Music amidst turmoil; Russia-Ukraine invasion reaches one year

Dmytro Gnativ, a doctoral student in musical arts at UM’s Frost School of Music, with his sisters and nephews on vacation in Carpathian Mountains, Ukraine. Gnativ grew up in Ukraine.

One year ago on Feb. 24, President of Russia Vladimir Putin announced a special military operation to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine. Moments later, Russian forces launched a full-scale invasion on Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Since then, Russian forces have initiated countless missile attacks across Ukraine’s major cities, devastating the lives and property of millions and driving the population into a humanitarian crisis.

An estimated 21,293 civilians have died and more than 5.4 million Ukrainians are internally displaced as a result of the conflict as of January 2023. Property damages have totaled to approximately $138 billion and more than 136,000 civilian buildings have been destroyed.

The crisis has made a profound impact on the lives of Ukrainian people all over the world, with many viewing the disaster thousands of miles from home.

Dmytro Gnativ, a doctoral student in musical arts at UM’s Frost School of Music, feels the toll of the war even thousands of miles from his hometown of Sambir, in the Lviv Region of Ukraine.

“In general I see less happiness among people, less laughs, less joy,” Gnativ said. “365 days my morning starts with coffee and news from Ukraine. Every single day there are deaths, acquaintances that lost their lives and friends that lost their close ones. I can’t enjoy my life as before and I can’t imagine how hard it is to be living in Ukraine right now.”

Even in the face of immeasurable tragedy, Gnativ and several other Ukrainian musicians are looking to music and other art forms as a means of empowerment and cultural preservation.

Gnativ recently presented repertoire by Ukrainian composers at the Mid-Atlantic Flute Convention, where he also discussed the rich history of Ukraine and its culture.

“As a musician I think it’s important to look into Ukrainian culture and its music and art,” Gnativ said. “There are answers to our difficult history and tools on how to help with the war. I think that music by composers like Lyatoshynsky, Silvestrov, Dychko, Turkewich or Hanna Havrylets as well as many other Ukrainian composers deserve to be programmed by the US Orchestras and Chamber groups.”

While Ukrainian music has often been overshadowed by Russian contemporary and classical music, there have been several movements to increase its presence across the globe.

In May 2022, Eurovision hosted its annual song contest where it featured the Ukrainian rap group Kalush Orchestra performing the song “Stefania”.

In the final stage of the contest, the group’s frontman Oleh Psiuk emerged following the performance and yelled, “I ask all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal, right now!”

Later that night, the group brought home a victory for Ukraine.

The award, partially chosen by a public televote, marked a resounding victory for Ukraine, following months of tragedy.

In March 2022, the Russian offensive directed air strikes on the strategic port city of Mariupol, killing hundreds when a missile hit the Donetsk Academic Regional Drama Theatre, which had been housing civilians.

April 2022 was met with continuous missile strikes on the Russian front, with eyes on the Donbas region and the outskirts of Kyiv. Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces made headway by striking the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, a flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

In July 2022, amidst the looming threat of a global food crisis, Russia and Ukraine made an agreement to unblock supplies of grain held at Ukraine’s black sea ports. Yet, the conflict continued to aggravate the post-pandemic global economy and drove up gas prices as a result of U.S. sanctions on the Russian economy.

In September 2022, Ukrainian forces initiated a surprise counteroffensive in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, driving Russian forces backward. Despite extensive pushback on behalf of Ukraine, Putin signed documents at a Kremlin ceremony to annex Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia on Sept. 30.

Since the start of the war, the United Nations General Assembly, the U.S., NATO members and other peacekeeping institutions have actively condemned the actions of Putin, calling it a blatant violation of national sovereignty.

As of Feb. 22, the Biden Administration and the U.S. Congress has provided over $75 billion in military, humanitarian and financial assistance to Ukraine, aiding Ukraine’s counteroffensives and providing its forces with advanced military technology.

With Putin confident that Russia will emerge victorious, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky determined to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, experts have struggled to predict when the war will end.

On Feb. 21, 2023, Putin announced that he would suspend Russia’s participation in the New START treaty, a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and the Russian Federation.

Following the decision, Putin announced that he would work to bolster Russia’s nuclear forces, perhaps signaling future escalation at the one-year anniversary of the invasion.

“Right now, it’s clear that both sides are preparing for the biggest battle since the war began. Spring is assumed to be the breaking point,” said Gnativ.

While both parties hold substantial military power, Russia has employed state-controlled media outlets such as Russia Today (Россия Сегодня) to completely transform Russia’s information warfare tactics, proliferating a single message that has echoed across the region.

“The war one year later has definitely desensitized Russian society even more than it used to be,” said UM alumnus Alexander Ramazanov, who was born and lived in Russia for over nineteen years. “The constant propaganda mixed with constant dehumanization of Ukrainians on Russian state TV has worsened the perception of Ukrainians.”

As U.S. and NATO allies continue to provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine to support its civilians and restoration efforts, there are several organizations across the U.S. that are helping Ukrainian refugees and citizens to provide them with basic needs.

Other organizations are finding ways to keep Ukrainian culture alive even as their sovereignty as a country is threatened.

One particular initiative called Backup Ukraine created PolyCam, a digital archive designed to safeguard Ukraine’s cultural and historical heritage by using 3-D models to preserve buildings and monuments in case they are destroyed.

“Russian propaganda tries to diminish the significance of Ukrainian culture for centuries, appropriating artists, confusing the world, eliminating those who oppose, and achieving great success in suppressing our culture,” said Gnativ. “Now it’s the perfect time to do the opposite–to show that we not only can support the country and victims of the war, but that we can see through propaganda and appreciate the rich culture of Ukraine.”

The Department of Political Science will be hosting a roundtable on the Russia-Ukraine War on Feb. 24, the anniversary of the invasion. The roundtable will be held at 2 p.m. in the Campo Sano building. Students can register for the event here.