Ukrainian American tries waging peace in Kyiv through music
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are a multitude of stories coming out of that besieged country.
A former American has lived the last 23 years in Ukraine. His name is Jurij Fedynskyj.
“I've lived in it, first in Kyiv for 10 years, then in a small village in east of Kyiv called Krachkyvka, a village in the Poltava region,” Fedynskyj said.
While he was raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, his interest in Ukraine almost seems genetic. And his deep family roots there have hauntingly familiar tones.
“Well, it's a long story, and it's not just my story, it’s my family's story for hundreds of years,” he said. “My relatives have had to say goodbye to home, go live somewhere else because the Moscow Empire doesn't let them stay at home.”
He said his family was yanked out by those roots because of Russian aggression.
“They had to leave the Poltava region 300 years ago after the Battle of Poltava, when Ukrainian Cossack state lost its borders and its freedom,” Fedynskyj said. “I was born in the Diaspora, far away from Ukraine, but in my genes, I realized that I was made for Ukraine. The collective genes in my system are made to fight back.”
There are two words Fedynskyj uses with frequency. The first is “Cossack,” a word loosely meaning “a people of the northern hinterlands of the Black and Caspian Seas. They had a tradition of independence.” The second is “Kobzars.” And they are elemental to his views on Ukraine.
“We have two institutions in Ukraine which kind of keep Ukraine together. You have the Cossacks. And you have the Kobzars, and the Cossacks are the ones who have the swords and the guns, but you have the Kobzars who sing spiritual songs.”
“They would sing to the company of the Bandura, the Kobza, which is kind of a lute,” Fedynskyj said.
Kobzars were a kind of wandering minstrels, singing about Ukrainian history and tradition. Fedynskyj knows about Banduras and Kobzas. He plays them daily, and he also builds them by hand.
“Not only do I make the instruments but I learn how to authentically play the instruments so that I can become effectively, personally a Kobzar, to be able to spread the Kobzar word and culture worldwide,” he said.
Last year, San Antonio nonprofit Musical Bridges Around the World produced a video about Fedynskyj and his work in Ukraine. The film is part travelogue, and part biography of Fedynskyj, his work with making instruments and playing Ukrainian Folk music.
“A place where we have fruit trees. Apples, plums, mulberries. In such a lovely environment, really paradise,” he said.
The documentary makes Kryachkivka sound like a great place to raise kids, and in fact, he has been raising his there.
“Yes, I have four children. My wife is pregnant,” Fedynskyj said.
But no, they’re not with him since he relocated to Kiyv. He evacuated his wife Maria and the children to Raleigh, North Carolina four weeks ago. And yet, he has stayed.
“Something pulls me into Kyiv as they go closer and closer, even as a bit of fear that I know that, you know, Kyiv is the hotspot,” he said.
What could he possibly hope to accomplish by moving into a war zone? It’s all got to do with that Kobzar music, and helping Ukrainian people by playing it.
“In Kyiv we go everywhere. So we've been to a total of maybe eight metro stations which double as kind of bomb shelters,” Fedynskyj said.
And in those metro station bomb shelters he does what Kobzars have done for hundreds of years.
“We played traditional Kobzar repertoire. For my part, my students play that music, but also other music,” he said. “One girl plays a singer songwriter, songs she calls kind of positive songs.”
He gives lessons on traditional instruments, which are multiple-stringed, quite ornate, and have teardrop-shaped bodies. Some of his students come with him into the subway to play. There’s another word you hear with regularity when you speak with Fedynskyj: God.
“You have faith that God will not allow Russia to destroy us. Yes, Putin has atomic bombs, but it's God who either allows his bombs to go off or not,” he said. “It's not the gun which wins the war, it's the person who wields the gun and his motivation.”
He cites ancient Biblical metaphor to define this modern war.
“I would call it David and Goliath. Russia is this Goliath, he's convinced he could take David in a second. And you have this little David was a slingshot. You know, what could he possibly do?” Fedynskyj said. “His positive motivation is to defend your country, defend your, defend your family, your faith in God. This is what’s happening in Ukraine.”
When asked if he was armed his answer was idealistic and intentionally a bit ridiculous.
“Yes, I have the most serious weapons in Ukraine. I have nuclear Torbans,” he laughed. “I have atomic banduras. I have Kobzas.”
Torbans, Banduras and Kobzas are of course the instruments he plays.
“These are not weapons of mass destruction,” Fedynskyj said. These are instruments which preach morality, national unity, love for one another. Things which (Vladimir) Putin doesn't understand. He doesn't see. He doesn't recognize.”
While he jokes about being armed with Ukrainian cultural identity, his beliefs about the war with Russia are deadly serious. He references an American Revolutionary.
“Patrick Henry. ‘Give me freedom or give me death,’” he said. “This is on a different level.”
His prediction for how this war will play out are quite optimistic.
“Kiyv will not fall, and therefore Ukraine will not fall. East Ukraine will not fall. We may have a rough ride coming up,” Fedynskyj said.
“In either case, I do believe this is not to destroy Ukraine. This is to prepare Ukraine for the next stage — to be a leader in the free world. And it's also to put Moscow back in its place, and contain them to where they never do this type of stuff to any other country, I think we're seeing the end of Moscow under the Moscow Empire. Their days are over.”
And so Fedynskyj heads most days down into the metro to sing to those who haven’t evacuated, to assure them Ukrainian destiny, though yet to come, is for greatness.