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4 November, 2013

Days of Firtash in London

There were very few people in attendance at oligarch Dmytro Firtash’s “Days of Ukraine” in the UK who actually discovered Ukraine

Writer Oksana Zabuzhko left the London Library after her lecture at Days of Ukraine in the UK obviously irritated. “This is not the way it should be done”, she explained, forgetting to switch from English to Ukrainian. “The main thing is to have a target audience for your message (about Ukraine and Ukrainian culture). They would then spread it further… and that would be a discovery for someone. And if you plan an event like this and do not have at least ten people who must be on the list in an audience this small… I was happy to see Kyiv journalists, but … this is not for Kyiv journalists! If Mr. Firtash decided to spend money on me, I want to see it spent effectively”.

Unlike Ms. Zabuzhko, attendees seemed happy with the lecture and brief concert by the Telnyuk Sisters. But the writer confirmed one fact: there were very few people in attendance who actually “discovered” Ukraine.

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Meanwhile, the Ukrainian media coverage of Days of Ukraine arranged by the Firtash Foundation and funded by Group DF gave a whole different impression. Some editors proclaimed that “interest in Ukraine has grown significantly in the U.K.” following the events. In one report from London on a nationwide Ukrainian TV channel, the journalist held up a British newspaper and proclaimed that “all British newspapers” were writing about Days of Ukraine.

The U.K.’s press market is one of the biggest in Europe but I did not see one real report on the event in any national newspaper. In fact, The Evening Standard featured an article with beautiful photographs advertising Days of Ukraine and an interview with Dmytro Firtash’s wife Lada. Several media had articles about the exhibitions and concert that were part of the programme, but they were all in paid advertisement sections.

Little exaggerations tend to mount. Thus, the Ukrainian media reports about “a street in Cambridge named in honour of Taras Shevchenko” left one detail out: the street was renamed for one year to celebrate the poet’s 200th anniversary. Plus, the street is a small albeit central alley squeezed between law, history and linguistics department premises. “The renaming for just one year does not make it less symbolic”, says Dr. Rory Finnin, Director of the Cambridge Ukrainian Studies programme. A graduate of Columbia University, he was the only Ukrainian-speaking voice in the coverage of the event by Inter, a Russian-language TV channel owned by Group DF through the Inter Media Group company.

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Rory Finnin said that there would be no programme of Ukrainian studies in Cambridge without Dmytro Firtash’s multimillion-pound contributions. He also said that the system of funding through Cambridge Trust guarantees continuous funding without the influence of the donor on how the funds are implemented at the University of Cambridge. “Otherwise, I would be working at a different place”, Dr. Finnin said.

Dmytro Firtash has begun to speak more openly of the purpose of events he sponsors in the U.K. “Our task is to communicate and show both our companies’ and the country’s potential; show that we can enter the stock exchange and that we have something to offer”, he said as he opened a trading session at the London Stock Exchange.

The most heated debate in London is about how much Group DF’s business interests have in common and in conflict with the interests of Ukraine and the public. “Firtash spent his own money so he could do whatever he wanted and invite whoever he wanted”, some say. He “has no right to represent the whole country and pretend that his desire to promote his business interests was not central”, others claim.

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Lada Firtash, President of the Firtash Foundation charity fund, received boos from the crowd when she greeted the audience of the final Days of Ukraine concert in Russian rather than Ukrainian. Many others paid no mind to the unknown woman on stage. The Ukrainians who attended the concert were mostly young employees at London banks and other companies, students, illegal migrant-workers and the third generation of Ukrainian diaspora born in Manchester. They wanted to listen to Vopli Vidopliasova, the band’s leader Oleh Skrypka, and the leader of Plach Yeremiyi, Taras Chubai. They had a great time and the fact that the event failed to lure even a handful British visitors who could actually discover Ukraine is to be blamed on the organizers.

The festival concert and fair were the only events open to the public. The reception at the British parliament and the gala dinner at the Natural History Museum were more glamorous and privileged. But that glamour seemed to have impressed only the Ukrainian reporters who wrote how “fancy” the premises were and wondered why neither David Cameron nor “even former Prime Minister Tony Blair” attended the events.  

Representatives of the Firtash Foundation initially claimed that they wanted to host 100,000 guests at Days of Ukraine. Ukrainian newspapers reported the total number of visitors at 110,000. The Day newspaper placed attendance at 120,000 although those who actually attended the events thought these numbers were exaggerated. We had no chance to get specific information from the organizers as they refused to grant us an interview.

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