How Ukrainian Artists Are Using Their Craft to Combat Russia and Preserve Their Culture

illustration of a ukrainian gymnast

Oksana Drachkovska

“Music can’t stop the war, but it can show the world that we will fight for our future, for our country, and for our culture.”

Several weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, violinist Vera Lytovchenko was looking for a way to distract her neighbors from the devastation happening above them. “We had been sitting in the basement for several weeks, which isn’t very pleasant,” she tells Katie Couric Media from her home in Kharkiv. “There were children, and people were scared.” So, she did what she does best: She played violin. 

She wanted to offer the same respite, if only fleeting, to her loved ones in different parts of the country avoiding Russia’s advance. “I loaded the video to the internet for my friends and family in other districts in Kharkiv and other cities. I sent it to my aunt who was near Kyiv in a more dangerous area. She told me it was a pleasure to hear my music. She asked me to play ‘Hallelujah,’ so I played it for her as we were sitting in different bomb shelters in different places in Ukraine.”

That’s when Lytovchenko realized her purpose in this war. “When Russia invaded, many Ukrainians felt useless. I can’t stop this war. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a soldier. I’m a musician. What can I do?” she says. “I realized this is what I can do, play violin.”

You’ve probably seen this video by now, or others of Lytovchenko playing concerts in bomb shelters as the war has raged on for the past two and a half months. 

Some of her videos have garnered over 30k views. 

“When I found out that my videos became popular, I was a little shocked — I’m just a humble orchestra player. But as journalists started calling me for interviews and more people started following me on Instagram and Facebook, I decided I must use this strange fame for something good.” She uses her videos to raise money for Ukrainians in need. But they also serve a logistical purpose: “When I see that my loved ones watched a video, or I see their likes or comments on my post, I know they’re alive and safe and have electricity and internet, and it’s a relief for me.” 

She’s learned that simply hearing live music is of great value to Ukrainians waiting out the war. In an effort to reach the masses with her melodies, Lytovchenko began playing concerts with other musicians for Ukrainians sheltering in subway stations.

“The first time I went to the subway station, it was so strange. People were lying on the platform with animals, with their children. They have food there, they’re reading books, they’re communicating with each other. They even have classes for children. They’re just living in the subway stations. And when people saw us with instruments, they were so surprised,” she recalls. “Then we began to play Ukrainian songs, and many people cried. Then we played energetic music, and people began to smile. They were the most sincere smiles that I’ve ever seen.” 

This response, accompanied by a seemingly endless round of applause, affirmed for her the power of music in times of immense strife. “They were the most powerful concerts we’ve ever played, because we saw how our music can help people living in the subway to feel less isolated and know that they are a part of our community, and our city, and our country.” She saw how music “can unite.”


Artists all over the country have made it their mission to continue creating and performing despite Russia’s attempts to destroy the Ukrainian spirit. Many of them have gone viral for their efforts. 

Shortly after Russia’s invasion, you may have seen a video of violinists from all over the world playing in unison virtually. At the center was Illia Bondarenko playing from a bomb shelter. 

“On the second or third day of the war, I posted my string quartet on Instagram and wrote something about being strong,” the 20-year-old violinist and composer tells us. “A very famous violinist from Britain, Kerenza Peacock, commented on the video and suggested we gather violinists from Ukraine and all over the world to play some Ukrainian melody to support the country.” 

Bondarenko chose a Ukrainian folk song and made an arrangement for a string ensemble while Peacock reached out to 94 violinists in 29 countries to accompany him. The end result is a powerful depiction of perseverance through music. 

“It’s a musical message,” Bondarenko says. “When the video was posted, it was the second week of the war and not a lot of people from outside Ukraine understood at that moment that what was going on in Ukraine was not some small act of terrorism — it was a full-scale war. And we wanted to attract attention from everybody who had the internet. And I think we were successful.” 

The video has almost 400k views on YouTube. It was also showcased in the Concert for Ukraine benefit, alongside artists like Ed Sheeran and Camila Cabello. Bondarenko, who’s currently located close to Kyiv, has since posted dozens of other videos performing in bomb shelters or among the rubble of cities destroyed by Russian attacks. 

“It was a little weird because you know what’s going on upstairs but in the same way you’re trying to create something that isn’t about the war,” he says of playing music in the bomb shelters. “You’re seeing all these terrifying photos and videos every minute. A lot of people don’t have the words to describe these horrible things. In those moments, people want to be in touch with music, because it’s a universal language. Everybody can understand it. I think that’s what I felt in the bomb shelter,” he describes. 

He’s using his platform to raise money for Ukraine. “It’s not just about getting so many views. People are getting the message about the problems in Ukraine. That’s more important than people just liking the video.” 


Bondarenko and Lytovchenko are often asked why they’ve stayed in Ukraine. For Bondarenko, it’s simple. He’s 20, and all men between the ages of 18 and 60 are required to stay in the country in case they’re needed in the fight against Russian troops. 

“When this first started and Ukrainians without military experience were volunteering to fight, I really wanted to join, but people encouraged me not to,” he says. “I don’t have the skills. I can support my country in other ways, and that’s what I’m doing now.” 

Lytovchenko lives in Kharkiv, where, several days before we spoke, there was severe shelling near her house. “A bomb was dropped on a house on a neighboring street, and there was a very big fire. Some people died. It was very scary,” she recalls. 

But she doesn’t plan to leave. “I have many friends that are still here, and we have a community and we’re helping each other. I have many animals that I care about and I still have work here.” She adds, “the most important reason is I don’t want to leave my native city. I’m trying to save all I can.” But she can leave easily, whenever she wants. “We have cars, buses, trains. But we decided this is the place for us now. And I can show my followers and journalists the situation in Kharkiv through my eyes. I want the world to see what’s happening — I think it’s my duty to show and talk about it.” 


Ukrainian artists who’ve fled the war are doing their part to spread awareness of what’s happening in Ukraine, too, though. Oksana Drachkovska is an illustrator and graphic designer from Lviv who has been creating art illuminating some of the devastation and heinous acts she’s hearing are happening in her home country. “When Russia invaded Ukraine, I was in Lviv, but I left Ukraine a few days later and went to my friends in Warsaw,” she tells us. “It was very difficult to gather my thoughts and strength to leave Ukraine. For the first few days, I was scared all the time and I heard sirens everywhere. I knew that I wouldn’t last that long; I couldn’t work, and I didn’t see the benefit of just being in Ukraine. So I listened to my friends from Warsaw and left. I packed a small backpack and didn’t know how far I was going…and I still don’t know.” Her father and grandmother are still in Ukraine. “We’re in touch all the time. For now, the place where they live is safer, it’s very close to the border of Romania.”

Now, Drachkovska is in Barcelona, Spain. 

Since the war broke out, she’s created illustrations to honor an 11-year-old Ukrainian gymnast named Kateryna Dyachenko who was killed in the war, women being raped by Russian soldiers, and the maternity hospital in Mariupol that was bombed.

She and other illustrators have been organizing “exhibitions about the war and using the exhibitions to raise money for Ukraine.” She says, “This is a small drop in a bucket that is now helping Ukraine. I also sell prints from my illustrations and transfer some of the money to volunteers.” 

Ukrainian artists all over the world are using their talent to raise awareness, funds, and spirits. But there’s something in it for them, too. 

Drachkovska was feeling so many emotions at the start of the war and was having difficulty talking to anyone during her first few days in Warsaw. So, she turned to her art. “I decided to speak the language that I know best and that does not need to be translated. Drawing helped me — I can’t keep quiet now.”

Creating such beautiful artwork based on such ugly events is a unique experience for Drachkovska. “Drawing these brings so much emotion and pain, but I’m always looking for a little hope in my illustrations.” 

Playing and composing music has had a similar effect on Bondarenko and Lytovchenko. “The first days and weeks of the war, it was really hard to play violin because I thought, ‘Why am I doing this? What’s the use of this?’” Lytovchenko recalls. “Later I realized music is my identity: When I play violin or when I teach students online, I feel that I know who I am and what I know how to do. Knowing that helps not lose my mind and not forget who I am. I hope it helps someone else, too — but it helped me save my identity. Because we’ve all lost our lives. We don’t know who we are and what will happen next,” she says. “But I realized who I am and what I can do.”

None of these artists know what awaits them down the line as they pray for better times. Until then, they’ll continue sending the message that the Ukrainian spirit and culture cannot be eradicated. “It’s important for us to show that even in this terrible situation, we still keep our culture. We aren’t just thinking about how to survive. We are still people with rich culture, with music,” Lytovchenko says. “Of course, music can’t stop the war, but it can show the world that we are alive and we will fight for our future, for our city, for our country, and for our culture.”

These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.