You probably know some Ukrainian music even if you don’t realize it. For example, “Carol of the Bells,” a world-famous Christmas song recorded in over 150 different arrangements and featured in movies like Alone at home, began life in the form of the Ukrainian song “Shchedryk”. Like much Ukrainian music, it has a deep and dark history.
The song’s iconic four-note ostinato dates back to pre-Christian folklore and was arranged into its classical musical form by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovich in 1916. Originally a song about generosity and the harvest of a new year to come (it only became a Christmas carol when it received entirely different English lyrics from the Ukrainian-American Peter Wilhousky of NBC radio in 1936), it was part of a solid repertoire of songs written and arranged by Leontovich who helped introduce Ukrainian culture to America and much of Europe at a time when Ukraine was gaining international support for its budding independence. In 1921, Leontovich was assassinated by a Russian agent Cheka (precursor to the KGB) who posed as a lone traveler. Leontovich had offered him shelter for the night and was shot the next morning.
Russia and Ukraine
Russian and Ukrainian histories have been intertwined for centuries, so much so that Soviet Premier Stalin called Ukrainians a “younger brother” of Russians. But many Ukrainians resent what they experienced as generations of Russian aggression and domination, remembering horrors such as the Holodomor (meaning “starvation murder” in Ukrainian), during which Stalin’s 1932-33 famine killed some 4 million Ukrainians and is considered genocide, according to Tatianna Gajecky, a Ukrainian-American educator with a master’s degree in Slavic studies from Harvard. “We were one of their colonies,” she said bluntly.
Recently, the world has seen Russia gathering tens of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, as Vladimir Putin asserts that Russia is not aiming to invade Ukraine, but simply responding to the gravity of the Ukraine westward to NATO as a national security threat. President Biden has warned there is a “strong possibility” that Russia will invade Ukraine next month, and a British public statement said Russia was drawing up plans to install a puppet government in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. In this context, a massive cyberattack on Ukrainian government websites two weeks ago caused Ukrainians to “be afraid and expect the worst. This is for your past, your present and your future.
Voices from Ukraine
Although the music is not currently in the headlines, it has been a constant theater of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine’s last two Eurovision winners, Ruslana (2004) and Jamala (2016) are each considered political and artistic icons.
Ruslana sang for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian protesters in multiple revolutions against Russian-backed leaders, and even served as a deputy in the Ukrainian parliament. She was one of ten women to receive Michelle Obama’s International Women of Courage Award in 2014 for her bravery and the role her voice played in her country’s national struggle.
Jamala is a Crimean Tatar (another population decimated by Stalin’s policies), whose tragedy she sings about in her competition-winning song, “1944”:
The song’s opening lyrics, “When strangers come… / They come to your house, / They kill you all / And say, / We’re not guilty / Not guilty”, not only referred to politics from Stalin in 1944 but also to Putin’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. As Jamala, a person internally displaced in Ukraine after the 2014 invasion, put it The Guardian, “What am I supposed to do: just sing beautiful songs and forget about it? Of course, I can’t do that.
The consequences of singing
What becomes of these musicians who raise their voices for Ukraine? According to Gajecky, for generations they have been intimidated, silenced and killed. Not only Leontovich, who welcomed a deadly guest into his home, but a seemingly endless list of musicians met similar fates: bandura (Ukrainian bard) players who were lured to a fake USSR folk conference and murdered ; Volodymyr Ivasyuk, the national musical icon whose body was found hanged, mutilated, in a forest after he began writing an opera about Ukrainian history (more than 10,000 Ukrainians attended his funeral); Ihor Bilozir, the composer who was beaten to death after singing Ukrainian folk songs in a cafe for a friend’s birthday; the list continues. Just two months ago, Ukrainian opera director Yevhen Lavrenchuk, a prominent critic of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, was arrested in Italy on an international warrant at Russia’s request, in a move described as “bearing the hallmarks of political repression” by artistic freedom advocates PEN America.
Gajecky, who was teaching in Kyiv when Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, saw this dynamic unfold before his eyes.
Just two weeks before independence, Gajecky had attended the second “Chervona Ruta” music festival, an opportunity for the next generation of Ukrainian artists to showcase their talents and the creativity of Ukrainian music as a whole.
Named after the most famous song by Volodymyr Ivasyuk (the composer whose funeral brought 10,000 Ukrainians to the streets), the festival was of great cultural and national significance: many songs created at Chervona Ruta became instant hits, sung by millions of Ukrainians who otherwise were forbidden to listen to his own music. But as Gajecky recalled, “It was already Perestroika and Glasnost, Gorbachev was trying to ease the tension because everything was starting to blow up.?’”
She recalls the opening of the festival: “It was about to start, they decorated it very ornately, and the clerics started with a prayer, and boom! all the electricity was cut off. According to Gajecky, the Russians cut off electricity, lights and all sound, but festival organizers had backup generators ready and within an hour everything was back up and running. The festival was all the more important for Ukrainians, Gajecky explained, as its first incarnation in 1989 was “the first time [in that period of Soviet rule] that they sang the national anthem of Ukraine and authorized the display of the blue and yellow flag. Even two years later, just at the dawn of Ukrainian independence, Gajecky felt a deep shortage of national cultural knowledge in Ukraine: “We had a big Ukrainian flag which we waved in front of the  Festival. We were walking through the streets carrying the flag – and people were walking around and asking “What kind of flag is this?” People were so shocked because it wasn’t allowed – their parents or grandparents would have been murdered or sent to Siberia.
What’s at stake?
Why does Russia care so much about Ukrainian music and musicians? According to Gajecky, who has led choirs and singing groups to support Ukrainian culture, “It’s a constant battle for existence, our own identity and our survival; to have our own country and be free to live there. In Ukraine, because of the constant Russian influence and the bombardment of propaganda, they do not allow the inhabitants of the Ukrainian territory to know anything about the land on which they live. This is how they destroy our culture. The many murdered musicians who met with violent deaths had the power to vindicate a national consciousness – what Gajecky called “the singing soul of Ukraine” – which, to Russia’s potential territorial aspirations, appears to be deeply threatening.
So what about Ukrainians today as they watch Russian troops massing on the border? Gajecky said it clearly: “We are afraid of losing our country forever. If Putin comes, he will destroy what is left of Ukrainian history and culture.