The long fight for arts and culture in Ukraine as war rages on

Ukrainian musicians Taras Shevchenko and Kateryna Pavlenko from the band Go-A were thinking about starting a new folk electronica project back in February of 2022. But on Feb. 24, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion in Ukraine, the pursuits of many of Ukraine’s leading artists and cultural institutions came to a halt.

Since the war began, artists and cultural workers swiftly shifted their focus to contributing to war efforts, while also working to maintain and promote Ukraine’s unique artistic and cultural heritage. 

The World takes a look back at the myriad ways in which war impacted artistic and cultural expression in Ukraine, and how advocates worked tirelessly to keep making art against all odds.

A race to save cultural heritage 

In early March, as Moscow escalated its bombardment of civilian areas, museums and churches in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv were targeted. Residents of Lviv raced to ensure their city did not suffer the same fate. For a city synonymous with music and the arts, the most common sound in the city became hammering and drilling.

Artists on the front lines 

Ukraine’s military made it mandatory for all men to stay in Ukraine to serve in the war. But when the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra mobilized to go on tour as part of a cultural diplomacy mission, the Defense Ministry granted special permission for its male members to leave the country.

Other musicians, like Taras Topolia, the lead singer of the Antytila band, immediately joined Ukraine’s military and served on the front lines. At the same time, Topolia continued to advocate for Ukraine through his music.

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who might just be Ukraine’s biggest rock star, also volunteered and joined Ukraine’s armed forces, where he became a lieutenant. Most of his service entailed helping troops and civilians living near the front lines. To provide emotional support to the troops, Vakarchuk performed a song “Chovan,” meaning “Boat,” near the Antonivskyi bridge, in the Kherson region, which was destroyed by Russian forces.

As intense fighting in Ukraine tore apart entire villages, Ukraine’s underground rave scene got behind Repair Together, a volunteer group that hosted “clean-up raves,” a mix of traditional clean-up efforts with dance parties, to relieve stress and connect with others.

Translating war, protecting literature  

The war in Ukraine sparked a new wave of interest in Ukrainian history, culture and writing. Ukrainian literary translators have been working on overdrive as the war drove new demand for Ukrainian publications. US-based writer Dralyuk has been translating poetry and literature from both Russian and Ukrainian into English.

Creating normalcy amid war

During rehearsals at Odesa’s opera house, it was sometimes easy to forget that Ukraine was a country at war. Inside the elegant, neo-Baroque building from the late 19th century, the conflict outside felt distant. Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater is located in Ukraine’s busiest port city, which became an early target of Russia’s military, but it continues to be a central cultural hub.

Finding home on international stages

When war broke out in Ukraine, the Shchedryk Children’s Choir from Kyiv was poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a world tour. Conductor Saul Zaks went on a mission to make sure the world continued to experience the choir’s “magical” sounds. By December 2022, the choir headed to Carnegie Hall to celebrate a Christmas sensation known as “Carol of the Bells.”

Ukrainian ballet dancers displaced by the fighting found a home on international stages. The Ukrainian Classical Ballet went on a charity tour in Italy and Romania in May, with the company in Bucharest, for a performance of “Giselle.” 

And despite six months of grueling war with Russia, several acts from Ukraine were represented at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the world’s largest arts festival, held yearly in Scotland. For the performers, it was a bittersweet experience.

Raising spirits

Artists from Ukraine’s hip-hop scene have also been speaking up. The genre, which became popular in the country by the late 1990s, largely emerged from the easter city of Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border. Alyona Savranenko, known by the stage name Alyona Alyona, has been using her music to raise the spirits of her people as the war goes on.

This article was originally published on Feb. 21, 2023 and has been updated.

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