As It Happens

Ukrainian rock star performs for refugees, soldiers and wounded children

One of Ukraine’s biggest rock stars has been criss-crossing the war-torn country performing for soldiers, refugees, injured children and people whose cities are under siege.

Okean Elzy frontman Svyatoslav Vakarchuk says his solo performances are an act of resistance

Ukrainian rock singer and activist Svyatoslav Vakarchuk performs at a keyboard for people on the streets of a Ukrainian city. (Submitted by Svyatoslav Vakarchuk)

Story Transcript

One of Ukraine's biggest rock stars has been criss-crossing the war-torn country performing for soldiers, refugees, injured children and people whose cities are under siege.

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, 46, is the frontman of the Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy, which was supposed to be touring the world this spring, playing to packed stadiums. Instead, the musician and former Ukrainian MP is performing solo in hospitals, refugee-packed railway stations, and underground platforms where Ukrainians shelter from Russian bombs.

"It's not fighting with a gun, and maybe not military resistance, but this resistance and this support is, I think, very important," Vakarchuk told As It Happens guest host Gillian Findlay.

"The biggest message is that we are united, we are the whole nation, we stand for our freedom and our future and the future of our children, and we are very strong and it will be impossible for Russia to win, and we shall overcome."

Visiting cities transformed by war

As Ukraine entered its 33rd day of war on Monday, Ukrainian forces claimed to have retaken Irpin, a suburb of the capital Kyiv. Meanwhile, negotiators began assembling for a round of in-person talks in Turkey on Tuesday aimed at stopping the fighting.

The United Nations says the war has triggered Europe's worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, with more than four million Ukrainians driven from their homes.

Vakarchuk says his wartime rock tour wasn't planned. Instead, it started when he was invited to visit patients and staff at a hospital in the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia.

"Then I understood how important it was for the personnel, for the injured soldiers, for nurses, for everybody," he said. "So then I expanded it to other cities."

He has since performed at volunteer a centre in Lviv, on the streets of Odesa, and in an underground station in Kharkiv, a city that has faced intense shelling from Russian troops.

"You feel war there," he said of Kharkiv. "Many buildings in the city, including the downtown, have been destroyed or just badly damaged."

Vakarchuk performs in a volunteer centre in Lviv, surrounded by sleeping mats on the floor. (Submitted by Svyatoslav Vakarchuk)

With each performance, he says he speaks out against the Russian invasion and makes speeches to inspire his audience. 

"I think I have some, you know, skills to persuade people," he said. "So I'm trying to use these skills for the benefit of the country now."

For someone who has travelled his country many times over, Vakarchuk says it's painful to see familiar cities transformed into war zones. 

"Part of me sadly mourns," he said. "But the other part of me, as a warrior, is concentrated and calm and ready to fight until we stop this nightmare, and that will rebuild the country. So it's two people who live in one person."

But sometimes, he says, it's all too much — like when he saw children in the Zaporizhzhian hospital, some on the brink of death, others irrevocably maimed.

"I saw these kids and I started crying. I started to cry because I couldn't stop my feeling. So I was trying to be strong. But that was beyond my efforts."

Vakarchuk says he has no plans to leave Ukraine any time soon. He has work to do, he says, and he has enlisted in the army to join the fight against Russian troops.

"I need to be here," he said.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.

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