Before Russia invaded Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said that "Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood." But in the decades since the country gained independence, groups of working-class activists, intellectuals and clergy did their part to revive and preserve Ukrainian culture, much of which had been repressed by Soviet and Russian imperial governments.
NPR met with three musicians who are bringing traditional Ukrainian music to the war effort.
To the front lines
The day after Russia's invasion, Taras Kompanichenko, a folk musician, rushed to join a Territorial Defense unit in Kyiv. At first, he wanted to pick up arms against the Russians – but his friends argued that his musical talents would be more useful to the war effort.
"You can't hammer a nail with a microscope," Kompanichenko recalls a recruiter telling him. After some persistence, Ukraine's military gave him a rifle – but nonetheless assigned him to the same unit where religious chaplains tend to soldiers' spiritual needs. He performs in trenches and at enlistment ceremonies. There was a front-line wedding he accompanied.
Even before Ukraine's independence, Kompanichenko was part of a movement to revive a form of indigenous music that belonged to "Kobzars," a name for the blind bards that roamed the countryside beginning in the 17th century.
"They sang a very specific repertoire of epic songs called Dumy, which were historical songs, as well as philosophical and moralistic songs," says Julian Kytasty, a New York-based player of the bandura, one of the main instruments Kobzars used to accompany their music. According to Kompanichenko, performing Kobzar music gives soldiers a sense of cultural continuity — something worth fighting for at a time Ukraine is under threat.
"I put these instruments in their hands so they can feel the same thing that people who fought for Ukraine felt a hundred years ago," he says. Members of the Kobzar revival claim that their predecessors were perhaps the only social group that's ever been persecuted on account of the genre they performed.
"Kobzars became so important because there was no institutional way for Ukrainians to codify their experience [of persecution]," says Kytasty. "They were obviously not popular with most colonial governments."
By the early 1930s, the art form nearly vanished amidst Stalin's purges in Ukraine. It's unclear what happened to all of the Kobzars, but many were executed or exiled by the Soviet secret police. Few of their instruments survived.
"Kobzars sang about how important it is to know the difference between truth and a lie," says Kytasty, a theme Ukrainians recognize in contemporary struggles against disinformation and propaganda. In recent years, Ukraine's Culture Ministry has expressed some interest in the Kobzar revival, signaling a shift from Soviet-era tendencies to support more Western-style high arts. Pre-Soviet folk music had previously been the domain of anthropologists, not contemporary artists. It belonged in museums, not concerts.
Losing inspiration and finding it again
Tania Loboda rents a studio high atop a skyscraper, owned by the Ministry of Culture, in downtown Kyiv. She usually teaches people how to play on old-world Ukrainian instruments like the bandura, hurdy-gurdy, and torban. But, like Kompanichenko, she felt that if her duty was to preserve Ukrainian culture, her place to do that would be on the battlefield.
"There was an avalanche of people," says Loboda, describing her attempt to enlist in Ukraine's Territorial Defense forces. Thousands of people stood in line at every recruitment center she visited. Eventually, she talked her way to the front of one, where she was accepted to teach field medicine, even though she'd only had experience as a music teacher.
"I'm disciplined. I'm demanding," Loboda says; attributes that come in handy when teaching amateurs new skills. She spent the first three weeks of the war at a checkpoint near the front line, showing a rotating crew of soldiers how to use tourniquets and do other basic trauma care. At the time, she couldn't bring herself to sing.
"An idea comes into my head, but then the inspiration totally fades because of the war," she says.
But when Loboda had to return to her studio to take care of some Culture Ministry bills, she was inspired to create once again. The images from social media translated into the style of a Duma effortlessly..
"That's not a falcon closing the sky with its wings," she sings, "It's the horde from Moscow laying siege to Kyiv."
Loboda's music has struck a chord with some new students from Eastern Ukraine. They come to learn the Kobzar repertoire to understand the cultural differences between Ukrainians and Russians — a notion that Russian cultural leaders deny.
During the height of their cultural prominence, Kobzars organized themselves into guilds that would maintain their repertoire and pass along the skills to carve instruments. While none of the historic guilds remain, modern versions have rebooted across the country. Jurij Fedynsky owns a compound in Ukraine's Poltava region where he hosts workshops on how to build old-world banduras and torbans.
"This music is optimism, hope, and reconstruction," he says of the Kobzar revival movement.
As a full-scale Russian invasion seemed increasingly possible, Jurij Fedynsky took his pregnant wife and children to the airport to stay with relatives in the United States. As the leader of the Poltava Kobzar Guild, his next responsibility was to make sure his fellow musicians were safe. As Russian rockets rained on Ukraine in late February, they all piled into his van to drive west. But in a desperate attempt to find fuel, the group ended up in the middle of Kyiv.
"When you have faith in God, fear washes away," said Fedynsky, who leans heavily on the Orthodox Christian religious philosophy of Kobzars.
The guild stayed in Kyiv throughout the month-long Russian seige, performing at checkpoints and at bomb shelters. Oftentimes, they would return to their borrowed apartment after the city's strict curfew, driving past checkpoints where only days earlier troops had "shoot-to-kill" orders.
"We'd drive very slowly with all of our lights on," says Fedynsky. "We tell stories, like the press."
After the Russian military retreated, Fedynsky and his guild toured newly liberated towns like Borodyanka, where entire apartment buildings were reduced to rubble. Oleksandr Chernenko, a volunteer in Borodyanka, stopped by the Poltava Kobzar Guild's impromptu performance in the city's center square.
"It's a bit depressing," says Chernenko, "but the music is fitting."