The Ukrainian defense against Russia’s war of aggression has yielded up meme after meme, wildly viral songs, and a variety of hashtaggable slogans that slip between the virtual and the physical fronts. Often, Ukrainian slogans begin in the grassroots (particularly the internet grassroots) and rise up to be exploited by the state — an inversion of the flow of power from Uncle Sam’s fingertip. Perhaps this is fully in line with the activist practices of the social-media age when hashtags such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter burble up through dense information environments and inspire masses of people to political action. But I think there’s another story here, one specific to the Ukrainian fight: how a casual utterance morphs into a wartime slogan, accumulating meanings as it passes from one context to the next. I want to tell the story of how a pedestrian phrase became an existential cri de cœur, whose semiotic overload becomes almost too heavy to translate.
I have in mind here the prosaic phrase: Доброго вечора, ми з України, which means, simply, “Good evening, we are from Ukraine.” It is not exactly a phrase that makes you want to thump your chest Braveheart-style and roar a primal scream in defense of the homeland. Yet, this phrase, which began as a musician’s offhand stage banter sampled into an EDM anthem, became a slogan invoked by Ukrainian politicians, soldiers, intellectuals, keyboard warriors, and their supporters around the globe. The slogan’s ubiquity in the months since the full-scale invasion has made the phrase practically hackneyed, yet it continues to proliferate. Good evening, we are from Ukraine became so omnipresent as a sound bite that it has been integrated into music videos and even into the wider culture: Ukrposhta, the Ukrainian postal service, ran a competition in July 2022 inviting people to design a stamp that best captured the slogan. The winning design features a tractor waving the Ukrainian flag, towing a Russian tank behind it, with Доброго вечора, ми з Україна! spelled out across the yellow sky.
Most Ukrainians came to know the phrase first through an EDM track entitled “Доброго вечора (Where are you from)” by ProBass△Hardi, released in late October 2021. ProBass△Hardi consists of Artem Tkachenko and Maksym Mokrenko, a duo from the city of Kremenchuk (about a three-hour drive east of Kyiv) who call their style of music “Ukrobass.” Months before the full-scale Russian invasion, the track became a hit. It is mostly instrumental, mixing familiar tropes of EDM production with samples from Ukrainian folklore. The first two seconds of the track feature a man’s voice saying, in Ukrainian, Good evening, we are from Ukraine. About a minute in, the sample repeats.
The man’s voice belongs to Marko Halanevych, a member of the self-described “ethno-chaos” band from Kyiv known as DakhaBrakha. When scouring videos of Ukrainian bands for cool folk samples, the ProBass△Hardi duo happened upon Halanevych introducing DakhaBrakha to an English-speaking audience. Halanevych welcomed the audience in English, then added, in Ukrainian, “Good evening, we are from Ukraine.” ProBass△Hardi snatched the two-second sound bite, conceiving of it as an homage to DakhaBrakha — who, due to their breakout success, have served as informal Ukrainian cultural ambassadors to the Anglophone world since the Maidan Revolution and ensuing Russian-instigated violence in 2014. When the track was released, the musicians of DakhaBrakha posted a TikTok in gratitude, and everyone moved on with their lives — until February 24th.
After Putin unleashed the Russian Army’s campaign of mass terror against Ukrainians, ProBass△Hardi’s song became a flag waved on the “musical front” of the war. However, unlike other viral musical moments such as the a cappella performance of the song “Oi u Luzi Chervona Kalyna” sung by Andriy Khlyvnyuk of the band BoomBox, which captured the imagination of people around the world in the first weeks following the full-scale invasion, ProBass△Hardi’s track has remained largely within the Ukrainian mediasphere. Through endless remediations on YouTube, TikTok, and other platforms, it has collapsed the space between the musical and physical fronts. Innumerable videos featuring the Ukrainian armed forces use fragments of the song as a soundtrack. Equally common are the videos in which Ukrainian soldiers stand atop ruined Russian tanks or other abandoned military hardware and proclaim, “Good evening, we are from Ukraine.”
The complete transformation of the phrase into a wartime slogan, however, can probably be attributed to its use by Vitaliy Kim, a Ukrainian businessman-turned-politician appointed by President Zelensky to serve as governor of the strategically critical southern Mykolaiv Oblast in 2020. Soon after Russian troops arrived in Ukrainian territory, Kim started posting updates to social media. His addresses always began with the phrase Good evening, we are from Ukraine. When Russian forces occupied the port city of Kherson and its neighboring regions to Mykolaiv’s east, they set their sights on Mykolaiv but were rebuffed. (In early November 2022, Kherson was also liberated from Russian occupation.) Kim, whose heritage is part Korean, became an icon of Ukrainian defiance. In early May last year, a photograph of Kim went viral: at work in his office, he sits back in his chair, his camo-green pants in the foreground and matching jacket slung over his office chair, his feet, in now-famous bright patterned socks, up on the desk. Kim’s nonchalance in the face of personal peril became conflated with the slogan’s understated confidence, to the point that a drawing of this photo was a finalist in the postal service’s stamp-design competition.
We may feel ourselves immune to the seductions of sloganeering and suspicious of appeals to vulgar patriotism. Many of my Ukrainian friends continue to regard these patriotic bromides and popular kitsch with the skepticism common to the cultural and political left. (A rough analogy for US citizens might be to imagine sincerely proclaiming “God Bless America!” or hanging a picture of a screaming bald eagle set against the Stars and Stripes — if that’s not already your thing.) And yet, we may turn to ready-made phrases in moments of existential crisis. A Ukrainian friend on a WhatsApp call recently greeted me with “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”). With no hint of irony, I found myself responding, “Heroyam Slava!” (“Glory to the heroes!”) — and, if I’m being honest, I even felt a slight, sentimental catch in my throat. My first associations with this particular call and response are rooted in the ethnonationalistic campaigns of earlier Ukrainian history, the kinds of exclusionary state-building projects that do not comport with my personal politics and hopes for the democratic project of Ukraine. I know well that Soviet propaganda used the World War II–era iteration of this slogan to smear all Ukrainians as threatening nationalists, but even so, I could not bring myself to utter it after the Russian incursions into Ukraine in 2014. I can utter it now. My friend on the other end of the line, who is currently surviving through an electricity shortage, feels the same way.
War makes not only for strange bedfellows but also for strange new personal politics, too. Back in August, the (currently suspended) Twitter user @ulyamustdie described (in Ukrainian) her feelings about Good evening, we are from Ukraine and other patriotic symbolism: “Let it be 100 times cringe, I will still carry it, I will fucking dye my hair yellow and blue, I will fucking name all my children Slava and I will change my surname to Ukraine, I will fucking tattoo a trident over my whole back.” This is the crux of the matter: the we who are from Ukraine has been changing; the we continues to expand.
The genius of the innocuous phrase Good evening, we are from Ukraine — nothing more, really, than a greeting and a statement of fact — is in how cleverly it masks its radicalism. For a country historically stereotyped by its menacing northern neighbor as a hotbed of intolerant ethnonationalists, the slogan works precisely because it does not traffic in the essentializing rhetoric of being Ukrainian. It is not for an individual declaring an identity: I am Ukrainian. It is instead a collective, matter-of-fact statement: “We are from Ukraine.” This also implies — and I still resent that this must be said, but here we are — that Ukraine exists, is a legitimate place, and contains people who claim it as home. This probably sounds ludicrous to anyone who hasn’t been following this war closely, but given the Russian state’s denial of the existence of a thing called Ukraine and people called Ukrainians, claiming something as obvious as one’s existence is legitimately radical. Anyone from Ukraine can say it if they want to. It is polite. It is understated. Good evening, we are from Ukraine. Like Rosie the Riveter’s steely-armed invitation to American women, the we here is an opening.
This inclusive redefinition of Ukrainianness has been thematized in many new songs produced by Ukrainian artists of many genres. But a track released in early April 2022 by the Ukrainian influencer and musician Yana Shemaeva, who performs under the stage name Jerry Heil, is, in my opinion, among the most brilliantly burrowing of these earworms. It takes the expansive spirit of Good evening, we are from Ukraine and explodes it into many dimensions.
Jerry Heil’s song “Москаль Некрасівий (Геть з України),” which translates to “Ugly Muscovite (Get Out of Ukraine),” stitches together seemingly incommensurable aspects of Ukrainian culture and history. In doing so, it opens up the possibility that all of these incommensurable stories about the past can coexist together; we are from Ukraine. The song’s title is taken from the punch line of a joke made by the notorious Ukrainian drag artist, pop star, and comedian Verka Serduchka (a.k.a. Andriy Danylko), who — among other things — became famous for her runner-up victory in the 2007 Eurovision performance with a song called “Dancing Lasha Tumbai.” 
The character of Serduchka embodies an archetypal low-status Ukrainian middle-aged woman, a train conductor lured by the glamorous promise and cruel optimism of post-Soviet capitalism. The joke lies in the mismatch between Serduchka’s confident self-image and the ridiculous way she presents to the world — Ukrainian elites often criticized Serduchka’s doubling down on stereotypes of Ukrainian rurality and inferiority, pointing out how this played into Russian imperialist (and later Russocentric Soviet) propaganda. But Serduchka became a post-Soviet phenom to be reckoned with. Serduchka’s character often speaks in surzhyk (the Russo-Ukrainian hybrid argot coded as low-class), as reflected in the nonstandard spelling of некрасівий (“ugly”) in the Ukrainian title of Heil’s song. The song builds via the repetition of Serduchka’s catchphrase, a demand that Russians get the hell out of Ukraine. Prior to the full-scale invasion, Serduchka was а star in both Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking markets; her unflagging alignment with Ukraine during this war was not a given but rather became another sign of the commitment of all kinds of Ukrainians to the defense of their country.
The song is funny, and timely too. Jerry Heil includes shout-outs to viral news stories from the early weeks of the war: she sings about how the new Ukrainian heroes who populated the news “steal our hearts like the Roma steal tanks,” or how Zelensky’s refusal to leave Kyiv broke the resolve of the invaders just as the jar of pickled vegetables thrown by a Kyivan woman broke a Russian drone.
Importantly, the song accomplishes this by repurposing the melody of a Zaporozhian Cossack (Kozak) song thought to date to the second half of the 17th century. The Zaporozhian Cossacks were the first to experiment with the formation of an anti-imperial Ukrainian state. Needless to say, this experiment in sovereignty was what we might now (anachronistically) call ethnonationalistic. Cossack violence against populations who cohabited on the territory of Ukraine is well documented, including pogroms against historic Jewish and Roman Catholic communities. The lyrics of the original song name two premodern Zaporozhian Cossack leaders engaged in building Cossack statehood: Mykhailo Doroshenko and Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny. In her comprehensive rewrite of the lyrics, Jerry Heil namechecks three contemporary leaders instead: Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president whose Jewish ancestry and Russophone upbringing are by now well known; Vitaliy Kim, the aforementioned Ukrainian of Korean ancestry famous for his steely defense of Mykolaiv; and Oleksii Arestovych, a part-Belarusian, Georgian-born freelance advisor to President Zelensky, whose soothing daily briefings drew large Ukrainian audiences in the first weeks following the full-scale invasion. While none of these three contemporary leaders are without their complications (particularly Arestovych, a lightning rod for controversy with dubious political commitments), their wartime roles in the Ukrainian defense have been prominent, if not vital. And so, in 2022, the melody of this centuries-old song was set to new lyrics that celebrate these three individuals — none of whom would have likely been included in the premodern Zaporozhian Cossack state-building project — as emblems of the aspiration for continued modern Ukrainian sovereignty, and the refusal to submit to Russian domination.
Visually, Heil’s music video draws especially upon the Cossacks, a popular Soviet-era silent cartoon that premiered in the late 1960s and featured a trio of Cossacks inspired by the Three Musketeers (and, in their appearance, by Popeye). In the original series, the Cossacks embarked on various exploits in a disarming, sometimes bumbling style — in keeping with the contemporaneous stereotype of Ukrainians as picturesque and not particularly bright. Heil’s video takes these cute Soviet-era Cossacks and shows their savvy. Borrowing scenes from episodes such as “How the Cossacks Played Soccer” (1970), the animation reworks this artifact from the Soviet past into a usable present. In one scene, set to the verse dedicated to Vitaliy Kim, a cartoon Cossack unfolds a scroll upon which is written Good evening, we are from Ukraine. The video comes in for a close-up, highlighting the cartoon Cossack and his scroll in a halo of yellow and fading the rest of the background to grayscale. This nod to the viral wartime slogan is hard to miss, an homage to the simultaneous profundity and banality of belonging.
In 1928, the Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade published his “Cannibalist Manifesto,” a statement on how to reconcile the harms of the past with the traces of imperialism in the present, in the service of forging a new modern Brazilian culture: “Cannibalism alone unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically.” This suggests a way to think about these Ukrainian wartime slogans: they devour everything. Like the Brazilian Tropicália musicians of the 1960s who took inspiration from the “Cannibalist Manifesto,” Jerry Heil’s song ingests as much as it can — the messy and contradictory imperial and anti-imperial inheritances of modern Ukraine, ongoing wars over cultural memory, the unsettled work of being a sovereign people. A two-minute track offers a musical, visual, and gestural synthesis that satiates with its breakneck referentiality: it excretes what isn’t needed anymore, and feeds on the rest.
The wartime slogan Good evening, we are from Ukraine has nested firmly within the noisy information climate of this war — it is the imperturbable eye of the storm in Jerry Heil’s song, a cringe-worthy but irresistible rallying cry, a postage stamp, an EDM jam, a rebuttal of centuries-old propaganda, and a polite buzz-off: we exist.
Maria Sonevytsky is a professor of anthropology and music at Bard College. She is the author of Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine (2019), and Vopli Vidopliassova’s Tantsi (coming in June 2023), and has performed as a musician in a variety of genres.
Featured image: Kasimir Malevich. Black Suprematic Square (Black Square), 1915. Tretyakov Gallery. www.tretyakovgallery.ru, CC0. Date accessed: January 13, 2023.
 Russia protested that the phonetic similarity between the phrase “Lasha Tumbai” and “Russia goodbye” made the song political, in defiance of Eurovision Song Contest rules. Serduchka responded, disingenuously and falsely, that the phrase actually meant “whipped cream” in Mongolian. However, in a summer 2022 performance held for war-worn Ukrainians in the Kyiv Metro, Serduchka/Danylko announced the official change of the lyrics to “Russia Goodbye.”