Men arrive on crutches, two in wheelchairs, through a wintry dusk at the monumental neo-Renaissance opera house in Lviv, Western Ukraine – built for the capital of the then autonomous province of Galicia between 1897 and 1900. Some hundred seats tonight have been reserved for serving soldiers, who enter the lobby – a fin-de-siècle wonder – in military fatigues. They check these in, so that the coat check looks like a barracks locker room. A contingent of some forty cadets from the city’s emergency firefighting department duly arrives, disarmingly young. For most, it’s a first night at the opera.
The occasion marks the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – a concert dedicated to the troops who have fallen during this first, monstrous year of war, and the innocent civilian lives lost. But also to ‘The Invincible’: homage in music to Ukraine’s noble cause and just war. The programme is Bucha. Lacrimosa by Victoria Poleva, composed in commemoration of the victims of atrocities in that town during the early weeks of the war, followed by Giuseppe Verdi’s epic Messa da Requiem. The stage is blackened, and on each flank red roses are arranged and affixed so that petals fall towards the ground. A bunch beneath the conductor’s podium is upside down, an inverted bouquet of flowers tumbling towards, rather than growing from, the earth.
Before the curtain, an announcement: ‘In the event of an air raid or siren, we ask you to adjourn to the shelter. If the air raid warning lasts less than an hour, the performance will resume.’ Orchestra and choir take their places, followed by Canadian-Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, creator of the international Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra.
Bucha. Lacrimosa opens with hushed percussion, conjoined by solo violin – desolate and sparse throughout. Verdi’s Requiem is terrifying at the best of times, and tonight Wilson achieves something strangely cogent: the notion of ‘restrained Verdi’ should be oxymoronic, but it turns out not to be. Subdued solemnity from the start; Verdi’s cry against the outrage of death is shattering for the usual reasons, but focused by uncanny understatement entirely appropriate for this occasion.
The young fighters and firefighters are enthralled. During the day, through the doors of the former Jesuit – now Greco-Catholic – church wherein military funerals are held, coffins were carried in by their comrades, for benediction, then back down the steps, accompanied by a dirge from a military band and followed by young widows and scores of other mourners in tears. The same had happened the day before, and the day after. Now, Verdi’s unforgiving ‘Dies Irae’ erupts from Wilson’s discreet sonority, a swirl of acceleration and deceleration; mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Polishchuk’s delivery piercing the air, and with it her audience’s collective heart.
At the end, bouquets of roses presented to the lady soloists and conductor are peace-white rather than blood-red, and Wilson picks hers apart, stem by stem, throwing each flower to the military sitting in rows A to F. There are photos of ranked soldiers and firefighters on the foyer steps in front of a portrait of Solomiia Krushelnytska, the great Ukrainian soprano. Then out into the night.
Two evenings later, a different but no less impactful event: a new opera by Ukraine’s prominent composer Yevhen Stankovych, The Terrible Revenge, based on the Gothic horror story by Nikolai Gogol, born in Poltava – then part of the Russian empire, afterwards the USSR, now Ukraine. Significantly, the libretto, by Stankovych, is a resetting for stage in Ukrainian of Gogol’s original Russian prose.
Here is a dark masterpiece of cruel but cathartic prescience, composed – and the production designed by the Germans Andreas Weirich and Anna Schöttl to commemorate Stankovych’s eightieth birthday – before the Russian invasion. The story concerns the Antichrist, poisoning love and unleashing violence at an intimate level: he is also the father of the heroine, Katerina, whom he violates and murders. But it is also about the final defeat of this monster, hurled into an abyss by a young boy.
In several images during this war – including an anniversary postage stamp reproducing a mural by the British street artist Banksy – Ukraine has been portrayed as child David felling Russian Goliath. ‘Now,’ writes composer Stankovych in a programme note, ‘all of this resonates with our reality, and what is happening.’
The work is conceived and performed on an epic scale; three long acts, Gogol’s quotidian setting being used to deal with apocalyptic themes. Chiaroscuro lighting isolates the characters in a voluminous umbra. Stankovych’s orchestration is vast, deep and dense, and especially remarkable for its use of woodwind. Katerina is like the great heroines of Leoš Janáček’s operas, but – Stankovych says in conversation later – ‘with a metaphysical dimension, between worlds, in Gogol’s story, accompanied by her spirit character’. There is a dreadful but moving scene wherein she laughs, possessed, then dives into bunches of lilies, at once symbols of her marriage and the Annunciation. She is drowned by her sorcerer/father in a bath of water blessed in another scene, but her previously abducted child reappears, hiding behind a cradle, to overthrow the Antichrist.
‘For the first time ever,’ reflects the opera company’s literature and drama director Alina Plakhtiienko, ‘I ask myself: is this a time to play and hear music, with so many people dying? But I realise: there is no right or wrong time for music. Russia is trying to destroy our country and our culture, and so long as music is played in Ukraine, they will have failed in this. We still have culture, and therefore our nation.’ We are talking in an elegant room at the theatre, once the private cabinet of Emperor Franz Joseph I, with its own bathroom and door into the royal box.
Of these two unforgettable performances, Plakhtiienko says: ‘These were occasions on which to step back from our lives of daily tragedy, and think in music about those soldiers who died for our independence, and all victims of this Russian terror, especially the children. Verdi’s Requiem needs no explanation. And The Terrible Revenge conveys exactly what is happening now and, in its title, what we want: revenge against our enemy.’
Nights at the opera in Ukraine – where everything, including every kind of music, has changed.
Andriy Khlyvnyuk and his group take a break. This is not Andriy’s band with which he plays as Ukraine’s most famous rock star, but a unit of fighters from the front line.
Andriy is the songwriter and vocalist for Boombox, Ukraine’s best-known band over the past two decades, recently launched to international stardom after a collaboration with Pink Floyd, with whom Andriy recorded, in April 2022, a searing rendition of ‘Oh the Red Viburnum in the Meadow’, a Ukrainian patriotic march of 1875, reset to music during the First World War. It goes: ‘In the meadow a red viburnum bends down low / Our glorious Ukraine is troubled so / We’ll take that red viburnum and will raise it up / And our glorious Ukraine shall, hey, hey, rise up . . .’ Andriy recorded the vocal track in Kyiv, wearing camouflage and a New York Yankees cap, for Floyd’s superstars David Gilmour and David Mason to accompany from London, under the title ‘Hey Hey Rise Up’.
‘This is my other band,’ Andriy beams this evening, waving an arm around the company at the bar, enjoying beers in Kyiv, grateful for the intermittent electricity. Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, Khlyvnyuk joined the volunteer unit of the patrol police, TOR, or Tactical Reaction Operations. This is no normal police beat: Andriy proudly shows a video of his patrol crew in combat fatigues on the front line, deploying a Punisher drone against the enemy. The remote-controlled glider can discharge munitions at a distance of up to thirty miles. The video shows the Punisher unleashing a bomb on a Russian tank. ‘I call it a Ukrainian parking ticket,’ Andriy laughs. ‘Your vehicle is illegally parked in our country!’
Khlyvnyuk orders another round and introduces the ‘band’. There is Zhenya, a professional soldier during the Russian annexations of 2014, and expert sniper, now returned as a volunteer. Miro is Ukrainian-American, a former US Marine from Los Angeles who has served in Afghanistan. Serhiy will only touch soft drinks, and says little; he’s mostly on his mobile phone. The unit commander, Leonid, passes by the bar to say hello. Girlfriends arrive and talk shifts from war to music and love – until curfew at 11 p.m.
The world has been stunned by the courage and efficacy of Ukraine’s resistance fighters. But few of these are professional soldiers: most are yesterday’s taxi drivers, plumbers, computer programmers – and musicians. People who until February 2022 were singing into microphones, spinning discs, playing clarinets or guitars, are now learned in the arts of war. Overnight, they have become perhaps the most formidable fighting force in the world. Andriy Khlyvnyuk is one of them.
Andriy has a way of entwining stardom with humility; his manner mischievous and straightforward. In Kyiv Andriy must stop every few yards to pose for pictures; it takes us twenty minutes to get through a street market on a winter’s day when seven missiles hit the capital city.
‘Here I am trying to eliminate my own public,’ Andriy tells me. ‘Eighty per cent of our sales were in post-Soviet Russia. We won the biggest Russian music awards. These people bombing Kyiv today danced with their fiancées to my songs at their school graduations and weddings. These same men are now here trying to kill us, and I am trying to kill them.’
I ask Andriy: was it hard to shift from being the country’s most famous rock star to a soldier under orders? ‘I thought it would be,’ he reflects. ‘I was afraid of the brutality, noise and dirt of war. But it wasn’t – it was surprisingly easy.’ Why? ‘Look, if I was sent somewhere to fight, I’d be useless, terrified; I don’t want to kill or be killed. But that’s not what happened. They came for our streets and our children’s playgrounds.’
Khlyvnyuk makes the point by referring to the manager of the band, Oleksiy Sogomonov, from Makariv, scene of heavy fighting in the war’s early stages. ‘Our guys were confronted by the Russian airborne forces. We kicked the shit out of them. Oleksiy grabbed a tank and neutralised it, and was nominated for a medal. Just imagine: this foxy punk gets decorated without even leaving his own neighbourhood! He was fighting for his own home. They came for our houses, and turned people like Oleksiy into war heroes.’
Andriy explains his motives for joining the TOR. ‘Music is a universal language. But music also comes from where you come from; it reflects on the feeling of home, and what home means – and on the obligation to protect your family, your neighbour. Anyone who grew up to learn their language, and their poets and music by heart knows to say to the empire, any empire: “You will not do this to us.” ’ He recalls the time his unit ‘went into Bucha when our army was pushing forward, and we saw our people – kids, wives, fathers – killed for their phones or cars, lying there, being eaten by their own starving dogs. So: what does it mean to be a human being when he or she finds themselves looking at this, or in trench warfare? This is not some natural disaster in Ukraine – this is being done to us. You have two options: run, or fight back.’
The war, he says, began in 2014 after the annexation of much of Donbas and Crimea. ‘That’s when Boombox stopped playing in Russia, unlike many others – young bands who couldn’t resist the market. Since then, there’s been a sense of the storm coming. But who’d have thought that our audience, those people who cried, laughed and danced to our songs would come to kill and rape us. That’s the shock. It’s beyond good and bad, it’s even beyond irony. When this war is over –’ he pauses to consider the possibility – ‘we will have time to think: How did this happen? Russians didn’t believe the artists and the songs they loved; instead, they believed their ruler, they chose to. I think of Goebbels and his propaganda: it worked.’
Boombox was formed in 2004, and their debut album Melomania made an immediate impact with its raw, flinty sound. They have played across Europe, Russia and America. Their spring 2022 tour was cancelled by the advent of war. Plane tickets to San Francisco were purchased, at the ready.
Khlyvnyuk’s influences? ‘Jimi Hendrix plays 24/7 in my vehicle.’ We talk about Hendrix’s cry about and against war, ‘Machine Gun’. Which prompts Andriy to tell a story: ‘I really wanted a machine gun, and one day I was delivering cars to a special forces unit. The commander asked me: “What are you fighting with?” and I replied: “All they give me is a pistol. I want a machine gun.” The commander said: “As it happens, I killed a Russian yesterday, and took his gun. Have it.” And he gave me a good PK general purpose machine gun. I said I needed some ammo, because the gun was useless without. And the commander said: “Honestly, you young people, you want everything! I do have a couple of clips though –” and he gave me them too.’ Khlyvnyuk shows me a photo of his proud acquisition.
The most recent Boombox album, Secret Code: Rubicon, of 2019, was laden with forewarnings – songs like ‘Drantya’, with its raw, metallic menace: ‘This is the last of your nine lives / Remember what you died of.’ ‘The album was about what the world seemed to look like in 2019,’ says Andriy, ‘but now in 2022, it’s taken on a whole new meaning. Now we know what can happen.’
‘War doesn’t accept all music,’ Andriy tells me, ‘and not necessarily the music you’d expect. In war, people need to sing and laugh. Perhaps even the Russians are singing and laughing. It’s interesting to see why a certain song works in a war, and another doesn’t. I’ve yet to find an answer, but my hunch is that war needs love songs more than social and meaningful songs – mostly the love songs work better.’
The war has produced a genre of martial metal – one relentless song from a band called Surface Tension goes: ‘Your mama won’t come to fetch you / But the wind will blow your ashes . . . We will kill you all.’ But, says Andriy, ‘I know guys going into battle loaded with weapons, tattoos up their necks, hardcore – but they’re not singing [Black Sabbath’s] ‘War Pigs’, they’re singing something pop, something easy, or perhaps a Beatles song just for the melody – a love song to make them smile!’
Playing during the war is different, he explains. ‘It’s not a commercial act playing a show any more, it’s a fundraising tour to keep our police units on the front line. We will play music so that our riflemen can fire bullets . . . Now, it has to be a communal thing, playing to people who have an extra reason to be Ukrainian together – a meeting of people with a common pain, people who’ve been to hell and back and have a story to tell.’
A rendezvous with Detcom, one of Ukraine’s most renowned and beloved DJs, is fixed for the grounds of an empty school. It’s a pluvial afternoon in the port city of Mykolaiv, at that time under relentless bombardment. There he is, waiting in the rain, wearing combat fatigues. Detcom is more than a DJ: he is one of the leading promoters of raves and musical events in a country that recently asserted itself as Europe’s creative capital of electronica.
On the morning of our meeting, two Russian S-300 missiles slammed into the facade of the Petro Mohyla Black Sea National University, primarily a theological college, destroying it and twenty-seven houses. But the Grifel cafe in Mykolaiv is warm and agreeable. ‘Here we are,’ he says of his new life at the front. ‘Shop workers, small businessmen and me, a rave DJ! Suddenly fighting this huge war.’ It started with the Territorial Defence, he says. ‘I decided: I cannot not do this. I started keeping guard on checkpoints, delivering medicines. Now I’m a soldier. Now I know how to fire an RPG, now I’m in the trenches, and I know how to dig them, properly, with dugouts.’
For some time, Detcom has been sharing photographs of comrades and friends who have been killed as Ukrainian forces moved to liberate occupied Kherson to the south; he sends them to me via WhatsApp: just a picture, and a name, in tribute. Kherson was liberated, but without Anatoly, with his four-square stare, or the older, bespectacled Oleg, pictured sitting in the corner of an L-shaped trench with a camouflaged sheet around him, against the mud and rain.
Detcom was born in Kharkiv, and moved to Kyiv when it became ‘famous across Europe for big raves’. But electronica’s right-wing adversaries politicised the music by hating it; gangs of neo-fascists even attacked raves, throwing rocks and overturning furniture. ‘We never looked for trouble with the right,’ Detcom says, ‘but at some point, the techno community became its enemy.’
But the coming of war in Ukraine has seen a remarkable tolerance – and even union – between erstwhile foes in youth and identity culture. Fault lines that exist in peace conjoin in times of war; former enemies realising that they now have much in common against a common enemy. Western visitors have been surprised to find militant patriotism – advocacy of ‘the political nation’, as Detcom calls it – to be just as strident among alternative, avant-garde and LGBTQ+ radical cultural circles as they are among the conservative and hard right.
Detcom’s primary adversary on social media before the war was a prominent and public right-wing extremist called Karas – ‘we were, shall we say, online enemies. But now it turns out we share the same aim: freedom for our country.’ Now, Detcom and Karas discourse on Telegram, in the cause of national liberation. ‘I admire what he is doing for the war, and he appreciates what I’m doing. With the war, people with such opposing views as ours can discuss their differences. And when we beat Russia, I hope we’ll be able to understand each other better.’
What does one believe in here? ‘Well, they say there are no atheists on a sinking ship, and there’s none in a trench either. Things that felt important then are insignificant now. I miss those times, but now I know how precarious it all is – human life, happiness. What does one believe in now? More weapons, whatever it takes to kill more Russians. That we must drive them out of Ukraine – forever this time.’
On the right bank of the wide Dnipro River as it flows through Kyiv lies a neighbourhood called Podil – ‘down under’ – of disused brickwork industrial buildings, now strewn with graffiti, a warren of clubs and subterranean dives. Tucked away next to radio station 20 Feet is one of the clubs that Detcom frequented and performed at: Closer, a funky space and garden with a slide to play on and a teepee for lovers to cuddle up in. Playfully serious and seriously playful, Closer still stages raves (though they happen in the afternoon now, to be over in time for curfew), as well as jazz-fusion nights that showcase sophisticated music.
The club used to be assailed by gangs of right-wing militants ‘because they were against everything we epitomise’, Serhii Yatsenko, the manager, tells me. ‘Dancing, gay rights and LGBT, drinking, drugs, whatever.’ But after the Russian invasion, the elderly resident gardener at Closer designed a special outfit for snipers to wear as camouflage, to appear like a bush. The club offered their design and product to a militia made up of members of Right Sector, one of the groups that used to attack them, ‘for a laugh, really; to show them we’re on their side in this fight’. Closer went on to add a fleet of customised cars to Right Sector’s war effort, and in return came a framed diploma of official thanks from the group. ‘We look forward to welcoming them back!’ jokes Serhii.
Although Ukraine is losing fighters at a terrifying rate, there is still no conscription – a line that many non-combatants of fighting age fear may yet be crossed. Aleksandr, who runs Closer’s estimable vinyl record store, calls his metier a ‘guilty pleasure, while people are fighting. What I dread most is a kind of hedonism here in the city, while those boys fight for us.’ ‘We are motivated by guilt, basically,’ says Serhii, ‘because we are not at the front. People come here whose friends are fighting and dying . . . So we try to make it all down-tempo, meditative.’ And sure enough, the jazz-fusion jam begins, with a haunting six-note riff played on the trumpet by Pavlo Halchenko.
Rather than hedonistic revelry, this is more of a private recital, ‘dedicated to our armed forces’, says Pavlo, ‘without whom we would not be here’. A couple of lads in fatigues nod in acknowledgement of a ripple of applause, and sip their beers, on the house. The night, which months ago would have ended past dawn, concludes at 9 p.m., with the last metro at ten and curfew at eleven.
Taras Topolia keeps his military kit packed and ready by the front door of his apartment in Kyiv in case of an emergency call from his battalion. His wife and children are far away, in America – they, at least, are safe – so that he has the place to himself when back on leave from the front. The kitchen clock stopped at 6.35 a.m. on 25 February, the morning after the Russian invasion, ‘just as we were packing to leave’, says Taras. ‘We stayed at their grandparents while sorting out their journey, then I returned to Kyiv to report to my battalion. That’s the last time I kissed my wife and kids.’
Taras – now under the command of the 130th Battalion of the Territorial Army – is no ordinary soldier: he is Ukraine’s most celebrated pop singer of catchy hit melodies, with his band Antytila (Antibodies). ‘We were preparing to release our album on 25 February. It never appeared,’ he says. ‘Now everything has changed, and I’m unsure it ever will.’
‘I never thought I’d be doing what I am doing,’ says Taras, ‘learning to kill, and trying to save my fellow soldiers from being killed. We’re musicians, and you have to sing, even during this period, to keep the voice strong. And of course I sing when someone asks me to at the front, to boost morale. But being a public figure is not the main thing for me now. In the trenches, I’m just another soldier.’
He looks back: ‘I wrote songs that make people happy – our music has a light inside it.’ But, he says, in counterpoint to Andriy Khlyvnyuk, ‘it feels wrong to sing these love songs at such a time. If I were to write anything now, it would be about what is around me, and it would upset people.’
The group was formed as a five-piece pop band in 2008, and rose quickly to fame with hits like ‘Rosy Maidens’ and ‘Kiss Me More’. But during the Maidan democratic uprising of 2013, Antytila felt propelled to engage more seriously with Ukrainian society and politics, ‘We were part of the revolution for dignity, and played on the stage during the Maidan protests,’ says Taras. A video for the title track of their album from 2015, In Books, shows a little boy – an embodiment of Ukraine – running in flight from the city to fields of corn, where he is found and returned home by his father, who wears military fatigues. President Zelensky appeared on the video for a song called ‘Lego’. By the time of the 2022 invasion, Taras and his fellow musicians had already joined the Territorial Defence.
After the invasion, Antytila asked to join – by video link – a concert for Ukraine given by international stars in Birmingham, England; but the organisers rejected their offer because Antytila were fighting in the resistance. Their cause was taken up by the singer Ed Sheeran and superstars Bono and The Edge of U2: Sheeran recut his hit ‘2step’ to feature Antytila, and the Irish duo staged an acoustic concert in a Kyiv subway station with Taras during their visit to Ukraine in May 2022.
Taras began learning classical violin aged six, studied as a chorister, then continued at the Kyiv conservatoire. ‘I may not look like an academic [classical] musician, but I am. I don’t actually have the attributes of a pop star – I have an analytical and academic mind.’ His influences? ‘Chopin, Stravinsky and Berio. I was an academic musician, disinterested in modern music,’ he says, until ‘the moment U2 became the biggest band in the world. That’s when I realised what was out there. So that to sing with Bono was a dream I never hoped could come true.’
How will the war change Antytila’s music? ‘To be honest, Antytila has not always made the music we wanted to create. It’s been targeted to an audience, and you lower your standards to do that. Now I will sing what I feel. What’s the point of a song if it doesn’t do that? When this is all over, if we survive, no more compromises with the commercial market. If people want songs that are not true, they won’t get them from us any more. We’ll present bad-tasting medicine in a sweet wrapper.’
And that is exactly what has happened, though the wrapper was not as sweet as Taras suggested. On the first anniversary of the invasion, Antytila headlined a major solidarity event and concert in London’s Trafalgar Square. They played a newly written song, the video for which is a searing cry of rage and tribute, filmed inside a warehouse in the embattled town of Bakhmut and cut with merciless footage of the battle. Taras sang at full volume into a walkie-talkie: ‘Bakhmut Fortress / All our prayers are here / And hearts of steel spirit . . . They give us strength from Heaven / Will, fire and fury! . . . Mom, I’m standing / Motherland, I’m fighting.’
Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv is subject to unforgiving bombardment. During the late afternoons of winter the city plunges into a silent darkness even when there is electricity – this is voluntary, done out of necessity, for the nocturnal cover. As night falls, the deep boom of explosions seems to ebb and flow – afar but audible, now horribly and loudly closer, then further again.
The next day there’s a sudden burst of song across a shopping arcade on the city’s frayed outskirts, between Bambi, the children’s clothing store and Violet Balloon boutique.
This is one in a series of pop-up recitals by soloists and musicians from the Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet, now rebranded Skhid Opera – skhid meaning east. It’s a lovely folk song, accompanied on violin by Vera Lytovchenko, with blue and yellow ribbons on her instrument. The company performs similar concerts in hospitals, schools, metro stations and military installations. Here, shoppers rest their bags, children pause from chatter, teenagers park their phones, and everyone listens. ‘It’s more real than playing in the opera house,’ says Lytovchenko, ‘almost too real. This is the most important time of our lives, and therefore these are the most important performances we’ll ever play. Before, people came to us to listen – now we go to the people to play. It’s unlike anything we ever did before the war. It’s a way of saying: we’re not afraid.’
This afternoon’s programme is almost entirely of Ukrainian traditional songs and arias from operas by Mykola Lysenko, the late-nineteenth-century composer. Singing baritone is the opera company’s artistic director Oleksiy Duginov, who tells me this period has brought about ‘a complete reassessment of values, a whole new understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian – and we hope that music will be part of that.’
Igor Tuluzov, CEO of the opera house, watches and listens with a smile. ‘Since the beginning of the war, we’ve had trouble with the building itself – the roof was torn off by a missile,’ he says. ‘We had an orchestral concert, but had to evacuate because of a bombing raid. So the performing changes completely – as does the repertoire,’ he says. ‘I hope one day at least part of the Russian canon will return to Kharkiv, but for now we have resolved not to play any pieces by Russian composers.’
Duginov, Tuluzov and I reconvene for coffee the next morning. Tuluzov tells me how he began his career in space physics, later moved into crisis management before beginning what he calls ‘my second education, in theatre – and now a different kind of crisis management!’ Can the opera company play any Russian music? ‘It’s hard to find the borderline between good and bad Russians,’ replies Tuluzov. ‘But the mood here is militant. No, we cannot play music by any Russian composer.’
Duginov posits that there is something aesthetically and aurally totalitarian in much Russian music, ‘part of the genetic code in Russia’s metaphorical DNA, a culture of authoritarianism and servitude.’ To which I counter: What about Dmitri Shostakovich? What could be more anti-totalitarian than his music and story? ‘I love Shostakovich,’ concedes Duginov, who cites one of the composer’s most overt mockeries of Soviet ethos and Stalin specifically, the satirical cantata ‘Antiformalist Rayok’. Duginov’s eyes widen, ‘It’s brilliant! I sung the baritone part of “No. 1”, which is Stalin.’ And he reflects, as though putting the discourse on hold: ‘as time passes, we’ll be able to we’ll take a proper look at all this. As the wounds heal, people will welcome back Russian music, and when that happens, we will play it to them. But not now.’
The discourse is a reflection of the wider cultural landscape: across the country statues of Alexander Pushkin as well as those of Catherine the Great are being felled; streets formerly dedicated to Leo Tolstoy or Mikhail Bulgakov have been renamed. Effectively: the purge of Russian culture from Ukraine – which poses a problem in the matter of language in Kharkiv, where Russian is the predominant quotidian tongue. ‘But it’s not a question of language,’ says Tuluzov, ‘it’s about spirit and mindset, who and what we are. The division is between European democratic values and Russian imperial values.’
Nevertheless, the assertion of Ukrainian language – and its hegemony over Russian – is quintessential to the final forging of what Ukrainians call ‘the political nation’. Libraries, including children’s libraries, will keep Russian titles, but often do not display them, and acquire no new Russian books. Born Russian speakers – especially young ones – learn and turn to Ukrainian, eager to make it their first language. Here in Kharkiv, the most interesting local folk band, called Morj (Ukrainian for ‘walrus’, inspired by The Beatles song), have abandoned all their Russian lyrics and now sing only in Ukrainian. Roman Galaborda, who plays every conceivable wind instrument for Morj, grew up in now-occupied Luhansk, Russian-speaking, but, he says, ‘even if I speak Russian privately, Ukrainian is my public language now, and that of the group’. Galaborda, who is blind – which, he says ‘makes me read sound better’ – learned his craft by studying Indian and Persian instruments. He was transfixed by their microtones and chromatic potential. Now, he finds the same in an instrument called a kaval, played by shepherds in the Carpathian Mountains, ‘which you could call folk music if you wanted to, inasmuch as it is connected to the soul of the land’. And it is this word ‘soul’ which Tuluzov at the opera also deploys, and which, he argues, makes the matter of a musical separation from Russian culture even more important than a linguistic one. But in the field of music, Tuluzov tells me, the question becomes more complicated: ‘Literature and language are for the brain,’ he says, ‘but music is for the soul, and all the more important for that.’
The resolution to avoid Russian music spans Ukraine, from north-east Kharkiv to the far south, where the Odesa Philharmonic Orchestra continues to perform in its magnificent theatre, built from 1894 to a neo-Venetian, neo-Ottoman design. Their concerts are now often interrupted by sirens or missile attacks, and they are forced to either abandon the programme or adjourn to the shelter below.
Principal conductor Igor Shavruk – who has spent much of his career conducting in Russia and Britain – explains. There is a ‘hierarchy, in terms of what cannot be tolerated, and Tchaikovsky is top of the list. For Russians, he epitomises the national essence, so that for Ukrainians, he epitomises Russian imperialism.’
But what about Shostakovich? ‘I do consider him to be an anti-Soviet composer,’ replies Shavruk. ‘He’s a tragic, creative force, and I actually think it would be very interesting to play Shostakovich in this situation, but –’ But? ‘I have to respect the sensibilities of my audience. In this situation, people think of him as a Russian composer, not an anti-Soviet composer. I defer to the emotional climate; we cannot be searching out reasons to bite one another in this present situation.
‘We never know who we will be in wartime,’ reflects Shavruk. ‘The strong may weaken, the weak might find strength. When the guns speak, must the muses be silent? We may not be able to break through the Russian lines with music, but we can feed people’s will to do so.’
The week after the anniversary of the invasion, Kyiv’s national opera gave a new production of Verdi’s Nabucco, with all it signifies: Israelite prisoners of Babylon as metaphor for Italy’s struggle for liberation from Hapsburg Austria–Hungary – now so resonant in Ukraine’s war against the Russian empire. But also in the National Opera’s mainstream repertoire is Ukraine’s favourite, Natalka Poltavka, by Mykola Lysenko. The story is about power and love in a peasant village, but it was also a snipe at the Russian empire at the time of its premiere in 1889 – pointed towards imperial Romanov Moscow in the same comic-but-serious way that Smetana’s The Bartered Bride took aim at Hapsburg Vienna. Natalka Poltavka was sanctioned by Russian officials, and Lysenko was later jailed in 1907 for supporting the 1905 uprisings against tsarist authority.
Crowds arrive for a matinee performance – the young lady in the seat behind me is here for the first time – ‘Despite the war?’ I ask. ‘Because of the war,’ she replies, ‘because we don’t know what will happen next.’ My guest is Iaroslava Strikha, a literary critic and translator of western European and American literature into Ukrainian. She calls the opera ‘peasant kitsch – something important to Ukrainian identity. Natalka Poltavka is tableaux humour, but also a slur against the old imperial order, and thereby a nourishment of our national identity. It’s funny, but it isn’t. If you see it through the eyes of the empire that oppresses us, it’s not kitsch, it’s serious, even dangerous.’ There’s a line in that comfortless Boombox song of 2019, ‘Drantya’: ‘Fierce kitsch is à la mode.’ It certainly is.
Anatoly Mokrenko, director of the National Opera, receives me in his office next morning. Natalka Poltavka, he says, ‘is symbolic for us, for reasons historical and recent. It was the last piece we gave on 23 February, the night before the invasion. We reopened on 21 May with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, to demonstrate loyalty to Europe. We worried whether people would come – but it was sold out. The next night, we took up where we left off, and revived Natalka Poltavka – and again sold out.’ (Mokrenko qualifies this: ‘The opera house usually seats 1,304 people, but we can now only welcome 430 guests, because that’s the number our shelter can accommodate.’)
When the house reopened, says Mokrenko, ‘I was determined to give comedy, and Lysenko specifically, because comedy has its meaning, which is not always funny – and that is the significance of Natalka Poltavka in Ukraine. Not all my colleagues agreed, they thought this was not the time for opera buffa of any kind. They had a point, but I argued that this was a matter of culture against barbarism. The situation allows us to reconsider ourselves, and the world around us. We are not the front line, but we are part of the war, because this work is an integral part of our culture.’
At the opera house in Lviv – last November, months before the anniversary solemnities – there was pure comedy: Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, with its sway, lilt and effervescence. It’s played for fun, but as Alina Plakhtiienko affirms: ‘comedy is only partly funny’. The previous night, some hundred missiles had rained down on Ukraine – seventy-two were shot down, but of the twenty-eight that reached their targets, eleven landed on Lviv, far as it is from the front lines. At the end of Don Pasquale, something I have never seen: a standing ovation for a comedy, and almost every eye moist with emotion.
After the performance, Plakhtiienko and I are joined by Olha Lozynska, who directs the opera house’s glorious mirror hall for choral and chamber music. ‘The night we reopened,’ she says, ‘was the Orthodox feast of the Annunciation. We played settings by Lysenko of Taras Shevchenko [the iconic poet of Ukraine’s nineteenth-century Romantic nationalist revival], and our audience was completely different from before the war. Before, when we played the mainstream repertoire, 70 per cent of those present were tourists; for national music, the hall was more than half empty. But for this, we were sold out to an entirely Ukrainian audience. And I understood that night the extent to which music is part of this moment. No empty seats – not that night, and never since. I think that with this war, people are discovering music, especially our national music, even when we are emotionally exhausted.’
Two nights after Don Pasquale, the ballet company presents Esmeralda by Cesare Pugni, based on Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. Beneath the Gothic arches, there’s a lovely pas de deux by two ballerinas dressed in white, with sashes and scarves. One of those dancers is Roksolyana Iskra, who recalls how on the night the war began, ‘we were due to perform Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov. Nobody could believe it had happened, and we all thought the same thing: should we give this Russian music now? We’d been rehearsing for three months, but now everything had changed. Our director was clear: we cannot, on a point of dignity. And we all understood.’
So the conversation from Kharkiv and Odesa resurfaces in Lviv. ‘On the matter of Russian composers,’ says Plakhtiienko, ‘we have the right to be categorical.’ Iskra invokes the Jewish aversion to Wagner: ‘I adore Wagner,’ she says, ‘but I understand that a generation of Jews could not listen to him after the Holocaust. Now they can, but it took a generation. We today cannot listen to Tchaikovsky for similar reasons. Now most Jews can listen to Wagner, and maybe one day, my children will listen to Tchaikovsky.’
‘When Ukrainians listen to Tchaikovsky,’ adds Plakhtiienko, ‘they are listening to a genius, no denying that. But when they listen to Tchaikovsky now, they will hear the sound of a missile, or the cry of a mother who has lost her son. That is our Russian symphony.’
There’s an overlap in personnel between the opera house orchestra and the band playing at Lviv’s iconic jazz and folk club, Dzyga, which opened during the early years of independence, in 1994. Opera orchestra oboist Yuri Khvostov is part of an intriguing ensemble, Pyrih i Batih, playing music that defies category – folk, perhaps, but with overt references to classical.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Marian Pyrih plays his instrument with a singularly effective technique: he strokes the strings horizontally with bamboo sticks, to and fro into the guitar aperture, creating a shimmering sound that is at once eerie and rhythmic. His colleagues play violin, double bass and percussion, plus Yuri on oboe.
Dzuga was started by a group from Lviv’s Vyvykh arts festivals, for ‘music, avant-garde happenings, theatre and installations’, as Pyrih recalls, inspired by the Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe, two of whose members were jailed for their avant-garde styles during the 1970s. ‘Like The Plastics,’ says Pyrih, ‘the pro-Russian authorities before Maidan made us political by hating and harassing us. There were no normal clothes at our festivals.’
The music playing at the club is striking: it draws on jazz and folk chromatics, but also those of Janáček and Bohuslav Martinů. There’s an arrangement of Mykola Leontovych’s traditional song ‘Shchedryk’, but with a coda based on Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, with its quotations from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3.
Most of these pieces are settings of Ukrainian poetry, by writers whose lives and work were prescient of today’s defence and attestation of Ukrainian nationhood. Most cogently: ‘All Around Me – Cemetery of Souls’ by Vasyl Stus, who joined the opposition to the Soviet regime during the 1960s, was arrested in 1972, and served time in labour camps. He was rearrested before the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and sent to the infamous Perm-36 camp near Kuchino, where he went on hunger strike and died in September 1985, under unknown circumstances – either he starved or he was murdered. Stus was in solitary confinement at the time of his death, but a previous cellmate, Vasyl Ovsiienko, investigated a cry from Stus’s cell of ‘Damned murderers!’ after lights-out on the night of his death, and reports of a stabbing on order of the authorities. One reason for the murder may have been to prevent Stus from receiving a Nobel Prize – an émigré committee had just been established in Canada to nominate the poet.
Seven other prisoners in the camp died between 1980 and 1987, of which three others were, like Stus, members of the dissident Ukrainian Helsinki Group. ‘Cemetery of Souls’, sung as invocation with an extended instrumental coda, sends shivers down the spine; a spell is cast over the two hundred people who are gathered here. ‘All around me is a cemetery of souls / In the white cemetery of the people. / I swim in tears, in search of a ford / A beetle flies above the cherries. / Spring. And the sun. And the green.’ At the end, there’s a painful but pregnant silence before anyone dares to applaud.
Pyrih receives me at his basement apartment in the arty old depot neighbourhood, beside a park wrapped in snow. On the wall above his desk is his grandfather’s ammunition belt: Pyrih uses the bullet straps to store tubes of paint and brushes. ‘Thirty-five years ago,’ he says, ‘Stus’s body was brought back to Kyiv to be entombed. There was a mass gathering of blue and yellow flags – the police could do nothing. Stus is an inspiration to all of us. Oddly, his voice sounded so much older than he was, but it suited his face.’
Pyrih explains to me why he plays this music during wartime. ‘Music doesn’t change. Music is a constant, and does not remember. But we remember music, and during this war, music becomes an affirmation. I consider myself close to the classical tradition, but our music also connects you to the power of the earth beneath your feet – even if it’s concrete! The chromatics mean something, and folk music reflects the energy of the land itself. In this crisis, that becomes more important: we are trying to work on a new Ukrainian music astride the classical and folk traditions, one that resists Russian influence.
‘The project,’ as Pyrih calls it, ‘is also based on poetry, and blending the sound of Ukrainian language with musical chromatics. It sounds paradoxical: that you have to convey your language through music, but that’s what is happening. I’m trying to find my way, using work by Ukrainian poets who were persecuted or killed by Russia, and setting it to chromatically appropriate music.’ Outside, an air raid siren wails across the oncoming night. Pyrih stays put in his apartment and accompanies it – or it accompanies him – with a setting, sung a cappella, of a poem by Shevchenko called ‘My Thoughts’. ‘It’s like a prayer to me,’ whispers Pyrih when it’s over, ‘or perhaps a Requiem Mass!’
Frankfurt, Germany, late November 2022. Andriy Khlyvnyuk and his band emerge from a hotel on the commercial outskirts of Germany’s financial capital, searching for a meal on the eve of their concert at a rock venue of note, Batschkapp. Boombox’s tour of Germany, France and the Netherlands is their most ambitious since war began.
Boombox on tour consists of twelve people: six on stage, six ‘behind the scenes’, Andriy tells me. One of these is a comrade from the police unit, Stanislav Guvenko, ‘rifleman, and also director of music videos’, shooting not with a gun at this point, but a camera. Stas – tattoos up his throat – is filming, here as on the front line, ‘a documentary that tries to make sense of all this’.
The green room is modest, with trays of avocado, charcuterie and cheese, and a fridge of mineral water and beer. The band is quiet and focused. Band manager Oleksiy, the decorated, tank-grabbing hero of Makariv, is fine-tuning the logistics for tonight’s show. Andriy introduces Inna Nevoit, who plays bass, ‘Someone saw her cleaning and catering in a metro bomb shelter and said: “Hey, Andriy – isn’t that your bass player?” She was serving borscht, and I thought: Inna, don’t ruin your hands, they’re golden.’
Down the metal steps and out into another world: the waiting crowd pressed against security barriers strewn with Ukrainian flags, and the air is thick with anticipation. There are families in attendance, some of three generations. Up come the lights, the noise elevates, and on come Andriy and the band to a jubilant greeting. In reply, a now ubiquitous salutation among politicians and entertainers alike: ‘Good evening! We are from Ukraine!’
As are most people in the house, and in this heightened atmosphere Boombox could get away with a creditable performance, and still send their audience home happy. But they give it their all and more – the opening number is aptly titled ‘You Are 100 Per Cent’. True to his remarks back in Kyiv about love songs in wartime, Andriy then sings ‘Hold Me’: ‘Never let me go / You won’t find me again under the rainfall.’ ‘Angel’ follows soon after – ‘You want me to be yours / You want me to fly again.’
The audience speaks for itself. Anhelina Chumak and her twelve-year-old daughter Yeva fled their home in Zarozhne in late February; husband Danyil remains, fighting. ‘We’re now far away, in a strange place,’ says Anhelina, ‘wondering whether we will ever be home again, as it was. But I saw Boombox a few times, and when they play now, it’s like we’re all together again.’ Volodymir Pavlenko arrived in Frankfurt from still-occupied Melitopol, via Lviv, this past March. ‘I had come to accept that I might never see my home again,’ he says. ‘Tonight, I’m not so sure – when I hear this band, anything feels possible.’
Later in the night, Khlyvnyuk darkens the tone and timbre, with the threadbare opening to ‘Naked King’: ‘On the day you become a beggar / You’ll love all you had / You’ll fix what you broke.’
But both sweet and bitter are blown away by the climax of the evening: ‘Oh the Red Viburnum in the Meadow’. It begins as incantation, a cappella, the audience clapping and swaying in time: ‘And our glorious Ukraine shall, hey, hey, rise up . . .’ The instruments join, building the song to vast, rock-symphonic proportions, even without the backing of Pink Floyd. Girls mount their boyfriends’ shoulders and wave the flag aloft; children, teenagers and adults alike wear hard-won, bright, proud smiles.
Crowds wait for Inna and DJ Valentyn Matiyuk to sign their flags with Sharpies; two little girls with floral garlands in their hair get autographs scrawled along their forearms, giggling with glee. A man leans forward, in tears: ‘I’m from Mariupol,’ he says, with no elaboration necessary.
There’s a short recuperative stop in the green room to greet friends and hardcore fans of yore. Then back to the hotel, where we have a round in the atrium lobby. Tomorrow: Stuttgart. Andriy is tired but elated, for all his consultation of the latest – today, horrendous – news on his phone. A shower of rocket attacks has hit several cities across Ukraine, leaving many dead, especially in the Kyiv suburb of Vyshgorod.
The plan now, he says, is to ‘fight through the winter, hoping to be in one piece by springtime, and if we survive that long, we’ll continue with America’.
Andriy reflects on the evening, and the wider endeavour, ‘Tonight was the most charged so far,’ he says. ‘At least 80 per cent of that audience were at home last Christmas. Recent refugees almost all of them. They might have had tickets for the spring 2022 stadium show in Kyiv that never happened. And here we are in Frankfurt. But they pour out so much energy and love, it’s almost embarrassing, in a good way. I have to look into their eyes,’ and here Andriy’s own eyes moisten. He sips his beer. ‘But if I think about the importance of what’s going on, my legs would turn to bronze – I wouldn’t be able to sing. Still, we have to do our job.’ I suggest that they do it very well. ‘So we should; if we’re not good after twenty years, we never will be. But it’s never good enough, because we – the band – are not the important part of this now. They are.’
Photograph © Pavlo Yaremak, Set of Yevhen Stankovych’s opera The Terrible Revenge, 24 February 2023