Club Music at War

Sounds of Survival: From Ukrainian Underground

Sounds of Survival: From Ukrainian Underground is so consistently good that its social function almost seems extraneous. We should have been listening to this music before we felt it was our democratic duty.

Adjusting his headphones. Hermannplatz U-Bahn, Berlin.


But we are inundated with so much content these days that we only tend to notice culture that comes with an asterisk, because it’s bound up with a conflict or controversy. 

As a critic, I do my best to resist this news-driven approach, to seek out deserving material that isn’t benefiting from current headlines.

I’d like to think that I would have found my way to the releases of Kyiv’s SKP Records without having such a depressing reason for doing so. Because I didn’t, my task is to listen with two minds, hearing the music on Sounds of Survival in terms of the crisis that inspired its creation while also trying to free it from that framework. 

One of the driving forces behind this compilation, Serge Dubrovskiy, has several numbers under his stage name of Dubmasta. 

“Free From Imperialism” channels the spirit of Detroit techno at its most plush. “Introduction to Survival” combines rave-worthy beats with a sense of menace on the margins. And “Version of Survival” almost sounds like an outtake from Vangelis’s iconic score for the movie Blade Runner. 

Taken together, these tracks showcase the historical knowledge and self-conscious heterogeneity of the scene they came from. While their titles indicate the artist’s desire to meet the moment, their sound is less immediately political. 

Instead, the artist proves this commitment to the politics already implicit in the musical subgenres to which they pay tribute. Dubrovskiy acknowledges that anti-imperialist legacy even as he repurposes it for the present conjuncture. 

That’s true of the entire collection, really. The hard-to-categorise Foa Hoka, whose lead singer Dmytro Kurovskiy has been taking shelter from the airstrikes targeting Chernihiv, references different stages in the band’s history, which also happen to correspond to different strains of post-punk experimentation. 

Tribal Therapeut’s “How to Burn the Demon” fuses an insistent club-ready beat with the sort of irregular rhythmic flourishes common to the sort of roots music that is typically inimical to mechanical repetition. 

To be sure, there are record labels based in Germany, the UK, and the United States that could come up with similarly impressive proof of their roster’s combination of self-reflexivity and sincerity. 

The Ukrainian artists on Sounds of Survival demonstrate again and again that, whatever their difficulties prior to the Russian invasion, and despite everything they are contending with now, they should be located on the leading edge of contemporary Western popular music, part of a community for whom aesthetic innovation is primarily retrospective and recombinant. 

In pleading its case to Western powers, Ukraine has sought to emphasise its attachment to Europe. Sounds of Survival contributes to this argument by providing evidence of Ukrainian underground music’s affinity with European culture. 

Even when we hear the Ukrainian language, we know it’s being spoken or sung within a soundscape that effortlessly crosses borders.

People with a limited understanding of the Soviet Union and its afterlives might think that Sounds of Survival’s emphatically transnational aesthetic underscores the fundamental difference between Ukraine and Russia, with the former’s progressivism and openness contrasted with the latter’s reactionary insularity. 

Given the outrage over what Vladimir Putin’s war is doing to the Ukrainian people, this is a tempting conclusion to draw, even for those of us who know better. But truth, however messy, must not be wished away. 

The musical subgenres that the artists included on Sounds of Survival draw upon most heavily are every bit as popular in the Russian underground. It’s just that, as the Kremlin poses more of a threat to free expression. 

Even as we support Ukraine in its struggle for independence and do everything in our power to help it – including paying for Sounds of Survival and making a donation to the fund its creators recommend – we should remind ourselves that Russians living under a despot don’t necessarily support Putin, even if they pretend to in the interest of self-preservation. 

And the brave Russians who are risking their futures to protest the war deserve special recognition, since the sanctions the West has levied against Putin’s kleptocracy impede their efforts to remain connected with the world beyond its borders. 

In a recent piece published by the Ghent Institute for International and European Studies, Ferdi de Ville argues that the war might represent “the end of globalization as we know it”.

Recent events bear that concern out. In a matter of days, much of the popular culture that Russia shared with the West – McDonald’s, Starbucks, Apple – was suddenly “cancelled”. 

The longer-term result could be that “global value chains, which have always been more regional in nature than their term suggests, might be rewired within a western and eastern hemisphere”.

Ironically, de Ville notes, this rupture could “succeed in bringing about some degree of deglobalisation, a goal long pursued by social justice activists”. 

Should this undoing of globalisation continue, it could also help with efforts to forestall climate change, since a decline in interconnectivity and resurgence of interest in finding supply chains close to home could substantially decrease the use of fossil fuels for long-distance travel. 

This prospect, in which a bad war leads to good consequences, is not one that many people in the West are willing to countenance right now.

Leftists who have spent decades railing against the WTO and everything it stands for find themselves in a particularly awkward position, denouncing Putin because he did what they could not. 

Although I am reluctant to embrace the extreme accelerationism advocated by some of my colleagues, I still believe that the only way to make lasting progress towards a more humane world is by continuing to move forward through the remaining stages of “late” capitalism, rather than trying to reverse course. 

The underground culture represented in Sounds of Survival might not seem significant when compared to the massive destruction being meted out on Ukraine. But its clear-eyed rejection of provincialism and the signifiers that underpin authoritarian populism holds a crucial lesson for us in these dark times. 

So long as artists can express their longing for international community, with shared references that repudiate nationalism, we will still be able to hold on to the dream of political internationalism. 

Tracks like Dubmasta’s  “Version of Survival” permit us to hear, however fleetingly, what we one day hope to see shimmering on the horizon. It might even approach from the east.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.