The Music That Sprouts Between Empires: Ukrainian Culture Amidst Conflict

[23 July 2014]

By Chris Kjorness

Above: The Haydamaky on ethnic festival Sheshory, Ukraine. 2005. Photo from

It has been four months since the province of Crimea voted to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Passage of the highly-criticized referendum prompted a response from the Ukrainian military, which sought to remove pro-Russian militants from eastern Ukraine. Of particular concern to the newly-established Ukrainian government were Donetsk and Luhansk—provinces bordering Russia where militants declared independence from Ukraine following Crimea’s vote to unite with Russia.

This month, Ukrainian efforts to retake the breakaway province of Donetsk resulted in a death on the Russian side of the border—a “provocation” Russian authorities have warned will have “irreversable consequences”.

This conflict is the latest chapter in a centuries-old struggle over cultural identity in Ukraine—a country that has uncomfortably served as the cultural and geographic divide between peoples and states. While it was once considered the musical heartland of the Russian Empire, Ukraine’s culture has sprouted between the cracks of various powerful and competing empires—reflecting various influences while remaining unique.

This is not the first time Ukraine has become a geopolitical battle ground for superpowers. Historically, Ukrain has bordered three vast cultural empires: Europe to the west, Russia to the east, and Turkey across the Black Sea to the south. The Crimean War (1853-1856) broke out when European nations feared that a diminishing Ottoman empire would clear the way for Russian expansion into Europe. And the patina of that conflict still remains today.

The conclusion of the World War I gave way to the Russian Revolution, as well as a period of independence for Ukraine. But independence did not mean peace. For the four years between 1917 and 1921, numerous factions fought a bloody war for control of the country. Ukraine eventually found itself pulled to the East and subsumed by the Soviet Union.

But the political stability provided by Soviet rule came at a great price. It is estimated that between six and eight million people died of starvation, the majority of whom were Ukrainian, during the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933. Stalin also completely disrupted the cultural and ethnic makeup of the region. Punishing them for alleged ties to Germany, Stalin exiled all Crimean Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia in 1944, clearing the way for the arrival of Russian immigrants. Despite being forcibly removed, the Crimean Tatars have retained a strong sense of identity with their geographic home, as can be hear in the music of guitarist Enver Izmaylov.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine remained close to Russia politically, but a movement grew within the country to move more towards the West and the European Union. The divisions within the country largely fell along linguistic lines with Russian speaking Ukrainians—situated primarily in the eastern part of the country—distrustful of the predominantly Ukrainian speaking West.

In the 2004 presidential election, pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych defeated reform candidate Viktor Yushchenko, in a vote that was marred by charges of corruption and the mysterious dioxin poisoning of Yushchenko, which left him the populist candidate disfigured. In protest,  Yushchenko’s supporters took to the streets in what became known as the Orange Revolution. The message of the protesters could be summed up in the hook of Greenjolly’s protest anthem “Razom nas bahato”: Together we are many, we can’t be defeated.

Another symbol of Ukrainians’ desire to assert themselves on the 21st-century global stage was Ruslana Lyzhychko. As the presidential campaign was ramping up, Lyzhychko won 2004’s Euro-vision, making her the global image of a unique Ukrainian culture. Her victory seemed to indicate that the fledgling nation, which had long been seen as an extension of Russia, was poised to be a leader in 21st century Europe.  In “Wild Dance”, the song that sealed her victory on the program, we see and hear the music of an Eastern country that is looking, at least in part, to the West.

Lyzhychko has gone on to be a passionate advocate for the people of Ukraine, and has been an outspoken advocate of non-violent resistance to what she sees as Vladamir Putin’s desire for empire.

The protests prompted a re-run of the election; this time Yushchenko won, and Ukraine appeared to be moving away from Russia. But five years of Yushchenko policies failed to bring prosperity to Ukraine. And in the 2010 presidential election Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko failed to defeat Yanukovych, who quickly sent his vanquished opponent to jail on charges of corruption and abuse.

For the past five years the tension of being pulled from both the East and the West have taken their toll on Ukraine. In November of 2013, Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would abandon an agreement with the European Union, prompting Ukrainians to take to the streets in a series of protests. As a gesture to show the non-violent intent of protesters, activist Markiyan Matsekh painted a piano the colors of the Ukrainian flag and brought the instrument to Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev.This video is from a BBC story on the Matsekh’s piano.

The protests prompted a re-run of the election; this time Yushchenko won, and Ukraine appeared to be moving away from Russia. But five years of Yushchenko policies failed to bring prosperity to Ukraine. And in the 2010 presidential election, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko failed to defeat Yanukovich, who quickly sent his vanquished opponent to jail on charges of corruption and abuse.

As we all know, in February of 2014, a bloody crackdown left several protester dead. This event was somberly commemorated in Haydamaky’s “Wooden Shield”:

Conceding defeat, Yanukovych fled into hiding and Ukrainians in Kiev threw open the gates to the presidential estate, celebrating their apparent victory. But the victory in western Ukraine was not celebrated throughout the country. The cultural ties and close proximity to Russia meant that those living in eastern Ukraine were again caught between competing worlds. At the same time, other former-Soviet states have concern about the precedent being set by Russia’s declared commitment to protect its Russian-speaking people.

As the UN and American, Russian, and European leaders debate how to proceed, it appears that Ukraine is again caught in the middle. But in this place in between, Ukrainian culture—diverse and multi-faceted—has thrived, and we can only hope it will continue to do so.

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