Originally published in Brooklyn Rail, March 2022 issue.
The last week has changed the global understanding of where we are as a civilization. If sovereign, independent countries can be wiped off the map while the whole world watches stunned in horror, what then becomes of our humanistic future? This question is as complex as are responses from seven Ukrainian cultural workers interviewed one week into the invasion as Ukrainian refugees hit one million and Russian tanks advance on major cities. Yet Ukraine stands united through its charismatic president and its resourceful, brave, and victorious people. Analysis, historical parallels and art historical contexts could be useful, but provide distance. These artists and writers do not need distance; they need support.
Margo Sarkisova (Margo Persimmon), Goddess of the mountain, 2022. Cutout & Chinese ink drawing on vintage paper, 35 x 45 cm.
Artist, formerly based in Kharkiv, now a refugee in Dnipro.
Mdivani: You had to abruptly leave Kharkiv. What did you leave behind?
Sarkisova: I did not want to leave Kharkiv and especially did not want to leave without my works. I had exactly 20 minutes to pack the most important artworks and works in progress for future projects. The building where my studio was has been transformed into a shelter. It was the same situation as when I had to run from Donetsk in 2014. It is surreal to experience this for the second time. Back then I was naïve to think that everything would end soon. Running away from Kharkiv now for the second time, I had a feeling that I won’t ever come back. This time an instinct turned on that I should save everything I could. Once this trauma is inflicted it will take a long time to heal from it. And although I still hope there will be ways of negotiating with Russia, rebuilding the country will be a long process.
Ukrainians are very outspoken people, in contrast to Russians, because every type of individual political honesty is followed by persecution there. And this is what became part of the national psyche. When I speak to the people who listen to this Russian propaganda, I am scared. It is as though they can’t switch back to honesty. Two very different mentalities. To me, when Putin is threatening the world with nuclear weapons it looks like a snake trying to bite before its demise. I want to stay here, in this young, talented culture and country. Some of us feel useless because we can’t go and fight.
Artist, formerly based in Kharkiv, now in Lviv.
Artem Rogowoi, For you Vladimir, 2015. Oil on canvas, 150 x 130 cm. Courtesy the artist.
Mdivani: What do you think of your government and President Zelensky?
Rogowoi: No one could have done a better job than Zelensky. He has been transformed into a much stronger leader. Although initially I was not his supporter. The situation that has been formed in Ukraine since 2014 and the Russian takeover of the Donbas region cannot be solved by one simple action. We all feel for him and his team. And the fact that Zelensky did not leave Kyiv, although the city is in fact almost under siege, speaks volumes.
These are unprecedented circumstances. To me it’s unclear what is going on in Russia, what will happen to it. It’s unclear what kind of country it will be or if it will dissolve into parts. Putin and the Russian people are two different parts of the story. Russia is closing itself out, seemingly on route to becoming North Korea.
I am Margo’s [Sarkisova] studio mate. As soon as Kharkiv started to be bombed my wife and I left. It is relatively quiet in Lviv.
Artist, formerly based in Kyiv, now in Cherkasy.
Olga Stein, Dictator, 2021. Canvas, oil, enamel, spray paint, permanent marker, 100 x 200 cm.
Mdivani: How do you connect to your artistic practice now?
Stein: I feel very guilty that I am not doing much, but it is very scary with the [air-raid] sirens going off at all times. We are far from a shelter so we have to hide inside the corridor of our house. My father helps by putting together Molotov cocktails and supporting the armed forces to the best of his abilities. Over the long hours of the airstrikes my younger brother plays chess, and I try to draw. My art is connected to reframing religious and iconographic traditions and now I have an inner urge to draw victory. On the last day before the war, my first personal exhibition in Paris was finalized and it is one of those things that now won’t happen. Everything has changed in one day. But I want to strongly believe that we will return to what we had and we will rebuild. I made a decision not to leave Ukraine because I want to stay here and continue to do something in my country.
A huge abyss developed between Ukraine and Russia with this war and I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive this big country for what it did. There are separate people there who are normal, and good, a vast, complex culture. But I do not think I would ever be able to forgive what is happening to my country now because someone did not do their job and did not take personal responsibility.
Artist formerly based in Kyiv, now residing in Nova Kakhovka, Kherson region occupied by the Russian forces, 50 kilometers from Crimea.
Yeva Kafidowa, noise is around, 25.02.2022. Ink on paper. 19 x 14 cm.
Mdivani: You are in a Russian-controlled territory. How does it feel there?
Kafidowa: We have been occupied by the Russian forces since February 24. It started with shelling of a military base nearby at 5am. And then the second shelling took place at about 11am. I saw fighter jets and panicked and went to the bomb shelter. After four to five hours, Russian forces came into the city. There is a strict curfew from 5pm to 8am. Sometimes Russian military personnel come into the city. They have killed a few civilians because the locals did not comply with the military regulations. One person, allegedly, for wearing army pants; an ambulance was fired at. No one knows who was inside there.
People go out during daytime to stand in lines for food. I do not see any resistance here, but it is hard to imagine how to resist when a Russian convoy comes into the city with 100 tanks and 100 armored personnel vehicles. Some people are overwhelmed because all of this happened so fast, people are still processing the fact. After [civilian] vehicles were shot at near several entry points, people stopped trying to get out. No one else has tried since.
I have worked and lived in Kyiv for the last four years and my studio is still there.
Although I very much want to believe that there will be an attempt to bring us back into Ukrainian sovereignty, every day this hope diminishes. We were just discussing in our family what we are going to eat in ten days because it is unclear from where exactly food will come to us.
Researcher, writer, based in Kyiv, currently staying in Kremenchuk.
Mdivani:Why did you leave Kyiv? How do you see the current events progressing?
Bazdyrieva: I woke up from the explosions, and after two hours of panic, I made it to my sister who lives on the other side of Kyiv. For the first two days of the invasion, we lived in a basement that most likely has not been used by anyone since World War II. There were sirens that evoked a phantom memory of that war. Like most of the post-Soviets, I grew up with the legacy of World War II and all these attributes of war were familiar to me from films or from stories of our family members. I could not imagine them being part of my life. But it is indescribable when fighter planes are in the air above your head—what is going on now is beyond words and beyond representation. My sister and I moved south of Kyiv to be with our family; we are still endangered, as we are equally close to Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson and Dnipro.
It is a diagnosis of schizophrenia over in Russia, where I have lived and worked on numerous occasions. This is a place where words do not match the reality, there is a constructed world with no possibility of truth. The majority of Russians do believe that they are under attack by the US, they believe they are fighting fascism, they don’t notice their dehumanized reality. But even those who say they didn’t choose Putin are not aware of their imminent imperialism. Thinking of Putin as the main evil is now convenient for many. But who launches the rockets that destroy our cities and kill civilians? Who writes tons of propaganda messages? Who publishes them? Who are those people that for decades have been contributing to this massive machine of violence? Who twists the truth? Who turns a blind eye? Who are those who commit these slow crimes and quick crimes? Ordinary people. I’ve always been terrified by layers and layers of colonial and imperial thinking that is engrained deeply in all aspects of daily life and even more so on the level of cultural production. This war is a part of their logic. It is important to not deny Russian people a sense of agency and accountability, to not find justification for their complicity. The banality of evil. It’s too easy to hide one’s political ignorance by the abstract and internalized figure of authoritarianism, while others find the strength to speak up.
People in Ukraine have an amazing fighting spirit across all cities. Of course, it is scary for everyone, yet, at the same time there is an understanding that many people won’t surrender. Ukrainians were simply going about their lives. We did not hate Russians; various sociological surveys prove that. But after this there will be an abyss between the countries that most likely won’t be filled—also because Russians are unwilling to do their work. They are unwilling to call things by their true names and get back into reality. I doubt we can talk about the Cold War format coming back because there is a different techno-political situation right now. To get the grasp of the consequences of this war one needs to look closer to theories of cyberwar, which is, to put it simply, the attack on the very possibility of making sense of reality. I want to end by quoting cyberwar theorist Svitlana Matviyenko: “Cyberwar is broader than any isolated, sequential, or distributed attacks on digital or physical infrastructure. The attacks, destructive or symbolic, are only an element of cyberwar’s immersive theater. Cyberwar epistemology is like a cancer of sense-making, growing abnormally and beyond limits according to the logic of paranoia, the creation of which everyone plays a part, even you, by connecting the dots.”1
Artist, activist, lives in Gdansk, Poland.
Vasyl Savchenko, work from the series “MP,” 2021. Charcoal on canvas, 3 x 2 meters.
Mdivani: What is activism like now for you? I know that you run a gallery and a foundation.
Savchenko: For the last seven years, I have been living in Poland. Since the Russian occupation in 2014, I have been educating people here in Poland about what is happening in my home country. However, now that the full-scale war has started, we fight even despite being abroad. We work a lot to educate our acquaintances and friends from abroad about the events in Ukraine. We are helping people all over Ukraine by sending necessary things and medications that we are able to get here. We also involve our friends from Poland. I would like to emphasize the importance of social media since Instagram stories help to share lists with needed goods, find housing for refugees or organize transport from any city in the world to the Ukrainian border.
Here in Gdansk, people are highly engaged in helping Ukraine through the collection of high necessity goods or medicines. Different institutions and private businesses give their spaces for the storage. From the artistic side, there are initiatives that sell artworks at the charity auctions, with profits going directly to programs supporting the civilian population. Even though it is the eighth day of war, it feels like years for us. The constant stress and news-checking, in addition to the ongoing non-stop que of requests from Ukraine which we are trying to address, exhaust us both physically and emotionally. Nevertheless, we stand because we know that the outcome of this war depends on each of us.
Right now, my father is in Lviv, serving in TerObоrona, an armed group consisting of volunteers. In our family house he welcomes refugees from other cities who need help. My wife’s parents are in Odessa, defending the city and staying strong. Those cities are in danger since the sirens go off multiple times a day, and at any moment a missile from the Russian occupants may come.
My gallery, Savchenko, was founded in 2019. We had planned an official opening with a new exhibition and new artworks for March 2022. Unfortunately, due to the current situation, Savchenko Foundation, which runs the gallery, decided to meet the current needs of Ukraine and became a place where people can make a donation or bring goods from the list of needs that we receive on a daily basis from Lviv and Odessa. The foundation continues to run the gallery and sell artworks. The profit from those sales goes to humanitarian and medical help for Ukrainian civilians.
Artist, based in Lviv, Western Ukraine.
Vasylyna Buryanyk, the area of wounds formation, 2021. Kinetic installation. 50 x 50 x 25 cm.
Mdivani: What does your daily life look like now? What should the next steps be?
Buryanyk: In the very first days of the invasion, Russians were trying to gain control over main strategic points, but they were not able to. Now we see fighting for larger cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv, for larger administrative centers, and to overturn the Ukrainian government. But thank God, it’s the sixth day and it is still not happening. We have a feeling that Ukrainians are winning the military campaign. In Lviv there is relative stability, probably because many representatives of the UN and NATO are based here. But there are hundreds of refugees as well, and we are volunteering by finding them places to live, communicating with people in Poland and Czech Republic who are able to host these people. But we are also staying vigilant. There was a persistent belief that if neighboring Belarus decides to invade, they will start by attacking Lviv because the city is instrumental for delivering weapons and humanitarian supplies from neighboring Poland.
It is important to understand that people are faring very differently across the country and even this city. In some areas there are significant food shortages. Some people have been sheltering all week underground, not able to resupply. In Lviv there is a shortage of bread flour and baking powder, and the same thing has started happening in Kyiv. In Lviv people are highly motivated too. Streets are still cleaned in the mornings, accompanied by the sounds of sirens. TerOborona, a grass-roots militia, is patrolling the streets at night during curfews and willfully engage in combat if need be.
Erasure of identity between Ukrainians and Russians has been intentionally encouraged for a while. Through singers and artists, and by inviting Ukrainian artists into Russian museums and calling them Russian artists to the world. Just as it happened with Ukrainian artist Kazimir Malevich. Creating Ukrainian artistic identity is very important now, as cultural power is as influential as political strength.
I deeply believe that Russia does not want us, Ukrainians, to become free, democratic, and independent. That country will do anything for us to remain backward and poor. But it is up to us to choose where we want to stand.
- Svitlana Matviyenko, Dispatches from the Place of Imminence, February 25,2022 https://networkcultures.org/blog/2022/02/25/dispatches-from-the-place-of-imminence-by-svitlana-matviyenko/?fbclid=IwAR04aue8efgoo5I9MrT_IHWeYmdwAuIOTXGbFQavE3Nd2YX7GkonL0GbMdk