Ukraine’s Biggest Rock Star Doesn’t Want to Go Back Into Politics—Yet

On August 31st, while the Ukrainian parliament debated a bill to grant greater autonomy to separatist regions in the country’s restive east, ultra-nationalist protesters hurled firecrackers, Molotov cocktails, and a grenade at National Guard troops and riot officers stationed outside. In the resulting chaos, three people were killed and a hundred and thirty injured. The unity and coherence of the Ukrainian government, and of Ukraine itself, appeared to once again be unravelling.

That same day, Slava Vakarchuk, the frontman of the Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, and perhaps the country’s most beloved artist, donated two hundred thousand Ukrainian hryvnia (some nine thousand dollars) to the family of an officer murdered during the protest. “We cannot just stand aside!” the band declared on its Web site, announcing the donation.

The gesture was about more than positive publicity for Okean Elzy, the country’s most popular band. It reflected the complex role that the group, and especially Vakarchuk, plays in Ukrainian public life. In the past two decades, as Ukraine has stumbled through a succession of failed governments and would-be saviors, Ukrainians have lost faith in almost everything associated with the euphoria that greeted national independence in 1991. But Vakarchuk and Okean Elzy have yet to disappoint. The band formed in 1994, when Vakarchuk was nineteen, making it nearly as old as independent Ukraine; the two have grown up together. Okean Elzy may be the closest thing Ukraine has to an enduring national institution.

Vakarchuk, meanwhile, is a cultural and intellectual force—and, though he has attempted to shed this identity, a much-loved political figure as well. In his early thirties, he became a deputy of the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, before renouncing his seat in 2008 in protest of Ukraine’s corrupt political culture. Today, as the country struggles to rebuild amid economic turmoil and a roiling insurgency in the east, many are calling for Vakarchuk to reënter politics. He insists, though, that he can play a more unifying, and more influential, role as a musician, removed from the messy work of government.

When parliament was attacked at the end of August, Vakarchuk was a world away from the violence. Earlier that month, he had arrived in New Haven to spend a semester as one of sixteen Yale World Fellows. “I want a break from the way that I have been the last fifteen years, like a squirrel on a wheel,” he told one interviewer. “I decided to rest usefully.” Part pop star and part populist, Vakarchuk has always been ambivalent about his influence and the expectations that come with it. But his absence has intensified speculation that perhaps, when he returns to Ukraine, he will finally fulfill the hope of millions of Ukrainians by again taking up the mantle of politics. “I would be happier if somebody else does that job,” he told me. “But who knows? History is long. I wouldn’t say anything at this moment.”

Now forty, Vakarchuk was the first Ukrainian artist to make it big in post-Soviet Russia. Ukraine was long derided for its “peasant” culture, but he has helped transform the country into a regional exporter of music, art, and writing. He has inspired and mentored younger artists and cultural figures, from screenwriters to rappers. Largely because of Vakarchuk, it is cool to sing in Ukrainian, and cool to wave the flag. “He has helped open up the windows of Ukrainian culture and allowed lungs to breathe again,” Rory Finnin, the director of the Ukrainian studies program at the University of Cambridge, says. “That is a huge achievement.”

In February, I watched Vakarchuk at work in a dilapidated Soviet-era recording studio in downtown Kiev, listening as a choir recorded background vocals for a new song he’d just written. Titled “Not Your War,” the track is sweeping and mournful, with an elegiac orchestral score, smashing crescendos, and Vakarchuk’s raspy wail. Despite obsessing over every note, he insisted that what mattered most was the message:

The Kalyna berry branches have fallen
Mama who were we praying to?
How many more of your children will it take,
This war that isn’t yours?

The song, Vakarchuk said, is an open letter to his country about all that has gone wrong since independence—about what has caused the Kalyna (viburnum) branches, a national symbol of Ukraine, to wilt and fall. “The main battle is inside each of us, inside our society,” he said. “ ‘Your war’ is the struggle with one’s own complexes, one’s own fears of changing something.”

The Maidan protests amplified the cultural and political import of Vakarchuk and Okean Elzy throughout Ukraine. Before the protests, the band was already enormously popular in the country. But because Vakarchuk presented himself as inclusive, open-minded, and idealistic during the revolution, his music “became even more symbolic,” Zhenya Sakal, a graduate student in Russian history from Kiev, told me. Their music became “a part of Ukrainian identity,” she added. Today, as the war in the east drags on and promised reforms stall, Vakarchuk’s music is a source of comfort. “People feel safe hearing it,” Martha Bojko, a public-health researcher who was on the Maidan, said. That familiarity has given Vakarchuk something that any politician would envy: the trust of the people.

But many of his fans now want something more than he is able—or at least willing—to offer. “People believe Slava can change things,” Vladimir Opsenica, Okean Elzy’s lanky, hirsute Serbian guitarist, says. Vakarchuk insists, though, that his music is the best and only contribution he can make, and that, despite an expanding war and a failing government, the country can be reborn on the strength of arts and culture alone. “We are not here to entertain you!” he is fond of telling jubilant concert audiences. “We are here to unite you!”

Even so, Vakarchuk disputes the idea that his songs are political. “I don’t write political songs, I write social songs,” he said, tapping his leg restlessly as the choir rehearsed on the other side of the studio glass. “Did Bob Dylan write political songs?” he asked. “I prefer philosophical things. I don’t answer, I just put questions to the people. Let them think and answer.”

Vakarchuk won a seat in parliament in 2007, but retired less than a year later. It was “an experience,” he told an interviewer in 2008. “An experience of something people shouldn’t do.” The only reason fans are clamoring for him to take on a political role today, he says, is because he refuses to. “People believe in me because I’m not” in politics, he says with a shrug.

In the studio, as he listened to the track one final time, Vakarchuk nodded, his foot thumping loudly to the beat. “There couldn’t be a better time for this song than right now,” he said. “I’m completely sure.”

For many, however, Vakarchuk’s music no longer feels like enough. The day after the recording session, I joined him on a visit to the Main Military Clinical Hospital, in Kiev. To accommodate the overflow of wounded patients, offices had been converted into treatment rooms, and people filled every available corner. At his surprise appearance, nurses gathered in tight circles, giggling and adjusting their hair; a doctor, passing by with a colleague, whispered, “Vakarchuk!” Vakarchuk went from bed to bed, signing CDs and T-shirts and taking photos. “To prove to my wife that you’ve really visited,” one soldier said, as he and Vakarchuk posed for the camera.

One of his last stops was a stifling recovery room where three men were lying in their beds, watching a small TV. As he chatted with the wounded soldiers, Vakarchuk’s assistant signalled it was time to move on. “If there is a need, please give me the gun and I’ll be there,” Vakarchuk said, without irony, as he prepared to leave. “If you need some help, just turn to me.”

“The best thing would be to see you in parliament,” one of the soldiers said.

“I’m not a politician,” Vakarchuk replied, shaking his head. “I fight with my words and my music.”

“It would be good to have you in parliament,” another soldier said.

“I’ll give my words,” Vakarchuk said, “but I’m not ready yet.” On his way out, he stopped and turned back toward the men. “It’s a pity we had to meet here and not at a concert.”

Later that week, I walked with Vakarchuk as he attended a memorial held on Maidan Square. February 20th marked one year since the bloody culmination of the Maidan protests, when government snipers opened fire on protesters in central Kiev, killing more than fifty people. It was the city’s worst spasm of violence since the Second World War.

The Square had been transformed to mark the anniversary. Beside apartment buildings and atop pristine knolls, blue spotlights pointed upward into a cold, misty sky, each beam marking a location where a protester was shot. Vakarchuk was dressed all in black, as if for a funeral. He pulled up the fur-lined hood of his jacket and waded into the crowd, carrying an unlit candle and a bouquet of yellow flowers. “I hope people don’t see me,” he said, and tugged the hood down farther. But they did. Whispers of “Vakarchuk!” traced his path through the otherwise silent crowd. When he reached the memorial, it took only a moment for the cameras to abandon their sombre vigil and pivot his way. As he kneeled down to place the flowers and light his candle, the crowd came alive with the snap of cameras and the hum of murmured exclamations.

When he turned to walk toward the center of the square, his way was blocked by eager fans, all of them doing their best, given the occasion, to respectfully stifle their shrieks of joy. He was accommodating but businesslike, posing for photos, signing autographs. Soon a microphone appeared in front of him: he was interviewed for the TV news. “People believe in something simple,” he told me after he escaped the crush of people. “They want to see someone like them. Not a king, but someone close to them, someone to listen to and be inspired by.”

Vakarchuk is a symbol of unity because, in his music, he can be whatever his fans want him to be. When he sings “I won’t give up without a fight,” it doesn’t matter that the song is about a boyfriend desperate to keep a relationship together; many Ukrainians hear an anthem of national survival. (The line became an unofficial motto of the Maidan protests.) And when Vakarchuk cries, “This is prison, this is dolce vita” in another song, he doesn’t need to clarify if his fans interpret the verse as a condemnation of élite privilege under the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

Politics, on the other hand, does not offer the luxury of ambiguity. If he were to get back into politics, “he would be either a bad politician or a bad singer or both,” Volodymyr Kulyk, a professor of ethnopolitics in Ukraine, says. “That involvement would kill Vakarchuk as something people like and need.”

A few weeks ago, I called Vakarchuk in New Haven. During his absence, the clamor for leadership in Ukraine had only grown louder. Vakarchuk was focussed on his studies at Yale and on Okean Elzy’s upcoming tour, but he felt the weight of expectation, even from across the Atlantic. “I’m very careful. I’m cautious about these things,” he said. “It’s easy to open the door to politics and to come in. It’s very difficult to close the door. Before you come in, you had better think about whether it is really the most important, effective role for you. If it’s not, you should do another job.”

His faith in Ukraine remained unshaken, though. “I certainly understand the big geopolitical game that is being played,” Vakarchuk said. “But I think the most potent, the most powerful, player in this game is actually the Ukrainian people.” As he sees it, the hope for a political messiah is a self-imposed obstacle that stands in the way of Ukraine’s success as a nation. “I think that, unless the whole society cohesively and jointly wants to start changing things themselves, nothing will happen,” he said. “There will be no change from heaven.”

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