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.
The paratroopers' song is not in the same artistic league, but its straightforward honesty and marching beat has won the hearts of many disgruntled Russians.
The video of the song was released in late January and produced a flood of comments, largely because of the performers' military past.
Vistitsky served in a Soviet battalion in East Germany in the mid-1980s, not far from where KGB officer Putin served around the same time.
As president and now prime minister, Putin has counted the secret services and armed forces among his loyal supporters, and the paratroopers are one of the most professional and cohesive branches of the Russian military.
The paratroopers have their own songs, but they tend to be about the Soviet military operation in Afghanistan or the separatist wars in Chechnya in the 1990s. So some military officers were not pleased to see men in the paratroopers' distinctive blue berets and striped undershirts singing a song criticizing Putin.
The chairman of the Union of Paratroopers said the song runs counter to what Russian paratroopers stand for. "The union will not march to the beat of somebody else's drum or guitar," Valery Yuriev said in a statement.
Vistitsky dismissed the criticism as part of the Kremlin's effort to portray the protesters as part of a Western plot to weaken Russia.
"It's not offensive at all, because we're used to seeing dishonest people in power do nasty and mean things," he said.