BY BLAIR RUBLE
The Ukrainian progressive rock trio Sinoptik—whose sample clips one can see here or here—has enjoyed international success in addition to a fervent following in Ukraine since emerging on the rough-and-tumble Donetsk rock scene over a decade ago. Dmitry Afanasiev on guitar and keyboards, Ruslan Babayev on drums, and Aleksandr Savin on bass have taken their unique blend of emotional guitar riffs, the cosmic sounds of synthesizers, and philosophical lyrics far and wide to win fans over in small settings and 80,000-seat stadiums. Their victory at Berlin’s Global Battle of the Bands, followed by the success of their album Interplanet Overdrive, ensured an ever-expanding audience.
Their most powerful performance, however, could well be their simple a capella performance of “Save Ukrainian Children! Stop the War,” recorded during the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Scattered without their instruments to different sites surrounding Kyiv, the trio came together on YouTube to record in parallel a compelling appeal to help Ukrainian children. The contributions collected in response have helped provide for Ukrainian orphans and displaced children.
Ukraine has been a hot spot for rock in many forms since well before independence. The first Soviet rock ’n’ roll bands began to appear in Estonia and Latvia—and eventually in Moscow and Leningrad—during the early 1960s. The new music took off by mid-decade with the arrival of the Beatles over shortwave radios and, eventually, contraband cassette tape recordings. By the 1970s, Soviet rock bands had found their own worldview. The genre swept the country, with homegrown groups such as Mashina Vremini (Time Machine), Akvarium (Aquarium), and Zvuki Mu (the Sounds of Mu) grabbing large followings.
A quasi-underground Soviet rock scene thrived in the dark shadows of official institutions such as those attached to Donetsk’s massive factories—in restaurants and workers’ clubs, in palaces of culture, and on festival stages often controlled by Young Communist League (Komsomol), trade union, and factory officials. By the 1980s a robust, complex, and varied rock music culture had taken root, ranging from ubiquitous disco groups to punk and everything in between. Rock dominated the youth culture of the Soviet Union’s largest cities, including Donetsk.
This Soviet-era rock explosion opened the door for a dynamic and raucous music scene in postindependence Ukraine. New groups performing in Ukrainian, Russian, and English toured the country and abroad. Sinoptik’s Berlin success was far from unique as Ukrainians began to find a distinct musical voice.
Rock—the heavier the better—fit the personality of Sinoptik’s hometown of Donetsk. During the late nineteenth century, Welshman John Hughes transformed Aleksandrovka, a quiet administrative outpost of empire, into the coal and steel powerhouse Yuzovka (Hughesovka). The Russian Empire’s Manchester or Pittsburgh, the city was the kind of place where those who owned the mines and factories became fabulously wealthy off the labor provided by armies of underpaid and overworked workers toiling in dangerous conditions. Renamed Stalino during the Dictator’s forced industrialization campaigns of the 1930s, Donetsk (so renamed during the destalinization campaigns of the 1960s) was Steeltown, USSR.
By the late 1980s, the region’s militant independent miners’ unions had become an important phenomenon auguring the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. Vicious gang wars for control of the city’s massive industrial enterprises and their resources followed the Soviet collapse. Several mine disasters tied to lax safety procedures darkened the region’s gloomy repute, as did a poisonous conflict over language rights in this predominantly Russian-speaking region. The 2014 proclamation of an independent Donetsk People’s Republic tied to Moscow sparked the war, which continues to this day.
An aggressive style of rock reflected the proletarian angst that spilled over into Donetsk culture and politics. Like Sinoptik, the early twenty-first-century ascent of Napalm Records’ Jinjer and the “nu metal” group Agregate on the Donetsk scene captured this era’s ethos. The city’s violent separatist turmoil, combined with the dynamism of Kyiv’s music scene, would lead Afanasiev, Babayev, and Savin to decamp for the Ukrainian capital. Their simple yet powerful plea to save the children and stop the war could well be their most important work yet.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
Blair A. Ruble
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more