The Role of Arts in a War-ravaged Society: Ukraine’s Re-invention of Culture Since Euromaidan
This is part of our special feature on European Art, Culture, and Politics.
There are not too many societies in Europe that have experienced such a close sequence and severe intensity of protests, crises, and social change as Ukraine did since its independence in 1991. Besides a number of smaller, although frequent protest events, demonstrations, and strikes, in particular two large uprisings—the Orange Revolution in late 2004 and the Euromaidan throughout 2014 and 2015—changed the direction of societal and political development in Ukraine. It is not an exaggeration to say that among all post-Soviet countries, Ukraine demonstrates highest levels of societal dynamic, civic activism, and critical habitus. However, it is also true that Ukraine may pay the highest price for its independent and quite progressive political path. The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, starting in 2014, should not be interpreted as results of the Euromaidan uprising, but as its costs. Until today, more than 13,000 people lost their lives in this ongoing war, about a third of them civilians. According to UNHCR, Ukraine is the ninth largest country in the world in terms of Internally Displaced Persons with a number of about 1.5 million IDPs. Unless all peace agreements, ceasefire violations are ongoing on a daily basis. Regarding this situation, is it appropriate to ask for the role of culture and arts in the Ukrainian society? After all, can culture contribute anything relevant in a war-ravaged society, and is it fair to think about culture virtually next to a battlefield?
I argue that culture is even crucial for Ukraine’s path towards independence, peace, and democracy. At first glance, culture and culture politics do not seem to be the most pressing subjects of Ukrainian politics and society, they can be considered a mirror of societal evolution and coping strategies in this ongoing crisis. Artists, organizations, and culture activists address, articulate, and transform issues and questions of societal relevance. Cultural activities can therefore be seen as a seismograph for societal change and response. In the sense of Bourdieu’s concept of social fields, the field of culture and arts constitutes a layer of horizontal social differentiation that resorbs issues from surrounding fields and transfers them in the field’s particular forms and codes. As such, it is an elementary part of society and a processing instance for social problems, questions, and disruptions, and it may prepare the ground for innovation in other social fields. Further, the cultural field is closely connected with the civic sphere, consisting of initiatives, organizations, activists, and the particular patterns of meaning they create and communicate (Cohen and Arato 1992). The civic sphere, however, constitutes a central aspect of societal evolution as it provides for (a) the establishment of social bonds and bridges, leading to social capital, (b) the basis of social and political negotiation, fostering democratic socialization, and (c) critical monitoring of power structures to protect citizens’ rights and freedoms (Hahn-Fuhr and Worschech 2014). While these political functions of civil society and the civic sphere are well defined and broadly accepted, the cultural sector and its societal or political role are less clear-cut and obvious. Nevertheless, being part of the public sphere, the field of culture and arts is a societal entity that connects issues, actors and a broader audience and thereby transfers subjects from a particular to a more general sphere within society.
Considering this perspective on culture, the question raised here is how the Ukrainian arts and culture field developed since 2014 and how arts and culture processed the dramatic incisions that annexation, war and internal displacement mean for Ukraine. How did activists, artists, initiatives and other actors in the arts and culture scene in Ukraine react to these events, how affected is the culture sector by the Donbas war? Did the massive destruction lead to innovation and progression in the arts and culture sector, and if so—what is the impact of cultural progression on societal evolution in Ukraine—a society that shows a high social dynamic but still suffers from large Soviet and Post-Soviet legacies? To answer these questions, I will first present some general observations concerning the Ukrainian culture scene before and after Euromaidan, before I discuss particular changes that are related to the situation of war, annexation and internal displacement. Finally, I will reflect on the question of the political and societal impact of Ukraine’s recent arts and culture landscape corresponding the theory-based functions of the civic sphere: How do arts and culture in Ukraine impinge on the growth of social capital, democratic socialization and the ability of critical monitoring of politics and society?
Ukrainian Arts and Culture—a pre- and post-Maidan-Reflection
The Euromaidan is considered a major turning point in the development of independent Ukraine, as numerous studies have emphasized that the Ukrainian society has become stronger, broader, and more independent (see, for example, Shapovalova, Burlyuk, and Umland 2018). A stronger and more active civil society has been crucial for shaping the democratic transformation of Ukraine since Euromaidan (Worschech 2016). A diversifying art and culture scene, which also understands itself more politically than before the Euromaidan, has since critically accompanied the transformation process. However, not the culture organizations themselves but rather their creative influence and political freedom constitute the real innovation that can be witnessed since 2014. Most presently, active artists and organizations emerged well before 2014, during the increasingly authoritarian phase under President Yanukovych—thus as a phase of increased politicization of arts. Political protests associated with street art, creative activism against illegal constructing or homophobia are examples of an increasingly politicizing public in this period.
Today’s key players in critical arts and culture can look back on a long track record. The inter-disciplinary curator’s collective Hudrada that arose from the curator’s group Revolutionary Experimental Space (REP) and the Kyiv-based Visual Culture Research Center (VCRC) were both founded in 2008 and promoted a more political and socially critical orientation of arts and culture. Both were active at the intersection of art, social criticism, and politics well before, during and after the Euromaidan protests. In particular, the VCRC gained international recognition as a progressive artistic centre of post-Euromaidan Ukraine as being the organizer and implementation agency of the Kyiv Biennale 2005 (“The School of Kyiv”). The VCRC’s executive director, the curator and cultural scientist Vasyl Cherepanyn, is considered one of the most important representatives of the young progressive and political culture scene in Ukraine.
Euromaidan itself constitutes the place where numerous artistic groups have their roots and origins. For example, the Art Hundred group and the NGO National Congress of Cultural Activists (CCA) can be considered a cultural product of the Euromaidan. Founded in 2014, the CCA actively promotes the networking of artists and activists on a national and international level through artist-in-residence projects, festivals, symposiums, congresses and the like; in addition, urban development and alternative, critical education are important goals.
Since the Euromaidan and the subsequent transformation of Ukrainian society, the re-structuring of the arts and culture landscape in Ukraine is framed by two broader processes. First, a comprehensive decentralization process in Ukraine, based on the European Charter of Local Self-Government, allows for more autonomy in the inter-municipal cooperation and includes a significant transfer of competences and decision-making power, inter alia in the culture field, to the municipal level. These changes allow for more citizen-oriented local policies and thus more participatory, demand-driven and situational urban, regional, and rural development. At the same time, an increasingly independent development of arts and culture beyond urban spaces and major cultural spots such as Kyiv, Lviv, or Kharkiv can be observed since 2015.
Second, an ongoing transformation of Ukraine’s culture sector alters structures, opportunities, and agenda-setting in the field of culture. Since Ukraine’s independence, the Ukrainian cultural landscape was divided into two antagonistic realms. The institutionalized, state-supported, and partly bureaucratic cultural sector stood vis-à-vis a sphere of independent artists and culture actors who were considerably more critical, more flexible and innovative. These structures are in transition since 2014. After the protests, the relevance of state cultural institutions decreased significantly: national museums, theatres, operas, philharmonic orchestras, and culture administrations have been barely able to react to the events during the winter months of 2013 and 14 and immediately thereafter. In contrast, it was precisely the young, well (and internationally) connected, politically active free arts and culture scene that creatively and critically addressed the issues of the Euromaidan—European orientation, democratization, anti-corruption work, freedom rights—both during and after the protests. At the same time, a demand for serious changes in cultural institutions and cultural policy became obvious.
These transformations form the context of a process that is fundamentally related to war, annexation, and internal displacement in Ukraine: the significant revaluation of arts and culture from eastern Ukraine, but also the solid growth of cultural initiatives, activism, and progression in that formerly forgotten region.
The discovery of culture from and in eastern Ukraine
The geographical shift of attention from western towards eastern Ukraine can be interpreted as one of the very few positive surprises that Ukraine’s eastern regions witnessed during the last six years. The “discovery of the East” involves the emergence and strengthening of cultural institutions and initiatives in cities and regions of eastern Ukraine and the expansion of cultural activities on the ground, but also a greater engagement with issues affecting eastern Ukraine in current and previous times. Topics such as war and internal displacement, as well as culture, language, identity, and history of the Donbas have become central aspects of the Ukrainian cultural scene.
Numerous artists from eastern Ukraine work in various formats on war, violence, displacement, and occupation, thereby focusing on the Euromaidan’s subsequent developments rather than the protests themselves. Among those artists who became prominent voices of the East because of their preoccupation with Donbas or Crimea, three female artists can be considered particularly relevant and progressive: Alevtina Kakhidze, an artist from Donbas and now living in Kyiv documents in sketches how the war determines everyday life in the Donbas beyond the front line, and how people react to the situation. Her work has been exhibited in Germany, among other places, and she is one of the most important figures in the artistic presentation of east Ukrainian reality since 2014. Maria Kulykovska from Crimea is another artist who became known to a wider Ukrainian public with her pro-Ukrainian protest in the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum. Working intensively on the issue of internal displacement, in her project “Crimean raft” she canoed along the river Dnipro with a raft in 2016 to draw attention to people who had fled from Crimea. Yevgenia Belorusets focuses in numerous projects not only on eastern Ukraine but on a comprehensive perspective on Ukrainian upheavals. With a recent photo-documentary work on Donbas, various interviews, essays, and exhibitions, Yevgenia Belorusets is a frequent guest in art spaces as well as in political discussions about Ukraine, especially in Germany. Being among the founders of the culture journal Prostory in 2008 and a member of the curatorial group Hudrada since 2009, she is also one of the artists of a younger generation in Ukraine who focus in their work on Euromaidan and its aftermath as well as on the period between the revolutions—the Phase from 2004 to 2013.
One of the most prominent organizations from eastern Ukraine, understanding itself as an “embassy” of the Donbas in Ukraine, is the NGO Izolyatsia, founded in 2010 in Donetsk. Based on the idea of building a local or regional cultural scene in and around Donetsk and Luhansk to transform the industrial heritage, activists and artists founded a culture center named after the factory that produced insulating materials for power plants and pipelines in Soviet times. The former factory halls now were a stage for readings, exhibitions, or concerts by internationally renowned artists. During the Euromaidan in Donetsk, Izolyatsia actively supported the protests and provided spaces for artistic confrontation and political debates. In June 2014, the factory sites were occupied by the militias of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Equipment, materials, and artistic objects were destroyed or confiscated, and the members of Izolyatsia were denied further access by gunmen. The entire Izolyatsia team was forced to leave Donetsk as a result of personal threats, but found a new location in Kyiv’s district Podil. Until today, Izolyatsia understands itself as a cultural institution in exile, documenting the region Donbas, promoting cultural developments in the Donbas and providing a space for artistic exploration of the Donbas.
The massively increased relevance of cultural works on urgent issues that dominate the eastern part of Ukraine politically and socially—war and violence, displacement and insecurity—is only one part of the qualitative changes within Ukraine’s arts scene. Beyond that, culture itself in eastern cities and regions is changing. Kharkiv is more than ever before perceived as a booming cultural metropolis, what is underpinned by the lively literary scene, boosted by the well-known writer Serhij Zhadan. With the Yermilov Art Center founded in 2012, Kharkiv has one of the most important contemporary art centres in Ukraine, and the important civil society-artistic conference “Plan B—Festival of Social Innovation and Music” took place in February 2019 in Kharkiv. With the new co-working space Fabrika.Space, Kharkiv has a modern, civic-based urban centre for creativity, culture, and innovation, what reflects a new perception and usage of post-industrial urban spaces.
Art centers, festivals, cultural clusters, and co-working spaces are currently being developed in numerous Ukrainian cities. The war in the Donbas prompted the creation of civil society and artistic initiatives dealing with current topics, but also in a broader perspective with Donbas history and identity. Formerly, rather unpopular cities such as Mariupol, Severodonetsk, Kramatorsk, or Slovyansk were upgraded in their status as regional centers in term of administration, but also in a cultural perspective. Many organizations who are drivers of cultural change in the Donbas regions today first emerged from decentral Euromaidan civil society activities. Since then, they continued contributing to cultural development and progressive activities in an unprecedented manner.
The industrial city of Dnipro (the former Dnipropetrovsk) is a prominent example of the significant cultural change and the increasing socio-political relevance of the cultural sector in eastern Ukraine. This dynamic has been initiated, among others, by the NGO Kultura Medialna and numerous art galleries that opened in Dnipro in the last five years, often supported by local entrepreneurs. Kultura Medialna was created in 2005 as an unpolitical organizational platform for electronic music and media culture and initially organized techno parties, performances and audio-visual installations.In 2013, the platform was transformed into an NGO, now organizing a festival for new media and audio-visual art in urban space. Members of the NGO were involved in Euromaidan activities and supported the protests with visual and musical effects. Since then, Kultura Medialna has been active mainly in Dnipro, but also in national and international networks on New Media and Music, Contemporary Art, and Urbanism. The strong influx of internal migrants from the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine to Dnipro is also being addressed by Kultura Medialna in an art and research project.
In contrast, the city of Mariupol became popular as a threatened front town on the Sea of Azov. Less well-known, yet remarkable, is the highly dynamic development of the city’s cultural scene. New cultural venues like Izba Chytalnia, a mixture of café, restaurant, reading room, and venue, reflect a new politico-cultural self-confidence and the artistic occupation with the war in the city’s immediate vicinity. In 2016, internally displaced persons and activists in Mariupol founded Platforma ТЮ, which quickly became the main venue for concerts, public discussions, film screenings, and exhibitions. Both the city and Platforma ТЮ gained a special appreciation and nationwide—if not international—popularity when Mariupol was declared “culture city” in 2018 and the highly respected arts and culture festival Gogolfest took place in Mariupol. This annual festival has been one of the most outstanding events of contemporary art and culture since 2009 and was previously located in Kyiv. In 2019, the Gogolfest again was held in Mariupol. A special attraction, which should shift the attention towards the city and region around Mariupol, was the establishment of a particular night train, the Art Gogol Train, with artistically designed cars bringing visitors from Kyiv to Mariupol and back during the festival.
In numerous other cities and regions along the front line, cultural initiatives, centers, and a series of events have emerged in recent years. The wave of civic and artistic engagement since Euromaidan has notably facilitated the first-time creation of initiatives and projects in smaller cities in eastern Ukraine. A growing awareness of civic responsibility in cities and regions, the interlocking of cultural activities with socio-political issues and post-industrial development or a critical review of Soviet cultural heritage contribute to a gentle flourishing of art and culture in Donbas. Further initiatives establishing local culture centers are for example Teplytsia in Slovjansk, KhochuBudu in Severodonetsk, Druzi in Konstantinovka or the Dobro Foundation in Dobropillya. The cities, with a remarkable dynamic of art and culture initiatives, are either those exposed to war—sites that were or are contested such as Slovjansk or Mariupol—or cities that were assigned a new role in in the region, such as Severodonetsk and Kramatorsk, which became the administrative capitals of the Oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk respectively.
A considerable contribution to the cultural development in the smaller cities in eastern Ukraine has been made by the project MetaMisto, a subproject of the larger project Kod Mista (Code of the City), which is implemented by the NGO Garage Gang from Kyiv. Garage Gang is one of those progressive Ukrainian NGOs founded in the years following the Orange Revolution that seeks to promote social innovation and critical thinking at the interface of art and culture, politics, creative industries, and nonconformism. In the MetaMisto project, six smaller cities in the oblasts Donetsk and Luhansk (Konstantinovka, Pokrovsk, Dobropillya, Bakhmut, Severodonetsk and Lisichansk) have been promoting approaches to artistic and participatory urban development, the establishment of cultural institutions and urban spaces since 2016. Another initiative arose from a west-east-Ukrainian reconstruction project when volunteers from Lviv went to Kramatorsk in September 2014 as part of a project to help rebuild war-torn buildings called “Building Ukraine Together.” An unexpected result was the creation of a public space, the Vilna Khata (Free House), as a meeting place for citizens, initiatives, and a venue for creative action, communication, education, arts, and project development. In addition, to artistic workshops and forums on participatory urban development and civil society promotion, lectures and discussions take place in the rooms of the Vilna Khata. The project is an indicator for the increase of arts and culture initiatives in eastern Ukraine, and a more politicized perception of arts a way to express criticism and reflection on social issues. Beyond the war, questions about participation, urban development, ecology, education and exchange are issues that are increasingly taken up and discussed in a lively and critical civil society of Eastern Ukraine.
These developments in Ukraine’s formerly industrial and today war-torn East show that not only despite, but on the basis of violence, destruction and displacement, a considerable cultural life has been created in eastern Ukraine. In particular, a mixture of established and new initiatives, art groups, artists, and organizations did crystallize not only in urban centers, but also in the regions. The more or less unavoidable preoccupation with war and destruction, but also with the Euromaidan’s targets and failures, opened the space for further artistic and societal progression. More diversified debates on rather sensitive issues, which have been swept under the carpet until Euromaidan, such as decommunization memory politics and Soviet artistic legacies as well as human rights and LGBT issues are possible today. A critical perspective on militarism and nationalism is hardly popular in times of war, but activists such as video artist Mykola Rybny, who deals with issues of illegal possession of weapons, aggression, or militarization, point to hitherto little discussed effects of the permanent threat posed by the war. Further, a lively documentary films scene is evolving around the aspiration of chronicling life in wartime, including filmmakers as for example Sergey Loznitsa (“Maidan!” 2014, “The Trial” or “Donbas,” both 2018), Marysja Nikitjuk (“When Trees Fall” 2019) or Roman Bondarchuk.
Conclusion: Culture in times of War
Since the outbreak of the war in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s society underwent a massive transformation. The culture sector, consisting of single artists, numerous loosely to densely connected initiatives and groups up to institutions and administrations, was turned upside down, in particular in the Donbas region. Until now, war, violence, and internal displacement do not represent the only subjects in Ukraine’s contemporary arts and culture, but they are among the main–and most emotional–issues that artists and culture activists in Ukraine deal with. While topics may change when the war will hopefully come to an end, other aspects of the current situation could last for a considerable time and therefore constitute a lasting change: The prospering extent of culture activities in eastern Ukraine and its increased relevance for the local population and equally for the country’s coping capabilities mean a clear innovation. Likewise, the growing culture sector in the East contributes to a change in the public perception of east Ukrainians and Donbas people in central and western Ukraine. Arts and culture from the Donbas do not only deal with war issues, but they also transmit aspects of local traditions, folk arts and cultural heritage of eastern Ukraine—thus pieces of Donbas culture that have not been broadly recognized and valued in the overall Ukrainian society.
Hence, it can be stated that arts and culture in and around eastern Ukraine have been increasing in numbers, scope, critical approach and impact. This boost of innovation can be directly related to the ongoing war situation since 2014 (what is, of course, deeply tragical). What is, however, the political and societal impact of this cultural evolution? I argued that the arts and culture sector can be seen as being part of civil society. The latter can contribute to political and societal development by providing social capital, promoting democratic socialization, and fostering the protection of civic rights. In the case of arts and culture in Eastern Ukraine, all three varieties can be detected, with a slight emphasis on the first one. Artists and culture activists who describe life under war and displacement conditions, or who stress a particular cultural heritage that has been unknown to the public before, may generate empathy, understanding, and abstract solidarity among different societal segments—thus core aspects of bridging social capital. They strengthen the glue that keeps a society together—a particular value in a situation that is equally suitable for generating social fragmentation and serious hostilities. However, the socializing aspect of deliberately organizing cultural sites and the initiation of critical reflection and debates contribute to the second and third function of civil society.
Since 2014 and until today, occupation and war in Ukraine in an ongoing crisis that costs thousands of lives and violates a whole society. The European Union, caught in several crises itself, is about to forget or at least ignore what is happening in the eastern part of the continent. Ukraine’s art scene—more progressive and active than ever—may remind the West of its responsibility and abilities to protect. Hence, the European Union would be well advised to support the tender plant of an independent, critical, and progressive arts and culture scene in Ukraine.
Susann Worschech is a Post-Doc researcher at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. Her work focuses on political sociology in Europe, with a particular emphasis on post-socialist societies. She received numerous awards for her academic work in research and teaching, most recently the 2019 Brandenburg Postdoc Award for outstanding research in the area of the humanities and social sciences. The empirical research presented in this paper has been conducted within the framework of the research project German-Ukrainian Culture Relations – Changes since Euromaidan, funded by the Institut fuer Auslandsbeziehungen (IfA), implemented by the author.
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 See https://www.unhcr.org/ua/en/internally-displaced-persons for further information.
 These findings are based on eight qualitative interviews with culture activists, representatives of culture support organisations and of cultural NGOs in Ukraine, conducted by the author between October and December 2018, as well as on documentary analyses.
 “Art Hundred” is a reference to the self-defence groups of the Euromaidan which were called ‘hundreds/sotnya’.
 In March 2018, 3,372 former municipalities and villages were newly merged into 725 United communities, the so-called objednani terytorialni hromady (OTG); about 15% of the Ukrainian population live in these OTG (Umland, Levitas, and Rabinovych 2018).
 https://art-collection-telekom.com/de/collection/k/alevtina-kakhidze oder https://www.stadt-koeln.de/leben-in-koeln/veranstaltungen/daten/18943/index.html#
 See https://ua.krymr.com/a/news/27933739.html.
 http://yermilovcentre.org/; https://planbfest.com; https://fabrika.space/
 See http://kodmista.com.ua/, http://kodmista.com.ua/metamisto-2017/
 See Worschech (2020).
Photo: KIEV (KYIV), UKRAINE – MAY 26, 2015: Patriotic wall art with words I love Ukraine in Kiev, Ukraine | shutterstock
Published on April 28, 2020.