From the little girl who went viral after sweetly singing Let It Go from Disney’s Frozen in a Kyiv bunker, to a many millions of times streamed folk song dedicated to the deadly Bayraktar combat drone, it’s been intriguing to observe the part that music has played in galvanising Ukrainian morale since the Russian invasion began.
Popular song has in fact long been a weapon of resistance in that country to the aggressive impositions of its much larger neighbour. One song in particular, sung en masse everywhere in recent weeks from makeshift bomb shelters to street protests in enemy occupied territory, symbolises it better than any other.
Written in 1968 by Volodymyr Ivasyuk – then a 19-year-old student at the Chernivtsi Medical Institute, later to become one of the most famous and decorated musicians in Ukrainian history – Chervona Ruta is a groovy little orchestral folk-pop number steeped in complex associations and emotions: pride, romance, resilience, tragedy and, most importantly, national identity. It’s a song which very likely cost Ivasyuk his life.
Outwardly Chervona Ruta is an innocent ballad, titled after a mythological flower which, if found in red bloom by a young girl, is said to bring happiness in love.
First heard in public in 1970, it quickly became a sensation across the Soviet Union, sung by an array of different musicians, including Ukrainian pop group Smerichka, whose performance together with Ivasyuk saw them win USSR Song of the Year in 1971 at the inaugural instalment of an annual music gala televised from Moscow.
That same year, a groundbreaking Soviet-Ukrainian musical film – the USSR’s first rock opera – was premiered, titled Chervona Ruta. It popularised the best-known version of the song, sung by the film’s leading lady Sofia Rotaru, who went on to become one of the biggest pop stars in Soviet and Ukrainian history (personally decorated in her time by, among others, Vladimir Putin).
Ivasyuk, who had a small cameo in Chervona Ruta, had by the early 1970s moved to Lviv to formally study composition at the Conservatory of Music, while at the same time working as a doctor and writing several further popular songs over coming years, all of them premiered by Rotaru. Then on April 24, 1979, Ivasyuk suddenly disappeared.
Weeks later, he was found hanged in a forest outside Lviv. Suicide because of a long-term mental disorder was the official cause of death given by Soviet authorities, but few believed it, especially once Ivasyuk’s music began to disappear from sale and from the radio.
For Ukrainians, Chervona Ruta was much more than just a catchy pop tune. It had stirred forbidden patriotic feelings, long suppressed by the Soviets and before them imperial Russian emperors, as part of a centuries long campaign of “Russification” of Ukraine stretching back to the 17th century. Chervona Ruta wasn’t simply a song about a girl searching for a mythical flower, but a love song to Ukraine itself.
To date the only complete English language translation and recording of Chervona Ruta has been made by British-born singer-songwriter of Ukrainian and Irish descent Stepan Pasicznyk. Even though Ivasyuk was never known to be an overtly political person, in lyrics about “true and free” love and “the rivers of the mountains”, Pasicznyk identifies a subtle political subtext. “It is believed to have this double meaning,” Pasicznyk tells The Big Issue, “saying something to the effect of ‘Don’t go searching for something that is already in front of you, your beloved country.’
“Ivasyuk was most probably killed for not wanting to co-operate with the KGB,” Pasicznyk speculates. “He was a potential threat to the Soviets. His popularity established Ukrainian identity in a modern Ukraine.”
Pasicznyk is far from alone in believing that Ivasyuk was murdered by Soviet security services. In 2019 an investigation conducted by the Kyiv Institute of Forensic Science, in the same forest where Ivasyuk was discovered, at the same tree, at the same time of year, concluded that a man of his size and build could never have hung himself without help.
Since Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the USSR in 1991, precipitating the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Ivasyuk has been posthumously awarded two of the country’s highest national honours, Hero of Ukraine and the Shevchenko National Prize.
Chervona Ruta has meanwhile been heard sung across the country everywhere from weddings to football matches, so much so that it’s come to be considered trite and cheesy (beware the electro-dance version), even jingoistic by some.
In the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Pasicznyk recognises echoes of a long history. “We know Putin’s regime and all Russian regimes for centuries have practised a policy of trying to suppress and eradicate Ukrainian identity,” he says, “with the first Russian imperial order banning Ukrainian as a language passed in 1627. The war today is about Russia’s continued attempt to eradicate Ukraine from the world map.”
Little wonder then that a search of social media reveals multiple videos of Ukrainians – whether they’re refugees in the Kharkiv Metro sheltering from Russian bombs or protesters marching fearlessly in the streets of occupied Kherson– finding renewed strength and solace in the haunting words and melody of Chervona Ruta.
“It has become an anthem of Ukrainian identity,” says Pasicznyk.
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