DDT frontman Yuri Shevchuk gives a frenzied performance.
For the Russian band DDT, it was hard enough being a rock group under the Soviet regime. The band, which formed in 1981, gave secret concerts in apartments, bomb shelters, and even kindergarten classrooms to avoid the attention of authorities.
Later, the policies of perestroika allowed bands to perform out in the open. DDT went on to become one of Russia's most popular acts — but its new freedom came with a price.
John Schaefer asked Lara Pellegrinelli, who recently wrote about DDT's U.S. tour for Time Out New York, to share its members' saga. Though their fan base remains enormous in Russia, few in America apart from Russians know them.
"I think it kind of is like The Rolling Stones of Russia," Pellegrinelli says. "One of the people that I interviewed on the line outside [the concert hall] the other night likened Yuri Shevchuk, who is the lead singer of DDT and the songwriter of all these marvelous tunes, to the Russian Bob Dylan."
Shevchuk is often seen as an innovator — an artist who continues to evolve musically. According to Richard Tempest, director of the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at the University of Illinois, the case of Shevchuk is a good illustration of the challenges which face Russian artists who voice political dissent. Shevchuk is an outspoken critic of NATO bombings of Kosovo, and is highly critical of popsa — Russia's highly manufactured commercial pop music.
Shevchuk and DDT emerged from an underground rock community which first formed in the late Soviet era. According to Pellegrinelli, Russian rockers grew up listening to Western rock.
"In the '80s, when we started seeing these bands in the West, we had sort of a false idea as to what they were about — you know, thinking that they were identifying with us because they were identifying with freedom and democratic values," she says. "But really it was more about experimentation, and it was also about identifying with the working class, or the underclass — the counterculture in the U.S." She notes that Soviet authorities did not suppress Russian rock in its early stages of development, as it was perceived to be proletariat music. The crackdown only came when groups grew increasingly critical of the government.
The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika heralded a sea change for DDT and bands like it. Now, rock music could circulate freely and openly, giving artists much greater exposure. "The main thing is these bands, which very often [were] almost underground outfits, could now emerge out into the open, and could begin to make their music known through the public media: radio, TV, and, of course, actually releasing albums," Tempest says.
However, the emergence of a music industry in Russia was far from an unalloyed good. According to Pellegrinelli, many Russian bands were unprepared to deal with music publicity, the record business, and the lifestyle.
"As [Shevchuk] said, people were distributing their music by cassettes, copied from fan to fan," Pellegrinelli says. "Then, all of a sudden, you have promoters who move in, record labels who move in. As Yuri said, he spoke about that time as being like a disease they had to go through — there was drinking, there was money, there were drugs. So there were many musicians who died in that point of time."
Tempest says that the tenor of Russian popular music also began to change. As the industry became a commercial enterprise, politicized attitudes and thoughtful lyrics were no longer necessary to sell records. He also notes that Western pop music, both legally and pirated, flooded Russia.
"And the Russian fans — before it used to almost be a lifestyle choice," Tempest says. "You would listen to rock music in secret. Getting a cassette was a major accomplishment. It was something that made your day, or your week, or even your month. You no longer had that intensity of experience."
Ironically, the pressures of the commercial industry and the availability of Western music — and also, as Pellegrinelli notes, the demise of independent media outlets in Russia — have sent DDT back to the underground community where it began.
"I think in some ways, maybe [Shevchuk is] more comfortable that way," Pellegrinelli says. "Maybe it's something that they're used to. Maybe again it gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of fulfillment, in that they can still be revolutionary artists."