For His Next Act, A Ukrainian Rock Star Looks To Politics

KIEV, Ukraine -- In the midst of Ukraine’s revolution, the pop singer Svyatoslav I. Vakarchuk jumped onto a stage before almost a quarter of a million protesters.

The lead singer of rock band Okean Elzy, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, is among potential candidates for president next spring.

With steam billowing from his mouth in the frigid air, he clenched a microphone wrapped in Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag and sang to his country: “My darling! Rise up my dear! Wake up!”

The passion and lyrics of Mr. Vakarchuk swayed not only the crowd, which was stomping and jumping with excitement and singing along, but the outcome of the revolution.

Among those who flocked to his concert on Independence Square in December 2013 were tens of thousands of fans who abandoned a rival, pro-government event to attend his show instead.

With that, many said at the time, momentum on the street shifted decisively to the opposition.

“Good leaders, like good surfers, just wait to ride a wave,” Mr. Vakarchuk said in a recent interview in his Kiev office, speaking more of his respect for popular movements than about politicians.

“The idea that the ordinary human being is at the top of the pyramid is very attractive to me.” 

Handsome, energetic and widely admired in Ukraine, Mr. Vakarchuk is today ranked in polls among a top tier of potential candidates for president in an election next spring, though he has not said whether he will run.

His entry, if it comes, would introduce a fresh face not just into Ukrainian politics but into the conflict with Russia that is central to Ukraine’s future and has seeped into American politics as well.

All this has made Mr. Vakarchuk, a poet and musician who last winter took time out to study politics at Stanford University, a man with millions of followers who is not sure he wants to be a leader.

“That is a very provocative question,” he said, when pressed on his political ambitions.

He said only that he is, “committed to making my country better.”

His political clout is indisputable.

Three of his songs, songs “Almost Spring” and “Without a Fight,” as well as “Rise Up, My Dear,” became the protest anthems for two successful street uprisings in Ukraine, in 2004 and 2014.

But each time, he and millions of Ukrainians became disillusioned as the leaders they helped put into power turned out to be as cynically rapacious as their predecessors.

If Mr. Vakarchuk were to enter politics, it would not be the first abrupt turn in his career.

Born in the Carpathian mountain town of Mukachevo, in western Ukraine, Mr. Vakarchuk was raised in a family of scientists.

His mother and father were both university professors of physics, and he initially followed in their footsteps.

Mr. Vakarchuk founded his band, called Ocean of Elza, in 1994 as an undergraduate at Lviv University, where he went on to earn a Ph.D. in a field of particle physics known as supersymmetry, or SUSY — the theory that shortcomings in what is known as the standard model of energy and matter in the universe will ultimately be explained by particles that have not yet been detected.

By the time he graduated, Ocean of Elza was popular enough that Mr. Vakarchuk moved to Kiev, the capital, and became a professional musician, leaving science behind but entitling his fourth album “Supersymmetry.”

In it, he sings a song called “Susy” about a woman whom he begs in one verse, “don’t hide your illusions” from me.

Over 24 years, Ocean of Elza has released 10 albums, turning out the soundtracks for the teenage love affairs, revolutions and wars of a generation of Ukrainians — and providing Mr. Vakarchuk vast name recognition with voters.

Ukraine, unlike Russia, has a free if chaotic political system able to elevate new leaders with new approaches to the country’s multiple problems, not least the war with Russian-backed separatists that has divided eastern Ukraine.

Lifting sanctions and “getting along with Russia,” as President Trump has said he would like to do, hinges on a resolution in Ukraine.

Already in the past decade, Ukraine has been led by a colorful cohort of presidents: Viktor A. Yushchenko, whose face was disfigured in a suspected Russian poisoning with dioxin, rendering him an almost medieval figure of suffering; Viktor F. Yanukovych, a venal autocrat who kept a private zoo; and the current leader, Petro O. Poroshenko, a chocolate factory owner known as the Willy Wonka of Ukraine.

After the Orange Revolution of 2004, Mr. Vakarchuk served briefly in Parliament but quit to protest infighting between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko within the pro-Western camp.

“I was really frustrated by the level of mutual fights, at the absurd Hobbesian world of all against all, rather than changing the country for the better,” he said of this initial foray into politics.

“He was a person who believed in something and became very disappointed,” said Ihor Panasov, a music critic, in an interview, describing Mr. Vakarchuk’s role as a muse for Ukraine’s popular uprisings.

Mr. Vakarchuk keeps in his office two pianos, a poster of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, some gifts of children’s drawings and a tiny cloth doll known as a motanka, of a type Ukrainian soldiers carry as a talisman at the front.

Perhaps surprisingly for an otherwise freewheeling musician, Mr. Vakarchuk favors a strong military and police force.

And recalling the lyrics of his songs, he speaks of policy in metaphors and images.

The rule of law is an overarching goal, he said.

“You should be like the pioneers in America, who knew that the only thing they had to do was move westward. No matter how difficult it was, no matter the obstacles, they had a big goal, and they wanted to approach it. To find water. To see a place where you can start your farm. And everything else is just an obstacle you fight with by all means.”

Building an effective police force and a muscular army, he said, should be Ukraine’s answers to corruption and Russian aggression.

Mr. Vakarchuk has supported the creation of a specialized anti-corruption court while Mr. Poroshenko has dragged his feet.

Mr. Vakarchuk is a believer, he said, in the “politics of magnetism” that worked for West Germany, as the side with the freer and wealthier society that eventually reunited with East Germany on its terms. 

“I’m convinced that the key lies in the domestic state of affairs,” he said.

“The more predictable, powerful, cohesive and rich we are, the bigger chance there will be no intention or possibility of somebody outside to hurt us. In the long term, that is a very powerful strategy.”

It is only in prosperous, peaceful countries that musicians can avoid politics and focus solely on creativity, he said.

“It’s not, ‘What do you as the author think?’ It is ‘what is in the air?’ ” he said.

In Ukraine today, he added, that means “we need to praise the inevitability of change because we are facing a war.”

Yet, even many of his fans at a concert in Kiev last month that drew about 85,000 people said they did not want their musical hero to run for office and dirty his hands in politics.

“Politics is a black hole,” said one fan, Ivan Zhuk.

But another, Marina Brosh, countered that “a talented person is talented in all things.”

She said she would vote for a musician to lead a country at war.

“The question is, is he ready for this lifestyle?”

Tymofiy Mylovanov, president of the Kiev School of Economics, said in an interview, discussing Mr. Vakarchuk’s possible entry into politics.

If he did decide to run, Mr. Mylovanov said, the chances of his winning were “good to very good.”

As the leader of a rock band, Mr. Vakarchuk may have one advantage in a mudslinging presidential race.

“They are going to bring up drugs. They are going to bring up women,” Mr. Mylovanov said.

“And he will say, ‘Yea, guys, that’s the point of rock ‘n’ roll.’”

Source: The New York Times