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Ukrainian music about Russia’s war: a tale of struggle, pain, power, and courage

Ukrainian music about Russia’s war: a tale of struggle, pain, power, and courage
Article by: Orysia Hrudka
Edited by: Michael Garrood
Ukrainian music about Russia’s war tells about life under air raids and Russian bombings, recalls Ukrainian history, including the deliberate Russian starvation of Ukrainians during the Holodomor, warns the world about the nuclear threat and the danger of indecisiveness, and reinterprets Ukrainian folk songs and mythology.

Some of the songs included here were released after the full-scale invasion in 2022, with most written after the first Russian invasion of 2014. They are all about the long-standing Ukrainian struggle and pain but also provide a source of power and courage.

Bird (2020), by DakhaBrakha and Serhiy Zhadan

The song was released in August 2020 as a part of a big online concert, “Ark. Ukraine.” The music was composed by a world-renowned Ukrainian music band, DakhaBrakha, and the lyrics were written by one of the most famous Ukrainian poets Serhiy Zhadan, who was recently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. As Zhadan says,

“This song is actually about the ark as a metaphor for a certain union, a certain gathering place, a place of hope, and a place of search. It turned out to be, on the one hand, a lyrical, sharp song, as it performed by “Dakha-Brakha”. On the other hand, it is drive, with rap inserts”

Organizers of the Ark.Ukraine project called this song “Ukraine’s new alternative anthem.”

DakhaBrakha part:

A bird is flying over black water.
A bird is circling over our misfortune.
Above our freedom.
A bird hears a man’s voice behind it:
We have to follow a heavy harrow.
We have to compete with nocturnal animals.
We shall listen to the wells at dawn.
To July wheat we have to grow up.
Oh Bird, bird, come back home.
We have to inhabit this land yet unknown.
We are here to love these fertile valleys.
We are here to wake up late in the morning.
Fly, bird, over the night shores.
Shout, bird, over the hot snows.
Leave everything that is needed to leave.
This is our land, and here we will live.

Bird is returning with cherry ramus
Constellations are burning – high, uppermost.
The shadow of a bird is touching the terrain.
Call this land afterward Ukraine.

Rap part (Zhadan):
Our ship is heavy as a book volume
Fish with fins is breathing so calmly.
The singers at the top deploy the sails
It’s our Holy Mother who gave us a say.
The ancient ship, loaded with treasures,
is sailing to the field with golden sheaves yet fresher
becomes a rising river, durable, big
so such a quiet one, so deep.
The slow ship, loaded with chants
burns the darkness with signal lights,
It floats to the brink, it floats to tiredness.
It seeks the land of love and anxiety.
This is our land, spelled by language,
by June grass, and by winter pathway,
by a warm carol which is like a flower.
We know who we are and where we come from.
Translated by O.H.

“An online concert combined archaic carols and ancient spiritual tunes, the famous chant of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and masterpieces of Ukrainian Baroque, music by classics and contemporary composers.”– how organizers described the Ark.Ukraine project

Not Your War (2015), by Okean Elzy

The song was written a year after Russia invaded the east of Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Okean Elzy explains the song title :

Many ask why “Not Your War”… Did we start it? Did we plan it? Did we come to a neighborhood land with weapons? No! This is not our war, because we did not start it, but we accept the challenge and we will end it victoriously!

The song became a soundtrack for the video about the besieged Mariupol, showing the scenes of Mariupol before the war. The infrastructure of the city developed significantly after Euromaidan in 2014. Now more than 90% of Mariupol has been destroyed by Russian shelling and bombing. The official music video is available on YouTube.

Sun and smoke. Fight in the morning.
Few people know what will happen to him.
In the young mind, what will be tomorrow?
Some will have hope and others sorrow.

The branches of guelder rose bend under weight.
Mama, to whom did we pray?
It will take how many more
Of your children, not your war?

Became parents daughters and sons,
They saw only those colorful dreams.
And kissed the hands of lies,
Gave away the days for the quiet nights.
It was so good there in previous years
There, where there is no sweat, nor tears.
Only there was no purpose in that-
I can not do this, but how can you?!

Kalyna (2022), by Go-A

Go-A Band, which took fifth place in the Eurovision-2021 contest, explained the song Kalyna:

“Kalyna (guelder-rose) is a symbol that has been a part of Ukrainian culture since ancient times. Its meanings were transferred through the ages in legends and songs. A broken kalyna tree was a sign of trouble and tragedy; abuse of this tree was a shameful act. Ukrainian people carefully protected it because there was a belief that kalyna grew only next to good people. According to our ancestors, kalyna has a power that brings immortality and can unite generations to fight evil. The song ‘Kalyna’ is a message to the world that should be united for the future of humanity.”

On Youtube, the video is provided with subtitles in nine languages:

In the Meadow, the Red Guelder Rose Has Bent Down (Ukrainian folk song), by Andriy Khlyvniuk and Boombox

Boombox lead singer Andriy Khlyvniuk performed this Ukrainian folk song at St. Sophia square in Kyiv just a few days after the Russian invasion. A few days later, Khlyvniuk enrolled in the Kyiv Territorial Defense. The South African musician The Kiffness (David Scott) recorded a remix in support of Ukraine. English subtitles are available in the video:

On March 26, it became known that Andriy Khlyvniuk had been injured by Russian mortar fire.

The Ukrainian singer Eileen also recorded this song on March 5 and donated the earnings to humanitarian aid for Ukraine and the Ukrainian army:

Lyrics excerpts (translated by O.H.)
Oh in the meadow the red guilder rose has bent over
For some reason, our glorious Ukraine is in sorrow.
And we will raise that guilder rose straight
And we will cheer up our glorious Ukraine.

Secret (2017), by Druha Rika / The Second River

Since the Russian military aggression against Ukraine in 2014, the theme of war became dominant in Ukrainian music (as well as in Ukrainian poetry, prose, and art)

People are like other people,
Yet I was born old,
Although I used to be a good kid.
Yes, an old kid.
Been flying and haven’t died but
It looks like there is no space in heaven
or my turn has not yet come,
Since it’s you are there instead of me.
Pictures are flying by,
I will go there one day and you won’t be alone
You’Il remember me
cheerful and a little sad.
Smile, son!

Refrain (twice):
I won’t tell anyone!
I won’t reveal our secret
Don’t take away those I love
Take me instead. 

Oh, God, you know,
Why do you take them away
Leaving us sad?
Isn’t there a place for them here?..
Tell me what my fault is.
God, you know,
Why do you hide them from me?
Somewhere in the clouds, how are they there?
Tell me, how are they there?!

Where Is Your Line? (2018), by the Mannerheim Line

Another musical project of Serhiy Zhadan is the Mannerheim Line. The Mannerheim Line was a defensive fortification line built by Finland against the Soviet Union. The song draws attention to the destruction caused by the Russian war in the east of Ukraine and the need to defend the country against Russia’s aggression.

Currently, Serhiy Zhadan is a volunteer in Kharkiv, documenting the life of the city under Russian shelling in a blog on his Facebook page.

Our heresy is grounded in faith,
Live sweeps here began:
The first violence, the burned ferries,
A line of defense is being created.

All that remains with you remains further-
The torn space for love and for battle.
The sky turns into lead,
All over again, the Cold War begins.

Heat burns balconies, and verandas,
Demons are turning from the night autostradas,
They are burning out your primary school
They put a crucifix in the ballroom.

The demon grew up among friends in massacre,
The demon’s movements are learned and protracted,
The demon’s heart is bloody and warm,
The demon is sobbing and turns to your soul:

Where is your Mannerheim line?
Where is your Mannerheim line?
Trophy khaki dresses, monthly standards
So many scouts
at the train station.

The line of pain, the line of separation
The line that all the time behind you stretches
Heavenly Palestine, Inner Libya
Where is your defense line? Hey, where is your line?

The world passes where you stand tall,
The world touches silence, the deepest of all.
The world arises from light and darkness,
The real history is made by youngsters.

Air consists of light and water,
There is no place to retreat remoter.
In the air, forty voices are hiding.
Time is broken, stopped, and is subsiding.

Time is tired and is going nowhere,
By sunken battleship, time stops its course.
Where is your line of destiny, where?
To whom can I send greetings – yours?

Devotion consists of broken hearts,
The demon plays the army trumpet,
As cold as a corpse, the moon does rise
To you it is singing, to you it is shining.

What’s falling from heaven is the heat of July.
Where passes your line of the sky?
The line of memory, the separation line
The one where waves turn into ice?

The birds above you are resembling stones,
By the sunlight, the demons are scorched.
The sun is made of aluminum and grass
God is afraid to stand behind the line.
Translation: O.H.

I Have No Home (2019), by Odyn v Kanoe 

The 2019 music video from the Lviv band Odyn v Kanoe (One in a canoe) tells the story of a boy who lost his home due to the war. It uses mythological characters, in particular a Cosack who guides the boy.

The crux of the matter is that
I don’t have a home,
And by the rules of common decency,
As if by the rule of the force,
I will remember the tribe I am from,
Will remember the town I’m from.
I’m waiting for my Grammy,
It’s just that I have nowhere to sit down
to write my speech.
I don’t have a home…

People are so, people are so..
For the hundredth time
To their concrete hive cells!
Where else
could they hide, whither,
First and second class people?

People are so, people are so
By the hundreds
In tandems with their high rises,
From the third, from the seventh floor
With the pulse of their heartbeats
Filling everything
with sense.

The crux of the matter is that
I have no home.
Now I never give anything, to anyone –
You’re the first one with whom I shared my drink
and more…
but after all in the end,
If I did have a home,
I’d leave it to people, I’d leave it to cats,
I’d fool everyone, I don’t like the corners!..

The song “I Don’t Have a Home” became a soundtrack for the video about the destruction of the most beautiful of Kyiv’s northwestern suburbs. Many high-rise and private buildings there had been built just a few years before they were destroyed by Russian troops in 2022.

Floating Boat (2018), by DakhaBrakha

DakhaBrakha recorded the “Floating Boat” as a soundtrack to Roman Bondarchuk’s film “Volcano” (2018), which tells the story of the temporarily occupied Crimea.

Originally, it is a Ukrainian folk song about a Cossack who has to go to war and his girlfriend.

A boat is floating
full of water
and so squish, squish, squish, squish
and so squish, squish, squish, squish
and so squish, squish, squish,

A Cossack is going
to his girlfriend
and so clamp, clamp, clamp, clamp
and so clamp, clamp, clamp, clamp
and so clamp, clamp, clamp,

A boat is floating
full of water
it is covered with foliage,
it is covered with foliage
it is covered with foliage

Girl, do not brag
about your red necklace
about your red necklace,
about your red necklace
about your red necklace

Because you will have to,
you will need to
sell your dear necklace
sell your dear necklace
sell your dear necklace

to buy for your
young Cosack boyfriend
tobacco [for his long way] tobacco to buy
tobacco to buy

A boat is floating
full of water
it is covered with bast,
it is covered with bast
it is covered with bast
Oh, don’t brag, young Cossack,
with your curly hair
with your curly hair
with your curly hair

Because you will have to
you will need to
to stand under the arshyn [*to go to the army] to stand under the arshyn
to stand under the arshyn

A young Cossack
has to be given
to the army,
to the army,
to the army

Verba / Willow Tree (2018), by Motanka

The music video Verba by a heavy metal/folk metal band Motanka from Lutsk is dedicated to the darkest page of 20th-century Ukrainian history – the Holodomor, the artificial famine in 1932-32 during which 4 million Ukrainians were starved to death by the Soviet authorities. Like the Go-a Shum song, Willow Tree refers to the pagan times in Ukraine. It is the song of tragedy and revival.

In the field, a lonely willow tree stands.
Above the river it is bent
It let down its branches,
it is crying and it is fighting.

Our language is like one of a nightingale.
Our land for us is one.

Willow tree
A lonely willow tree
Is bent.
A lonely willow tree

Nearby our souls levitate,
praising their land.
Willow’s tree branches are waving in the wind.
These are sprouts – you and me.
Translation by O.H.

Rozy / Donbas (2013), by Dakh Daughters

This song by a Ukrainian cabaret band describes the identity of Donbas, combining folk Ukrainian songs, as well as industrial motives, referring to the history of the industrialization of the region. Along with various styles and moods, three languages (Ukrainian, English, and German) are used in the song, referring to the factory owners in the region and locals; lyrics can be found here.

Catch the Moment (2018), by Antytila

The music video of this song is two-fold: it recounts the most precious things in life and at the same time warns of the catastrophe that can ruin it all, namely nuclear bombing.

“Human relations have become the main message of this music video. Without integrity and unity, people will not be able to survive on Earth,” – the band describes the song.

After the Russian invasion, the band frontman Taras Topolia became a member of the Territorial Defense Force.

While the warning to humanity is the powerful part of the music video, the lyrics of the song are motivational, and  they became a motto for the Ukrainian non-formal education school for teenagers “Agents of Change”

Lyrics excerpts
Catch this moment
We are here so nice
Old screens are over
The life flies.

Catch the moment
These shots are so crazy
That’s our sky,
that’s our places

Refrain (twice):
Where nightingale, where nightingale flies…
Draw for yourself, draw for yourself your dreams.

Everything will be as we need it and
Every atom has a plan
Translation by O.H.

Ukrainians love the Turkish combat drone Bayraktar so much they wrote a song about it

I Am Not Okay (2022), by Kazka

Kazka is the author of the world-famous Ukrainian music hit “Plakala” (“She was Crying”). In 2018, it was the 3rd pop song on one of the most prestigious world charts, Top 10 Global Shazam.

On March 25, Kazka released a song about the Russian invasion, called “I am not okay”

Video has English subtitles:

No, I am not okay
It’s 4 in the morning
And I’m wide awake
Sister, I’m just tryna
Take it day by day
Grateful for the fact
That I still see your face

Listen to more of Ukrainian songs about the war

  • Famous warrior of Zaporozhian army, De Libertate by Khoreya Kozatska, a musical group of traditional music from Kyiv. The band performs Rus-Ukrainian music from different epochs – the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicism, Romanticism, and more recent compositions presenting the heritage of Ukrainian culture.
  • Bayraktar (2022) by Vivienne Mort. “Today I am in my grandmother’s handkerchief, which is more than 100 years old. I put in my anxious suitcases. I love you proudly, Ukrainians.”
  • Bayraktar (2022) by Taras Borobok.
  • Groves rustle (2018) by the Doox. The lyrics for this song are from a 1913 poem “Groves rustle – I listen” by Ukraine poet Pavlo Tychyna.
  • Lullaby for the enemy (2019) by Stasik. By many, this song is considered to be prophetic, taking into account the huge Russian losses of 2022. Yet, it also reflects on the events after 2014.


Edited by: Michael Garrood
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