by Peter Tracy
In the 2014 film Povodyr (The Guide), director Oles Sanin tells the story of an American boy who, to survive the horrors of Soviet Ukraine, falls in with a blind minstrel and poses as his guide. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that minstrels such as the boy’s friend, often known in Ukrainian as kobzari, are actively being persecuted by Soviet authorities as a threat to their control in the region. At the end of the film, the boy witnesses a massacre of such minstrels, who are rounded up and blown to pieces unceremoniously under the cover of a dam-building project. Framed as a work of historical fiction, it is difficult not know how many of the events of Poyodyr truly took place, or whether they could realistically have occurred in the first place. Did such a massacre of kobzari really happen? And who were these minstrels that could so frighten the Soviet state?
Kobzari are the traditional bards of Ukraine, bearers of an oral tradition stretching back, some would argue, to the days of the Kyiv-centered federation known as the Kievan Rus’, which controlled much of Eastern and Northern Europe from the 9th until the 13th centuries. The term kobzar stems from the instrument known as the kobza, a plucked string instrument not unlike the lute or the oud, and some scholars see a relation between the kobza and the Turkish kobyz and komuz, two other string instruments which might have been introduced to Ukraine as part of a Turkic migration in the 13th century. Another string instrument played by early kobzari, the torban, bears a striking resemblance to the baroque theorbo.
The origins of the bards themselves are murky, but one prominent legend paints the early kobzari as military men, part of the nomadic Zaporozhian Cossack hosts which inhabited the regions of central and eastern Ukraine referred to as the “Wild Fields” in Polish-Lithuanian documents of the 16th and 17th centuries. Crimean Tatars regularly made slaving raids into the Ukrainian interior from this region, and the suffering caused by such events forms the subject of many Ukrainian folk stories. Following the Khmelnytsky Uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th century, a polity known as the Cossack Hetmenate was established, and this fledgling Ukrainian state sparred with its Russian, Ottoman, and Polish-Lithuanian neighbors for roughly a century until it was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1764.
In this telling of the kobzari’s origins, the bards were hardy nomadic fighters who composed songs to celebrate their fallen comrades, brave Ukrainian warrior-poets who battled Tatars, Ottomans, Poles, and Russians alike. This vision is encapsulated by the Ukrainian folk hero Cossack Mamay, a staple of Ukrainian art and storytelling who is regularly depicted as playing a kobza in rich traditional clothes, his head shaved except for one long forelock in a hairstyle known as chupryna and his rifle and sword by his side. Miniature paintings of Cossack Mamay have been found alongside religious icons, and the consistency of the composition within such images, remaining largely the same throughout centuries, implies the intense significance which the folk hero must have had for Cossack’s of the 17th and 18th centuries. As origin stories go, this semi-mythological history is a compelling one, exerting a strong pull on Ukrainians to this day.
Indeed, this vision of the early kobzari is in keeping with the subject matter of one of the more widely celebrated strains of the kobzar repertoire: historical epics known as dumy. According to Natalie Kononenko, a duma is an epic poem set largely to solo instrumental accompaniment that is chanted rather than sung, with line-lengths that can be extremely uneven and a delivery style closer to that of operatic recitative. Performance is guided by the sound of the the poetry itself rather than any fixed melody, and a duma’s subject matter is both serious and strictly defined:
“The usual division of their subject matter is into three categories: songs about the Turko-Tatar period, songs about the rebellion led by Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, and songs about everyday life. Sometimes the first category is further subdivided into songs about the field of battle and songs about captivity. Like historical songs, some epics tell about real historical figures, and others describe events in the life of an unnamed Cossack, brother, or widow.”
Another more nebulous and more fantastical group of historical songs known as Istorychni Pisni is fully sung and bears a striking resemblance to a parallel tradition of extra-liturgical religious song:
“In terms of subject matter, historical songs, like religious songs, tell of events that both the singer and the audience believed really happened. These events include the supernatural and the miraculous. As Saint Varvara survives being boiled in pitch, walking on broken glass, and being entombed for thirty years, so Baida survives being suspended by his left rib from a meat hook for three days before he dies. Likewise, Cossack heroes like Perebiinis and Nechai battle hundreds of enemy soldiers before being killed or captured. As human beings talk with Death, with angels, and with deceased and buried relatives in religious songs, so in historical songs animals speak with human voices. Horses inform the family back home that their riders are dead, and cuckoos sing laments over fallen Cossacks.”
Thus this integral part of Ukrainian folk song and the repertoire of the kobzari weaves an often spellbinding web of myths in which heroic Cossacks battle vicious foes for the sake of family, friends, and comrades, often dying spectacularly in the process. As in religious tales of martyrdom, these stories of heroic-yet-doomed proto-Ukrainian heroes allow listeners to feel a connection to the people of the distant past and can serve as allegories for similar situations in the present. One often gets the impression with such songs that their anonymous composers saw the events of which they tell with their own eyes and, like Cossack Mamay, retreated from the noisy fireside to create their epics in reflective solitude.
By the 19th century, Ukrainian minstrels were nothing like their semi-legendary Cossack fore-bearers. Indeed, they were almost exclusively blind beggars, men who relied on the charity of their neighbors to survive in a society that, as part of the Russian Empire, had turned from semi-nomadic hosts to serfdom. Russian serfs were sent to till Ukraine’s famous Black Soil, many Cossacks became farmers, and minstrels now wandered from one small town to the next offering their services. By this point, those wandering musicians who were termed kobzari played, not the kobza, but an asymmetrical lute called the bandura. Among them were also those who played the lira, an instrument akin to the hurdy-gurdy, and these lirnyky were part of the same professional guilds as their bandura-playing counterparts. These secretive organizations, each attached to a particular Orthodox church, were at the center of a minstrel’s life, mediating disputes over money and guaranteeing their members the right to perform in a certain geographical region.
A kobzar or lirnyky of this time period would be expected to undergo a period of rigorous training. The bards of the 19th century played, not just dumy or historical songs, but religious songs, erotic songs, begging songs, and songs full of satire and wit. An ideal minstrel might be expected to memorize and perform hundreds of songs and, on completing a long apprenticeship, would be initiated into the regional minstrel brotherhood or guild through an elaborate, quasi-religious ritual. Minstrels had their rituals outside of the church as well, exchanging elaborate, formulaic greetings on meeting each other for the first time. This practice could often become absurd when many minstrels congregated in one place, but it served a purpose: learned at the end of their training and incorporating a secret minstrel language called lebiiska mova, these greetings were considered essential to the credibility of a minstrel, who, if found to be performing without the proper training, might have his bandura strings cut at the behest of the local guild, or worse. It is also worth emphasizing the degree to which blindness was a prerequisite for the modern kobzar, so much so that blind children of the time were almost automatically sent to be trained under a master minstrel. Ukrainian minstrelsy in the 19th and early 20th centuries therefore amounted to its own cultural sphere, a small universe in which different rules were at play. In the words of Kononenko, “minstrels were both members of their villages and people apart”.
Although most dumy tell of a specific historical time period, Ukrainian history has provided plenty of opportunities for older song texts to resonate well beyond their original contexts. The Russian Civil War of the early 20th century was devastating for Ukraine, but the Soviet period was even more so: the famine known as Homolodor decimated the region, killing at least 3.5 million people between 1932 and 1933. The Ukrainian government in Kyiv has called for Holodomor an intentional act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, a charge which the contemporary Russian government has denied. The resonances with the old stories to be found in the dumy — of Tatar slaving raids and battles against an oppressive foreign state — are hard to miss.
Kobzari and lirnyky did not fare much better than their more sedentary neighbors under Soviet rule, and they arguably fared much worse. In the eyes of the Soviet state under Stalin, these minstrels and their songs were subversive simply by nature of their existence. The epics of the dumy contain themes of revolt and resistance which were seen as an active danger to Russian control, and the evidence which these songs offered of a regional, perhaps even national culture unique to Ukraine was antithetical to the Russian vision of the area as simply “Little Russia”. Thus the Soviet government, in an attempt to co-opt this epic tradition, ordered dumy to be composed about Soviet heroes such as Lenin and managed to make these state-sponsored dumy all but compulsory material for any kobzar wanting to keep out of trouble. Even in earlier times, minstrels were not always looked upon favorably: as Kononenko points out, “traditional minstrels were treated in opposite and extreme ways. Some considered them the successors of the Apostles, and thus, trustworthy spiritual guides. Others suspected them of drunkenness and thievery.” These conflicting views came together in Soviet persecution of minstrels, who were regularly the targets of arbitrary police violence yet could be publicly celebrated if they played along with authorities.
Still the persecution of minstrels during this period was intense. Kononenko relates the story of Ehor Movchan, a minstrel whose relationship with the Soviet police could be highly contradictory:
“Even Ehor Movchan, the composer of “Duma about Lenin,” beloved of Soviet authorities, suffered at the hands of the police. According to Pavlo Suprun, several policemen in Kiev once arrested Movchan for loitering, drove him far outside the city in the middle of a snowstorm, and left him to get back on his own. Movchan, one of the last traditional kobzari, was blind, and making it back into town through a storm was an almost impossible task. But the city police chief panicked when he learned what had happened to this emblem of the Soviet people and sent a search party to help find the old man, who returned safely. Perhaps to help him through the many times when he suffered police harassment and arrest without cause, Movchan had a special walking stick made for himself. It was a bit thicker than an ordinary blind man’s staff and hollow, with a screw cap, and it held exactly one liter of vodka. Movchan was supposedly found in his jail cell more than once, drunk from some inexplicable source.”
The more positive view of minstrels — as wise blind men who kept the truths of traditional religion and culture alive — was also very much at play when minstrels were more explicitly connected to the project of Ukrainian nationalism. The Soviet state made this connection and reacted accordingly, with violence and repression. Ukrainian ethnomusicologists and scholars of late 19th and early 20th centuries also used dumy as part of a nationalist project, connecting them to a proto-national past and a future which they hoped would bring an independent Ukrainian state into existence. According to Kononenko, “nationalism motivated many of the scholars who collected dumy and presented them to the public. The scholars could not exhibit the full extent of their nationalist feelings because Ukraine at that time was part of the Russian Empire and anyone writing about dumy needed to do so in Russian. Nonetheless, the texts themselves could be in Ukrainian. Thus, the dumy and, by extension, the kobzari and lirnyky who sing them have been intimately bound together with Ukrainian nationalism since at least the late 19th century. Today, with the kobzar tradition seeing a post-Soviet revival and Ukraine once again the subject of violent foreign interference, this association is perhaps stronger than ever.
A widespread perception persists linking dumy and Ukrainian minstrel traditions to resistance against foreign domination. Still, we must ask ourselves whether these sorts of nationalistic myths have any basis in reality: did the massacre of minstrels depicted in Poyodyr really happen, for instance? Russian imperialism in Ukraine has been and continues to be devastating, violent, and, in cases such as that of Holodomor, arguably genocidal. Thus the truth of the massacre, in practical terms, is less that it happened with certainty and more that it certainly seems it could have happened. There are indeed rumors, sometimes taken as historical fact, that a massacre of minstrels did occur in Kharkiv in 1939: a minstrelsy conference was called and bards from all over Ukraine were invited, only for them to be trucked into the forest and shot. Or so the story goes: no hard evidence of such a massacre has yet been uncovered.
The depiction of the liquidation of minstrels in Sanin’s film instills this event with all the drama of a duma, replacing rifles with explosives and concentrating the massacre into one spectacular moment. It distills a certain view of Russian-Ukrainian relations down to one violent act, holding it up as a symbol of national mourning and, ultimately, re-purposing a historical rumor as a call to resistance. Thus Poyodyr participates in a long history of such mythologizing, beginning with the dumy and stretching into the present. Can we begrudge Sanin this poetic license, when the evidence of Russian brutality against Ukrainians is so widespread, and when we see hard evidence of similar violence almost daily through our phones and computer screens? At moments in which such atrocities seem possible once again, the music and stories of the kobzari can give strength to their listeners and can alter the way they think of their place in history. Art and myth, whether traditional or contemporary, can turn stories of incomprehensibly violent and tragic events into stirring metaphors, forging kernels of truth from an overwhelmingly complex whole. Thus songs such as the dumy can, if not change the past, then at least help us to move on from it with some sense of redemption and dignity. Stories, set to music and performed with skill, can craft a narrative of struggle and allow us to hope that such trials may someday come to an end.
A playlist centered around all things kobzar, the traditional bards of Ukraine.
Chorna, Milena. “The Ukrainian folk painting” Cossack Mamay” and Cossacks’ spiritual practice.” Opera Slavica, XXV, 2015, 2: 59-70.
Grabowicz, Oksana I. “‘Dumy’ as Performance.” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 32/33 (2011): 291–313.
Kononenko, Natalie. Ukrainian Epic and Historical Song: Folklore in Context. University of Toronto Press, 2019.
Kononenko, Natalie O. Ukrainian Minstrels. Folklores and Folk Cultures of Eastern Europe. Armonk: Taylor & Francis Group, 1997.
Kononenko, Natalie. “Widows and Sons: Heroism in Ukrainian Epic.” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 14, no. 3/4 (1990): 388–414.
Noack, Christian, Janssen, Lindsay, and Comerford, Vincent. Holodomor and Gorta Mór : Histories, Memories, and Representations of Famine in Ukraine and Ireland. Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. London: Anthem Press, 2012.
Olkhovsky, A., and Ernest J. Simmons. “History of Ukrainian Music.” In Concise Encyclopedia Ukraine, edited by Volodymyr Kubijovyč, 579–93. University of Toronto Press, 1971.
Pomorska, Krystyna. “Observations on Ukrainian Erotic Folk Songs.” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 1, no. 1 (1977): 115–29.
Rudnitsky, A. “The Role of Music in Ukrainian Culture.” Bulletin of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America 1, no. 4 (1943): 823–37.
Shapoval, Yuri, and Marta D. Olynyk. “The Ukrainian Language under Totalitarianism and Total War.” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 35, no. 1/4 (2017): 187–212.
 Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian Epic and Historical Song: Folklore in Context. University of Toronto Press, 2019, 7.
 Kononenko (2019), 45.
 See Milena Choma, “The Ukrainian folk painting” Cossack Mamay” and Cossacks’ spiritual practice.” Opera Slavica, XXV, 2015, 2: 60.
 Natalie O. Kononenko, Ukrainian Minstrels. Folklores and Folk Cultures of Eastern Europe. Armonk: Taylor & Francis Group, 1997, 23.
 Kononenko (1997), 21-22.
 See Kononenko (1997), 68.
 Kononenko (1997), 66.
 See the chapter titled “Holodomor in Ukraine 1932– 1933: an Interpretation of Facts” in
Holodomor and Gorta Mór : Histories, Memories and Representations of Famine in Ukraine and Ireland, edited by Christian Noack, et al., Anthem Press, 2012, 19-34.
 Kononenko (1997), 27.
 Kononenko (1997), 31.
 Kononenko (2019), 4.
 See Kononenko (2019), 5.