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Music as resistance: Kyiv’s orchestra plays on

In Kyiv's Independence Square, conductor Herman Makarenko led the Kyiv-Classic Symphony Orchestra in a public performance on March 9. (Video: Sudarsan Raghavan/The Washington Post)

KYIV, Ukraine — The war with Russia broke up the orchestra. More than half of its musicians fled the capital. And with that, the music died.

The ensemble was part of the Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music, whose development was helped by the famed composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He often visited Kyiv in the 19th century when Ukraine was ruled by Russia’s czars. During World War II, the conservatory’s buildings were leveled.

In this conflict, the musicians who remained in Kyiv have endured shells and missiles landing close to their homes, nights hiding in underground bunkers, days waiting in long lines to stock up on food and medicine. Many remain split apart from their relatives elsewhere in Ukraine, including some behind Russian lines.

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They played their instruments inside their homes or in their basements as explosions reverberated in the streets above, keeping ready for the moment they could play together as an orchestra again.

That day arrived Wednesday. The very site of the outdoor concert by the Kyiv-Classic Symphony Orchestra symbolized their defiance: the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, the focal point of revolutions including one in 2014 that ousted a pro-Moscow president and helped define Ukraine’s Western political path.

And the musicians, bundled up in thick coats and jackets, played outdoors despite the constant threat of missiles or bombs falling.

“We are showing our strength through music,” said Louri Loutsenko, a senior adviser to the academy’s president.

As the war neared its third week, the 25-minute concert in freezing weather, and nationally televised, was the latest example of a cohesive resistance against Russia — one that has attracted tens of thousands of civilians to join militias or help support Ukraine in other ways.

“This event is to show the entire world that we are not afraid to have this concert in the heart of Kyiv,” Loutsenko said. “We play it under the open sky.”

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As in wars of the past in other parts of the world, music and poetry have become an integral part of the fight — used in Ukraine for recruitment, to soothe loss and assuage fear, to remember, and to stir patriotism. Military chaplains sing hymns during sermons at suspected airstrike sites. At funerals for soldiers, pastors deliver melodic prayers. And on social media, viral videos include a soldier singing a Ukrainian folk song to a hip-hop beat and a young woman hauntingly playing “What a Wonderful World” at Lviv’s train station.

The musicians at the square performed even as their academy has been gripped by loss, fear and uncertainty. Two students, a Ukrainian and a Chinese national, were killed in the Russian bombardment of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, said Maksym Tymoshenko, the academy’s president. Roughly 50 students and junior staff members, he added, remain in the academy’s dormitory, waiting out the war in their rooms, or the basement when the air raid sirens go off.

“Some have lost contact with their families, who are in places like Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, where the worst fighting is taking place,” Tymoshenko said. “They don’t know if their homes still exist. So it’s safer to stay in Kyiv than go anywhere else.”

Asked whether the orchestra would play Tchaikovsky compositions in the square, Herman Makarenko, the conductor, shook his head. “We don’t have enough musicians,” he explained, adding that in any case the ensemble wanted to play Ukrainian music.

For decades, Ukrainians have cringed as Russians embraced Tchaikovsky as their own. Ukrainians argue that the great composer saw himself as Ukrainian and spent many years visiting Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine.

“Our eastern neighbor says Ukraine hasn’t any culture,” said Makarenko, who was dressed all in black. “We would like to show we have culture, one of the best in the world.”

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Shortly after 1 p.m., the 20 musicians gathered in the square with their violins, flutes, clarinets and other instruments. Makarenko stood before them clutching his conductor’s wand.

A crowd of about 100 people also gathered, mostly journalists wearing flak vests and holding cameras and phones. About 25 Ukrainians were among them, some clutching the nation’s blue-and-yellow flag. Explosions in and around the center of the city had subsided in recent days, but most Ukrainians still worried about spending too much time in open areas.

The concert began with an uplifting Ukrainian composition. Makarenko was moving his wand rapidly, providing the rhythm to the ensemble, some wearing winter beanies. Ukraine’s national anthem came soon after, and people waved their flags. Also played was Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and “Lileya,” a ballad by Konstantin Dankevich, one of Ukraine’s best-known composers.

Julian Alyeyev, 46, played the viola. Over a long career, he was a member of many orchestras in Ukraine and had played concerts in the United States, South Korea and Montenegro. Five days before, he was scheduled to play with an orchestra in Italy, he said.

“Because of the war, Putin took my money out of my pocket,” said Alyeyev with pursed lips, referring to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

Alyeyev’s two children are in Bulgaria, and he lives alone in the capital. He hears explosions and shelling from his home, he said, but has no plans to flee. “I still have dreams that we will keep our capital and Ukraine, and that we will kick the Russians out as soon as possible,” he said.

The day before, some of his friends in the orchestra had messaged him on Facebook asking him to take part in the concert. He accepted without hesitation.

“It’s my duty, it’s my destiny,” Alyeyev said. “If I can push our spirits up, I have to do it.”

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Ivan Mikaelov, 33, played the flute. He also wanted to contribute to helping his homeland. So he left his home for the first time and entered an open area, dismissing his fears of getting shelled. “I normally stay inside my home, underground most of the time,” he said. “This is the first time I have come to the Maidan since the war started.”

Another flutist, Maria Khmelova, was next to him. The day after Russia invaded, a residential building, two streets down from her home, was pummeled by debris from a suspected rocket, injuring several civilians. Khmelova, dressed in a black hoodie, said her son and parents had fled to the western city of Lviv.

But she remained to take care of her 86-year-old bedridden grandmother.

“She’s lying on the bed — she can’t move,” said Khmelova, who has played the flute since she was a child. “She’s close to dying.”

Khmelova, too, didn’t hesitate to join the concert. “This is courageous music, perfect for situations like this,” she said. “Most Ukrainians have heard of them. They will be inspired.”

Some musicians at the academy, including students and teachers, have signed up to fight the Russians, joining the nation’s mostly volunteer Territorial Defense Forces, Tymoshenko said.

Alyeyev was considering picking up a gun as well. But his friends who joined the militia ordered him not to risk his life. “They told me, ‘You must stay at home. We will need you after all of this is over. We will save your life, and you will play music for us after.’ ”

When the concert ended, the audience clapped and some shouted “Slava Ukraini!”

“Glory to Ukraine!”

Moments later, the air raid sirens sounded across the capital.

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