Musicians who brighten dreary subway commute

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Feb. 17, 2012, 1:01 a.m. | About Kyiv — by Yuliya Raskevich

For Karen Vagradyan, Kyiv’s subway is the place that helps to pay the bills. Other musicians even find commissions here.
© Kostyantyn Chernichkin

Smartly dressed Karen Vagradyan raises his expensive, custom-design violin, filling his concert hall with the stirring sound of his latest improvisation. In the distant background, a rumbling begins to rise. It is not the sound of a drum, but of a subway train approaching the station. Vagradyan, 24, is a subway musician, plying his trade deep underground in the tunnels between stations.

He strikes up a tune rougly two days every week, earning around Hr 80 per hour to pay off debts from his old business and develop his new one.

“The first time I played violin to collect money was around two or three years ago, and it started as a joke,” Vagradyan says. “My friend and I joked around performing in a university park and in a half-hour we collected enough for us and our girlfriends to go ice skating. That’s how I learned that I can earn something this way.”

Street musicians blowing or strumming in underpasses, parks or on Khreshchatyk Street on weekends are not rare in Kyiv, even though the quality is often variable.

But finding a musician in the subway is rare, as it is banned, unlike, for example, in New York and London, where musicians can audition for permission to perform.

Vagradyan – who graduated from music school around six years ago – dismisses the romantic notion of a musician so in love with the sound of his instrument that he isn’t interested in money. Busking is a business, and one that can bring in a fair amount of cash.

When Vagradyan’s kiosk business went bust he found himself with no money and big debts. Within the first few minutes of starting to play in a subway station, a passerby had thrown a Hr 100 bill into his violin case. That inspired him to keep playing.

He is one of a couple of dozen performers who can be spotted at one of Kyiv’s subway stations, usually near the center of town.

Viktoria, 15, is part of a well-known Kyiv subway violin-and-flute duet. Still a music school student, she and her sister play three or four times a week to help their parents with money.

“It’s a good and stable income, and we earn even more than people who have regular jobs. Also it is a great opportunity to practice our skills,” said Viktoria, who wouldn’t give her last name.
People like what we do underground and then invite us to play at corporate parties.

- Viktoria, 15, is part of a well-known Kyiv subway violin-and-flute duet

Some passersby don’t just leave money, but also invite the musicians to play at events. “People like what we do underground and then invite us to play at corporate parties,” Viktoria said. They charge Hr 1,500 per event, and played a handful over the January holiday season.

Like any business in Ukraine, street performance has its risks. Within a few minutes of striking up a tune, Vagradyan says, a local gang member will approach and demand Hr 10-20.

This doesn’t even guarantee you security, he says, as officials and police try to move them on and vendors, also working illegally, shoo them along fearing they may attract unwanted attention from law enforcers.

“Once I was even beaten by them,” Vagradyan recalls, after he refused a vendor’s demand to leave.

But among subway musicians, there is more understanding than rivalry. If a spot is taken, the musicians usually do not argue but check the schedule with current performer, to make sure there is not a queue for this spot and come back when it is free.

Vagradyan says that in the subway he became acquainted with a group of artists who are members of different city theaters. They dress for occasions and holidays and walk the city cafes to perform and collect money.

“On May 9 (when Ukrainians mark World War II Victory Day), we dressed in old uniforms and sang and played in parks. Now we dress in national costume and go winter caroling in city center cafes. People were greeting us with pleasure and we earned good money,” Vagradyan says.

He is looking forward to the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, which Ukraine co-hosts with Poland in June and should bring a flood of tourists to Kyiv.

“We only fear that police and officials won’t let us perform there and we’ll lose even what we have now,” Vagradyan says.

As the interview comes to a close, a police officer approaches to move the young musician on.

Kyiv Post staff writer Yuliya Raskevich can be reached at
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