Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuk had been warned not to "bring up any sensitive issues" at a meeting featuring his country's elite politicians and biggest cultural icons meant to promote a charity concert of The Little Prince. But "Russian Bruce Springsteen" Shevchuk (from the band DDT) ended up putting Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the hot seat, questioning the leader about Russia's centuries-old class divide, the lack of freedom of the press, the plight of coal miners and allegations of deep-rooted police corruption at what turned into an impromptu debate on Saturday, the New York Times reports.
"I've got some questions. In fact I've got a whole lot of questions," Shevchuk began before arguing that Russia needs more media outlets. "We're living in a class society that has remained the same over centuries. There are rich dukes with their privileges and then the common people who toil away," Shevchuk brazenly told Putin, adding later, "The protesting electorate is growing in number, and you know it. Are you honest when you say you want real liberalization and modernization for a real country, where public organizations are not suffocated and where people don't feel scared of a policeman on the street?" Two days later, the Times reports, more than 100 people were detained in Moscow and St. Petersburg at demonstrations protesting violations of Russia's freedom of assembly.
Putin was reportedly surprised by Shevchuk's line of questioning but gamely participated in the back-and-forth. "Without democracy Russia has no future," Putin responded, saying he hoped the upcoming protests "will be organized in an acceptable way. People's right to express their disapproval of the government should be protected, but participants in such demonstrations should not disturb those who do not want to demonstrate."
The debate continued on with both men raising their voices and speaking over one another before others at the table, perhaps inspired by Shevchuk's courageous questioning, began speaking up about the government's plans to build a giant, out-of-place skyscraper in St. Petersburg and a movement to save the Siberian tiger.
At press time, both video and an English transcription of the meeting are available on the official Prime Minister of the Russian Federation website. "For some people, Putin is God. For some, he is the devil. For me, he is a high ranking official — and that's it," Shevchuk said in a radio interview after confronting Putin. "It was very pleasant for me to hear the premier say that Russia has no future without civil society and democracy."
For nearly three decades, Shevchuk and DDT have been among Russia's most successful rock bands, and with 20 albums in their catalog, they showcase an enduring influence and fanbase unmatched by any other musical groups from the region, thanks in large part to Shevchuk's lyrics that intensely probe the lives of those living in Russia.