Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 25 May 2024

 

These Ukrainians were musicians before the war. Now they fight with song.

Call sign Pavarotti: Ukrainian musicians, some of whom were injured in battle, are fighting Russia through music. They’re also touring in the U.S.

May 26, 2024 at 1:00 a.m. EDT
Musicians from Cultural Forces sing Ukraine’s national anthem Tuesday at Ukraine House in Washington, D.C. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

KYIV — Yurii Ivaskevych’s military call sign is Pavarotti, a nod to his former life as a barrel-chested opera singer in east Ukraine — a life he thought he left behind when he enlisted the morning Russia invaded.

But after Ivaskevych, 51, lost a leg when his unit came under shelling, he was recruited by another branch of Ukraine’s military: the Cultural Forces.

The members of the Cultural Forces, all professional musicians before the invasion, are now back at their craft, traveling across Ukraine’s increasingly pressured front lines to try to give people a flake of their old lives and some diversion from the grinding Russian assault. They play everything from Ukrainian folk songs to Metallica, tapping into a Ukrainian tradition of using music as a form of resistance to Russian rule.

“Artists, poets, musicians with battle experience can do a lot for the consciousness of the people,” said Mykolai Sierga, a well-known musician and TV personality who started the Cultural Forces as a way of helping soldiers process the traumas of war. “They can send their experience through the prism of their talent,” he said.

Earlier this month, Sierga and other soldier-musicians played a blaring, brass-heavy folk-rock set at a Kyiv bar with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in attendance.

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Some songs work on the front lines, and others don’t, Sierga said. Love songs and romance, for example, tend not to be popular, because two years of fighting has been hard on relationships. The songs that tend to do better focus on solidarity, soldiers’ feelings, or address children about how their parents are heroes, he said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken sang and played guitar at a nightclub in Kyiv basement on May 14, after speaking about Ukraine’s efforts to fight Russia (Video: The Washington Post)

“Culture is helping to give people emotion, the state where you can feel pain,” Sierga said. “We can send feelings that are packed in metaphor. It will be unpacked in different ways by different people. Like a verse from the Bible.”

Ivaskevych’s group last week embarked on a 40-day tour of the United States to offer what they said was Ukrainian gratitude for U.S. military support, including a $61 billion package approved in April after months of delays. They were singing in Washington last week before crisscrossing the country.

Singing, Ivaskevych said, is a moment to “think about peace.”

The morning of the invasion, the opera singer kissed his wife goodbye, walked to a recruitment center and was issued an AK-47. Within hours, he and other recruits were digging trenches to defend Zaporizhzhia, his home city in southeast Ukraine, watching YouTube videos to figure out what to do.

Eventually he became a sergeant and a grenade launcher operator. The fighting was intense.

“I thought that I was never going to sing again. My thoughts were blocked,” Ivaskevych said. “I understood that we need to get these evils out of our land.”

But one evening at a training center, the soldiers had a few spare minutes, and he sang “O Sole Mio” to his fellow troops, a favorite song of Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

“After that, I kept singing when we were at the front,” he said. “If I didn’t have that, you could easily go crazy. You need to distract yourself, for sure.”

Some of the music he sings is classical. Much of it is folk, or songs written during the Soviet era that used allusions and imagery to sneak nationalist themes past Kremlin censors. None of it is in Russian, which Ivaskevych said he cut from his repertoire after the invasion.

Now, he said, the promise of a return to life without war is attractive — but he isn’t sure what it will be like.

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“I promised my fellow soldiers, friends, we’d get together and sing after the war, but we’ve been losing a lot of them,” he said. “You cannot imagine how many guys I buried who used to sing with me.”

In many ways, the Cultural Forces are drawing on a long history of performance and music around the world being used to boost morale along war’s front lines.

In the former Soviet bloc, there’s also a history in living memory of using song to subvert Russian rule. In the Baltic states in the 1980s, rock musicians helped galvanize protests that started cracking apart the Soviet Union. Opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for instance, could be buried in verses that they denied had any rebellious meaning.

Taras Stoliar’s very instrument, the bandura, a strummed instrument that is a cousin of the lute and dates back centuries into Ukrainian history, was banned by Russian rulers seeking to repress Ukrainian identity.

Stoliar, 47, was a teenager when the Soviet Union fell apart. As he matured in an independent Ukraine, he discovered he had an affinity for the bandura, and eventually became the lead of a 10-instrument section in the Ukrainian National Academic Orchestra of Folk Instruments, an ensemble in Kyiv.

The day before the invasion, they had a rehearsal. The morning of the invasion, Stoliar drove his family, their hamster, and two banduras out of Kyiv — then turned around and enlisted. He started building the defenses of the capital, eventually pushing northward to serve on a second line of defense.

“We built foxholes, we dug trenches. We were hiding close to each other, hoping they wouldn’t kill us,” Stoliar said. Last year, he served in Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv’s forces held out for months in some of the most intense fighting of the war before surrendering the city.

Stoliar said that when the invasion started, he didn’t assume that he would survive it, nor that he would play his instrument again. Now, he said, playing it is a defense of a different aspect of Ukraine: its culture.

“When I went to military, I didn’t expect I would live,” he said. “I didn’t expect I would have all my fingers. I said goodbye to the bandura.”

Not all musicians in the Cultural Forces thought they had permanently traded their weapons for their music.

Olha Rukavishnikova, 25, was starting a career as a violinist and conductor when the invasion started. She set it aside to join a surveillance unit, taking on dangerous jobs that occasionally took her just yards away from Russian troops. She said she had taken part in wave after wave of intense fighting, sustaining significant shrapnel injuries more than once.

Now Rukavishnikova is playing violin with a black skull-and-crossbones patch on her left eye as she recovers from shrapnel. Playing the violin for fellow soldiers brings many of them to tears, she said.

But her mind is often elsewhere.

“While I’m in the process of playing, I understand they need it, but afterward I am just thinking about how quickly I can get back to shooting at orcs,” Rukavishnikova said, using a derogatory Ukrainian term for Russian soldiers. She said she hoped to recover from her injuries and then return to the front lines.

Leaders of the musical unit say that as Ukrainian soldiers struggled to fend off the invasion, their efforts will be a key part of their country’s survival.

“War is taking our humanity,” Sierga said. “Culture helps take it back.”

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