- Associated Press - Sunday, February 5, 2012

MOSCOW (AP) - The most popular protest song in Moscow today comes from burly men in blue berets, unlikely heroes of a peaceful middle-class movement challenging the strongman rule of Vladimir Putin.

The simple but catchy song was performed at a protest rally for the first time this weekend, but many of the tens of thousands in the crowd already knew the words.

On a snowy square across a frozen river from the Kremlin, the protesters sang along with the chorus, which sums up their weariness with Putin as he intends to extend his 12 years in power by winning a presidential election in March:

“You’re just like me, a man not a god. I’m just like you, a man not a sod.”

The former paratroopers’ song is just one of the many musical, literary and artistic creations that have inspired and enlivened the protest movement that is still largely the reserve of erudite, urban Russians.

Mikhail Vistitsky, a 45-year-old veteran of the elite force, wrote the lyrics after attending one of the first big anti-Putin demonstrations in late December.

Mikhail had the idea that a song, an anthem, was what the whole protest movement needed,” said Stanislav Baranov, who contributed music and several lines to the song. “The lyrics came straight from his heart in like half an hour.”

A video of them and three others performing the song lit up the Internet, getting more than 1 million views in the first few days.

“We are not a professional band, we just expressed our discontent,” Vistitsky, who now runs a small construction business, said during an interview in the closed restaurant where the former paratroopers made the video. “My guitar skills are lousy, I’d be ashamed to play the song without the boys.”

During Saturday’s rally, Visitsky sang along to the music, unwilling to test his guitar playing in the subzero temperatures.

The paratroopers were joined on the stage by some of Russia’s most respected cultural figures, who have played major roles in organizing the protests along with veteran politicians now in the opposition.

The artists’ role in the demonstrations “is more important because they have not been discredited, while politicians have been, by their former government jobs, suspected corruption and so on,” said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky. “Aesthetic forms of appealing to the protesters are more effective than political ones.”

Since Soviet times, writers and artists have served as the conscience of society in the face of government repression.

In the last days of the Soviet Union, rock bands that had been banned just years before found a huge audience among those fighting the Communist system. One of those bands was DDT, led by Yuri Shevchuk, whose rousing song closed out Saturday’s rally. Long part of the opposition, Shevchuk caused a sensation in 2010 when he publicly challenged Putin over the loss of freedoms in Russia since he came to power in 2000.

The rally’s organizers and speakers also included some of Russia’s best known writers and novelists: Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Boris Akunin and Dmitry Bykov.

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