Ukraine Pop Culture Unites Against Russia As Split Between Nations Widens

On the morning of February 24, 2022, when Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border and headed for Kyiv, Ukrainian pop star Jerry Heil, then 26, was best known for songs that were funny and self-aware. "Okhrana Otmena," for instance–which translates roughly as "You're Canceled"—is about a boy who calls a girl the wrong name in bed. Other songs were about things like shopping and being a vegan.

"Now though, even when people ask me to perform my prewar stuff at concerts, I personally can't bring myself to do it," Heil told Newsweek in late March before a concert in the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk. "It's a different time and culture has to reflect that difference. I have to reflect that difference, because I'm different now, too. I grew up a lot in the past year, right along with Ukraine itself."

"I remember waking up about a minute before the first explosion and not understanding why I was so nervous," she said. "Then I heard the first bomb go off and was like, 'Is that fireworks?' I came to my window and literally saw the beginning of the war. The sky was on fire."

Heil was living in a rented house in a small town just north of Kyiv, not far from Bucha and Irpin, towns whose names later became bywords for Russian barbarity. She and her brother decamped to their childhood home and after failing to convince their parents to evacuate, set off for the country's Western border. As a male of military age, Heil's brother could not leave the country, but she did, carrying her music gear into Romania on foot.

"The first song I wrote after the start of the war was called 'Putin, Go Home,'" she said, based on a Ukrainan football chant whose words translate as "Putin is a d***," Heil said. "I wanted to translate it to be a little more polite so that I could sing it on stage in Europe. The verses were in English, too, because I understood that it was important to attract the world's attention to what Russia was doing in my homeland."

Since then, Heil has given more concerts than she can count, donating the proceeds to the war effort back home while fighting to ensure that Western listeners do not lose interest in the Ukrainian cause.

Her story is not unique.

On February 27, 2022, the day Russian forces first occupied Bucha, Andriy Khlyvnyuk, vocalist in the rock band BoomBox and a Territorial Defense Forces volunteer, was in Kyiv, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap and carrying a rifle. Standing in front of the capital's 11th-century Saint Sophia Cathedral, he delivered an a cappella performance of the independence anthem "Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow."

Filmmaker and Crimea native Oleg Sentsov, who had spent five years in Russian captivity for his opposition to the 2014 annexation of his home, was not far away. After helping to defend Kyiv in the early weeks of the full war, Sentsov's service sent him to the embattled city of Bakhmut.