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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People who heard this program over the summer may recall that we played a little U2 - from Moscow. It was the band's first ever concert in Russia. And to help sing Bob Dylan's classic "Knocking on Heaven's Door," Bono brought up a man named Yuri Shevchuk.

BONO (Lead Singer, U2): You might know this man.

INSKEEP: The 50-something Russian rocker had implored Bono to raise human rights issues during his visit to Russia, a cause that Shevchuk fights for every day.

NPR's Moscow correspondent David Greene caught up with Yuri Shevchuk, a musician who within Russia's borders is bigger than Bono.

DAVID GREENE: Yuri Shevchuk has been described as Russia's Bruce Springsteen. Back in Soviet times, Shevchuk cleaned streets for a living before forming a band in the '80s and growing into an iconic rocker.

Mr. YURI SHEVCHUK (Singer): (Russian spoken) (Singing in Russian)

GREENE: I met Shevchuk backstage before a concert a few weeks ago. The 53-year-old has floppy hair and a grayish goatee. He was clinging to a cigarette, drinking vending machine coffee and talking about this oldie. It's called (Russian spoken), which means you've got a son. Shevchuk remembers when he was a young man getting in a fight with his wife. She left him briefly and took their son with her.

I was so lonely, he says. The lyrics came to me immediately.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Singing in Russian)

GREENE: Shevchuk has always connected with working people. He's captured the beauty and pain of everyday life and in Russian society. His family was exiled by Josef Stalin to Siberia, and that's where Shevchuk was born and grew up.

(Soundbite of song, "Ocen")

GREENE: He released this enduring hit "Ocen," or "Autumn," in 1992 after the Soviet collapse. The song is still widely popular today. Shevchuk sings about what will happen to the Russian motherland: Will we crawl? Will we find an answer? Will we ever see the dawn? Those questions, Shevchuk says, apply today more than ever.

(Soundbite of song, "Ocen")

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Singing in Russian)

GREENE: Many artists face that dilemma: whether to keep their message in the music or engage the establishment directly. Shevchuk has often engaged, attending rallies or peace demonstrations. But many in Russia see his frustration now reaching the boiling point. He's fed up that so few people are speaking out.

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Through translator) The word democracy, we've got to return trust to this word. These days it's used as if it's a profanity. People were fed up with 1992, 1993. There was nothing to eat. We were humiliated. And that was all under the banner of democracy. But we've never really tried democracy in our country. To return trust to this word will be hard work.

GREENE: And Shevchuk himself went to work - at an event this past spring that stunned people here.

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: He and other artists were invited to a roundtable with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to discuss helping children with cancer. The event was carried live on TV, and when it was Shevchuk's turn, he began asking Putin why there's no free press in Russia and why citizens have to fear the police. Putin listened, stone-faced, his chin in his hand. When the prime minister was answering, at one point he scolded the musician for interrupting.

(Soundbite of overlapping voices)

GREENE: Putin's answer was boilerplate, essentially that Russians must endure certain sacrifices in order to truly develop as a democracy. But rarely, if ever, had the powerful prime minister been challenged so publicly.

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: A person has been in power for 10 years and no one's ever asked him about anything? Shevchuk told me. What kind of horror are we living in if our government doesn't have to reflect on these questions?

Yuri Shevchuk says the political opposition in Russia is being shaped now. President Dmitry Medvedev talks about more open democracy, and the country, Shevchuk insists, is starting to stir. But there was little evidence of Shevchuk unleashing that passion in society at his recent concert in Moscow.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GREENE: The arena was packed with thousands, loud and ready to party. Shevchuk egged them on. He began with an old Soviet police song. Behind the musician, a Jumbotron played video of modern-day Russian police officers in humiliating moments, downing beers on the street or sleeping on the job. But Shevchuk's fans seemed a little antsy, even bored as if(ph) they were waiting for the real show. The musician tried to explain himself.

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: Guys, maybe tomorrow people will write that it was a political rally, he said. This is not about politics. It's simple: We're the citizens of this country. We want equality before the law.

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: The awkward moment passed as soon as Shevchuk got rocking.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ARTEMY TROITSKY (Music Critic): He was always trying to be, you know, where the pain is.

GREENE: Artemy Troitsky is a popular music critic who attended the concert. Many Russian musicians, he says, are veering away from having any political voice. But Shevchuk, he says, senses opportunity.

Mr. TROITSKY: Something is going on right now. You know, it's not so boring and down as it used to be from the beginning of the Putin's rule. So I think that Yuri is very much in the right place in the right time, and I think the country needs him like no one else.

Ms. ILONA NABATOVA: Yes, he's the one(ph). He's a legend, really. And I started listening to Yuri Shevchuk when I was a small child.

GREENE: That's 27-year-old Ilona Nabatova. She's educated, fluent in English, and works for a German company in Moscow - and she's embarrassed by the state of democracy in her country. This concert was supposed to be her escape.

Ms. NABATOVA: The Russian reality is so, but we want to go to his concerts and just relax, because his lyrics and his texts are really great. And we want to just get obstructed from what is going on.

GREENE: Nabatova appreciates what Shevchuk's trying to do. She's just not confident his political voice will make much difference. And you can hear that when she talks about her favorite song.

Ms. NABATOVA: "Eta V'sor" - it's translated as that's it, that's all. That's traditionally for - I don't know how many years - for 30 years, his last song in every concert. It's the song which he will sing: That's all that remains after me.

GREENE: What do you think he means by that?

Ms. NABATOVA: I think he means that, well, he's trying to do much, what he can, and that's what will be left from him.

(Soundbite of song, "Eta V'sor")

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Singing in Russian)

GREENE: One lyric of this song - Pasmoltri na meenya, ne malchee - may actually sum up what Shevchuk is imploring young Russians to do: Look at me, and do not be silent.

(Soundbite of song, "Eta V'sor")

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Singing in Russian)

GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

(Soundbite of song, "Eta V'sor")

Mr. SHEVCHUK: (Singing in Russian)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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