Antony Blinken’s rock performance in Kyiv bar divides opinion in Ukraine

It was an unexpected moment at the end of a long day in Kyiv for Antony Blinken, after numerous high-level meetings and serious pronouncements promising the speedy delivery of US military aid. The secretary of state picked up a guitar and performed a rendition of Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World with a Ukrainian rock band.

The images, quickly shared on social media, split opinion in Ukraine, with some hailing them as a welcome gesture of support and others questioning the optics of performing in a bar while the situation at the front is so tense.

Blinken took to the stage at Barman Dictat, a well-known speakeasy-style bar in central Kyiv hidden in a basement inside a courtyard, and joined the Ukrainian band 19.99.

“Your soldiers, your citizens – particularly in the north-east, in Kharkiv – are suffering tremendously,” Blinken said before playing. “But they need to know, you need to know, the United States is with you, so much of the world is with you and they’re fighting not just for a free Ukraine, but for the free world. And the free world is with you, too.”

The band were told before the event that they would be performing with Neil Young, said one member, but were asked to keep it a secret. It was only at the last minute that they realised their guest member would be the secretary of state.

“He was connecting with eyes, with our band leader, with me … It was our first performance on stage but it feels like we were a band for two years,” the guitarist Arsen Gorbach told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday.

Gorbach said the choice of song had come from Blinken, and described the performance as “a very important point of Ukrainian history and cultural history”.

Others were not so sure, with a squall of criticism in some quarters about the appropriateness of playing in a bar while the situation at the frontline has deteriorated in recent days.

A Russian offensive around Kharkiv region has compounded an already tense situation, with Ukrainian troops retreating from several villages, and intense fighting around the town of Vovchansk. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, cancelled a visit to Spain later this week, apparently to deal with the situation at home.

“Kharkiv region is being wiped from the earth, people are leaving their homes, Kharkiv is under strike from air bombs. Sumy region is preparing, and a US top official is singing songs in a Kyiv bar,” wrote the head of one Ukrainian NGO on Facebook.

The song, written in 1989 shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, has become an anthem of overcoming repression, although the lyrics are far from an ode to the US and its mission to spread democracy.

We got a thousand points of light / For the homeless man / We got a kinder, gentler machine gun hand,” runs one verse.

The Guardian

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