Svyatoslav Vakarchuk speaks on civil society in Ukraine at Fordham University

NEW YORK – Svyatoslav (Slava) Vakarchuk delivered a guest lecture, titled “Ordinary Citizens in Extraordinary Times: Civil Society in Ukraine,” at Fordham University on November 20. This event was sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the deans of arts and science in an attempt to advance the understanding of world politics among Fordham students.

Mr. Varkarchuk is currently finishing up his Yale World Fellowship program in New Haven, Conn. The purpose of the program is to cultivate a generation of globally engaged leaders devoted to making the world a better place. Throughout the program, Mr. Varkarchuk has been active in contributing as a lecturer at various American universities, including Harvard, Columbia and the University of California-Berkeley.

Olena Nikolayenko, associate professor of political science at Fordham, introduced the guest speaker to the audience, albeit he does not need any introductions in the Ukrainian community. Mr. Vakarchuk is widely known as the lead singer of the most successful post-Soviet rock band of Ukraine, Okean Elzy. The tours of Okean Elzy sell out venues and stadiums across Ukraine and the world, while each of the eight studio albums released since their formation in 1994 in Lviv were a music sensation in Ukraine.

Aside from his artistic achievements, Mr. Vakarchuk holds a Ph.D. degree in theoretical physics and has been widely recognized for his activism. He established the charity foundation Lyudy Maybutnyoho (People of the Future) with projects that include “Knyha Tvoryt Lyudynu” (A Book Creates A Man), “Osvita Krainoyu” (The Country’s Education), “3D Proyekt” (3D Project) and “Dumay, Diy, Dopomohai.” (Think, Act, Help).

In 2007, Mr. Vakarchuk won a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament and went on to play a conducive part in lawmaking as a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Expression and Information. However, he gave up this position in 2008 in protest against the overwhelming level of political corruption in Ukraine. Mr. Vakarchuk’s involvement in the Euro-Maidan revolution of 2013-2014 earned him an unmatched level of public support and influence of which few, if any, politicians in Ukraine can boast. His volunteer projects, concerts and posts on Twitter and social media provide Ukrainians with hope for a better future.

His lecture at Fordham primarily focused on the role that civil society plays in the development of a country. Using metaphorical images and expanding on philosophical ideas of Aristotle and Plato, Mr. Vakarchuk reflected on his vision for the transformation of Ukraine. At one point, Mr. Vakarchuk referenced the Bible to illustrate his point about gradual change in the society affirming that “all big and fundamental changes, which I call tectonic shifts, take time.”

Speaking of gradual change in Ukrainian society, Mr. Vakarchuk used the analogy of lighting a fire. In order to create a spark, you need the right materials that are ready to be lit. If brushwood is too moist, he further explained, the fire will not be lit. If the materials for a fire are too dry, the fire also will not be lit. Mr. Vakarchuk’s idea of the fire refers to the energy and passion necessary to propel Ukrainian society forward.

The brushwood in this scenario symbolizes civil society. If the society “is not ready to understand new ideas, to accept new energy, and to impose a new paradigm that is brought by new leaders,” according to Mr. Vakarchuk, then no change can be brought to the table to affect the current circumstances. A narrow-minded approach to life will not result in progress or adaptation to a new way of living.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are people who have waited for change for so long that they are demoralized by the pace of current reforms. Mr. Vakarchuk stated that this is a paradoxical situation in which distrust thrives. Youth is driven to distrust because of lack of education and restricted thinking, meanwhile the elderly are so accustomed to the lack of expertise in their leaders that anyone who comes forward with fresh ideas is looked upon with toxic skepticism.

The next step in social progress is to dry out the brushwood in order to light the fire to create new energy. That can only be achieved through the enlightenment of a society. Mr. Vakarchuk encourages the idea of Ukrainian students going abroad and studying at western universities not only to become professionals in a certain field but to become enlightened. “I don’t think that Columbia or Yale know how to write formulas better than Lviv, or Kyiv, or Kharkiv University,” he said, it is just the idea that the educational process being provided here is more suitable for bringing this new kind of leadership that is practical and consistent.

This new type of leadership should spark the energy that is necessary for Ukraine, along with the conditions of the right time and the right circumstances to propel prosperity, he noted. The fear is that in this age of globalization, the resources of the world will not be able to sustain every country if they experience rapid development. However, if Ukraine does not keep up with the patterns of development of the rest of the world, it will fall behind.

Mr. Vakarchuk’s message attracted a variety of Ukrainian students, professionals and community leaders to this event.

Shea Servidio, a sophomore majoring in international studies, said she grew up being a fan of Mr. Vakarchuk’s music through her connection to the Ukrainian community around Rockaway, N.J. When she found out that he was lecturing, she was enticed to attend. “It’s the fact that he’s an artist, because that’s what he is, and he’s not a politician. So, nothing that he says will ever be one-sided or something you want to say ‘Excuse me that’s wrong!’ to either direction… and you just want to listen more.”

Olena Lennon, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of New Haven, had attended Mr. Vakarchuk’s Columbia lecture a month prior and was motivated to come back. Ms. Lennon recounted, “I just remember being very inspired and I just had so many ideas… what impressed me the most is his ability to energize people, to inspire people and to put things in motion. And that is the kind of energy I am attracted to, that the world lacks sometimes.”

The process of improving Ukrainian society will not be something one revolution can automatically accomplish. It is a gradual process in which all building blocks of society must be amended to establish a society that Ukrainians envision themselves inhabiting in the future. According to Mr. Vakarchuk, this can be achieved when young talented Ukrainians can get a Western education so that they can come back with new ideas and bring about change in their home country. The Ukrainian diaspora can also assist in this crucial process by setting up programs and new initiatives for advancing the quality of education in Ukraine, as well as facilitating the education of young people in North America. Only then can civil society yield the progress it yearns to carry out, he said.

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