State support for grassroots projects triggers tectonic changes in Ukrainian culture.

No freedom, no culture. No money, no culture. In the Soviet Union, Ukrainian culture had no freedom at all, therefore the question of money was not on the agenda. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukrainian culture received freedom but had no money. Later, money for culture came from the oligarchic projects. And only after the Euromaidan Revolution cultural initiatives of civil society started to receive support. The process was led by the new state institution – Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

Ukrainian Cultural Foundation (UCF) was launched in 2017, then tectonic changes for Ukrainian culture in a very broad meaning of this word started. The foundation supported not only particular projects but also provided institutional support for the initiatives. As well, it supported education, media, projects popularizing culture, historical projects, and so on.

Snapshot of the UCF’s Instagram @ucf_in_ua

Among the most recent projects supported by the UCF there are:

The film Bad Roads by Natalya Vorozhbit which tells about the roads leading from and to the war in eastern Ukraine. The film was already awarded by the Venice Film Festival, the world’s oldest cinematic event.

International Triennial the 4th Block , a unique designer’s festival of eco posters and social projects.

DocUaDream , the School of Documentary and Media for the Teenagers from Donbas which helps the children of war to make their first steps in documentary filmmaking, photography, and journalism.

@pidzamche.nareshti. The initiative united the activists and citizens of the district Pidzamche in Lviv.

Baikonur. Invasion, a documentary about Ukrainian researchers getting to the classified territory of the Baikonur cosmodrome.

@chernobylapp , the first mobile app of Chornobyl which gives an opportunity to have a virtual tour in Chornobyl and to find out more about the tragedy.

Creativity on Quarantine , series of publications telling about the success stories of the cultural initiatives the success of which was not prevented even by quarantine.

Monograph Kharkiv Photography School : game against apparatus by Nadia Kovalchuk , devoted to the Kharkiv photography school as a unique phenomenon of the Ukrainian culture.

Kyivwhale, the project of the creation of the biggest media sculpture from recycled plastic.

To understand the scale of the changes that started in Ukraine’s cultural area after the Euromaidan Revolution, and in particular, the processes launched by UCF, one should look back at the previous periods the country’s culture was going through.

How the Soviet Union policy totally distorted Ukrainian culture

Since the beginning of Ukraine’s independence, the importance of cultural policy has always been underestimated. So were the cultural figures. They were put before a choice either to follow the official line or to be independent and go deep deep underground. This choice has been left from the times of the Soviet Union. Back then, cultural policy has been serving the purposes of propaganda. Otherwise cultural figures would have put themselves under the threat of being punished by the state’s machine.

In different periods, in the Soviet Union, the level of threat for independent artists, poets, and others was different. As well, some Soviet cultural figures intelligently managed to integrate deeper narratives in their works. Though, it was impossible to do with the issue of national identity. The state was properly caring to pressure the signs of freedom.

Dozens of Ukrainian artists, poets, writers, and other cultural figures were repressed. In 1920-130th, in Ukraine, there was a whole generation of them called Shot Revival that was destroyed during Stalin’s Great Terror.

Kyiv, 1 May 1986, just after the explosion on Chornobyl power station. At the demonstration of the Worker’s Day people are marching in traditional Ukrainian dresses which replaced authentic Ukrainian culture. Photo:

Instead, the Soviet machine substituted cultural senses with a form. This concept is often referred to as sharovarshchyna (from the name of Ukrainians’ traditional pants sharovary). It means representing Ukrainian identity in a primitive way by peasant and Cossack clothing, elements of life.

How culture received freedom, but no support

Sharovarshchyna has not been yet totally eliminated. The photo from a concert of a Ukrainian singer, politician, and Chancellor at a University. Snapshot from a concert.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, culture in Ukraine received freedom. However, it still lacked vision, strategy, and what is crucial money.

Sharovarshyna in culture still had a nationwide scale.

When the economic crisis of the 1990s broke down, cultural policy was among the least topics on the agenda. Artists and cultural figures had no material base to develop.

The support for the cultural area was foreseen by the EU initiative Eastern Partnership launched in 2009. For the first time, Ukrainian cultural institutions received access to the granting system. Looking back, Kateryna Botanova , independent curator and critic, described that during the three years of the first phase of the program supporting culture the attempts to establish a partnership with the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture were not successful.

“The mandate of the program to help and support cultural policy reforms in Ukraine has been effectively covered in dust, in part due to the sincere misunderstanding by domestic cultural officials of what this cultural policy is and why it is needed.”

Botanova summarized that as of 2010 the cultural area has been clearly divided into two lines – state-non-state or official-unofficial. The state or official had the money from the state’s budget and included a hardly alive large-scale network of corrupted cultural institutions inherited from the Soviet Union. While the non-state was led by the oligarchs.

Cultural journalist Kateryna Stukalova described that period saying that in the 1990s for cultural figures it became clear that interaction with simulation state institutions was meaningless and ineffective. The inner market could not support the existence of artists even on the survival level.

“The inevitable drift of Ukrainian art into the arms of oligarchic clans and its incorporation into a new quasi-feudal social structure began.”

Some of the oligarch projects were and still are quite successful. For example, the world-known PinchukArtCenter, an international modern art center. It was founded in 2006 in terms of the activities of the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. The foundation was founded by Viktor Pinchuk , media owner, one of the richest Ukrainian oligarchs.

In general, with some exceptions, Ukrainian cultural field became apolitical.

“As long as contemporary art existed in its parallel world, without making any articulated demands from the state, demonstrating self-sufficiency and almost not commenting on political processes in artistic language, the state has learned to use its autonomy and lack of claims to budgetary resources. There were two parallel worlds – the modern art process with its own resources and survival strategies and the state apparatus – a decorative facade that simulated ‘culture management’ and is guided by completely inefficient, disconnected from reality and opaque principles of activity,” Stukanova wrote.

Among the prominent cultural events of the first decade of 2000s, Botanova named the coming of the new team to the Kyiv art-center Cultural Arsenal. The team was aimed to make it Ukrainian Louvre. Opening of the art center Isolation in Donetsk was also an important event. Nowadays the art center moved to Kyiv and its premises in Donetsk were turned into a concentration camp of the so-called DNR.

Botanova listed launching the country’s first and only grant program to support iZ culture by the richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s Foundation, Ukraine received opportunities for European networking and funding under the EU’s Eastern Partnership Culture Program.

Botanova summarized that 2010th was the last year before the rapid fall into the swamp of the runaway president Viktor Yanukovych’s years.

And then the Euromaidan Revolution started. Together with social-political changes, the Revolution raised cultural policy to the level of national importance.

Development after the Euromaidan Revolution

Euromaidan Revolution became a breakthrough for Ukrainian culture. A sign during Euromaidan protests reads “Sorry for the inconvenience, we are changing the country.” Photo:

First of all, during the Revolution, cultural figures by far were not silent and at some points led the process.

When the Revolution ended, it became clear that the country, as well as the nation, can’t survive without cultural policy and common narratives. As well it became clear that the old models don’t work.

Back then, different cultural activists united into the Cultural Assembly. At first, they tried to introduce reforms to the Ministry of Culture. Later, they started to demand its liquidation, replacing it with different corresponding agencies.

The plan did not work, as the Ministry exists until nowadays. However, many competent representatives of the cultural field received opportunities to develop cultural policy. As well, new agencies did start to appear.

Among them, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, the Ukrainian Book Institute, the Ukrainian Institute for presenting Ukrainian culture in the world, and the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

Step by step Ukrainian culture started to wade through the thorns of bureaucracy and stereotypes. Sharovarshyna was not totally eliminated, but movement in the right direction definitely started.

The role of the UCF in it became crucial. By its existence, the institution changes the old ineffective mechanisms in the area in principle.

For the first time during the independence of Ukraine, through the UCF the state by its funding gave the opportunities to the bottom-up initiatives to form the cultural agenda.

The first results of UCF’s work

Some of the projects supported by UCF.

Among its goals UCF lists providing a favorable environment for the development of the intellectual and spiritual potential of individuals and society, wide access for the citizens to national cultural heritage, supporting cultural diversity, and integration of the Ukrainian culture into the world cultural space. UCF supports projects through a competitive selection process.

For the first time in independent Ukraine, the development and formation of common values of the civil society in Ukraine became the priority for the state.

During the three years of its work, UCF supported 1,685 different projects amounting to UAH 1.5 bn ($54 mn). Summarizing the work Yuliya Fediv , the first executive director of the UCF noted that the need for the state’s funding, however, is still significant.

According to Fediv, during the first three years of work UCF received 6386 applications from different organizations dealing with different directions. In 2018 there were 716 applications, in 2019 – 2059, and in 2020 – 3611.

The foundation is not ideal and sometimes gets into scandals. Some were related to the allocation of state money. The most recent one to the appointment of the new executive director. While so far his work is yet to be evaluated, the existence of the foundation itself gives the grounds for the development of Ukrainian culture which has been under pressure of circumstances for long years and was not able to form the agenda for the country.

This publication is part of the Ukraine Explained series, which is aimed at telling the truth about Ukraine’s successes to the world. It is produced with the support of the National Democratic Institute in cooperation with the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, Internews, StopFake, and Content is produced independently of the NDI and may or may not reflect the position of the Institute. Learn more about the project here.

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