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New year new appreciation for Ukrainian resistance song

Student Success Jan 18, 2024

Have you ever heard of a song called Shchedryk?

If you are familiar with the popular holiday song, Carol of the Bells, what you’ve heard is an adaptation of the Ukrainian New Year’s carol, Shchedryk, arranged by composer Mykola Leontovych in 1916.

The song depicts prosperity in the new year and has become a symbol of Ukraine’s continued fight to maintain its independence.

Original text and translation Original text and translation

Ukrainian researcher Tina Peresunko recently presented her investigation into the history of the song and its transformation at the Indiana University Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. Her work is supported by the Indiana University-Ukraine Nonresidential Scholars Program within the Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute (REEI), where her faculty partner is Professor Halina Goldberg, REEI director.

Peresunko, a native of Kyiv, Ukraine, is a researcher, journalist, cultural project manager, and Fulbright Scholar.

Tinan Peresunko Tinan Peresunko“The history of Carol of the Bells is more relevant today than ever,” said Peresunko. “Ukraine is fighting for independence, resisting Russian occupation and propaganda that claims, ‘Ukrainian people do not exist.’ One hundred years ago, Ukraine had the same objectives with its world premiere of the song, Shchedryk: to prove to the world that Ukrainians exist and to gain the support of the Western world in the struggle for independence from Bolshevik Russia.”

Building on previous scholarship, Peresunko tells the story of a song — and a choir — that helped Ukraine gain global recognition.

When Ukraine declared its independence from Russia in 1918 at the end of World War I, it became important for the country to build international recognition of its sovereignty. To this end, the Ukrainian National Republic launched a mission of cultural diplomacy in 1919, led by Symon Petliura, head of the Ukrainian National Republic.

In the tradition of cultural diplomacy, countries leverage the arts to foster cultural appreciation to grow soft power and global support. Out of this tradition, Ukraine established its national choir, the Ukrainian Republican Chapel, and launched a worldwide musical tour to foster appreciation for Ukrainian culture.

Ukrainian Republican Chapel in Prague, 1919

The tour, sponsored by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Arts and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, began in Europe and eventually reached more than 200 cities in 17 countries in Western Europe, North and South America. The choir, directed by Oleksandr Koshyts, performed a wide repertoire, including the song, Shchedryk.

The European tour was met with great critical acclaim, and Shchedryk became the choir’s most popular song.

“The concerts were attended by royal family representatives and political elites,” said Peresunko. “The choir exceeded expectations as they toured Europe and went to Paris, Prague, Vienna, Geneva, Brussels, London, and Berlin. They were able to visit 45 cities in 10 countries in Western Europe. They received over 600 positive reviews from critics. The Viennese publication Musica Divina wrote, ‘Ukraine’s cultural maturity should become for the world a legitimization of its political independence.’”

Translations of “Shchedryk” from global press outlets and publicity materials, collected by Tina Peresunko

Despite the tour’s popularity, in 1921-22, during the formation of the Soviet Union, the majority of Ukraine became occupied by Soviet Russia. In retaliation against Ukraine, the Bolshevik secret police targeted and eventually murdered Shchedryk’s composer, Mykola Leontovych on January 23, 1921.

“On the same date, the choir happened to be performing in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées,” said Peresunko. “As Ukraine was occupied by Russia in 1921, the choir could not come back home due to the danger of being targeted. This is how the melody traveled to the U.S., which became the prerequisite for Carol of the Bells emerging.”

A record of Shchedryk performed by the Russian Art Choir, titled, Russian Folk Song, 1926. A record of “Shchedryk” performed by the Russian Art Choir, titled, “Russian Folk Song,” 1926.

In 1922, Oleksandr Koshyts’ choir, and Shchedryk, made their North American debut at Carnegie Hall. Shchedryk was also recorded for the first time, with attribution to the Ukrainian National Chorus. The singers changed the name of the choir from “Ukrainian Republican Chapel” to signify that it was no longer a governmental choir due to the Russian occupation. The choir continued its tour with nearly 500 performances in 150 cities in 7 countries of North and South America, including 115 U.S. cities.

During this time, the Russian diaspora tried to appropriate Shchedryk as a traditional Russian folk song, and benefit from its popularity. As just one example, in 1926, Shchedryk was performed by the Russian Art Choir on Broadway in the musical, Song of the Flame, attributed incorrectly as a Russian folk song.

In 1936, an American composer of Ukrainian descent, Peter J. Wilhousky, decided to include Shchedryk in the repertoire of a children’s choir he was conducting. He contacted singers from the Ukrainian choir for the original manuscript to use as the basis to write an English version.

“Wilhousky wrote English lyrics inspired by ringing of bells, and the Carol of the Bells was born,” said Peresunko.

Despite the fact that Wilhousky attributed Carol of the Bells as being a Ukrainian song, American choirs and performers continued to call it Russian. This was perpetuated due to the Soviet government’s repression of historical archives.

Peter J. Wilhousky Peter J. Wilhousky

“During the Soviet era, there was no access to the archive of the Ukrainian Republican Chapel, as it was classified by the secret services,” said Peresunko.

Also during this time, in 1937-38, Stalin’s Great Terror unfolded in Ukraine, resulting in the execution or exile of anyone suspected of “anti-Soviet” activity.

“Most Ukrainian ministers and Ukrainian National Republic (UNR) politicians, caught by the Soviet secret services, were killed,” said Peresunko. “This included UNR Prime Minister Volodymyr Chekhivskyi, who helped the choir go on tour.”

Also during the Soviet era, Symon Petliura, who had become a controversial figure, was shot and killed in Paris in 1926.

“During the trial, the jury acquitted the murderer and found Petliura guilty of antisemitism,” said Peresunko. “In reality, it was a Kremlin-sponsored operation aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian national movement.”

The history of Shchedryk remained hidden in historical archives until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Ukraine declared its independence.

Carol of the Bells sheet music Carol of the Bells sheet music

“However, even after 1991, this archive was not studied much,” said Peresunko. “In 2016, I began to study tens of thousands of documents on the history of this choir and saw not only the musical phenomenon of Ukraine but also the phenomenon of Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy.”

In 2018, Peresunko published a compilation of several hundred archival documents on the history of Ukraine’s national choir, titled Shchedryk’s World Triumph – 100 Years of Ukraine’s Cultural Diplomacy. She later published her first book in 2019, Shchedryk vs. the Russian World. Peresunko also initiated a long-term project to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy, and she has been facilitating cooperation between various Ukrainian ministries and organizations since 2019.

“Through my books, exhibitions, concerts, documentaries and videos, I want to remind Ukrainians and the whole world not only about the Ukrainian roots of Carol of the Bells, but also about the more than a century-long struggle of Ukraine’s fight for independence from Russia,” said Peresunko.

In 2022, Carnegie Hall held a concert honoring the 100-year anniversary of Shchedryk’s North American premiere. Peresunko advised the organizers on the performance and wrote the history of Shchedryk in the playbill.

100-year anniversary performance of Shchedryk at Carnegie Hall, 2022

In December 2023, Peresunko worked with the Leontovych Institute and the National Philharmonic of Ukraine, with support from the U.S. Embassy, to organize a Christmas concert, “Hay, Rozhestvo! (Hey, Christmas!)” For the first time in 100 years, the Ukrainian Radio Choir, conducted by Yulia Tkach, performed the entire repertoire of Oleksandr Koshyts’ 1922 Carnegie Hall premiere, including Shchedryk, at the National Philharmonic of Ukraine in Kyiv.

In her research of the Carnegie Hall repertoire, Peresunko discovered other songs that have renewed significance today, including Doomsday, arranged by Porfyrij Demutsky and There Was a Widow, arranged by Oleksandr Koshyts.

“At our concert in Kyiv many guests could not hold back their tears,” said Peresunko. “Today, once again, Ukrainian sons and daughters are on the front line. Once again, there are many widows in Ukrainian towns and villages. The title of our concert, ‘Hay, Rozhestvo!’ was taken from the refrain in There Was a Widow. Every day is a Doomsday for us. But today the entire democratic world supports Ukraine. Therefore, today we have more chances for a victory.”

The Ukrainian Radio Choir under the direction of Yulia Tkach and the author and host of the concert “Hai, Rozhestvo!” Tina Peresunko on the stage of the National Philharmonic of Ukraine in Kyiv, December 24, 2023

As 2024 begins, Ukraine’s mission of cultural diplomacy can be newly appreciated.

“Researching and popularizing the history of Carol of the Bells now, in Kyiv, during the almost daily air raids and Russian missile attacks, is a historical responsibility,” said Peresunko. “It is also a very intense work regimen. It encourages us not to put off until tomorrow what can be done today. Because tomorrow may literally never come.”

“Shchedryk, as we remember, is about a swallow that arrives in the spring to the owner’s house and predicts a happy new year … So, we also hope that 2024 will be a happier year for Ukraine,” said Peresunko.

Peresunko’s presentation to Indiana University is available to view in Ukrainian and English translation on the Russian and East European Institute’s YouTube channel.

The 2023 National Philharmonic of Ukraine’s Christmas concert in Kyiv is available to view on the Ukrainian Suspilne Television YouTube channel.


About the IU-Ukraine Nonresidential Scholars Program

The Robert F. Byrnes Russian and East European Institute and the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies administer the IU-Ukraine Nonresidential Scholars Program with administrative and financial support from 23 units across Indiana University Bloomington. In the 2022-23 academic year, 35 scholars in Ukraine were able to continue their research, writing and teaching supported by a stipend, library access, and opportunities for collaboration and professional development. These 35 scholars remain in the program as continuing fellows during the 2023-24 academic year and are joined by an additional 34 incoming IU-Ukraine NRSP fellows. Faculty from across the IU-Bloomington campus have generously agreed to partner with the nonresidential fellows, oftentimes engaging in collaborations for research, publishing, and teaching.

About Tina Peresunko

Tina Peresunko, a native of Kyiv, Ukraine, is a researcher, journalist, cultural project manager, researcher at the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Institute of Ukrainian Archeography and Source Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, a Lane Kirkland Fellow (Warsaw, 2013) and a Fulbright Scholar (New York, 2021), and founder of the Leontovych Institute. At the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, she developed an English-language digital resource on the history of the transformation of the song “Shchedryk” into the English-language carol “Carol of the Bells.”

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Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies

Sarah DeWeese

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