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Russian rock stars against the war

Anastassia Boutsko
May 30, 2022

Yuri Shevchuk of the band DDT, Zemfira and Boris Grebenshikov of Aquarium: Russian rock stars are taking a stand against the war of aggression on Ukraine, but just who is listening to them?

Yuri Shevchuk wearing glasses and speaking into a microphone.
DDT musician Yuri ShevchukImage: Alexander Ryumin/dpa/TASS/picture alliance

On May 18, the Russian rock band DDT played a concert in the sold-out arena of Ufa, a city of over one million residents, located west of the Ural Mountains. Nearly 10,000 fans were there, and they had been eagerly awaiting the concert. After all, DDT is a Russian rock band legend; the frontman and songwriter Yuri Shevchuk is one of the most prominent rock stars in the country.

Shevchuk is particularly popular in Ufa. He grew up in the Volga metropolis, wrote his first songs there, and it was there that DDT was founded in 1981 — a band whose sound heralded the perestroika era for many and accompanied it from then on.

DDT musicians, including Yuri Shevchuk, playing on stage with guitar, bass and saxophone.
DDT musicians at a concert in Berlin in 2004Image: Seeliger/IMAGO

In the middle of the concert, Shevchuk appeared in front of the audience and said: "People are being killed in Ukraine, our boys are also dying there. For what? What are the goals, friends? Again, the youth is being killed — Russia's youth and Ukraine's youth. Old people, women and children are also dying. For what? For some Napoleonic plans of the next Caesar? Is that it?" Applause accompanied his speech.

Yuri Shevchuk's courage is being punished

"But our homeland is not the president's ass, which you have to lick and kiss all the time," Shevchuk continued. "Our homeland — for me it's the poor granny at the train station who sells potatoes. And now I'll sing for you a song that is especially close to my heart: 'Love.'" Shevchuk sang his 1996 hit, and the audience cheered. Some reported on social media that there were shouts of "f**k war!" and a choir of voices chanting in the arena. However, videos of that moment can no longer be found so easily.

Following the concert, Shevchuk was visited by the police. A written account was drawn up, with the accusation more or less amounting to Shevchuk's "discrediting Russia's armed forces." The case is soon to come to court in Saint Petersburg, where the musician lives. The Russian state news agency RIA Novosti has reported that the case has already been registered. Shevchuk himself commented tersely on the event, saying, "Yes, I must have blabbed a lot."

Russian rock stars against the war

Yuri Shevchuk is an avowed and well-known pacifist: "Don't shoot!" was the name of one of his first songs, which is still well received by fans today. He wrote it after a conversation with Afghanistan returnees with whom he had once been in a school class.

Shevchuk remained true to the cause and consistently protested against the numerous wars of the next decades: Thus, he played a concert in Belgrade with his DDT musicians after the city was bombed by NATO troops in 1999. He condemned Russia's wars in Chechnya, which began in 1994.

Immediately after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, the musician, visibly disappointed, said in an interview, "As DDT, we have been singing for peace all along. But I guess that hasn't helped: You can see for yourself what happened. We are all just sad and in shock."

Singer Zemfira: Mariupol calling

Yuri Shevchuk's voice is not the only one that resounds from the Russian music scene.

Zemfira, the enigmatic rock queen of the country (who, by the way, is also from Ufa), has also expressed herself clearly. "The Meat" is the name of her latest song, released as a single on May 19, 2022, in which she sings: "It's spring in the calendar, and in reality — trenches and rockets. And further: "It's midnight in Mariupol ... I have nightmares every night. What have we come to? What are we here for? I will search for the answer for the rest of my life. Pray for me, pray ..."

Drawing in Zemfira's video "The Meat".
'The Meat': Zemfira in her opposition to the war in UkraineImage: Youtube

In the video clip for the song, which is reminiscent of "London Calling" (1979) by the punk band The Clash due to the end-of-time scenario conjured up in the lyrics, black, white and red expressive drawings reflect the horrors of war and are reminiscent of current images from Ukraine. The drawings may have been created by Zemfira and her companion, actress Renata Litvinova.

Zemfira has been in Paris since the beginning of the war. In the official Russian media, the singer has been accused of treason and hypocrisy.

Boris Grebenshikov: War against Ukraine is madness

"The war between Russia and Ukraine is madness, and those who unleashed it are a disgrace to Russia," Boris Grebenshikov's video message says succinctly. The charismatic frontman of the group Aquarium is arguably Russia's biggest rock idol, celebrated by people spanning generations.

Like Zemfira, Grebenshikov also does not consider concert activity in Russia possible at the moment. He lives in London and performs concerts for Russian-speaking communities in Western Europe and Israel.

Boris Grebenshchikov wearing a black hat and sunglasses playing on stage.
Russian rock idol Boris 'Bob' Grebenshikov at a concert in Odesa in August 2021Image: Yulii Zozulia/Ukrinform/imago images

"When I see pictures of Ukrainian cities destroyed by Russians, I often recognize parts of the concert halls where I used to play," the musician said in an interview with the Russian-language Israeli "Channel 9."

He takes a pessimistic view of the situation in Russia from a historical perspective: "Think of the Roman emperor Caligula: When crazy people are in power, the environment adapts. People sell their conscience to please the crazy ruler." Russia barbarically, horribly, indecently invaded Ukraine, Grebenshikov said. "When a nation tries to destroy another nation, it is fascism."

They are clear words, but hardly heard in Russia. 

This article was originally written in German.