Chervona Ruta 1989 festival: a daring challenge to the Soviet system

Olena Pobochii

For centuries, the aggressor country, russia, put a lot of effort into destroying the Ukrainian nation’s identity. The Soviet Union inflicted the biggest blow to our culture – the authorities confiscated the national assets for the good of the “great country” while banning the Ukrainian language, killing Pro-Ukrainian cultural figures, or persecuting them throughout their lives.

In such conditions, a cultural resistance movement was born in Ukraine, gaining its greatest strength in the 1980s. That was when the events that determined the direction of future independent Ukrainian culture development took place. Chervona Ruta-1989 festival was among them.

Prerequisites of the festival and the origin of the idea
In the late 1980s, many nationalist trends appeared in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the “perestroika,” Ukrainians felt the weakening of the totalitarian regime and were no longer so afraid of its influence. Undoubtedly, the center of nationalist activity was in the west of Ukraine. There, they remembered the murder of the national hero and singer Volodymyr Ivasiuk and promoted his ideas of Ukrainianization.
The previously banned Ukrainian culture was restoring thanks to new singing groups, Ukrainian-language publications, and radio stations. But people longed for a larger scale and a cultural revolution, the role of which was later fulfilled by the Chervona Ruta festival.

It is difficult to say for sure who initiated the creation of a purely Ukrainian musical festival. Most often, it is said that the author of the idea of ​​the festival was Ivan Lepsha, a journalist who, in 1987, in an article in the newspaper Youth of Ukraine, suggested holding an annual music competition with original Ukrainian songs.
A friend of the journalist, his colleague Myroslav Lazaruk, recalled that he “was simply obsessed with this idea, to extend the legacy of Volodymyr Ivasiuk.”

But one of the organizers of the first Ruta, composer and cultural expert Kyrylo Stetsenko, tells a different version,
“In the mid-80s, I worked on the TV channel UT-1 as a presenter of the Music Video Mill program. It was a talk show where we with the guests had discussions about new trends in music. In 1985, on the air, we just talked about the fact that there is no such festival where songs only in the Ukrainian language would be presented. That’s when they decided to start giving way to genres on the sidelines in the USSR – pop, rock, and heavy metal.”

The concept of Chervona Ruta-1989

The first people to start organizing the festival were young musicologists Taras Melnyk and Anatolii Kalenychenko. They came up with the initial concept of the Ukrainian music contest and, with various tricks, managed to get it approved by the authorities – to do that, they focused on the youth and not on the pro-Ukrainian side of the event. 

Later, Kyrylo Stetsenko, who had experience in Ukrainian alternative music as a former rock band Enei member, joined the team,

“I started working on the festival at the beginning of May 1989,” says Kyrylo. “At that time, I was a concert violinist, I performed a lot and had a little free time. But I gave up everything for the sake of Chervona Ruta because I understood that it would be something huge.”

The main goal of the upcoming festival was to show a Ukrainian song in the context of modern world music, Stetsenko says. In other words, the organizers decided to show what a “Ukrainian Woodstock” could look like.

So the main pillars of Chervona Ruta were the youth, modernity, and Ukrainianness (a dangerous word for which you could be imprisoned at that time). To give the musical event a national flavor, ethnographers and folklorists were invited to cooperate – they implemented folk traditions and customs in the design and program of the festival.

In the musical basis of the festival were three genres, clearly separated from each other, pop music, rock music, and Ukrainian singing poetry, or kobzarstvo. At the selection held in regional centers, the participants had to present three original songs in one of the genres.

How was it possible to do this
Kyrylo Stetsenko, who took on the role of deputy director for information and sponsorship, was engaged in fundraising and equipment. The festival level that the organizers had in mind required a lot of resources and the support of the Komsomol. It was possible to come to an agreement with it thanks to connections in the Union of Writers, who had authority at the top of the party.
After that, sponsors appeared who collected an astronomical 280,000 karbovanets (now approximately 8 million hryvnias / 216,782 USD) for the festival. The biggest contribution was made by Mykola Moroz, a Ukrainian from Canada, who provided high-quality sound equipment from Poland.
The organizers chose Chernivtsi as the festival venue because it was the city where Volodymyr Ivasiuk’s eponymous hit and a new Ukrainian musical and cultural movement were born. They prepared separate locations for each genre of music: Zhovtnevy Park, the Summer Theater, and the Bukovyna Stadium. As Kyrylo Stetsenko assures, the organization could not do without esotericism.
“We needed the sky to be clear from rain,” says Stetsenko. “For this, we made a deal with the Carpathian molfar (shaman) Mykhailo Nechai. He said, ‘I’ve never done this, but I can try.’ Obviously, the attempt was successful – it never rained during all seven days of the outdoor festival.”

The team built the program and scenario of the festival for individual performances within each genre. Also, the organizers came up with a flag corresponding to the mood of different styles of music. For the first two days, pop music was to be played, which was associated with red color, a symbol of temptation and love. The third day was for rock performances, anger, and protests, so its color was black. And on the fourth day, under white color, bards-kobzars performed, symbolizing purity and holiness.

Key points

The start of the festival was on September 17, 1989. A couple of days before that, the first guests and musicians started arriving in Chernivtsi, loading the residential infrastructure of the small town. 50 vocal and instrumental ensembles, 40 pop musicians, 30 rock bands, and about 50 bards — a total of almost 500 performers from Ukraine, as well as from Canada, the USA, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Representatives of the diaspora from all over the world gathered to see the first festival of Ukrainian music. 

From the first day, groups of young men dressed in Cossack clothes and bearing Ukrainian symbols walked the streets of Chernivtsi, singing folk songs and talking about independent nationalist associations.

According to Myroslav Lazaruk:
It was a triumph of our Cossack and Ukrainian ideas.

But at the entrance to the festival locations, there was strict face control: the police took away blue and yellow flags from guests and sometimes tore embroidered shirts. Therefore, the youth resorted to tricks, entering with Soviet symbols, and on the territory of the fest, they took out national flags from their sleeves.  

Contestants’ performances continued every day from noon to evening. At that time, the audience and the jury most remembered the eccentric Hadiukin Brothers, who sang about drug addicts in the garden, the punk Vika Vradii with lyrics about miners and the arbitrariness of the government, as well as Marichka Burmaka, who performed to her accompaniment of Oleksandr Oles’ poem about Ukrainian enemies.

Vasyl Zhdankin deeply impressed the listeners with his Kobzar ballads. He won the jury’s sympathy and received the grand prize of the first Chervona Ruta festival.

To cover the festival’s main events, the coordinators created their newspaper. To do this, they brought in journalists from all over Ukraine and agreed with a local printing house. The editor of the Chervona Ruta Bulletin was Myroslav Lazaruk, then a journalist of the publication Young Bukovynets.

“At that time, we released six editions, each in a different color,” Lazaruk said. “The newspaper was published at dawn. Then it was taken by local students and distributed throughout the city.”

Bulletin cost 50 kopeks (about 0.03 cents) and had pieces of information about the best performances, interviews with guests of the festival.

Anthem of Ukraine for the general public
The incredible spirit of unity and awareness of the value of Ukrainian culture deeply captivated the participants of Chervona Ruta. People allowed themselves more and more manifestations of nationalism without fearing the consequences.
The culmination of the festival came on September 24, when the national anthem of independent Ukraine sounded for a vast audience for the first time in many years. Then the winner of the competition, Vasyl Zhdankin, after receiving the award, unexpectedly began to perform Ukraine is not dead yet…, involving singers Viktor Morozov and Eduard Drach. According to Kyrylo Stetsenko, “the Ukrainian spirit descended on the artists at that moment.”

“It was 1989 – the ‘Unbreakable Union’ still seems so unbreakable, the omnipotence of the KGB is still practically unquestionable, and its employees, almost without hiding, record on tape everything that happens for future, quite possible, arrests. So you can imagine the level of adrenaline rush Edik Drach and I felt when we went up the main stage after Vasyl’s invitation. And Vasyl himself must have been truly excited by the significance of this moment because he began to sing the anthem with a slightly changed melody and only later ‘caught’ it,” singer Viktor Morozov describes his impressions of that moment.

The authorities, of course, anticipated such audacity, so they planned to turn off the sound for the last performance of the festival. But, by coincidence, Vasyl Zhdankin was not the last to go on stage, as it was in the script. So fate gave the audience a sense of future independence.
“The entire stadium stood up and began to sing the future anthem of independent Ukraine. It was a poignant moment, and many had tears in their eyes. It was the real climax of the festival. For the first time in Soviet Ukraine, tens of thousands of citizens sang our national anthem,” recalls public figure Orest Danylevych.

Significance for Ukrainian culture

“Ukraine is not the past, Ukraine is the future,” this is how the organizers of Chervonaya Ruta announced the main idea.

The spirit that captivated people after the fest could no longer be overcome by the Soviet government or cause its decline. 

Chervona Ruta’89 was also the first step towards restoring Ukrainian identity, creating a new musical culture and outlook for our nation.

“Paradox, but at the mass Soviet event, people with blue and yellow flags sang the national anthem of Ukraine. People wanted changes, and changes happened – a push was needed, and this push was Chervona Ruta. As a result – the USSR collapsed, and Ukraine eventually gained independence.
Therefore, the Chervona Ruta went into free-floating, traveling from Chernivtsi through Ukraine and continuing to instill the fashion for Ukrainian in the Soviet Ukrainians, who have become united over the years,” musicologist Taras Pits.

Cultural experts and historians believe that many participants of the festival soon became participants in the Revolution on Granite in 1990, demanding the nationalization of Ukraine and the exit from the Soviet Union at protests in Kyiv and other cities. This event was one of the most significant steps toward future independence when the authorities agreed to the protesters’ terms for the first time in many years.

“Chervona Ruta succeeded in awakening the Ukrainian spirit, bringing it out of its private hiding place into the public space. After the festival, there was no doubt that Ukraine would be independent. The festival started the process of Ukrainization,” Kyrylo Stetsenko is positive about that.

Thanks to Chervona Ruta, the Ukrainian stage gained many new young names, who, according to singer Taras Kurchyk, created the newest musical space, which later turned into show business. Tartak, Skriabin, TNMK, Mariia Burmaka, Iryna Bilyk, Oleksandr Ponomariov, Vopli Vidopliasova are just some of the modern Ukrainian artists who started their journey with the Ruta. The music festival has become a kind of talent forge for Ukraine for the next 15 years.

“It was real non-conformism. I even sometimes think: how did we manage it? But I understand that without such dedication, help, and commitment to our work, we would not have succeeded in anything.
We were scared but we had a goal; we did everything intuitively. There were no such festivals anywhere, and there could be nowhere. Chervona Ruta was heard far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union because it became a real protest,” said co-organizer Taras Melnyk.

Translator: Alina Tsvietkova

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