Mariupol: A conductor's story
Vasyl Kryachok continued to lead a normal life in February 2022. The conductor didn't believe Russia would launch a major military offensive and he continued to prepare for concerts scheduled to take place at the Mariupol Chamber Philharmonic in March. In the week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, he and his Mariupol Chamber Orchestra "Renaissance" presented an evening of classical music. It turned out to be his last concert in the city.
Hundreds sought shelter in the orchestra hall
"Even on February 24, things were more or less normal in the city. We were used to such situations," Kryachok said. "Mariupol had been hit now and again during eight years of war," he added, referring to the period since the annexation of Crimea and ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.
"That's why no one thought there would be a major war. From February 24 to March 1, everyone assumed it would all be over in two or three weeks, a month at the most. But when Russian troops encircled the city, it became clear to us all."
He recalled how the Russian occupiers had gradually destroyed more and more of Mariupol. Increasing numbers of civilians were dying and it became extremely dangerous to go outside. That is why people spent so much time in basements. Hundreds sought refuge from the Russian attacks in the city's theater — which the Russians then bombed on March 16 — but also in the orchestra hall.
"People came to the Philharmonic because they were not alone there. There were roughly 1,200 residents in the building. Business people as well as others who had stayed in the city helped out with food. At that point, there was neither electricity, nor water, nor heating. When it snowed, it was collected and melted; then we boiled it," said Kryachok.
He tried to find space for everyone and to give them support and hope. The building was not destroyed, he said, but shock waves damaged the doors and windows. If the Russians had bombed the building, nothing of the simple structure would have remained.
Kryachok also explained that it could not serve as a real bomb shelter as it did not have a basement: "The Philharmonic has 380 seats, and there were between 300 and 350 people there. If the occupiers had dropped a bomb on it, as they did with the theater, none of us would have survived. The Philharmonic is much smaller than the theater, it would simply have been erased."
'The Russians murdered mercilessly'
The conductor stayed in the besieged city for two months. During that time, he saw Russian troops commit horrific crimes. He often saw dead civilians while walking between his home and the orchestra hall.
"I saw corpses every day as I walked through courtyards. Temperatures were around -10° to - 12° Celsius (14°-10° Fahrenheit). It was cool in March and April, so the bodies didn't decompose too quickly. When possible, shallow graves were dug and bodies were covered with earth. The Russians murdered mercilessly," Kryachok said.
Several of his acquaintances were killed during the first months of the Russian occupation, some before his very eyes.
Every day, it became increasingly dangerous to move about the city. One could not only be killed by bombs or mortars, but also by snipers, or by stepping on a mine that the Russians quite literally peppered the city with.
"We walked in the tire tracks when we went outside," he said. "That is how we tried to protect ourselves. Once I saw a person blown up when they stepped just a couple of feet outside the tire tracks and a mine exploded. There was nothing left of that person."
Kryachok will never forget what he experienced.
From Mariupol to Kyiv — via several countries
Vasyl Kryachok was able to leave Mariupol in late April. It took him almost a week to get to the occupied Donetsk region, and then he went on to Russia, Latvia, Poland and ultimately Germany. The journey to Donetsk alone took nearly eight hours.
"It was only 120 kilometers (74.6 miles) but we traveled through villages because there was heavy fighting in the region. I had three small dogs with me. We spent the night in Donetsk," the conductor said.
He explained that he was able to get his hands on papers for his dogs, as well as the so-called "filtration document" — an ideological affidavit — that he needed in order to enter Russia as a Ukrainian.
"Of course, I never would have passed the real filtration test," he exclaimed. "I was always pro-Ukrainian."
"From Donetsk, we were taken to Russia. We drove for 39 hours, straight through Russia to Latvia, and then on to Poland. Ultimately, I arrived at my daughter's place in Germany," he said, noting that this was the only way for him to escape occupied Mariupol. The only other way to reach Kyiv-controlled territory from the Donbas would have been by foot, under constant threat of death.
Nevertheless, most of his colleagues remained in Mariupol: "Those who wanted to flee and could, left. Some made it to Ukrainian-controlled areas, others stayed in Russia, or traveled through Russia to Georgia or the EU. Three Chamber Orchestra musicians stayed and now play with the so-called Donetsk State Conservatory set up by the occupiers. The Mariupol Philharmonic no longer exists as such."
Most of the musicians from the brass band and the folk music orchestra stayed behind, said Kryachok, shocked that they would cooperate with the occupying forces.
Dreams of a Mariupol concert
All the stress has left Vasyl Kryachok with heart problems, yet that hasn't kept him from dedicating himself to music again. He has since moved to Kyiv, where he is putting his orchestra back together. Five musicians from Mariupol, as well as others from Luhansk and Kharkiv, have joined him in the Ukrainian capital, and roughly 10 musicians from other orchestras are also working with "Renaissance" until a full orchestra can be assembled.
"Life goes on," says Kryachok. "We are starting from square one. What else can we do? We don't want to die. I think I'll live and work for another 20 years. Seventy isn't old for a conductor or for creative people, it is a time of maturity. The main thing is to stay healthy, and for the enemy to leave our country."
At the moment, Vasyl Kryachok and his musicians are preparing a tour of Ukraine and Europe. But the conductor's biggest dream is to once again take the stage at the Philharmonic, in a peaceful, Ukrainian Mariupol.
This article was originally published in Russian.