Slava Vakarchuk is a modern ‘renaissance man.’ Frequently called Ukraine’s #1 pop star, he is the lead singer and front-man of Okean Elzy, Ukraine’s most successful post-Soviet rock band. He has also had political influence in his country, participating in both the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2013-14’s Maidan Movement. He has worked as a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s Development Programme, and served in the Ukrainian parliament briefly from 2007-08 (he resigned because of qualms with the political system). He also has a Ph.D in theoretical physic, and donated his earnings to charity after winning the Ukrainian “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
In between stadium concerts for his band’s world tour, Vakarchuk visited campus to lead the discussion “Physics, Revolution, and Rock & Roll: Reflections on Today’s Ukraine.” WKND caught him for a few minutes before he jetted off: presumably to perform to another sold-out crowd, write another album, or save the world.
Q: What made you pursue rock music professionally, since you also have a background in physics and politics?
A: When I was 19 and a student, I just kind of popped up in a recording room. And that was it — I got hooked. While I was a physics student, I began singing, but I wasn’t thinking, just yet, of treating it as a career. It was as I was doing my Ph.D work that we started to get more success. But I decided to continue with my work, and I got my Ph.D; by the time I finally got it, I was already famous, and then I stopped. I don’t know if I’d say I needed the physics — well, that’s not true. I think it has helped me to think. I think that training does help me think through matters logically.
Q: If you were already famous, what made you decide to go back and follow through with that degree?
A: It made me uneasy! The idea of not completing something I’d started — that’s who I am. I finish things out, and I follow through. I wasn’t going to leave something undone.
Q: What kind of political power do you find in music?
A: You know, I don’t try to spin out political messages with my music. Some of our fans have extremely different views on politics than I do, and they still like listening to our music. Other people feel just the same way about politics as I do, and they’ve never heard one of our songs. These things don’t have to go together. But I will say that most of our listeners seem to care about what’s going on in our country, and I’ll connect that back to what’s happening with our society more generally. It’s important to me to be engaged politically, but that’s more related to who I am as a person. You can be political and make political statements without being a politician, and that’s especially true of celebrities. When I make good music, I’m making myself happy. The songs themselves aren’t sending these same political messages that I talk about outside of my music. I find both of those things to be important to me, extremely important to me. But they are different, and they should be.
Q: So Okean Elzy has been together for 20 years. Over that time, what have been the biggest changes in Ukrainian music and politics that you all have witnessed or experienced?
A: When we started, the music scene lined up with the Soviet scene. We as a band have definitely evolved: We got more experimental for a while, had an album with dance elements, sort of ‘cleaned up’ our sound for a couple of albums, and most recently we’ve gone for a more ‘natural’ sound. It’s always an exploration, I think. And then [regarding changes in] politics: Well, it goes to the leadership. For years — if you look at the years of our band, and the political leaders at that very same time, you can see it: Ukraine has not had the best leadership, to put it mildly [laughs]. As we talked about earlier today, Ukraine is like the Israelites and we’ve been wandering in the desert for years. There’s almost a generational turnover that hasn’t quite materialized yet. But, as I said, it’s up to Ukrainian society to deal with this. Getting frustrated is not the answer, without individual action. And, with the Maidan, that’s what’s been happening: people taking action.
Q: Related to that action — you mentioned, earlier today, the daily violence going on in Ukraine. How do you think that physical violence has changed the way Ukrainians feel about their nation and civic engagement?
A: I think it’s really defined three camps: people who care a little, people who care a lot, and people who don’t care at all. And that last camp has gotten so much smaller, necessarily. Of course, some people will always be indifferent, but there are far fewer of them now. And then the number of those people who really care, who are standing up and making noise and trying to make change, that number is really growing.
Q: And that’s a good thing, yes?
A: Yes, certainly, of course. There is no other way for a country to change, except through those people. You know, it’s interesting, and I think hard for some other nations to understand: what we’re going through now, you guys went through 250 years ago. It’s a revolution towards our independence.
Q: If it were up to you, what would you say ought to be the next step in creating positive political change in Ukraine?
A: There needs to be movements from the bottom-up and the top-down. You need society to make an effort to change itself, and you need strong, authoritative leaders who will really make things happen even when there’s resistance. I think the first way — bottom-up — has already started happening. When you see something like the Maidan, you see [the bottom up movement]. And that came from a place of being pushed, you know? That was after a series of decisions — and, like I said, reporters ask me all the time to logically explain why those decisions were made, and I honestly can’t do it — and it just brought this disappointment to the surface, and that disappointment evolved into something more like frustration, and has caused people to really make changes they want to see. We’ve been improving the way we engage with politics. Society has been improving itself. The second way, top-down, is tougher. I think we have a ways to go, there. It’s harder to achieve. And, honestly, I’m not sure I can say for sure what the very next step is, for us to get to that kind of authority.
Q: You spoke earlier about Western engagement, and said something a little controversial: You don’t think the West has any obligation whatsoever to engage in, or even care about, the Ukraine crisis.
A: Yeah, I know that’s not always the most expected or popular stance. But it’s important to me: I don’t expect anything from anybody. It would be, as I said, humiliating to travel the world and almost, you know, beg for help, or whine. I so strongly believe that any change that has to happen in Ukraine must come from within Ukraine itself. I got to where I am on my own — no European Union, no American weapons, no NATO. People in Ukraine have been waiting for a “messiah” figure to come and fix everything, and to them I say, “Make your own contribution.” No one can or should fix things for you but you. It’s possible, I say, to make happen whatever it is that you want to make happen. But you have to do it. You can’t just wait for someone else to come do it for you. Help yourself first. Now, as I also said — and this is cynical, but here you are — helping Ukraine is helpful to everyone. “Tipping point” really is a great phrase for it. The powers that are pushing up against each other in Ukraine affect many nations and societies. So, in that sense, it’s worth getting engaged: Get engaged for yourself, not for other people.
Q: So what, then, has made you get so engaged in politics over time?
A: I feel I’m paying my dues to my country; and it’s not because I have to, it’s because I want to. It’s the place where I was born and raised and I want the best for it.