Speaking by Zoom from an undisclosed location in the north of Ukraine, Andrii Dmytrenko points to the knee pads hidden beneath his fatigues. The uniform is a far cry from what he would have worn onstage with his alt-pop band Adm:t, for which he’s lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist, but he’s grateful for it. “At the beginning [of the war], there was no possibility to obtain such clothes or gear from the government because of the quantity of people who started serving,” he says as he steps gingerly around rubble. “Most of the musicians that are serving now have not been doing something related to the army before. They were walking on the streets with the guitar or bass and singing, not crying.”
In addition to protective pads, Dmytrenko also now has a first-aid kit, tactical eyewear and other gear — all thanks to a fund set up to supply homegrown and under-equipped musicians in his country with whatever they need to defend it. Even more surprising is that a portion of that money is coming from some of the higher echelons of the international music business itself.
As soon as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began a year ago this week, members of the country’s music community began signing up to fight, whether they had military experience (like Dmytrenko) or not. While it’s difficult to know how many musicians have enlisted, at least 70 or 80 have been able to do so with the help of Musicians Defend Ukraine, a charity fund whose founders include the psychedelia-inclined Ukrainian band Love ‘n’ Joy, the owners of the local indie label Shptyal, and a cultural agency that focuses on Ukrainian indie music.
“After the first wave of shock was passed, the second thoughts for all of us was, ‘How can we help?’” says photographer Anna Evstigneeva, who manages Love ‘n’ Joy. “A lot of musicians never were on the frontline before. When the full-scale invasion started, everybody just made this decision very fast. We decided to use their connections from music industry, too, to use it and to get help.”
To date, Musicians Defend Ukraine has raised the equivalent of $270,000 to be distributed to those soldiers. The largest donation came from GVL, the German music copyright collection society, which pitched in roughly $120,000. According to Evstigneeva, a “generous donation” came from Merck Mercuriadis, the management and publishing player whose company Hipgnosis has bought up catalog rights for artists like Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Justin Timberlake, and others. (Through a spokesperson, Mercuriadis declined comment but confirmed the donation.)
“The more specific the work like that gets, the more it’s impressive,” say Eugene Hütz, the Ukrainian-born frontman of the band Gogol Bordello. “It shows that people really have the situation under a microscope.”
Other funding has arrived from benefit concerts and even other Ukrainian musicians, like the metal trio Kat. Bassist Kyrylo Brener says his band contributed a portion of income earned from merch and record sales and the few shows they’ve been able to do since last year. “I know some guys who are in the army,” Brener says. “They need help from us. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
It would be be easy to assume that the money raised goes toward weapons, but Evstigneeva insists that isn’t the case. “First of all, it’s complicated, and it can be a bit problematic because lots of people don’t want to donate for weapons,” she says. “So we decided not to do this part of the job. There are lots of other funds that can provide it.”
“They had a problem with raising money at the beginning of war,” says Vyacheslav Drofa, a.k.a. OTOY, a singer-rapper-soldier who immortalized the early months of the war with his hip-hop track “Find My Country” (which features the lyrics, “This is my lands, you boys should leave/Miss those Fridays we used to have, kisses, twilights, refuse to sleep”). “It was really hard to tell people abroad that this is not sponsoring of war. This is for people that [are] actually defending their country, because we didn’t have anything at the beginning.”
Ultimately, the fund went toward supplying musician-soldiers with drones, tourniquets, combat clothing, helmets, night-vision goggles, walkie-talkies, and monoculars. Pavlo Nechitajlo, a singer and guitarist who served in the Army for most of last year, says he “had nothing before” in terms of gear. The Army supplied him with weapons and body armor, but from the fund, he was able to obtain much-in-demand Lowa boots (“every soldier in Ukraine dreamed about Lowa at that time”) and a thermal imager to help guard the border. Dmytrenko is also hoping for a car to help transport the wounded off the battlefield; two previous vehicles, which came across the Polish border, broke down before they reached his battalion.
OTOY, who lost a brother in the invasion, wound up enlisting with a volunteer unit rather than the official Army, which gave him the flexibility of returning to Kyiv to help with charity work. But that also meant he needed to obtain his own combat gear. To his relief, he was contacted by Musicians Defend Ukraine. “They texted me like, ‘Hey, bro, how are you? We know that you’re doing some stuff. Doesn’t matter if it is volunteering or army; give us the list what you need and we’ll cover it.’” He was soon supplied with a camouflage uniform and a helmet — which was destroyed in combat, thanks to a minefield, but soon replaced with another.
With Ukraine now in the middle of winter, and the invasion itself approaching a grim anniversary, Musicians Defend Ukraine is focusing on generators and warm clothing to ensure that soldiers from the stages and recording studios can survive outdoors in the cold. “The requests are very different depending on the season and what guys actually need right now,” Evstigneeva says. “We want these musicians to get back to playing music and do what they have to do. But we are fighting for saving the life of musicians as well as saving culture, because Russia is trying to destroy our culture.”