The Ukrainian rock star dodging bullets on tour: ‘If the shelling gets too close you stop playing’

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk – arguably Ukraine’s second most influential man – worships John Lennon. But he’s done with giving peace a chance.

By Colin Freeman. July 20.

Defiant: Okean Elzy frontman Svyatoslav performs at a Kyiv concert
Defiant: Okean Elzy frontman Svyatoslav performs at a Kyiv concert CREDIT: Getty

Secret gigs are the stuff of rock legend, be it The Beatleson the roof of Apple Studios, or the Sex Pistols playing God Save the Queen on the Thames. But for Ukraine’s top pop star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, turning up unannounced doesn’t just help create a buzz. It also helps him dodge Russian artillery.

Since Vladimir Putin’s invasion five months ago, he has toured army bases on Ukraine’s frontlines, playing impromptu gigs to raise morale. They are, by the sounds of things, rather edgier affairs than Ed Sheeran’s gigs at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan. “Back in May, we did have a couple of Hurricanes (Russian truck-launched rockets) land fairly close, maybe 200 metres away,” he tells me during a stopover in the Donbas city of Kramatorsk. “You see and hear a lot of explosions, and often the roads where we are going are completely torn up by shellfire.” For these reasons, his movements are kept quiet, just as Bob Hope’s Christmas specials were in Vietnam. Because a dead Vakarchuk would be something of a propaganda coup for the Kremlin, given how popular he is among Ukraine’s 44 million people.

His band Okean Elzy (Elza’s Ocean), are the country’s answer to Radiohead or Coldplay, playing thoughtful rock to stadium-sized crowds. They were also the house band for Ukraine’s pro-Western uprisings, performing for the crowds of protesters who toppled Kremlin-friendly governments in 2004 and 2014.

Indeed, had many Ukrainians had their way, it would have been President Vakarchuk now facing off against Mr Putin.  In 2019, he formed his own pro-Western political party “Voice”, which won 20 parliamentary seats in the elections that swept former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky to power. He declined to run for president himself – despite polls suggesting that up to two-thirds of Ukrainians would have voted for him. 

Had he done so, Mr Putin might now be up against a Beatles-loving musician, who had the standard John Lennon peacenik outlook of most pop stars. So does he ever think about what it might have been like to be in the hot seat? “To be honest, I never wanted to run for president, I just wanted to help other people get into politics,” he insists. “The whole country regards Mr Zelensky as commander-in-chief, and he is doing a great job rallying world support. That is his job – the task of the fighting is down to the army.”

Vakarchuk after casting his vote at a Ukrainian polling station in 2019
Vakarchuk after casting his vote at a Ukrainian polling station in 2019 CREDIT: AFP via Getty

Speaking of which, Vakarchuk himself is now officially Lieutenant Vakarchuk, having volunteered for military service at the start of the war. So what happened to all the John Lennon “give peace a chance” stuff? “It’s easy to be anti-war when you are on a neutral side – you can say ‘I’m against all this s___,’” he says. “But I don’t know if many musicians in England in 1940 or 1941 were anti-war. When you’re defending your own nation, you have to fight to survive. It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-justice and democracy.”

He points out that many Western musicians have also rallied to Kyiv’s defence, including ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, who raised the Ukrainian flag at Glastonbury last month. So too have Coldplay, who played an Okean Elzy song at a concert in Poland two weeks ago. Massive Attack’s Robert Del Naja, a friend of Vakarchuk’s since the group gigged in Kyiv years ago, has produced artwork for sale in aid of Ukrainian humanitarian appeal.

As it turned out, Ukraine’s generals decided that despite Lt Vakarchuk would be more effective with his guitar than a gun. “They told me I’d be much better performing to raise troop morale,” he says. “So they basically just commanded me to that.”

Thus he has embarked on what is probably one of the most dangerous rock tours ever. For example, Kramatorsk, where I met Vakarchuk last week, is now a ghost-town because of missiles from approaching Russian forces, now just 20 miles away. But it is a tranquil backwater compared to the bases he visits near the frontlines, where Russians forces are firing 20,000 artillery shells a day. The gigs are often played in underground bunkers, and are acoustic-only affairs – like “a pre-65 Bob Dylan.”

Vakarchuk performing outside Lviv train station
Vakarchuk performing outside Lviv train station CREDIT: Getty

“If the shelling gets too close you stop playing, but if it’s in the background, you get used to it,” he says. “Not everyone’s a fan of mine, of course, but hopefully they still like having me singing a couple of tunes on the guitar, having a few jokes and maybe sharing a meal or whatever.”

The trench tour has also taken in refugee centres, hospitals and Metro stations converted into bomb shelters. In the northern city of Kharkiv, he sang acapella in a Metro filled with 300 people, and played piano with classic musicians in the ruins of the city’s bombed-out Palace of Labour. Did he ever get frightened? “It can be scary, yes, but fear is normal,” he says. “The trick is not to be fearless, but to subdue your fear and control it, rather than have it control you.”

In a country where nobody can travel for more than a few miles without showing their credentials at a military checkpoints, it helps that Vakarchuk’s face is almost universally recognised in Ukraine – thanks to two decades as part of the country’s best known rock group. Formed in 1994, Okean Elzy’s 10 albums nearly 30 years are the soundtrack to many Ukrainians’ lives. Vakarchuk, 47, is also seen as a good ambassador for the country, a Slavic Jarvis Cocker and post-Soviet Renaissance man. The son of two Soviet-era academics, he studied particle physics at university and speaks Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and near-flawless English. In 2005, he was also the first person to win the jackpot on Ukraine’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, giving the prize to charity.

He has given lectures in Ukraine politics and leadership, and even his brief stints in office have left his reputation unscathed. After his first stint as an MP in 2007, he quit in protest at the “Hobbesian” infighting that crippled Ukraine’s post-Orange Revolution government.

Placeholder image for youtube video: vK-rLES7rT8

His soft power skills have, however, failed to work in Russia, where Okean Elzy have always had a big following. Vakarchuk reached out fans there at the start of the war, urging them to denounce it. He has since given up. “Sadly, many Russians choose to support Putin and his massacre in Ukraine, so I think they’ve become collaborators,” he says, citing reports that at least half of Russians back the war. “There’s no point in talking to them any more – it’s up to them to change their minds.”

Why is that? Russians, he says, spent far more time historically under Tsarist rule – unlike Ukrainians, who have “a freedom gene in their blood”. “The Russians have been trying to tame us for centuries – they think we’ve been spoiled by the West, when actually we just share the West’s values.”

With that, he heads off again on the Donbas 2022 Tour – a tour where venues and dates, it is fair to say, may be subject to alteration due to unforeseen circumstances. He is confident, though, that when the war does finally end, Ukraine’s musicians will be writing victory songs rather than laments of defeat. “We’ll win, but nobody knows how long it will take, or the price we will pay,” he says. “The more help we get, though, the shorter it will be.”


Georgian singer Gela Gnolidze covered this very emotional Ukrainian song originally recorded by Okean Elzy, in tribute to Ukraine’s incredible existential struggle against pure, concentrated putinazi evil. But here is the Okean Elzy version;


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