Archdeacon: War in Ukraine hits home for area couple

Diane and Roger McMurrin in the living room of their Lebanon home. Tom Archdeacon/STAFF

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Diane and Roger McMurrin in the living room of their Lebanon home. Tom Archdeacon/STAFF

LEBANON – Every morning – at about 3 or 4 a.m. – they bring the war into their Warren County home.

“This morning I spoke to Taras, this guy right here,” Roger McMurrin said as he got up from the couch in the living room of their Lebanon condo and walked to a framed photograph hung prominently on the wall above the television

It was a picture of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus – founded and conducted by McMurrin – when they played Carnegie Hall in Manhattan.

“That’s Taras right there,” he said as he pointed to a tall, tuxedoed man on the right side of the stage. “He was one of my conductors.

“He’s an amazing man. He’s now a captain in the military. His wife and four boys have made it to Grenada, Spain and his platoon is being sent to Kharkiv in the northeastern part of the country.”

On this morning a couple of days ago, McMurrin and his wife, Diane, also had been in contact with their friend Konstantin “Kostya” Vikulkin, who’d been McMurrin’s personal assistant and interpreter in Ukraine for two decades.

Kostya lives in Boyarka, just southwest of Kyiv. His wife and son fled their home, as well, after the Vladimir Putin-directed Russian troops and their missiles began the brutal assault of Ukraine 52 days ago.

Kostya has now dedicated himself to helping those in need, especially the elderly, widows and children, who are still left in the area.

“Today he gave food to 98 different families,” McMurrin said. “This is all person to person. He’s helping as many people as he can.”

He took out his phone and pulled up several photos just sent by Kostya. Most were of older women in headscarves, each with the bag or box of food they’d just received.

The McMurrins are more deeply tied to the Ukrainian people than any American couple in this area. And that has come about through one of the most unlikely stories you ever could fathom.

Both have ties to Xenia High School in the 1960s: she as a graduate, he as the school’s young music director. They later married and have two sons of their own, Mark and Matthew. Along the way, Roger gained fame as a music director at some of the largest Presbyterian churches in the nation, from Coral Ridge in Fort Lauderdale to Highland Park in Dallas and First Presbyterian in Orlando.

Then, in an unexpected move, they ended up selling all their belongings in 1993 – a year after a five-week visit to Ukraine – and moving to the country where they knew almost no one and did not speak the language.

That was 29 years ago and though there were some hard times early on – “We were down to our last $16,” McMurrin said – they ended up one of the most celebrated and respected couples in Kyiv.

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Roger McMurrin conducting the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. CONTRIBUTED

Roger McMurrin conducting the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. CONTRIBUTED

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Roger McMurrin conducting the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra. CONTRIBUTED

He led the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Choir and reintroduced sacred music and classical masterpieces banned in the country when it was under Soviet rule.

As Julia Kruk, who covered cultural issues for the newspaper Young Ukraine, said in 1996:

“There’s never been anything (here) like him. Religious songs, a private orchestra – this simply never existed in Communist times.”

At the same time, Diane was making a monumental impact. She led the missionary work of their venture. They launched Music Mission Kiev, a charity which aided widows and orphans.

She wrote a newsletter that detailed their efforts and was circulated throughout America. She wrote and produced a radio show and television series and authored three books about their lives and the Ukrainians they met.

The Kyiv Symphony Orchestra and Chorus played concerts across Europe and made 12 tours of America, giving over 500 concerts in fabled venues and at some local stops, including twice at Cedarville University and once at Franklin High School.

After the shows, the 160 musicians and choir members would stay in the private homes of people in the area. McMurrin said several Ukrainians stayed in Dayton.

In the process he said American people fell in love with the Ukrainians and vice versa.

Three years ago, with the McMurrins getting older – he’s now 82 and she’s 77 – and facing some health challenges, they retired and moved to Lebanon, where they have stayed in contact with their Ukrainian friends and the Music Mission Kiev charity.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Putin launched his attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24 and the carnage has been nonstop since.

“That first morning when I woke up and saw what was happening, I cried for the 15 minutes straight,” McMurrin said quietly.

Diane channeled her hurt inward and became deeply depressed.

The pastor at their church – Lebanon Presbyterian – asked if their friend Kostya could make a video that could be played to the entire congregation.

Eight days into the assault, he did just that, offering heartfelt comments as he hand-held his camera and walked through his neighborhood. The six-minute video mesmerized the congregation.

McMurrin played it again for me the other day.

It began with Kostya, who over the years visited 41 states and stayed with 250 American families on those concert tours, saying in as upbeat of a voice as he could muster:

“Well, hello my dear American friends…”

As she again listened to his voice, Diane’s emotions welled up and her eyes soon brimmed with tears.

‘An explosion of light’

The McMurrins and their teenage son Matthew first came to Kyiv in 1992 when an Episcopalian priest invited Roger to conduct Handel’s “Messiah,” which hadn’t been heard in the country in 70 years.

Ukraine had long been a mecca for some of the world’s finest classical music.

Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time, was born in Kyiv. The family of American composer Aaron Copeland is from there. And Sergei Prokofiev, the famed composer and pianist, was from Krasne, Ukraine.

Before the Soviet break-up, there were seven professional orchestras, six opera houses and 50 professional choirs in Kyiv. Although sacred music was banished then, it was embraced after the 1991 split.

McCurrin offered musicians $1 a day, which in the struggling times of newfound independence, was a windfall for Ukrainians. At the time, Diane said teachers were making $3 a month and doctors, $5.

Although he was able to attract the best musicians in the city, none had ever heard the Messiah, much less performed it.

“I remember when we first did Messiah and ended the rehearsal with the Hallelujah Chorus,” McMurrin said. “I looked down and my first violinist had tears running down his face.”

The two concerts they put on were great successes. They performed Schubert, Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi and work of the contemporary English composer John Rutter.

For the Ukrainian artists, it was “an explosion of light,” McMurrin said

On the train leaving Kyiv, he remembers saying: “Well, that was fun. Maybe, we can come back and do that another summer.”

Back home in Florida, he flew to California to take part in a big religious conference. At the last minute, Diane flew out on a different flight.

“While I was in the air I had an experience and promised God I would move to Ukraine,” McMurrin said.

Diane nodded and smiled: “I know this sounds like a fictional thing, but it’s true.”

She said while she on her flight, she was reading her Bible, Isaiah, chapter 55, verse 5: “Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto…”

She said: “After I read that verse, I got a very strong impression that told me ‘You are going to Kyiv.’

“I tried to get it out of my mind, but I could not.

“When I got to the hotel in California, the first thing I said when Roger opened the door was ‘I think God is telling us we’re going to move to Ukraine.’

“And Roger was like ‘Shooo!’ He was relieved because he’d already promised God we’d go there.”

“It was so real to us and we never looked back,” McMurrin said.

“We sold our car, our home, the furniture, everything inside the house,” Diane said.

“People thought we were insane,” McMurrin admitted.

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Diane McMurrin teaching students in Kyiv, Ukraine. CONTRIBUTED

Diane McMurrin teaching students in Kyiv, Ukraine. CONTRIBUTED

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Diane McMurrin teaching students in Kyiv, Ukraine. CONTRIBUTED

Initially, they went to Kyiv to teach at a prep school, but Roger wanted to put on another concert and when he held auditions, he found so many good musicians and singers he ended up with well over 100 people and that took all their money.

But each of their mothers began sending them $50 a month and some friends chipped in a few dollars and they scraped by.

Eventually they started their own orchestra and choir and, soon after, they built a church in which the orchestra could perform.

With it, they launched Music Mission Kiev.

“We wanted to care for the poor and the poorest of the poor were those widows we saw on the street, women selling their last frying pan to buy bread,” McMurrin said.

They began caring for 20 widows, but when donations began to arrive from Americans who read Diane’s newsletter, they ended up tending to some 520 widows and then orphans, too.

When the Russian assault began, many of those widows fled Kyiv. But Diane said more than 100 remained and some, because of age and health reasons, were unable to leave their apartments.

That’s when some people from the orchestra and chorus stepped in to help.

Kostya began the video with a photograph of his wife and son at the train station before they fled.

“I held the hand of my son and my wife and they ran like tigers to catch the train,” he said. “Miraculously, they jumped on. There was no men, just women and children.”

‘The best thing is the people’

In the video Kostya thanks the American people for their money and prayers.

“And I would like to express my gratitude to your president – no matter what, you can like something about him or don’t like something,” he said. “Another one I’d like to thank who helped us is the state secretary, Antony Blinken, and his enormous input when he was in Kyiv to devastate Russia with economic sanctions.”

He especially singled out the McMurrins: “I want to thank Roger and Diane for all the help they gave Ukrainians for all these years.”

As for the immediate threats he and his nation are facing, he shared the private debate going on in his mind:

“I haven’t made a decision to take a machine gun and kill, but if they show up here in my town, I very probably will. I’ll be protecting my family and my country.”

He added: “90 percent of the Russians are fine, but the hierarchy, the government, are crazy. Putin is crazy. Putin is a murderer. We hate him…”

He hesitated and then added: “I probably shouldn’t say that. He is the ugliest man on earth…but I really want him to repent.”

But as the brutal siege moves into its eighth week, that seems more and more unlikely.

The atrocities committed by the Russian troops have been revealed from the destroyed city of Mariupol to the bombed-out towns of Bucha and Borodyanka near Kyiv. And now Putin’s forces are gearing up for an all-out assault in the eastern Donbas region.

Every day something more frightening, more heinous is revealed.

“I learned today that 150,000 children have been taken out of Ukraine – many of them in the Mariupol area – and sent to Russia,” McMurrin said. “Think of it. They’ve been taken away from their parents so they can be adopted in Russia.”

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Kostya Vikulkin is front of a high-rise apartment building split in two by Russian missiles. CONTRIBUTED

Kostya Vikulkin is front of a high-rise apartment building split in two by Russian missiles. CONTRIBUTED

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Kostya Vikulkin is front of a high-rise apartment building split in two by Russian missiles. CONTRIBUTED

He took out his phone and showed more photos Kostya had sent that morning.

“This is a big apartment building near his home,” he said. “See how it looks like two buildings next to each other? Really, it was one and missiles blew out the whole middle of the building.”

He showed another food give-away photo, this one of a young boy, food cradled in his arms and a blank look on his face.

“What Kostya is doing is incredible,” McMurrin said.

To help him in his effort, McMurrin said people could send financial support to Kostya directly.

McMurrinn said those who are interested can contact him - rogermcmurrin@gmail.com – to set it up.

He said the work of Music Mission Kiev – musicmissionkiev.org – continues as well and because it has 501c3 status, people can get tax deductions for their donations.

“Ukraine is a culturally-rich, wonderful nation,” he said. “And it has three inches of topsoil, so it’s the bread basket of Europe.

“And the best thing is the people. That’s who we fell in love with.”

And there’s no one they love more than Kostya, who they met when he was 19.

As we watched the video in their home, Kostya, a bit winded from the walk through his war-affected town, ended with:

“Thank you guys for your help. I wish you God’s blessings, God’s protection. And love each other, Forgive each other. And good will conquer the evil. And light will defeat the darkness.

“Konstantin from Ukraine.

“Love you guys.

“Bye Bye.”

As his voice stilled and his image disappeared, Diane sat in silence, her eyes glistening.

Once again, the war had come into their Warren County home.

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