, Drugs, & Politics

Yuri Shevchuk

The Season of Discontent keeps chugging along in Russia this spring. Kaliningrad has attracted every political gadfly and climber around, and next Saturday’s demonstration promises to be the mother of all theatre. Who will win the rallying competition: the Kremlin stooges (like Zhirinovsky), dispatched to rouse the counter-protesting rabble? Or the Muscovite liberal imports, who are relying on local communists to allow them to march under their banner?

Meanwhile, back in Moscow, there have been two big stories that involve musicians publicly criticizing the authorities.

On the one hand, we have Noize MC, a Russian rap group led by 25-year-old Ivan Alekseev, who released a song, “Мерседес S666,” attacking Anatoly Barkov, the Lukoil vice president whose car collided with and killed two Russian women at the beginning of the month. As a result, Alekseev earned instant celebrity, and was immediately interviewed on Эхо Москвы on March 4th.

In that interview, there are two things worth noting: (1) it turns out that he was a close personal friend of one of the victim’s sisters, and (2) he evades questions about whether or not his other music is political. Take a look at this interaction:

Interviewer: How often do you write such socially meaningful songs on “current events,” so to speak?
Alekseev: Somehow, a lot of songs appear to be on current events.
I: And you’ve even got one on Dymovskii, I think?
A: No, I don’t have one about Dymovskii. I don’t want … in general, I’m not a journalist but a musician. And I have no intention of repeating journalists’ work. So, at any rate, these kinds of issues should be raised first by the mass media. This incident happened to affect me concretely, and so I did what I did. It doesn’t mean that now I’m going to become a chatterbox [птица-говорун] on similar questions. This would devalue the very idea of these other issues, so I’m not going to do that.

It’s with this exchange in mind that Maksim Kononenko criticizes the hype around Nozie MC. What is being hailed as an explosion of civil society activism, Kononenko argues, is in fact just another example of people looking out for their friends. While there’s nothing at all wrong with this in principle, he points out that this is exactly the problem that has plagued the anti-government movement since the first days of Putin. (He cites the Svetlana Bakhmina case as an example of how campaigns mobilize around individuals, and then disperse the moment that well-connected person is freed from his or her plight.)

The other big headlines-grabber has been Yuri Shevchuk’s four-minute rant against the authorities at Moscow’s Olympic Hall on March 7th. I found a transcript online, which seems to be about 95% complete, and I translated it in full right here:

Greetings, dear friends! This year, rock-n-roll, all over the world, is already fifty-years-old. And when we play at these festivals, I always remember the time at the very beginning, that Petersburg rock club, last century. This was, guys, a true revolution of the soul. This was rock-n-roll. And in the worst nightmare neither me nor my friends could have then dreamed up to what depths rock would sink.

Half of these new songs are about “tits and dicks” — by the multitude of our colleagues, who pole dance for  the fat corporations. These colleagues of ours, who welcome the police state on Red Square!

We’ve forgotten that rock — is a way out! It’s an exit from the dreary and the banal — a way to transcend the automatized mechanics of existence. It’s an exit from ourselves!

We’re born, we eat, we drink, we fuck, and then we’re dead — and that’s our whole life. And everything’s good, excellent, like butter. So we, like cattle, just watch and chew and keep our mouths shut. Bread and circuses, dully singing for the thousandth time some stupid love song. This is a bunch of brainless monkeys and apes sitting beside each other in a cage, wanking onto their neighbor’s ass. By the way, congratulations to all the ladies, happy international women’s day!

We want, guys, to be proud of our own country, of our own creativity. But life and art are inextricably linked. And what is happening now? Life goes on: the rich get richer, the poor get poorer … and corruption is total. The system built up in our country now is a violent, very inhuman power. The people are tortured not just in prisons and camps, but in orphanages and hospitals. How many devils are there now, guys?

For instance, what about Khodorkovsky and his friend? How long can we punish them? They’ve already paid back all their debts. How long can we steamroll them under another Gulag? And on the other hand, look at how many bastards there are among the authorities, feeding off us, in uniforms, with their sirens atop their cars. How they rob us, murder us on the roads, shoot us in stores! And nobody, by and large, pays for any of this.

I’m speaking to you from the heart, my friends. Everything is up to you. Whatever kinds of songs you sing, that’s the kind of world we’ll have! I’m no politician. But rock — it isn’t when everything is good — it’s when something isn’t. And that’s what we need to sing about and address. Thanks, everybody!

Kononenko wrote a scathing op-ed about Shevchuk, as well. (It’s no coincidence, by the way, that he’s taken such an interest in these musician-related stories. In addition to writing about current events, Maksim is also an avid music critic.) Much of that article has to do with opinions about music that I found to be intensely boring (Kononenko goes on and on about how songs about love shouldn’t be considered banal, but appropraite, etcetera). But there was this relevant aside:

A few years ago Shevchuk [...] switched over to Khodorkovsky. He attends the trial, is excitedly received by Эхо Москвы, and, in front of 15 thousand people at Olympic Hall, he says, “How much can we torture Khodorkovsky? Why not torture somebody else instead?” Yes, just like that, not ‘let’s tear down all the prisons, and let a hundred flowers bloom,” as a rock-n-roller should. Instead, it’s “let’s free one guy, and stick somebody new in his place.”

Here I think Kononenko is being a bit unfair. Shevchuk does focus singularly on Khodorkovsky, but his Olympic Hall speech suggests that criminals in the government should be sent to prison — not that random people should be offered up to replace his pet oligarch. Though Kononenko might have a point that these kinds of human rights campaigns (centered around rich, well-connected elites) are deeply flawed, there’s nothing particularly un-rock-star-ish about screaming that the government should be put in jail. (Part of me suspects that Kononenko, a big fan of pop music, reacted so strongly in part because he was so offended by Shevchuk’s attack on contemporary Russian music.)

So what to make of Shevchuk’s speech? The first thing to note is that he’s not exactly a new convert to anti-Putinism. He was a vocal member of the Другая Россия movement a couple of years back, and, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian-Georgian War, he held an anti-war concert titled “Don’t Shoot.” As I mentioned above, he’s also regularly visited the courts to sit in the audience for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, afterwards reporting his notes on Эхо Москвы. (For instance, last July he said he would “with pleasure” dedicate a concert to the fallen Yukos executive.)

Even with the YouTube video available, commentators have disagreed about what is depicted. Brian Whitmore says, “Judging from the loud cheers Shevchuk received, he had a receptive audience,” whereas Взлгяд says of the exact same footage, “There are isolated claps in the hall, but the absolute majority of people were silent, given the general bewilderment of spectators.” Whitmore also says this video is “burning up the Russian Internet.” It has in fact received just 246,000 views on YouTube (Noize MC has 112,000) — roughly half the number of views for “A Depressed Whale,” a random cartoon that appeared on YouTube three days ago.

So the debate carries on, despite video evidence of exactly what happened, proving as well as could possibly be demonstrated that events in contemporary Russia are subject to the very latest in ideological interpretation and manipulation. My own impression is that Shevchuk got more applause than Взгляд seems willing to admit, though not the thunderous support that RFE/RL implies. The “sensation” attributed to this outburst (and to Noize MC’s, really quite awful, “song”) is extremely overblown.

We have to ask ourselves if the media would still present these stories in the same way, were they not already looking for news of popular unrest and upheaval. Examining the specifics of these events, and considering their history, does either Noize MC or Yuri Shevchuk foretell a hurricane of change bound for Russia?

No, probably not.