Sviatoslav Vakarchuk, frontman of the popular Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy (Elsa's Ocean), might be a bad politician. Twice, he helped to lead or led a political party into the Ukrainian parliament and then abandoned it and terminated his mandate, clearing himself from any political responsibility.
But in 2022, he suddenly found himself on center stage once again, this time performing among the rubble of Ukrainian cities which had been felled by Russian bombs and shelling.
In Ukraine over the last year, music has been a crucial mode of escape, as many citizens found themselves either too busy or too distressed to read books, watch movies, or pursue art or other artistic mediums. For those surviving war, the realities on the ground often surpassed any fiction.
Music has proved to be something of a universal language and has helped garner international support for Ukraine's fight for sovereignty. Foreign performers have lent their support to Ukraine and shared the real or digital stage with the rap group Kalush Orchestra, the winner of the 2022 Eurovision competition; Andriy Khlyvniuk, frontman of BoomBox rock band, performed a Pink Floyd song in a military uniform in the center of sieged Kyiv; and president Volodymyr Zelensky joined with US artist Brad Paisley to sing a ballad about universal human values.
Former “Lyapis Trubetskoy” frontman Siarhei Mikhalok, from Belarus, issued several harsh calls to his Russian colleagues to protest the invasion and sang one of his most famous hits, “Warriors of Light” translated into Ukrainian:
Плаче боєць, шеврон на камуфляжі / Скільки сердець спинили кулі вражі / На сході дракон готується помститись / Давній закон: рубай, аби зігрітись.
A fighter cries, chevron on his camouflage / How many hearts have been stopped by the enemy's bullets / In the east, the dragon is preparing to take revenge / The ancient law: cut down to keep warm.
New songs, new meanings
Vakarchuk, who in 2022 presented two war songs, City of Mary (“Місто Марії“) dedicated to defenders of Mariupol, and Flowers of Mined Zones (“Квіти мінних зон“), written several years earlier in reference to the war-affected area in the east of Ukraine, was hardly the only one to perform in the frontline.
Zhadan and Sobaky (Zhadan and Dogs), a rock band co-created by Sergiy Zhadan, one of the most prominent Ukrainian poets and writers, has been singing on Ukraine's frontlines since 2014, offering his support to Ukrainian troops and civilians in the east. After the full-scale Russian invasion, they also released two new songs, both dedicated to Ukrainian children witnessing the war: “Children“ (“Діти“) and “Metro“ (“Метро“), the latter of which was about children sheltering in Kharkiv subway station during Russian shelling.
In several cases, there are older songs that took on new meaning in 2022. In its foreign tours in support of Ukraine, the indie-folk band Odyn v Kanoe (The One in a Canoe) performed the song “I Don't Have a Home“ (“У мене немає дому“), which sounded as fresh and relevant as ever.
It has resonated for many Ukrainians internally displaced from the east of Ukraine and Crimea since 2014, but since the Russian full-scale invasion, many throughout the country have begun to identify with the song:
Справа в тому / Що в мене немає дому / І за правилом доброго тону / Як за правилом доброго ременя / Я згадаю з якого я племені / Пригадаю з якого міста / Я чекаю на своє Греммі / В мене просто нема де сісти / Написати свою промову: / У мене немає дому…
The thing is / That I don't have a home / And by the rule of good manners / Like the rule of good belt / I'll remember what tribe I'm from / I'll recall what city I'm from / I'm waiting for my Grammy / I just don't have anywhere to sit down / To write my speech: / I don't have a home.
The lyrics of “Country“ (“Країна“) by Zhadan and Sobaky are even older; originally, it referenced the economic devastation and social shock of the early post-Soviet years of the 1990s, but these days, as a lot of Ukrainians fled abroad and the country's economy suffers under the war, many are identifying with the misery depicted:
Моє місто пластик із гіпсокартоном, / Табак, порошок і суворі портвейни, / Хто міг звалити, той давно за кордоном / Торгує піцою, чистить басейни. / Свобода совісті, відкриті ринки, / Ловіть свій шанс, все може статися! / Я залишаюсь прогрівати будинки, / Щоби вам було куди повертатися!
My city is plastic with plasterboard, / Tobacco, powder, and harsh port wines, / Anyone who could run off is already abroad/ Selling pizza, cleaning pools. / Freedom of conscience, open markets, / Grab your chance, anything can happen! / I am staying to warm in the houses, / So that you have somewhere to return to!
Home is one of the most frequent symbols in Ukrainian wartime songs, along with mothers and soil. These themes have deep roots in Ukrainian folklore — which is frequently referenced in Ukrainian contemporary music.
The Ukrainian rock band Bez Obmezhen (Without Limits) published a song called 24/02 — the date when Russian president Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine — which is also about the loss of home as “there is war instead of home.”
Another Ukrainian rock band, the Kozak System, told a story about soldiers coming back home to their mother after war via the song “As the War Will Cease to Roar” (“Як відгримить війна”) which featured a music video starring Ada Rohovtseva, 85, the iconic Ukrainian theatre and short film actress.
In the description on YouTube, the Kozak System wrote that the words and music were written several years before 2022 and suggested that making the song public might be premature, as the war is still raging, but they hope that sooner or later, everyone will return home to their moms.
Kalush Orchestra, which has been especially active since the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, has also referenced both motherhood and the motherland, nenka (ненька), in their songs.
Скільки не стріляй в наш край / Скільки не пали поля / Житиме вічно наша ненька / Вродить ще не раз земля.
No matter how much you shell our land / No matter how many fields you burn / Our motherland will live forever, / Our soil will produce crops all over again.
Raising support and awareness
Many of the Ukrainian wartime songs from the last year are targeting foreign audiences, like “Hello” by rock band Antytila. The ballad was written before the full-scale war but has gained new meaning since the war. While it discusses the Earth after a nuclear catastrophe, these days, many interpret it as a warning about where war could lead humankind. The band, which recently reported an apparent murder attempt on them during a concert tour in Paris, introduced “Hello” in two versions: One in English and one in Ukrainian.
Another new song by Antytila is called “Fortress Bakhmut“ (“Фортеця Бахмут”), referencing the fiercest battles for the town of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region, which the Russian forces struggled to conquer for about eight months in 2022. The song is in Ukrainian, but in the description on YouTube, the band provides an English translation.
But even with all the international performances, it is the songs directed specifically toward Ukrainian audiences that are getting millions, or even tens of millions, of views on YouTube, like this one by Skofka called “The Anthem is Heard“ (“Чути гімн“), a song about Ukraine's invincibility that has been viewed over 40.5 million times:
В небі чистому чути грім / В небі свист, але чути гімн / В небі чистому мутний дим / Горить ліс, але чути гімн.
Thunder is heard in the clear sky / A whistle is heard in the sky, but the anthem is heard / Dark smoke clouds the clear sky /A forest is burning, but the anthem is heard.
Some songs, like this one called “Dream“ (“Мрія“), by the young Ukrainian singer and musician known under the pseudonym Jerry Heil, are even difficult to translate: their task, it seems, is to build and empower a national community. “Dream” is also about the things that it is impossible to ruin or kill:
Вони можуть розбомбити Щастя, / Вони можуть розстріляти Мрію, / Але вбити волю їм не вдасться /Кожен буде жати, що посіяв!
They can bomb out Shchastia, / They can shoot Mriya, / But they won't manage to kill freedom! / Everyone will reap what they sow!
Mriya translates to “dream” but is also the name of the world's biggest cargo plane, one of the symbols of Ukrainian pride, which was destroyed by bombings in its hangar near Kyiv on the first day of the Russian invasion. Shchastia means “happiness,” but is also the name of a town in the eastern Luhansk region, which was occupied by the Russian forces in 2022. The song is emblematic of the dualism within many of Ukraine's wartime songs — simultaneously celebrating the Ukrainian people and their resistance while lamenting the country's losses.
Find a playlist of Ukrainian wartime songs here and see Global Voices Spotify account for more eclectic music playlists.