Russian Rock Stars Run Afoul Of Kremlin Over Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian rock icon Andrei Makarevich was working the crowd between songs at the House of Music one evening last month when five rough-looking men hurled fruit at him, sprayed pepper gas and yelled: “Makarevich is a traitor to the motherland!”

Mr. Makarevich (with tie), with members of his band Mashina Vremeni at the Gorby 80 Gala at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2011. The event celebrated the 80th birthday of the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The incident capped the 60-year-old’s unintended transformation from the frontman of one of the foremost Soviet rock bands loved by millions of Russians to a blacklisted dissident.

The tipping point: playing a concert for refugees in a town controlled by Ukrainian government troops.

With his middle-of-the-road songs and boyish grin, Mr. Makarevich is a most unlikely character to have concerts canceled and be smeared on Russian TV as the “fascist” face of opposition to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

For years the clean-cut member of Russia’s rock scene, he sat next to President Vladimir Putin at a Paul McCartney concert on Red Square in 2003, when it seemed Russia was opening up to the West.

Now, the campaign against Mr. Makarevich shows how the Ukraine crisis has transformed the atmosphere inside Russia, fueling a crackdown on critics and even the merely skeptical.

Pro-Kremlin channel NTV labeled Mr. Makarevich one of 13 “friends of the junta,” as it refers to the Kiev government, in an August program.

The broadcast also named singer Diana Arbenina and poet Dmitry Bykov, who both opposed the war.

Ms. Arbenina said several concerts were abruptly canceled after the broadcast.

A few weeks later, Messrs. Makarevich and Bykov and writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who all signed an antiwar petition, had their faces printed on a banner hung by opponents of a peace march that declared it a “traitors’ march.”

“It’s a lesson to all cultural figures,” said Artemy Troitsky, a music critic and producer.

“They are saying: ‘Look, we can do this to Makarevich who sat next to Putin at a Paul McCartney concert. This is serious, and don’t you dare open your mouth.’ ”

Russian officials deny any repression of critics.

After an appeal by members of the intelligentsia against the annexation of Crimea in March, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “those who held a different opinion proved to be black sheep.”

“With their dissent they began to offend the feeling of national pride that seized the whole country. That’s why there’s such an uncompromising attitude to them in society,” he said on state television in April.

As the Kremlin has whipped up nationalistic and anti-Western fervor on its propaganda channels, there is no space left for those not toeing the official line.

Most Russians appear in favor.

Putin’s approval rating jumped to 86% in September, from 65% in January, before the Ukraine conflict began, according to pollster Levada-Center.

That has dealt a blow to those who hoped the end of Soviet power signaled Russia would become more like the West.

“The main part of the population hasn’t matured, hasn’t developed to the life that I would like to see,” Mr. Makarevich said in an interview last month.

Ukraine conflict, he said, has split people into “patriots” and “traitors.”

His creative response came in a song with the refrain: “My country has gone mad/ And I can’t do anything to help.”

Yet he declined a request to perform the new tune when he returned to the stage after the Sept. 25 attack, following a two-hour interruption during which the hall was cleared.

“Let’s not start a political rally,” he told the audience.

The singling out of Mr. Makarevich, a small man with a gray goatee, is all the more striking because his music contains only the lightest hints of social criticism.

Music critics in Russia’s gritty rock fraternity view Mr. Makarevich as a gentle soul who at times has kept too-close company with the upper echelons of power to be truly rock ’n’ roll.

While underground rock bands such as DDT growled edgy criticism of Soviet life in the 1980s, Mr. Makarevich’s band Mashina Vremeni, or Time Machine, mostly sang bittersweet melodies about people’s lives and personal freedom, such as “Turning Point” and “While the Candle Burns.”

“I tell of my feelings about the world in which we live,” he said of his songs.

“I don’t want anything to do with politics.”

Soviet authorities used to restrict his performances and recordings, but as Russia opened up in the late 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Makarevich joined the mainstream.

He threw concerts, toured the U.S. and presented a popular TV cooking show.

The Kremlin awarded him a medal in 1993 as a “defender of free Russia.” In 2003, when Mr. McCartney—his musical idol—played Red Square, Mr. Makarevich was moved to a seat on an empty row.

Halfway through the concert, Putin, wearing an open-collar black shirt, sat down next to him.

The two chatted as Mr. McCartney welcomed the president and his entourage, saying in Russian: “Hi, guys!”

The concert appeared to illustrate Russia’s new openness to the West.

For Mr. Makarevich, sitting next to Putin “put him to the very top of post-Soviet cultural hierarchy,” said Alexander Kan, a music and cultural commentator who works for BBC Russian Service.

A few months later, the singer received a presidential order “for services to the fatherland.”

As the Kremlin took a more authoritarian turn, Mr. Makarevich remained largely quiet.

At a televised meeting with Putin following a charity event in 2010, fellow rocker Yuri Shevchuk, DDT’s frontman, spoke up about social injustice, police corruption and lack of media diversity in unusually frank tones that appeared to shake the president.

Mr. Makarevich spoke briefly a few minutes later, asking Putin to push for better legal protection for pets.

“It wasn’t appropriate” at a charity event, Mr. Makarevich said of Mr. Shevchuk’s démarche.

A few months later, Mr. Makarevich hosted Putin’s successor, Dmitry Medvedev, at a cafe, chatting about environmental issues and rock festivals over drinks, snacks and songs.

Mr. Shevchuk wasn’t there.

Mr. Makarevich said he supported rock fan Medvedev, who seemed to him like an agent of democratic change.

When Medvedev announced in 2011 he would step aside at presidential elections the following year in favor of Putin, Mr. Makarevich spoke up.

“I don’t like it what’s happening. We’ve already been told who will be our president. It’s not about Putin, but about the feeling that we are being deprived of the vestiges of choice,” he said in a radio interview at the time.

He attended protest marches and sang lightly satirical songs about  Putin’s rule.

He switched his support to the ill-fated presidential campaign of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, composing a song about the tall tycoon called “The Tallest.”

He sent an open letter to Putin maintaining that growing corruption could lead to “total catastrophe.”

“I think it’s unlikely that any of those who are drawing attention to it can say how to root out corruption,” Putin told reporters with a wry smile.

When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in March, Mr. Makarevich joined a peace march and signed an antiwar appeal.

In August, he traveled to eastern Ukraine to play a few songs for refugees, including many children, in the government-held monastery town of Svyatohirsk.

A few days later, pro-Kremlin channel NTV targeted Mr. Makarevich in its “13 Friends of the Junta” program.

Footage of his performance was spliced with artillery shelling and destroyed buildings, accompanied by orchestral music.

“Andrei Makarevich is like a trophy for the Ukrainian army,” a deep voice intones over shaky footage of the singer strumming a guitar.

“It turns out that Russian musicians also support the junta.”

A music producer labels his performance “a concert on bones.”

A lawmaker calls for his state awards to be rescinded.

The program presenter says that “in his motherland, people have begun to forget his works.”

The program also showed a video of singer Ms. Arbenina from rock group Night Snipers apologizing to fans at a concert in Kiev for other musicians who hadn’t supported Ukraine.

She later listed eight concerts she said had been canceled since the broadcast for various reasons, including leaking roofs and sudden renovations.

“Of course, it’s all lies,” she said in a video posted online, promising to reschedule the concerts.

Mr. Makarevich said recently there was no political message to his concert in Svyatohirsk.

“I won’t perform for any soldiers, Ukrainian or others. I am on principle against war. We should help those who suffer from war,” he said.

One after another, Mr. Makarevich’s concerts from Siberia to St. Petersburg were abruptly canceled, with organizers claiming “technical reasons” or poor ticket sales.

Mr. Makarevich likened the cancellations to the Soviet era, when his band was denounced by a Communist Party newspaper and performances were restricted.

“The strategy and methods are the same,” he said.

“There isn’t an official order. Someone called and told [the organizers to cancel]. It’s not clear from where. Those who were afraid canceled. Those who weren’t, didn’t.”

NTV struck again last month, filming Mr. Makarevich leaving the new U.S. ambassador’s residence and claiming he was there to seek funding for a peace march—a contention Mr. Makarevich denies.

He didn’t attend the march.

Radical nationalist writer Eduard Limonov, a critic of Putin for years, supports the government line on Ukraine and penned a screed in a pro-Kremlin newspaper calling for Mr. Makarevich to be made “an outcast.”

At Mr. Makarevich’s Sept. 25 concert, supporters of Mr. Limonov assailed Mr. Makarevich, hurling leaflets calling for him to be stripped of his citizenship.

A Moscow court said it had placed one suspect in the incident under arrest on charges of hooliganism.

Before the concert, Mr. Makarevich sent a letter to Putin asking him to stop the “slandering of my name.”

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told a Moscow radio station he couldn’t understand why Mr. Makarevich had written.

“What he interprets as bullying can also be called the reaction of public opinion,” the spokesman said.

“It’s hardly worth appealing to the president.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal