The market decides? A short history of Ukrainian pop music

How should the Ukrainian state protect Ukrainian language? The story of an experimental festival tells us much about what can be done - and what shouldn’t.

Zbigniew Wojnowski
9 April 2019, 12.01am
Performer Andriy Mykolaichuk at Chervona Ruta festival, 1989
Source: YouTube / Ruta Fest

Since the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, legislators have sought to boost the status of Ukrainian language in Ukraine’s public culture.

The 2017 law on education makes Ukrainian the main language of instruction above primary school level – citizens can still study Russian language, culture, and literature in school, but all other subjects are to be taught in Ukrainian, English, or other official languages of the European Union (groups deemed indigenous to Ukraine, most notably the Crimean Tatars, can study in their languages through the end of secondary school). Тhe Ukrainian parliament is currently working on a comprehensive language law that mandates the widespread use of Ukrainian in mass media, the publishing industry, state administration, and the public sphere more broadly.

Critics have described this new legislation as discriminatory towards the many speakers of Russian and other languages in Ukraine, including self-identified Ukrainians and vocal critics of Putin’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas. Some claim that President Poroshenko’s administration risks alienating loyal citizens by equating “Ukrainianness” with the Ukrainian language, rather than celebrating Ukraine as a multilingual and multicultural nation. Those who support the state’s attempts to boost the status of Ukrainian variously point out that widespread fluency in the state language will guarantee all citizens equal opportunities to pursue a successful career in Ukraine, as well as help establish stronger cultural barriers between Ukraine and Russia in the face of Moscow’s aggressive policies.

The most convincing argument in favour of introducing new language legislation is that “demand for Ukrainian [in public life far] exceeds the supply”, as Tetyana Ogarkova puts it. According to 2017 research, while most citizens of Ukraine indicated a preference for publications in the Ukrainian language, the number of books available in Ukrainian was three times fewer than those in Russian, and there were twice as many newspapers in Russian as in Ukrainian.

Get the free oDR newsletter

A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.

For years, Russian has carried more social currency and guaranteed easier access to prestigious jobs, while businesses use Russian language in products ranging from blockbuster movies to dishwasher instruction manuals to access markets larger than Ukraine alone can offer. As a result, citizens have been de facto deprived of the choice to use Ukrainian in public life.

Red flowers

In the assessment of Ukraine’s legislators, pop plays an important role in shaping citizens’ mental geographies. From 2016, partly in response to the continuing popularity of Russian-language entertainment, television and radio have been required to increase the share of songs broadcast in the Ukrainian language.

The significance of pop in Ukraine is rooted in the formative years of independent statehood. As Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed censorship in the USSR during the late 1980s, music professionals believed that Ukrainian-language entertainment could provide an antidote to the monotony of Brezhnev-era pop.

In 1989, young composers from Kyiv, reform-minded activists of the Soviet Ukrainian Communist Youth League, and prominent members of the cultural intelligentsia organised the first Chervona Ruta (Red Rue) festival in the west Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi. In the words of writer Rostyslav Bratun, the festival aimed to promote “original” Ukrainian-language pop and rock fuelled by young artists’ “painful doubt”. Composer Kyrylo Stetsenko hoped that the festival would encourage “surprising and even extravagant” artistic endeavours that differed from the all-Soviet mainstream.

In this sense, Chervona Ruta came to epitomise the hopes associated with promoting Ukrainian language in public culture. A look back at the history of this festival reveals that attempts to boost the status of Ukrainian did not threaten Ukraine’s multicultural character. Rather, they reflected an ambition to promote new forms of cultural expression, to escape the confines of Soviet-made identities, and ultimately to diversify the notions of what it meant to be Ukrainian

The festival featured diverse types of music, non-harmonious melodies, and abstract or heavily ironic lyrics that played with established cultural norms. The band Braty Hadiukiny (The Hadiukin Brothers), for example, presented a satirical song about the establishment of Soviet power in western Ukraine at the end of the Second World War, told through the prism of a hapless man who lost his house after a bomb he had kept in the attic for 40 years finally exploded. The band adopted an ironic approach to a theme which carried enormous importance for both the Soviet state and Ukrainian nationalists who rejected Soviet power, effectively distancing themselves from both political master narratives.

"Oi, lykho!" - the Hadiukin Brothers perform their song at Chervona Ruta, 1989. Source: YouTube / Stanislav Bida.

Proponents of Ukrainian pop in the late 1980s were vocal critics of state controls over entertainment. Although Ukrainian-language pop music was not entirely absent from Soviet stages and airwaves, festival organisers took advantage of the policy of glasnost’ (openness) to complain that Ukrainian artists had long been neglected by Moscow-based record labels and impresario agencies. Following major crackdowns on amateur music in the USSR during the early 1980s, the Chervona Ruta festival provided a platform for young musicians working outside these state-owned institutions. The organisers looked at the emerging free market with hope, emphasising that private investors from among the Ukrainian diaspora in North America and newly formed independent cooperatives in Soviet Ukraine would open fresh opportunities for ambitious young artists.

Yet the Ukrainian music promoted at Chervona Ruta had limited popular appeal. The 1989 festival was a predominantly west Ukrainian affair. Most performers hailed from parts of the republic annexed by the USSR during the Second World War. The audience was likewise dominated by young, well-educated urbanites from the west.

At the same time, the festival faced robust competition from the Russophone pop industry. For example, as one of the co-organisers felt his influence over the festival wane, he set up a private company that held its own pop music contest in Kyiv. Running parallel to Chervona Ruta, this contest featured songs in Russian as well as in Ukrainian. Supporters of this initiative saw this as a sound commercial decision given that the market was dominated by Russian-language pop, mocking the organisers of the Chervona Ruta festival as naive idealists with no understanding of show business.

As Ukrainian-language music found little popularity in the Russian-speaking east, the festival’s organisers looked towards state-sponsored affirmative action to further the cause of Ukrainianisation. Emphasising that Russian-language pop stars worked in better conditions and enjoyed higher profits, they came to believe that the free market was no cure for the Russification of Ukraine. The organisers thus called for the newly independent Ukrainian authorities to introduce tax breaks for the festival sponsors and found music schools to train a new generation of Ukrainian pop professionals. Another idea was to promote songs from Chervona Ruta at school discos and on the state railways, where music was played over loudspeakers.

Video from 1989 Chervona Ruta. Source: YouTube / Ruta Fest.

As the 1990s progressed, Chervona Ruta lost its anti-statist and experimental edge. In 1993, former Communist Party members turned Ukrainian politicians provided the patronage needed to hold the festival in Donetsk. They stood worlds apart from the festival organisers who hoped to challenge the political and cultural establishment of Soviet Ukraine in 1989. At the same time, the initiative to hold the festival in the Donbas came from the local branch of Prosvita, an association opposing the Russification of Ukraine - this lent Chervona Ruta a certain pathos as they sought to ground narratives of anti-Soviet resistance in the local context. In particular, Prosvita activists held a competition for the best song set to the poetry of Vasyl Stus, a dissident born in the Vinnytsia region who had grown up in the Donbas and died in a labour camp in Russia in 1985.

Meanwhile, many local authority figures looked at Chervona Ruta with suspicion. Yuri Boldyrev, deputy head of the city council and leading member of the”‘Movement for the Resurgence of the Donbas”, an organisation that defined itself in opposition to “Ukrainian nationalism” and called for maintaining close cultural and political relations with Russia, was especially hostile to the festival. In the end, as Chervona Ruta became enmeshed in local political conflicts of the Donbas, the organisers were disappointed with the outcomes of the festival. One article in the newspaper Ukraina Moloda bemoaned that “the Donbas would rather be raped than Ukrainianised”.

Politics of pop culture

The recent controversy surrounding Ukraine’s entry into the 2019 Eurovision song contest highlights the continuing difficulties of promoting a distinctly Ukrainian popular culture for Ukraine. During the national competition to select the country’s representative in Tel-Aviv, the jury questioned performers’ political loyalties on live television. Notably, only one finalist sang in Ukrainian (she was also the only Russian citizen among the contestants, and announced her desire to receive Ukrainian citizenship after the contest). The other artists performed in English, reflecting the fact that Ukrainian-language pop is squeezed out not only by the Russian, but also the global entertainment industry.

Ukraine’s public broadcaster reportedly sought far-reaching rights to control the winner’s public image, obliging the singer Maruv to cancel future concerts in Russia. Such interference in the sphere of entertainment reflected the belief that performers who tour Russian cities and express ambiguous attitudes towards Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas help reinforce Putin’s vision of Ukraine as Russia’s “younger brother” who must not loosen ties with Moscow. The heavy-handed politics of the national contest ultimately undermined its goal to promote Ukraine’s pop on the international arena. Maruv and other finalists rejected the terms of Ukraine’s public broadcaster, and the country withdrew from this year’s Eurovision.

(c) Pacific Press/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

The Eurovision case highlights how direct political interference in music alienates commercially successful artists. Similarly, the vicissitudes of Chervona Ruta suggest that pop and politics are strange bedfellows: audience tastes are rarely driven by political considerations. Yet the history of the festival also shows that, without state-sponsored affirmative action, the Ukrainian language will continue to be underrepresented in Ukraine’s public culture. The most promising way to create a broadly appealing Ukrainian-language popular culture for Ukraine might be to recreate the experimental and irreverent spirit of the first Chervona Ruta festival.

Instead of searching for performers whose Ukrainianness manifests itself in a set of “correct” political views, the state should lend support to original, daring, and perhaps even iconoclastic artists who not only speak or sing in Ukrainian, but who also produce culture that is qualitatively different from the post-Soviet mainstream.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData