Russia has always found pleasure in savoring the musical products of its good neighbor, Ukraine. But the rock band Okean Elzy is something special. The group is a stellar example of Ukrainian show business's expansion to the global market. Okean Elzy has had a glorious history. In 1994, the nascent Lvov-based rock band was joined by the 19-year-old Svyatoslav Vakarchyuk, and in 1995, the band took part in Ukraine's largest national festival, Tavriiskiye Igry. In 1996, the group's hit "Novy Den" (New Day) landed on all of Ukraine's charts, and three years later, Okean Elzy plunged into Russia's market. Their songs "Tam gde nas nem" (Places Where We Are Not) and "Sosny" (Pines) hit the Russian charts, and the band played at the Russian rock festival Maxidrome. In 2000, Okean Elzy signed a contract with Russian label Real Records, and, in 2001, the band shook up both the Russian and Ukrainian music markets with their masterpiece album, "Model." Okean Elzy frontman Slava Vakarchyuk sat down to chat with LifeStyle.
Competition between Russians and Ukrainians - is this a stereotype of our own [Ukrainians' and Russians'] invention?
No, it's a stereotype of YOUR own invention.
You mean us, Russians?
Of course. All the nonsense spread in your country about Ukraine is ridiculous propaganda. The fact is that Russia and Ukraine are nice competitors on the world's political map. Russians should not be afraid of us. I personally like Russia, and I want our two countries to stay friends. Friends are people who help each other and are together in joy and in sorrow, but have separate families.
I think [Russians] say these things about Ukraine because everybody in Russia thought things would be very bad for Ukrainians without the Russians. In fact, it's all politics, and I'm not really competent to talk about these issues.
Ukrainian performers have stormed onto Russia's music market. Several of your colleagues who have done so are Vopli Vidoplyasova, Green Gray and VIAGra. Does this mean that Ukrainian show business is better than Russian?
No. Russian performers are also storming into Ukraine. They visit Ukrainian cities - Kiev, for example. It's simply that your market is broader and so less individualistic. Ukraine is a bit smaller and the number of performers is smaller, so individual creativity is more noticeable.
Why did you sign a contract with a Russian record company?
There came a time when we understood that Ukraine was not enough for us, for our creative self-expression, and it would be good to begin conquering Europe step by step. We sent our stuff to Russian record companies because Russia is the best starting point to conquer Europe.
I seem to remember that you were popular in France for some time.
No, that wasn't popularity. We just put out an album there. But there's no need to hurry; everything will come in time. We'll wait and see.
You sing only in Ukrainian, which isn't always understandable to the Russian ear. Since you are so popular in Russia, why don't you make an album in Russian?
I don't see any special reason for that. The English-language album that we are recording now was a forced move. It just wouldn't work to jump onto the international scene in the Ukrainian language.
But in Russia it's just the opposite: Everybody loves Ukrainian songs. That's why we are so popular here. The general mood is conveyed in the music and the details - everybody can imagine what they want.
They say you feel very comfortable being a star.
I don't think I'm a star. I'm pretty objective about it.
That's strange to hear from someone who was the face of Pepsi in Ukraine.
I guess if you're everywhere, you get to be pretty well known. I think it's normal. If we hadn't had fans, we wouldn't have been chosen to do the ad. If you want to talk about the financial side of things, we earn a good amount, but we don't throw money around - we invest it in records, music videos and photo sessions.
You mean you don't blow money?
Why should I? I buy more expensive brands of clothes and accessories. I don't spend it on anything more serious.
You have this devilishly sexy, liberated look, with your disheveled dark hair, a selection of bandanas and bracelets on your wrists, your dark eyes, your ingenuous, slightly hoarse voice and your graceful movements. You've got zing! Who created your image?
There is this beautiful girl, Lyalya Fonaryova, who is our band's stylist. She made me the way I am, both my looks and, to a large extent, my internal world.
Have you ever been offered any modeling gigs?
I did a couple of shows, including Lyalya Fonaryova's. But on the catwalk I'm myself, and I wouldn't try to look like somebody else.
They say you are a great Ukrainian patriot. How do you express your patriotism?
In that I love my country. I always keep in mind where I am from and always put forward the ideals of my country. I want the whole world to know about this surprising and beautiful country. I cheer for my country's soccer team, and I speak Ukrainian at home.
What are your ideals?
Each country has its own ideals that express its beauty, melody and the depth of its soul. Incidentally, gorilka [Ukrainian vodka] and vodka are the same thing. I mean, it's hard to imagine Russia without vodka, bears and fur hats. In Ukraine, it can also be cold sometimes.
We have many things to be proud of. We've built the largest aircraft in the world, we have the Kiev-Pechorsky Cathedral and we have Lvov. But I don't tend to associate Ukraine with anything in particular. That would be a superficial approach.
Somebody has to do PR on a global scale. That's what our band will be doing soon. But there's no need to rush!