Prominent Russians: Yury Shevchuk
Yuri Shevchuk is a Soviet and Russian musician, poet, and composer. He is the founder and the lead singer of the rock-band DDT, one of the most significant bands on the contemporary Russian rock scene. The main theme of DDT’s songs is social protest.
Shevchuk was born in Yagodnoye village, Magadan. Both of his parents hailed from the families of political prisoners, and his both grandfathers were executed long before he was born. It is beyond a doubt that his family history affected Shevchuk's life choices.
His mother Fanya was a librarian. She had always wanted to be an artist, but never had an opportunity. When Yury, was born she decided to make an artist out of him. As a child, Yury showed an interest in drawing, and she was her son’s first teacher as well as first critic. In 1964, after the family moved to the town of Nalchik in the Kabardino-Balkaria republic, Shevchuk also started to study music.
In 1970, the family moved to Ufa, the capital of the Bashkiria republic. Shevchuk continued studying art and often won local children’s art contests. He also played guitar in the school ensemble Vector.
Shevchuk’s father, Yulian, did not approve of his son's hobbies. He wanted Yury to become an engineer, but after the graduation Yury entered the art department of the Ufa Pedagogical Institute. In those days, the youth of the USSR was fascinated by foreign rock music, and Shevchuk was not an exception. Soon he felt like he had to choose between being a musician and being an artist.
After receiving his diploma, Shevchuk was sent to work as an art teacher in the small village of Iglino. While working, he also played in the bands The Free Wind and The Kaleidoscope. These bands performed in the local community centers and at different celebrations. Yury won some prizes at musical contests, but also had his first conflict with censorship: rock’n’roll melodies were considered "alien to the Soviet culture".
In 1980, Shevchuk returned to Ufa and joined a nameless rock-band as a singer and a songwriter. The band gained some popularity among local rock fans and recorded a nameless album, which nowadays is known as DDT-1. When in 1982 Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper announced a nationwide USSR young musicians contest, the band wanted to participate. However, in order to take part in the contest, they needed a name, and they decided upon DDT. When asked originally what the name meant, several inoffensive variants of the acronym were used, including “Dobriy Den’ Tovarishi!” (or Good Day, Comrades!) and “Dom Detskovo Tvorchestva” (in English, Children’s Creative Center). However, while these names may have pleased any censors, the public knew the real meaning of the abbreviation; DDT is the Russian abbreviation for Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane, a popular household insecticide. DDT sent in its recording, and won first place with the antimilitaristic song Ne Strelyay (Don't Shoot).
In those days, Soviet forces had entered Afghanistan, but the authorities concealed this information from the public. According to the TV and the radio, Soviet soldiers were working on Afghanistan construction sites, helping to build schools and kindergartens. In 1980, Shevchuk’s former classmate who had served there for a year arrived in Ufa escorting the bodies of Ufa citizens who had been killed in action far from their homes. Shevchuk wrote Ne Strelyay after an all night long talk with him, but for obvious reasons its lyrics do not include any references to real persons or real places.
As a prize, DDT received an invitation to Moscow to record their first single at the main Soviet recording studio Melodia. The studio offered a contract to the unknown young band from Siberia, but there were certain circumstances DDT members could not agree with: after the signing, they were forced to sing songs written by the "official" USSR poets. The band returned to Ufa and started to work on a second album, Svinia na Raduge (The Pig on the Rainbow). Its style was hard to define yet: there were some elements of rock-n-roll, rhythm and blues, and country, though hard-rock prevailed. A following concert resulted in a scandal with Ufa authorities which had suddenly launched a wave of arrests against local hippies. The band had to leave Ufa, so it moved to the town of Cherepovets: a band named Rock September invited DDT there to work together.
In 1983, in cooperation with Rock September, DDT recorded the album Compromis (The Compromise). It brought DDT enough fame to be invited to the 1983 Moscow Rock for Peace festival, though the scissors of the state censors cut DDT's performance out of all the video recordings of the event.
The Vatican Spy
The band got back to Ufa to work. The next album, Periferiya (The Periphery or The Provinces) described the hard, hopeless and brain-numbing life in the provincial Soviet towns. The description did not have anything in common with the optimism oozing from front-page articles of the main newspapers. In the title track, lyrics like "here goes the tractor and runs the pigs over" and "the club director went mad because of boredom" are followed by the joyful “the province reports to the center: everything's all right!".
Shevchuk was summoned to the local KGB office and received a severe reprimand. The band's records were forbidden to be exported out of the country, and the local press claimed Shevchuk to be, among other unpleasant and absurd things, “a Vatican spy”. The band had to run again. DDT moved to the town of Ekaterinburg (in those days, Sverdlovsk), and then to Moscow, performing at different underground concerts.
In 1985, the General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev announced perestroika, and declared freedom of speech. The same year, DDT broke up. In 1986, Shevchuk, along with his young wife Elmira and his mother moved to Leningrad (now St Petersburg). Working here and there as a janitor, a stoker or a street cleaner (being unemployed in the USSR was illegal, but nobody was eager to hire a rock-musician), Shevchuk kept writing songs and looking for new musicians to revive the band. The family rented a room with no bathroom in an old house in the center of the city.
The first concert of the new DDT took place in 1987, at the 5th Leningrad Rock-Festival. The following tours brought Shevchuk's band USSR-wide popularity.
Spring the Actress
For Shevchuk, the 90’s began with tragedy: his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer. The only possibility to save her was an expensive treatment in a German clinic. It cost 20,000$, and this amount was impossible for Yury to even imagine. The financial reform of 1991 left him together with about 90% of Russian citizens on the rocks, and the 1991 DDT album Plastun was unsuccessful and did not turn a profit. Elmira died in 1992 at the age of 24, after two months in intensive care. It was hard to believe it, and her death caused a wave of rumors and gossip. According to the tabloids, Elmira died in a car crash, died from alcohol abuse, or even was killed by her husband.
The same year, DDT recorded the album Aktrisa Vesna (Spring the Actress), with one of Elmira’s funny drawings on the cover. This musical epitaph was highly appreciated by fans and critics and made the band rich at once.
Shevchuk never got married again and raised his son Pyotr on his own.
In 1993, DDT took part in the international The White Nights of St Petersburg festival in Berlin. The same year, it was considered to be the best rock-band in Russia, and awarded with the prestigious Ovatsia prize.
In 1994, Russia deployed military forces in the Chechen Republic. This act, officially called “measures to maintain constitutional order”, became one of the darkest pages of Russian history.
In 1995, Shevchuk went to the front line not as a soldier, but as a musician. He gave acoustic concerts in the camps, helped the injured, several times fell under fire and, according to witnesses, was not frightened, even when the battalion he was in had to spend three days in a basement under attack. They say that at one point, because the enemy combatants knew and liked DDT music too, they offered Shevchuk the opportunity to leave the battlefield under their protection. Shevchuk refused.
On this trip, Shevchuk made a video on which he asked twenty Russian soldiers their names. Several years later he learned, that only one soldier from that tape made it out of Chechnya alive.
After his return, Shevchuk helped the soldiers’ families and paid for the expensive treatment for the injured. This information had never been a secret, but, unlike many other famous people, he had never made a show out of these acts of charity: he hardly ever speaks about them. When later in 2007 he received the Triumph award for his achievements in literature and music, he gave all the money to the Chechnya veterans, too.
In 1996, when the campaign was over, DDT gave a concert for Chechen citizens on the main square of the Chechnya capital, Grozny.
In 1999, Shevchuk visited Yugoslavia with a similar goal. In those days, Yugoslavia was fighting a war too, and the civil war against the Albanian separatists of Kosovo had already become a war against NATO. He gave several concerts there and also made a documentary for UNESCO about the Orthodox churches in Kosovo, destroyed by Yugoslav forces.
The 1990’s in general were productive for DDT. The band recorded nine albums and Shevchuk published his first book of poems. In 2000, DDT celebrated its 20th birthday with a great concert tour, visiting the CIS, Europe, Israel, the USA and Canada.
No Other Choice
In the 2000’s, DDT recorded four albums. On three of them, the majority of the tracks are focused on eternal themes, not on social protest. The fourth one, Prekrasnaya Lubov (Beautiful Love) was recorded in 2007, and none of the songs made it to the radio because, according to Shevchuk, the broadcasting stations were afraid of political censorship.
In March 2008, Shevchuk took part in a peaceful protest action against Vladimir Putin called The March of Disagreement. Shevchuk participated because, as he said, "there was no other choice”. The same year in June, he made a speech at the International Economical Forum in St. Petersburg. He said that oil and gas deposits were not Russia’s heritage, but rather a severe test for the country, and pointed out the necessity of multi-party system of government. He also talked about St. Petersburg architecture, and the importance of keeping the ancient buildings there intact. These things may seem obvious and even naive, but the problems Shevchuk mentioned were real and significant.
In March 2010, at a concert, Shevchuk addressed the audience with a critical speech about the Russian authorities. The same year in May he participated in a meeting of actors and musicians with Vladimir Putin. Shevchuk asked Putin if there was any chance of real democracy in Russia, and if the next March of Disagreement was going to be shut down. Putin asked "Sorry, what's your name?", a phrase which almost immediately became a source for jokes around the entire Russian internet, while not giving any clear answer to Shevchuk’s question.
Today, Yury Shevchuk lives and works in St. Petersburg. His son, Pyotr, had served in the marines and nowadays works as a web-programmer.
Written by Olga Pigareva, RT