So it’s 20 degrees outside, and 30 degrees inside, with no possibility of opening any windows. 4 bunks in our cabin, and the train rattles through the night on its 13 hour journey to Chernivtsi in western Ukraine.
Chai, served by each carriage’s conductor in glass mugs with decorative silver holders and matching teaspoons, provides welcome refreshment as we gently sweat.
I was invited to Katya’s home town to speak at the University where her father, Dr Vasyl Byalyuk, is Chair of the Dept of Translation.
Sixty students of English (philology and translation) and teaching staff turned up to listen to my presentation about the value of culture, sharing the experience of how the arts have been a driver for regeneration and entrepreneurial activity in the UK’s North West.I talked too about stories – how my story and your story become, collectively, what represents us…our culture: a national identity woven from the warp and weft of individual and civic stories.
The evening before, the British Council had hosted a soirée designed to hear from some of the key players in Ukraine’s cultural scene about what they perceive to be the challenges facing them, and what they need from the British Council at this point in the country’s development.
“We need to make and show film, theatre, and art which promotes tolerance” said one. “We need you to support the education of our young film makers, choreographers, theatre makers by offering fast track ways in which curators and producers can learn skills which enable them to support our own artists from all disciplines” said another. “The British Council’s role in encouraging work which promotes diversity, and supporting artists to find ways to bring diverse communities together is crucial – given the increasing schism between eastern and western Ukraine” observed a third.
In a guidebook for Chernivtsi I read “From the City Hall balcony, magistrate employees once spoke to citizens in 3 languages (Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian) informing them about events in the world and the city. The capital of Bukovyna (the region of Ukraine which touches Romania and Moldova) was always distinguished by tolerance and a variety of cultures“.
That rich history is everywhere: Armenian Street, the House of Romanians, Turkish Square, the synagogues around the corner from Orthodox churches, the German Haus, the classicism of the architecture of the Austro-Hungarian empire next to modernist 1930’s civic buildings. The history of Bukovyna is one (another one) of occupation, assimilation…and tolerance. Today the pedestrianised Main St is full of prams and children, balloon sellers and girls in high heels, and in the nearby markets old women sell their pickles while old men sit smoking.
In the museum of the History and Ethnography of the Chernivtsi Region, rooms of objects are laid out in a wonderfully haphazard way – the taxidermist’s handiwork juxtaposed with traditional costume, next to a room of WW1 memorabilia, alongside some fascinating photos and masks from the Malanka carnival tradition still maintained in Bukovyna’s villages.
One of the students asked me about whether we in the UK are envious of the purity of some of Ukraine’s folk traditions…in our mixed up, mash up cultural melting pot, have we lost respect for “purity”?
I don’t think ‘pure’ traditions really exist – the folkloric aspects of western Ukrainian culture come to us from the weaving together of different influences. And culture that stagnates becomes irrelevant and we no longer care enough to fight for its survival.
The challenge facing Ukraine’s new cultural ministry remains – how much of its tiny resources are needed to preserve the past and how much should be spent on supporting artists to create new work, new films, new shows that speak to, and of, today’s fractured society? Art which might help people understand the immense shift that has taken place in Ukraine in the last 4 months.
The British Council in Ukraine is listening carefully to those who have proved their credibility in the artistic life of Ukraine by making things happen against all odds. It needs to be bold in its own approach, and in its encouragement and support of Ukraine’s artists, curators, producers, teachers and translators to be ambitious, despite the constant challenge of finding resources; and above all, it needs to continue to promote tolerance as a fundamental value.