The Kyiv Post spoke with a military musician who was one of those who stood at the origins of the Cultural Forces. Moisei Bondarenko has been defending the sovereignty of Ukraine as part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) for more than a year. At the same time, he is also known for his touching violin performances in the middle of war-ravaged Ukrainian cities. He told us about becoming a defender of Ukraine while also raising spirits through his music.
In war conditions, moral support of the military undoubtedly plays one of the leading roles. After all, war even affects the morale of civilians. Therefore, people who are in a war zone with constant stress, especially need moral support.
Art especially helps to prevent despondency and the decline of morale. In particular, the function of raising spirits and ensuring unity among the military can be done through music. Sometimes musical performances at the front can replace a meeting with a psychologist, helping them get rid of mental stress and give motivation.
That’s why the Cultural Forces, or landing force, was created during the full-scale invasion. Among the participants are military and non-military artists. From time to time, they travel to the front lines and front line zones, giving concerts to support the morale of Ukrainians.
What made you decide to join to the Armed Forces of Ukraine?
At the time of the invasion, I was in Odesa together with Mykola Serga (now a military musician and participant in the Cultural Forces). We had concerts scheduled ahead of us then, which, of course, were canceled. So, we went to Mykola’s parents to decide what to do next.
In fact, I had a plan to wait until the problems with gasoline and traffic on the roads were over and go to Kyiv. There I planned to meet with Sasha Yarmak (also a military man and part of the Cultural Forces), who would help me join the Territorial Defense Forces (TRO).
But I didn't expect Mykola to make the same decision. However, on February 25, he said that he was going to join the TRO. So, we went together. And here we are in concert costumes, Mykola is generally in red shoes, and I went there with a violin. But it turns out that this is part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
On the wall in the room hangs a plan of defense of Odesa in the event of an attack. Nearby there are boxes of grenades and weapons everywhere. The commander comes up to us and asks if we are ready to serve the people of Ukraine. We went outside in shock, had a quiet smoke, and went back in to agree.
I remember very well how scary it was to hold a grenade in my hands. Because I was constantly asking myself:if you did something wrong, you would break it.
I don’t know how Mykola made the decision. But it was easy for me. I am 23 years old, I am a healthy and completely free guy, and I have nothing I am leaving behind. The best thing I can do during the war in our country is to physically stand up for its defense.
What does your work schedule look like? How do you manage to combine performing combat missions with playing the violin?
Now I have permanent business trips for two or three weeks to the Donetsk region. When I am there, tasks are scheduled when there is a certain need. And when I have time to rest, I use it to make music.
And about cultural landing - I'm honestly happy, because I manage to sleep at night. After all, not everyone has such an opportunity.
For example, when I served in a military unit in Odesa, I had a work schedule of four hours straight. This is terrible, because at such a time it is impossible to have a normal break.
And some military personnel have such serious tasks that they are busy working all day long. For example, they work for five consecutive days, and then rest for a day or two. But even in this case, this is also not bad, because at least there is a day to catch your breath.
After all, there are such difficult destinations, such as Bakhmut, where there is no rest at all. Recently, I was in Kharkiv, where they brought soldiers who had been fighting for nine monthsstraight. They say that the burden is heavy, because there is no safe place where you can relax.
How were the Cultural Forces formed and in what areas do they work?
The cultural landing force grew out of my concerts with Mykola in military units. The soldiers were very happy with our music. They are especially pleased to realize that in the same conditions as they are, with a machine gun in the trench, a well-known person defends Ukraine side by side, whom they could see on TV in the program "Orel and Reshka" (an entertainment travel show in Ukraine).
He also performs songs that raise the spirits. Because the first days of the full-scale war were especially scary. In fact, we all died back then. Tthere was a persistent feeling that at any moment you would die.
And then we joined the landing force, which was joined by all interested military and non-military artists. We all go to different points of the front, but military artists still perform combat tasks. For example, Mykola and I serve in the 59th Vinnytsia brigade. But now we are performing combat missions in the Donetsk region. There we also go to the positions of various military personnel.
We also visit hospitals. This is important because some guys understand that they will no longer be able to go to the front. There is a certain sense of incompleteness from this. This is a difficult kind of limbo -when you can't go back to fighting and in civilian life you don't know what to do.
In addition, performances in the de-occupied territories are important. Since people there were under Russian occupation, we need to remind them how important it is that they returned to Ukraine. This is generally a separate mission. We need to remind people that this is not just a war for the land, but for them.
What is the current military’s mood?
Actually, they are different everywhere. If we talk about the front line, where the guys are in harsh conditions — in the trenches, in the forest, then in fact they are all not somehow United. Here you look at yourself, and you are covered in mud and dream of at least some water. But you stand there and hug them and are happy that you are together. In the eyes of some soldiers, you see a brother or father. Although, of course, from fatigue and constant tension there are quarrels.
By the way, maintaining contact with the civilian world helps to distract from such an atmosphere in general. For example, through social networks. I am personally interested in seeing how people live in an ordinary city. So I go to the pages of people who are doing something useful, look at them and imagine how I could live like this, of course.
Do you often have the opportunity to use your phone?
The trick is that this is not the army that we imagined when watching TV shows and movies. All your things are with you and you don't have to stand all day looking at one point. There are times to relax. Therefore, after work, the military spends time on the Internet, just like an ordinary person, just in different conditions.
I am often asked what I do, what I manage to conduct social networks. This is from a misconception about the everyday life of the military. After all, people forget about technological progress and that everyone has a phone. In addition, thanks to Starlink, the military has a powerful internet connection in many places.
So this is a great opportunity for us to get distracted. I generally say that it would be cool if everyone wrote to at least one soldier. For example, if you are walking somewhere or sitting in a bar, you take pictures of yourself relaxing and send them to the warrior. You can ask him how he's doing, tell him you're waiting to come back. You can also add that civilians remember the military, thank them for the opportunity to relax and think about what other ways to help. In fact, this is a very strong support, because not everyone has families.
What is the most difficult thing at the front for you personally?
It's hard for me to get used to constant artillery attacks. It's very scary, because you realize that a projectile can fly near you. And it's one thing when you died and didn't realize it, but it's another when you're seriously injured and slowly dying.It's also hard to see the families of warriors who have died. Because many military personnel come from the same places where they fight.
And in general, the very ease of losing a life is striking, every day someone dies. It's hard to realize that at any moment you might just be gone. So, I try to do as much as possible in terms of art, so that I can leave more behind.
And what positive aspects can you highlight for yourself?
I am glad that Ukrainians are united more than ever. There was also an expansion of the worldview and a change in thinking. We no longer worry about small things like problems at work or a small salary. I also met real heroes, with whom we are now one team.I am glad that people emphasize the importance of music and art in general at the front.
Because this is something that is higher, spiritual, it helps to get out of the simple, physical. So, I will be making music for the rest of my life. And it doesn't matter if I play in a concert hall or an underground passage.
And in general, the music has become different. If I used to play in an entertainment format, now I realized how deep it can be. When music serves as a sedative, you realize that it is much more valuable than you thought of it before the war.
It's one thing when you play in a restaurant in the background, but it's another when you play and everyone feels every note -because they don't know if they will ever be able to hear the violin again.
Are there any moments of doubt and how do you overcome them?
When I didn't even have the strength to get up, I wrote a song - my only song - about it. I wanted to remind everyone that we are not alone. When you are tired, you need to remember that there are many of us and everyone needs support.
But there is no right to give up, because there is only one goal — victory.
This song helped me get back on my feet in difficult times. And I was thinking about how to make more people hear it. After all, perhaps someone also needs a breath of motivation.
Then I thought it would be great if the song was included live. At that time, there was just a national selection for the Eurovision 2023, I thought that if I get into the top ten, then just my dream will come true.
But it seemed impossible, because I had never sung on stage and it was my first song ever. However, I still tried and how great was my surprise when among 300-400 applications from professional artists I entered the top 10. Thus, my dream came true.