Music in times of war: Song as a form of Ukrainian resistance

A screenshot from Okean Elzy YouTube channel with the title of the song “Misto Vesny” (The City of Spring). In the lower right corner, a message in English and bellow in Russian reminds of Russia's war in Ukraine.

Russia's war on Ukraine is also a cultural one: the denial of a separate identity from the “Russian World,” the bombing of cultural and religious buildings, and more. Thus resistance in Ukraine is not just military but also cultural, and in that war, music takes a central place.

The Ukrainian band Okean Elzy (Океан Ельзи in Ukrainian, literally Elsa's Ocean) is a prominent star in the country's music scene. It was founded in 1994 in Lviv, a historical city in western Ukraine. After the band moved to Kyiv, they began to receive international attention and became the first modern Ukrainian band to be played on MTV Russia in 1998. Eventually, the band became widely known and gained fans in many post-Soviet countries. Most Russian speakers can, with little effort understand or guess the meaning of Ukrainian lyrics. The band also started performing concerts in Russia and Europe, and eventually gained cult status in Ukraine.

The lead singer, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk became a celebrity of his own: in 2005 he became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, in 2007–2008, and then again in 2019–2020, he was a deputy at the Ukrainian parliament, and for a while was considered a frontrunner in the 2019 presidential elections. On March 7, he joined the Ukrainian army to serve in the defense forces of the Lviv region.

Since then he has spoken publicly about the war, calling Russian celebrities to break their silence and speak out against the war. Until the war, a number of Russian singers had a huge following in Ukraine and made commercially successful tours in the country.

Since the war started, Vakarchuk has performed for free to Ukrainian audiences, often solo, by singing and playing the piano or the guitar in subway stations, in front of railways stations and temporary relocation camps as can be seen in this video in the Kharkiv metro.

One song he plays regularly has a special significance. It is called “Місто весни” (Misto Vesny, or “The City of Spring”) and is dedicated to his home town Lviv.

The original version, which came out in 2021,  is a duo with singer Irina Shvaydak, from the band Odin v kanoe. Vakarchuk, who wrote the lyrics, explains this is the first song he wrote about his hometown. 

Today Lviv has become a gateway for over 3 million Ukrainian refugees who have left eastern and northern parts of their country to flee Russian bombs and seek refuge in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. They all transit via Lviv, by train, cars, buses. From the late 18th to the early 20th century, Lviv was also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today symbolizes prevailing Ukrainian aspirations to once again be part of Europe and distant from Russia. 

Thus the lyrics of the song have gained a symbolic meaning and indeed seem to speak to today's tragedy. The song opens with the followings words:

Чому мені сниться, як знову і знову
Гуляєм з тобою по рідному Львову
Там пахне весною, і сонце сідає
На березі річки, якої немає

У Львові так просто своє не вмирає

Why do I dream that, again and again / I am walking with you in my hometown Lviv / It smells of spring, and the sun sets / On the banks of a river that is no more /…/ What is dear to you does not die easily in Lviv.

Indeed the last words, when translated into Russian, sound like a defiant message to Russian troops: “Во Львове так просто своё не умирает,” meaning “What is dear to you does not die easily in Lviv

For more information about this topic, see our special coverage Russia invades Ukraine.

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