Heroic Arts: The Remarkable Story of Ukrainian Artists Facing Russia
This article is a preview of Blair Ruble’s The Arts of War: Ukrainian Artists Confront Russia series, which has aired on Focus Ukraine since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Today’s Ukraine, like all states, is a product of history, economy, geography, demography and culture. As is often the case with large countries, Ukraine has at times fractured itself in this sense. As is also often the case in large countries, such divisions do not necessarily destroy the state.
Heroically, Ukrainians have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to Ukraine despite all the factors that can distinguish them from each other, and they have not left the fate of their country to the actions of others. They have put their lives on the line repeatedly for a Ukraine that embraces a westward path.
For many analysts, pre-2022 Ukraine seemed like a “failed” state. Divisions of language, ethnicity, religion, economic viability, political ideology and generation – amplified by endemic corruption – sometimes seemed to render Ukraine hopeless. Only Leonid Kuchma, the first of the country’s five presidents since independence, has succeeded in his re-election. Political parties have appeared and disappeared seemingly overnight. Major civil unrest brought down governments with the Orange Revolution (2004-2005) and the Euromaidan Dignity Revolution (2014-2015). The breakaway provinces to the east and the Russian annexation of Crimea sparked a protracted war with Russia in 2014. These events appear to follow a fundamental historical divide along what was once the eastern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ( 1385-1795).
As powerful as these events seemed, none explains the past year in Ukraine. No matter what Vladimir Putin and his armed forces have done, Ukrainians have remained united and steadfast in their commitment to their country. We need to look beyond politics to the arts to understand how and why this has been so.
For the past 30 years, young Ukrainians have grown up with no memory of the Soviet Union; sure of the idea that Russia is a different and unattractive country; be fluent in the Ukrainian language even if they speak Russian, Tatar or another language at home; and attracted by the economic well-being and values of Europe. They created a vibrant new Ukrainian culture and identity. Ukraine’s effervescent pop music and hip-hop scene, along with sassy media and vibrant art, reflect a population that forged a new path after independence. It is a Ukraine that has united to resist Putin’s misguided efforts to retreat the country into its “Russian world”. (Several “Russias” also exist within the Russian Federation, but that’s a topic for a different essay.)
Russian apologists have pointed to election maps from the 2000s and 2010s to demonstrate that Ukraine is a divided state. In doing so, they ignored the fundamental map of the country showing the results of the 1991 independence referendum, in which more than 91% of eligible voters voted for independence, with overwhelming results in all regions. More telling is the map of the 2019 presidential election, which shows Volodymyr Zelensky winning across the country.
Analysts have decried Zelensky’s remarkable triumph, comparing it unfavorably to the elections of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Donald Trump in the United States. Like his Italian and American counterparts, they argued, Zelensky won because of the name recognition gained from his starring role in a popular TV show, servant of the people. That may have been the case, but the show’s popularity across the country reveals the emergence of a unique Ukrainian-language media space that helped Zelensky gain fans across Ukraine.
The essays that follow shed light on how Ukrainians have long explored the meaning of their country and culture through the arts, and how the arts and their creators enabled Ukrainians to confront the Russian invaders. This shared cultural exploration after independence nurtured the foundations of a successful state, rather than a failed state.
The essays grew organically out of the response to the war itself. They show the Ukrainian creative community paving the way for a united Ukrainian culture made up of diverse elements. They reflect the wide variety of cultural forms and regional differences that characterize the country itself.
Three main themes run through the stories to follow:
Russia is not Ukraine. Almost immediately after the arrival of the Russian occupation forces, the Ukrainian letter “Ï” (“ee”, as in “Kиїв”) took on an expanded meaning. The Cyrillic letter “Ï” exists in the Ukrainian alphabet, but not in the Russian alphabet. The letter has become a potent symbol of resistance in Russian-occupied territories, easily splashed onto walls, sidewalks and official signage, as its existence denies the idea that Ukraine is anything more than a subset of Russia.
The Ukrainian and Russian alphabets share many letters without being identical. Likewise, languages and cultures share considerable history. Russia’s influence over Ukraine – some welcomed, much unwelcome – cannot be denied or “cancelled”. Yet this influence has been filtered through the separate experiences of Ukraine and Russia. The result has been different experiences, values and understandings of the human condition. Ukraine and its culture cannot be subsumed into a grandiose and false concept of a “Russian world”. As the essays presented here reveal, Ukraine is not Russia. Ukrainians appreciate this difference, embrace it, and through artistic expression have sought to reinforce it.
Youth culture matters. Over the past three decades, young Ukrainians have created a vibrant and distinctive popular culture through music, including their own brand of hip-hop, and social media. Ukrainian youth culture has triumphed over internal differences across the country. Ukrainian has been the language of this culture. Whether grown through official and commercial outlets—The simpsons appeared in Ukrainian translation rather than Russian – or in formats produced by social media – this new culture remained, above all, fun.
Several of the articles featured here show how a distinct Ukrainian youth culture is spreading across the country, reshaping society and its culture. As some Russian-speaking rappers in eastern Ukraine realized, the Russian scene was considerably less relevant and compelling than what was happening in the rest of Ukraine. They turned to Ukrainian for expression because it communicated their emotions and worldview better, rather than outside of any kind of political agenda.
Art lasts; politics is fleeting. The famous tango historian, Robert Farris Thompson, once observed that culture is eternal; it’s the politics and the ego that fade away. The search for understanding of the human condition, of shared identity and values, and of the creative expression evident in all the stories presented here points to a contemporary Ukraine programmed to resist and sustain itself in the face of Russian onslaught. Ukrainians have created their own unique society and culture to share with other Ukrainians. The individual components of this culture may seem modest at first glance, but combined they have become heroic. The arts have reshaped the course of Ukrainian history and will also shape the country’s future.
Ukraine’s response to the 2022 Russian invasion has inspired a new appreciation for the country, both inside and outside Ukraine. The firmness of the Ukrainians in the defense of their country has surprised more than one. The stories featured here shed light on how Ukrainians have long explored the meaning of their country and culture through the arts. They show how the arts and their creators enabled the Ukrainians to confront the Russian invaders. These developments also offer intriguing clues about the culture, society and politics of a post-war Ukraine.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.