Positive Feedback: Blinken Rocks in Kyiv

Awesome feedback: By picking up an electric guitar and playing a classic Neil Young song in a Kyiv bar, Antony Blinken rekindled memories of Billy Joel’s live concert in Leningrad in 1987.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of what a national awakening feels like should watch the recording of the concert that Billy Joel, who has just turned 75, performed in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg in 1987. Back then, the city was still known as Leningrad, and Billy Joel was the first U.S. rock star the ruling Soviet authorities had allowed in to play a series of live concerts. Although Joel’s Leningrad show was modest by the standards of today’s Taylor Swiftian productions, it is hard to imagine ever before having seen so many young faces visibly lit up with joy as in that concert crowd — a crowd which was still being closely watched by uniformed state security officers.

It was a time when hopes were stirring that the Cold War might end. An entirely different zeitgeist from the current mood. As such, it is difficult not to be even more in awe of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent stage appearance, even though he did not make it into a Russian concert hall — the fallout of that scenario does not bear thinking about — but in the Kyiv basement venue “Barman Dictat.” The 62-year-old diplomat picked up an electric guitar and played Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” — a song whose lyrics pointedly criticized Republican President George H. W. Bush’s polarizing politics in the late 1980s.

The Ukrainian audience greeted Blinken’s performance enthusiastically. Even if it was obvious from the cell phone videos that the bar was a much smaller venue, and the ambiance less exuberant, than the time Joel played in Leningrad, the moment resonated. It was refreshing to see a politician still capable of appreciating something “instrumental” in a musical sense, and not just the security concept of “instrumentalization.” It was also gratifying to see a politician not above putting on a dark, casual shirt without any body armor, someone who was more inclined to scooching by some old microphone stands than having guardsmen open 10-meter-high (about 30 feet high) gold doors for him. Yes, it was a genuinely good thing to have done. After all, didn’t the great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky once remark that “Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music.”

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About Anna Wright 21 Articles
I am a London-based translator, who got properly hooked on languages and regional affairs, while studying German and Russian at Edinburgh University, followed later by an MA in Politics, Security and Integration at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. I have worked in Language Services for many years and hold a Postgraduate Diploma in Translation from the Open University.

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