The most prominent Witness refugee to date is Russian punk rocker Fyodor Chistyakov. While on tour in the United States, Chistyakov told Novaya Gazeta in a July 31st telephone interview that he had no other choice but to remain where he was. “I cannot openly follow my religion [in Russia] now. And that is a trauma itself even when I am not in jail, although incarcerations are taking place already,” he said.34 In another interview: “For example, they came to the home of one of my comrades and took away all his computers and a search was conducted in the house. Because he is a member of the organization. This is a nightmare for me. I have a studio in my home and I allowed them to begin during working hours to dig and look for signs of extremism.”35
He is known as Dyadya Fyodor (Uncle Fyodor) and has led the groups Nol (Zero) and [of course] the Fyodor Chistyakov Band. The late 1980s and the 1990s was his heyday, but he still commands a following, and he’s become nervous in recent years. The 2009 Beware: Jehovah’s Witnesses documentary specifically branded him “a brainwashed sectarian.”36 Jehovah’s Witnesses have hitherto not been well represented among the punk rockers. Now that will change as Chistyakov brings his talents to bear. Is it strange that a Witness would be a punk rocker? It is explained if we but interject into the verse: “To the Jews I became like a Jew to win over Jews; to those under the law I became like one under the law … to win over those under the law. To those outside the law I became like one outside the law … to win over those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. To the punk rockers I became a punk rocker, to win over the punk rockers. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22)
He became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1995. He credits Bible knowledge with saving him,37 as did the American artist Prince.38 He turned his life around, and stopped drinking, smoking, swearing and singing his earlier raunchy songs, also as did Prince. This turnaround does nothing to mitigate his “brainwashed sectarian” label. So atypical is such a turnaround among entertainers, it may have even added to it. “The only thing when I look in the mirror in the morning, every time I cannot believe that I, Fedor Chistyakov, [am] an extremist and a threat to Russia’s national security.”39
To be told that God works in mysterious ways simply does not satisfy everyone. For it to be reinforced with “It is God and country around here” also doesn’t fly, for some people know that there are other countries, and they are dubious of nationalistic claims that theirs alone is the one that God cheers for. A real hunger roils in ones like Chistyakov, motivating him to learn the Bible. They are not satisfied with: “If we want to learn of the Bible, we’ll go to the main Church. If they choose not to explain it, that’s their business. If, when they do explain it, it makes no sense—well, that’s probably why they didn’t want to explain it in the first place. We’re okay with that. Enough with the ‘God’ obsession—it’s too much.” That’s frank, and can be admired at least for its frankness, but it does not satisfy everyone.
Chistyakov even took some heat online from some political anti-Putin types for not condemning the government. Far from condemning it, he stated he is supportive of it in all but the Witness ban that makes his life untenable. He is most sorry to leave. He is neutral on two counts; as a Jehovah’s Witness and very likely as an artist. Artists consumed with their art do not have much space left in their heads for politics, and sometimes none at all. It is not easy to leave one’s homeland. People are a product of what they are fed. If he has learned of malfeasance on the home front that activists want him to holler about, Russian media doubtless highlights plenty of malfeasance elsewhere to counterbalance it.