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  • Writer's pictureDaisy Holder

The Lute, the Hurdy Gurdy and the Magic Harmonica: The blind minstrels of Ukraine

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

This is my first post here on disability history. Of course I feel like I'm not at all experienced enough for this but I don't think anyone does for anything, so here we go regardless! Any constructive criticism is welcomed!


As this is Disability History Month (still, just..), and the theme this year is Music, I thought I'd do a bit of research on a group of almost exclusively disabled musicians in Ukraine; Kobzars and Lirnyky. I've got in pretty much on the deadline which is pretty characteristic of my whole life so far and why change a winning formula?


Kobzars were Ukrainian travelling bards who sang Dumas, which are epic poems built around historical events but filled with religious and moral messages, accompanied by their playing of a kobza, which was a type of lute. They were very similar to Lirnyky, except they played a different instrument (something close to an instrument known amusingly as a hurdy gurdy, which I never recognised was an actual word). They would also sometimes play satirical songs, and were later accused of promoting revolution, as if no-one had ever had that idea before until the bard turned up.

Kobzars and Lirnyky were often blind or “otherwise crippled” and by the turn of the 19th century a sighted Kobzars was very unusual, if not unheard of. By this time, regional Kobzar training schools had been set up, with each having a slightly different playing style and repertoire.

They organised themselves into guilds or brotherhoods (tsekh), similar to any other professional craftsmen at the time. Many of them were associated with specific orthodox churches, even though the church as a whole was often suspicious and sometimes hostile to them.

6 male bandura players in two rows, many are visibly blind or have dark glasses and eyepatches
The Kyiv Ethnographic Ensemble, 1939

One reason for this could be good old fashioned tradition, dating back to the Cossack rebellion of 1648. This bit could be complex, so bear with me.

Historically, Kobzar were Cossack. After Ukraine fell under the control of the Catholic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, of which the Cossacks rebelled. The occupiers subjugated the Ukrainian church, but the Cossacks were defenders of the faith, and since they failed in their rebellion (and the faith can't be wrong) then the Cossacks must have sinned by not successfully defending the church, right?

To me this seems like a bit of a stretch, in my mind it seems more likely that the churches are simply suspicious of beggars and travelling minstrels, which was not uncommon then or now.

Adding to this unease was the secret language Kobzars and Lirnyky has to communicate with each other. (it wasn't a full language in the typical sense with syntax and structure and all that but it was much more than just a dialect). A large part of their apprenticeship and training was to learn this language, which was a mix of encoded Ukrainian words and borrowed words from languages such as Greek, Hebrew and Swedish. The similarity of this to other groups with secret communications, such as beggars and thieves who had poor reputations, implied that the bards were up to no good. They were very reluctant to have their communications documented, and many were anxious to be anonymised by researchers who came asking questions, in fear of reprisals.

Now, of course just having a secret language doesn't necessarily mean they're wrong'uns, hiding the content of your speech is one reason for having a system for covert communications, but another equally valid one is to validate another person, and check that they completed their training and are a real Kobzar.

The bandurists had been persecuted since for decades, primarily by the police and bureaucrats who suspected they were petty criminals, but also slightly later on by the tsarist regime during the 18th century Russification of Ukraine by the Imperial Russian authorities.

Despite these attempts, by the end of the 19th century outsiders and ethnographers became interested in the work of the kobzars, leading to o a performance at the 12th Russian archaeological conference in 1902. The participants passed a revolution confirming the great value of their act. Once the kobzars had some attention on them and people who cared that they existed, the government softened their attitude (weird right?) Leading to frequent concerts in Ukrainian and Russian cities.

In 1907, Hnat Khotkevych to go had accompanied the kobzars at the conference published the first history and manual of bandurists playing. He was seen as the leading authority on Kobzars, and referred to as “the first seeing Kobzar”, as despite being the most well known 'kobzar’, he was not blind or disabled. And doesn't that sound just typical?

A group of men holding different types of lutes, hurdy gurdys and drums sit casually in old photo.
At the Historico-Ethnographic concert in Kyiv in 1929. A mix of kobzars and lirnyky

After the First World War, a lot of Ukrainian traditions were revived by the Bolshevik policy of indigenisation (“korenization”), only to be almost immediately stamped on again by the Soviet authorities who wanted to eliminate the idea of individual national identities, like the Imperial Russia before it. This, and the overhaul of rural society prompted the attempted elimination of the travelling bards, known charmingly as “the liquidation of the Kobzars.”

This all culminated in an event following a national conference, for which kobzars from all over Ukraine were shipped in, in either 1930, 1932 or 1939. (There are sources for all three dates, although 1939 seems most likely. Due to the similarities of locations, chain of events and people involved I'm led to believe they're all referring to the same event, but I'm somewhat limited by not speaking Ukrainian.)

The contributions of the Kobzars and Lirnyky were praised as well as their skills, then they were packed into trains under false pretences, and along with their guides, shot. Details are sketchy, as we're relying on account from survivors and other human memories which are typically kinda fallible especially after significant trauma, as amazingly the NKVD didn't keep very detailed records of all their mass murders.

Originally the government has tried to eliminate Kobzars a bit more politely, with a well planned media campaign denouncing them and their craft and labelling them an “incorrigible nationalist element”. Once this didn't work, they switched tactics.


And hilariously.

They began proclaiming that the magic harmonica the as the REAL best instrument! (Followed by the magic accordion and the magic balalaika. I've heard an accordion. It is not magic.)

Presumably because you couldn't speak/sing/denounce the regime at the same time.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been a renewed interest in the traditions of the individual countries, and so now there are Kobzar groups who tour the world, although it is no longer a craft of the blind which always kinda sucks.


Sources (I promise I had some):

-“Kobzars” Mykola Mushynka, Encyclopedia of Ukraine

-“The Destruction of Ukraine's Folk Singers” Euromaiden Press

-“Ukrainian Minstrels” Natalie Kononenko, BRAMA Gateway Ukraine

-“Ukrainian Folk Instruments” V. Mizynec

-“Ukrainian Minstrels: And The Blind Shall Sing” Natalie Kononenko

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