Alex Karpenko plays outside the train station every day.
The 27-year-old musician’s ritual, ever since the war began, is to carefully make his way down to the public piano outside Lviv’s railway station. There, he plays off the thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their homes. People walk past him, rolling suitcases or carrying children. Some of them linger by the instrument to listen for a few moments.
On March 19, a day after Russian missiles first struck his city, Karpenko was outside the station when air-raid sirens began to wail. Totally absorbed by the song he was in the middle of playing—‘Time,’ from the movie Inception—he ignored the officers who emerged to usher people to safety.
“The siren gave me more energy, adrenaline, and hatred for Russia,” he told The Daily Beast, “so I continued to play and didn’t head for the shelter.”
His playing became fiercer, an “inner protest to sirens, bombs, murders, war,” as he later put it on social media. A friend leaned over the keys to help him, her purple manicure still immaculate as she thrashed out accompanying chords. A National Geographic photojournalist at the station noticed and approached with his camera. He posted the video he took of Karpenko to Instagram, where it went viral.
“The musicians have always, always been at the forefront,” said Adriana Helbig, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Pittsburgh, whose parents are from Lviv, “because you can say something in music, encoded, that would take pages to say in literature.”
More than five weeks into Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s ferocious resistance has been aided by its musicians, both professional and amateur, who have dug their heels in to aid the war effort in whatever ways they can. “Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in a satellite appearance at Sunday’s Grammy Awards. “They sing to the wounded in hospitals, even to those who can’t hear them. But the music will break through anyway.”
If the country’s music has broken through, it is onto a world stage. On social media, footage of Ukrainians making music in underground shelters and bombed-out public squares raise goosebumps and tug at the heartstrings, racking up millions of views and generating tidal waves of international support. In one, a soloist with the Kharkiv Theater of Opera and Ballet plays Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky in a cramped, candlelit cellar for her neighbors. In another, a cellist performs sections of Bach out in the open air, ruined buildings behind him. A woman in Kyiv gives a farewell performance of Chopin on her grand piano amid what remains of her family’s apartment. A little girl named Amelia sings “Let It Go” in Russian from a bunker in Kyiv.
“It’s a mirror for your soul,” Helbig told The Daily Beast. Of Amelia’s rendition of the Frozen song, the professor explained, “What is inside of you becomes the type of music that you put out. It’s a very human thing for us to respond to that. A child singing what is probably her favorite song becomes the song she shares with the world.”
Karpenko’s video caught the attention of Hans Zimmer, the legendary composer behind Inception’s soundtrack. Zimmer recorded a response and sent it to Karpenko, saying he was “astonished” at the pianist’s use of his song to lift “the spirit of the Ukrainian people.”
“We will play ‘Time’ for you tonight,” Zimmer, wearing a yellow-and-blue scarf, told Karpenko. “We will always play ‘Time’ for you. We will always be there for you. Thank you.”
“I had tears in my eyes,” Karpenko said, “that the best contemporary composer was supporting my country, and I had acted as an intermediary for that.”
Other musicians have enlisted to fight the Russians directly, joining the Ukrainian military’s Territorial Defense Forces. They include members of veteran rock band Boombox; Serhiy Fomenko, the frontman of the folk-fusion outfit known as Mandry; and celebrated traditional bard Taras Kompanichenko (who has been known to walk around strumming his lute-like kobza while dressed in fatigues).
Taras Topolia, the lead singer of pop-rock band Antytila, was on the frontlines in Kyiv last week. Topolia, along with his bandmates, keyboardist Serhii Vusyk and guitarist Dmitry Zholud, first saw combat in 2014, in the midst of the Crimea crisis. On Feb. 24 this year, the trio reported for duty once again. Now, they’re charged with administering first aid to injured soldiers, often rushing them from skirmish sites to trauma stabilization points and nearby hospitals. (Antytila’s two other members, drummer Dmitry Vodovozov and bassist Mykhailo Chryko, are working in Kyiv as civilian volunteers, sourcing medical and hygiene supplies.)
“I’m not afraid,” Topolia said in a phone call from the front. “No one is afraid here. We are not scared. We just know that this is our land. We’re defending our land and our future.” Thinking for a moment, he conceded that the first three days of fighting had been a little nerve-wracking, but that “we already adapted.”
Antytila has an outsize social media presence on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and Youtube, with Topolia having begun to post English-language video updates to document what’s been happening in Kyiv and Irpin.
On March 22, the band made international headlines by filming a direct appeal to Ed Sheeran, saying they had just heard he would be headlining an upcoming charity concert for Ukraine in Birmingham, England. “And we offer to make a live broadcast between Kyiv and Birmingham with Antytila, temporary joining the gig remotely,” said Topolia, flanked by Vusyk and Zholud.
The video amassed more than 7 million views on TikTok alone. Two days later, however, Sheeran responded with a diplomatically noncommittal Instagram Story update, saying he stood with all Ukraianians and that he couldn’t wait to check Antytila’s music out. The band learned soon after that the concert’s organizers weren’t planning to accept their offer.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, the British television network ITV explained that the cluster of charities set to receive the funds raised from the Concert for Ukraine had to “avoid association with any kind” of military service to do their work.
“So we say, ‘Sorry, guys. For us, it’s more important to defend our country and our future,’” Topolia said. “Because of that, we’re temporarily wearing helmets and holding guns in our arms. And we won’t put them down until the job’s done. So if it’s not [compatible] with your concept, it’s OK. We accept this answer.”
Three hundred miles from Kyiv, Sergiy Politutchy was scrambling to save a music festival. The 68-year-old director of the annual Kharkiv Music Fest, Politutchy had spent the better part of a year coordinating with classical musicians from all over Europe, planning to kick the festival off in Ukraine’s second-largest city on March 26.
“Then the war deleted the festival,” Politutchy told the Beast.
Around 700,000 people have been forced to flee the city so far, its regional administration has said. The absence of the noise of roughly half of Kharkiv’s population has been replaced with “the sounds of war,” according to Politutchy, which he’s almost become accustomed to.
“This is a very interesting and terrible phenomena of the war,” he said. “The death, the blood, and the other terribles become a usual part of your environment.”
Life in Kharkiv has narrowed to maintaining a checklist of essentials: food, water, shelter, safety. “And the main, and maybe only single topic in our conversation, in our dreams, is when the war will finish,” Politutchy explained. “Will we be alive ’til the end of the war or not?”
Nobody knew, or knows, the answer. But it’s not surprising, according to Maria Sonevytsky, an American-born Ukrainian associate professor of anthropology and music at Bard College, that we turn to music when there’s a terrifying lack of answers. “For some reason, people all around the world, everywhere, make music,” she said. “I’m not going to argue that it’s as essential as having calories to eat, or shelter to sleep in. But it’s somewhere on the list of what makes us human.”
So if you’re trapped in a bomb shelter, Sonevytsky continued, “and you’re trying not to focus on whether the next explosion might be the one that kills your family, I think making music is a beautiful way to try to remind yourself of humanity, and survive that moment.”
Politutchy and his team came to the same conclusion. Staging some kind of a “concert between explosions,” as it was later called on social media, would show people “that life is continuing, that we’re still alive, and we’ll rebuild our city after the war,” Politutchy said.
So to “save our souls,” as he put it, his team began searching for their musicians—the ones who were left in Kharkiv. A handful, still armed with their string instruments, were located and sent away for a single frenzied rehearsal. Politutchy and the festival’s other organizers set about spreading the word quietly, afraid that advertising the event too brashly would attract unwanted Russian attention.
On March 26, a few hundred people gathered underground in the Istorychnyi Muzei, a subway station named for the historical museum still, somewhat miraculously, standing above it. The small group of musicians, gathered on the station steps, struck up the Ukrainian national anthem. Some in the audience placed their hands over their hearts. Others held up their phones.
Politutchy stood to the side, watching as the musicians shifted into Bach and Dvořák, and arrangements from Ukrainian composers. In his five years of running the festival, his “perfectionist” tendencies had allowed him to realize his dreams—a hundred musicians assembled onstage, playing sublime symphonies to the packed grand hall of the Kharkiv Philharmonic. This cobbled-together recital was not the stuff of his dreams.
But then he turned to look out at the crowd. “All the people in the underground looked with such happy eyes,” he remembered. “Their faces were so light, so bright. Because they had met life. As they met the music, they met the future. A peaceful future.”
The message in the music was clear, the festival director said. “Music is alive. The festival is alive. Friends from around the world: we’ll see you next year, on this day, in this place.”