Art and geopolitics in a fractured Eastern Ukraine
By Dr Irina Kuznetsova
Art and creative activities have become geopolitical tools in Eastern Ukraine. From the onset of the conflict, in April 2014, the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk have enhanced the presence of ‘Russian’ culture, with the explicit support of the Russian state. Concerts, talks and charity events took place even while fierce fighting was on-going.
Many artists and cultural organisations have been forced to escape the self-proclaimed republics to avoid persecution. The Izolyatsia platform for cultural initiatives had to leave Donetsk after separatists demolished its art installations, including works by Cài Gúoqiáng and Daniel Buren, seized its property and turned it into a military base. Sculptures by Maria Kuikovskaya, “Homo Bulla” (pictured as thumbnail) and “Army of Clones”, were used for target practice by the Donetsk People’s Republic. The artist Sergei Zakharov, who was later called ‘Donetsk’s Banksy’, was arrested and jailed for one and a half months without trial for placing life-sized caricatures of the leaders of the self-proclaimed republics in public spaces. Productions at local theatres have come under pressure to be pro-Russian and in response many staff and actors have left the region.
Such events add further complexity to already deeply contested identities and memories in Ukraine around conflicting interpretations of the events of World War Two, the Holodomor (the state manufactured famine in Ukraine where over two million Ukrainians starved to death) and overall relationships with the Russian state. Separatist leaders have reincarnated Soviet symbols, attempting to demonstrate a unified relationship between the ‘Novorrossia’ territory and Russia. Portraits of Stalin have appeared on Donetsk’s central square and separatist leaders sport badges with his image. Symbols central to Ukrainian history and independence are under threat: in August 2015 the Donetsk separatist authorities destroyed a monument to the Holodomor victims, and Donetsk State University removed a monument to Ukrainian dissident Vasyl Stus.
While there were relatively few fully independent artists and civic activists before the conflict, with funding used as an ideological control, pilot interviews reveal that there is almost no one attempting cultural interventions in the territories under separatist control – partly because most have left but also because those who remain genuinely fear for their safety. So not only people have been displaced from Eastern Ukraine – art and ideology have been displaced too, and the geopolitical, economic and memory contradictions are deepening the conflict.
Irina Kuznetsova is a sociologist and social geographer. Her research expertise includes migration, religiosity, health, disabilities studies, social policy and accessible cities. She has led and participated in various applied and academic studies founded by regional bodies in Russia and also the European Commission, Open Society Institute, MacArthur Foundation, Russian Foundation for Humanities and others. She is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.