29 June 2022
An interview with Yury Shevchuk by Danila Galperovich for the Russian service of Voice of America
Leader of the band DDT in an interview with Voice of America’s Russian service, on why it’s important to talk about peace in times of war and Russian perceptions of the attacks on Ukraine.
Yury Shevchuk is the leader of the band DDT, winner of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize, and one of the most famous Russian rock musicians. He spoke onstage at a concert in his home city of Ufa about how in Ukraine “the elderly, women, and children are dying because of some Napoleonic plans of yet another Caesar.” Some of the rock musician’s other words were less fit to print but were powerful. These words, which called on people to not think of their homeland as specific body parts of their leader, gained wide popularity.
The Russian government reacted to these statements, but their reaction was mixed. The Bashkir police decided to bring an administrative case against Shevchuk for “discrediting the use of the Russian armed forces in order to protect the interests of Russia and its citizens and maintaining international peace and security.” However, the court in St. Petersburg where the case was transferred sent it back to Bashkiria because “the report does not describe the event of the offense, namely how Shevchuk expressed public calls for obstructing the use of the armed forces of the Russian Federation.” But the case isn’t closed — the investigation is ongoing.
DDT has started canceling concerts, including a concert in Moscow celebrating 40 years of the band, which was supposed to have taken place on June 10. It’s been moved to June of next year, due to the fact that “the organizers were unable to get approval for the event from the Mayor’s office.”
Many years ago, the author of this text witnessed Yuri Shevchuk give a powerful public rebuke to Maxim Shevchenko, one of the foremost Russian pro-government journalists. At the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2008, he said to the propagandist that the latter was “igniting people dawn to dusk for a war against Ukraine and Georgia, and that’s not patriotism — it’s chauvinism.”
Russia realized all of Shevchuk’s fears — Georgia was attacked that same year, and the war with Ukraine started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, entering a phase of open war in February of this year.
Back then Shevchuk said, in our conversation after he spoke at the forum, “A warrior is always alone on the battle field.” Today, in an interview for Voice of America’s Russian service, he reaffirmed this stance, offering his severe evaluation of Russian aggression against its neighboring country and giving his opinion on how people living in Russia relate to this war.
Danila Galperovich: The government is now persecuting you for the antiwar statements you made at a concert in Ufa in May. But people were applauding you for your statements at the concert. They were shouting and supporting you. Doesn’t this remind you of the USSR, when people would applaud at your concerts, and then the government would come and say that you sang or said something they didn’t like? Do you get the feeling that we’re going back to Soviet times?
Yury Shevchuk: I was actually thinking about it recently, that little mishap that happened to me, to our band — there was something about the timing. We had our first concert in Ufa at some point in May 1982 (as you know, Ufa is our home port, Bashkiria is our home). At that time, it was the first major alternative rock concert there — with equipment and speakers from all over Ufa, and it took place at the Oil Institute, where many of the oligarchs later came from, though at that time our guys were on the trade union committee. We had our concert, and afterwards we were shut down. And exactly 40 years later, back in Ufa, we were also forbidden from live events. We’re back in the same boat, with a 40-year gap in between.
D.G.: Then they were shooting too, but they were shooting far away, in Afghanistan; now they are shooting much closer. But zinc coffins were also sent back to Russia from Afghanistan back then, just as they are now.
Y.Sh.: Yes, for the song “Don’t Shoot” («Не стреляй») I then got… I was first summoned to the Department of Culture at the regional party committee, then they properly kicked me out of the Komsomol, and then there were conversations with the KGB. Now I’m facing trial, but they waved a similar article in front of my nose back then too, I remember — 2-3 years in prison and 2-3 years of exile. Like, our guys in Afghanistan are building kindergartens, culture facilities and so on, and you’re singing “Don’t Shoot”. Now the same thing has happened — we are singing the exact same “Don’t Shoot” 40 years later.
D.G.: How has life changed in your view during these four months of war? How has your own life changed?
Y.Sh.: We have been put under a lot of pressure: just before Ufa, two of our concerts were cancelled, in Chelyabinsk and Magnitogorsk. Ufa was allowed to go ahead, but after that I found myself in the dressing room surrounded by numerous representatives of the investigative authorities. Right after the concert! Right behind me there were 10,000 spectators shouting: “DDT, Shevchuk, Yura!!!”, I’m walking down the corridor to my dressing room — and then suddenly there is some riot policeman on my right, another on my left, and then somehow there are more and more of them. I thought, “Well, maybe it’s security.” I open the door of the dressing room and say: “Come in, let’s take a quick picture: I’m all wet, I need to change.” That got me some weird smirks: “Well, we are here on another issue.” They came in, and there was an hour of conversation, some papers were signed, some protocols were read, and so on. I gave them a good lecture about war and peace. I told them the exact same story about “Don’t Shoot”: “Your colleagues presented the exact same thing to me 40 years ago, only for another war, and a couple of years later the government changed in this country. And what will you do if the government suddenly changes? Where will you go to work?” That gave them something to think about.
In terms of the changes in life around me — four months ago, in February, I was completely in shock, and many people simply did not understand how this could be, most people were at a complete loss, in some kind of despondency, depression. And now, when I’m on my way to the studio, I see a lot of cheerful people on the street — in shorts, on scooters, couples in love. Now this war has become “Afghan” for them — it is somewhere far away. Village boys and lads from working-class quarters are dying in this war along with junior and senior officers, but in the city, life is peaceful. The everyman, the average citizen, because of this instinct for self-preservation, and to avoid some kind of hellish cognitive dissonance, tries to banish it from his mind and not think about it, but instead to think about his family, work, and so on. I know that even quite well-educated people say: “Let’s just not talk about the war.” It’s become taboo, a closed topic. That’s what has happened in the last four months: at first there was the shock, the feeling of some kind of terrible impending tragedy, and now it’s somewhere far away, some kind of incomprehensible – and not interesting to anyone – new “Afghan” war.
D.G.: But the difference is that during the Afghan war 15,000 coffins came back to the Soviet Union over 10 years, and here, as many or more, by various accounts, over four months. And then there were no social media sites, but now they are full of obituaries and stories about ‘the untimely passing of our 19-year-old neighbor…’, and so on. Could the fact that there is a stream of coffins coming from Ukraine back to Russia influence people?
Y.Sh.: It could, but the flow of coffins does not affect the most active urban part of the country’s population, where people are the most educated, reflecting on the times and what is happening. Coffins do not come to Petersburg and Moscow, they come to the villages. In Buryatia the howl is all over the Buryat steppe, but nobody shows this on television and it turns out that the tragedy happens locally, it is curtained off, and few people know about it. Of course, everyone can find out, but again, because of the instinct of self-preservation, they try not to see it all, not to read about it, not to think about it. And our authorities have also learned not to make some kind of powerful information out of this – the word ‘killed’ is avoided just as the word ‘war’ is. These two words are forbidden. But the important, huge fact that we, Russians, did not have relatives and friends in Afghanistan – this is an important factor. This, of course, changes the situation, and could change it very significantly. It is these internal human connections that work very seriously; they could change the situation.
D.G.: For many Russians the level of horror that Russia enacts in Ukraine is new. Those who have access to independent media saw what they did in Mariupol, but we have already seen this picture in Grozny 27 years ago. You constantly deal with the Russian soul in your songs, trying to identify, improve, and reach it through words. Why, after 27 years, does Russia repeat the very same thing?
Y.Sh.: These ideological problems are deeply entrenched, for hundreds of years already. The Russophiles wrote that Russia was imprisoned by Europe, and that it was time for us to free ourselves from European captivity. All the Dugins and Prokhanovs grow from there. This ideology has long been dripping into the brains of the Kremlin, slipped into these books – Ilyin, Kireevsky, Aksakov, and so on. I think that the simple hard worker does not think about this, but those in power based themselves on all this. Now everything has come to a point where there is a war between fraternal peoples. The main thing is that we attacked them – and this is truly monstrous! I think that about 20-30 percent of our people are very seriously upset, the rest are silent and think – who will win? And there is another twenty percent in Russia who are real hawks, who wish to carry on this path and to literally light the fire of nuclear war; this is not scary to them. And Chechnya – it is these very same imperial thoughts that Yeltsin had; they were also deep in him. He was a party secretary, yet he was indoctrinated in this like all the others. Many then were against the war, and that was my first war, I still was really not prepared for what I would see. I, of course, experienced this for a long time afterwards. And I drew the main conclusions for myself – I actually became a dedicated pacifist.
D.G.: Have you considered leaving Russia after it all started?
Y. Sh.: No. I was asked about this and had to think about it but, frankly speaking, I can’t see myself anywhere other than Russia. What am I gonna do there? We can go play concerts and we probably will go, but I love my homeland. I am a patriot in this sense, maybe a different kind – the state accused me of treason, well, there were people before me, and there will be people after me who will be accused, but my love for my country has not gone anywhere. I think we should sing about peace here, in our country, because in Europe and America there are many people to talk and sing about it, but not many in Russia. This is very important!
When they canceled our concerts here, of course, I was terribly upset. We played in ten cities and everywhere I talked about war and peace. I even held a vote in the halls, a poll, as opposed to our official opinion polls – who was for peace and who was for war with Ukraine, to raise their hands. All the halls were for peace. This was very important both for me and for people because when they walked into the concert halls in February and there was gloom, the situation psychologically was very difficult. And they suddenly see that they are all together, that there are many of them, not just a few, and then there are elated eyes at the end of the concert. Strangers embrace, find kindred spirits, and this is very important for people to know in Russia. That’s why I think our homeland needs our band now more than ever. We’re writing a new album right now. I’ve written new songs – they’re filled with pain, they grew out of pain. Maybe that pain will touch someone, because it’s very important for me. I’ll fight to the end. If, of course, the situation becomes unbearable, then, yes, I’ll think about emigrating. Maybe we are not being bombed now, but what we are going through now – that may be more terrible. They’re making cannon fodder and subhumans of us, they are beating the soul out of us, they are breaking our principles, they are breaking our spirit and our personality, just like in the camps. That, I think, is even scarier than when bullets are flying.
D.G.: You said the moral choices, the pressure, and the darkness around you are very hard, but still you probably realise it’s not like being in a basement for a month without water and heat. Ukraine is being tortured terribly right now. How much does the feeling of living people being tortured and dying there permeate Russia?
Y.Sh.: Yes, people die there every second of the day. The military, in which I have a lot of friends, is another aspect which we did not discuss -. None of them acted as some kind of beast in any conflict, they all told me: “I served the motherland, and nobody else.” I have quarrelled with many, but I have still kept my friendship with some of them because they feel the same as I do. I am against what is happening. Their words are very dear to me because they are the military, and they say, “We are against this war.” I will not name names, of course, but, on the other hand, there are so many of them. But there are also many of my military friends who say: “Yes, we are for peace, but I feel sorry for our boys, we need to support them. Yura, you too need to support our boys who are dying now.” And when you tell your friend that it is not the Armed Forces of Ukraine who are killing our boys now, but our own Kremlin government, which sent them there, which is killing them, he simply does not hear. He can’t hear, even though he’s banging his head against the wall, and that’s it. There are a lot of them too. With some, we just don’t discuss it to save some kind of relationship… at least so we can wish each other a Happy New Year, and with some I blew my top, and that’s it.
D.G.: But there are people who have performed with you on the same stage, and who are now just so hungry for war. How do you feel about them?
Y.Sh.: I have information that one hundred popular rock bands were interviewed in Russia, and that I think just a handful of them agreed that they would play for “Z”, and the rest all refused. What does this mean? And those people who don’t play rock music, but just play electric guitars, we cannot count them, because they just play electric guitars, that is not rock music.
D.G.: You’ve talked about new songs, they’re very important. Before this interview, we talked like the old acquaintances we are and you said how one of the lines in the songs would be: “Motherland, come home!” Your authorship of this phrase is now fixed in our interview. They are important words.
Y.Sh.: Yeah, it’s a new song. We’re working on it right now. I think these are the most important words right now. Right now we have to talk and even think about what will happen afterwards — every war ends, and what kind of people will be coming back from everywhere. I’m starting to think about that, even if it might yet get even worse.
D.G.: At the same time, the hardships in Russia, which you spoke about, are just beginning. All the world’s leading companies are leaving now, and according to many forecasts, the economy will become impoverished and will collapse.
Y.Sh.: Yeah, it’s just the beginning, we all see and feel it. On the other hand, right now each of us needs to do what we have to do whatever the future might bring. Everything I can, that’s in my power. I know that I must do what I can to make it all end as soon as possible. My group and I are going to fight to achieve this. If everyone tried to act in that way, maybe it would all be over by the end of our conversation.