Mikhail Borzykin is angry again. The Kremlin’s clampdown on the press and democracy has driven the frontman of Televizor, one of the bands that helped to put an end to Soviet rule in the 1980s, to take part in street protests and write songs such as “Stay Home” urging people to get out and protest.
“Stay home, if you’re scared / But then don’t ask / ‘Why is it so?’ and ‘What’s that for?’ / You were an idiot you stayed home!”
A frequent sight at Dissenters’ Marches and the other opposition rallies this year, Borzykin is busy recording new songs that deal with the realities of Putin’s Russia, and is getting ready for a major double-billed concert with the like-minded punk band PTVP to protest against “Putinsburg,” a city covered with pro-presidential posters, where historical buildings are demolished and liberties are suppressed.
“I just realized that expressing my point of view in interviews, on stage during concerts and while talking with friends is not enough you should take part in some street activities,” he said to The St. Petersburg Times this week.
“I felt I needed to stir myself up. You can live in art, but people who do so manage to overlook the most simple, everyday reality that much in their own heads depends on. And, having seen so many of my colleagues living in a virtual world, I thought it’s not enough to live in art you should simply live, as well. So, going to Dissenters’ Marches is part of this life for me; at least I can clear my conscience a little by going there.”
Often brutally suppressed by the police, Dissenters’ Marches, a series of non-violent street protests, have been organized by The Other Russia, the pro-democracy opposition umbrella coalition led by former world chess champion and United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov and author Eduard Limonov, whose National Bolshevik Party (NBP) has been banned as “extremist.” After being barred from the State Duma elections that took place on December 2, The Other Russia came up with a symbolic list of alternative candidates, including Borzykin.
“I met and spoke with guys from the NBP and [democratic party] Yabloko, both at marches and after concerts, and at one point I got an offer, as far as I remember, from St. Petersburg’s NBP members they said, ‘There’s a ‘hit list,’ it’s clear that no one on this list will get anywhere, but you can state your position there if you want,'” he said.
“By joining this list, you’re saying who you are and what side of the barricades you are on. I agreed, understanding that above all, this was a demonstration list, a challenge, because it was absolutely doomed, it was clear that no one on it would become a candidate or deputy.”
“Secondly, I thought I could take part in this list, even if I was not a supporter of any parties, because The Other Russia is such a multi-polar coalition, it’s not a party with charters and programs, but a public association. That’s one of the ways to struggle.”
Borzykin’s band Televizor started to push the limits of freedom in 1985, when Borzykin produced songs such as “Get out of Control,” “We’re Walking” and “Fed Up,” which shocked the authorities. The group was banned from playing concerts for months. He said the situation at that time, when it seemed that everything was decided at the top and very few people believed that any change was possible, was similar to what happens now.
“It’s absolutely the same sense of the futility of struggle, it hits me occasionally as it did in 1984, and I remember how it used to hit my own colleagues and I had to use all my youthful enthusiasm to persuade them, foaming at the mouth, that there was a chance just because somebody like me thinks that way, and there’s a lot of people like that. A thought really is material,” said Borzykin.
“Even people who were considered wise men at that time like Boris Grebenshchikov didn’t believe that change was possible, many of my colleagues would say that it’s totally useless, you can’t get rid of the Communist party, the Soviet Union will last forever, they have the army, and so on.
“These conversations continued until 1987, and for three years everybody kept trying to convince me that I was a provocateur and acting wrongly that I would be better off writing philosophical songs as I did on the first album and making art for art’s sake. But by 1988 attitudes had changed; the same people would approach me and look into my eyes with respect.
“That’s an example from my own life, that’s why orientating yourself towards the majority is a slavish mode of behavior. We bowed to the majority in 1917, Hitler got the majority, but it’s thanks to a minority that things change for the better. Everything depends on the 5-10 percent of the people who care, while the rest are occupied with family and day-to-day issues and with filling their bellies.”
In 1985, when warned not to perform subversive songs at an important competition which could have given Televizor some publicity and a chance to tour, the band disobeyed and was banned from performing live for six months. The ban was prolonged for another two months when the censors found out that Televizor had played a couple of unsanctioned concerts.
“For a band that felt it was on the rise, it was a very sad fact, especially as the concert was good, everybody liked it,” said Borzykin.
“But this little breakthrough it served as a signal for all the others, and people started to violate the censors’ orders massively. This struggle spread on every level and in other cities as well. Within a year this avalanche was unstoppable. [The bands] Alisa, Obyekt Nasmeshek and DDT sang what they wanted, and everybody realized that it was possible, possible and necessary.
“As a result, control started to weaken sharply, it became impossible to control everything, and the rise in popularity of these groups led to this movement getting beyond the reaches of the KGB. It’s a very similar situation now, that’s why stating a position is, I think, a very important thing, not only for building your own soul, but also for bringing together the common sense that people have retained into one energetic mechanism.”
In 1988 Borzykin led an unprecedented demonstration of rock fans to Smolny, then the home of the local party leadership, after an annual local rock festival had been canceled on the grounds of “fire safety.” Smolny sent an official to negotiate and after the talks the ban was lifted.
“It was scary when the police emerged and blocked both streets near Tavrichesky Gardens so that the column had nowhere to go, and there was a long pause, 15 or 30 minutes, when everybody thought they would break [the demonstration] up; they stood in lines, three lines on each side, with truncheons, and looked at us very aggressively,” said Borzykin.
“Nobody thought it would end so peacefully. For me it was the first time, and it’s always scarier the first time round.
“[The police] look more effective now, better equipped, it’s like Star Wars going on out in our streets now, and there’s more rage. And there’s more fear at the top if they give orders for this disproportionate use of force and brutality. I think that these people realize that they are temporary, that they stole a lot and they will have to answer for this.”
These days, however, the state does not seem to care about music that much, although Borzykin said that even sympathetic radio stations do not dare to play his political songs, while former heroes of the 1980s “rock revolution” demonstrate their loyalty to the Kremlin. Borzykin addresses his former companions-in-arms in a new song called “We’re on Different Sides of the Barricades.”
“The rock elite votes for what is going on unanimously; you can say it has grown together with the Kremlin lately,” he said.
“[The authorities] use the tactic of divide and rule very successfully; they invite rock musicians to the Kremlin, create the Our Time foundation to promote tours for young, safe and, in my view, uninteresting conformist bands using the Kremlin’s money. [These bands] are played on the radio, they are given some donations all in all, it’s a normal strategic struggle, forcing out everybody else to the periphery, into the underground.
“You don’t even need to ban things; it’s just that the ten television shows that used to invite me don’t exist anymore, the five radio stations that were interested in Televizor’s music have changed their format. You could call it a ‘velvet ban.'”
Rather than looking for a record label that would dare to release Televizor’s new songs, Borzykin said he would put some of them out as a single that would be available for free download from the band’s website.
The absurdity of life in the Soviet Union that Televizor and the other bands were fighting against in the 1980s has returned in today’s Russia in a slightly different form, according to Borzykin.
“It’s absolute deja vu, the situation is very similar for me,” he said.
“The slogans are the same it’s again rabid anti-Americanism, it’s exactly like a Brezhnev-era high school, the tenth form. I remember it very well, how they sent us to meetings against the Chinese threat, against the American threat. Looking for an enemy is a symptom. Only instead of the Communist ideology they’ve added Orthodox Christianity. It contradicts any common sense and only proves how obsolete the methods are, and the lack of creativity in the Kremlin’s heads.
Televizor and PTVP perform at Orlandina on Thursday. http://www.televizor.spb.ru
Mikhail Borzykin: Lead singer, songwriter and the creative mind of the band Televizor since 1984.
St. Petersburg Times
December 21, 2007
By Sergey Chernov Staff Writer.