On the day Russia declared war on Ukraine, the country’s biggest rock star, Svyatoslav ‘Slava’ Vakarchuk got on to Kyiv’s glass bridge in a show of solidarity. As people gathered around him, singing along, Slava said that the people of Ukraine were together and “We shall overcome.”
Slava, lead singer of the band Okean Elzy, was at the forefront of the Maidan Movement, which he calls “Ukraine’s revolution for dignity”. In May 2019, Slava launched his own party, Holos (Voice). He was expected to run for president but chose to bow out. His party, though, won 20 of 423 seats in the parliamentary elections two months later. A year later, Slava also quit as an MP, declaring that his “mission was accomplished”. But, as Melinda Haring of the Atlantic Council wrote, “He may have created the first real political party based on ideology, not personality, and one without a direct financial relationship to Ukraine’s oligarchs.”
Slava spoke to Rahul Pandita from somewhere on the outskirts of Kyiv—both of them were in the 2015 class of the Yale World Fellowship Program. Slava’s internet connection was breaking, but he managed to speak. This interview, recorded on the third day of Russia’s invasion, has been edited for clarity.
Would you describe what is happening in Kyiv right now? What can you see, and what are your feelings about it?
I am speaking to you from the outskirts of Kyiv. I have been working as a truck driver, bringing children and women to safety, going back and forth. Sometimes, I bring back gasoline and give it to people who need it. It is a very difficult time. You don’t sleep at all. You sleep probably for two hours. It’s like you are in a nightmare, you are on a rollercoaster. Kyiv now fights for the future of all human beings. We are not only fighting for our freedom but for the freedom of the whole of humanity, including those places and countries who think it is not about them.
What Putin did has ruined all the rules, margins and boundaries that existed since 1945. It has started a whole new big world war…in the middle of Europe. In the last seven years there have been conflicts…a lot of blood and unjust things. But this one is the most horrific; this is 100 per cent cynicism because the country which guaranteed our freedom and safety has violated them cynically.
There never was any big gap between the two nations. Look, these are our brothers; they are almost like our people. And now they are killing their brothers. The world needs to know that. Not only that, together we need to stop it. I am getting emotional, but I know they are killing people…elderly people, children…just two hours ago, there was a rocket attack on a big residential house. And there was no military object around. There are so many victims; we don’t know how many. And it infuriates you.
You supported the Orange Revolution and were also at the forefront of the Maidan Movement in 2013-14. What is the sense you are getting from your fellow countrymen? Did they anticipate that, apart from fighting the proxies put up by Moscow, they would also have to battle Russian tanks?
The majority of the population was not ready, mentally, to fight those who claimed to be our brothers. But it quickly changed. A day before, in the morning—and it seems like it was a month ago—I woke up with a huge blast five miles from where I live. And I heard something like this for the first time in my life. I had heard such sounds only in battle movies earlier. It was not like a bullet being fired, it was a big rocket launcher. And it gives you goosebumps in a bad way. It made me shiver. Because you realise that had it hit your place, maybe nothing would have survived. And then you see these shells around when you drive. And it is a surreal feeling…is it really happening to you! Is this happening in the 21st century? In the middle of Europe! The continent which seemed most peaceful…is this nightmare coming from somebody who says he is your brother? Till the “revolution of dignity” in Ukraine and till Russia took over Crimea and imposed their war in Donbas, our band was not only very popular in Russia but we also toured there a lot. We probably went to all big places in Russia. And millions of people came and streamed our music, and now the leadership which represents those people is committing serious crimes. The whole nation of Russia should stand against this—at least those who listen to our music and are our fans. We know some of them are going to [anti-war] demonstrations [in Russia], but we need more. I know this sounds idealistic but it is in the hands of Russian citizens to stop this.
But if they do nothing, we will resist. Some people are fighting—we have a big territorial army. They have courage and are ready to do whatever is needed.
Are you disappointed by the weak response of powerful countries in the West so far?
I do not want to get into weak or strong. But I want to tell them: Act now, before it is too late. Do anything, do strong things. You can send more weapons to Ukraine. You can impose sanctions on Russia. Do not hesitate to do it. It will be late tomorrow. The stronger the response now, the easier it will be to stop Russia. Ukraine is doing its best to resist. Today is the third day and Kyiv stands absolutely tall and strong. And there is no sign that the enemy is going to succeed. But still, the force they [Russia] are going to put into this war is very big. So we need to stand against it and we need international help. By the way, India is a very big country and very important voice at the United Nations. Even if the Security Council is locked by Russia, again one thing which infuriates me, all countries can raise their voice and condemn Russia’s actions…including India.
I love your country, I love your culture. I have been to your country. I am a big fan of the cuisine, I do yoga. For me, India is one of the greatest places. But you have to do something. In coming years you will see consequences of that—either your action or inaction.
There are many in Ukraine who want you to be in politics, become the president. But you have been a reluctant politician. Does this war change that reluctance in any way?
You know I am an artist. My voice is louder than most. So I need to do this. I have played my music all over. It is the soundtrack of resistance. For me, it speaks to my people. And I will do whatever it takes to inspire my people. I will certainly do whatever it takes to fight alongside them. But I think my voice as a social figure, as a musician, as someone who has influence over the young people, is the most important thing I can give my country.