Jinjer: “We are reminding people that the war is still on”

Right now, Russian forces are attacking Jinjer’s Ukrainian homeland. As they become one of Europe’s biggest metal bands, they’re now also ambassadors for a country besieged by war. Refusing to be intimidated, vocalist Tatiana Shmayluk and bassist Eugene Abdukhanov tell of the tragic events back home, and how they’re using their position to help fight back…

Jinjer: “We are reminding people that the war is still on”
Nick Ruskell

Tatiana Shmayluk has a strong message for “Vladimir fucking Putin”.

One-hundred-and-seventy days since Russian forces began their illegal invasion of Ukraine under the flimsiest of pretexts, the Jinjer singer is onstage at Bloodstock. Before a backdrop painted in the blue and yellow national colours of their homeland, she spits the Russian premier’s name as though it fills her mouth with broken glass to say it. Last year, in more peaceful times, she told Kerrang! that the national character of her homeland might best be called “stubborn”. Seeing her now, she was selling it drastically short.

“Some of us have had our homes taken away twice since 2014,” she says by way of introduction to Home Back, a song detailing the Russian-backed seizure of her home region of Donetsk eight years ago. But even a set-piece already so filled with poignancy as this manages to take on new weight in light of the horrific atrocities currently being committed 2,000 miles away from the sun-baked fields of the Derbyshire festival site.

“We want,” she demands, as a blur of flags wave in solidarity from the audience, “our fucking home back.”

Jinjer’s current function isn’t that of a normal touring band. When they play – as they have done across metal festivals all summer, amid dates on Slipknot’s continental run – they do so as one of the brightest and best metal bands in Europe, but even so, the weight of their situation at home joins them onstage. Buy a Jinjer shirt with the Ukrainian colours on it, and you will be directly supporting the humanitarian aid organisation with which the band work. As much representatives of a humanitarian crisis as musicians, they are aware of what their presence symbolises, and the importance of keeping their country in the minds of those lucky enough to live in safer places than they.

“At the beginning of this tour, I [would] burst into tears onstage sometimes,” Tatiana says, shortly after the gig. “Every time I finished a line, I had to wipe my eyes.”

But the work is important. And the support from fans with their flags and shirts and messages of love and support is incredibly graciously received. Even so, Tatiana adds, “It’s very hard for me.

“Seeing flags and people showing so much support for Ukraine around the world is amazing, but it’s tough,” she admits. “It makes me want to go home.”

Home is Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, where Jinjer have been based since 2014. Previously, Tatiana and guitarist Roman Ibramkhalilov had been living in Donetsk, where they grew up. In the spring of that year, tensions had begun to mount, as Russia began to move in on nearby Crimea. When a military aircraft passed overhead while Tatiana and her friends were having a barbecue in the park, they knew they had to run.

“We were at a picnic, not far away from my building where I lived,” is her recollection. “We were just chilling on the grass, eating food and stuff, and we heard this loud sound in the sky – we looked up and saw a jet. And that was that. We just grabbed our stuff and ran home, and we started figuring out how to leave before it was too late.”

Packing their possessions into a van and making for Kyiv where bassist Eugene Abdukhanov was already living with his wife, even as they set off, they could see things beginning to change as they drove.

“Already there were borders being built around our region,” she says. “And I remember when we were crossing it, we were met by a guy, a soldier with a weapon. And then we heard [machine gun fire] somewhere very close to us.”

What’s been going on since February has been even more serious. Today, as the current wave of aggression continues, Eugene says that things in Kyiv are actually “more or less normal”, or they were when he left for tour. In the East, though, he describes the conditions as, simply, “Hell on Earth.”

“Every single day there are casualties among civilians,” he says. “Every single day dozens of people are dying. You do not feel safe [there] because there are missile attacks every day.”

A couple of months ago, Eugene was in the city of Vinnytsia. He’s got video of himself and a friend getting a kebab in a takeaway. A month later, the block that housed the shop was hit by a Russian missile. Twenty-eight people were killed in the attack. Three of them were children. None of them were military.

Eugene says the incident was, “something that cannot be described with words”. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had a few, calling the attack “inhuman” and “an open act of terrorism”, while Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba among others have dubbed it “a war crime”.

“Some good friends of mine were actually there, and they suffered,” Eugene says. “Fortunately, my friend who got hurt, he’s still alive, still in the hospital. But so many people, civilian people, died.”

This is, tragically, not an isolated incident. Eugene has friends who have been drafted into the army and gone to the frontline to fight. Two weeks ago, he learned that one, a buddy he trained with at the gym, had been killed.

As a 35-year-old man, it’s possible that the likeable bassist could find himself called up. Entirely understandably, it’s not something he allows to occupy too many of his thoughts.

“Oh man, I’m not to be asked about that,” he sighs. “I am a father of two, and for me it’s a hard thing, because going to the front means leaving my family behind. It’s very difficult for me to answer such a question.”

This is emphatically not to be mistaken for not helping, though. Even if you choose to question the value of a band reminding festival audiences that the war is still very much going on – and there is a great value in coming face to face with ordinary people just like you, whose lives and well-being are so affected by such shocking and dehumanising events – elsewhere things are much more hands-on.

On the road, merch sales will raise funds for relief projects. When Jinjer get home from this run of shows, they will continue their work in procuring, organising and delivering aid and supplies to those who need it.

“We have a humanitarian organisation that consists of us and some people from different countries who help us transport things,” Tatiana explains. “We collect money, then we buy goods, and we transport it to hospitals for elderly people and things like that.”

“We organised the delivery of humanitarian aid to Ukraine from Slovakia,” continues Eugene. “We have a friend there who bought everything for us and sent it to us, and we distributed it. In total, I think, we managed to import more than five tonnes of humanitarian aid.”

Some of the projects Jinjer have helped raise money for include the rebuilding of music schools destroyed by Russian attacks (“This is culture and we should not let Putin destroy it,” asserts Eugene). Other things, though, cater for much more basic needs. While between them they cannot possibly remember everything they’ve sorted and for whom, there have been clothes and washing machines for refugees, power generators, gallons of fuel.

“We’ll just put it on the truck and send it where it’s needed,” explains Eugene. There’s also gear being sent to soldiers at the front, a fact which only highlights the difficulties in repelling their invaders.

“A lot of my friends, and friends of my friends, are now at the front, and there is still a shortage of basic things for the soldiers,” he continues. “We bought things for them – from uniforms to shoes, bulletproof vests, flashlights, all sorts of things. Everything except weapons, because we cannot buy those, but pretty much anything else, we send to the front.”

There will come a time, hopefully soon, when Jinjer can focus their attention on other, happier endeavours, when journalists will ask them questions about other things. Sadly, it’s also highly remiss not to right now.

“We are reminding people that the war is still on,” Eugene states. “It’s already been half a year, and a lot of people worldwide just got tired of that sort of news. So from this perspective, we’re definitely helping the cause.”

It should also go on the record that for all the heavy subject matter and obvious worries about the situation at home, both Tatiana and Eugene are a delight to be around. The bassist, a friendly, smiley bear of a man who strikes more than a passing resemblance to Aquaman beefcake Jason Momoa, talks enthusiastically about his love for classic British doom metal outfits Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride, and happily declares his band’s current success as “more than I ever could have expected, it’s great!”

Tatiana, meanwhile, is excited about the remainder of the Slipknot tour, and what they’ve got lined up for the rest of the year. Even in this, things manage to circle back to the band’s role as de facto ambassadors for Ukraine in the world of metal.

“I’ve been seeing our [fundraising] shirts all over the world,” she says, proudly. “When I was in the U.S., I saw a person at a concert wearing it, and I had to go there and just hug him.”

As well as the good work, there’s something else in Jinjer’s current mission. As is so often the case, even in the darkest of times, it is music that proves, even if it can’t heal the world’s problems, it can at least take you away from them for a minute.

“The only time I can forget about the war and everything is just that one hour onstage,” says Eugene, rising and giving a warm hug as he leaves. “That is the only time when I forget about the shit going on.

“Doing this and when I’m with my family – nothing else can save me.”

Jinjer tour the UK with Bullet For My Valentine from February 27, 2023. This interview was originally published in the autumn 2022 issue of the magazine.

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