KYIV, Ukraine — Anton Slepakov, a Ukrainian electronic musician, spent a lot of time recording music in Russia. This was when he was singing exclusively in Russian with his old band.
It made good business sense. A bigger and wealthier Russia offered Ukrainian musicians more lucrative gigs, and singing in Russian attracted more fans.
“It didn’t bother anyone,” says Slepakov, now the lead singer of an underground electronic group called Vagonovozhatye, Russian for “tram drivers.”
That all changed after 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and fueled a separatist rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region. It sparked an eight-year war that escalated this week as Russia sent in troops and asserted the region’s independence from Ukraine in a bid to wrest this part of the country. .
In 2014, “We were in talks to play at this very cool Russian club, Chinese Pilot,” says the 49-year-old Kyiv-born musician, who wears a screw as an earring. “But during the negotiations, Russia’s aggression in Donbass began, and we as a group decided that we could not shoot in Russia.”
The band pulled out of the Moscow gig and have since refused to set foot in Russia again.
Music helped Ukrainians affirm their identity
Slepakov has joined many of his fellow Ukrainian artists in a cultural boycott of Russia, part of a national project to assert their country’s identity as distinct from its weighty neighbour. It is a response to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long argued that Ukraine lacks a distinct national identity and seeks to reassert Russian influence there.
“Modern Ukraine was created entirely by Russia,” Putin said Monday in an angry speech on Russian state television.
Slepakov spoke out to oppose the Russian occupation of Crimea and Donbass. As a result, he recently avoided a flight with a stopover in St Petersburg on his way to perform a concert in Finland, fearing possible detention by Russian airport authorities.
He also gave up writing songs in Russian. His lyrics are now exclusively in Ukrainian. The first Ukrainian song he wrote is called “Where Are You From” – a reference to the soul-searching of Ukrainians as they reshape their national identity in relation to Russia.
Some Ukrainian artists continue to tour in Russia, but many refuse tempting offers from Russian venues on principle.
“You can’t measure everything in money,” says Slepakov.
Ukrainian law mandates the use of Ukrainian in print and broadcast media
Russia falsely claims that Ukraine oppresses native Russian speakers. Ukrainians say they are trying to build a national identity.
For centuries, under the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, Ukrainian was stereotyped as a peasant language. Russian has been promoted as the language of culture.
“We have what we call the inferiority complex,” says Taras Shevchenko, keyboardist and percussionist of Ukrainian electro-folk band Go_A. “People [who] haven’t even heard Ukrainian music, they already think it’s bad and not interesting and not worth listening to.”
Although Russian and Ukrainian share most of the same Cyrillic alphabet letters and a lot of vocabulary, they are distinct languages with only about 60% similarity – similar to the similarity between English and Dutch, say linguists.
Unlike English and Dutch, many Ukrainians speak Russian and Ukrainian interchangeably. But the legislation gives priority to Ukrainian in public life. In January, in accordance with the law, all print media switched to publishing in Ukrainian. Russian is not prohibited, although publications must also publish equivalent versions in Ukrainian.
In 2016, legislation stipulated that 35% of music on the radio should be in Ukrainian. The law increased popular demand for pop music in Ukrainian.
“I love this language. This language makes me proud to be Ukrainian,” says Go_A musician Shevchenko, who shares his name with 19th-century Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko.
Some bands revive old Ukrainian musical traditions
Go_A, who sings exclusively in Ukrainian, represented Ukraine on the main stage last year at Eurovision, the popular European song contest. It was the country’s first performance at the competition to be sung entirely in Ukrainian.
The group performed “SHUM”, which means “noise” and refers to a traditional springtime folk song from the region of northern Ukraine where the lead singer of Go_A grew up. It is also home to Chernobyl, the site of a catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986.
“Oh spring song, spring song, where did you spend your winter?” “SHUM” begins.
The nuclear disaster forced residents to abandon their homes and the group wants to promote the ancient tradition of folk music that disappeared in Chernobyl after they left.
“We have our unique culture and our unique traditions, and Chernobyl is not just about the disaster. It’s about people, it’s about people’s lives,” the Go_A lead singer said. , Kateryna Pavlenko.
Their Eurovision performance placed fifth and was the audience’s second favorite. He has since become a Ukrainian favorite. A street musician played “SHUM” on his flute one recent afternoon at a Kiev metro station.
Despite tensions with Russia, Pavlenko says she still receives fan mail from there.
The Eurovision Song Contest has become politicized for Ukrainian artists
Eurovision has become a litmus test as Ukraine tries to assert its own culture. Ukraine’s state broadcaster, which oversees the country’s musical entry, stipulates that contestants must swear not to perform in Russia.
In 2019, Ukrainian Eurovision contestant Anna Korsun, known by her stage name Maruv, defended tours in Russia – “Doing concerts is my way of bringing peace,” she said – but this caused controversy and she dropped out of the competition. Ukraine did not send anyone to the competition that year.
Last week, Alina Pash, chosen by Ukraine for this year’s competition, also withdrew after learning that she had performed in Russian-occupied Crimea.
But some Ukrainian musicians still don’t mind performing in Russian
Other Ukrainian musicians, however, see no contradiction between their Ukrainian identity and their embrace of Russian language and music.
Near midnight one recent night on a snowy pedestrian avenue in downtown Kiev, guitarist Vitaly Abramov played for tips, singing an old Soviet-era Russian song about the comfort of a pack of cigarettes.
He was relocated from his hometown in eastern Ukraine after it was occupied by Russian-backed separatists in 2014. But he shrugged off singing in Russian on the eve of a possible new Russian attack.
“If you speak Russian, it doesn’t mean you think you’re Russian,” Abramov said.
Her next song, a love ballad, was in Ukrainian.
Jonaki Mehta contributed to this report from Kyiv.