From green to white
Musician and preservationist Mikhail Novitsky personifies the local protest movement.
Published: May 23, 2012 (Issue # 1709)
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
Local singer-songwriter and preservation activist Mikhail Novitsky performs during a ‘test walk’ through St. Petersburg on Sunday.
Singer-songwriter and guitarist Mikhail Novitsky is a frequent sight at rallies and at the opposition camp on St. Isaac’s Square. Apart from music, he is an active member of his preservationist group Green Wave, which he set up to protect St. Petersburg parks and lakes.
On Sunday, Novitsky co-led a “test walk” from St. Isaac’s Square, via Nevsky Prospekt, to Arts Square. The walk was arranged to test the extent of freedom left to the opposition by the authorities, which broke up anti-Putin rallies timed to coincide with his presidential inauguration in Moscow during which hundreds — some wearing white ribbons symbolizing fair elections, some not — were arrested just for being in the street earlier this month.
While walking, Novitsky sang his new songs “Putin Ski Magadan,” urging Putin to leave office, and “Putin Is Afraid of Everybody,” with hundreds — many equipped with white ribbons, anti-Putin buttons and white balloons — walking with him. St. Petersburg’s Test Walk repeated a similar event held earlier in Moscow.
Invited by best-selling author Boris Akunin, an estimated 15,000 Muscovites walked through Moscow streets without being arrested on May 13.
“A walk is supposed to be a spontaneous thing that does not need organizers,” Novitsky said. “I think we’re a bit late behind Moscow, but we will walk and send respects and solidarity to the Muscovites.”
Although St. Petersburg’s walk lacked writers of national fame, it was joined by film director Alexander Sokurov, while musician Vadim Kurylyov, a former DDT guitarist who now fronts his own band, Electric Guerillas, performed three revolutionary songs to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar near the Alexander Pushkin monument on Arts Square, despite police warnings.
According to Novitsky, St. Petersburg cannot boast as large a number of politically-minded artists and authors as Moscow, but dissent is shared by people such as actress Larisa Dmitriyeva, who also took part in the Test Walk, and musicians Mikhail Borzykin of Televizor and Sergei Parashchuk of NEP, in addition to himself and Kurylyov.
“We keep in touch with each other and correspond via social networks, while Larisa Dmitriyeva’s recent performance called ‘Democracy’ drew the entire creative intelligentsia, including rock musicians, singer-songwriters, actors and directors and everyone else in the Union of Theater Workers,” Novitsky said.
“It all exists, but maybe is not expressed in such a spectacular way [as in Moscow]. There’s no one here who will say ‘I’m the leader, follow me.’”
Novitsky, who went to Moscow to take part in the May 6 protest rally, which saw violent clashes with the police and resulted in hundreds of arrests, said change is in the air.
“It is hotting up for some people; everybody feels that everything could be different, totally different tomorrow,” he said.
“[Mashina Vremeni frontman] Andrei Makarevich performed at a concert celebrating the elections that brought Dmitry Medvedev to the presidency, which were rigged to no less extent than the most recent ones. Last summer, however, I saw him at [human rights festival] Pilorama, and he also took part in Moscow’s Test Walk. [TV presenter] Ksenia Sobchak used to be politically indifferent, but has turned into a protest figure. Even some officials feel that they should do something to be on the safe side.”
Novitsky, 48, who has a degree in acting and worked at a local theater, fronts the rock band SP Babai, which he formed in 1993 from the ashes of his first band Avtobus.
Every two or three days, he comes to perform in the public garden on St. Isaac’s Square, where protesters against electoral fraud have been holding an open-ended protest since May 7.
“I like that people listen to each other,” he said.
“I like their assemblies — people do work at them, and it wouldn’t hurt for parliamentary deputies to see how the assembly works. Even if they [participants] have no microphone, they have a very efficient system of gestures and everybody can hear everything. You can even ban somebody who talks too much or insults people, or back somebody or add something to what somebody says. It works very well.”
Novitsky said he had plans to hold a couple of lectures on ecology in the gardens by St. Isaac’s, but said that the protesters turned out to have an ecological conscience without any help from the outside.
“I noticed a few days ago that they have put up small signs saying ‘We don’t walk on the grass,’ and they even have somebody on duty to empty the trashcans,” he said.
ALEXANDER BELENKY / SPT
Residents of all ages — and species — take part in the Test Walk in the center of St. Petersburg on Sunday.
“For me as an ecologically-minded person, it was especially pleasant to observe how once in a while a young man and a young woman go around all of the trashcans, put the trash in a bag and take it away. They don’t think about whether a cigarette butt was dropped by an opposition activist or just a passerby. By the way, nobody throws cigarette butts on the ground at all — that rule is being followed, as well as a total dry law. It’s very well organized.
“Any large-scale city event inevitably results in heaps of litter being left behind afterwards, but nothing is left here. You get the impression that people come here with the sole goal of tidying the garden.”
On Saturday, Novitsky performed at an authorized preservationist rally called “Give nature back to the people” held on Pionerskaya Ploshchad by ecological, preservationist and animal rights groups, which deliberately avoided associating itself with political parties and slogans.
“I am a bit upset, because people are fighting the consequences rather than the causes,” he said.
“They protest illegal felling here, illegal land seizure there and some violations of the law, but they write complaints to the very people who ripped them off. Nobody in France would think of building a bowling club in Versailles, but the city government is ‘considering’ building a bowling club in the park at [the former imperial estate of] Pushkin! Corruption is the cause, and this cause has to be gotten rid of. Every violation has one and the same reason, that’s why a gathering of the greens can’t be apolitical.”
Novitsky said he set up Green Wave to protect parks and lakes in 2003 after a public garden near his own home was destroyed by a developer, who wanted to use the site for construction and got approval from the authorities.
He pointed out that a public garden on Ulitsa Ivana Fomina was saved from a developer last year after a series of protests were held thanks to the involvement of political organizations and groups.
“The greens alone didn’t have sufficient forces to protect the garden; everybody from the Communists to anarchists went there and could have a say, donate money or plant a tree,” Novitsky said.
“Because of that, the rallies were massive and the enemy had to retreat.”
According to Novitsky, he got involved in politics through his preservationist activities.
“I didn’t want to find out what types of parties there were, what democrats stood for or what liberals stood for, though of course, I never liked fascists,” he said.
“I didn’t like police lawlessness either; the song called ‘With a Hat Badge in His Head’ that I wrote about 20 years ago has now found a life of its own. But in other respects, I was absolutely apolitical; I sang songs, worked at the theater and everything was just fine…until they came and started to destroy the garden under my windows.
“It was a nice bright summer. They poured acid under the trees at night, the trees lost their leaves and then the workers showed up a week later with a permit and cut them down, everything happened very fast. When I started getting involved with such situations, I found out that the responsibility always lies with the authorities. It’s always their corruption, audacity, cynicism and cheating ways. When you’re trying to find the causes, the causes are always in the Kremlin.”
For performing “With a Hat Badge in His Head” at Nashestviye (Invasion) — Russia’s main open-air music festival — in 2001, Novitsky was detained by the police immediately upon leaving the stage.
The festival’s organizers Nashe Radio, a station specializing in Russian rock, subsequently banned Novitsky’s band from the airwaves, according to Novitsky, although SP Babai performed at Nashestviye again four years later.
“I was taken to a separate room to speak with a police colonel, and explained to him that he would make things worse for himself if he didn’t release me,” Novitsky said.
“Then journalists attacked me, [asking] ‘Don’t you think that agit rock has lost its significance?’
I replied, “Lady, if your son gets sent to war and doesn’t come back, I’ll see what you have to say about agit rock.’”