On May 3, as hundreds of pro-Ukrainians marched towards the Lincoln memorial in Washington, their chants and songs could be heard from the other side of the reflecting pool. Blue and yellow flags swung discordantly, but the Ukrainian National Anthem was sung in unison.
“Our enemies will perish like morning dew on a summer day is one of the lyrics,” said Roman Dobczansky, a Ukrainian American demonstrator. He said the song was banned when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, because it harkened back to their independent roots.
Now, as Ukraine fights to maintain independence from Russia, they are still using music as a weapon to galvanize opinion and stir emotion. Ukrainians in the U.S. have organized concerts leading up to the presidential election taking place today in their native country to support efforts of democracy abroad while also protesting concerts from President Putin supporters.
The concert tour of a world-renowned Russian violinist, Vladimir Spivakov, has been targeted for protest after he signed a letter of support for President Putin. On May 15, Spivakov conducted the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra at Lincoln Center. Around 40 Ukrainians came out to protest outside.
“He officially supported Putin’s politics against Ukraine and against Crimea so we’re against that,” said Valentina Bardakova, who along with Music-Lovers Against-Aggression and Ukraine Abroad organized the demonstration. These are a few of the network of individuals and organizations that lead the efforts here on the east coast. Razom, is one of the biggest groups. Ukraine Abroad led the march on Washington.
Music has been a unifying force in these organizations efforts. At their demonstrations they regularly break out into song, often the Ukrainian National Anthem or Slava Ukraini, which means glory to Ukraine.
The situation in Ukraine isn’t just turning off Ukrainians to Russian musicians though. Many artists have become symbols of the movements, notably Ruslana Lyzhychko. The pop musician has become synonymous with Ukrainian resolve by staying at Kiev’s main square for 100 days and nights and singing the national anthem 500 times and encouraging protesters.
However, the line between arts and politics is tricky for some Ukrainians. Irina Portenko, a Ukrainian musician living in New York whose resume includes a lauded performance at Carnegie Hall and soloing for the Ukrainian Orchestra at the age of 8, said she has mixed feelings about a boycott of Spivakov.
“I’m quite a political person,” said Portenko. “But I’m not sure if I would support any aggressive movements because, again I’m speaking for myself, art does not have boundaries. It’s a language that is understood by many, but here we are talking about politics. We are talking about geopolitics. We are talking about boundaries. Those two are completely different things.”
At the same time Portenko said she couldn’t deny the sour taste in her mouth. She has been using her own talents to support Ukraine. She partnered with Razom for a fund-raising concert along with some of her students and traditional Ukrainian Operatic singer Liudmila Joy-Vasuta at Our Lady of Refuge Church in Brooklyn on March 23.
“It was charity,” said Portenko. “It was help. I was not voting for aggression. There were people who were wounded and whatever we earned it went towards their needs.”
As of Fri. Razom reports they have raised around $150,000 for Ukraine. This is before another concert on the same night where they hosted a performance by another world-class musician, Pavel Gintov, a pianist from Ukraine.
Portenko said even though she listens to pop music and rock music, if she had to choose a musician to symbolize Ukraine’s struggle, it would be Chopin. He was born in Poland in 1810. But he was forced out of his country 20 years later by Russian occupation, and he would never return. This is a situation familiar to Ukrainians as many have moved to more stable countries with better economic opportunities.
“All his music was so nostalgic for his homeland,” said Portenko. “He would be a great representative for me. Even though he’s not Ukrainian.”