After a week struggling to countenance the capacity of mankind to ever seamlessly manufacture lie after lie in the aim of engineering unfathomable divisions, I’ve decided to briefly write about something a little more refreshing vis-à-vis Ukraine. Last summer while preparing for a month working in Odessa, I casually searched for a ‘Ukrainian music’ playlist on SoundCloud and rather belatedly became acquainted with Okean Elzy. Hailing from Lviv in the country’s west, Ukraine’s foremost rock band have over a two decade career endeared themselves to millions across the CIS sphere, enthralling me like so many others with their mesmerisingly sung Ukrainian and rousing ballads. Their charismatic frontman Slava Vakarchuk has previously been described as the country’s conscience, putting his name to a number of civil society campaigns and raising the roof on Maidan both during the Orange Revolution and this December when the latest protests were still in their infancy, describing the latter performance as the most important in the band’s career. Such is the stature of the man that I was unsurprised to see him taking to the airwaves and meeting students at universities in eastern Ukraine over the past week, trying to calm the national mood in times such as these.
While interning in Odessa I was gutted to miss out on Okean Elzy’s gig, ironically enough returning from the Independence Day celebrations on Maidan. So naturally upon hearing two months ago that the next leg of the tour was to be in London, I was immediately enthused; the event seemed all the more poignant given the recent events in Kiev and the band’s prominent role in them. I deliberately opted to adopt a yellow and blue dress code for the event. Outside the concert hall I bought a badge in memory of the victims on Maidan and pinned it on right away. I conversed with activists raising funds through the sale of badges such as mine, and I made clear my intransigent opposition to the developments in the Crimea when they picked up where I was from.
And the show began. Vakarchuk et al were majestic, running through all the major hits and offerings from their new album, willfully shaking up the programme at every turn in the audience’s unremitting euphoria. Vakarchuk was just as appreciative of the crowd’s efforts, later thanking them on Twitter for ‘giving us more than two hours of a REAL life. The one we are not living these days.’ But it was not so much the majesty of the music itself which captivated me; I was enveloped in a truly extraordinary atmosphere. The building was awash in a sea of blue and yellow, the flags of the Crimean Tartars and Belarusian white-red-white, the latter widely associated with opposition circles in Minsk, also swirling throughout the concert. Cries such as ‘Glory to Ukraine,’ ‘Glory to Heroes’ and ‘Heroes never Die’ rang out at every opportunity, and I eagerly joined in. The bicentenary of Taras Shevchenko’s birth was heartily celebrated. Strains of ‘Ukraine has not yet perished,’ the opening words to the national anthem, reverberated off the walls innumerable times and I hummed along. I speak not a word of Ukrainian, but was nonetheless blasting out the words to each song. This concert was just not like any other; it was as if Maidan had made its way right here.
And this is what I understood from it all. Distant as my claims to Ukrainian ancestry may really be, and neither having set foot on Maidan these past few months, I nonetheless felt truly liberated in the confines of the concert hall. In no given context would I describe myself as a patriot, let alone a Ukrainian one, but I sensed here an indescribable sense of pride and sheer freedom, immersed in this particular crowd. It mattered not one bit who I was, where I was from or how trivial my cultural differences were with those standing next to me, cynically and falsely distorted by politicians faraway from here. This mutual exaltation was truly insatiable. As the words to Okean Elzy’s protest anthem ‘The Wall’ ask, ‘do we have the strength to make this wall fall?’ Maidan has only reinforced my conviction that those walls at Ukraine’s borders will one day tumble too, and soon.