D6 – Culture in Transit

A space to reflect on conversations and experiences that reveal why art and culture is ever more important in our globalised world

The Chernobyl Tour

Action and Reaction,  the art of politics and political art in Ukraine. Part Four

A week ago I met a theatre maker, a Chernobyl Child sent to Paris as part of a charitable programme to support children from the affected area, and now teaching French through theatre in the suburbs of Kiev. During my time here I have heard stories of other Chernobyl Children dispersed throughout Europe and met many artists responding to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster through their work.   This catastrophic event and national tragedy touched all Ukrainians and many people in surrounding countries, it precipitated the break up of the Soviet Union and shaped a generation’s relationship with authority.

Yet it was with some trepidation that I agreed to go on the Chernobyl Tour.

As the sun broke through the morning mist,  15 of us set off in a mini van heading north out of Kiev.  Our tour guide checked our passports and let us know that the government does not allow tourists  to visit Chernobyl and this tour was for educational purposes. The journey would take us two hours across a flat and icy landscape. The bus was full of friends and colleagues I’d met during this British Council secondment to Ukraine.

As we settled in for the 2 hour journey a film took us through the dreadful events of the 26th of  April 1986 and the subsequent actions and reactions. We learnt that the catastrophic explosion  in Reactor Number Four was caused by a disastrous attempt to test the systems in the event of a loss of power.

We heard stories from the heroes who went in in the early days to stem the damage:  The first firemen on the scene;  the 600 pilots who flew over the site to drop sand (all dead); the 100,000 soldiers who could only shovel debris for 1 minute at a time, but of whom a third are already dead and the others are still suffering.  We heard about abandoned towns, children with birth defects and Hospital Number 6 in Moscow, the Soviet Union’s specialist hospital for treatment of radiation sickness.

We heard former president Mikail Gorbachev explain the Soviet government’s response and heard what international experts did and thought. We heard of prominent suicides.

But mostly what we heard was the lie.  The lie that down played the disaster.  The lie that took 2 days to start the evacuation of Pripyat, built just off site to house the 50,000 workers and their families in 1970; the lie that allowed the Kiev May Day parade to go ahead as the cloud hovered over the capital; and the lie that means no accurate figures exist (to this day) of the actual number of victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

After passing several check points and showing our passports to the unsmiling guards, the bus pulled up on the side of the road.  We were inside the Exclusion Zone.  The sky is a deep blue and picturesque wooden houses peep through the sun touched autumnal trees. We get off the bus and follow our guide, brushing aside branches, but sticking to the path. We are told not to pick anything up.

In this abandoned village of Cherevach the houses, stripped of belongings and useful building materials, now cling to the trees around them.  We tiptoe over broken bottles and threadbare floor boards in eerie silence, occasionally coming across a dusty doll or newspaper placed for atmospheric effect.

It felt wrong.  We shouldn’t be there.  What right did we have to enter the homes of those who could no longer be there, to see the lives that the living can no longer have?  It was ghoulish and voyeuristic.  It was disaster tourism. I returned to the bus and looked back at the village almost subsumed by the undergrowth. Nature was reclaiming these signs of human life, and in a few years there would be little to see.  Yet deep under my feet the very earth itself was toxic.


We reboarded the bus and continued the tour. First the town of Chernobyl where 96 residents had returned to live alongside the liquidators still working on the clean-up, but where no one under the age of 18 was allowed.  Then on to the inner zone, to the nuclear plant itself and the abandoned town of Pripyat.

The Zone was busier than I’d imagined and a number of tours crisscrossed each other. We stop for lunch at the workers’ canteen and are reminded to wash our hands. Workers here on the site are regualarly measured for radiation levels and their working hours are strictly monitored. The effect of radiation is cumulative.

Back on the bus we drive past the damaged Reactor Number Four, and the new containment sarcophagus being built by a French consortium at a cost of €2.5bn.  The guide’s Geiger counter quadrupled its reading and the driver picked up speed.

We had been in the Zone for 6 hours and our tour was now over.  Back at the check point we were tested for radiation levels and with a reading of just 0.002 millisieverts we were good to go.

We were handed our certificates to say we had completed the tour and we headed back to Kiev for a hot shower.

This history is so recent and the Fukushima disaster even more so. I came away thinking about our UK government’s rush to build new nuclear power stations and the politicians’ arrogance for believing that a disaster could never happen to us.  It’s incomprehensible.  We are sentient, intelligent beings who can come together to form a Universal Declaration on Human Rights, but can’t do the same to protect our planet.

Would I recommend this tour to anyone else?  Yes, probably now I would, because only by going can you truly understand the scale of damage to the people, their lives and to our planet. The tours are the only way you can go, so whether you like it or not, that is the route you have to take.

It will take hundreds of thousands of years, for nature to repair this poisoned land and that reality should not be forgotten.


Peremohy Mosaics

Action and reaction, the art of politics and political art in Ukraine.  Part three

40 years ago artist Volodymyr Pryadka completed work on a monumental series of mosaics on 6 buildings in Kiev. The residential apartment blocks, side by side, proudly present this, their best side, to residents and commuters on one of the wide boulevards spanning out from the city centre. The mosaics, crafted by a team of artists are vibrant examples of contemporaneous design, depicting scenes of workers’ endeavor and motherhood. Artworks so well crafted they have withstood many a bitter winter with its unforgiving frost.

40 years to the day we are standing on the pavement on Peremohy Avenue, the evenings are turning chilly and we have mulled wine in paper cups to keep us warm. In the setting sun, the colours of the mosaics still sing. Olga, who has lived across the road for many years tells me how lucky she is to open her curtains to see these mosaics every day. We are 50 or so people and Volodymyr, the only surviving artist is telling us his story. It is a story of pride, but it is also a story of sadness.

Behind him, 4 young artists are quietly digging a hole, placing a sign, and filling the hole with concrete. The sign on the grassy verge separating us from the six-lane trunk road, tells us about the mosaic across the road. The kind of sign, with a QR code, that we might see in any European city explaining the artwork in front of us.

But today, here in Kiev, this signage is a work of activism and the brainchild of artist Zhenya Molyar and Kiev based producers, CSM.

The mosaics, like other works of art in Kiev, have fallen foul of a new law. A law passed by President Poroshenko in April 2015 making recognition of the 1917-1991 Communist totalitarian regime in Ukraine a ‘criminal’ activity and outlawing Communist symbols and propaganda.

In addition to the renaming of streets and entire towns, this new legislation has meant the removal of sculptures, mosaics and architectural detail. The Peremohy mosaics are just one small example of soviet era works of art and design that are at risk because they contain symbols of Ukraine’s history.

These new laws have been widely questioned both nationally and internationally with claims that they contradict fundamental human rights including freedom of expression and assembly. There are calls for amendments to the law.

Meanwhile Zhenya along with other artists across the country are making their voices heard.

The politics of language

Action and reaction, the art of politics and political art in Ukraine.  Part two

On my last evening I was taken by my hosts to a Jewish restaurant in Podil, a gentle neighbourhood of fading grandeur with restaurants, tree lined squares and a lively energy.

The busy market sells fruit and herbs and hand knitted socks, and the glitzy supermarket European biscuits and caviar. The British Council offices were just around the corner.

I asked for a local drink and they suggested I try vodka with horseradish – 38% proof with a fiery start and a textured end. Over a Jewish meze and our second small flask of vodka, the conversation turned to language and ethnicity.

We were 7 artists and producers of whom 6 were Ukrainian. They came from across this vast country and had studied both in Ukraine and abroad. Most had traveled widely and their English was near perfect. They were ethnically Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish and one had a Polish boyfriend. Their parentage was mixed and they still had friends in Crimea and Donetsk.

My few days in Kiev had already taught me that on the streets and in the houses, the offices, museums and galleries Russian and Ukrainian languages are interchangeable. There are no signals, at least to the outsider, that one or other of the languages will be spoken and there is a quiet expectation that you will understand both.

I heard for the second time this trip, that the war in Donbass was not an “ethnic issue” – it was a “Russia issue”, and that the divide between people was not a division of ethnicity, but a division caused by politics and Russian expansionism.

My new friends were born in Soviet times. In the world of their youth to get ahead you became first a Pioneer, then a Komsomol, and only then would you have access to the benefits of the party. In their schools they were taught about Soviet culture in Russian, and Ukrainian writers were celebrated as talented Soviets. Indeed the glorious socialist realist murals in the 1956 Expocenter depict Ukrainian endeavor as second only to Russia herself.

It took the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s for Ukraine to become an independent county. What’s followed was the Ukrainisation of Ukraine where the official language became Ukrainian, the colours of the flag became widely visible in public life and new business and political leaders  attempted to redefine the country’s soul.

In schools, in today’s Ukraine, Russian books have stopped being taught as national texts and are taught instead as foreign literature alongside other international authors in translation. My colleagues’ opposing views rolled back and forth across the table…

‘Is it not right for Ukrainian children to learn in Ukrainian?” ‘But surely any literature is best read its original text? “ “Did I not understand that if you go to a bookshop, even today, most books will be in Russian?” “Yes but what would be lost if all children just spoke Ukrainian, will it not make our children more insular?” ‘But surely we need a period when we break the hegemony of the Russian language?” “But if that happens, are we not just throwing away a given multiculturalism which will, in the long run, make us stronger.” ‘This should not be an argument. We should appreciate the art and not restrict our access to it for political purposes.”

As I sipped my vodka I felt honored to be part of these conversations and privileged to have the opportunity to come back to spend more time with these new friends…

Maidan – An artist’s story

Action and reaction, the art of politics and political art in Ukraine.  Part one

Kateryna Radchenko is an artist and curator living in Odessa, whose work reveals unheard, forgotten or forbidden stories. Her exhibitions and projects often take place in unusual places, and she regularly works with photo archives to explore Ukrainian history, religion, and political storytelling.

We met for coffee in the café of the shiny international hotel chain the British Council had booked for this visit to Ukraine, and she told me her story:

On the 21st of November 2013 Kateryna was passing through Kiev en route home. She had intended to see friends and stay just one night, but she found herself unable to leave. Kateryna remained in Kiev, and in and around the Maidan Nezalesnosti (Independence Square), for two months.

The Maidan revolution is credited as starting with a Facebook message sent by Mustafa Nayem, a journalist from Afghanistan living in Kiev. Mustafa was in the parliament reporting on the president’s signing of an agreement that would bring Ukraine closer to the European Union. President Yanukovych had lost the faith of many Ukrainians with his brutal and overbearing pressure on political opponents, journalists and protesters, but the prospect of this agreement had signaled new hope.

When it became clear that the president would not sign the agreement, social media erupted with angry disappointment and Mustafa responded with: “come on guys, let’s be serious. If you really want to do something don’t just ‘like’ this post, write that you are ready and we can try to start something…”

By the time Kateryna arrived at the Maidan the numbers were swelling, and by nightfall at least 1000 people had gathered. During the next few days her friends and colleagues traveled from across Ukraine to show their support, taking shifts to sleep on the floor of her room. Through Facebook the world learnt of the violence and the first deaths, and the need for supplies for the wounded, the hungry, and the protest itself. Describing the makeshift hospital and media hub Kateryna said. ‘Now we were not just artists, now we were activists, we were journalists, we were medics.”

When the police started to use tear gas on the protesters, a call came for milk and lemons to counteract its effect. Kateryna sent out a Facebook message that she’d go and buy some and called for others to do the same. Within moments ‘the wife of an oligarch’ in her SUV picked her up, with a car full of supplies. She dropped Kateryna off at Maidan with the lemons and milk and returned to do the same again. Maidan was now a protest of the many.

Over the bitter winter months the occupation of Maidan continued with the loss of 130 lives, most of them civilian protesters. As artists became activists, so activists became artists, making sculptures, posters, banners, and films to tell the world what was happening. Yanukovych would step down and a new phase in Ukraine’s self-governing history would begin.

Kateryna has an exhibition at the Museum of Religion, Lviv in October 2015.

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