Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vasyl Kryachok led a normal life. The conductor did not believe that Russia would launch an offensive, but was preparing for concerts that should be held in March 2022 in the Mariupol Philharmonic. A week before February 24, the day the full-scale Russian invasion began, he had hosted an evening of classical music with his orchestra, the Renaissance. It was to be his last performance in Mariupol.
Hundreds of people sought shelter in the Philharmonie
“Even on February 24, life in the city was more or less normal. We were used to such situations. During the war that has been going on for eight years (in eastern Ukraine, editor’s note), Mariupol has also been hit here and there . Therefore, no one thought that there would be such a big war. From February 24 to March 1, everyone assumed that in two or three weeks, at the latest in a month, everything would be over. But when the whole city of Russian troops surrounded, everything became clear to us,” recalls Kryachok.
According to him, Mariupol was gradually being destroyed by the Russian occupiers. More and more civilians died, it became extremely dangerous to go outside. Therefore, people spent a lot of time in basements. In addition, hundreds of them went not only to the city’s theater, which was bombed by the Russians on March 16, but also to the Philharmonic Hall, where they sought shelter from Russian bombs.
“People came to the Philharmonic because they were not alone there. There were about 1200 people in the building. Business people and people who stayed in the city helped with food. At the time there was no electricity, water or heating. If snow fell, it was collected and thawed. We then boiled the water,” says Kryachok.
No protection against Russian bombs: the building of the Mariupol Philharmonic served as a refuge for many
In the Philharmonie he tried to find a place for everyone and to give them support and hope. The building was not destroyed, but windows and doors were damaged by pressure waves. According to Kryachok, if the occupying forces had bombed the Philharmonie, nothing would have remained of the simple building. In addition, it does not have a basement and cannot serve as a real air raid shelter. “The Philharmonic has 380 seats, but there were 300 to 350 people sitting there. If the occupiers had dropped an aerial bomb like they did on the theater, none of us would have survived. The Philharmonic is much smaller than the theater, so it would have been completely wiped out. “
“The Russians murdered mercilessly”
The conductor spent two months in the encircled city. He witnessed terrible crimes committed by the Russian military. On the way from his apartment to the Philharmonie and back, he often saw dead civilians. “Every day I walked through backyards and saw corpses. The temperature was -10 to -12 degrees Celsius. Even in March and April it was cool, so the dead didn’t decompose as quickly. They weren’t buried as best they could very deep, and poured earth on it. The Russians murdered mercilessly,” Kryachok said. In the first few months of the occupation, many of his acquaintances were killed by the Russian military, some in front of him.
Every day it became more dangerous to move through Mariupol. You could die not only from a bomb or a rocket launcher, but also from snipers or from mines, which the Russians literally littered the city with. “When we went outside, we only moved on the tracks of the car tires. That’s how we tried to protect ourselves. I once saw a person deviate only half a meter and a mine went off. There was nothing left of the person .” Krjatschok will probably never be able to forget what he experienced.
From Mariupol to Kiev – an escape through many countries
At the end of April 2022, Vasyl Kryachok was able to leave Mariupol. He was away for almost a week. The path led him via the occupied Ukrainian city of Donetsk to Russia, then to Latvia, Poland and finally to Germany. The trip to Donetsk alone took almost eight hours. “It was only 120 kilometers, but we drove through villages because there was fighting in the region. I had three small dogs with me. We spent the night in Donetsk,” said the conductor. According to him, he had managed to organize papers for the dogs and for himself a so-called filtration certificate in advance, i.e. an ideological check before he was allowed to enter Russia as a Ukrainian. “Of course I would not have passed a real filtration,” he emphasizes. “I’ve always been pro-Ukrainian.”
“We were brought to Russia from Donetsk. We drove 39 hours across Russia to Latvia, then on through Poland. Finally I arrived at my daughter’s in Germany,” says the conductor. That was the only way to escape from occupied Mariupol. In the Donbass, one could only have reached the territory controlled by Kiev on foot, risking one’s life.
Most of his colleagues stayed in Mariupol, Kryachok said. “Those who could and wanted to flee are gone. Some made it to the territory controlled by Ukraine, others stayed in Russia, others went to Georgia or the EU via Russia. Three musicians from the chamber orchestra stayed and are playing now in the so-called Orchestra of the Donetsk State Conservatory organized by the occupying forces. The Mariupol Philharmonic as such, however, no longer exists.” Most of the musicians from the brass band and the orchestra for folk music stayed. Kryachok is shocked that they are working with the occupying forces.
The dream of the concert in Mariupol
The stress caused Wasyl Kryachok to develop heart problems, but this did not prevent him from devoting himself to music again. He has now moved to Kiev and is rebuilding his orchestra there. He was joined by five residents from Mariupol and musicians from Luhansk and Kharkiv, who also moved to the Ukrainian capital. Around ten musicians from other orchestras work together with the Renaissance Orchestra. They want to help out until a new cast has been formed.
“Life goes on. We’re starting over. What else should we do? We don’t want to die. I think I’ll work and live for another 20 years. 70 years is a time of maturity for a conductor and for creative people and no age,” says the conductor. “The main thing is that health plays a role and the enemy disappears from our country.”
Vasyl Kryachok is currently planning a tour of Ukraine and Europe with his musicians. But the conductor’s biggest dream is to be back on the stage of the Philharmonic in the peaceful Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
Adaptation from the Ukrainian: Markian Ostapchuk