It must surely go down as one of the most dangerous rock tours in history.
Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, 46, the lead singer of Okean Elzy and perhaps Ukraine’s biggest star, was supposed to be preparing to play the band’s latest album to packed venues across the world from April. Okean Elzy hold the Ukrainian record for attendance at a stadium concert, and such is Vakarchuk’s popularity at home that two in three Ukrainians wanted him to stand for president three years ago.
However, a visit to a hospital in Zaporizhzhia, a city in south-eastern Ukraine, shortly after the Russian invasion has propelled Vakarchuk into a far less comfortable tour that has taken him to the frontline of the fighting, hospitals, railway station concourses filled with desperate refugees, underground platforms where civilians shelter from the bombs, and a host of recently shelled hotspots, all of it in total secrecy to avoid being targeted by Russian forces.
“The first was the Zaporizhzhia three weeks ago,” said Vakarchuk, speaking during a brief stop in Lviv, a western Ukrainian city. “They wanted me to sing in front of the personnel and some, like, lightly wounded soldiers. Well, we went outside in the yard. And we were surrounded by, you know, a lot of military objects, I mean, defence things like masks, like camouflage. So it was very moving. So I sang a couple of songs. Just a cappella. Afterwards, I decided to continue it.”
Since, he has sung in Odesa near the Duc de Richelieu monument commemorating the city’s founder, within firing distance of the Russian warships prowling the Black Sea, and to those sheltering in an underground station in Kharkiv, the eastern city where some of the worst shelling has been experienced.
Vakarchuk, known as Slava, played on a piano outside Lviv’s central station, a 50-minute concert for the refugees, for police and for military units facing daily Russian attacks. He has turned up at universities and key workplaces to inspire them to continue through the hell.
“It is just to make people feel that I am with them,” he said. “I haven’t counted I have probably sung in eight to 10 cities.”
On his visit to Kharkiv, Vakarchuk said he felt echoes of the German blitz of London during the second world war as he played to those hiding away.
“You can easily imagine this picture in the movies of you know, London 1941, when people were hiding in the subway during Nazi blitz and bombing,” he said. “The feeling is similar.
“The nation understands that probably there is nobody else who is going to find this enemy. But even if you’re alone, you’re destined to do it and you don’t have any other choice because otherwise you’ll be ruined as a nation.”
The performances, he said, were sometimes simply designed to inspire or console, while at other times it was a protest against what has engulfed the country.
Vakarchuk, who keeps with him as a talisman a toy car left by his nine-month-old son, Ivan, when he was taken to safety three weeks ago, said he did worry about his safety during the tour.
He said: “I am concerned. But let me tell you this. First of all, we have a small team and we do have some security there. And it’s not that I’m just alone there, no. Secondly, the point is that there is no safe place in Ukraine any more.”
Vakarchuk has the rank of lieutenant in the army which allows him to travel the country. He has been invited to raise funds abroad but he said: “There is no law which allows us to leave the country for those men who can carry guns, and actually I don’t want to.”
But would he shoot at a fellow soldier? “It is a very tricky question for somebody who has never done it. I don’t think there is an easy answer for that. But I’m sure that as thousands of others did, certainly I would do it as well.”