"Learning about the Soviet, the Russian heritage for many years, we never learned about ours,"

Anton Slepakov

The second POMIZH podcast hero is Anton Slepakov — musician, frontman of the VGVNJ band and coauthor of the project warniakannia. We have talked about music and poetry projects, language change, feeling of fear, Bulgakov and the downfall of one's idols.

We are posting the talk's transcript on POMIZH website.

Way to the scene

It started for me, as for many others, in my childhood when I simply dreamed about doing something interesting. Having seen a shiny wardrobe in our bedroom giving a reflection, I would take a tennis racket and imagine myself to be a musician. Then I began learning to play the guitar, creating bands. I did my first rock concert during the first or second year of my university studies when Ukrainian independence originated — in 1991. I left Kherson Pedagogical University in my fourth year because rock'n'roll captivated me.

The number two city widely known in my biography is Dnipro. I am probably still considered a Dnipro native by alternative music lovers. Unfortunately, there is this thing, and it’s not a new one: if you want to do something more remarkable, you have to move to the capital. I think about this every time I come to Dnipro. A lot of people left.

On the first serious creations

Since the very beginning, I wanted everything I did to look good. Nobody wants to be a "school" or "party" musician. I achieved this fully in Dnipro when Ya I Drug Moi Gruzovik was created, and we started touring other cities. One thing is playing in Dnipro, where everyone is a friend. And it is a different story when you come to an "internet-less" town in the 1990s without any media covering music events, and people say: "Wow! That's some creativity! I have never heard anything like that here!"

On shared "post-Soviet" space

It is difficult to explain to people who grew up in independent Ukraine why we were this close to Russia at the time. Less than 10 years after the Soviet Union's dissolution, the separation was not so palpable. We grew up within the Soviet paradigm of the so-called friendship of peoples, imbibed with the idea that we all are a "post-Soviet territory" and a unified integral whole. No one asked questions; furthermore, succeeding in the media market had unfailingly involved Moscow. If you were known there, it was automatically easier to achieve something in Ukraine. Almost every band, including the Gruzoviks mentioned above or 5'nizza, entered the Ukrainians' consciousness through Russia. I think even Okean Elzy became a stadium-performing band in Moscow and came back to Ukraine famous.

On Bulgakov and downfall of own Idols

I find it very difficult to pull out my roots: I attended a Soviet school and then studied to become a Russian language and literature teacher. The problem is that while learning about all that Soviet, and Russian heritage for many years, we did not learn about ours. We know that this is Bulgakov's house, but we have no idea which Ukrainian author had lived there before. There are at least ten thrilling Ukrainian authors whom we did not study and did not know.

That's too good for Bulgakov — to have this museum; I do not consider him a Ukrainian writer. He was a Russian who grew up in Kyiv, lived there and broadcast his Russian narratives. It is the same if an Uzbek author came to Kyiv and communicated an Uzbek paradigm. Acknowledging him as a Ukrainian author just because he lived in Kyiv would be an exaggeration. But the story with the Russian writer comes out like that automatically.

The history is generally twisted in this respect: "Pushkin himself stayed here! This is a very historical place." One should treat everything more easily, even if somebody lived here at some point: used the sewage system and drank coffee. Those are just people; it is us who make them idols. I have always had this paradigm — kill your idols.

Culture and war

Culture is an integral part of any process. Life has to continue — wars sometimes last dozens of years. We cannot say this is irrelevant, that there is no music, cinema, poetry, or literature. Only the war, only military supplies. It does not work this way: a person comes home and has to turn to something else. One cannot exist in a paradigm of weapons for 48 hours.

Besides, cultural opposition is also an effective leverage to help raise funds to cover the current needs. We cannot just sit in a black room, wearing black clothes.

Of course, one must filter the content produced twice as much. If it is too entertaining, it is weird to listen to. But anyway, you go out and see bus drivers still following their routes and arguing with their passengers, bakers continuing to make croissants. Maybe, that is also irrelevant? Maybe we need only dry bread? The kind you find hard to bite. Well, there is a war going on.

Warniakannia project

During the two weeks after the full-scale war started, I could not listen to anything, read or watch anything. The first track emerged around March 7, and we announced about the start of the warniakannia project at the end of the month. It is a poetical-musical-electronic project based on my poems and music by Andrii Sokolov. We had done joint projects before and intended to do another one involving Dnipro's musicians. But those plans were utterly disrupted when the full-scale invasion began.

The shock passed, and then came the first realizations and lines, rhymes which I simply recorded. This is the first album we are creating in real-time. All the other releases were thought out conceptually, and this one is happening online, in plain sight.

On the one hand, it scares me that the war became this trigger and inspiration: texts are being written one after another, with no end in sight. On the other hand, I tend not to think nowadays; there is no space for reflection now. Everything is happening here and now.

On the transformation of fear

An animal fear has emerged. I had never felt this before. Indeed, you always think about some brick possibly falling on you or something else when you leave your house. During my Kherson period, I had this theory: if something unpleasant happened to a person, a truck transporting pebble stones must have passed them.

We now find ourselves in a situation where we cannot change whether something flies into our house, whether you can reach a crossroads, whether this or that air-raid warning is simply yet another warning, or is it final? You never know.


VGNVJ is currently on pause, but we can get together at any moment. Frustratingly, the war smashed our plans as well: we wanted to do a completely new program; we had some drafts but now it is impossible to imagine how to implement them. We had long stayed in different cities and wanted to assemble finally in one space and create real-time because we did not have the chance in Covid times. As a result, there was one VGNVJ concert at a Czech festival. Before that, we had performed two weeks prior to the invasion at a Kharkiv club in Saltivka. I am not sure whether this club is still there.

Language change and Russian-language songs

I really wanted to write Ukrainian lyrics but I did not succeed, the lyrics came out weak. In 2016 Dovzhenko Centre proposed that I create the sound for a 1926 silent film, Arrest Warrant, by Georgii Tasin. Voice and text were essential constituents; all previous similar accompaniments had been instrumental. I came up with another dimension, a libretto of a kind, a voice aside, and the writer Oleksandr Mykhed helped with my text's translation and literary adaptation. After that, I got the urge to completely switch to the Ukrainian language.

Then two songs in Ukrainian came up sporadically on the Reference album. I do not know how that tumbler, that switch was flipped over, but I had thought there was no reason to fear, that I should just do it. I am really happy that the channel of the one who puts certain lines inside you blasts at full. After that, I did not have to return to my native Russian language.

The way to deal with VGNVJ's songs in Russian is still an open controversial issue. Even before the full-scale invasion, I was not inclined to perform all those songs like Shlemophone. We either need to make new songs, so everyone forgets the old ones in Russian or compromise with ourselves.

The transition to Ukrainian is quite logical. I became uneager about speaking Russian in 2014; I immediately wanted to separate myself from the Russians. It is no secret that we have multiple Russified territories once colonized by Russia. Of course, one cannot force anything on anyone, but there should be this level of self-consciousness that you are Ukrainian, and you cannot say: "You know, I am actually from Dnepr, they don't speak Ukrainian there." When I heard this at the Przemyśl Train Station, I felt humiliated that they were my compatriots. Speaking Ukrainian in Ukraine is normal and natural; overall, this is our code.

The first thing Russians do is bring their textbooks, strike out all Ukrainian road signs and impose the idea of the great and mighty Russian language.

Dnipro and Gruzoviks

I met my Ya I Drug Moi Gruzovik bandmates in Dnipro at a festival in Shevchenko Park, where Rostyslav Chaban and Volodymyr Busyl acted as presenters. They invited me to be their band's vocalist, but I refused at the time. When I returned to Dnipro in the summer of 1997, I remembered the fantastic offer and asked them to think up yet another thing. They agreed. We only had the bass guitar and drums and me doing the vocals. It sounded original and fresh and, seemingly to us, had a future.

The festive Ya I Drug Moi Gruzovik concert scheduled for June 12, 2022, was officially postponed. Until when does not depend on us but on when peaceful life returns completely to our cities and towns. If we were offered to make a reunion this year, we would have certain doubts. But we agreed a year ago, so we owe this performance to people, to our fans.

The last Gruzovik’s concert took place in the late summer of 2012. The show was spontaneous, and we did not know it would be the last one. It happened at the wedding of our drummer Denys Shvets and artist Alina Gaieva. We did not have the instruments because we had no plans to play, and for some reason, I wore a vyshyvanka. Rostyslav Chaban took in Maksym Grusevych as bass guitar, and we performed several titles in an improvised format without any guitar effects. Then we greeted the newlyweds and disbanded in a month and a half.

The podcast was recorded at the Media Laboratory of the Dnipro Center for Contemporary Culture.

Podcast transcribing: Olia Vasylets.
Editing: Alina Stamenova.
Design: Kateryna Skipochka.