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Culture news
Orange heroes
01.27.2006 15:27

ukraine_music A band made famous by its support for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution is to perform in Russia aspolitical tension mounts between the ex-Soviet nations.

The musical heroes of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution are to tour Russia amid ongoing political tension between the former Soviet neighbors.

Okean Elzy, Ukraine’s top band, which inspired thousands of protesters during the Orange Revolution by performing on Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in late 2004, is visiting St. Petersburg as part of a Russian tour to promote its fifth album “Gloria.”

Alongside such Ukrainian bands as Vopli Vidoplyasova and Tanok na Maidane Kongo, Okean Elzy showed that rock music can still influence political events.

However, the group actually performs a kind of romantic pop-rock devoid of political content.

Singer and songwriter Svyatoslav Vakarchuk says a band does not have to be political to fight injustice — it just has to be honest.

“It’s not necessary to sing about the revolution for you to go and support the choice of your people,” said Vakarchuk, speaking to The St. Petersburg Times by telephone from Kiev this week.

“It is two different things — to be a politician and a citizen of your county,” Vakarchuk said.

People gathered on the Maidan in November and December 2004 to protest the falsification of presidential election results in favor of pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovich. The protest finally led to a revote and victory for pro-Western candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

Although there was always the possibility that the protestors could have been violently dispersed, Vakarchuk, whose band performed six or seven times on a concert stage put up on the Maidan, said he ignored such fears.

“You know, I felt that I should be there; I didn’t think about anything else,” he said.

Vakarchuk’s high profile during the Orange Revolution led him to be appointed as an advisor to Yushchenko on youth issues and arts policy.

Okean Elzy was due to perform in Russia a year ago, but postponed the tour because the band felt it was needed in Ukraine during the political upheaval.

According to Okean Elzy’s fan web site, Vakarchuk announced the postponement at a concert in Odessa, Ukraine, in November 2004.

“Okean Elzy only does what it likes and performs for free to support Yushchenko, because we are for Yushchenko! Even if we have to sing in the street and cancel the whole Russian tour we will be supporting Yushchenko,” he was quoted as saying.

The band’s current Russian tour is almost exactly what was planned in 2004, and ends with a stadium show at Luzhniki in Moscow on Feb. 25.

“What is happening now should have happened a year ago,” he said. “We had to postpone some concerts that had been already announced, but some were not even announced because we understood that we didn’t know what would happen in Ukraine and that we should be here constantly.”

Although Vakarchuk said he was unhappy about the Kremlin’s involvement and the coverage of the events at the Maidan on Russian television channels, he said there was nothing “anti-Russian” about the protests.

“I watched [the Russian channels] and it was very unpleasant for me that certain things were altered consciously,” he said. “Somehow, the revolution was given an anti-Russian association, even if in reality it had nothing to do with that.

“I think that the revolution itself brought about a lot of clarity in relations [between Ukraine and Russia],” Vakarchuk said. He said that there were long-standing issues between the countries that needed to be resolved.

“Although we are resolving them painfully, it doesn’t mean that everything is bad and we have to treat each other badly. It means there were some things that should be treated surgically. We are doing it now and it will lead us to the point where everything will be good, and we’ll live together happily as friends.”

Although the Kremlin backed Yanukovich and tried to influence the election by all possible means — Russian President Vladimir Putin even congratulated him on his “victory,” twice — Vakarchuk said that the confrontation is over.

“It’s mostly all over, and you should remember that the first city that our president visited officially was Moscow. That said it all. He even promised to do this during the election campaign.”

However, relations between Russia and Ukraine soured again last month when Russia temporarily cut gas supplies to Ukraine as part of a price dispute in what the press is calling a “gas war.”

Vakarchuk objects to such journalistic shorthand.

“Let’s not use words like ‘war,’ because neither I, nor you, I hope, know what war is,” he said. “ Ukraine simply should stand, just as Russia, on the principles of its national interests, and the two countries should defend their national interests and their states in general.”

Vakarchuk said he received support from his friends and fans in Russia during the Orange Revolution.

“Our friends supported us a lot, and when we had to postpone the tour, even fans that were, of course, unhappy about the lack of concerts, understood that we were doing our bit in our own place. I’m very happy about it.”

Imperial sentiment toward Ukraine has deep roots in Russia where many felt betrayed by the Ukrainians’ choice to move closer to Europe and the rest of the world.

“It’s not my problem, and not Ukraine’s problem,” said Vakarchuk. “I treat Russia with a great respect as a great country — the word respect fits perfectly here, because likewise I wish that Russia would treat my country with the same respect.”

The most dangerous problem, at least as far as the Russian media is concerned, seems to be the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO.

Vakarchuk dismisses Russia’s concerns.

“So what? Is NATO something scary? Well, I was at NATO headquarters and did not see any military men there,” he said. “I simply went there to see what it is like with my own eyes. I think that such unions as NATO don’t have the image that was given to them during the cold war 20 or 30 years ago anymore. There is no Cold War anymore. The accent has shifted. Russia and America fight international terrorism now, so what is the danger of NATO? I can’t comment about the possibility of joining NATO, it’s not my prerogative, I am just saying I don’t understand where the danger lies in it."

Yushchenko thanked the artists who supported him on the Maidan by awarding Vakarchuk and several other musicians the title “Honored Artist of Ukraine” when Ukraine celebrated its 14th year of post-Soviet independence in August.

Inherited from the Soviet Union, such titles used to give artists an appreciable surplus to their fixed salaries in the planned economy, but do not mean much more than titillating egos today.

Oleg Skripka of Vopli Vidoplyasova and Sergei Fomenko of Mandri famously rejected the honor. Skripka was quoted as saying that the “authorities are discrediting themselves” at a press conference soon after.

Vakarchuk disagreed with Skripka's stance.

“I didn’t accept anything, I simply didn’t reject it,” he said.“But at the same I stated absolutely publicly that I did not need this title. I didn’t ask for it and I am not going to use it for any goals. Of course, I would cancel these titles — all of them altogether. But there are different opinions, you see?”

In the year since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has been in the grip of continual political upheaval, with Yushchenko at one point dismissing the entire government as his poll ratings plummeted and post-revolution optimism wore off.

Vakarchuk said that such crises only prove that Ukraine is finally a democracy.

“You know, you have a nice birthday party in the evening, but the next morning you wake up and feel certain emptiness,” he said.

“It’s normal that there is a lot of, say, public confrontations now everywhere. It only proves that we live in a democratic country, and that’s all. And that our press writes whatever it likes only means that it writes what it wants, not what it is told.”

Okean Elzy performs at Oktyabrsky Concert Hall on Tuesday.

By Sergey Chernov

Photo by the St.Petersburg Times

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