the Sauna Train of Ukraine, to Chernivtsi

With Anatolii and Katya - they might look cool but actually we were HOT

With Anatolii and Katya – they might look cool but actually we were melting HOT

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.

pic of university building

Chernivtsi University – A UNESCO World Heritage site, built in 1860.

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.

pic of 12 people

Ukraine’s cultural leaders meet British Council’s team in Ukraine

“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.

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

Deliciously random objects to sit side by side, in the Museum

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.

A round table discussion with teaching staff, and a shameless promotional opportunity!

A round table discussion with teaching staff

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.



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.