It’s difficult, as a non-Russian speaker, to fully educate myself about Yuri Shevchuk and his music. My inability to even type in Cyrillic makes the Internet searches particularly fraught. Fortunately I can at least read basic Cyrillic, and with cutting-and-pasting I can enter names and titles into search engines. (“Юрий Шевчук” = Yuri Shevchuk; “ДДТ” = DDT.) As for fully understanding what I get back, GoogleTranslate is often helpful, if not 100% accurate, in getting the gist of what was being said or sung. Plus I have a year of college Russian to fall back on. In fact, it’s been interesting: doing all this Internet spelunking to find out more about the man and his music has caused me to dust off my textbook and dig out long-buried memories of grammar and vocabulary. Indeed, so enthralled and engaged am I by what I’ve found so far, it’s even motivating me to renew my Russian studies, just so I can understand what he’s been saying!
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to know more about what’s going on in Russia altogether. Trying to piece together the history of Yuri Shevchuk’s musical career has provided a crash-course in modern Russian history. Not just because of the radical evolution in the production values of his videos (compare this 1980s commentary on the Soviet system, “Конвейер” (“Conveyer”) with this more recent video), but also due to Shevchuk himself, who regularly tackles concerns for his country in many of his songs.
“Born in the USSR” was but one such example. So is what some have called the best Russian rock song of all time, “Родина” (“Rodina,” or “Motherland”). (See one of my favorite live performances here; a version with translated lyrics is here). He’s also got a song telling the story of a drinking session at the home of a corrupt FSB general, and more recently he wrote a song “When the Oil Runs Out” (“Когда Закончится Нефть“) about the government’s unsustainable economic policies. Shevchuk definitely seems a patriot, but a patriot who thoughtfully questions the forces that would steer his country down unfortunate paths. And who will speak out about it in ways other than through his songs as well: in 2008 he joined protests against the election of Medvedev, he attended the trial of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev (“Россия-матушка не дает нам расслабиться.” “Mother Russia does not allow us to relax.”), and just a few weeks ago interrupted his own concert to berate the corruption and brutality in Russian politics (interestingly, right before singing his song, “Mama, This is Rock and Roll”).
“The system that has been built in our country is brutal, cruel, and inhumane. People are suffering, not only in prisons and camps, but in orphanages and hospitals as well. So many bastards are feeding themselves on power. With epaulettes on their shoulders and with flashing lights in their heads, they are robbing us, running us over on the road, and shooting us in stores. And nobody is being held accountable.”
Not being able to read Russian it is hard for me to further sketch the contours of his views, of course. I suppose it’s possible he harbors some I might not like. But he seems to stand for peaceful principles. (One of his earliest songs, “Не Стреляй” (“Nyeh Stryelyai,” or “Don’t Shoot,” was originally written regarding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and more recently has been repurposed for Chechnya. This isn’t an official video, so just listen.)
It’s also clear that he approaches his subjects with a unique poetic style (which may in part be why it is so difficult to get clear translations of his words out of GoogleTranslate). Even his political motifs are heavily laden with imagery (from “Rodina”: “From under black shirts bursts a red rooster / From under kind czars marmalade pours into mouths / Never has this world had room for both / Father was our god, and our devil”). He also has songs called “Rain” (“Дождь“) and “Wind” (“Betep“), another wondering “What is Autumn?” and still another one with the essentially untranslatable title and lyric, “Просвистела” (“Prosveestyela”) (Translators have struggled with how best to convey it; I think its refrain may best be reflected, “She whizzed past.”)
But really, there’s no need to even catch all the words. Every song comes with sufficient musical tentacles to crawl into your brain and permanently attach there. With DDT his style ranges from acid rock with rap influences, to country and American rock, to more gentle acoustic and orchestral arrangements. Even those songs I don’t really like, I end up liking anyway. There’s a tremendous charm to his music and his performance that’s hard to resist.
Now in his 50s he exudes the paternal calmness of an elder statesman as he serenades audiences with his voice and acoustic guitar. At the same time, he’s still also the kinetic frontman of a stadium-filling electrified rock band. Thoughtful, articulate, creative, intelligent, exuberant (all of which is entirely apparent despite the language barrier) he fills his audiences with music and meaning as effortlessly as any musician better known in the English-speaking world. Maybe even more so — is there even any analogue of any English-speaking musician who has been anywhere near as varied, as prolific, as good?
It’s actually sort of strange that he’s not better known beyond his country’s borders. Not only is he enormously huge in Russia, but he’s been to the U.S. many times before, having performed on MTV as early as 1988 and on tour as recently as 2008. But as long as he is regarded solely as an inhabitant of the Russian-language rock world other audiences will be deprived the pleasure of his distinctive voice. Which would be a shame, just as it’s a shame that even though I’d been captivated by his music as early as 1992, it’s only just now that I’m becoming aware of his fuller career.
And maybe I’m helped by the little Russian I do know — there’s certainly a dearth of other information about him in English — but it is simply not necessary to know any to enjoy his music. Just listen to this song, “Это всё” (“Eto Vsyo”), or “This is all.”
This is all you’ll need to hear to agree.
(Chorus: “Это всё, что останется после меня / Это всё, что возьму я с собой” – “This is all that will remain after me / This is all I will take with me”).
Edit 11/28/17: So many (but fortunately not all) of these links are dead due to copyright complaints. What a stupid thing for the world that copyright law should prevent us from sharing music.