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Bloody Ground, Fertile Soil Part 3: Cyber Troops And Cultural Solutions
Yaryna Denysyuk , July 25th, 2022 06:42

Yaryna Denysyuk continues her study of the Ukrainian music scene during a time of war, looking at everyone who needs help, from children to soldiers... and even monkeys

Vadym Oliіnykov and Kseniya Yanus

“When my aunt gave her passport to the Russian he asked, "Why are your hands shaking?"
Quote via VOVK from Novotroitske, occupied by russian troops

My name is Yaryna. I am the 30-year-old editor-in-chief of the biggest Ukrainian alternative music website, Neformat. You all know that Ukraine is at war with russia*. As I write, I’m full of hate, sorrow, hope and dozens of other emotions. It would be hard to explain this state of mind, even to the person I was before the invasion, but I will try to do it for the wider world in this series of articles.

Jam for Victory! Not every musician is capable of writing new music during a war. It is not about a lack of technical or technological possibilities. For many artists it is a psychological question. So how do they use their talents instead? Well-known Ukrainian bands Stoned Jesus and 1914 found a good answer to this question.

On the second day of the war Stoned Jesus’ frontmen Igor Sydorenko left Kyiv, moving to the west and the centre of the country before going back to the capital. During this time he used his band page to talk about the Russian invasion. “Most of our fans are aware we're from Ukraine, but I doubt all of them knew exactly what the situation is now. So with 70,000 people following Stoned Jesus on Facebook, 20,000 on Instagram and 4,000 on Twitter I thought it would be great to share my point of view, as I'm a Ukrainian who spent two thirds of his life living in Donbas.”

His plan was to directly engage. “Obviously there's a lot of russian propaganda we all need to fight, and most of it is really illogical if you have facts. But many people abroad don't want facts, they want slogans and colourful posters because it’s more effective. It's really hard to explain that there is white-on-white oppression, that russia is a colonialist imperialist state which exists simply to wage wars, or that the US or NATO has nothing to do with the current conflict. Some people are willing to listen, and respect to those who choose to help."

At first Igor couldn't bring himself to work on any music. But inspiration returned with a new musical project, Jam For Victory. It came from an idea by Kostyantyn Kalachikov, to get in a room with Ukrainian musicians, to try to remember what it is “to be” a musician in these terrifying times. Igor suggested recording their spontaneous performance just in case. Now you can listen to it, and all proceeds go to local Ukrainian charities.

Playing Home And Away

Recently, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture gave permits for musicians to leave the country to perform abroad. And on 20 August Stoned Jesus will perform at the Die Toten Hosen show at the Berlin Flughafen Tempelhof, while Igor performs at small concerts in Ukraine, so a musical life goes on for them.

1914 are a blackened death metal band that previously dedicated all of their releases to exploring the horrors of World War I. Given the current situation, the band now look at everyday Ukrainian reality, with graphic and uncompromising posts on the massacre at Bucha and this film of the Kremenchuk shelling. The band have also received permission to travel abroad in order to play music at San Metal and Dong Open Air (both in Germany) this summer. These follow on from a gig in Lithuania at Kilkim Zaibu where 1914 openly told festival goers the truth about the war.

But the Ukrainian people are also the focus for local bands. I have started to notice many bands using either their own, or their label’s official pages to talk to foreign fans, whilst personal accounts speak frankly to other Ukrainians. This is a very important thing, as the feeling of support from like-minded people really helps to negotiate every bit of information we consume. Labels like Khatacomb and bands like Somali Yacht Club and Ignea do a lot on the “glocal” information front. But if you ask me for a personification of this approach, I would name Oleksandr Kuts, the founder and the frontman of the band, VOVK.

Some of Oleksandr’s friends left smaller Ukrainian towns occupied by the russians (and you can imagine what happened in these places, similar to what happened at Bucha). Because of the bigger, internationally more well known tragedies such as the giant humanitarian crisis in Mariupol, the horrors occurring in these smaller settlements have not been covered that well in the Ukrainian media, leading to some living in these towns feeling abandoned. Oleksandr had a solution. With Portuguese artist Diogo Soares he created a series of posters dedicated to these smaller towns. You can find them all at VOVK facebook page together with on-site reports, like this one from Izium: “The city has had no electricity, water and gas since March 6th. Multi-story buildings are either destroyed completely or heavily damaged. Not a single food supply was delivered until April. Officials fled the city on March 7th, and there was not a single evacuation. Despite all this, there is an active guerrilla resistance in the city.”

Sign Up Or Support?

Most activities musicians now take part in support the army and the country broadly speaking. Everything helps in some way: aiding families from Irpin to cross the border in Uzhhorod means there are fewer civilians in the war zone and safety for more families. The most obvious way in which they help is to fight, both in the Armed Forces and Territorial Defence. From my own observation, choosing this path was initially not the most popular one among musicians. But as time passed, more and more people from the hardcore, metal, electronic and other scenes actually took up weapons to protect Ukraine from the russian invasion. Sasha Boole was one of the first musicians who went to fight for our country. He described his motivation in detail in the following video (with English subtitles).

As the number of fighting musicians has increased, their needs have also grown. Now we understand: war is really a costly thing, expensive items like cars can be wrecked instantaneously. The state unfortunately can’t cover these huge and constantly growing needs fast enough. This is where volunteers come into play.

In April Ternopil-based studio Shpytal Records, the band Love‘n’Joy and the Kontrabass organisation created a special fund called MUSICIANS DEFEND UKRAINE, aimed specifically at helping out those musicians who decided to fight. One of the goals was to raise money for a drone ground station, which the Module club and Dnipropop label are setting up. The team managed to raise UAH 120,000 (approximately $3,500) to cover this, and other urgent requests. Lesik Omodada, one of the founders of MUSICIANS DEFEND UKRAINE, did “something bordering on the impossible in June: we went on a charity tour and played over 20 gigs in European cities. Besides raising money for the fund, we also spread the word about the importance of supporting us in this war”. The funds raised money for such items as bulletproof vests for David Maxis, a drone for Max Baga and a thermal scope for Sergey Litvyak. We live in desperate times.

One remarkable example of raising money was initiated by White Ward, a great Odesa-based post black metal band, signed to the Debemur Morti label. This summer they were looking forward to releasing their third album (and had planned a big give away of rare test pressings of previous albums Futility Report and Love Exchange Failure) but war meant postponement. A new approach was needed, explains guitarist and vocalist Yurii Kazarian: “We tried to raise as much money as possible for our army. Phil (the DMP boss) offered to put the test press up for auction. The final price reached more than 500 euros per test pressing. With this money you can buy high-quality body armour.”

Civilians In Focus

Volunteering in Ukraine covers many roles, including providing medicine for elderly people and buying cars and drones for our soldiers. For many people I know, the best volunteering practices grew out of their personal interests and knowledge, such as my colleague, the musician Kseniya Yanus from the band Dahau Holidays. In 2014, she fled her native Donetsk during the russian invasion together with her husband Vadym, and lived in Czechia, Odesa and, after the start of full-scale war, a second return to Uzhgorod. She says: “In the first days after our arrival back in Uzhgorod, we went to weave camouflage nets. And then we saw an announcement that a charitable vegan kitchen was starting up. We have been vegans for over ten years and it’s an important part of our lives. That's why we chose to join the vegan kitchen from the NGO 'Kozhna Tvaryna' [Every Animal]. Now we volunteer to cook and serve vegan food in a refugee shelter. We still don’t feel that we are doing enough... We try to deal with our remorse by understanding that self-flagellation only takes away our strength.”

A big part of volunteering is collecting money for various projects. Mothers and children, soldiers at the front and even animals at the zoo – all of them need some form of support, which requires money. People gather funds in many ways, including asking for help on social media, which really works. Many musicians, including Oleksandr Kuts, raised the issue of the needs of zoo animals, including a group of infant baboons at a private zoo in Yasnogorodka. Now Kyiv zoo looks after these monkeys. “After the successful rescue the animals arrived at Kyiv Zoo, exhausted, scared and hungry. The monkeys were afraid to move around the enclosure and they snatched food from bowls in disbelief and swallowed it without looking. Careful guardianship and attention, professional care and feeding returned the monkeys to normal life. They have gained weight and are already used to the new home.”

Probably the most common money raiser in the Ukrainian music world is the charity compilation. Ukrainian labels like Loneravn Records, ERYTHROLEUKOPLAKIA RECORDS, Corridor Audio and Muscut have released them, and even our label Neformat Family made one, with the project МА|ПА (the map). You can find many more compilations here, but a great example is система's SESTRO. The money from this compilation goes to women and the LGBTQIA community in territories heavily affected by war. Anna Sharygina, a representative of NGO Sphere (ГО Сфера) says: “We have never experienced working with women in conditions of stress, shock, and grief like these we experience today. Now we are trying to gather our experiences and information from other countries to help deal with the terrible consequences for the survivors.”

It often feels like society in general pays less attention to those marginal and vulnerable groups. But the great thing is that organisations like KyivPride or NGO Sphere, that specialise in helping those groups, are active.

What About abroad?

Previously, I wrote about how Ukrainian musicians currently view russia. But what about the rest of the world? As I said, our musicians actually do a lot to inform the world about the events in Ukraine and our true feelings and our needs. We now understand that Europe needs us as a fortress to not let these new fascists go any further. And at the same time we understand very well that without modern weapons and support of our economy from the USA, UK and others, we will never win. A lot of foreign musicians have been very supportive about Ukraine. And some collaborations happened that probably could never have before; such as the case of Ukrainian celtic-punk band O'Hamsters and Dropkick Murphys. This collaboration grew out of a random Instagram story, where Oleksandr Sedov thanked Dropkick Murphys for an energetic new song that made him feel a little better. The band replied and Oleksandr used that moment to organise a collaboration for them and his Ukrainian friends from the O'Hamsters: “We are infinitely grateful to DKM for the fact that they supported Ukraine in this war in this way, and not just with words, but with a call to donate. It's nice to know that these legends, whose music was a role model for decades, turned out to be People with a capital P.”

There are many bands and labels who printed merch to support Ukraine or wrote positively about the country. A huge recent example being Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons. Kyiv punk band Death Pill were featured in Rolling Stone Germany and on the official page of Epitaph Records. Pink Floyd and David Gilmour songs are not available on russian streaming services anymore. Here in Ukraine you can find lots of videos and discussions about these cases.

At the same time some big acts turned out to be a huge disappointment, like Serj Tankian, who joked about the war in Ukraine in a tweet. Recently, the vocalist of Inclination and Constraint, Tyler Short shouted “Ukraine sucks” onstage, among other unpleasant and untrue things which made many suspect he supported russia. Short had to apologise after receiving thousands of comments such as this one from Victor Kovalchuk, guitarist of Strike Each Other: “Fuck communism, fascism, imperialism and all this bulls*t; in hardcore especially. What do you know about living in a communist country? Nothing…” Unfortunately, it is not a rare situation where we see claims from (sadly) many left wing representatives that Ukraine is somehow ruled by nazis, which is simply not true. Tyler Short mentioned in his apology that those people should watch out for the propaganda that is aimed at them.

The worst feeling for Ukrainians is to see their favourite bands and musicians silent or vague on the topic. Some music lovers here regard indifference as a bad sign. Others think that it is actually better to keep your mouth closed when you don't understand the subject really well. I can add personally that we Ukrainians are so stressed after all these months of war, bad news and terrible deaths, (for instance dealing with the news that a friend died before you could send him the parcel you so carefully prepared). So, in this light, even calling the war a conflict could be seen as support for russia… I hope for now the world will give us the right to feel hurt and to act out of our pain and anger and fear. And, just as we help and trust each other here, we expect the world to trust and support us. And we really appreciate all the possible help and all the kind words we receive. Only together we will win.

Previous columns can be read here