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‘You Can’t Help Being the Warrior Now’: Ukraine’s Biggest Rock Star, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, on Joining the War Effort

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is one of the biggest and most well-known rock stars in Ukraine. He’s the frontman and lead singer of the beloved rock band Okean Elzy, which formed in the mid-Nineties after Vakarchuk and his bandmates met in Lviv. The band has toured all over the world, and their music has been inextricably tied to the story of Ukraine. They’ve never been afraid to confront political issues head-on, demanding democratic reforms during the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, lending support during the 2014 Euromaidan demonstrations, and refusing to play in Russia after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Vakarchuk, who goes by Slava, also launched a brief political career, becoming a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament in his early thirties before deciding his work as an artist offered more opportunities to spark change in the country.

When Russia launched full-scale military attacks on his homeland on Feb. 24, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation,” Vakarchuk was at home in Kyiv and heard the earliest blasts of war firsthand. “I can tell you it was a nightmare,” he says. “I woke up just before the explosions. I was anxious. I don’t know why. It was something intuitive.” However, there was little time to let fear take over: He immediately sprang into action, leveraging his connections and status as a public figure to help civilians out of the city and into safety.

Within days, he’d assembled a team and received a designation as a lieutenant of the army. The musician began traveling from city to city, visiting troops, bringing supplies to the frontlines, and boosting morale among Ukrainians. The wreckage and suffering he’s seen has been crushing, but he’s been moved by the spirit and grit he’s witnessed. “I’m a big patriot of Ukraine, and I’ve always loved my people, but even I was surprised,” he says. “Ukrainians demonstrated an 100 point-level of courage, the ability to fight, to resist. Ukraine, I think, is the greatest nation in the world now.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Vakarchuk reflected on the work he’s been doing and what it means to be an artist defending his country. He also spoke about the music he’s turned to during the conflict, what he hopes to see from the international community, and what people can do to support Ukraine.

My family went to Western Ukraine just before everything started, so I was alone with my two cats. I turned on my phone and the Internet. There was a Security Council Meeting on the air, so I watched it. And just in the middle of that, breaking news came that said that Putin was delivering a speech. It was 4:00 in the morning, so I already understood that it would be a declaration of war. And probably 10 minutes after he started, I felt an explosion, and that happened to be one of the first missile attacks in this war. We picked up the women and children from our teams, and I was working like a driver. We took them to Western Ukraine, where it was still relatively safe, and then I came back and started immediately doing what I’m doing now — moving people, visiting many places in Ukraine, and working with people and raising their morale.

We started with our relatives and friends, and then there were some people who I never knew. When 90-plus percent of the population knows who you are, it makes life a little bit simpler, easier — but only to the extent that you don’t look suspicious. They don’t suspect you being an enemy, because all men in Ukraine can look suspicious now. It’s war. So if you don’t have your ID and you cannot prove who you are, then you are automatically suspicious. For me, it was easier, because on checkpoints and the lines, you can show yourself, and people always are very happy to see you, and they help you. I never considered leaving. Moreover, for me it’s a great honor to be here and to defend my country. Me, my friends, and my younger brother who now works with me, we officially enlisted in the army, and we asked them for a document that will allow for us to travel in the country and to do what we do, and they suddenly did it because they think it’s important. So, I’m now not just a rock star, but also a lieutenant of the army.

Many friends of mine did the same. In our country, when you graduate university, sometimes you have military training, which we did. And then at the end, you are a lieutenant of the reserve, and sometimes you never use this, but during the war, you do. Many of all my friends, musicians, famous Ukrainian musicians, they took guns, and they are now working as defenders. It’s a sort of dichotomy, because from one point of view, an artistic person is who I am — somebody who is so fond of music, who is so addicted to music, because I do treat myself as a genuine musician. People like this, they’re always, let’s say, pacifistic, and they are more focused on love and doing good things than in fighting, so you don’t expect them to be belligerent. The manifesto for me, before the war, was “Imagine” by John Lennon, you know? And it’s still in my heart. It’s still in my gut. But something changes when you see that there is somebody who is willing to kill your children, your women, who is willing to destroy all you’ve created in your life, destroy your cities, everything. So it changes. It somehow creates hatred in your head, in your soul, and in your heart, and this hatred is very toxic, and I don’t like bearing it. I don’t like having it within me, but the only way to get rid of it is to win the war now. So, the dichotomy is that the artistic person becomes the warrior, and you can’t help being the warrior now.

Rob [Del Naja], the leader of Massive Attack, sent an email the very first day of war and asked what they and other people could do to help. I told him that you just need to spread the word about Ukraine. And they are doing it. Our studio in Kyiv, which we love, with great equipment, was under risk. It has not been ruined so far, but a week after everything started, I actually stopped my tour, and I came to Kyiv for one day, and we picked up all the hard drives and all the music that we had there — computers and guitars and amplifiers and everything, which is really precious to us. We just evacuated it. Our studio now is just a couple of rooms. What we didn’t bring with us is only big, acoustic loudspeakers; everything else we took out. But in my native city, where most of our team is based, we found a studio, which is good enough. There are plenty of producers and musical managers and organizers of concerts who have approached us and other Ukrainian musicians to take part in different charity events and concerts throughout the world. It’s impossible, because we are — at least me and my friends — staying here, defending the country. But we decided to record a couple of our famous songs. All of a sudden, I was sitting there, and I just decided to record “You Are So Beautiful.” There was a grand piano, so I started playing it, and I decided to dedicate it to my country.

One day, after we win and I hope everything is over, all Ukrainians — and the world too — will contemplate and reflect on everything. I think there will be time for memories and for books and for films. What I’m describing to you certainly will be part of my memory. But these are more romantic things, and if you can also imagine that in addition to that, I’ve been to hospitals where I’ve seen people wounded by the Russian army, children without legs or without internal organs, somebody who lost their parents. I’ve seen the center of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, completely ruined, looking like London or Coventry in 1941. You see it, and you witness it, and you are part of. You don’t have privilege to be too sentimental, because if you start being very emotional, you’ll break down. I’m using this warrior’s technique when I’m trying to be as cynical as possible until I’m alone in my bed at night. And then I write poems, or I call my family, or I just listen to my favorite music. I was  raised on classic rock, mostly on the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but I listen to everything. When we travel we listen to music; we were listening to Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. I love jazz. Yesterday in the evening before going to sleep, I was listening to A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Once again, I’m Slava, this sensitive musician who is happy being a creative person. But during the day, you are somebody who your country needs, and you inspire people, and you are strong, you are energetic, and you are positive.

Today, we were in Kharkiv. We brought a lot of aid, some military stuff, some medical stuff, some humanitarian things, some food, everything. We had a small truck, so we left it to a couple of territorial defense units. And then we went the underground, which in Kharkiv now is the most reliable bomb shelter. We saw that a lot of people are literally living in subway cabins. You can’t imagine this. I mean, it’s like London during Blitzkrieg times. I sang some songs for them. They were sitting on the staircase, literally in the hall of the underground. It was my first time in my life that I sang for probably 200 or 300 people who just gathered there, a cappella, then one or two songs with guitar. Then afterwards, we went to see some troops. It’s very moving to go across cities — you see places you’ve been a couple of months ago, places I played concerts, celebrated my birthday. It looks like disaster movies, where everything in downtown is destroyed. You can’t believe it happens with your country. I went to a hospital in Kharkiv, where I talked to the president of the hospital, and he told me they were literally fighting Russian troops who came during the first days, and they beat them out of the city.

There are three messages which I’m ready to share with the international audience. First is a military message: We need your help to stop Russians. We need anti-missile defense systems. We need planes. We need no-fly zone over Ukraine, but at least the first two things if you’re not ready to do the third. There is a general opinion in the West that if you help us too much, that will provoke Putin to start World War III. The truth is that World War III has already been started by Putin, and now Ukraine is just an avant-garde of this war. The second message is an economic message: To sanction Russia as hard as possible, not because we want their people to suffer, but we want their people to stop Putin. And that’s why we say to big companies like Citigroup and other big American and international companies, just stop doing business with Russia. You just help them to earn money. You pay them taxes, and then they buy tanks and planes, which kill our children. The third thing, and probably most relevant to our talk, is spiritual support. We are so happy that the whole world, including well-known people in the United States and other countries, support us. We encourage you to create songs, to make art, to create fundraisers, just to spread the word about Ukraine.

My plan is to continue to do what I’m doing. I’m now much more focused on bringing material aid to create some added value, in addition to what we do in a spiritual way. I’ll continue that, and I will double my efforts and bring other people along with me. I’ll take part in some online concerts and fundraisers, but most important now is to stop Putin and his army and to win the war.

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