Why you should care
Because this is the next stop in the school of rock.
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Onstage, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is all seduction. The lead singer of Ukraine’s biggest rock band, Okean Elzy, grips the mic longingly, hazel eyes surveying a stadium of adoring fans. Men sing along, teensters wave cellphones. The moment, captured two years ago in Kiev, is spiritual.
Today, Slava, as he asks me to call him, is wooing a different crowd. The rock star’s dropped his long locks, sleeveless shirt and electric guitar and has donned a political suit. Recently named the most popular man in Ukraine by the widely read New Time Magazine — beating both the president and the prime minister — Slava says it’s time to lead his nation out of its Soviet past and into a bold future of Western thought through … education. Specifically, by sending everyone back to school. On America’s dime.
Ukraine has struggled to emerge from its Soviet shadow, Slava argues, because it clings to a mindset that discourages innovative thinking
The idea has him making the global rounds: He did a semester-long stint as a Yale World Fellow; he once served as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. Like Ireland’s Bono or Russia’s Pussy Riot, Slava is a kind of “conscience of Ukraine,” as one fawning fan told him after a speech in December. Unlike his peers, though, this musician (with a degree in theoretical physics) is almost incurably academic, never more than a line or two away from quoting Plato or Aristotle. Seated in a regal gold-tinted red chair at the Willard InterContinental hotel in downtown Washington D.C., Slava outlines his wonky plan: He wants to send Ukrainian students to a bevy of Western schools through a mass-scale student exchange program he’s calling an “Education Marshall Plan,” after the post-World War II deal where Americans sent millions of dollars to rebuild Europe.
The Ukraine that Slava describes is in the news often, for reasons far worse than bad grades. In 2014, Ukraine received the third-most foreign aid of any European country; its GDP per capita was the second lowest; oh, and don’t forget its bloody turf war with Russia. The son of a Lviv University professor-slash-lawmaker, Slava gets both the policy and the politics. In fact, the 40-year-old is in Washington to convince American legislators to shift their aid from border security to books — and he’s already won over some folks. “Half a billion dollars invested in education would have far more of a result than half a billion in weapons,” says Bill Miller, a Clinton-appointed ambassador to Ukraine through the ’90s. While it’s difficult to track how foreign aid is spent, the U.S. earmarked at least $219 million, and $75 million in 2015, in “nonlethal” aid to Ukraine, which included sending Humvees and drones. K-12 and college education has not been explicitly included in major aid packages recently.
Ukraine has struggled to emerge from its Soviet shadow, Slava argues, because it clings to a mindset that discourages innovative thinking — which starts in the classroom. “The teacher is always right,” he says, echoing a familiar mantra these days, one that’s heard from Asia to America’s own Common Core conversations, at a Woodrow Wilson Center forum. “The biggest goal is to feed you with as much education as possible.” He paints a picture of a country full of rote facts rather than intellect. “By the time you finish university, you don’t know what you’re going to do,” Slava says, “because you don’t know who you are.”
It’s a feeling Slava knows well. Growing up in the Soviet Union — he was 16 when Ukraine left in 1991, after the Berlin Wall fell — the rebellious schoolboy never seriously considered the ultimate rebellion of joining a rock band. “Rock music? Decent boys didn’t do that,” he says. Always eager to learn, Slava attended his dad’s university, studying theoretical physics to marry esoteric and clinical ideals well. “It’s very empirical,” Slava says, but also “very similar to composing songs or painting.” While wrapping up his studies, the 19-year-old met his future bandmates when they caught him playing a Beatles song on the piano (either In My Life or Blackbird, he can’t remember), and they drafted him to be lead singer.
Okean Elzy’s breakthrough 1998 album, Tam, de nas nema, comes from a Ukrainian proverb, meaning “It’s good where we aren’t.” Slava became the voice of a generation enamored of democracy’s hope and stung by its reality: Ukraine — once the second-biggest economy in the USSR — plunged into poverty after a rocky transition to a free-market economy that persists today.
Enacting change through education is a long, tedious process, though. “This won’t be an overnight success,” says Andy Hunder, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine. Plus, plenty of smaller state-sponsored student exchange programs between the Americas and Ukraine already abound, though none on the scale that Slava is proposing. And it’s not clear the star can turn activism into action: Indeed, after getting elected to Parliament in 2007, he quit after a year, saying he was tired of partisan bickering. “Here is a gentleman who has his heart in the right place,” says Hunder, who has worked with Slava since the ’90s. “The biggest challenge will be to not get disillusioned.”
Ukraine’s favored son says he’s in this for the long haul. In Plato’s Republic, he reminds me, the philosopher’s duty is to discover the truth and then pass it on to others. Slava has returned to Ukraine to teach his truth. Whether his countrymen accept it is the next great question.