“The roar of machine guns was our music”

After the second world war, ramasan mukhametgaliev, now 91 years old, exchanged his machine gun for a mandolin. Every saturday he meets with other veterans in a choir in the eastern ukrainian city of slovyansk. Photo: jens malling

World war ii veterans meet every week in the eastern ukrainian city of slovyansk to sing in a choir. Their soldier songs of heroism, love, fear and death became relevant again after war broke out again in this part of ukraine

The sounds of an accordion swell through the room. The instrument is squeezed and expands between the expert hands of andrei plakidkin. Around the 39-year-old music teacher stands a choir of veterans. The aging singers tune in with verses about world war ii:

In the darkness of the night, bullets whizz across the steppe… In the darkness of the night, i know that you are not asleep, my love… I believe in you, my love… In the darkness of the night, this belief protects me against the bullets… I know that we will meet again, no matter what happens… You wait for me and do not sleep by the cradle… That’s why i know that nothing will happen to me…

Several choir members fought against the nazis in the years 1941-1945 and participated in driving the aggressor out of the then soviet union. The first number sounds out. With a list in his hand, andrej tries to get an overview of who will be appearing today. It turns out that one of the music-loving war veterans, now 93 years old, has unfortunately fallen ill and cannot come. Dead is written after several names with a light pencil stroke. The respectable age of the former soldiers means that the number of choir members is falling.

After the first song a heated discussion breaks out among the 10-12 people present. What songs shall we sing today? Passionate arguments are put forward for and against it. Finally a consensus is reached. Gold teeth glitter, horn rates are set. Then andrei sets the rhythm and the next ballad begins.

It’s saturday morning in slovyansk in eastern ukraine – a city that has seen fierce fighting in the current war between pro-russian separatists and ukrainian government forces. However, slavyansk’s currently embattled position does not prevent the choir members from meeting once a week in a classroom at the city’s technical college – students do not use the space on weekends. Despite their advanced age and languid bodies, the veterans sing with rough power. Their songs permeate the entire building and the music can be heard far out into the street.

Dances break out between the school tables during the more enjoyable songs. The steps are accompanied by rhythmic clapping and enthusiastic cheering. 91-year-old ramasan mukhametgaliev contributes to the ensemble partly with his voice and partly by sliding his fingers over the sides of his mandolin.

Death is not afraid of me… It is not the first time we meet on the steppe… And now he circles me again… At the baby’s cradle you secretly wipe away a trane… How i love the depth in your mild eyes… How i like to press my lips against them… The dark night divides us.. The eerie black steppe lies between us…

He sings with the others.

War without purpose

The new war in eastern ukraine broke out seven decades after mukhametgaliev helped put the third reich in its grave. From his apartment, the aging veteran again hoarded the shells falling and the salvos cracking. According to mukhametgalijev, the rough patriotic war – as the second world war is called in the former soviet republics – is difficult to compare with the current battles for slovyansk.

What is happening in ukraine now – i don’t think it is war. It is no use. It seems to me that the two sides are playing blob, just like children. They push just to push. This is nonsense. Back then, when we launched an offensive, it was not uncommon that 1.000 men were massacred. Now they tell about it on the radio, when one or two have fallen,

The worst battles raged in slowyansk in the spring of 2014.

"The bombs i could not pay. They hit by chance. Those who dropped them could not aim well", said the former red army soldier, stroking a few chords on the mandolin.

Andrei plakidkin (right). Photo: jens malling

To the sounds of the careful melodic fragments he recalls the early 1940s when he had a gun in his hand and fought against the nazis.

"I am a musician. But during the years at the front, we have not played. It was not the time. The right atmosphere was missing. The sound of machine guns was our music", reports mukhametgaliev, who was called up at the age of 17. In 1943 he helped retake kiev.

"We were going to cross the dnieper river to try to take back the city – eight men in a rubber boat. Just off shore a mine exploded and the boat sank. It was the end of october, so the water was cold. Four comrades drowned. Whether it was because they couldn’t swim or because they were injured, i never found out. We four others managed to get to the shore. We were wringing out our clothes and drying them. We launched the offensive against kiev. I was hit on the right bank. A bullet went through", says the war veteran, pointing to a spot above his hoof.