For the 2005 film Everything Is Illuminated, the Ukrainian-born Gypsy punk rocker Eugene Hütz returned to his home country to play Alex, a hip-hop-loving, liberty-taking tourist guide for American Jews. The musician’s own life couldn’t be more different – as the frontman for raucous, multicultural band Gogol Bordello, he has been a longtime fixture on the arts scene of the Lower East Side in New York and toured with Madonna. But now, as the world watches Ukraine defend itself against Russia, Hütz finds himself taking on the role of a real-life guide to Ukrainian culture for westerners who have previously shown little interest.
“One of the things that I’m trying to debunk is that I’m some first guy from behind the iron curtain that got into western pop culture,” says the 49-year-old. “Tommy Ramone, who started the Ramones, escaped with his family from Budapest when Russian tanks rolled in there in 1956. He was a political refugee from the east bloc because of communist invasion.” The late Ivan Král, who collaborated with Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, “was born and raised in Prague and emigrated [to the US] when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. People like that, in the very fabric of punk rock, their underdog energy was coming from a real place.”
Hütz has rushed down from a recording session on his roof to talk to me on a video call. “I was trying to find something less bouncy, sound-wise,” he says of the Ukrainian charity song he has created with the Primus frontman, Les Claypool, Sean Lennon and the Police drummer, Stewart Copeland, joined by Hütz’s bandmate Sergey Ryabtsev on violin and Billy Strings on guitar. Man With the Iron Balls is a paean to Volodymyr Zelenskiy. This is just one element of his non-stop activity in support of Ukraine since Russia invaded on 24 February, which includes a Gogol Bordello world tour starting in the US on 4 May. It will rip through Europe, with a final date listed, defiantly, on the original published schedule, as the UPark festival in Kyiv on 15 July.
He props his phone up, sits back against a wall of white fitted wardrobes and takes a meditative deep breath through his nose. “A lot of my friends from punk and hardcore bands had songs for Ukraine three days into the war,” he says. Among the first to get in touch was “Jello Biafra from Dead Kennedys. Patti Smith was very supportive – we started a wave of fundraisers pretty much right away. So much respect to legit people like Pink Floyd: Dave Gilmour just put out a song. But, as always, it’s punk and hardcore that’s way ahead of the others on issues like that.”
The Gogol Bordello experience isn’t what you would call hardcore punk. “That’s why I came up with this term ‘joy core’,” says Hütz. He sums this up as a “flamboyant zest” for life. His first fundraising event in New York, starring Smith, along with Suzanne Vega and Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, raised $130,000 (£103,000): $50,000 came from Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had wanted to attend but couldn’t. Smith and Hütz dueted on the Ukrainian national anthem.
Hütz grew up in Kyiv and says his family is a mix of Ukrainian, Romany and Lithuanian, so “all my grandparents spoke very rootical [sic] Ukrainian”. Growing up in the Soviet Union, he had to speak Russian, too. “Especially in the capital,” he says, “the Russification was very aggressive. The majority of schools were Russian, with some classes of Ukrainian literature and language, just to keep people pacified so they didn’t totally freak out and start picking up cobblestones and looting government buildings.” But people who spoke Russian or had Russian last names, he says, were rewarded. “They would give them better apartments and better jobs.”
In a coded way, he says, teachers were able to “convey that this territory is occupied by emphasising Ukrainian pronunciation of towns, and original costumes and original ways of Ukrainian culture, holidays like Ivana-Kupala [an ancient gathering in honour of Slavic sun gods]. You know, just threading, threading, threading them into our knowledge. There was a part of the population that was pretty bleached out and Sovietised, no doubt. Luckily, I was not from a family that had any illusions about it.”
He says he lived first in central Kyiv, and then moved to the outskirts, in a place he compares to the Bronx. “Industrial and just sand and cement blocks – not particularly prestigious, very working class. That’s where punk rock flourished.” By 13, he was writing for fanzines and loading other bands’ equipment and “helping organise stuff” on the punk rock scene. People often ask whether it was a big culture shock when he moved to the US in 1990, aged 17. “What culture shock?” he says. “I basically went from lugging a kick drum on my back up the stairs in Ukraine, to lugging a kick drum down the stairs into the basement here. Punk rock is a kind of a cultural corridor.”
Hütz’s family were able to cross the iron curtain, he says, “thanks to Gorbachev – another awesome Ukrainian [his mother was Ukrainian] – who basically debunked the entire false history of the Soviet Union and kind of made it go away … We had enough reasons, as a family with continuous Soviet abuse, to qualify as political refugees.” His father, who was also in a band, was seen as provocative, “a notorious anti-Soviet guy on the block, who always listened to BBC radio and spoke English and listened to rock’n’roll, and was constantly under suspicion that he was some kind of spy. And that can really reflect on your level of life and not being able to really get anywhere.”
Hütz and his parents left Ukraine in 1989 with whatever they could carry in their hands – a few heirlooms, his tapes of Ukrainian punk bands and a brown leather jacket – and lived in refugee camps in Poland, Hungary, Austria and Italy before making it to the US. What does he most remember from that time? “It’s a PTSD kind of thing,” he says. “Time goes on, but I can easily get into that frame of mind. Because it’s the kind of experience that is 100% trauma. But I’m not saying it here for whining reasons.” For him, it’s an illustration of the Ukrainian spirit. “We know how to turn just about any kind of suffering or injustice into a source of strength. What you’re witnessing right now – the heroism of Ukrainian people, the heroism of the president, who just totally rose to the occasion, is mindblowing to the world. It’s more known to Ukrainians themselves – something that we always can count on.”
It’s this resilience that he drew on to keep his underground punk band going for so long, as they toured constantly. He says that, before Gogol Bordello became more widely noticed in 2005, after their fourth album, Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike, was released, “the band had been around for almost nine years, with 10 people in a van, sleeping on the floor in one room”. The move to the relative comforts that come with international recognition made him realise “all the levels where Ukrainian people can go without comfort, which are unthinkable for people in the west: the minute they don’t get the right kind of cream into their coffee, they’re like flipping out. It’s amusing.”
Not that it’s not “awesome that life here is so tremendously comfortable. That’s a real relief in a lot of ways.” But that’s no excuse to ignore suffering elsewhere. “I don’t care if you grew up with an iPhone implanted in your brain … people get so lost in ’conspiranoia’, where they can’t see straight, even with the situation in Ukraine, which is the fight of Ukrainian people against the oppressor that’s been going on for hundreds of years.” Even intelligent people, he says, “fall into confusion … People fall for the most moronic notions like, oh yeah, of course the US is behind it. Dude, do you understand how America-centric that idea is?”
Hütz visits Ukraine often, witnessing its shift since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. It, along with other former Soviet countries, has been reclaiming and celebrating its own culture. “A lot of the things that were branded by Moscow as supposedly Russian are not Russian at all, but usually a cultural theft from a more culturally developed neighbouring country, like Georgia, or Poland, or Finland.” Even Russian dolls, he says, were repurposed from Japan.
“As far as literature goes,” he continues, “Gogol is a Ukrainian writer. Which is why I took the name for the band, to keep telling the story. Chekhov was born in Ukraine. Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote The Master and Margarita, he’s from Kyiv.” And in the world of painting, “Kazimir Malevich is always called Russian – he was a Ukrainian Polish guy who identified as a Ukrainian Polish guy. The list goes on.” Food comes next. “People go: ‘Oh, I want to get some borsch.’ You want to get some borsch? Go and get it in a Ukrainian restaurant. That’s where it came from.”
And don’t even get him started on dance. “All the supposedly Russian dancing that everybody loves,” he says, “with people doing acrobatic, unbelievable things very high up in the air, wearing red pants? That’s an old Ukrainian fitness programme from the middle ages. That’s Cossack dancing, because that was their way of staying fit, appropriated and stolen by Moscow and branded as some kind of Russian accomplishment. But we’ve already taken that back, firmly.” Even Russia’s favourite folk song, Black Eyes, is, he says, “a song written by a Ukrainian poet on a German melody”.
Music has played a role in the current crisis, in raising money abroad and on the frontline. Westerners have told Hütz they “can’t really process how come there’s so much TikTok, YouTube and Instagram clips from the frontline of people in the trenches with instruments, making music and singing and letting the steam out. They almost find it to be baffling, but that’s not baffling at all if you’re Ukrainian – this is how we do it.” In historical Ukrainian paintings, he says, “you will find scenes where a Cossack is sitting with a sword and a musical instrument across his shoulders”.
Hütz recently posted a video of a group of women, in matching embroidered deep red costumes, singing the story of the current Russian invasion. They’re part of a long tradition of Ukrainian women choirs singing storytelling ballads. A translation he posted with this clip includes the lines: “And armoured personnel carriers were in flames / The Muscovites stood nearby / They were in complete stupor / Burning bastards were in flames.”
“That one was a 300- to 400-year-old melody,” he says. “Truly archetypal and ancient in the manner of delivery. But very modern in the events described, and using modern slang.” The women look so well put together that I assume they were far from the frontline, but Hütz looks at me like I’m crazy. “They’re in Kyiv. My whole family is in Kyiv right now.”
He’s in touch with his relatives on a daily basis and says the bolstering effects of international solidarity should not be underestimated. “When people are driving around rural Ukraine with their children, armed and trying to get to the safe place, or if they’re in the trenches fighting, people are prone to feel fractured and disconnected and forlorn. Any bit of information that, hey, out there somewhere in the UK, there is a concert going on in support of us; in France, people right now are by the embassy demanding support; that there are real people in real time doing something, it still means a lot.”
Does it feel like the first time the world has ever been behind Ukraine? “I mean, it’s never been behind Ukraine. It totally failed to be behind Ukraine in 2014. Same thing happened – it’s not like it’s a new thing.” He believes the current crisis could have been averted if the world had risen to the occasion back then. Even in the music world, he says, “a lot of older supposed freedom fighters, who are the first ones to sing the songs of freedom when nothing’s going on and it’s all peachy – a lot of those people are the biggest fakes in the world, milking the naivety of the coolest audiences. The freedom-fighting image sells well when there’s nothing to fight for. Once it’s really time to step up, you’re gonna need a really big torch to find them.”
Not that Hütz himself originally set out to educate the world about eastern Europe. “Believe me, that’s not really my thing,” he says. “And, truth be told, Ukrainians are pretty humble. Which is probably why things were easily hijacked from them for so long. We’re like, well, we’re rich in culture, so it ain’t gonna hurt us.”
• This article was amended on 29 April 2022 to make it clear that the listing, on the original published schedule, of a date for Gogol Bordello on 15 July 2022 in Kyiv was symbolic.
Gogol Bordello’s Solidaritine world tour starts on 4 May, with part of the proceeds going to Ukraine