A gentle tune from a violin played by a musician who has been called Ukraine’s “cellar violinist” is a lullaby for a child sheltered in the dark basement of a block of flats in the besieged Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Concert violinist Vera Lytochenko has become an internet icon of resilience as images of her playing in the underground bomb shelter have inspired an international audience via social media.
When heavy Russian bombing of Ukraine’s north-eastern city of Kharkiv started two weeks ago, Lytovchenko, her professor father and neighbours sought safety in their building’s basement.
“Bombs can fall everywhere in our city, so we decided to go down in the cellar,” the 39-year-old told the Associated Press via Skype during a brief respite from the bombing. “We’re about 12 people now. We have little boys. We have teenagers. We have old women.”
A week into their basement huddle, Lytovchenko decided to try to lift the group’s spirits by holding small concerts.
“All these people are my brothers and sisters now,” she said. “I was trying to make them think about something and not about the war for some minutes while I’m playing.”
Later, she thought to post her recitals, featuring the calming strains of Vivaldi and even Lytovchenko singing a Russian folk song, on social media. The reaction surprised her: more than 40,000 views on Facebook and thousands more on YouTube.
“I didn’t expect that because I was posting just to reach my friends, my relatives. My aunt is near Kyiv and I’m afraid for her,” she said.
“My friends are in different cities all over Ukraine and I’m trying to keep a connection with them, I text them several times a day to know if they’re alive.
“Many people text me now saying that my videos give them such support and hope. They can see that someone stays here [in Kharkiv]. Someone is alive and someone keeps hope and is optimistic.”
On Wednesday, during the temporary ceasefire in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, Lytochenko was able to return to her flat for a few hours. She told the AP she was happy to see sunlight after spending two weeks in the dark basement, adding that she and her neighbours are lucky because they have heating in the cellar and food.
Before the war, Lytovchenko played for the Kharkiv City Opera orchestra and taught music.
“It was another life … a normal life,” she said. “I’m an orchestra player. I am a teacher in college. I have my students, I have friends, I play concerts, I play operas and ballets. I play Italian operas in the theatre.”
Describing Ukraine before the war, Lytochenko said: “We had a cultural life in our country, our cities, in spite of the coronavirus. We were vaccinated. It was a normal life … but now we can’t understand what is happening.”
Lytovchenko hopes that her posts can help raise funds for Kharkiv’s music community.
“I dream about my little financial fund, because I received messages from all over the world, from all countries. They texted me, they want to help,” she said.
She wants “to help musicians … and to rebuild our city, our conservatory, our music college, our music school,” she said. “To help our musicians who lost their houses and help musicians to return to their own cities and not to be refugees.”