Legendary Russian Rocker Takes on Putin — and Yiddish

Andrey Makarevich's band might break up after 46 years due to a spat over the Ukraine crisis. So Israelis may want to catch the boys when they play 'Yiddish jazz' here this month.

When Russian-speakers want to explain Andrey Makarevich to foreigners, they usually call him Russia’s John Lennon or Paul McCartney. That isn’t only because Makarevich is the founder and lead singer of Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine), one of Russia’s oldest and most popular rock bands. He’s also a famous Beatles fan from back when the Fab Four’s albums were hard to come by under the Soviets.

Makarevich, 61, is a native Muscovite born to a family of Belarusian, Greek, Polish and Jewish heritage. (His mother’s maiden name was Shmuilovich.) A graduate of the Moscow Architectural Institute, Makarevich has been to Israel a number of times on concert tours both for Mashina Vremeni and solo projects.

His performances here have attracted audiences in the tens of thousands, and this month he’s returning for another tour in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Be’er Sheva with his new show: Yiddish Jazz. It consists mainly of new arrangements of American standards from the 1940s.

Mashina Vremeni hasn’t stopped since Makarevich founded it in 1969; for years it provided an intimate, deeply emotional alternative to the musty culture supplied by  Soviet apparatchiks.

The band survived the various regime changes, and unlike other counterculture Russian rock groups, Mashina Vremeni remained active and popular, not to mention its members' solo acts. The band became so mainstream that a few years ago Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev asked for a meeting with Makarevich to express his admiration.

Alexey Nikishin / Wikimedia Commons

At McCartney’s 2003 concert in Red Square, President Vladimir Putin strode up to the empty row of seats to which Makarevich had just been moved by two security men and sat down next to the rocker. They chatted for several minutes during the photo-op.

But since then lots of muddy water has flowed under the Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge: outrageous economic disparities, government power rivaling Soviet times, the suppression of freedom of expression, the silencing of media outlets and the political opposition, and even political assassinations.

There were times Makarevich was considered close to the government and even a Putin supporter, but starting in 2010 both Mashina Vremeni and Makarevich began releasing protest songs and open letters to Putin denouncing the injustices.

Cries of 'traitor'

Over the past year, Makarevich has gotten in trouble for speaking out against the annexation of Crimea; he even performed at a concert in the Ukrainian city of Sviatohirsk (Svyatogorsk) to raise funds for refugee children from Donetsk. Russian nationalists loudly disapproved. A number of Makarevich’s concerts were canceled while others were broken up by activists who heckled him as a “traitor to the homeland “ and threw eggs at the audience.

Speaking by phone from his Moscow home, Makarevich sounded relaxed, but he wasn’t eager to talk about the political dispute that has cost him dearly; and it’s not just the cancellations. Mashina Vremeni is allegedly in danger of breaking up due to internal disagreements over the Ukraine crisis. Putin, wittingly or not, may succeed where decades of Soviet rule failed and get the band split up.

After so many years as a rock musician, what made you put together Yiddish Jazz?

“We have a friend, Sasha Turkot, who unlike us loves to burrow into the Internet to find all kinds of rare musical pearls. One day he tells us, ‘There are so many forgotten songs, gorgeous jazz compositions from the 1940s. No one remembers them and no one plays them.’

“So we decided to put out an album like that. He helped us find the material, and we recorded it with very good musicians. Much to our surprise, the album was a huge success. We recently appeared with it in the United States and Canada, and it was received with so much love ... I didn’t expect that.

“I thought it was a very narrow, niche kind of thing, but the audience is much wider than we thought. So a few days ago we wrapped up recording a second album on the same theme. When we come to Israel we’ll do songs from both albums.”

Do you know any Yiddish?

“I don’t know Yiddish, of course .... When I was little my grandmother still spoke Yiddish, but not my mother. But the album isn’t all in Yiddish. It’s a combination of Yiddish and English, since most of the songs were written in the United States — by Jews but in the United States.”

'Singers and Scoundrels'

The band’s mainstream appeal and the great affection for Makarevich over the years haven’t helped him during his Ukraine imbroglio. Following his anti-Putin remarks and appearance in Ukraine last April, deputies in Russia’s lower house of parliament called him a traitor, and the Duma’s deputy chairman Yevgeny Fyodorov called for Makarevich to be stripped of his title People’s Artist of the Russian Federation and other awards.

In August, the journalist Alexander Prokhanov published an op-ed in the newspaper Izvestia called “Singers and Scoundrels.” He claimed that Makarevich had performed in the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk (Slavyansk) for a Ukrainian military unit and encouraged the troops to “slaughter peace-loving citizens.” Makarevich sued Prokhanov for libel and won 500,000 rubles ($8,500) in damages.

I was told you don’t want to talk about politics.

"That’s right, I’m sick and tired of the subject. There’s a certain circle of people, in Russia and outside the country, that wants to turn me into a political activist. I personally have no desire to engage in such activity. I feel I've been given the gratifying opportunity to express everything that I have to say through my work.

"It’s better for me to write a new song and upload it to the Internet, and for the song to say it all. To come out with all sorts of opinions and announcements, especially these days when the situation is so complicated here and around the world — I'm so tired of it you can't image. Everyone is talking about it except the dead, as we say.”

Well, the political situation in Israel is also very complicated.

“You all have an amazing skill — I don’t know how possible it is to get used to, but it seems you’ve all gotten used to always sitting on a powder keg. And that doesn’t prevent you from enjoying life; you’re simply always ready.

"In Russia, it was really good for 10 years, the country prospered and everyone was happy. Then suddenly it all came crashing down, and as a result the nation’s mood is very unstable.”

Didn’t you ever think about emigrating?

“In 1979 the Soviet regime tried to push me into it, but it wasn’t an option for me because I realized I’d have to say goodbye forever to my parents, who would remain in Russia. Back then, if you left it was permanent. But today you can buy a plane ticket, go where you want and stay there as long as you want.

"I can’t really imagine what I’d do in a different place if I emigrated. Everything I do is connected to people who live here. Just to go somewhere in order to go into retirement — I’m not ready for that yet; I’m still a working man.”

Do you think there’s hope Russia will become a normal country one day?

“I’m generally an optimist, I believe that everything passes and that the world aspires to harmony. It doesn’t matter how hard they try to destroy it, nature pulls toward harmony.”