Ilona Kravchenko and Jan Vana perform in “Giselle” with the Ukrainian Classical Ballet in Bucharest, Romania.

The long fight for arts and culture in Ukraine as war rages on

When Russia’s full-scale invasion in Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022, the pursuits of many of Ukraine’s leading artists and cultural institutions came to a halt. The World takes a look back at the myriad ways in which war impacted artistic and cultural expression in Ukraine, and how advocates continue to work tirelessly to keep making art against all odds.

The World

Ukrainian musicians Taras Shevchenko and Kateryna Pavlenko from the band Go-A were thinking about starting a new folk electronica project back in February of 2022. But on Feb. 24, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion in Ukraine, the pursuits of many of Ukraine’s leading artists and cultural institutions came to a halt.

Since the war began, artists and cultural workers swiftly shifted their focus to contributing to war efforts, while also working to maintain and promote Ukraine’s unique artistic and cultural heritage. 

The World takes a look back at the myriad ways in which war impacted artistic and cultural expression in Ukraine, and how advocates worked tirelessly to keep making art against all odds.

Ukrainian musicians Taras Shevchenko and Kateryna Pavlenko.
Ukrainian musicians Taras Shevchenko and Kateryna Pavlenko founded Go-A, a folk-electronica band. Daniel Ofman/The World

A race to save cultural heritage 

In early March, as Moscow escalated its bombardment of civilian areas, museums and churches in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv were targeted. Residents of Lviv raced to ensure their city did not suffer the same fate. For a city synonymous with music and the arts, the most common sound in the city became hammering and drilling.

Workers construct metal scaffolding around the statue of Greek goddess Amphitrite in Lviv's medieval Market Square
Workers construct metal scaffolding around the statue of Greek goddess Amphitrite in the medieval Market Square in Lviv, Ukraine.Andrew Connelly/The World

Artists on the front lines 

Ukraine’s military made it mandatory for all men to stay in Ukraine to serve in the war. But when the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra mobilized to go on tour as part of a cultural diplomacy mission, the Defense Ministry granted special permission for its male members to leave the country.

The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra rehearses at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, Poland, the day before the premiere performance of the
The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra rehearses at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw, Poland, the day before the premiere performance of the “Voice of Ukraine” tour that took them to nine cities across Poland and Germany, April 20, 2022.Emily Johnson/The World

Other musicians, like Taras Topolia, the lead singer of the Antytila band, immediately joined Ukraine’s military and served on the front lines. At the same time, Topolia continued to advocate for Ukraine through his music.

men in a row
Some of the Ukrainian band Antytila’s members have been serving on the front lines of the war in Ukraine.Antytila on Twitter 

Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who might just be Ukraine’s biggest rock star, also volunteered and joined Ukraine’s armed forces, where he became a lieutenant. Most of his service entailed helping troops and civilians living near the front lines. To provide emotional support to the troops, Vakarchuk performed a song “Chovan,” meaning “Boat,” near the Antonivskyi bridge, in the Kherson region, which was destroyed by Russian forces.

rockstar inside a home
Ukrainian singer Svyatoslav VakarchukDaniel Ofman/The World

As intense fighting in Ukraine tore apart entire villages, Ukraine’s underground rave scene got behind Repair Together, a volunteer group that hosted “clean-up raves,” a mix of traditional clean-up efforts with dance parties, to relieve stress and connect with others.

Repair Together hosts a clean-up rave in Ivanivka, Chernihivska oblast.
Repair Together hosts a clean-up rave in Ivanivka, Chernihivska oblast.Repair Together/YouTube

Translating war, protecting literature  

The war in Ukraine sparked a new wave of interest in Ukrainian history, culture and writing. Ukrainian literary translators have been working on overdrive as the war drove new demand for Ukrainian publications. US-based writer Dralyuk has been translating poetry and literature from both Russian and Ukrainian into English.

man near stack of books
A visitor reads a book at a book fair during a Publishers Forum in Lviv, Ukraine, Sept. 19, 2018. Since the war in Ukraine began nearly six months ago, the demand for Ukrainian translations and literature has increased.Mykola Tys/AP

Creating normalcy amid war

During rehearsals at Odesa’s opera house, it was sometimes easy to forget that Ukraine was a country at war. Inside the elegant, neo-Baroque building from the late 19th century, the conflict outside felt distant. Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater is located in Ukraine’s busiest port city, which became an early target of Russia’s military, but it continues to be a central cultural hub.

Odesa's opera house is known as the
The Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater is known as the heart of the cultural city of Odesa, Ukraine.Daniel Ofman/The World

Finding home on international stages

When war broke out in Ukraine, the Shchedryk Children’s Choir from Kyiv was poised to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a world tour. Conductor Saul Zaks went on a mission to make sure the world continued to experience the choir’s “magical” sounds. By December 2022, the choir headed to Carnegie Hall to celebrate a Christmas sensation known as “Carol of the Bells.”

Children’s choir Shchedryk rehearses on Thursday evening at St. Paul’s in New York City.
Children’s choir Shchedryk rehearses on Thursday evening at St. Paul’s in New York City. Emily Johnson/The World

Ukrainian ballet dancers displaced by the fighting found a home on international stages. The Ukrainian Classical Ballet went on a charity tour in Italy and Romania in May, with the company in Bucharest, for a performance of “Giselle.” 

The Ukrainian Classical Ballet company holds up the Ukrainian flag onstage during curtain call while the Ukrainian national anthem plays as part of a performance in Bucharest, Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Classical Ballet company holds up the Ukrainian flag onstage during curtain call while the Ukrainian national anthem plays as part of a performance in Bucharest, Ukraine.Elena Graham/The World

And despite six months of grueling war with Russia, several acts from Ukraine were represented at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival, the world’s largest arts festival, held yearly in Scotland. For the performers, it was a bittersweet experience.

Some Ukrainian students were evacuated from Ukraine thanks to a Czech circus company, Cirk La Putyka. “Boom,
Some Ukrainian students were evacuated from Ukraine thanks to a Czech circus company, Cirk La Putyka. “Boom,” a performance they took to Edinburgh, was rewritten to reflect the students’ perspectives of war and displacement.Andrew Connelly/The World

Raising spirits

Artists from Ukraine’s hip-hop scene have also been speaking up. The genre, which became popular in the country by the late 1990s, largely emerged from the easter city of Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border. Alyona Savranenko, known by the stage name Alyona Alyona, has been using her music to raise the spirits of her people as the war goes on.

A composite image of a woman three times on stage
The popular 28-year-old Alyona Savranenko prides herself on defying the stereotype of what rappers look like in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world.Courtesy of Alyona Alyona/Instagram

This article was originally published on Feb. 21, 2023 and has been updated.

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