“I’ve met people in trenches trying to enjoy their lives,” says Slava Vakarchuk, the lead singer and founder of Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy. “You commit heroic deeds, but you are a normal person. The war does not take away your humanity.”
Outside of Elvis Presley, rock stars typically don’t serve in the army. But these are exceptional times for Vakarchuk, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament who joined the Territorial Defence Forces battalion of Lviv Oblast after Russia invaded Ukraine a little over a year ago.
He spoke to The Globe and Mail from Miami (where he felt “guilty” for being in an air-conditioned hotel room) in advance of a North American tour with his band that includes stops at Montreal’s L’Olympia (May 2) and Toronto’s Rebel club (May 4).
What is the purpose of this tour?
It could have been just another tour by our band, but it’s not. Part of the revenue is directed to charities in Ukraine. The other component of the tour is not material, it’s spiritual. It is to unite Ukrainians abroad but also to spread the word for the Western public and to urge them to keep supporting Ukraine.
Will the concerts be overtly political?
We’ve written new songs, some of which are dedicated to the war, including The City of Mary, about the defence of Mariupol. Sadly, we will play them. But we will also play hits and oldies that are nostalgic for us and the audience.
Will you make speeches?
I don’t have any talking points. We recently played Krakow, Poland. The morning of the concert we visited a museum at Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory. At the end of the visit I had tears in my eyes. Afterward, at the concert, I shared my thoughts on Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, a book by Hannah Arendt that says all these evils and atrocities done by the Nazis in Germany were done by ordinary people. The same thing is happening in Russia, which pretended to be a friend, a brother. These are ordinary people who support Putin. Maybe they are not happy to be in the army fighting, but they don’t oppose it. They silently support this nightmare. So, during concerts sometimes I say a lot. It’s what I’m feeling.
Immediately following the invasion, the international arts community was visibly supportive of Ukraine. Has there been fatigue since?
It’s important that fatigue does not turn into indifference. Everybody outside Ukraine, even inside Ukraine, is tired. You get tired and you want to change to something else. Unfortunately in Ukraine we cannot change to something else. We cannot change the channel or turn it off. The moment you start thinking about normal life, the Russians once again send drones or missiles.
Back to the arts community, Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev condemned the invasion of Ukraine, and yet many of his concerts were cancelled outside of Russia. Your thoughts on the intersection of arts and politics?
It’s a tricky question. Why should someone who does not support Putin be blamed? But for Ukrainians the trauma is so fresh and so painful, it is easy to cancel everything connected to Russia. We condemn everything because it is an easy tool for us to keep focused. Before the war, I never hated anyone. Now I understand I have hatred inside of me. It’s a very toxic feeling. But it’s also very practical and necessary for those who are fighting.
For a Ukrainian band like Okean Elzy, Russia is a key market to crack. Will you go back there after the war?
I don’t want to discuss anything like that unless Russia changes and they throw away all these criminals who are ruling them and unless their society will be ready to repent. Otherwise, it’s theoretical thinking.
What’s your connection to Pink Floyd? The band’s David Gilmour and Nick Mason, without Roger Waters, reunited last year to record a song for Ukraine.
I was raised on their music. I think they are one of the most important and profound artists in music history. I know there are tensions between David Gilmour and Roger Waters. I don’t want to comment on that.
Waters, while condemning the invasion, has said Russia was provoked. Will you comment on that?
It’s cool for an artist to be controversial. It is a big privilege for Roger Waters to live in a country or to be raised in a country which gave him rights to speak what he wants and to create wonderful things like The Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall. He is lucky to live in a society where he is allowed to do things and support things that I definitely don’t support. If he lived in Russia, he would never have created the things Pink Floyd did. So he’s lucky to be enjoying the fruits of democracy, including saying controversial things that have nothing to do with reality. It’s a pity. It’s a shallow and narrow understanding of what’s going on.
You recently talked about a new song you’ve been working on, When We Are Together. Is that your version of We’ll Meet Again, a hit for Vera Lynn during the Second World War?
We are all dreaming of the last day of the war. Or, I would say, the first day of peace, when we can come back to who we were before the war. The irony is that to make that day closer, you need to focus on fighting now. Dreaming is important, but doing the things we need to do every day will make the victory closer and allow us to come back to normal life.
This interview was edited and condensed.