Oleksandra “Sasha” Zaritska stepped onstage at the South by Southwest music festival last month draped in the Ukrainian flag — a moment she had dreamed about for years. But as she sang, her mind slipped to her bandmates fighting a war half a world away.
Before that day, Zaritska and her bandmates had met in Kyiv to rehearse and continue their charmed run to the top of the Ukrainian music scene. Kazka burst into the public consciousness in 2017 after an appearance on the country’s version of the TV show “The X Factor.” Kazka spent the next five years building on that success, releasing three albums, touring Europe and representing Ukraine in the continent’s wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest. In late February, Zaritska and company gathered for final preparations before heading to the United States.
Then, at 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, Zaritska got a phone call in her Kyiv apartment. It was her mother with news: The Russian military was invading. Although the specter had loomed over Ukraine for months, Zaritska didn’t think it would happen. “We can’t believe in the 21st century — super modern world — it can be a real war,” she told The Washington Post.
At first, she didn’t believe her mother, either. Zaritska scolded her: That’s not something you should joke about.
Then, standing on her balcony, Zaritska heard the explosions. When she realized that war had come, her mind shifted. She had to get out and fast.
The plan: rally with family and friends at her mother’s house in the forest just outside Kyiv. But she had to get there first. Roads were jammed, gas stations packed, supermarkets ravaged. Every 10 minutes, sirens started screaming. She waited three hours for gas. Then, she drove six hours to her mother’s. A trip that normally took 30 minutes had turned into an all-day affair.
But Zaritska made it to the house safely. So did other family members and some friends — eight or nine people total. They hunkered down and waited. In deciding to leave Kyiv, Zaritska had reasoned it would be safer on the capital’s outskirts instead of its urban center. But soon the Russian military started bombing the area. Throughout the night, explosions rattled the walls. They were scared to sleep. With no basement to shelter in, they could do nothing but race to the bathroom and cower as bombs exploded around them. Zaritska and the others had a decision to make.
“We [were] afraid they can just come to our house and kill us,” she told The Post.
Zaritska didn’t wait to find out. She packed into a car with her mother, sister, best friend and three dogs. They drove for hours, sleeping overnight in the car before eventually arriving at a small village in western Ukraine near the Hungarian border.
There, they rested before joining the war effort. Zaritska’s new mission: making camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military. Others brought refugees food. Then, Zaritska got a call. It was Kazka’s producer. He told her she should still go to the United States as planned and do the tour, even though Ukrainian law prohibited her male bandmates from leaving the country. Zaritska was skeptical. She wasn’t used to performing alone and was torn about leaving her country in its most desperate hour.
But Zaritska decided touring the United States as an unofficial Ukrainian ambassador was the best thing she could do. Her mission: stop people from turning away and force them to keep looking at the “humanitarian catastrophe” her country has become, she told The Post.
Zaritska gave an example: Eight weeks of war has destroyed much of her hometown of Kharkiv, the country’s second-most populous city, she said. When Zaritska’s been able to talk to relatives and friends who are still there, they’ve been huddled in bunkers.
Americans need to hear that, she said — and not just from the news, but from flesh-and-blood Ukrainians devastated by it.
“I [left] Ukraine because I have a big mission and I have a voice,” she told The Post.
In early March, Zaritska hopscotched through Eastern Europe: Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. While in Prague, she recorded a music video for “I Am Not OK,” Kazka’s new single that the band, collaborating from afar, whipped up in the first days of the invasion.
The video opens with Zaritska singing in Ukrainian, accompanied only by the background blare of air-raid sirens, followed by the boom of explosions. “I will sing a song about my life ‘before’ and ‘after.’ ”
Then a montage: a fighter jet, explosions, Ukrainians bloodied and battered as Russian bombs rain down. Zaritska keeps singing, lamenting her new reality — lying wide-awake at 4 a.m., taking life day by day and no longer having time for dreams. As she does, her fellow Ukrainians — women, children — hold signs with the track’s title.
“Pray for Ukraine,” Zaritska sings. “Pray for Ukraine now.”
Then she stops. So does the music. Only one sound remains: the air-raid siren.
After recording the new song, Zaritska arrived in the United States in mid-March. First stop: South by Southwest in Austin. A month earlier, the plan was to sing with her two bandmates, the three of them identifying merely as musicians. By the time Zaritska took the stage, she was alone but representing something bigger — a country under siege. Instead of performing one of the band’s original songs, she sang Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” with Charlie Sexton, a longtime Dylan collaborator, in what Zaritska called “a revolution onstage.”
“This song — it was like the scream of my soul,” she said.
Meanwhile, Budash and Mazuriak toiled thousands of miles away, not playing music, but adapting to new wartime jobs. As Zaritska sang at South by Southwest, Mazuriak volunteered in western Ukraine, retrofitting facilities like schools and gyms into shelters for countrymen forced to flee their homes and hometowns. As Zaritska sang the Ukrainian national anthem in the heart of New York City, Budash raised money to buy European vehicles for the Ukrainian military.
Unlike Zaritska, the two men couldn’t leave the country. Hours after Russia attacked, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky enacted martial law, banning most men ages 18 to 60 from leaving. Both musicians said that, even if they could, they wouldn’t leave. They’re needed at home. Plus, Zaritska is the best person to represent the band and Ukraine and to communicate the need for more help from Americans and other Westerners.
Budash gave another reason: “We decided to send Sasha in America because she’s more attractive than us,” the guitarist and keyboard player said, laughing.
Through it all, the three of them have talked, although usually not about music or work, Budash and Mazuriak said. Zaritska always wants to know if they’re okay.
Zaritska told The Post that she hopes the war ends soon so the three of them can make music together while Ukraine rebuilds and heals. Performing at South by Southwest and touring the United States had been a goal that took six months of planning. Zaritska did it, but the performance wasn’t what she had expected when she imagined being onstage with her band. The coronavirus derailed those plans in 2020 and 2021. War ruined them this year.
Zaritska is keeping her fingers crossed for 2023.
“We really hope that the next year it will be a really calm year. And we hope that we will come to South by Southwest, and we will have a real performance — like all of my friends will be there.”
Until then, Zaritska is embracing her wartime mission. On March 23, four days after performing “Masters of War” at South by Southwest, she sang her country’s national anthem while the Ukrainian flag was raised in the heart of Lower Manhattan. On March 29, Zaritska met with the head of the Ukrainian consulate in New York to sing and talk about “the madness going on in Ukraine.” On April 2, she performed at a charity gala for Ukraine in Chicago. She did the same at a sister event in New York the next day.
Zaritska was supposed to be back in Ukraine by now. Before the invasion, Kazka planned to finish its U.S. tour with an April 3 concert in Los Angeles, then fly back home for an eight-stop tour across the country. Instead, Zaritska remains in the United States, preparing to perform at more charity concerts. Her mission: raise money to send back home to help the war effort.
“I need to do this,” Zaritska said.