War in Ukrainian culture: songs, paintings, and even bomb shelter comedy

Musicians of the wind orchestra perform during the "Javelina" humour show in support of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the railway station on 1 April, 2022, in Odesa, Ukraine. (Credit: Nina Lyashonok / Avalon)

From the first days of Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Ukraine's usually soft and romantic culture also came to the country's defence, writes Andrii Ianitskyi, a Ukrainian journalist and director of the Centre for Journalism at the Kyiv School of Economics.

Without any administrative coercion, local singers and artists began to create military-style art.

Quite rude in other circumstances, the phrase of the Ukrainian border guard, “Russian warship, go f ** k yourself”, turned into an emotional response of Ukrainian society to the Russian invaders in the first days after the invasion.

This phrase immediately appeared on billboards , T-shirts and in songs. The peak of popularity of this meme was when it appeared on the official postage stamp of Ukraine. After Ukraine sank the same ship – the flagship of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea known as “Moskva” – demand for these postage stamps increased. At a regular price of about 4.5 euros for a set of six stamps, such a set on e-bay now sells for 95 euros (and there are many fakes). At a charity auction, a set of 12 stamps and two envelopes sold for about €125,000.

In the first month of the invasion, entertainment was banned in Ukraine: theatres, cinemas and concert halls were closed. They then reopened, and new performances on the theme of war appeared in their repertoire. Exhibitions of military paintings opened in Mukachevo, Lviv, Kyiv, and other Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian artists are also holding exhibitions of their works abroad.

War and humour seem incompatible. But people want to smile even in difficult times. That is why Ukrainian stand-up comedy is experiencing a new wave of attention. For everyone’s safety, these stand-up performances take place in bomb shelters .

We have not seen large literary works about the war in Ukraine yet, but these take time to make. Many Ukrainian writers are fighting in the war, in exile, or helping the military as volunteers. The emotions and the experience they gain will be transformed into literary works.

Along with Ukraine’s support in the West, mentions of the ongoing war in Europe are spreading in world culture. For the first time since 1994, legendary band Pink Floyd recorded a video for a Ukrainian folk song performed by local singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk (who is now a soldier). British singer Ed Sheeran has collaborated with another Ukrainian singer-turned-soldier, Taras Topolia, to record an anti-war version of his hit 2Step. And the other day the same Topolya sang a duet with Bono from the U2 inside of the Kyiv subway. It was Sheeran who gave the Ukrainian Bono’s phone number. Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie also recently visited Ukraine.

Even before the war, Ukraine was a popular location for shooting music videos and films thanks to the country’s beautiful nature, minimal bureaucracy, and relatively cheap labour. But the country and its inhabitants usually stayed behind the scenes and acted simply as extras or a filming location. Today, Ukraine and Ukrainians are becoming fashionable.