I fell in love and frustration with Russia, all at once, in autumn of 1991. I spent that fall semester studying at the Pushkin Institute in the outskirts of Moscow, as the Soviet empire fell. It was a thrilling and chaotic time: a week before we students arrived in Russia, I sat in front of a TV in a friend’s Venice apartment watching a coup unfold that effectively ended Soviet power and lifted Yeltsin and his kleptocrat oligarchy into the driver’s seat, for better or worse. (The jury’s still out, it seems…) The week we rode a train West to Finland, the USSR officially ceased to exist.
I didn’t know Yuri Shevchuk then, but I wish I had. He’s considered the Russian Bruce Springsteen, and he created what was effectively the anthem to that autumn (and the years that followed). Even in the few months I was there, I sensed a sea change–from the delirious optimism of early September, as people absorbed the fact of a new order rising, to a rapidly surging disillusionment, as that new order seemed to bring only chaos and want. The early 90s brought only more disappointment with the form “democracy” and a “free market” were taking in Russia, as criminals, it seemed, rose to power and stole everything in sight.
Shevchuk’s anthem of sorts, called “Что такое осень / Chto takoe osen’ / What is Autumn?” seemed to capture that feeling, for Russians at least (if not for citizens of other former Soviet republics)–disappoinment that democracy wasn’t living up to its promise, humiliation at their nation’s loss of influence, terrible uncertainty about what would happen next:
“What is Autumn? It’s the wind,
Playing again in the torn chains
Autumn, can we crawl, do you think, live until the sunrise?
Motherland and me, what shall befall us?
Autumn, can we crawl, do you think, live until the answer?
Tomorrow, you think, what shall befall us?”
Apparently, the 50-something Shevchuk isn’t planning to retire anytime soon from his role of rock-star political commentator. This morning’s NPR feature by Moscow correspondent David Green (“Yuri Shevchuk: Russia’s Musical Advocate For Democracy“) details Shevchuk’s career, and a stunning televised face off with Vladimir Putin last year in which he asked the prime minister why Russians didn’t have a free press or trustworthy, uncorrupt police force.
Journalists and human rights workers in Russia and Chechnya have been beaten or killed for far less. Perhaps Shevchuk’s celebrity will shield him from a similar fate. Or perhaps he’ll find that the next time he plans a big concert in Russia or elsewhere, he’ll mysteriously be denied the proper permits and visas. Either way, Shevchuk, and Russians, deserve better.