Dancing to a different tune

pic of oranges on sale

Oranges and pomegranates on sale at all the markets

Flower sellers at every metro station

Flower sellers at every metro station

At this time of year, when everywhere looks grey and unkempt, the fruit and flower sellers of Kyiv are a particular delight – brightening up the underground markets, or, wrapped up against the cold at their outdoor stalls, supplying Vitamin C in the form of oranges for Kyiv’s population of 3 million people.

I enjoyed 2 dance productions back to back this week – the first the Kyiv Modern Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, created by one of Ukraine’s foremost choreographers, Radu Potlikaru (see interview here for more info about his work). Clearly aimed at a younger audience, I enjoyed the playful choreography, the loose dance style and the humour in the piece, and the packed theatre loved it. Radu Potlikaru himself was part of the creative team working on the Sochi Olympics Opening spectacular, so it was a surprise to see him back in the theatre, able to enjoy the standing ovation at the end of the performance.

The next evening, I went to the National Opera House of Ukraine for  the first time. Again, a packed theatre, this time for a “ballet fantasie” version of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, created by David Aydysh, for which tickets cost from 50UAH to 250UAH (£4 to £20). I had no idea what to expect…and ended up completely transported to another world: a beautiful traditional theatre building, imaginative choreography and strong design, impressive staging skills that included flying both performers and scenery silkysmoothly, and over 40 classically trained ballet dancers – all those pointy toes! I came out feeling giddy and lightheaded and wanted to dance my way home. I went and ate beetroot salad with herring instead, just to keep it earthy.

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

Curator Alina Glotova, with Sergei Paradzhanov

The third delight of the week was my visit to the Museum of Dreams exhibition inspired by the life and work of Sergei Paradzhanov, one of Ukraine’s most celebrated film directors. Born in Georgia to Armenian parents, imprisoned under Soviet rule, and exiled to Georgia at the end of his life, he was a maverick artist who danced to a different tune… his work includes films like The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors – one of Ukraine’s most important 20th century films; and collages, mostly made during his imprisonment.

Film maker Andrei Tarkovsky commented on  “His way of thinking, his paradoxical poetic vision…the ability to love beauty and the ability to be absolutely free within his own vision”   and to me, his work feels sumptuous, fantastical, and bravely defiant of the harsh greyness that seems to have been the default Soviet setting.

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

the unlikely suburban setting for the Museum of Dreams

The Museum itself is found down some steps in a block of flats and opens two evenings a week, and 1pm – 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Run by two dedicated curators, Alina and Viktoria, and their team of helpers, I was struck by what love has gone into this exhibition. Beautifully displayed objects and photographs, video, audio, collage and trinkets…and a wishing well in the middle of the room.

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Paradzhanov (1924-1990)

Privately run, it receives hardly any financial support, so I hope that the people of Kyiv visit in large numbers (well, not too many at once – the space is tiny!) and make a donation if they like what they discover there.

If you live in Kyiv, do go and see this exhibition before it finishes on March 16. It’s in the Pechersk district, just a 5 minute walk from the Druzhby Novodiv metro.

In another conversation with some British Council Young Learners we looked at museums in the UK, and they outlined their choices about which museums they would like to visit after looking at the websites of institutions like the National Football Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool and the Museum of Science and Industry.

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council's Young Learners

Kristina and Lesa, two of the British Council’s Young Learners

They recomYoung Learners - Kristinamended museums I should visit here, and two of the young people had brought in some examples of Ukrainian culture – in the shape of vyshyvanky (embroidered shirts)… Kristina is shown here wearing her vinok (a headdress of flowers worn by girls) and holding the ubiquitous Kalina berries.


Culture 3.0 – rebooting the arts in Ukraine

Culture 3.0 lecture, for the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in partnership with the British Council

Culture 3.0 lecture, for the Centre for Contemporary Arts, in partnership with the British Council

I was invited to give a lecture as part of the CCA Foundation‘s Culture 3.0 series, which is aimed at cultural commentators, arts managers and journalists. This module focused on the Creative Economy, and was curated by social innovator Iryna Solovey, co-founder of the platform for social innovation, the Big Idea.

Around 50 people turned up to hear my presentation on how culture can help build community – drawing on my own experience with Walk the Plank and work which engages people as participants as well as spectators. I looked at Manchester as a city that has chosen to invest in culture as a way out of industrial decline; and at the Manchester Day Parade, which has offered a platform to engage diverse communities in a visible celebration of their city.(If anyone would like a copy of the notes from the lecture, please message me)

Of course, the challenge is to work out what elements of my experience, and that of a city like Manchester, can be usefully shared here  – so that Ukraine can fast track its cultural capacity building and learn from our mistakes. How much of what we/I do is transferable? And what expertise gained within the western European cultural landscape is it useful to translate to an eastern European context?

I had a chance to think more about how one can support people to be active in  building sustainable creative communities in the workshop which I led the next day.  The 15 academics, writers, artists and practitioners who took part (shown at lunch in the picture below) were especially keen to hear about practical steps, and tips on best practice in terms of working with disengaged communities. And they have challenged me to think more deeply about how the British Council might work in partnership with them.  Skill sharing and support for emerging creative thinking in the local context is crucial, as well as moments of inspiration from the new and the best UK artists and companies.


The appetite for learning and professional development here is remarkable – I don’t see that same hunger in the UK, where I think many institutions (and people) have become complacent – and I will take home with me a renewed desire to keep myself in a state of willingness to learn.

It’s worth mentioning there’s not a lot of personal learning going on linguistically, despite my initial good intentions to master the basics of Ukrainian! However, I have found out that there’s only one word (in Ukrainian and Russian) to cover the things at the end of your hands and feets – so instead of fingers and toes, there’s just пальці (paltsi). And at minus 23 they get very cold very quickly when taken out of a glove, whatever they’re called.

Woyzeck, by George Buchner, directed by Dmytro Bogomazov

Woyzeck, by George Buchner, directed by Dmytro Bogomazov

I was invited to see Woyzeck at the Kyiv Drama and Comedy Theatre last week, and went along with Roman Markolia, director of the Sevastopol War & Peace Festival who is in Kyiv to direct a show at another theatre; and Olya Matviiv, a colleague from British Council with an interest in theatre.

Woyzeck: live music played by the actors featured throughout

Woyzeck: live music played by the actors featured throughout

Designed by Petro Bogomazov, who had taken part in the British Council-supported theatre workshop at DramaUA, the show was a fantastic example of great ensemble work from skilled actors, and conjured a darkly grotesque world using live music, highly stylised performance & choreography. Although I didn’t understand much of the text, my attention was held throughout.

And an unexpected encounter in a local restaurant last night led me to having dinner with a Good Witch and a Wicked Witch…two stars of the Kyiv Players’ recent show: The Wizard of Oz which I saw before Christmas.

Kyiv Players Wizard of Oz, directed by Elizabeth Kourkov

Kyiv Players Wizard of Oz, directed by Elizabeth Kourkov

I didn’t have a chance to write up that visit, so bumping into George and Achi gives me a chance to post a photo of them in action, not as English teachers at the British Council, but in costume, on stage, for this very entertaining show,  an annual event in the Kyiv theatrical calendar, and directed by one of the British Council’s teaching staff here in Ukraine.

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: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/heritage/episode8/documents/documents_13.htmlKuznetsov 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.


Between East and West?

P1000575Last week, I attended the Institute of Strategic Studies national convention on the EU in Ukraine – experts & delegates from EU members gave evidence to Ministers & MP’s on the value of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union.

The debate was impassioned, and made me feel that I am in the privileged position of witnessing history being made: Ukraine means ‘land on the edge’ and now is a time of great uncertainty as we wait to see if Ukraine will sign in Vilnius.

Ukrainian colleagues and the business community feel strongly that Europe offers the best fit in terms of political aspirations for an emerging democratic state – freedom (of thought/speech/action) really matters when you can remember how it was to live in the time before “freedom”. And association with the EU would certainly accelerate much needed reforms as well as giving access to European markets.

We're keeping an eye on you

We’re keeping an eye on you

But Putin’s Russia is not giving up the former states of the USSR easily: deals on gas & loans to help Ukraine’s struggling economy are the carrot; and the stick? Threats of trade embargos if Ukraine doesn’t join the Moscow-led Customs Union.

Meanwhile the European Union is understandably wary of having another failing economy coming to its party… where Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland et al are propped up in a corner, Britain’s outside in the garden shouting at the neighbours, and the only guest still left on the dance floor is Germany.  Europe has made judicial reform a key condition for the signing in Vilnius, and requests to Ukraine to clean up its act go beyond the release from detention of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the current President’s biggest political rival.

Ukraine languishes at 112th in a league table which measures ‘Ease of doing Business’, with a gnarly tax and legislative framework, and endemic corruption. So although most people are trying to earn an honest living, they are often thwarted by their leadership and the system. Education might offer an escape – around a quarter of places at universities are available for free to bright but poor students, but there’s huge competition, and bribery can still be part of the process of securing the place.

pic of woman

Buying butter & cheese from my favourite “dairymaid”

However, Ukraine has huge natural resources, one third of the “black earth” resource (the most fertile soil) of the globe is here, and its people – on my brief acquaintance – are educated, aspiring, and hard working.  Sitting on the fence between Russia and Europe might be an option, and President Yanukovych is clearly trying to work out which way to jump depending on which side will give him the best chance of staying in power.

But as I wrote this (21/11/2013) the ruling Party of the Regions voted against various key reforms/conditions so it’s now looking almost impossible for the Agreement to be signed.

Visa restrictions currently make it difficult for Ukrainians to travel to the UK or indeed anywhere in Europe, and the costs of spending time there make it prohibitive for many. Which may explain the popularity of cinema here – a chance to travel to new places for 35 UAH (less than £3)? Cinema has been at the fore over the past week as almost every film in the British Film Festival season has played to sell out audiences. I loved the National Theatre’s Frankenstein on film, made available again as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season;  I really enjoyed the BAFTA shorts, particularly Tumult; and our screening of The Selfish Giant, in partnership with UNICEF, was an opportunity to put the spotlight on the bleak landscape for vulnerable children in the UK, and Ukraine, as elsewhere. 

It occurred to me as I munched my breakfast herring, and spread weird jam on my dark brown bread that I might have ‘gone native’:

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

Breakfast herring, and unidentifiable jam

I can now count to nine in Ukrainian, say thank you & good night in Russian,ask for 100gms of butter,

and read the Cyrillic alphabet which makes getting around a bit easier – although some of the city centre underground has signs in both alphabets, there’s no consistency and signs disappear as you try and emerge at the correct exit without getting lost in the vast underground market areas that surround the central metro stations.

I’ve been going to some of the Young Learners lessons in my free time – giving young people who are learning English the opportunity to ask questions (like “Which architect do you most admire and why?”- so quite searching!) of a native speaker.

Our discussions about arts & culture in the UK and here have led me to think more about why culture matters – the arts are a great way of telling stories about who we are as people, and culture is perhaps the sum total of a nation’s stories. As a nation’s collective memories, it draws on our recipes and songs as well as our theatre, our landscape and traditions as well as our literature, our feast days and the rituals that we still have around birth, marriage, and death… all a shared and valuable part of national identity.

The young people whose parents are willing and able to pay for them to learn English at the British Council today are likely to include some of the business people, politicians and leaders of tomorrow, and clearly the British Council can play a part in encouraging them to value artists, arts and culture – both their own and that of others. In discussions about how British musicians & choreographers are brilliantly mixing up traditions: like clog dancing and hip hop, one student told me that the same has happened with Hopak – a kozak dance that is being reconfigured by young people in exciting ways – so I shall hunt down some clips to share with you.

This week Ukraine lost against France, after beating them 2-0 last week, and went out of the World Cup. And this week Hull became UK Capital of Culture 2017 – hurrah for Hull, which badly needs a boost: youth unemployment is at 40% in the city, so let’s hope that  the next 4 years offer the same boost to Hull as happened in Derry with its Capital of Culture investment.  And fingers crossed for better news for Ukraine in Vilnius, but our hopes are not high.

Cossacks and pumpkins

Mother and child - not sure if this is traditional  Cossack baby wear...

Mother and child – not sure if this is traditional Cossack baby wear…

Kyiv’s main street, Khreschatyk, is pedestrian only at weekends – so instead of battling traffic, everybody gets out and about, walking up and down alongside the quad bikes, musicians, and the segways for hire.

main street is closed at weekends

One of the city’s main streets is closed to vehicles at weekends

It makes the city centre feel wonderfully democratic and friendly. You just have to avoid getting your photo taken with a fun fur costumed character who will then pursue you for money. We walked there to catch a marshrutka – the battered yellow minibuses that are part bus/part taxi – to get out of the city centre in search of cossacks…

We were heading out for lunch – in a restaurant in a place dedicated to maintaining Cossack traditions, where we drank chilli vodka with pickles, followed by rabbit stew.

Cossack arrives by horse, and impresses the ladies

Cossack arrives by horse, and impresses the ladies

picture of food

Rabbit stew on the right – and dill with everything

pic of women

check out those coat & boot combo’s

Natasha and I visited because there was a “celebration of Ukrainian womanhood” going on, which involved young women showing off their prowess – with song, dance, and some sort of treasure hunt.

Cossack judge - I think - the Hetman?

Cossack judge – I think – the Hetman?

Young men with their hair cut in a Cossack-style – chupryna (чуприна in Ukrainian),  or oseledets (Ukrainian: оселедець, which means herring) describes a man’s haircut which features a lock of hair sprouting from the top or front of a shaven head – galloped around impressively on horses, and showed off in front of the girls.

Pic of man on hosrse

His hair cut apparently shows that he’s not a full blown cossack yet

The wagon of pumpkins didn’t get used much – evidently, “in the old days” if you didn’t want to marry the boy who asked, you gave him a pumpkin by way of a brush off.  (See how I’ve slipped in a seasonal reference, but without mentioning Halloween, which isn’t really celebrated here).

Pumpkin cart with construction site behind!

Pumpkin cart with construction site behind!

In the evening, we swapped the rough wooden tables and earthenware crockery of the Ukrainian peasant for the luxury of the Panorama Restaurant at the Hotel Dnipro – where we could only afford one drink, but the view was awesome! 

View from Hotel Dnipro Panorama Bar - Rainbow Arch to right is Nations Friendship Arch

View from Hotel Dnipro Panorama Bar – Rainbow Arch to right is Nations Friendship Arch

Lard and the Lada

pic of lumps of lard

Lada: My first car was a Lada – which I had forgotten until coming to Ukraine. The cars in Kyiv are a good indication of the gap between the Rich and the Rest – lots of massive new 4×4’s with tinted windows, mainly BMW, driven by people who are on the phone and smoking while trying to manoeuvre through highly congested streets full of other drivers in similarly oversize vehicles, and then there are the Rest: people driving very battered ancient Ladas held together with string.

pic of jars of pickled veg

Pickled anything

Lard: People are slim – noticeably slimmer than in western Europe in general, and the UK in particular where we’re all a bunch of fatties in comparison to Ukrainians. This may be linked to the price of food, which is high. The average teacher earns about £300 a month, yet a lot of food is about the same price as in the UK. The staple diet appears to be apples – which are cheap and plentiful right now. There are lots of tiny old women laying out small displays of apples & mushrooms on street corners; and I’ve been shown the local market by a colleague, Masha.

pic of market

Pomegranates from Azerbaijan – he makes them into juice using a massive press

The cheese counter had 14 different women each serving their own special curd cheese; there was plenty of beetroot for borscht, grapes from Moldova, pickled cabbage and cheese-stuffed aubergine & peppers. And huge lumps of lard – a local treat which I’ve avoided so far. Probably because I’m not hungry enough. Like the British wartime diet of bread & dripping, I imagine you’re glad of a chunk of raw pig fat if you end up cold & hungry.

Church Bells v. Riot Police – this morning it was all going on down my end of town: the church bells at the monastery calling the faithful, and right opposite the church, the militia being trained in riot techniques: banging on their shields. And over all that, the ubiquitous Daft Punk’s Get Lucky playing through the PA at the start of the Kyiv Half Marathon.

Kissing – And finally, which comes first – the mistletoe or the kissing? There’s quite a lot of kissing couples around –  Kyiv’s clearly a romantic place; and there’s a lot of mistletoe – lots of trees bedecked with balls of mistletoe. Could these two things be related?

pic of ball of mistletoe

Is this responsible for all the kissing?

A new home, and tourism in a post-Soviet landscape

I’ve moved into a flat – at the bottom of Andreyiivsky usviz – the historic street that leads down from one of Kyiv’s many golden domed cathedrals. Sacrificing practical considerations for romantic location, I now live in a nineteenth century building with dodgy pipework, wiring that wouldn’t look out of place in Delhi, and the best selection of street vendors selling Soviet antiques and Ukrainian crafts this side of Tashkent.

No sooner had I moved in than thousands of tiny ants also moved in…weirdly, the infestation was focused on two brand new, never been worn, items from Zara – both ended up crawling with little ants, but no other clothes on the same shelf were affected. My landlady arrived with ant killer and a tub of anti-wrinkle cream which she rolled into small balls and left inside on the window shelves. She doesn’t speak English, and my Ukrainian doesn’t stretch to quizzing her on this strange practice – I wondered whether it was the ant in anti-wrinkle that was to blame. She had previously taken me to show me where to fetch my water – you can’t drink the water from the taps so one has to buy it from the supermarket, unless you live handily close to a monastery with a supply of clean drinking water.

I visited the Lavra, Ukraine’s most historically significant religious location – a service was in full swing with beautiful singing drifting across the site. (And I’m struggling with sizing my photos so bear with me as I get to grips with blogging).

Picture of view across the river Dnipro in Kyiv

Church, monastery gardens & the river Dnipro, KyivPicture of the cathedral at the Lavra