- By Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Weapons cocked, a group of well-armed young men rap about their hatred for the government. It sounds like a scene straight from a ‘90s gangsta rap video, but it isn’t — it’s from the frontlines of Ukraine’s violent east.
Inspired by the recent turmoil, Ukraine’s young, burgeoning hip-hop community has taken to interpreting its country’s politics through its music, providing an unlikely and unfiltered window into the unfolding scene there. Their music videos, posted on YouTube, tell the story: Anger toward former President Viktor Yanukovych, distrust of the interim government, anxiety over the annexation of Crimea, and taunts for government forces in the east.
Here, then, is the hip-hop guide to the Ukrainian crisis:
Many have forgotten that the crisis began as a peaceful protest against Yanukovych. Under his rule, corruption in Ukraine spiraled out of control, with Ukraine ranking 144 out of 177 on Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index. Resentment toward Yanukovych’s presidency and a desire among many Ukrainians to forge ahead finally crystallized in the Maidan protest movement.
Cue the following video. Made in December 2013, the song features Ukrainian YouTube personality Michael Shchur rapping about the corruption of Yanukovych’s regime while walking through the Maidan at night. Referring to Yanukovych and his decadent lifestyle paid for out of the state coffers, Shchur sums up the sense of palatable disgust: "Your childhood dream became a reality/You have shoes made of ostrich leather, a couple Italian suits/You got them from nowhere, almost for free."
Fast forward to March and the crisis’s dynamics shift dramatically. Yanukovych had fled the capital and the stock of right-wing nationalist groups, such as Right Sector, is rising after playing a critical role in battling the Berkut riot police. Fears of a nationalist revival are only exacerbated by an ultimately doomed effort to strip Russian of its status as one of Ukraine’s minority languages. The inclusion of some right-wing nationalists in the interim government and a virulent Russian propaganda effort to brand the government in Kiev as fascist, contributing to fears, especially among the Russian minority, that the nationalist right is ascending.
The following video is indicative of this sentiment and is directed toward the "Banderists," a reference to Stephan Bandera, a highly controversial figure. Ukrainian nationalists view Bandera as a hero of independence who fought against Soviet oppression; Soviet and Russian history frames Bandera as a fascist and Nazi collaborator. The chorus of the song, "Bandera is a faggot," summarizes feelings in Ukraine’s east toward the nationalist groups and Bandera. In criticizing what many in the east see as the pro-European leanings of Ukrainian nationalists and the decadence of the West, the video adds, "So you want a lot of tasty stuff?/ You really want it? — suck Russian dick."
As tensions heighten, the country moves closer to the brink of war. Russia annexes Crimea later in March, bringing relations between Russia and the West to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Here, the Ukrainian rapper Yarmak tries on a more civil tone in an attempt to broker a dialogue between Russia and Ukraine. Directed at supporters of the Crimean annexation, Yarmak argues that all sides have suffered: "Come and sit near me/ Let’s share the brother’s pain/ I will tell about Crimea/ And you will tell me about Beslan and Volgograd," referring to the 2004 siege of a school in the Russian city of Beslan that left more than 300 hostages dead and two December 2013 suicide bombings that left 34 people dead in Volgograd.
By early April, fighting has broken out in the east. Mobs and militias seize government buildings and proclaim their independence from Kiev. In a call to arms, a militia in Lugansk, one flashpoint in the east, releases a rap video. With a Russian flag hanging in the background and fighters clutching Kalashnikovs and RPGs, they proclaim hatred for the government in Kiev and taunt the West: "We do not need your NATO/ We do not want your gay pride parades for our children." The song is full of references to Slavic brotherhood with Russia and the militia calls on the residents of Lugansk to put down the bottle and join the militia in fighting the Western-backed fascists.
In a similar video, the Russian Orthodox Army trashes the West and the ruling government, all the while professing the virtue of traditional values. The video stars Andrey Donskoy, a musician turned paramilitary fighter, who begins the video by rapping, "Freedom is a rare bird in this land/ If you don’t stand for it you could lose everything." While saying hello to all his "southeastern homies," Donskoy raps verse after verse of Russian nationalism and describes their violent struggle as one waged in defense of the values of the Russian Orthodox Church. The chorus, which serves as a battle chant, helps brand the militia’s odd combination of violence and religious values, saying: "For every fighter, we go to the end/ Until glorious victory on the battlefield/ Russian Orthodoxy!"