Ukrainian violinist Olha Rukavishnikova has come to the US to revive American support for her country's struggle.
Bandura player Taras Stolyar and violinist Olha Rukavishnikova perform in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 2024. (Photo by Shuran Huang for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Musicians Playing for Ukraine

They may be wounded, but these Ukrainian soldiers are still fighting for their country, touring America with their instruments to drum up support.

With the Washington Monument gleaming in the background, Ukrainian violinist Olha Rukavishnikova struck the first notes of her nation’s hymn of independence on May 20. It marked the beginning of a cultural mission. Rukavishnikova—wearing a Ukrainian military uniform and black eye patch to cover the latest in a series of battle wounds—has come to America with a small band of musicians, hoping to revive U.S. support for her country’s war against Russia.

They arrived in New York on May 19, visited D.C., and have stops planned in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago this month. At the performance for U.S. veterans at the National WWII Memorial in Washington, Rukavishnikova, 25, was accompanied by Taras Stolyar on a bandura, a traditional Ukrainian instrument resembling a lute. Players of the bandura, often called the “voice and soul of Ukraine,” were persecuted and killed in the Stalinist era when a generation of Russians sought to erase any trace of Ukrainian independence.

The “thank you” tour—organized by Cultural Forces, a Ukrainian nonprofit—arrived weeks after Congress approved a much-delayed $61 billion military aid package for Ukraine. Last month, President Biden cleared the use of American weapons on targets inside Russia. Yet the delay—after two years of sometimes agonizing indecision by the Biden administration over approving certain arms—allowed Russia to press its advantage. In recent weeks, Russia has pummeled Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and seized more territory. 

“I’m not happy about the news we are receiving from the front lines,” said opera singer Yurii Ivaskevych, 51, a tenor who belted the U.S. national anthem at the WWII Memorial. “Since I’ve left, many of my comrades, they have fallen.” 

Ivaskevych volunteered to fight the day after Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Leaving behind his wife and son, Ivaskevych joined the 110th Brigade of the Zaporizhzhia Territorial Defense Force. His call sign was “Pavarotti.” On a combat mission last July, he stepped on a landmine that blew off part of his left leg. That meant the war was over for him.

“They wanted to write me off, but I insisted that I wanted to stay on,” he said. “They were surprised by that.” 

Rukavishnikova also volunteered right after Russia invaded. As an infantry soldier in the 112th Brigade, the former child prodigy with a black belt in karate fought in Kiev. She has been injured five times and lost an eye amid hellish warfare in the Serebryansky Forest. Rukavishnikova also plans to keep fighting until the war ends. But for now, her violin serves as rehabilitation.

“This music is about emotions,” she said. “It translates the conditions that the soldiers go through every day.”

Fredrick Kunkle is a reporter based in Washington, D.C. Read his reporting from Ukraine for The Washington Post, “Ukraine cracks down on draft-dodging as it struggles to find troops.” Follow him on X @KunkleFredrick.

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