Apr 042010

The following is an example of why we need a free and open Internet.

Hearing a Seal song the other day reminded me of my visit to Russia way back in 1992. It was part of a high school exchange, and my host student and I got along great. So well, in fact, that it was incomprehensible that our worlds had been so closed off from each other. Now that they were open it was so nice to be free to connect with someone so much like me.

One of the ways we connected was through music. As I wrote a few years ago:

Although [my friend’s] English was good enough that we were able to converse, she wasn’t able to pick up the lyrics to songs she liked. One of them was [Seal’s] “Kissed by a Rose.” She had a sense that it was deeply poetic and asked me to transcribe the lyrics for her. The exercise forced me to listen to it closely and I realized she was right.

So I shared with her that music. She, for her part, gave me Yuri Shevchuk, whose lyrics were much the same.

It was April 1992. The Soviet Union had just yielded to the Commonwealth of Independent States. Russian life still bore the hallmarks of communism, but it had suddenly become unmoored from it. In April 1992 Russia was tasting freedom and openness, and I mean “tasting” in something of a literal sense, as Russians tentatively began to experience the kind of un-stifled life previously found only on the western side of the Iron Curtain. It was going to take some time for them to come to terms with this enormous change.

Yuri Shevchuk (and his band DDT) had already been playing music since 1980, with some success, if that’s what you can call it. It took two years before they could fund any recordings, which then won a contest. But under Soviet rule, becoming known wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, because it also meant you became known to the KGB… Some bands were forced to go underground entirely, as venues were made off-limits to them by the powers that didn’t approve of their art. Shevchuk and DDT managed to eke out a quasi-underground existence, at some times able to perform openly but otherwise generally dependent on the surreptitious circulation of bootleg cassettes in order to be heard.

By April 1992, though, they were in full view, and I remember Olga showing me a video of theirs, which immediately enthralled me with its anthemic chorus, “Рожденный в СССР” (“Born in the USSR”). While a surely conscious reference to Springsteen’s American version, it was hardly derivative. The lyrics, my friend explained to me, dealt with the momentous change consuming Russia. Basically he was singing, “I was born in the USSR. But now that it’s not, now what?” Everything everyone had been taught about their country was suddenly moot.

Although I often think of my friend, back here in the U.S. I’ve hardly had occasion over the last 18 years to think about Yuri Shevchuk. For some reason, though, the other day when the ancient memory of his song popped into my head, the curiosity overtook me, and, on a whim, I decided to see if I could find it on YouTube.

This is EXACTLY why we need the Internet, because not only did I find that song, but I found a seemingly endless supply of other songs, interviews, performances… Diving into this fabulously deep library of material is like opening an endless supply of Christmas presents. I’m getting to know him and his music, and loving every bit of it. It turns out Yuri Shevchuk is like the Bruce Springsteen of Russia, but without the Internet to facilitate the connection, transcending geography, language, and foreign policy, his music would have remained all but locked away from me. As it is, I can’t believe I’ve missed so much of it.

Fortunately, as long as we have a free and open Internet, I won’t need to miss any more.

  One Response to “Yuri Shevchuk – Part I, Free and Open”

  1. I like this story! Song lyrics were a driving force for me to start doing literary translation.

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