When a foreign army invades a country, takes away their freedom of speech, and subjugates their people, it seeks not only to oppress that country’s way of life in the present, but to cause permanent and irreversible damage to its future. In the case of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion aims to do just that: To stifle the sense of nationalism and immense pride that lies at the very core of Ukrainian culture. When Putin drops bombs on kindergardens, orphanages, and universities, he intends to take away entire generations of leaders, scholars, and artists.
Putin’s unprovoked and inhumane attack relies on destroying a future world where Ukrainian artists can exist — and that is precisely why the current generation of musicians, poets, and artists from all over the world have stood up in support of Ukraine.
Russian oppression has been an ongoing facet of Ukrainian history. In the nineteenth century, it was at the hands of the Tsarist regime. Bans on using the Ukrainian language, singing Ukrainian songs, and censorship of Ukrainian customs were enforced by the penalty of death. Poets like Taras Shevchenko were resilient in the face of it all. He wrote in Ukrainian when he could not speak in it, and advocated for freedom even during imprisonment. To this day, his words “Boritesya y poboremo!” (Fight and you shall overcome) are immortalized and recited with pride by every Ukrainian student as part of their education.
Then, in the 1900s, the Soviet Union led the subjugation. While communism starved and demoralized the nation, Russian oppressors propagandized Ukrainian classrooms. Still, networks of artist communities like the Sixtiers defended national values through their art. Lina Kostenko, for example, used her poetry to advocate for freedom of artistic creativity despite the existing regime.
Now, in the 21st century, the oppressor is President Putin. Starting with Putin’s meddling in the election of President Viktor Yanukovych, the Revolution of Euromaidan in 2013 did not end with the Heavenly Hundred Heroes, contrary to common Western belief. It escalated, growing into the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the dissection of the Donetsk and Luhansk states in the Donbas War. Ukraine would continue to be fragmented and corroded by Russia’s corrupt meddling for years to come while the world averts its eyes.
The loudest advocates for action at that time were artists. Late singer Andriy Kuzmenko of the rock band Skryabin would visit the bullet-ridden frontlines where no one else dared to venture, while organizing a benefit concert to raise funds and aid the wounded soldiers. Likewise, musicians like rock band Okean Elzy wrote entire albums dedicated to spreading the word about this continued subjugation. Songs like “Ne tvoya viyna" (“Not your war”) and “Небо над Дніпром” (“Sky over the Dnieper”) served as rallying cries that rose over the bloody Dnieper yet fell on deaf ears for the rest of the world.
Now, when the world is finally ready to accept that Ukraine’s way of life is currently — and has always been — under direct attack, artists from all over are joining to spread the message. Some Ukrainian artists are using their platforms to spread hope: Eurovision star Ruslana is using her “voice to stop this war.” Other Ukrainian artists, like the pop band BoomBox’s frontman Andriy Khlyvnyuk, are dropping everything and enlisting in the army themselves. To Khlyvnyuk, now “is not the time for playing guitars, it’s time to take the rifles.” Art festivals like the Cannes film festival are being petitioned to ban Russian submissions with the slogan "Russian culture, when used as propaganda, is toxic! Don't be an accomplice!” and Western artists including Madonna, Mila Kunis, Leonardo Dicaprio, and Victoria Beckham are donating to the cause.
Even Russian artists, who have themselves been censored, threatened, and exiled from their country, are joining the fight. Artist Pyotr Pavlensky dared to protest against the political abuse of Putin’s Russia through his exhibition artwork and ended up in jail. Boris Akunin, Russian author and critic, has publicly criticized Putin’s invasion, regardless of the previous exile such activism has caused him in the past. Russian writer and journalist Yulia Latynina is among the loudest who spread the word on Putin’s propaganda, putting her life on the line time and again to dispel her country’s political brainwashing.
Art is an outlet for expression and for change. It can never work in a framework where its message is censored or condemned. A world like that threatens every Ukrainian refugee and every Ukrainian-American. Indeed, it could undermine the future of our world as we know it. And like the many artists that have spoken out already, more people should realize these attacks are not only on one nation, but present a threat to humanity as a whole. That is why artists, most of all, are rising to organize in response.
Territorial barriers that once tore apart the country no longer mean anything to the Eastern Ukrainian towns of Kherson, Berdyansk, and Melitopol. When Russian forces try to get people in these cities to turn on their country and on their neighbors, they are met with nothing but violent resistance. Instead of dividing the nation, this invasion has done the very opposite: It has brought together the nation closer than it has been for a long time.
Ukrainian people have fought long and hard for their freedom. For the first time in centuries, they have gotten used to being free in their own country. Russia’s invasion will fail to break their spirit. The world, Putin included, has underestimated the resiliency of the Ukrainian spirit.
—Staff writer Alisa S. Regassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @alisaregassa.