Sasha Ilyukevich: dictatorship blues

Rocking against repression in Belarus.

In the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994, change is needed but the voices of dissent against Europe’s last dictator are few. Rob Dumas’s debut documentary, The Nonsense Express, portrays Sasha Ilyukevich as Belarus’s answer to Bob Dylan, although the 32-year-old “folk’n’roll” songwriter now lives in London and rejects the label of protest singer. After writing a string of politically charged songs, however, he found his music banned from radio play in his home country.

“One song [“Son of the Motherland”] was a fable where I compare myself with a street dog, just barking with nobody understanding me,” he explains. “At the end, I say, ‘Well, maybe it’s good to be a milk cow so I can get looked after and milked and be part of that society, where you obey everything they say.’ I then start barking and mooing and it’s a contradiction – I’m questioning myself. Some KGB agents heard the song and forced it off the air. After that, they banned the rest of my songs.”

As a response, he wrote “Kolya”, his most overtly political song to date, performed with his band, the Highly Skilled Migrants. It’s about President Lukashenko’s son, Nikolai, nicknamed Kolya, who, at the age of nine, is already considered the nation’s leader-in-waiting.

“This boy goes everywhere with his father, to all the important meetings and military parades,” says Ilyukevich. “He’s visited the Pope, he’s met Hugo Chávez and once the former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev gave him a gun made of gold, because he collects guns.”

In 2011, a journalist was detained by the Belarusian KGB for being in possession of a banner that read: ‘Where is Kolya’s mum?’ The identity and whereabouts of the boy’s mother is unclear, though she is believed to be the president’s former doctor. “It’s really strange and quite disturbing,” Ilyukevich adds.

Last dance

There’s a disturbing quality, too, to his song and accompanying video. Over a chugging electric rhythm guitar, Kolya’s name is angrily repeated, while animated images show faceless citizens, storm clouds, animals and soldiers. By moving from subtle criticism to outright expressions of dissent, Ilyukevich and his band have received what most emerging acts crave – media attention. Not all of it, however, has been welcome.

“I had an interview on the BBC about [the song],” he says. “It was a Monday and I remember we had about 680 views on Youtube. The next day, we got over 20,000 hits and it was all over the news in Ukraine and in Belarus. The same day, someone tried to hack into my Facebook, Twitter and Youtube accounts and I got quite a few insulting emails and comments. As a musician, you want to be heard but when this kind of song is heard and it’s all over the news, I don’t know if I should go to Belarus for the next few months.”

It's not the first time Ilyukevich has got on the wrong side of the state-controlled Belarusian media. The Nonsense Express follows the band on their tour of Russia and Belarus in 2010. The hard luck tale of poorly attended gigs and broken instruments reaches its climax with the group travelling to Minsk and finally securing a big audience reaction – only it comes in the form of patients of the city’s mental health hospital.

“A friend of mine worked there and invited us to play,” he explains. “They have very basic conditions; they don’t even have mattresses to sleep on – just wooden beds. But when we came, the people were so happy and welcoming, dancing and interacting with us. It was an amazing experience.”

Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. A journalist who witnessed the concert wrote a stinging appraisal, which criticised the group's decision to interact with the patients. Soon afterwards, Ilyukevich's friend was sacked from her job and the studio where the gig had taken place was forced to close down. “These people are left out and the studio was where they would do painting, make dolls and try out different crafts,” laments Ilyukevich. “But they just closed it down. Our gig was the last event there.”

Homeward bound: Sasha Ilyukevich (far left) with his band in Belarus in 2010.
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times