Photograph of Lenin in Ukraine
Turning their backs on each other: Lenin in Ukraine. Photo Ferran Cornella ©

Wikimedia Commons, used under licence and adapted from the original.

April 2019

Insight reports from a Chatham House seminar on the connections between culture and politics in a nation where the two are inextricably linked. 

A cultural renaissance has exploded in Ukraine in recent years, stimulated and shaped by national events since the pro-European ‘Revolution of Dignity’ in 2014. The last five years have seen political upheaval, Russian military intervention, 10,000 people killed in the ensuing war, and 1.7m people internally displaced from occupied Donbas and Crimea. But they have also seen a striking cultural explosion in a region where culture is on the front line of politics, and where the very definitions of culture and cultural heritage can often be contested. To take just one visible example, over 1,300 Lenin statues have been taken down across the country since the Euro-Maidan revolution, yet there are frequent debates over the need to preserve Soviet-built – but Ukrainian-designed – modernist architecture and monumental art.

The last five years have seen political upheaval, Russian military intervention, 10,000 people killed in the ensuing war, and 1.7m people internally displaced from occupied Donbas and Crimea. But they have also seen a striking cultural explosion in a region where culture is on the front line of politics

Although some have likened the current tensions between Russia and ‘the West’ as a new Cold War, the cultural aspects are often more subtle than overtly ideological. The Ukrainian cultural approach since 2014 has included the encouragement of a vibrant and pluralist Ukrainian cultural ecosystem, supported at arms’ length by the government. This is closer in nature to modern Western European models than the approaches traditionally seen in the region, and in some cases – like the establishment of apolitical cultural funds and arms-length international cultural relations agencies - consciously modelled on UK practices. The UK and other countries are closely involved in supporting the Ukrainian cultural explosion. But what are the stakes, and how can the UK help Ukraine’s resilience through culture?

Revolution of Dignity – Explosion of Culture

These questions were posed at a gathering of Ukrainian cultural experts at Chatham House on 10th April. The objective was to analyse how national and international policymakers can use cultural engagement to help societies like Ukraine facing profound change. Marina Pesenti, Director of the Ukrainian Institute London (UIL) set the scene by saying: ‘Soft Power matters in particular in Ukraine, because it is fighting a hybrid war, and cultural identity is weaponised in that war.’ 

‘Soft Power matters in particular in Ukraine, because it is fighting a hybrid war, and cultural identity is weaponised in that war.’ 

She added that Ukraine is seeing a profound eruption of cultural energies and changes. These can be seen in a striking renaissance of Ukrainian arts, in shifts in education policy (including ‘patriotic education’ in support of Ukrainian identity), in debates about language (including the use of Ukrainian in a country with a large Russian-speaking population), and even in religious reform (such as the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, separate from the Moscow Patriarchate, in December 2018). 

In many respects Ukrainian arts and culture have been thriving, from grass-roots activities that include pop-up galleries and performances in the Ukrainian Government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, to major international festivals in Kyiv like 2018’s International Arsenal Book Festival, which attracted 50,000 people (likely to have significant spill-over benefits, according to recent BC research). A vibrant cultural ecosystem has started to emerge in the country, though funding remains challenging. Many Ukrainians are sceptical of traditional state institutions, including cultural ones, but are eager to put themselves and their culture back on the map of Europe and the world. Looking more widely, the cultural and creative industries account for around 4% of Ukrainian GDP – roughly the same size as the financial sector, and for 3% of Ukrainian employment. [See the EU-funded 2017 study on the Creative Industries in Ukraine commissioned by the British Council]. 

Simon Williams, the British Council’s Country Director in Ukraine, explained that ‘we are there to support Ukraine’s desire for European integration and international partnership; to maintain the UK as a partner of choice for Ukraine in reforming its education system and revitalising its cultural sector; and, increasingly, to use the UK’s experience and resources to address the educational, social and cultural consequences of the current conflict in Ukraine. This is why we have supported Ukraine’s civil society development, including by training 45,000 young people as ‘Active Citizens’, with the skills to create their own community-led social change. We have also supported the Ukrainian Ministry of Education by helping a local educational NGO develop free MOOCs in Ukrainian language and history – subjects now banned in most schools in occupied Donbas – so that children living there can take the Ukrainian school-leaving exam and apply for Ukrainian universities. This will give them the chance to integrate into modern Ukrainian society, and thus contribute to a more inclusive and cohesive country.’ 

UK and Ukraine: Partners of Choice

Recent research looked at how international cultural engagement with transitioning societies like Ukraine can make a difference. The benefits identified range from funding, new skills, and access to the wider world for Ukrainian partners in culture and education, to more general benefits such as strengthening civil society and rules-based approaches, supporting future leaders, and sending a powerful symbolic message of support and mutual engagement. 

Indeed, these sorts of engagements were part of the European engagement with Ukraine which helped trigger the Revolution of Dignity: the 2014 Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU, whose rejection triggered the Euro-Maidan protests, contains several articles focusing on cultural cooperation and policy dialogue. The UK’s cultural engagements form a significant part of European efforts to support the Ukrainian ‘cultural explosion’ with funding and expertise. 

Support for this flowering of Ukrainian culture is just one part of a much broader attempt to transform the country’s public sector with help from European partners, but is one of the more successful examples of it. The Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, established by the Ministry of Culture in 2017, is distributing £20 million in 2019 – a significant quantity of grants - to support arts activity in Ukraine and the internationalisation of Ukrainian culture. This has, according to Simon Williams, ‘transformed the landscape’ and is helping ‘to build cultural resilience to stress and malign intent’. 

Recent months have also seen the launch of the international Ukrainian Institute (UI) – an arms-length cultural relations organisation informed by the models of other European countries’ cultural institutes - which is opening offices in Paris, Berlin, Warsaw, and elsewhere to promote Ukrainian culture overseas. 

Meanwhile, Oleksandra Yakubenko, Head of International Cooperation Department at the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, emphasized the importance of foreign cultural institutions making a long-term commitment to Ukraine. As an example she mentioned the British Council’s continued presence, through difficult political moments, as an important factor in building trust in the UK as a partner for Ukraine. 

‘Three parallel processes are now going on in Ukraine: Russia’s attempts to re-establish political, economic, and military control in the former imperial space… the formation of modern national identities…and the struggle over historical and cultural fault lines.’

Intense debates are taking place in Ukraine about culture and identity, and the relative advantages of civic and ethnic nationalism. As eminent historian Serhi Plokhy has written, ‘three parallel processes are now going on in Ukraine: Russia’s attempts to re-establish political, economic, and military control in the former imperial space… the formation of modern national identities…and the struggle over historical and cultural fault lines.’ It is a country historically enriched by a unique mix of Byzantine, Russian, Polish/Lithuanian, Austro-Hungarian, and many other influences, and whose very name means ‘borderland’. It also occupies a key position on the edge of Europe. The UK should continue to work closely with Ukraine through culture and education to strengthen a strategically important country undergoing profound cultural and political change. 

Alasdair Donaldson, with thanks to Simon Williams, British Council Country Director, Ukraine

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