Tag Archives: Yegor Letov

Nineteen, in Kyiv, and in Danger: An Interview with Filipp Dolbunov


February 23, 2013

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger
— Yegor Letov, “We’re Getting Stronger”

Until recently, the habit that young left-wing activists have of dreaming up conspiratorial nicknames for themselves seemed mere child’s play, a tribute to a red romanticism long out of fashion. I spoke with Filipp Dolbunov, better known as Filipp Galtsov and whom I’m used to calling just plain Filippok, the day before the latest pogrom-like police search took place in his Moscow apartment. He is nineteen years old, in Kyiv, and in danger. The Russian government wants to put him in jail. He is a revolutionary.


Filipp Dolbunov


— First of all, I wanted to ask whether you’re safe.

No, I’m not safe now. I’m experiencing unhealthy attention from the Russian and Ukrainian security services. In particular, as I’ve learned, I’ve secretly been put on the wanted list in Russia. My parents are visited once a week by the police, people from Center “E”, and perhaps the FSB. In Ukraine, I am being followed by the SBU.

I also don’t feel safe because the UNHCR does not respond to my requests for asylum.

— Are you afraid you could be deported?

Yes, that possibility exists. After Leonid Razvozzhayev’s abduction in Kyiv and considering that the Ukraine’s statistics for deporting refugees are high, it’s quite possible. And knowing what close friends the SBU are with the FSB and Center “E”, I would raise the likelihood of this several times.

— You say you’re being followed. What does that look like?

On February 6, for example, I was followed from the building of the Ukraine Migration Service right to the place where I’m staying. Three men bearing a strong resemblance to police investigators followed me at a distance of forty meters. They periodically stopped and pretended to talk. In the subway, they got into the car next to mine and glared at me the whole way. They got out at the same station as I did and took the same street as I did. Only when we were approaching the house did I shake them. I saw one of them running after me, but I managed to escape. Kyiv police officers are now periodically staked out near the house.

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“Honor the UN convention on the rights of refugees”

— Why do you think the security services are so interested in you?

I think the security services are now paying special attention to people with leftist views. If a person defends his position not only in theory but also in practice, this interest often leads to something unhealthy from their point of view. The economic situation in Russia is now rather dodgy. The government is cutting spending on education, health care and other social needs. Unlike the liberals, who are enthusiastic only about “Russia without Putin,” the left speak loudly about these problems. The authorities are most afraid of a societal explosion. Hence the persecution, crackdowns, and intimidation on the part of the security services.

— What did you personally do to annoy them?

Lately I’ve been active in social movements, for example, the defense of the Khimki and Tsagovsky forests, support for workers’ dormitory residents [facing eviction] in Moscow, and the movement for fair elections. I have also been involved in some unsanctioned protest actions, but of course I didn’t do what they’re charging me with.

— What was your real role in the events of May 6, and what are you accused of doing?

As the lawyers and civil rights advocates tell me, I might be facing the charge of “organizing a riot.” The investigation is seriously basing itself on Leonid Razvozzhayev’s confession of guilt [whose authenticity has been disputed, first of all by Razvozzhayev himself], where I was identified as someone who allegedly led a column of anarchists. In fact, that day I marched in the column of the Russian Socialist Movement, of which I’m a member. I used no violence against police officers, all the more so because there was no “rioting” on Bolotnaya Square.

— You were a witness in the case of another person charged in the Bolotnaya Square case, Stepan Zimin? Have you been pressured in this connection?

Yes, I volunteered to be a witness in Stepan’s case. On October 25, I was abducted from my home by several Center “E” officers, who tried to force me into testifying against Konstantin Lebedev, Razvozzhayev and Sergei Udaltsov [during an interrogation] at the Investigative Committee. My apartment was searched. The same day I was released, with them telling me my procedural status was not clear. That is, it was difficult to understand whether I was a witness or a suspect. A week later, I finally received a [legal, written] summons from Investigator Marukyan. In my testimony, I said that Stepan had not thrown stones, had not used violence against police officers, and had not taken part in any rioting. During the questioning, Markuyan threatened to send me to the army if I didn’t, to borrow his expression, “stop talking nonsense.”

— Why did you decide to leave Russia right at this moment?

They had begun pressuring my relatives — my mother, grandmother, and grandfather. During the October 25 search, the eshniki [Center “E” officers] threatened that if my relatives continued to interfere with their “work,” they would be sent to the Investigative Committee for questioning. I left because too many facts had piled up that pointed to the possibility of my being arrested. From November to early January, people from Center “E” and the FSB came to my house once a week: they would ask where I was and threaten and intimidate my relatives. And recently, on February 12, they dragged my grandmother, who is seventy years old, in for questioning.

— How did you become a leftist? What influenced you?

I once was at a Grazhdanskaya Oborona concert, where I met really interesting people who were wearing hammer and sickle or anarchy patches. Then I gradually started reading, following the news, and looking at what was happening around me, and I realized that it was not even the country that had to be changed, but the whole world, the [entire] system of economic, human and spiritual relations.

— What’s your favorite Yegor Letov song?

Well, I have two favorites: “Sing, Revolution” and “We’re Getting Stronger.”

— You are applying for refugee status? How are things going?

At the moment I’m looking to be resettled in a third country, because I absolutely don’t feel safe here. Things are going badly, because the UNHCR does not react to reports of persecution on the part of the Ukrainian authorities. I don’t know how to explain this. The head of the local UNHCR office has said in the press that Ukraine is not a safe country for refugees. But considering the circumstances that I and other political refugees from Russia find ourselves in, I cannot understand why they can’t provide us with additional protection.

Besides me, Other Russia activist Alexei Devyatkin, journalist Jenny Kurpen, and Solidarity activist Mikhail Maglov are in Ukraine [applying for political asylum]. You can help us in this situation, first of all, by drawing attention to the problem of Russian refugees, especially at the international level.

— What would you wish or advise your comrades in Russia? Both those who are free and those already in prison.

I would like to wish my comrades success in the struggle. I wish a speedy release for the prisoners. You guys are such a big help. I really miss you and hope to see you soon.

— Probably somewhere in Switzerland.

No, in Russia.

Interview prepared by Ivan Ovsyannikov


Filed under interviews, leftist movements, political repression, protests, Russian society

Musicians Unite in Support of Pussy Riot

Rockers of the world unite
By Sergey Chernov
The St. Petersburg Times
June 27, 2012

Soviet punk rock becomes relevant again when human rights are challenged, according to New York promoter Bryan Swirsky, who is currently working on a compilation of Soviet and Eastern European punk. Last week, he promoted a Pussy Riot benefit in Brooklyn to support the three imprisoned members of the Russian feminist punk group, whose pretrial detention was last week prolonged until July 27 in Moscow.

The women — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 19 — were arrested in March and charged with “hooliganism motivated by hatred toward a religious group” for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow church. The offense is punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Held at The Knitting Factory on Saturday, the benefit featured diverse music from klezmer, as performed by Frank London & Di Shikere Kapelye (The Inebriated Orchestra) featuring Michael Alpert, to alt-rock from artists such as singer-songwriter Alina Simone.

“I was raised in an era when punk rock was a viable form of protest, when political theater and satire and making bold statements to protest against the government was considered a normal thing to do,” Swirsky said by phone Sunday.

“It all comes out of free expression movements like the beatniks and the early hippies, and the punks were an extension of that. So when I caught wind of what Pussy Riot were doing, I got to thinking about how it relates to what was happening in America and England in the 1970s and the 1980s.

“And it also reminded me of what was happening in Russia and the Soviet Union when rock bands were first starting to germinate in the 1970s, especially bands like The Plastic People of the Universe from the Czech Republic, who were notoriously thrown in jail repeatedly and considered enemies of the state during the ‘normalization’ [period in Czechoslovakia between 1969 and 1987].”

The Soviet punk artists that Swirsky referred to and included in his compilation were Siberian musicians Yegor Letov and Yanka.

Letov, who gained underground fame in the 1980s as a singer-songwriter and the frontman of his band Grazhdanskaya Oborona, was persecuted by the authorities to the extent of being sent to a mental hospital — a notorious Soviet practice for treating dissidents — where he spent four months and was injected with neuroleptic drugs.

“Anyway, when I heard that these women were being persecuted by the authorities, I thought that something needed to be done,” Swirsky said.

“The idea to organize a concert actually came from a friend of mine, a client of mine in the Czech Republic who works with Plastic People and Uz jsme doma. Plastic People and Uz jsme doma organized a benefit for Pussy Riot [in Lucerna Music Bar in Prague in May], and the leader of Uz jsme doma called me up and said, ‘You need to do something because it’s a very serious issue; you need to get the Americans on board.’ That’s how the idea started.”

Some big names in rock were duly approached, but were unable to participate at such short notice, according to Swirsky.

“We reached out to a lot of famous musicians in America like Patti Smith and Lou Reed to Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Wayne Kramer of MC5. [If these artists had been able to participate] we would have organized a big concert that would have made the situation probably more global,” he said.

“Unfortunately, all those artists had to turn us down because of previous commitments on their tour schedules, so we ended up having to reinvent the concert to a pretty intense degree. I ended up contacting a Russian rock promoter here in Brooklyn by the name of David Gross, and David basically knew any decent talent in the Brooklyn area and hired them to put the concert together. So if anything, this is my idea, but David really added immeasurably to the situation. He had a lot of talent as a promoter and drew quite a lot of people in as the result of his efforts.”

According to Swirsky, the show did well in terms of the quality of music and expression of solidarity, but it did not break through to the general New York music-going public as he’d hoped it would.

“Musically, the show was outstanding, every musician that performed yesterday was an amazing talent and they all deserve a lot of credit for donating their talents to the cause,” Swirsky said.

“Attendance-wise, we didn’t do as well as we’d thought we would because we didn’t have an attraction for the American side of the community. The people who showed up were basically Russian Americans who were aware of the situation. But on the positive side, the Russian media was there in full force. There were a lot of people there writing about the situation — I gave probably four or five interviews in two hours — and there was general understanding in the room that these women need support, even if it’s coming from 8,000 miles away. So in this sense I consider the show a success, even if we didn’t have a slam dunk attendance.”

The concert at The Knitting Factory was New York’s third Pussy Riot benefit. Last Thursday, Shondes, Making Friendz, Ritz Riot, Bachslider and DJ Maura Johnston performed to support the imprisoned women at 285 Kent Ave in a series of concerts curated by Permanent Wave, a network of feminist artists and activists founded by Amy Klein of the feminist alt-rock duo Hilly Eye.

The first Pussy Riot benefit — which Permanent Wave was also behind — was at Death by Audio with Heliotropes and the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock who performed a DJ set, making his first public appearance since bandmate Adam Yauch’s death in May.

Last week, support for the band expanded when Anti-Flag, a veteran punk rock band from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, covered the song that so enraged the Kremlin (the one performed in the Moscow church) and released it on the Internet under the English title “Virgin Mary, redeem us of Putin.”

“Pussy Riot embody the spirit of punk rock which speaks truth to power that inspired the members of Anti-Flag to start our band and dedicate ourselves to the punk rock community and the planet,” the band wrote in a statement.

“The Russian authority’s [sic] actions against Pussy Riot are clearly an attack on freedom of thought, opinion and artistic expression which must be protected for any society to be free. Anti-Flag calls for the immediate release of Pussy Riot and all prisoners of conscience. Whether it be trumped up charges levied by police against Occupy protesters, or the trumped up charges levied by the Russian authorities against the members of Pussy Riot, there is no difference in the police-state tactics that those in power will stoop to in order to oppress those who are willing fight [sic] for equality and justice for all, not just the wealthy few.”

According to Swirsky, awareness about the Pussy Riot situation is growing in the U.S.

“I think consciousness is growing, I think people’s attitudes — especially among young American people who really care about free speech and human rights — I think they are very concerned on a very positive level,” he said.

“The other folks that were doing the other Pussy Riot benefit in Brooklyn, they organized things very quickly and, to their credit, they did a very good job. I think the timing between our concerts was a little weird because we both had concerts the same week, and I think this was a bit of a bad move on everybody’s part; we should have combined efforts. But this is what happens at the stage of communication — sometimes people don’t communicate. Everybody’s got an idea, everybody’s got to run with it. Unfortunately sometimes points don’t connect.

“I think what would make the most sense is if there was one unified effort in New York as opposed to having all these small events that compete against each other — to make a strong show of the movement by organizing in a collective manner, as opposed to lots of little things going on simultaneously.”

Swirsky hopes that another, bigger Pussy Riot benefit will be held in New York in the near future.

“I would like to stay involved in this cause; I think it’s very important as a free speech issue, as a human rights issue,” Swirsky said.

“Our efforts are not to condemn Putin’s government or the church, but basically to make it clear that having church and state collude and suppress dissenting opinion is a very dangerous precedent that harkens back to the darkest Soviet era.”

Swirsky is a 46-year-old native New Yorker with Soviet roots, having being born to a Lithuanian father and a Ukrainian mother.

“I grew up in the punk era, that’s when I came of age,” he said.

“I grew up just after the Vietnam War had started to decline, so I was witness to a lot of protest at a young age and I always understood that being an activist is a very important part of one’s life and that one has to stand up against injustice as the result of government action as one sees fit. One has to respond and react and hopefully cause a change — even if it’s on a small level.”

Swirsky partly attributed the Soviet and Eastern Bloc punk compilation that he is working on to his Soviet roots. Even though the music dates back to 25 years ago and many of the artists presented on it, including Letov, Yanka and Automatic Satisfiers’ Andrei “Svin” Panov, have since passed away, the recent events both in Russia and the U.S. have made what could otherwise be an archive effort relevant, he said.

“How artists were treated in the 1970s and 1980s and the Pussy Riot situation have a very strong parallel,” he said.

“There are also some interesting parallels between Russia and the United States, because of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been pretty suppressed politically and legally. They are making it very hard for people to assemble en masse like that. There’s a crackdown happening. The people don’t want to see dissent in the streets like that, it makes them uncomfortable, it makes people scared. And people who are scared are going to react in violent ways and they will hire politicians to basically express their will.”

The compilation album, which does not yet have an official title, is due out on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label within the next 12 months.

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Filed under activism, political repression, protests, Russian society