What Valerij Smahlij wants us to know is that things aren’t usually like this in the Soviet Union. Usually Hrono–the band he manages–plays for thousands of adoring fans in huge arenas and outdoor stadiums. There aren’t small, dingy clubs like this in Ukraine. In Ukrainian stadiums, Hrono uses lasers and smoke machines. There usually isn’t quite so much ear-splitting feedback back home, where they have better sound systems. And their dressing rooms there are a bit better equipped than the one here in River Grove.

We’re sitting backstage in the dressing room of the Thirsty Whale with two members of Hrono, the most popular group in Ukraine. Their song “Ukraina, Ukraino” has practically replaced Ukraine’s national anthem; it’s played daily on radio and television to introduce news broadcasts. The soul of the six-person group, singer-songwriter Taras Petrynenko, recently received an award from Greenpeace for his song “Chernobyl Zone.” Now he’s slouched with singer Tatiana Horobets on a dirty green couch in a dank, smoky dressing room.

“No surprises,” mutters Petrynenko in Ukrainian. He and his group are preparing to get into their costumes, which combine traditional folkloric elements with a modern punk twist. “We just came in from New York. I didn’t have that much time to see the cultural centers. All I got to see was the dirt and grime that I’d already heard about. New York reminds me a great deal of Moscow. Into Moscow drains all the best from the Soviet Union and all the worst. It seems to be the same way in New York.”

Hrono is in the U.S. to raise funds to build a center in Ukraine to treat children suffering from the effects of Chernobyl. According to Petrynenko, thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians are still suffering from the nuclear accident. “Children are fainting in school. Women are having trouble walking. People are losing their hair,” he says. The band will be traveling here through the middle of October, depending on how many bookings it gets. It’s scheduled to play Ukrainian Days, September 7 and 8 at Smith Park, at Grand and Campbell.

Petrynenko was born in Ukraine, the son of a journalist and a classical opera singer. He was schooled at a music conservatory and had plans to become a conductor. Then he got a copy of a black-market Beatles tape, which changed everything.

“When I first heard the Beatles, rock and roll was not allowed in the Soviet Union, and there were a lot of concerts underground, and a lot of those concerts ended in military clashes. The military tried to stop the concerts, and rock and roll became a symbol of rebellion and freedom for me. The Beatles really changed the music I wanted to compose.”

The group first organized in 1975, calling themselves Dzvony, the Ukrainian word for bells–for church bells, they thought, or bells awakening consciousness. The government, says Petrynenko, didn’t like the symbolism, so the name was outlawed. The name they chose instead, Hrono, means a branch of grapes.

“A branch holds all of those little grapes together. Bunches are held together on one branch. So, all these little ideas are held together on one branch. We are the idea that holds together all the grapes.”

Gradually, Hrono gained popularity. “It all happens underground, this fame,” says Petrynenko. “It takes a long time. You make a few cassette tapes. Those tapes are handed around and circulated among young people. They make copies of each other. People keep making copies. They take them to different cities and certain groups get more and more in demand.” They’ve only been allowed to perform live since 1989.

About a thousand members of Chicago’s Ukrainian community have packed the Thirsty Whale to hear Hrono. Some of the older members of the community are sticking pieces of napkin in their ears in preparation.

“I hope that it’s possible for Americans to realize what’s going on in the Soviet Union, because they certainly don’t know now. That certainly was made clear during President Bush’s visit,” Petrynenko says. (As he speaks, it is a few days before the Big Coup.) “Bush really slammed us when he told us we should remain in the Soviet Union and that we shouldn’t fight for independence. I couldn’t believe he was encouraging this. I couldn’t believe he couldn’t see the truth. Americans can never relate to the feeling of never having independence or freedom. Ukraine is a nation of 53 million, and it has the right to independence just like any other nation. We’re here to help the people of Ukraine and to get our message to the American people.”

Petrynenko slips on a maroon knee-length tunic that ties at the waist with a sash. The audience has started clapping impatiently and woofing. The lights go down and the musicians walk onstage. A red light shines on Taras Petrynenko as he stares out into the audience.

Most everyone is hushed in quiet anticipation, but the man next to me can’t stop laughing. People are telling him to be quiet, but he can’t help himself.

“What?” I ask. “What’s so funny?”

“Look at this,” he says, gesturing around himself. “All these people crowded in one place. All this smoke. All these people in this dirty nightclub. It must be just like what it is back in the Soviet Union.”