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A cultural day in the big city

Despite being under attack, Ukrainian society is fighting back on its own terms. This includes the organisation of cultural events across the beleaguered country.

October 24, 2022 - Galyna Datsyuk - Articles and Commentary

A young man plays the piano outside the train station in Lviv, March 2022. Photo: Ruslan Lytvyn / Shutterstock

Our days are imbued with war, and war with life. In this world melted like magma, we do not give up. Culture becomes a necessity not just to survive, but to live fully. The acute pain of loss gives birth to new art. Ukraine, and Kyiv with it, has exploded with cultural life with an overpowering desire to be and establish oneself. And if God sends a golden Sunday, it is better to live it in the paradisaical city.

On September 21-25th, the exhibition “Maria Prymachenko – Saved” took place, consisting of 14 surviving paintings. A Russian bomb destroyed the memorial museum of the world-famous artist from Bolotnia, Ivankiv district. However, local villagers managed to save some of Maria’s masterpieces from the flames. And now they are in Kyiv, only for four days. It is not enough! There is a queue to the exhibition all the way from European Square – children, young people, the elderly. The rescued works delight with their talent and with their Ukrainianness, which makes us stand out on the cultural map of the world. The artist’s images are unique and sophisticated: “Good porridge with milk, it’s good to live with a Cossack”, “Oryna is reaping rye. The wolf puts it in a bag”, “Fairy-tale rooster” – visions of sincere and genuine Ukrainian life. Maria’s beauty saves and heals us, and strengthens our faith in our indestructibility.

Many cultural events are now being defined by markers of self-identification. We react to art with an emotion that is a hundred times stronger than a “peaceful” one. Every event in the cultural life of Ukraine is now perceived completely differently than before the war. They are coveted and encouraging says the writer, Lesya Ukrainka Prize laureate Zirka Menzatiuk, who attended the opening of the exhibition of antique rushnyks in the National Library of Ukraine for Children. Now these rushnyks are not just a beautiful decoration — they are what we are fighting for. This is our identity, which is threatened with destruction.

In the first months of the war, the capital’s theatres, cinemas and museums were closed. But today its cultural life is full-blooded: theatres are open, performances are taking place. Most cultural events are aimed at raising funds for the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). The only difference is that there are fewer spectators in the halls — they are restricted to ensure the availability of space in bomb shelters in case of air raids. However, there are days in Kyiv without sirens. And although it will not be possible to clear the war from your heart, you can nonetheless recharge your spirit.

Evacuated theatrical companies from Sievierodonetsk and Mariupol, and before that from Donetsk and Luhansk, are staging new performances in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Uzhhorod, Mukachevo and Chernivtsi, where some of the actors have moved. Recently, the actors of the author’s theatre, who left Mariupol before the occupation, performed the play “Faces of the Colour of War” in Kyiv. The beautiful building of the Drama Theatre in Mariupol was destroyed by Russian forces, but the creative potential of the theatre, the desire to create was preserved.

In order to appear on the stage of the Ivan Franko National Dramatic Theatre for the 150th time in the one-man show “Moment of Love”, National Artist of Ukraine Yevhen Nyshchuk returned from the front. The voice of Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity, and Ukrainian minister of culture in 2014-16 and 2017-19, Nyshchuk volunteered to fight in the first days of the full-scale war, joining the front line. The Franko Theatre, like many others, was closed for three months. Performances began again at the end of May. Nyshchuk, meanwhile, found himself in the south of Ukraine and in order to perform combat missions on the front line, he signed a contract with the AFU. Now he combines service in the army with service in the Franko Theatre. His military commanders understand that it is necessary to defend the cultural front as well, so the actor is released to Kyiv for a few days.

The lucky ones could see Yevhen Nyshchuk in the play “Moment of Love” based on the works of Volodymyr Vynnychenko. The plot of the one-man show is in tune with the times. The actor believes that “the genre of a one-man show is blood donation”; it is more exhausting than three-hour performances, say, “Figaro”, “Three Comrades”, or “Eric XIV”. But if the play is performed for the 150th time, it means that the play is alive. Now, against the background of the liberated heroes of Azovstal who returned from captivity, it simply resonates. When the Azov fighters say “We were placed in solitary confinement; we could not hear a single human word”, this is the text from the play. At the end of the play there is a newly added quote about Azov, with a fragment of Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s song “City of Mary” as a dedication to all the heroes. All this gives inspiration and fuels the resilience of both the audience and the artists.

Meanwhile, Ukraine celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of opera singer Solomiya Krushelnytska. The main events took place in Lviv, with a grand concert titled “Solomiya. Brava!” on Solomiya’s birthday. At the end of the concert the director of the Lviv National Opera and Ballet Theatre, Vasyl Vovkun, stated that the live broadcast was watched in ten countries and on all continents. He quoted several reviews: “What you are doing, Ukrainians, during such a terrible war, is incredible, it is amazing!” Yes, this anniversary will be another example of the establishment of Ukrainianness in the world, which Solomiya never forgot about, wherever she performed.

In the two-part program — which was fortunately not interrupted by any air raids and thus there was no need to go down to the bomb shelter — there were fragments from such operas as Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and “Manon Lescaut”, Donizetti’s “La Favorita” (in which Krushelnytska made her debut), Bizet’s “Carmen”, Gounod’s “Faust”, Richard Strauss’s “Salome”, Verdi’s “Il trovatore”, “Ernani” and “Otello”, and Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin”. The event began with the performance of the anthems of Ukraine and Italy, conducted by of the guest star, Italian maestro Alberto Veronese, the artistic and musical director of the Giacomo Puccini International Festival in Torre del Lago. Veronese has performed in opera houses and at festivals in Vienna, Athens, Bucharest, Brussels, Savonlinna, Berlin, Bologna, Tokyo, Tianjin, Tel Aviv and New York. And that evening he conducted the glorious orchestra of the Lviv Opera.

“Bravo bravissimo, Solomiya” – was the reaction of writer Oleksandr Balabko, author of the book “Kimono for Butterfly – from the Life of Solomiya Krushelnytska”. Its presentation was held with great success and interest in the Hall of Mirrors, “which was closely watched, from a banner on the facade of the theatre, by the heroine herself, wrapped in a light veil, the one who was glorified by Ukrainians around the world”.

In September, the Italian online magazine of cinema and culture L’AGE D’OR published a wonderful interview by Tiziana Colusso with writer and translator Valentyna Davydenko titled “War and Cultural Resistance”. Davydenko, who is a journalist, artist, writer, researcher and translator of Italian literature, has lived in Kyiv right through the war, never leaving the city. Before the war, Davydenko was preparing a powerful anthology of Italian poetry from the 13th to 19th centuries for publication, the vast majority of which had not been translated before, however the war prevented the publication of the book.

Today, according to Davydenko, “in Europe everything is known about military strategies, but very little is known about the everyday life of the people who stayed in Ukraine. And even less is known about the cultural life of the country: whether libraries are open, what about theatres… Not to mention poetry and literature, which have always been niche businesses, almost invisible.” Davydenko is working. She took an active part in the creation of the charity anthology “Sunflowers”, published by @TAG, which “aims to strengthen the voices of writers against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and support Ukrainian causes”. On September 30, the magazine was to be presented at a reading and listening festival at the Royal Palace of Naples.

The highlight of Davydenko’s artistic work is the project “Tea on the Veranda”. Themed Saturday mornings bring together writers and guests at a cosy table on the veranda of the Mykola Lysenko Museum. Last Saturday on the veranda there was a tea party on the theme “Lysenky – Unofficial”, flavouring the fragrant tea with interesting stories from the life of the outstanding composer and his family. Then the guests had a virtual journey in the footsteps of the heroes of Lesya Ukrainka’s literary works and a lecture by Tina Peresunko about Oleksandr Koshyts and his immortal performance of “Shchedryk”. These touching intellectual meetings are further proof that Ukrainian culture is complete and self-sufficient. And today the most important thing is not only to confess our non-love for Russian culture, but to strengthen Ukraine-centricity in the world by making a worthy statement about ourselves. Because if we had kept silent about the Ukrainian “Shchedryk”, the world would still consider it an unknown “foreigner”.

Oksana Zabuzhko’s essay “The Longest Journey” will soon be translated into six languages by the publishing house “Komora”. According to the writer, “the Armed Forces of Ukraine are now promoting all of us, including Lesya Ukrainka on the London stage… All of us, Ukrainian artists, writers, journalists, etc. are direct beneficiaries of the victories of our army, to which we are indebted to the very end of our lives.”

Many artists who have left Ukraine present our culture abroad. At the 9th International Festival of Ukrainian Theatre “EAST – WEST” in Kraków, the play “Otvetka@ua” by Neda Nezhdana was performed with great success. Spectators stated that the absolute silence in the hall during the performance was replaced with an explosion of applause following its conclusion. The reaction showed the unity of the world in support of and in solidarity with Ukrainians. The main character of the play – Hero of Ukraine and world-famous singer Vasyl Slipak, who died in the Russian-Ukrainian war and to whom this play is dedicated, became the personification of our soldiers who defend our land and protect the world from Russian invasion. Why did Vasyl go to the front when he could sing with his divine voice? Because he chose Ukraine.

Another who chose Ukraine is the poet Borys Humeniuk. The National Museum of Literature of Ukraine opened an exhibition of paintings by the writer and artist, and since 2014 defender of Ukraine. A creative person, a wonderful poet, he works on two fronts – military and cultural. His artworks are spontaneous and as swift as time. It is a bundle of instant feelings in a unique colour. The paintings seem to visualise his poetry as expressive and strong, with personal experiences of the war, the fate of Ukraine and thoughts about what awaits us. Borys Humeniuk’s war is a conscious choice of a defender at the front and a meaningful reflection of it in words and on canvas. The words are real, scary and fearless. They are without falsehood, and his paintings are the same.

Today we are digging the ground again

This hateful Donetsk land

This stale hardened earth

We huddle against it

We hide in it

Still alive.

We hide behind the earth

We sit in it quietly

Like little children behind their mother’s back

We hear her heart beating

How she breathes tiredly

We are warm and comforted

We are still alive.

We are alive and invincible because we belong to a nation of unbreakable women who fight, volunteer and create at the same time. Women like art historian Oksana Hordiyets, who is a senior researcher at the National Museum of Folk Architecture and Everyday Life of Ukraine. Oksana organises exhibitions and excursions, researches folk art and continuously weaves camouflage nets and protective “kikimors” for our soldiers. She has been preserving this cultural system “against the background of powerful art” since the Revolution of Dignity. Oksana is among the most active organisers of an exhibition dedicated to the Ukrainian wedding. The traditional wedding ceremony was arranged for military couples who came to the event directly from the front, with the permission of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. We spoke about a great family wedding celebration accompanied by songs, with majestic Korovay, in wedding costumes. But we did not mention that Oksana gifted each couple warm socks woven by her friends that weave protective nets and “kikimors” for the Armed Forces. Can anyone defeat such a nation?

Artefacts in a war do not surrender, just like real warriors. The story of a ceramic rooster inspired the exhibition “Ukrainian Phoenix – Vasylkiv majolica” at the National Museum of Ukrainian Folk Decorative Art. Organised by the National Museum of the Revolution of Dignity, the exhibition attracted thousands of visitors. And the most important exhibit was a ceramic rooster, which survived together with a kitchen cabinet during the Russian bombing of the town of Borodyanka in Kyiv region. Since then, this ceramic rooster has become a symbol of the invincibility and resilience of the Ukrainian people. And it is thanks to the attention to the hero of Borodyanka that the revival of the Vasylkiv majolica factory, whose unique products belong to the national cultural heritage, has begun.

This artistic day could be completed at the National Opera of Ukraine, where a wonderful concert dedicated to the 90th anniversary of Anatoliy Solovyanenko took place. Solovyanenko, one of the most famous Ukrainian opera singers of the twentieth century, possessed an extraordinarily beautiful and powerful tenor voice. The concert, which saw the participation of soloists, a choir and orchestra, featured popular arias of world classics performed by the maestro from Donetsk.

This article was also published in Ukrainian in Slovo Prosvity №34, 2022

Galyna Datsyuk is a Ukrainian journalist and writer

This article is published in the framework of the “Bohdan Osadchuk Media Platform for Journalists from Ukraine” co-financed by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation as part of the RITA – “Region in Transition” Program implemented by the Education for Democracy Foundation and the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation. 

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