Sadness of Remembering

Lyuda, Ira, Awais, Masha, Vika - colleagues at the British Council

Lyuda, Ira, Awais, Masha, Vika – colleagues at the British Council

Winter’s definitely here – snow, ice, and everyone in winter coats, and boots, and hats and scarves. And it’s dark so early – two weeks till the shortest day of the year. Colleagues at the British Council, wanting to remain buoyant despite the political situation and the gathering gloom of winter, decided we should go for lunch out at a local Jewish restaurant. Podil, where the British Council office is located, used to be home to many of the Jews who made up 20% of Kyiv’s population before the persistent anti-Semitic progroms of the Cossaks, the Tsars, Stalin and the Nazis all but wiped out the Jewish community. There is still one synagogue in Podil and one elsewhere in the city; and the Museum of One Street, which documents the history of my street in several charming and haphazard display cases, shows that Jewish merchants, doctors, professors and artisans all occupied houses here. Jonathan Safran Foer’s wonderful first novel Everything is Illuminated, and Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer have both given me some insight into the Jewish history of Ukraine.

P1000913Safran Foer writes of a character’s Encyclopedia of Sadnesses: Sadness of being misunderstood; Sadness of love without release; Sadness of being smart; Sadnesss of not knowing enough words to express what you mean…Sadness of remembering; Sadness of forgetting.

These sadnesses came to mind when I made the journey to Babyn Yar (or Babi Yar), a wooded ravine about 5km from Kyiv’s centre. For me, it was a trip on the Metro of several stops and one change of line. For 33,000 Jewish people, it was a compulsory march in September 1941, when Kyiv was occupied by the Nazis, and all manner of atrocities were being committed – neighbour turned against neighbour, Russian Orthodox priests persecuted alongside Jews, and thousands of ‘enemies of the Third Reich’ executed here during the war.Menorah at Babyn Yar

The largest single massacre of Jews took place in September 1941… Dina Pronicheva, an actress from the Kiev Puppet Theatre, was one of those ordered to march to the ravine, forced to undress, and then shot. Badly wounded, she played dead in a pile of corpses, and eventually managed to escape. One of the very few survivors of the massacre, she later told her horrifying story to writer Anatoli Kuznetsov  To read her account: began writing a memoir of his wartime life in a notebook when he was 14. Over the years he added documents and eyewitness testimonies until “Babi Yar, a document in the form of a novel” was published in 1966 in a censored form in a Soviet literary magazine. In 1969 Kuznetsov defected from the USSR to the UK and managed to smuggle out the unedited manuscript, published in the West in 1970 under a pseudonym A. Anatoli. At the end of the book he writes, lest we forget,

Let me emphasize again that I have not told about anything exceptional, but only about ordinary things that were part of a system; things that happened just yesterday, historically speaking, when people were exactly as they are today.”

There are several memorials in the park around the ravine – the first I discovered is a Soviet memorial put up in 1976, but in a different part of the park. Walking in the other direction, through another snowy wooded landscape, the path begins to rise and then I came upon the Jewish Menorah.

One of several crosses on the edge of the ravine  where thousands were massacred

One of several crosses on the edge of the ravine where thousands were massacred

Beyond that, a small wooden building built as a memorial to the Russian Orthodox victims; and beyond that, several crosses on the edge of the ravine.

It was cold, and it was snowing, the snow accompanying my silent witness…in a place that embodies the Sadness of Remembering; the Sadness of Forgetting.


I walked back and a couple of people outside the small wooden church smiled and spoke to me – they invited me in…

Memorial shrine (left) and wooden church in which an Orthodox service was underway

Memorial shrine (left) and wooden church in which an Orthodox service was underway

a congregation of about 50 people were packed inside: old women sat on benches, men with big hands hanging loose by their sides, the smell of incense, the priest chanting, the warmth of a community, a place of faith.



The second part of their service involved everyone walking in the snow, singing, to the memorial to 2 murdered priests, which was blessed, and then to the site of the crosses at the edge of the ravine. I was taken down snowy paths to be shown the site of the makeshift crematorium, where the bodies of the victims were burnt, so that I would understand the horror of the place.

After the service had finished, food was served and I was invited to join people for soup and hot tea, eaten outside.

One of the priests who led the service outside

One of the priests who led the service outside


This church was built only a year ago, and there is now a service here every Sunday.

I met the priest, resplendent in golden robes beneath his anorak!

I was warmed by the welcome that was shown to me, as well as the soup – made without meat at this time of year, in the run up to Twelfth Night, according to Orthodox tradition.

People march through Podil as part of the ongoing protests

People march through Podil as part of the ongoing protests


Meanwhile the #Euromaidan protests continue: 200,000 people turned out again today to hear opposition leaders speak. While there are clearly occasional pockets of trouble (some talk of paid provocateurs – paid by whom no-one’s saying) the protest is overwhelmingly peaceful…and incidents of creative subversion far outweigh any trouble. Large scale public protests are also taking place in other cities around Ukraine, and the rest of the world; and in Warsaw, the City Hall was lit half yellow, half blue in support.  Interestingly, after the initial news blackout, various oligarch-controlled media channels are now reporting the protests in an unusually balanced manner – oligarchs hedging their bets on the outcome of the current protests who don’t want to be seen as backing the wrong side when the President is removed perhaps; or are they actively undermining his position through the media? 

And in discussion with Ukrainian friends, who sometimes find it hard to remain optimistic about the future of their country, I remind them that this week the world is mourning the death of a man who almost singlehandedly changed a nation…”Because surely [Nelson Mandela’s] achievement was to prove that bastards and their bastard regimes can be overthrown, against seemingly impossible odds, by all of us, as no one knows which unsold grape was the one that finally brought down a tyranny.”  Mark Steele blog.



Error 404 – Democracy not found

pic of sign

Sign (held up  for at least 2 hours) as part of Sunday’s street demonstrations

I was going to write about the Drama UA festival in Lviv and the role of the theatre critic, but events in Ukraine have rather overtaken me. So I’ll begin with the demonstrations: a theatre of democracy? Ten days ago, protests started in many cities when Ukraine’s President made it clear that the Association Agreement with the EU wasn’t going to be signed. 100,000 people marched in the streets of the capital on Sunday 24 Nov, and protests have been maintained in the main squares – EuroMaidan and Maidan Nezelezhnosti (Independence Square) – ever since, with appeals for non-violent direct action from opposition parties and assorted political groups. Do watch this video:

video from euromaidan protest, thanks to

The violent break up of the peaceful sit-in protest on Saturday (30th Nov) with people forcibly removed by police, and a number of casualties, led to the government making it illegal to gather in the squares. And that was the touch paper for people to come out last Sunday (Dec 1st)  in their hundreds of thousands.

Crowds gather in the park

Jan Bradley & Liz Pugh stand with the people of Ukraine, in their hundreds of thousands

Jan & Liz stand in support of the people of Ukraine, who came out on the streets in their hundreds of thousands.

My friend Jan was visiting for the weekend and we had walked to Maidan on Friday to see for ourselves what was happening. When we set out for the day on Sunday, we knew there was going to be a demonstration, and when the first 2 underground trains that came by were so packed there was absolutely no way we could get on, we realised that it was going to be big. I’ve never seen such crowds – and I’ve seen Man Utd’s Old Trafford ground which holds 78,000 emptying as I live nearby. In the course of 2 hours, I’d say at least 6 football matches of people flowed past us – with singing, chanting and flags.  And people of all ages were there…children, young people, adults and senior citizens. Below is a scene from within the City Hall, occupied by the protestors  – for more photos from this journalist check  photographs of Ukraine’s protests

Behind this willingness to stand up and be counted is a desperate desire to be part of a democratic country that is not controlled behind the scenes by Russia/Putin, or riven by corruption. Europe represents both different values, and (relative) economic prosperity – and the free market and mass consumerism as we have it in Western Europe holds huge appeal here: Ukraine – be careful what you wish for.

And the crowds flowed past, on and on and on

And the crowds flowed past, on and on and on

Ukraine needs investment and its chances of attracting foreign investment are higher if it’s seen to be on a path to combating corruption. It needs to strengthen its regional development, as the gap between the capital city and the rest of the country is huge; it needs to grow its technical, agricultural and creative capacity; and hold onto its talent – at the moment too many of the bright, educated young people that I speak to at the British Council want to leave rather than stay to play an active part of their country’s future.

There’s little independent media here, so the role of social media, the Kyiv Post (written in English) and other internet reporting, along with foreign press like the Guardian with correspondents on the ground here, has been crucial. I’m sure you’ve all been following the reports on BBC, and for anyone on Twitter #euromaidan or #Kyiv or #Ukraine have been the hashtags du jour. Do read this on the use of social media if you’re interested.

Vyshyvanky - traditional embroidered shirts - on sale in Lviv's market

Vyshyvanky – traditional embroidered shirts – on sale in Lviv’s market

Drama UA Festival.    I met some energetic and exciting theatre makers, artists and dramaturgs at the Drama UA Festival in Lviv, which offers a workshop programme and debate alongside new performances.

Drama UA posters

Drama UA Festival invites theatremakers to Lviv

The East European Performing Arts Platform were meeting there, which ensured representatives from Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania could join colleagues from Ukraine in discussing how to ensure theatre remains urgent, vital, relevant, and valued.

It was especially interesting for me to hear the voice of central and eastern European cultural commentators; and to listen to debate around the crisis in theatre criticism, which has been part of the formal academic training in theatre here, and which is still taught in 3 universities… the decline of the written word in print, the rejection of the ‘expert’ voice in favour of immediate personal comment on social media, and saturation levels of entertainment where articles around celebrity lifestyle have replaced the academically informed theorist’s commentary, described interestingly as “acting as a controller” to maintain “the purity of theatre”. This made me realise that in the UK little remains of the tradition of theatre criticism a la Kenneth Tynan, and less and less space is given to reviews in papers. Now there is far more written about cultural policy than about the art itself. Perhaps the traditional theatre critic has been replaced in the UK by those who write about the value of theatre …not its cost, nor even its meaning, but its value to us, the audience or the consumer? So I asked a UK writer, Richard Hector Jones, to comment:

“The modern critic needs to grasp socio-political context: they write about not what the art means, but what it means to us. The critic needs to use the art to discuss the now.  Given that anyone can technically be a critic, insight becomes the commodity, not opinion…or someone pontificating on whether something is stamped ‘good’ or ”bad’.  Richard HJ, Creative Concern, Manchester, UK.

Theatre Director Jan Willem van den Bosch in "The Most Expensive Galician Restaurant"

Theatre Director Jan Willem van den Bosch led a Master Class, part of the British Council’s Behind the Scenes

UK theatre director Jan Willem van den Bosch’s Master Class was supported by the British Council, as part of its Behind the Scenes intitiative; and after a discussion between us over dinner in one of Lviv’s amazing restaurants – we had to knock on a door at the top of some rickety stairs and convince an old man to let us into candlelit rooms where piano & violin were playing; and the exorbitant prices on the bill were not the price you paid, you had to haggle– Jan invited me to talk to his group the next day.

So I ended up speaking about the role of the Producer, and the need for creativity to extend beyond the rehearsal space and into all aspects of making work, which prompted an interesting discussion with the drama students & professional theatre directors/choreographers/artists in his group.

Master Class at DramaUA Festival

Ukraine’s independent theatre professionals discuss contemporary performance

Being in another country reminds me of the importance of being clear in the vocabulary we use when talking about the Arts.

Eastern European Performing Arts Platform  members meet Lviv City Council Culture team

EEPAP members meet Lviv City Council’s Culture team at City Hall

When we work in another language – and most people at the Eastern European Platform meeting had to use English as their common language, though there were no native speakers – we have to check the assumptions behind the jargon.

And I think this checking of exactly what we mean is good practice for all of us – an understanding of the role of a Producer, for example, can vary hugely from person to person. I noticed that many people referred to the dramaturg as having responsibilities beyond that of a bridge between writer and director and audience in terms of work with text. In eastern Europe, so I’m told, the dramaturg might also come up with the idea/concept behind the performance, raise the money and find the partners, and then work with the team throughout…something which I would see as the work of a Producer.  It’s worth checking our mutual understanding of the vocabulary when we begin to use arts jargon, as well as when we collaborate across borders, across languages, and across other potential cultural divides.

At the Family Boim Chapel, built in 1609

At the Family Boim Chapel, built in 1609, for a Hungarian merchant in Lviv