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.