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Rockin’ in the Free World? Mixed reviews after Blinken’s Kyiv bar performance

Rockin’ in the Free World? Mixed reviews after Blinken’s Kyiv bar performance
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Was it guitar-hero time? Or a tone-deaf attempt at wartime solidarity?

Some Ukrainians cheered Tuesday night’s packed-house performance as a show of warmth and support at a gloomy and frightening moment in Ukraine’s war against invading Russian forces.

For others, though, the top US diplomat’s basement-bar gig with the local band 19.99 – who delivered a heartfelt but not-always-tuneful cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” – struck a discordant note.

Blinken’s drop-in appearance at the cellar-level Barman Diktat nightspot – impromptu-seeming but carefully planned, with watchful security in attendance – came at what military analysts are describing as a particularly perilous point in the more than two-year-old war.

Russian troops have staged a major cross-border assault in the country’s northeast corner, and the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, is under greater threat than since the start of the war.

Thousands of Ukrainians have fled the latest fighting, and even far from the front lines, dread and anxiety are running high.

Much of the social-media commentary reacting to Blinken’s rhythm-guitar riff was lighthearted in tone, centring on jokes and memes. But it also generated some expressions of dismay.

The appearance “can be described in one word: inappropriateness,” Svitlana Matvienko, the executive director of an NGO called the Agency for Legislative Initiatives, wrote on Facebook.

Matvienko said she was thankful for US and allied military aid, but that she was “offended by this performance, as a Ukrainian citizen whose loved ones are giving up everything so that we can resist”.

Others, though, saw a nod to a culture of wartime defiance that finds an outlet in the capital’s club scene, a Europe-wide magnet before the Russian invasion – which now serves as a pressure valve in dark times.

“I thought it was kind of like, he’s a big politician and he plays rock music in a bar – cool, why not?” said Mariia Lobyntseva, 27, an artist in Kyiv. “Young people can’t stop going out and letting off steam at bars. It’s necessary for us.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Barman Dictat bar in Kyiv. Photo: AFP

The bar in question, located in an alley off Kyiv’s main drag, has been a popular venue for many years, although the name has changed a few times.

On most nights, there’s a live band on the small stage in the far side of the cavernous room. Musical offerings can vary widely: a string quartet from the National Philharmonic of Ukraine one night, a jazz ensemble on another.

Kyiv still maintains a wartime curfew of midnight, but it’s not unusual for the bar to be packed until last call – just in time for the bar crew to clean up and hurry home, with nights often punctured by air alerts.

Not a few commentators pointed out that the lyrics of singer-songwriter Young’s 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World”, actually constitute a biting commentary on the poverty and despair that plagues wealthy Western societies.

Blinken, though, made clear he was leaning into the song’s famous chorus as a means of conveying encouragement to a war-pummelled populace.

“I know this is a really, really difficult time,” the secretary of State told the crowd at the start of the musical interlude, citing suffering in the country’s northeast and elsewhere. But he said of Ukraine’s fight: “The free world is with you”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in central Kyiv, Ukraine on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Some Ukrainians who were bemused by the episode nonetheless perceived it as a display of goodwill – even if a slightly clumsy one.

“Many of my colleagues were sharing different emotions about the event, whether the timing or the lyrics were right,” said Margo Gontar, a 35-year-old blogger.

But if band members wanted Blinken up there on stage with them, she said, “then definitely I consider this to be a sign of support”.

Reacting to negative commentary, some Ukrainians said indignation over Blinken’s performance was misplaced.

“Yeah, maybe his attempt to demonstrate informality and soft power by playing a song at our favourite bar in central Kyiv took place at a bad time,” journalist and author Illia Ponomarenko wrote on X. But Blinken, he said, was “the last person we need to focus our bitterness and anger on.”

Without US aid, Ponomarenko wrote, “half of us would have been rotting in a pit with a bullet in our heads and with our hands behind our backs; the other half would have been seeking refuge elsewhere in the world and reading sad news about a ‘Ukrainian National Government in Exile’”.

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