I was particular struck by a posting on Facebook last week by one of Ukraine’s leading pop stars Ruslana. Interestingly enough, it had nothing to do with her music. It was a video of her clambering over a clear-cut area of the Carpathian mountains, documenting the illegal harvesting of trees from Ukraine’s most scenic and only large stand of native forest. In recent years, this illegal cutting and export of trees has reached crisis proportions, reflecting the incompetence and corruption of the responsible agencies of the government in managing this dwindling natural resource.
This is nothing new for Ruslana who is equally famous in Ukraine not only for her musical talents but also for her political and social activism. Her artistic credentials are unparalleled in Ukraine, including winning the Eurovision Song Contest, a World Music Award and the designation of People’s Artist of Ukraine. For several decades now she has been the unquestioned queen of the Ukrainian musical scene. But, she has also been elected to Ukraine’s parliament and been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. She was a leading figure during both the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euro Maidan Revolution of 2013-14. She has won numerous international awards for her efforts and leadership in various causes including human trafficking, judicial reform, ecological preservation, Chernobyl and disaster relief.
Also in recent weeks, I came across a news release about another talented Ukrainian musician Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, being named a visiting scholar to Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and The Rule of Law for the fall term. Previously, I only knew him as the lead singer for one of Ukraine’s top rock groups, Okean Elzy. His distinctive voice and songwriting skills have made him much beloved to fans in Ukraine and beyond. Upon further research however, I was also literally blown away to learn that he also possesses a doctorate degree in theoretical physics, and was elected to Ukraine’s parliament in 2005, where he served on the Parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Expression and Information. He is the founder of the People of the Future charitable organization whose main goal is to work with youth in developing responsible and socially and politically aware leaders of the future. He has been ranked by the Ukrainian magazine Korrespondent as one of the 100 most influential people in Ukraine.
On a more personal level, I had the pleasure several years ago of meeting with another talented, though perhaps slightly less well-known musician (keyboard, sopilka, vocals) by the name of Myshko Adamchak, a member of a Carpathian “funk-punk” group by the name of Koralli. He was visiting Canada to help raise funds for medical supplies for the fighters on the Donbas front. When he is not performing, Myshko is a volunteer medic, risking life and limb to provide medical assistance to the injured and wounded on the battle lines in Eastern Ukraine.
Musical performance mixed with political activism has had a long history in modern Ukraine. Even before Ukraine became independent in 1991, performers were pushing the envelope of protest through their art. Most Ukrainians today are familiar with the tragic death of Volodymyr Ivasyuk, Ukraine’s most popular singer during the 1970’s, who was found murdered in 1979 outside of Lviv. Although the murder was never solved, it was widely believed that he was done in by the KGB, because his songs were becoming a driving force for a re-awakening Ukrainian nationalism.
Another veteran of the Ukrainian music scene is singer-songwriter Victor Morozov, who was born the same year as I was in 1950. In 1988 he formed a cabaret group called “Ne Zhurys!” (Don’t Worry!), which was not afraid to mock and satirize the foibles and decrepitness of the Soviet regime, for which, needless to say, much of their work was banned by Soviet censors. Incidentally, Victor Morozov also is well known for having translated the popular J.K. Rawlings series of Harry Potter books into Ukrainian.
Over the past several decades, the torch of political activism has been passed on to contemporary musicians and rock groups. I think it would be fair to say that both the Orange Revolution as well as Euro Maidan were fueled by the endless stream of musicians and performers that provided encouragement and moral support to the hundreds of thousands of protestors that came out to the Maidan to challenge the reactionary and corrupt leaders of the Ukrainian state at the time.
Leadership can come from many different sources. In Ukraine, we have been blessed with musical artists that have not been afraid to get involved in supporting revolutionary movements when duty and conscience called.