What it’s like to be a musician in Ukraine right now

Kiev. 7 a.m. Tuesday. Another cold winter day — typical late January in Ukraine. The city is just beginning to wake up, but the streetlights are still working the night shift, illuminating the streets for those in a rush to get on with their business early.

I just finished my shift as a journalist and I’m on the bus, on my way to the studio where my band Pree Tone is preparing for our first performance with a new line-up and recording a new album . Due to various parallel jobs and schedules, we all have to take literally every opportunity to come together and make music.

I leaf through Zoshchenko’s funny and somewhat sad stories along the way, but sometimes I get distracted. I watch people on the bus or the subway. Those who don’t snore, spending their journey in the grip of Morpheus, are certainly passionate about their smartphones. I admit that, whenever possible, I take a look at the content that my fellow travelers are indulging in. Lately, it’s been mostly news.

Anyone who loves social media or reads the news (at least occasionally) knows that the number one topic right now is the possibility of a full-fledged Russian military invasion of Ukraine. Everyone writes about it – American, British, European media. The Ukrainians are also taking up the subject. On any news site, one is more likely to see images of tanks, guns, planes, ships, soldiers, the faces of Biden, Putin, Zelensky, Johnson, Macron and other highly respected ladies and gentlemen.

The most pessimistic scenarios are worked out by the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department. British intelligence and Her Majesty’s Government also regularly speak of an invasion. This is picked up by CNN, The Washington Post, The Guardian, BBC. Disaster, evacuation, invasion, bombing, bombing, NATO, sanctions, refugees – that’s all you hear in Western and Ukrainian media today. More and more, maps and plans of attack are published, Western leaders are negotiating with the leaders of Ukraine and Russia. The tension increases every day, as does the number of Russian soldiers on the border. Sometimes it seems that the eyes of the world are fixed on Europe’s easternmost borders.

Snow is falling outside, a metronome is banging in your ears, expression pedals are bouncing up and down, strings are treacherously snapping. We laugh, pumped up with coffee; we offer interesting little tips to put in our file. Sometimes it seems like in our cozy studio we are falling out of time and space – the rest of the world with its problems and laws is left somewhere far away.

We are discussing an upcoming festival, which we are organizing for our guitarist Zhenya’s birthday. A group from Germany refused to come, even though their enthusiasm was very high when we spoke initially. Instead, we decided to put a loud gang from Warsaw on the list. We buy plane and train tickets for the musicians, negotiate with the club and the sound engineer. The festival is scheduled for February 19, which has been heralded by some politicians as the potential date for the Russian army’s invasion of Ukraine.

What can I say, these are the two very different realities in which Ukrainians live today. On the one hand, an all-out war awaits them and people have to prepare bunkers, clean their weapons, sign up as volunteers for the army or pack their bags. On the other hand, there is no panic in the streets, people are living their lives, happy or sad, facing each new day with hope.

Take, for example, the recent Christmas holidays (which the media also branded as potential invasion days) – fairs and venues in downtown Kyiv were packed, with music, twinkling garlands, thousands of people having fun, drinking mulled wine and eating gingerbread. You wouldn’t think that’s how people would prepare to face enemy forces. Moreover, journalists recently discovered that a strip bar has been operating in one of Kiev’s bomb shelters for some time.

Ukrainian leaders also seem calmer. For example, Ukrainian defense intelligence has repeatedly stated that they have no information showing preparations for a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia. I also doubt that people in the United States and Europe know that President Zelensky has already addressed the nation twice, urging people to calm down and not hoard food. The head of state assured us that next spring we will all have a picnic, not sitting in trenches, despite what the Western media report.

The Ukrainian scene seems calm too. Concerts and festivals take place regularly, recording time in the studios is booked months in advance. Literally every day, upcoming events are announced – in Kyiv alone, for the month of February alone, I counted at least a hundred performances and other cultural events scheduled – and apparently there are no ‘cancelation. Shows from foreign artists like The Drums, Talbot and even Slipknot, Nick Cave and Iron Maiden have already been announced this year. Pree Tone has two shows scheduled in February and one in May. We spend a lot of time in the studio, as we plan to release a new concept album this year.

It may be that since 2014 we have become accustomed to living in a negative informational agenda, going about our business as usual regardless of external factors. Moreover, little is said about it in the American media, but the slow phase of the war in the Donbass has not stopped. There are regular shootings and people dying; over the past year, several hundred Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in action. But Ukrainians are used to it. As scary as it may seem, the dead are no longer shocking.

Personally, like most of my friends on the scene, I don’t believe in the start of a full-scale war. Besides music, I am also a journalist, and I read and listen to different opinions regarding the current situation. It seems that the escalation of this situation benefits the governments of the United States, Russia and Europe. Ukraine is just a chess piece on the chessboard, and this game is not in our interests.

But people here are feeling the effects of panic. The Ukrainian national currency has been falling for several weeks now. Until recently, the exchange rate of the hryvnia against the dollar was 26 to one. Today it is about 29 to one. Many Ukrainians are also freaking out and taking part in weird group activities, like putting the national flag on their Facebook profile pictures. I don’t see that helpful – well, maybe Mark Zuckerberg will fight for us… But I think this whole situation will soon come to some sort of logical conclusion, if only because it’s impossible to live under such terrible tension all the time.

I’m not that old, but I know the story well. The current situation reminds me of the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s. Again, negotiations on arms, missiles, security guarantees. Instead of Khrushchev and Kennedy, we have Biden and Putin. Instead of Cuba, there is Ukraine.

There’s nothing good I can say about us as people looking at all of this. Are we so hopelessly stupid to elect politicians dealing with such heresy in the year 2022? Oh yes, a perfect time to talk about missiles, tanks and planes – since we’ve already defeated hunger and COVID-19, and we’ve already won the war on inequality, landed on Mars and reversed change climatic…