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‘A way to let my friends know I’m still alive’ Vera Lytovchenko, a professional violinist, keeps playing for her neighbors — even as Russian bombs fall outside.

Source: Meduza

Vera Lytovchenko is a violinist from Kharkiv. Because the Russian military has been bombing her city nonstop, she’s spent most of her time lately in the basement of her apartment building, where she plays violin for her neighbors. Videos of her playing have been viewed thousands of times on social media and have helped other Ukrainians endure the fear and violence that have become a part of their daily lives. Vera spoke to Meduza about how life has changed since February 24.

Vera Lytovchenko

Musician from Kharkiv

I live in Kharkiv with my father, a professor and a department chair at Kharkiv University. I’m a professional musician — I’ve been playing music since I was seven years old. I previously studied at a music school and a conservatory. Now I’m part of the orchestra at the [Kharkiv] Opera Theater, and I teach at a music school and at a conservatory.

I’m an academic musician, which means I play mainly classical music — music from operas and ballets. I also play sonatas with my students at the conservatory. I’ve been to quite a few countries on tours over the course of my career, mostly to play with orchestras. I’ve been to Russia several times. I’ve played in Spain, Italy, Poland, Germany, Turkey, Japan, the Netherlands, and Belgium. I can’t say which country I’ve liked most — each is delightful in its own way. Traveling and going on tour is always interesting for me, no matter what country I go to.

When the war began, I was asleep. At five in the morning [on February 24, 2022], we heard some explosions, and my first thought was: who’s setting off fireworks this early in the morning? I didn’t believe it could be bombs for the longest time — I even tried to make myself fall back asleep. After a while, though, I realized it wasn’t fireworks after all.

The explosions were somewhere far away, but people who live closer to the outskirts of town could hear them from their balconies. We had absolutely no information. Then we heard they had already shelled several airports in different cities around Ukraine. On that first day, we believed it would end soon — that they wouldn’t bomb the city itself. A day later, when the air raid sirens started going off, we realized that wasn’t the case.

On the second or third day, we went down to the basement [of our building]. At first, we would only spend a few hours at a time down there, but we started spending more and more time there every day — and now we practically never leave. There are 12 of us in the basement, though when everyone who lives in the building comes down, it’s 25. In the basement, there’s no such thing as day or night — everything blends into one, long day. Sometimes, I go up to the apartment to brush my hair or my teeth. But we spend most of our time downstairs.

Right now, not all of the building’s residents are down there. There are some people who still stay in their apartments. It’s tough for the older residents down there, hard for them to breathe — there’s a lot of dust and sand. I’ve developed a cough and some allergies, too. But all things considered, the basement is fairly comfortable — it has heat, electricity, and even Internet.

A lot of people have asked me how I post videos on the Internet. They say my life is too comfortable. Many people aren’t so lucky — some don’t have basements, so they just sit in their apartments and hope their building won’t be the one the next bomb hits. Some high-rises are just falling apart from all of the hits they’ve taken, other people’s basements are flooded, and other people don’t have electricity, so I consider myself lucky. I’m fortunate that we have a good basement and good neighbors. We’ve become like a family: we’re not afraid of each other, we have our own routines, and we try to cook for each other.

Yesterday, for example, we celebrated March 8 [International Women’s Day]. We have several men down there, and they somehow managed to find us tulips. We put together a holiday meal: we brought a slow cooker down to the basement, made porridge, opened some canned goods. We even had one bottle of champagne left from our stockpile. Our neighbors have one more — they’re saving it for the day the war ends.

We got lucky in terms of food, too — we managed to buy some groceries just a few days ago. You can also get free humanitarian aid — they give it out in the morning, but the lines get long fast. The day before yesterday, we got some pelmeni [small dumpling], some canned goods, and some drinking water. Volunteers give out the food. Who knows where it comes from — there's no time to ask questions. You don’t have to be a soldier to give it out — I could sign up as a volunteer if I wanted to, but to be honest, I’m afraid to move around the city.

I don’t know exactly what’s happening around the city right now. Not many people are leaving their homes. The city is partially destroyed; some buildings look really scary. People are acting very strange: some are panicking, while others are so calm that they’ve even kept walking their dogs in the morning. We get a few hours of peace in the morning — it’s usually quiet from about 7 to 9. That’s when you can leave the basement and go up to the apartment. But after that, it’s dangerous to be out in the city.

The buildings in the city haven’t been destroyed to their foundations; the walls are still standing. Lots of residential buildings have caught fire and burnt down. Lots of windows are broken. Right now, it’s cold — negative forty — and there are people who can’t be in their apartments.

A few blocks away from us, a bomb hit the music school. Several buildings were destroyed. They’ve wrecked factories and runways; I can't keep up with the never-ending stream of messages about what’s been destroyed. The shelling doesn’t have an epicenter — they fire throughout the whole city. We have no idea where the next shell will land.

I’ve posted several pictures on Facebook. It’s pretty unpleasant when people write that this is all fake. There aren’t currently any Russian soldiers in the city. As far as I know, they tried to get in, but our city is currently still under our authorities’ control. Initially, it was Grads [Russian tanks] that were doing the bombing — they would drive them closer to the city — but now we’re being bombed from planes.

I saw a video on Facebook of one of my students from the music school playing her violin in the metro station — a lot of people are hiding down there right now. She started playing for the people who ended up down there with her, and she was playing the very piece we’d been working on in her lessons. Masha’s planning on going to conservatory — I hope she can start in the summer. I was so touched by her courage, and I decided that if an 18-year-old girl can do it, so can I. I was so weak, but I took out my violin and I started playing for my neighbors. I wanted my friends to know I was alive, that I was also finding a way to take my mind off of things. Then people started messaging me and asking me to play again. Somehow or other, my videos have become really popular.

Quite a lot of people have told me that my music is really helping them — I haven’t even had time to answer them all. People have written that it’s nice to see someone who isn’t scared — that someone can still play the violin, even in a time like this, and that they’re not alone in this city. My neighbors like it too, but sometimes they ask me to play quieter so I don’t attract attention from outside. I’m happy I can be helpful, even if it’s just this. I’m a musician, after all — not a doctor, not a soldier. When I play music and I see it helps someone, it shows me that my work wasn’t a waste.

My perception of the music itself hasn’t changed — it’s my perception of life that has. We need to rethink everything. It’s already clear that our lives will never be the way they were before. I think I still need some time to internalize that.

After the war, I dream of rebuilding everything that’s been destroyed. And to return to normal life as soon as possible. When all of this is over, I’d like to start a small foundation and collect money to help musicians from Kharkiv who have suffered. Some of them have lost their homes, some have lost their instruments, and some of them no longer have any way to make a living.

Yesterday, one of my new friends told me that the thing she wanted most of all was a cappuccino. But in reality, there’s only one thing we all need: the end of the war. When they stop bombing us, we’ll figure everything out ourselves, we’ll build it all back. We’ll get groceries, medical supplies, and rebuild our lives.

Interview by Alexey Slavin 

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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