Ivan Dorn, a Ukrainian musician, had mostly finished his first album in five years in February.
Shot in a village in northern Ukraine, Dorndom is a more conceptual project than his signature genre-transcending pop. On the LP, Dorn, 33, born in Russia, sings in Russian, as he does on most of the hits that propelled him to stardom in both Ukraine and Russia.
He arranged a release date in late May, and his team worked to put together a worldwide tour with dates in both countries. Then Russia invaded Ukraine.
Against the backdrop of rockets raining down on Ukrainian cities, devastating hospitals, theaters and apartment buildings, it felt wrong to release Russian-language music that did not reflect these events.
“People are just too sensitive to language right now,” Dorn said in a recent interview after a sold-out concert in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Instead of performing and promoting “Dorndom” – which Dorn still hopes to release one day; the name is a combination of his own and the Russian word for house – the musician is now playing older hits across Europe and the United States to raise money to help Ukrainians at risk.
“I’m trying to understand how much this album would work today,” Dorn said.
For Ukrainian artists like Dorn, whose country’s culture and politics have long been intertwined with that of Russia, such concerns have become familiar: is it right to perform in a country whose leader claims your nation is part of his own? Should artists switch to writing and singing in Ukrainian, which could mean losing access to a much larger audience and market in Russia?
After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, many Ukrainian artists, including Okean Elzy, the country’s most popular rock band, and Monatik, a widely celebrated pop singer, stopped performing in Russia.
Dorn — who was born in Russia but grew up in Ukraine — took a different approach: He continued to tour Russia in an effort to build “a cultural bridge” between neighboring countries, he said.
“My idea was this: I capture as many people as possible with my music so that they would never attack my own country,” he said. “I was convinced that people who came to my concerts would not fight in a war against Ukraine.”
At a concert in Moscow in 2016, Dorn said from the stage: “There is nothing between us, nothing but friendship”, asking the crowd to exclaim, “Hello, Kiev!” People raised their hands and shouted ecstatically.
Although he sings in Russian, Dorn says he has always tried to emphasize his Ukrainian identity. Over the years, his catchy tunes of hip-hop, house and experimental music have earned him a reputation akin to Pharrell Williams; recently, Russian critics voted his 2012 debut album the best album of the past three decades.
But Dorn’s attempts to preach friendship between the two countries had sparked anger among some Ukrainians, according to Ukrainian news reports, including repeated criticism from nationalists.
Today — with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky saying last month that Russia occupies one-fifth of his land and was poised to conquer more — Dorn said his mission of friendship could be seen as a failure. But he doesn’t regret it.
“The Russian propaganda machine was just too powerful,” he said. “I’m sure that if we spent a week in front of Russian television, we would start to believe ourselves to be Nazis and fascists,” he said, referring to false accusations the Kremlin is using to justify the invasion.
Dorn has now cut ties with Russia and is focused on supporting Ukraine in the war, turning his label’s headquarters into a volunteer center and removing his music from Russian streaming services. He has also canceled contracts with Russian brands and artists.
In the decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, dozens of Ukrainian pop stars performed and appeared on television in Russia. Many of them moved to Moscow permanently, creating a cultural scene with influences from both countries.
Svetlana Loboda, a popular Ukrainian singer, moved to Moscow in 2017, where she could find a much larger and established pop industry than in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.
In the early days of the war in Ukraine, Loboda said her hometown was largely in ruins. She posted a video to her 13 million followers on Instagram, most of them from Russia, and tearfully said the war was “the worst thing that happened in my life”. She then released a song in Ukrainian and announced that she had moved elsewhere in Europe.
When war broke out between the two countries, Russian artists too were faced with a stark choice: stay in Russia and support President Vladimir V. Putin’s war, or protest, stop performing and flee.
Even in Ukraine, the music industry is not united against the Russian invasion.
This month, Yuri Bardash, one of Ukraine’s most successful producers, called on Ukraine to capitulate, accusing Ukrainian artists such as Dorn of “advertising the war by touring Europe” in order to “legitimize” it.
As much as Dorn hopes for peace between the two countries, when Russia invaded, his support for Ukraine was never in question. He was born in Chelyabinsk, Russia, but moved to Slavutych, Ukraine two years later, when his father, a physicist, was sent to work on the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
How the war in Ukraine affects the cultural world
Dorn has cousins in the Russian city of Birsk, whom he visited when he was a child, who helped shape his sense of Ukrainian identity.
“They said to me, ‘You’re strange, you’re interesting,'” he said. Dorn taught them the language and introduced them to Ukrainian hip-hop. “When you’re among Russians, you want to emphasize that you’re Ukrainian,” he said to confirm your identity.
Only one of his Russian relatives has been in contact since the start of the war, he said. A cousin had called and said that he had left Russia for Turkey, but that the rest of the family supported the war and there was no other way to persuade him.
In the decades immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, such divisions among families would have been practically unimaginable.
Mikhail Kozyrev, a prominent Russian producer, recalled organizing festivals during those years and introducing Ukrainian artists to radio stations in Moscow, in what felt like a unified cultural space.
“I deliberately tried to fill the Russian airwaves with Ukrainian music, but also with bands from Moldova, the Baltic States,” said Kozyrev. “Until 2014, it didn’t matter where an artist came from,” he said. “For me it was one, unified post-Soviet soundtrack.”
Like many liberal-minded Russians, Kozyrev — who has now left his country — says the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made the cultural rift between the countries permanent and irreversible. Dorn sees things more philosophically, however.
“We forgot history and now it came back,” Dorn said. “I’m sure time will pass and we will forget what happened now,” he added. “And then we will quarrel again – there will be peace and war again.”