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18 February, 2019  ▪  Yelyzaveta Honcharova

Touring country

How the war has changed the cultural landscape of the Donbas

Art probably doesn’t really need any kind of special conditions. For many centuries it appeared in the strangest places and under a wide range of circumstances. Geniuses and their works played their tricks in distant villages and provincial towns, in the midst of those who could never have been suspected of the “sin” of creating images of the world with a paintbrush, a note or a word. Art simply arose there where it was needed, born both thanks to and in spite of. Culture in the Donbas was also shaped by difficult historical processes: whatever was there gave birth to it. But we are talking about the true steppe culture of eastern Ukraine, not the borrowed or artificially russified.

If we seep away the soviet “kokoshnik [1]” layer that still shines brightly through sheer inertia, for instance, in folk celebrations in the region, then it becomes clear that this culture was always and will continue to be, as it is in every other corner of Ukraine, with its unique features, its talents and special treasures, and even its prophets. And so when people talk about having to “bring Ukrainian culture to Donbas right now,” the question arises: How? Like high-quality hothouse tomatoes, and then wait for a good harvest, regardless of the composition of the soil?

Or is it better to just find something particular, something that those who live in this industrial belt understand, and deck it out in embroidery and blue-and-yellow colors? To show them how it should be, to interest them in something new, to revive the forgotten? The myriad ways that art activists have been using to reach their goal in ever-more frequent appearances in the Donbas are impressive. Today, landing parties and even entire trains are bringing Art to the East. Sometimes it's just an amateur concert, and sometimes it’s little more than spending money with a cultural twist. But it’s all the more valued when it impresses because it genuinely touches its audiences and stirs no feelings of inferiority or second-classness among listeners and viewers from the “uncultured” East. Instead, it challenges them once again for strength and depth, just like it does other audiences, regardless of the geographic location. So people go in droves, but do they understand?

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“When people ask me why I go to the East, I’m amazed,” admits Olha Mykhailiuk, the ArtPole producer and director of a slew of performances. “I’m not doing this because this is the latest trend or because I can get a grant for it. And definitely not for the rush that lots of folks often hint at, given the context. My projects were happening long before the war. I do there to create art together.”

In contrast to many of those who think that the only thing that should be coming to the frontlines is tradition, preferably in its simplest forms, so that the dry Donbas soil might absorb as much as possible of what is Ukrainian, the ArtPole people aren’t afraid to experiment and bring the exciting, the fashionable and the emotional to their audiences. A wide range of art projects have toured many cities in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts: RozdIlovI, a play on the words divide and capture, with Serhiy Zhadan, an original performance called Miata, and the Polish band, Volosi. And they always play to full houses – even in the smallest eastern towns.

Not long ago, they brought to life an interesting song project called Mozaika, which combines the singing of children and teens from Lviv – the Zhaivir Choir – and Stanytsia Luhanska, the site of fierce fighting in winter 2014. Together the two groups performed koliady, Ukrainian Christmas carols, and shchedrivky from various parts of Ukraine, and ancient Christmas texts. After rehearsing for six months, they performed twice: in the Klymentiy Sheptytskiy Cathedral and in the performance hall in Stanytsia Luhanska. Mykhailiuk recalls how exciting it was to discover enormous natural talent among ordinary teens in a small frontline town. She admits that, instead of talking about the horrors of war, they simply sang. But there were some bad moments as well, such as when someone from Lviv said, “Oh, look, these katsaps [2] even know Ukrainian!”

In the end, art is more effective than just socializing because it doesn’t drive apart but brings together. Afterwards the children and carolers mostly did not even mention who was from what part of Ukraine, because they no longer wanted there to be some kind of handicap because they were easterners. They just wanted people to be amazed by the singing, and not by where someone was from.

“Of course, these kids have been traumatized by war,” says Mykhailiuk firmly, “but we have all been hurt by it, everyone in their own way. And that makes us all equal in art. The Donbas least of all needs to be treated like a victim to whom art is extending the hand salvation.”


These days, ArtPole is launching “A Never-ending Journey, or Eneida” with Yuriy Andrukhovych, who is well known and anticipated in Donbas for the heated debates that his harsh and even rude judgments tend to stir, as well. Of course, the organizers are hoping that the power of art will help not to get bogged down in squabbles but to set a creative atmosphere with the help of all the irony and humor in Kotliarevskiy’s Eneida. Before the tour gets underway, the artists will offer some introductory lectures on the theory of combining aural and visual perception, performance, and interesting world trends in art. The lecture audience will include students from various post-secondary institutions who are interested in modern art.

“We have to give people a chance to listen and choose,” say the artists. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s in Sloviansk or Ternopil.”


[1] The “kokoshnik” is the pointy, bejeweled headdress of Russian tradition. It was not a folk-costume, but on the contrary, was worn by women of the boyar class and higher.

[2] Katsap is a pejorative Ukrainian term for Russians, just as khokhol is the Russian term for Ukrainians.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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