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How to Talk and Teach About Ukraine

By Stephen Benham | March 4, 2022

How to Talk and Teach About Ukraine

My first trip to Ukraine was in 1997, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. The country was buzzing with energy about its potential and finally the chance to share its culture, language, and music with the world! Because Ukraine had been so devastated by communism, it was incredibly difficult to rebuild the country. But even in the most difficult of times, I learned quickly that Ukrainians love to sing. In fact, the Ukrainian people are called a spyvuchy narod (a singing people). Music is a rich part of Ukrainian life. Ukraine is a historical crossroads for travel and trade. Its culture is highly influenced by both the East and the West. It is impossible to generalize modern Ukraine as just “one thing.” It is not monocultural by any means!

Since 1997, I’ve made nearly 60 trips to Ukraine and have traveled to 23 of Ukraine’s 24 oblasts (like a state or province) and the Crimea (illegally annexed by Russia in 2014). I’ve spent time in the industrial Donbass, filled with hardworking, blue-collar people, the remote Carpathian mountains (spending more than one Christmas in snow-covered villages where people sang until midnight in homes lit only by candles), the great city of Kyiv (yes, the great gate of Kiev was a historical place, though Mussorgsky had no idea what it looked like when he wrote the piece), and plains of Central Ukraine. My musical experiences range from concerts in the largest opera and philharmonic halls in the country to folk music celebrations in village huts. In 2015 we started our first children’s music camp in Ukraine; last year, there were six camps spread across the country. We’re having to relocate everything this year because of the war, but we are hoping to hold at least one music camp for refugee children. To say I’ve been blessed by my experiences with Ukrainians is an understatement.

  1. Russia and Ukraine are not the same. They have separate histories, cultures, and languages. A bit more about that later…

  2. Ukraine is one of three major countries in Eastern Europe, together with Russia and Belarus. Ukraine’s history is at least 1,000 years old. The country is older than Russia or Belarus. Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, was once the capital of all of the lands of Eastern Europe. Moscow became the capital of Russia much, much later.

  3. The Ukrainian language is distinct from Russian or Belarusian. All three use the Cyrillic alphabet, but they are not the same language.

  4. Ukraine has amazing natural resources, including access to major rivers and the Black Sea. There are huge reserves of coal, natural gas, minerals, and a lot of amazing farmland. Around 40% of the farmable land in Europe is found in Ukraine! It’s at a strategic crossroads, so you can see why so many people wanted to rule the land.

  5. Unfortunately, this means that for the majority of its history, Ukraine has been occupied by other rulers. Ukraine is also a combination of the lands of many earlier tribes, whose music influenced the development of Ukrainian folk music. Just in the last 500 years, various part of modern Ukraine have been ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–mid-1600s), the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1804–1867), Russian Empire (1721–1917) and the Soviet Union (1922–1991). The Cossack Hetmanate was an independent part of Central Ukraine from 1648–1764. But some parts of Ukraine have had fewer than 50 years of independence and the right to self-determination over the past 500 years. In other words, modern Ukraine is complex and diverse—much like the U.S.

  6. Religion has been a large part of Ukraine’s history. Unlike many of its neighbors, Ukraine does not have an official state religion. Instead, all religions are given equal legal status in the country. Ukraine has substantial populations of people who practice Christianity (divided among Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and other groups), Islam, Judaism, and other religions.

  7. Ukrainians have suffered many great tragedies in their history. Important events include the Holodomor (1932–1933), when 7–10 million people died as a result of starvation, when the Soviet government attempted to subdue Ukrainians by robbing them of their crops and seed. Nearly 9 million Ukrainians died in World War II. Countless others were killed under Stalin’s rule.

  8. Ukrainian culture is very diverse and interesting! Ukrainian folk music is influenced by the music and dances of ethnic groups like the Hutsuls, Jewish Communities, and nearby countries including Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Because people were nomadic, they traveled throughout Central and Eastern Europe and brought their musical traditions with them. There is also a very strong choral tradition in Ukraine. Classical music has been a part of Ukrainian culture and developed in parallel with the classical music of Russia. There are many famous modern Ukrainian pop and rock music stars. Ruslana won the Eurovision Contest in 2004 with her song Wild Dances, which combined traditional ethnic Ukrainian rhythms, dances, and instruments with modern rock styles. Another famous Ukrainian rock band is Okean Elzy (Elza’s Ocean).

  9. People in Ukraine speak multiple languages—there are more than twenty languages found in the country. Ukrainian is the predominant language but most Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian. People in Ukraine are not looking to erase the Russian language or exterminate Russian people or Russian culture. In the same way that people in Switzerland speak German, French, Italian, and Romansh, many Ukrainians are multilingual.

  10. Some of the great choral music of Ukraine was written by composers such as Maksym Berezovsky, Dmytro Bortnyansky, Mykhaylo Verbytsky, Mykola Lysenko, Reinhold Glière, Kyrylo Stetsenko, Myroslav Skoryk, and Mykola Leontovych.

  11. Speaking of Leontovych, his song Shchedryk, which is traditionally called “Carol of the Bells” in English, is one of the most well known pieces in the world. It’s often thought of as a Christmas Carol in the West, but it’s most definitely not! It’s actually a New Year’ song. The song is older than Christianity in Ukraine and comes from pagan traditions. When Christianity came to Ukraine, pagan traditions were eliminated or changed to align with Christianity. The song is now traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve (in the Julian calendar, so January 13). The words in Ukrainian are a song about a swallow singing to the master of the house and telling him he would have a bountiful new year. It was only in 1936 that Peter Wilhousky—an American with Ukrainian heritage—wrote the lyrics to the song we now know as Carol of the Bells. Those lyrics have nothing to do with the original Ukrainian lyrics, but are still recognized worldwide.

  12. Things not to say about Ukraine: 

    1. Again, it’s not Russia. It never has been, although leaders of the current Russian government want to take it over.

    2. It’s not Kiev, it’s Kyiv. Kiev is how the city is pronounced and spelled in Russian. Kyiv is the correct transliteration of the city’s name in Ukrainian. It was called Kyiv before it was renamed Kiev by the Russians.

    3. Don’t call it “Little Russia.” Unfortunately, malorossiya (literally, Little Russia) was a pejorative term used by people in Russia to denigrate people who lived in Ukraine. Rather than respecting their unique culture and language, many began to refer to the country as Little Russia. This contributed to the idea that Ukraine is part of Russia and not separate. Orchestra directors may be thinking…wait, what about Tschaikovsky’s Symphony Number 2 (“Little Russian”). Yep, those are Ukrainian folk tunes, not Russian folk tunes. When I play that piece, I always call it the Ukrainian symphony.

    4. Honor that the Ukrainian language is beautiful and different than Russian. Consider singing more pieces in Ukrainian with your students.

  13. Check out recordings of Ukrainian folk instruments like the bandura. Other folk instruments include the violin, the sopilka (like a recorder), the kobza, and trembita.

  14. Music resources: 

    1. General Music teachers, go to nataliamay.com. The page is in Ukrainian, but filled with wonderful children’s songs! With easy access to translation software, it’s pretty easy to navigate the site. Songs in English and Ukrainian may also be found at Ukraine - Mama Lisa's World: Children's Songs, Nursery Rhymes and Traditional Music from Around the World, and Ukrainianmusic.net.

    2. You can find all sorts of diverse Ukrainian music (folk, choral, instrumental) here: Music – Yevshan. And, of course, online streaming sites have many resources.

    3. Alfred Music has multiple arrangements of the Ukrainian Bell Carol for everything from piano solo to orchestras and ukulele!

    4. For instrumental teachers, visit Duma Music, Inc., where you will find a wide range of Ukrainian music for solo instruments, ensembles. There’s even a selection of Ukrainian pop music on the site.

    5. Three great pieces to check out: The Ukrainian National Anthem, Prayer for Ukraine, and Melodia (for orchestra or various instrumental ensembles, by Myroslav Skoryk).

If you’d like to donate to Ukraine, here are some sites. Some are associated with religious organizations, some with humanitarian organizations. I can vouch for all of these. 

  1. Donate Eastern Europe | MIWC: Money goes to Ukrainian humanitarian support and children’s relief.

  2. Meest humanitarian aid packages for Ukraine: They list several good organizations and opportunities. I’ve worked with Meest for years to ship instruments to Ukraine. They are reputable and very affordable.

Ukrainian National Anthem for Flex Ensembles

Use the power of music to honor Ukraine alongside your students by learning the Ukrainian national anthem, “Shche Ne Vmerla Ukrania.” The 4-part FLEX arrangement for winds, strings, and percussion is available to  download HERE for free, along with an MP3 reference track. Students who wish to play the melody, in unison or as a solo, can play Part 1. String instruments have specific parts labeled as the melody throughout.

Free DownloadMP3 Track
Stephen Benham

Dr. Stephen Benham is Professor of Music Education and Chair of Performance at Duquesne University. He is an active guest conductor and clinician focused on string teaching, pedagogy, and new string program development. He is a former president of the American String Teachers Association.

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