In Minsk, the miming has to stop

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The Independent Online
Quite rightly, Western journalists have had little good to say about Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. For three years we have watched this man hound his nation back through history, towards a Soviet era of central planning, censorship and, ultimately, dictatorship.

His regime has produced little notable beyond poverty, international isolation and a strange national apathy, the world-weariness of a people bullied and kept in the dark for too long. Except for one small, and hitherto unnoticed law.

According to a decree from the Belarussian Ministry of Culture, it is now illegal for a singer to lip-synch at a concert, at least without informing the audience first. No more will music-lovers in Belarus leave performances unaware that the singing was no more authentic than their government's growth estimates. A blow has been struck for the rights of the much-neglected consumer: no more miming in Minsk.

No sooner had the decree come into force than similar moves emerged in neighbouring Russia. Mikhail Men, a member of parliament and erstwhile rock musician - he sings and plays the bass - has drafted a law requiring performers at concerts to disclose their intention to fake it.

Mr Men predicts that his proposal, which he is confident will pass into law, will drive a quarter of Russia's pop stars off the stage. Neither fans nor musicians are expected to be interested in going to performances which begin with a Blue Peter-like announcement: "And here's a song which we made earlier."

"There are too many people performing on stage who cannot sing a note," Mr Men told the Independent on Sunday. "They are getting paid the same money as everyone else but are doing nothing." The issue came to his attention when Russian entertainers wrote complaining that the rise of lip-synchers was undermining the integrity of the music profession.

Use words like "integrity" in front of the cognoscenti of the music industry in London or New York, and you will find people looking for better company beyond your shoulder pads. But in Russia, despite a flood of Western boy bands, rock, rap, heavy metal, and even - unfortunately - skinhead white power music, these words still carry a modicum of weight.

As a yardstick of excellence, Russians often cite the example of Alla Pugacheva, the chubby flame-haired first lady of Russian pop. Almost three decades in the game have turned her into as canny a self-publicist as Michael Jackson, breathing life into a career that some believe should - like her micro-skirts - be quietly folded away.

Just as the limelight was beginning to fade, she barged back into the headlines by taking for her fourth husband the singer Philip Kirkorov, who is nearly 20 years her junior. When she bombed at the Eurovision Song Contest last month, coming 15th, she bounded happily back, giving a TV interview saying how wonderful everyone in Dublin had thought she was.

She is a shameless self-promoter - like Liz Taylor, she has her own brand of perfume - and, it's true, she may now be past her best. But no one could accuse her of being a phoney: she does not lip-synch.

A dramatic example of this came when the entire country came to a standstill to watch a televised concert party celebrating her 48th birthday in April (an event which her beau marked by giving her a 30ft white limo). One by one her fellow singers and crooners sang her songs in tribute. Suddenly one of them ground to a halt, and was left gaping in embarrassment. There had been a flaw in the tape to which he was miming. Heroically, Alla took over - singing for real, of course.

Such issues matter in Russia, a country where music plays a more central role than in most of the West. When the news broke on Friday that the dissident singer and poet Bulat Okudzhava had died in Paris at the age of 73, many here were genuinely shocked. His death was at the top of the television news. "He was a giant - a humanist at a time when human emotions were frowned on by the state," said Irina Mikhleva, one of his fans. "Everyone knows his songs."

Nor is that unusual. It is not uncommon for Russians to know by heart the lyrics of between 50 to 100 tunes, ranging from Soviet-era tub-thumpers to traditional folk songs. This skill forms the basis of one of the country's most popular TV programmes, Guess the Melody.

Some of this repertoire was drilled into Russians at school and summer camps, or by the state-controlled Radio Russiya. But many songs were learnt at home, where the tradition of performing za stalom - "at the table" - still lives on. In many households, an evening is not complete if you have not rattled off some songs over the remains of the pancakes and caviar.

So foreigners contemplating a visit to a Russian home, be warned. You may well be asked to do a turn. Your musically literate audience will take a dim view of a few fumbled lines from "Yesterday", or "Old McDonald had a Farm".

And there, in the intimacy of the Russian kitchen, lip-synching is, alas, impossible.