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Analysis & Opinion
10.11.11 Protest Rock
By Dan Peleschuk

The release of famed Russian rock group DDT’s new album arrives during a politically interesting moment in Russia. Known for its anti-establishment stance and poetic, outspoken lyrics, the band kicks off its album “Otherwise” and a world tour in the midst of growing disenchantment with the regime and the likely return to the presidency of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It seems like fertile ground for the anti-government rockers, but does DDT still have what it takes to continue its three-decade-long legacy of musical dissent?

Frontman Yuri Shevchuk has rarely shied away from voicing his opposition to the ruling regime, whether it be Soviet or contemporary Russian. Upon forming DDT in 1980, he, like many Soviet rock musicians of the era, teetered somewhere between official approval and tacit dissidence, winning a major state-sponsored award which helped launch DDT’s career. But after bouncing around Ufa, the band’s birthplace, Shevchuk moved the outfit to Leningrad, where they joined the likes of Boris Grebenshchikov and Viktor Tsoi in the underground Soviet rock scene. Since then, Shevchuk, with his deep and poetically crafty lyricism, has led the charge in urging Russians to think freely and openly, while criticizing the government for its abuse of human rights and stifling of free speech.

And the more popular DDT has become throughout the years, it seems, the more outspoken Shevchuk has been. As a human rights activist, he has staged benefit concerts in war-torn regions such as Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan. As a political activist, he has stepped up his criticism of the Putin regime, appearing at Strategy 31 protests and wooing crowds with acoustic renditions of songs that seem to extol the greatest virtues of the Russian soul. But likely the most poignant moment came in May 2010, when, at a meeting in St. Petersburg between Putin and a group of artists and musicians, Shevchuk unexpectedly confronted the prime minister, questioning whether he had a plan for developing Russia.

“Do you have a plan – a serious, developed, honest plan – for the liberalization and democratization of this country, so that civic organizations are not squeezed out and so we don’t have to be afraid of policeman anymore?” Shevchuk asked. Putin, visibly agitated and uncomfortable, did his best to dodge the question while straddling the party line – “We’re working on it” was vaguely his response – but the moment nevertheless stirred the Russian blogosphere and earned Shevchuk extra credit for facing down the leader of the system he has long cursed.

In regard to DDT’s new album, “Otherwise,” Shevchuk attempts to distance himself from the overt political messages that have long characterized his songwriting, carefully tiptoeing the line between soulful lyricism and a call to action. But with such tracks as “New Russia,” “Song about Freedom” and “They Came After You,” one would be inclined to assume otherwise. Nevertheless, the frontman insists that the songs carry a deeper, yet more general meaning with which many can relate.

“There aren’t any kind of politics [on ‘Otherwise’], God forbid,” he said in a November 8 interview with Echo of Moscow. “The album is about citizenship, but there are no politics on it – I don’t advise anyone to vote for a particular person. On the album, we talk about the fact that, ‘Dude, you can be free, you can have inner freedom.’ Politics is politics. But we are all citizens of the country, and such themes can be found on the album. But in terms of party politics, there are no particular declarations on there, nor have I ever made them.”

Shevchuk perhaps enjoys a cult-like status in post-Soviet Russia. Yet it’s likely a result of the narrow spectrum in which DDT operates. Whereas perestroika-era underground rock groups, such as DDT or Kino, embodied the voice of a generation disgruntled with the rusting Soviet regime, today there’s no such mantle to take up. In a revamped authoritarian system that tightly controls most media and enjoys a greater degree of public support, DDT’s fan base is limited mostly to the children of perestroika, now in their late 30s and 40s, as well as handfuls of young, liberal-minded urbanites. Today, the airwaves often seem packed with either pre-fabricated, heavily produced club music or softer acts that earn television time by remaining in the regime’s good graces.

“Shevchuk has never been in politics, never dived into the mud of political intrigues or big money,” wrote journalist Stanislav Gvizda for Echo of Moscow. “It’s just that his repertoire has always distinguished itself with civic undertones. It’s not merely music for performance – it’s food for thought, a breath of fresh air in the musty media landscape of totalitarian propaganda cultural entertainment.”

At the same time, however, some say that even though the tense political times may provide lyrical fodder for Shevchuk and his musings about the pitfalls of the system, things aren’t quite the same as they used to be for artists in the “protest rock” genre. Mark Yoffe, an expert on Soviet and Russian counterculture and rock music, said artists like Shevchuk today simply don’t have the same effect today as they did when their freedoms – and those of the rest of their country’s – were in greater danger.

“Soviet rock suffered much more repression, and out of that came this glorious Russian rock tradition, which today is kind of lost because the music was very good under different circumstances,” he said. “In today’s Russia, rock music doesn’t need to defend itself. It’s a bona fide, respected art form, which doesn’t have any specific restrictions on itself. So in this case, rock musicians find themselves in the same situation that any other dissenter in today’s Russia would find themselves.”

Yoffe, a curator at George Washington University’s International Countercultural Archive, added that while Shevchuk will likely remain a prominent voice in the liberal opposition, his effect will be minimized – and not only because of a lesser demand today for protest rock, but because it simply doesn’t irk the government like it used to. Though Putin may have indeed squirmed when Shevchuk challenged him, it is the prime minister who, perhaps, may have the last laugh. “Rock was a very marginal thing,” said Yoffe, “but now it is not so marginal, and having lost this marginality, one would really have to start offending the government very, very badly to have them notice you.”
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