The Tune of Resistance

Culture & Science
23 December 2011, 16:00

Legendary Ukrainian ethno rock band Vopli Vidopliasova is celebrating its 25th anniversary. VV has played gigs in Berlin, toured Russia and performed for its Ukrainian fans at Kyiv’s Sport Palace stadium recently. Slightly dazed by a whirlwind of greetings, Oleh Skrypka still found the time to talk with The Ukrainian Week one evening.

U.W.: What are you feeling? Is the poignancy of a quarter century irritating you, or is this milestone pushing you forward?

In fact, we’re 24, not 25. We gathered into a band in 1986 but played our first gig as VV in 1987, a year and a half later. When we lived in France, a concert agency was kind enough to arrange an anniversary gig for us in 1996. Somehow they started the countdown from 1986. Now, we use 1986 for all our anniversary things. And now we realize it’s better. We can keep playing birthday tours and gigs for 18 months. Our 25th anniversary began in spring 2011 and will finish in autumn 2012.

And as for the poignancy you mentioned…My future colleagues spotted me in a play staged by the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’s student theater. It was a satirical piece portraying an evening with Kuzkin the poet, a character based on Kozma Prutkov[1] whom I played. My character read his earthshaking verses snobbishly, sometimes to the tune of an accordion he played along with a background of balalaikas. This self-irony and distance from one’s own image is the basis of our band, so there’s nothing fearsome about the poignancy of a quarter century.


U.W.: You said at a press-conference in Moscow in spring this year that Ukrainian performers should first gain popularity in Russia in order to survive in Ukraine and that the Ukrainian government is consistently attacking the Ukrainian language and culture—could you comment on that?

Our whole life is a paradox, let alone Ukrainian show business. Our media works like a satellite even today. Ukrainians adore cultural imports but will rarely accept anything made in Ukraine, while Russians are the opposite. They appreciate, love and honor their own, and I’m talking about the general majority here. The only exception is that they think of Ukrainian songs – not Belarusian, Kazakh, French or English – as their own, alongside the Russian-language ones. Ukrainian music is synonymous with good quality for some Russians. Russian music is good quality for those with bad taste both in Russia and Ukraine, while others prefer Western music.

In fact, virtually all of Russian show business — nearly 80% — comes from Ukraine. This is because we’re really better at music. Some Russian rockers have even started to sing in Ukrainian because it’s fashionable and cool. I’ve met such bands in St. Petersburg and Voronezh.

The Ukrainian language situation doesn’t look good in Ukraine, but I see this as a test. Ukrainians will preserve themselves and become stronger if they are capable of being a nation, otherwise they will dissolve. It’s like surviving in a jungle. Take the Jews—they had no language or state but revived both. The Czechs and Finns did the same at some point. Unlike them, our nation just fell into our laps. Perhaps that’s why we don’t appreciate what we have.

U.W.: The mandatory quota for Ukrainian music and films on TV and radio used to be 50%, yet in the name only. Now the legislature is going to cut it to 25%. Does this mean the Ukrainian language will simply disappear from the media?

Sometimes I think the government is doing its best to clear TV and radio of the Ukrainian language completely. With a 50% quota, the real share of Ukrainian-language programming was already just 3-5%, but now the situation could get even worse. It all depends on program directors. Ukrainian-speaking artists like us are politically, financially and socially less competitive compared to our Russian-speaking colleagues. Moreover, anyone who sings in Ukrainian is often portrayed as a nationalist. Can you imagine a Russian singer labeled a nationalist in Russia, or the Russian Radio called nationalistic because it plays 100% Russian music? There is no law banning the Ukrainian language in Ukraine, yet mechanisms that promote Russian speakers are plenty. After Yanukovych won the election, the entire entertainment industry switched to Russian without even a word from up top. Some rockers later followed suit. They’re just trying to survive.

U.W.: Do you have a strategy for salvation?

You have to do your own thing. Some save themselves by singing in Russian, and others construct their own life space around them and grow stronger within it. Russians ask me, “Why do Ukrainians make cooler music than us?” It’s because we’re like weeds: we break through the layer of asphalt laid over us.

We feel comfortable when we live in a world of our own. The external cultural aggression is beyond our life. I know how create this barrier: I speak with intelligent people, Ukrainian speakers mostly, while TV and radio have zero effect on me. I work with tolerant people whenever I travel abroad. This is a current trend, not my own invention. There are a lot of futuristic books about seriously reformatting society.

Let’s not forget the soviet policy to cut out our roots, family ties, respect for our elders and the transfer of knowledge from one generation to another. All these things are extremely important for societies. Today, some project only those will survive who manage to revive the ties to their nations’ past and families and build strong communities. We have people like that. There is an intelligent Ukrainian community that I’m a part of in Kyiv and we share information and develop together. We don’t dissolve into the pessimism that dominates the nation today. Society is in such a rush these days that people can’t keep up with the rapid changes in the media. Nobody can predict whether they’ll withstand this avalanche of pessimism that’s covering them. Perhaps one solution is to establish communities of like-minded people.

Sadly, many Ukrainians are pessimists. They get carried away with lamenting and celebrating their defeats. There’s nothing good about this. We have to stop playing the game; it’s really quite simple: it’s always easier to look for someone to blame for your circumstances than to realize that you’re responsible for your own actions.


U.W.: What do you think of the rock stage in Ukraine today? Why does the message of resistance only exist underground?

Ukrainian rock-n-roll has never been about massive resistance, and this isn’t going to change anytime soon. Protest music a tradition in Russia. Now, rap has taken over this role. The US has the same trend: their oppositional music is rap these days. The US resistance rocked in the 1960s and 1970s. The youth in the world has more respect for rappers today. They don’t understand DDT leader Yuriy Shevchuk, for instance, because he’s the older generation. A nice exception in Ukraine is the band Tartak with its powerful social and political lyrics. There’s also Plach Yeremiyi (Jeremy’s Tears) although Taras Chubai, the leader, does not write modern lyrics—he sings UPA[2] songs and uses his father’s lyrics. These two bands are openly resistant.

Ukrainians are used to thinking in metaphors both in everyday life and in art. We are rarely straightforward. This is not that bad after all; it helped us to survive all the oppression of the last three centuries. Perhaps that’s subconsciously my reason for organizing Krayina Mriy (Land of Dreams, an annual folk art and music festival – ed.). I’ve realized this only now: I just wanted to build my own space and stake out my own territory. Surprisingly, it’s exceeded my expectations a thousand times over; now it has a life of its own and grows independent of me. For me, Krayina Mriy and VV are two separate things. When so many people brought their kids to our anniversary gig at Kyiv’s Palace of Sports wearing vyshyvanky, Ukrainian embroidered shirts, I was so surprised! For me, rock-n-roll is reality and Krayina Mriy is a fairy tale land, a paradise…

As for the underground, I honestly think all rock-n-roll is there. At some point it broke through to the surface and exploded there but it returned to the underground after a while. That’s its nature. I don’t think of it as resistance. This is something you can’t embrace at once; it takes time to understand it. You need to mature emotionally and then you feel like you have to speak out… That’s why it alternates between the surface and the underground.

U.W.: Do you think something very important is growing in Ukrainian society through all these protests of small and medium businesses, Afghanistan veterans and Chornobyl first responders?

An important thing about all these strikes is their absolute pragmatism. I know how the French protest: they rally against a specific provision or number. They know that the provision will be cancelled if they block airports, roads and go on a national strike.

The Orange Revolution in 2004 was totally romantic. We got something, but not what we wanted. We were not pragmatic at all. People understand this today. They only have a chance to win with specific mechanisms and a purpose for their struggle.

U.W.: Do you manage to be pragmatic?

I’m forcing myself to be . I have to think everything through, meet people, communicate my idea to them and be able to build normal business relations. They have two reasons to not play Ukrainian music in big concert halls. I think there are orders from the top. I’m not sure where it comes from and how it does but I can feel it. And many Ukrainians are not talented enough in enough; business demands real communication, production and plans.

We now have fewer gigs in Eastern Ukraine but more in Western Ukraine and a lot more in Kyiv. Another change is that we play many more corporate concerts rather than public gigs where people can buy tickets. This may come as a surprise to many, but rock has really kicked pop music out of corporate parties.


U.W.: You dug your hugely popular Halychyna chanson from oblivion. Are there any more forgotten things worth reviving?   

I’ve had this idea for a long time to create a project called Ukrainian Urban Romance[3]. According to statistics, “Dark Eyes” by Yevhen Hrebinka, a Poltava-born poet, was the most frequently played song in the world in the 20th century. The lyrics had been supposedly written in Ukrainian initially but later lost. Here you go, the number one art song in the world was written in Ukraine.

[1] A collective pen name used by four well-known satirical Russian poets in 1850s–1860s 

[2] Ukrainian Insurgent Army

[3] Emerging as narrative ballads in Spain, romance music later transformed into sentimental art songs in Russia and Ukraine

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