Thousands of protesters are gathering in Russia today to call for political reform, while government officials host competing rallies, some in support of Russia’s current prime minister and top presidential candidate, Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s supporters and detractors both have pop songs to sing about him. Ironically, Russia’s best-known pro-Putin and anti-Putin songs were written by the very same songwriter.
Alexander Yellin sits in an expensive café in downtown Moscow. The 53-year-old lyricist is partly bald – what’s left of his graying hair is tied back in a pony-tail.
Yellin writes songs that others sing. Ten years ago, he bet a friend $200 he could create a hit song in Russia on the cheap. Yellin won the bet. His pop song “A Man Like Putin” became so huge that it’s been translated into English.
When “A Man Like Putin” came out, Putin had been president for two years. Yellin said his song reflected the country’s admiration for the man.
“At that moment, there was such euphoria that there was this new, young leader who’d move the country forward,” Yellin said. “The song was a bit ironic. It wasn’t opposed to Putin — it was written in a way to depict Putin as the ideal man, even the ideal husband for women.”
Yellin may have written “A Man Like Putin” as light satire, but it wasn’t taken that way. Vladimir Putin made it his anthem and even played it at rallies. Yellin, who’d been a dissident rocker in Soviet days, seemed a bit uncomfortable with the embrace.
Even just a few years ago, he told foreign journalists there was no point writing anti-Putin songs — no one would listen to them.
All that changed last September, when now-Prime Minister Putin announced he was running for president — again. A political opposition leader asked Yellin if he’d write a different kind of song now, one that reflected the country’s disgruntled mood.
Yellin came up with “Our Madhouse Votes for Putin,” which is from the viewpoint of a patient in a psychiatric ward. “Why is there a hole in my head, and in the budget?” he asks his doctor. “Why instead of tomorrow today is yesterday?
“It’s all so complicated!” the patient concludes. “It’s just too messed up. Our madhouse will vote for Putin, and with Putin we’ll be happy.”
Yellin said mental illness provides an obvious metaphor for the way Russians view their leaders.
“Schizophrenia seems to me inherent in Russians,” he said. “On the one hand, Russians don’t love those in power, but on the other, they just go along with everything that’s done in the political arena.”
Yellin and his group Rabfak — a Soviet acronym for “Workers’ College” — released the song in October and the music video went viral.
Rabfak performed at protest rallies here in Moscow last December. A group of Russian linguists named “Our Madhouse Votes for Putin” the Russian phrase of the year. The last time Yellin won that honor was in 2002—for the phrase “A Man Like Putin.”
All told, Yellin said he made about $8,000 off “A Man Like Putin,” plus the $200 bet. He doesn’t regret writing the song; he hopes it might get recorded again.
“This time,” he said, “its satirical nature might come through.”