Svyatoslav Vakarchuk visits Yale University, shares views on Ukraine

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – He is not your typical rocker.

Svyatoslav (Slava) Vakarchuk, who holds an advanced degree in physics, has served in the Verkhovna Rada and leads the most popular rock band in Ukraine, recently visited Yale after completing a successful concert tour in the U.S.

Engaging a packed room of Yale students and faculty in a casual question and answer conversation, Mr. Vakarchuk displayed a far-ranging knowledge of history and deep understanding of events in Ukraine today. Blunt and sometimes controversial, he presented interesting personal views, as well as the views of younger people in Ukraine, which he understands well.

Ukraine turns to Europe

Mr. Vakarchuk is ambivalent about Ukraine joining the European Union. According to him, it’s not that the EU is bad, but rather that Ukraine is far from ready and will not be accepted now. In his view, the EU will not help Ukraine if it cannot help itself; from his perspective, talking about the EU is a distraction from the vital internal hard work of true nation-building, which in Mr. Vakarchuk’s view, continues to be lacking.

Despite this view, when the Euro-Maidan protests began in 2013, Mr. Vakarchuk understood the reaction of students and young people who viewed President Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt turn away from Europe towards Russia as a betrayal. For him, the Euro-Maidan was about an endorsement of Western values and the choice that youth was making: to go forward with the West, not back to a future with Russia. Mr. Vakarchuk was supportive of the protesters and his band, Okean Elzy, performed a New Year’s concert on the Maidan.

As a witness to the violence that took place on the Maidan, Mr. Vakarchuk movingly described how the violence affected him emotionally. “It was not like the movies,” he said. ”History is cruel and violence is often a part of it.” But Mr. Vakarchuk was not prepared to see people beaten or killed, and the experience has left an indelible mark on him.

Post-Maidan Ukraine

Mr. Vakarchuk said he believes that after the events of the Euro-Maidan, Ukraine found itself back at the drawing board, as it did in 1991 and again in 2004. Ten years later, he feels that Ukraine is again at a crossroads, at a new beginning, and wonders if this latest change is “coherent.”

Among his many concerns is the lack of a clear transition plan and a compelling and well-articulated vision, as well as the apparent disconnect between what is being articulated and what is being implemented. Mr. Vakarchuk illustrated this with the example of the fight against corruption, which is moving at a glacial pace, and the seeming unwillingness to radically restructure the government or to take strong steps to rebuild the economy.

Mr. Vakarchuk noted that he feels the problems in eastern Ukraine were self-inflicted by prior Ukrainian governments who ceded control of these regions to oligarchs. In his view, the government made little effort to unite the eastern and western portions of Ukraine around a common vision. Mr. Vakarchuk related that he does not blame the people in the Donbas for their attitudes, which he says were shaped by years of neglect and influenced by Russia’s skilled use of propaganda to win the hearts and minds of the people there.

As for the actual war that started in the early summer of last year, Mr. Vakarchuk said he is certain it was instigated by external forces. He recalls time spent in Donetsk in the late spring of 2014 and his appearances in front of large crowds, where mostly pro-Ukrainian sentiment expressed in the Russian language was prevalent, and where no large-scale separatist sentiment was apparent. His belief is reinforced by his current and regular contact with friends throughout the Donbas region.

According to Mr. Vakarchuk, the Poroshenko administration faces the monumental task of reorienting the mindset of the people in the Donbas, a process that will take a long time. Citing American Reconstruction efforts, Mr. Vakarchuk compared Ukraine’s task to the efforts of the U.S. to reintegrate renegade states back into the Union. Mr. Vakarchuk said he is not confident that the Ukrainian government is up to the task

Nor does he believe that guns will convince the local population in the east to be loyal to Ukraine. In his view, the Donbas needs to be made safe and prosperous, and the region’s local cultural and language traditions respected in order to build trust. Only in this manner can the Donbas be reintegrated. But to accomplish this Ukraine needs, in the words of Mr. Vakarchuk, “a Confucius whose legacy of wisdom over the centuries helped form a unified Chinese culture that absorbed the Hans, Manchus, Mongols and other groups into today’s integrated whole.”

How to help Ukraine

When asked by a student how Ukraine can be helped, Mr. Vakarchuk replied, “You should do nothing!” He stressed that Ukraine’s internal problems are like those found in a family and that Ukraine has to “fix itself.” He expressed indignation and embarrassment for his country, which is “always asking for help… unable to stand on its own.”

But from Mr. Vakarchuk’s perspective, there is potential.

While Mr. Vakarchuk said he sees regional and language differences in Ukraine, he does not believe the obstacles to building a true nation are insurmountable. The country’s people are well-educated and hard-working. Language is not divisive, nor should it be. For Mr. Vakarchuk, the biggest divide is across age groups, with the older generations still reflexively reverting to past practices. Unfortunately, they still wield most of the power.

Mr. Vakarchuk spoke eloquently about what is missing today in Ukraine – what he calls “the word,” as well as a “book of rules.” The word, which Ukraine lacks, refers to a shared historical experience to bond east and west. The book of rules is the law as the guarantor of civilized and progressive behavior. For him, the word is desirable, but a good book of rules would be sufficient.

Using Israel as an example, Mr. Vakarchuk said that, for several thousand years, disparate small tribes and later a dispersed diaspora developed and maintained a cohesive and powerful identity united around “the word,” the Old Testament and a shared religion. But Israel follows laws as well, and respects a democratic Constitution. Both have helped tiny Israel to become a prosperous and democratic nation.

In Mr. Vakarchuk’s view, countries in the EU have no great unifying historical bonds, yet share a constitution and function effectively based on the rule of law. The United States has no common “word” because it is composed almost entirely of immigrants. But it operates democratically and successfully based on its respect for law and order.

And, Mr. Vakarchuk noted, a people can have a common “word” yet function differently based on different rules, as in the case of North and South Korea. Here the people’s culture and mentality are the same – the “word” is what binds them. But they function very differently based on their different legal systems.

Mr. Vakarchuk said he believes that, first and foremost, Ukraine needs to observe the rule of law.

Government and the people

Mr. Vakarchuk gave good marks to President Poroshenko in his foreign relations, especially in his relations with the West. But he finds Mr. Poroshenko weak as a leader at home at a time when his mandate for dramatic change is rapidly waning. He has become too embroiled in politics, is too willing to compromise and has used the war as too much of an excuse to delay the implementation of major changes. And, Mr. Vakarchuk said, a good top-down approach to governing is desperately needed now.

He also said he believes that vibrant grassroots civic engagement is needed and he noted an absence of it. In his view, people are impatient and are easily disappointed; complain a lot, yet show little initiative; and seem unwilling to assume civic and personal responsibility to improve society. Civic engagement in Ukraine is below the needed critical mass to make a meaningful difference in Ukraine. In the U.S. and Europe, Mr. Vakarchuk said he sees many NGOs, church and volunteer groups, community organizations and civic societies helping out and engaging with government at all levels to effect change.

Mr. Vakarchuk estimated that in the West, some 10 to 15 percent of the population is engaged in this “bottom up” effort to build a society. In Ukraine, he said, civic activity to build society is just beginning and there is a real question about how well it can be sustained given the growing economic pressures and the struggle for daily survival for many citizens.

Organizers and participants

Mr. Vakarchuk’s visit was organized by Marci Shore, professor of history at Yale and wife of Prof. Timothy Snyder. Prof. Shore is currently working on a manuscript on the Maidan movement.

Many of the students present were members of the U.S.-Ukraine Academic Consortium, jointly organized by the European Studies Council at Yale and the Building Bridges Global Advocacy Network (BBGAN), which is headed by Stephen Rediker. The BBGAN seeks to engage students in promoting international communication, social justice and participatory democracy.

Currently the BBGAN is in contact with more than 200 students of Ukrainian universities in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv and Luhansk who are engaging directly with Yale students. For more information readers may visit

Named a Yale World Fellow 

In late April, Yale University announced that Mr. Vakarchuk had been selected to the prestigious Yale World Fellows Program Class of 2015.

The Yale World Fellows program seeks to cultivate and empower a network of globally engaged leaders committed to positive change through dialogue and action. Created in 2002 as part of Yale’s efforts to become a more globally focused university, the program engages mid-career thinkers and doers who are on a clear trajectory of success.

These creative practitioners are invited to come to Yale for a four-month stay to explore critical global issues, participate in cross-disciplinary studies, sharpen leadership skills and build relationships with other emerging leaders throughout the world. Mr. Vakarchuk will be at the university from mid-August to mid-December.

Currently there is an active network of some 250 World Fellows in 81 countries. This year’s class includes 16 leaders, among whom are: an anti-corruption activist from Ethiopia, a journalist from India, a Reuters photographer, a TV producer from Kenya, a trade policy expert from China, an inter-denominational faith leader from the United Kingdom and a development economist from South Africa.

For more information readers may visit

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