Ukraine Pop Star Leads Fight Against 'Russification'

In Ukraine's fight to separate itself from Russia's influence, pop star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is at the forefront. He is an adviser to President Victor Yushchenko, and is taking part in a commission developing ways to promote Ukrainian-language music on the country's FM radio stations.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, let's go to another country that's trying to influence its citizens, Ukraine. The country's revolution in 2004 was partly about cutting ties to Russia, and that part of the revolution is not over. Moscow controlled Kiev for centuries and remained influential after the Soviet collapse. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports now on efforts to counter what's called Russification.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is one of Ukraine's biggest celebrities. The 30-year-old lead singer's rock band, Okean Elzy from Lviv in Western Ukraine, is often called one of the country's best ever bands. It released its latest album, Gloria, last year to critical acclaim.

(Soundbite of music from Gloria)

FEIFER: Vakarchuk is a heart throb, whose fashionably disheveled image is ubiquitous on billboards and television. Critic Aleg Fergilis(ph) says he also engages listeners' emotions with his music.

Mr. FERGILIS (Critic): (Through Translator): He is somehow to cultivate a mass cult appeal and still maintain quality, ability and musical success.

FEIFER: Vakarchuk used his popularity to play a prominent role in the Orange Revolution when he appeared on stage in Kiev's Independent Square. He says he once mediated between a crowd of angry demonstrators and soldiers he was afraid would fire their weapons.

Mr. SVYATOSLAV VAKARCHUK (Lead Singer, Okean Elzy): They are the, all the citizens of this country. And I ask them only one thing, just don't do bad things against your people.

FEIFER: Vakarchuk is now an advisor to President Victor Yushchenko, and is taking part in a commission developing ways to promote Ukrainian language music on the country's FM radio stations. The project is the government's first attempt to turn back decades of policies aimed at suppressing Ukrainian and pushing Russian as the official culture. Fifteen years after the Soviet collapse, the vast majority of music on Ukrainian radio remains Russian. Vice Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kyrylenko launched the government's Ukrainian language FM radio project and says trying to change that will take time.

Vice Prime Minister VYACHESLAV KYRYLENKO (Ukraine): (Through Translator) We have to defend and provide protection to national performers and music producers on our domestic airwaves. They work here, compose for our listeners and they have the right to count on the stage for support.

FEIFER: For now, Kyrylenko is trying to avoid quotas for Russian language on Ukrainian radio, and instead wants to work with record producers and radio stations.

(Soundbite of radio station)

FEIFER: One of those stations is Radio Kiev, which plays 60% Ukrainian music, far more than any other. Radio Kiev director, Alexander Kerveshyenko(ph) says the main problem is the low production quality of most Ukrainian language music.

Mr. ALEXANDER KERVESHYENKO (Director Radio Kiev): (Through Translator) Listeners today just don't expect there to be high quality Ukrainian music. That's why the ratings show that they are listening to radio stations that don't play it.

FEIFER: Singer Vakarchuk says the music industry is wary of investing in little known bands, and radio stations in turn don't want to play cheaply produced music. But he praises the government's solution to organize music competitions and find sponsors to fund the winners who will go on to produce songs.

Mr. VAKARCHUK: In one or two years you will have made 10, 15 new groups, upcoming stars, and it will change the situation.

FEIFER: Those in the music industry say the Orange Revolution sparked feelings of national pride that have already boosted interest in local music over the past year.

(Soundbite of Vakarchuk's music)

FEIFER: Vakarchuk says he is pleased with the signs, and says he will continue promoting Ukrainian music. He is currently producing a new album. And while he is vague about other plans, some say he'll run for Parliament. Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Vakarchuk's music)

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