Belarus Freedom

By Sergey Chernov

The St. Petersburg Times

Published: March 16, 2011 (Issue # 1647)

Lyapis Trubetskoy, Belarus’ premier rock band, has found itself blacklisted in its homeland as part of a crackdown by President Alexander Lukashenko in the wake of his December 19 re-election.

This week saw the cancellation of two sold-out concerts in the capital Minsk due on April 1 and 2. Earlier this month, the band was informed that its sold-out March 13 concert in Gomel, the country’s second largest city, had been cancelled due to alleged fire security reasons.

“They don’t even give any reasons anymore,” frontman Sergei Mikhalok said in an interview with The St. Petersburg Times on Sunday.

“They have simply stopped bothering to invent them — an authoritative call comes from the Department of Culture, they say ‘This concert is not happening,’ and that’s all. They act with brazen impunity now, caring about nothing.”

Having started out as a punk band in Minsk, Lyapis Trubetskoy broke onto the music scene in Russia with a series of humorous songs with mass appeal in the late 1990s, but made an abrupt turn with a trio of socially-aware albums — “Kapital,” “Manifest” and “Kultprosvet” — a decade later.

“They formed a sort of trilogy conventionally known as ‘Agitpop,’” Mikhalok said.

“They were united by social orientation, a rebellious, anarchist outlook and very loud, fast, crude music — without excessive melodicism or lyricism. That was the concept, the concept of a contemporary anarcho-punk collective with dramaturgy of revolutionary propaganda teams. With a lot of poems sounding like slogans and football fan chants.”

In its new outing called “Vesyoliye Kartinki” (Funny Pictures) that premiered in Moscow last weekend, the band has become more introspective.

“Firstly, almost all the songs were recorded without a brass section; secondly, we left out almost all the songs that could roughly be defined as ‘ska punk,’” Mikhalok said.

“The new album features songs filled with psychology, sensitivity. There are many songs using a lot of means of expression, a lot of different instruments. We were looking for the sound and atmosphere. There is a lot of philosophy in the lyrics; we touched not only on various aspects of human life, but also on some existential problems dealing with religion and ecology.”

The album’s title refers to a Soviet children’s comic book, but is a metaphor for the modern mindset.

“This is an ironic take on the modern mindset, which consists of very conventional and approximate conclusions about things,” Mikhalok said.

“People have no time to take a look into the essence of things, and it’s enough for them to take a quick glance at something to come up with a conclusion. That’s why most people act according to the patterns of society; they’re sort of zombified. That’s why they can be fed any nonsense via the television or radio and they will believe in all this. At the same time, they’re very self-important and self-satisfied. But in reality they’re like a litter of blind kittens.

“Hence, the irony. We see such pictures, but we don’t look inside, into the depth of things and processes.”

On the album, Lyapis Trubetskoy pays homage to late 1980s Russian rock legends — Yegor Letov of the Siberian punk band Grazhdanskaya Oborona, and Sergei “Oldie” Belousov of the Kaliningrad reggae band Komitet Okhrany Tepla — by covering Letov’s song “Zoopark” and Belousov’s “Africa.” He said that the song “Sacred Fire” (Svyashchenny Ogon) on the new album is dedicated to musicians like Letov and Belousov.

“We’re taking a cue from the rock and roll heroes of the past, from protest guys who preserved their rebellious, anti-establishment spirit throughout their entire lifetime, and who didn’t turn into bourgeois dinosaurs like the rock and roll stars of today,” Mikhalok said.

“Contemporary rock stars are rich, successful and resemble so-called celebrities. I see no difference between pop stars and rock and roll millionaires. But people like Letov and Oldie still represent a certain model to me and maybe a sort of moral and ethical beacon from which my friends and I try to take a cue.”

In the Belarusian presidential election, Mikhalok voted for dissident poet Vladimir Neklyayev, who is currently under home arrest awaiting trial.

Thousands were beaten and dispersed by security forces after taking to the streets of Minsk in December to protest results that gave almost 80 percent of votes and a fourth term in office to Lukashenko.

“The situation is changing for the worst, it’s at least as bad as the Soviet Union,” Mikhalok said.

“I think there’s a revival of the Stalinist Gulag system going on; you can see it in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Totalitarian totems and artifacts are coming back. In Belarus, at least, blacklists have appeared once again, banning free art and concerts.

“It’s not to say that in fact freedom of thought and dissent are crimes now, in the center of Europe in the 21st century. I think artists, poets and musicians should be among the first to react to this, because somebody needs to sound the alarm.”

Maria Mitrofanova

The band will play the city Friday.

“All those generals, bureaucrats, KGB men, fat pigs, they have returned and are respected again. But now they’re even more frightening than before, because now they rob people openly.”

Belarusian culture bureaucrats officially deny the existence of blacklists, but bands such as NRM, Neuro Dubel, Krama and Palats — described by Mikhalok as the “vanguard of Belarusian independent rock and roll” — have all found themselves banned. This month also saw the cancellation of a concert by Zmiter Voityuschevich, a singer-songwriter who wrote songs set to poems by the repressed former presidential candidate Neklyayev.

“You can open George Orwell’s ‘1984’ at any page and you will see a description of contemporary Belarusian society,” Mikhalok said. As time passes, the Belarusian totalitarian model has been expanded across post-Soviet countries, he added.

“Liberals and democrats in Russia laughed at us even seven or eight years ago, and it’s only now that many liberally-minded Russians who make good money and pursue borgeois lifestyles are beginning to feel that the screws are being tightened,” Mikhalok said.

“But we in Belarus spoke about this a long time ago, it even appeared to us to be some sort of experiment. But now what we had in our country is beginning to happen in Russia and Ukraine, very fast.”

Although many have left Belarus in order to flee the Lukashenko regime, the members of Lyapis Trubetskoy have no plans to leave Minsk, Mikhalok said.

“We live in Minsk and have never left it,” he said.

“We’ve never planned to go anywhere, because we grew up and lived in this country long before this shameful and disgusting regime came into existence. As long as we have the strength and opportunity, we’ll continue to live there. Many of us have parents and children there. My father has Parkinson’s disease and my mother is a pensioner. How could I leave them?”

Sung almost entirely in Russian, “Vesyoliye Kartinki” features two songs in Belarusian. One of them, called “Grai” (Play), was released as a separate download late last year as a Christmas music postcard for Belarusians around the world.

“‘Even if there are dark and fearful times now, spring will return to our homeland,’” goes the song, according to Mikhalok.

“We believe in this. We want real prosperity for Belarus, for people to be comfortably well off, we want a society that is not a caste one, and we want people not to be divided into rich and poor, important and insignificant.

“We’re not for the communist utopia, we’re not communists. We don’t belong to any communist or anarchist organization. But the idea of freedom, of freedom of choice, is everything for us. That’s why we sing about it.

“Crooks and thugs, fairytale villains — that’s who is trying now to take on the role of messiah, who will allegedly protect stability and peace in our society. We believe that any tyranny, any totalitarian regime represents decay. It has nothing to do with humanity or humaneness.”

Mikhalok believes that such regimes are doomed and refers to the revolutions in Libya and Egypt.

“People can’t live under pressure in the 21st century,” he said.

“Apart from food, idiotic television and a roof above their head, people should be fulfilled. They should be fulfilled creatively — in their work, their dreams, their hobby. They should fulfill their dreams and fantasies, not just sit like they are in a zoo and be thrown a piece of meat by the schedule. We’ve already seen it, and it can’t exist.

“States such as the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany, empires like they had in Rome — they can’t exist. History shows that all totalitarian imperial states born out of military power and the suppression of the people fall sooner or later, burying their creators under their debris.

“Wise men, people who are trusted should come to power. They should be cleverer and have higher morals and aesthetics; they should serve as a model. But when you have mentally deranged Napoleons in power, it gets scary. They don’t play by the rules. Or they play by the rules that they themselves change every day.”

According to Mikhalok, this week’s concert will feature Lyapis Trubetskoy’s new set based on the band’s new album, as well as the “Agitpop” trilogy. “Despite everything, our band is still very positive and we create good emotions and give people hope,” he said.

“With our music, we want to unite people. And make them happy.”

Lyapis Trubetskoy will perform at

8 p.m. on Friday, March 18 at Glavclub, 2 Kremenchugskaya Ulitsa. Tel. 905 7555. Metro Ploshchad Vosstaniya / Ploshchad Alexandra Nevskogo.


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