Six Ways Ukraine is WinningUkrainian Culture Now Means More than Sport, Eurovision or Chornobyl
Having spent the last year here as a refugee, Maria Romanenko sees Ukrainian music, literature, sport and drama booming in the UK, but wonders when academic recognition will come. Published in conjunction with the Kyiv Post
A former Soviet country and a site of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster – these are things an average UK resident could have known about Ukraine before February 2022. Some possibly knew about the war in the east since 2014. Sometime earlier, in 2000 and 2002, when I attended summer language schools in the UK, most often being the only kid from Ukraine, I heard back: “Ah, Ukraine? Shevchenko? Klitschko brothers?”
Fast-forward to now, I can almost imagine people saying to me: “Ah, Ukraine? Zinchenko? Usyk?” Except they don’t. I get a sympathetic look and a “have you got any family over there?”
In all truth, people do normally go on to tell me how much they admire Ukrainians and name a book or a show they have recently read or watched about Ukrainians. And, of course, it is devastating to have my country be known across the world for the war in it, but it is great to see the interest that foreigners have in Ukraine translate into an interest in Ukrainian culture.
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Music, Dance and Sport
In terms of the most famous Ukrainians in the UK, athletes still top the chart as they did 20 years ago. You have all the footballers come first: Oleksandr Zinchenko, who currently plays for Arsenal and has 2.1 million Instagram followers; Vitalii Mykolenko, who plays for Everton and has 219,000 followers; and Mykhailo Mudryk, whose expensive transfer to Chelsea made Ukrainian football history.
Then, you get Ukrainian Strictly dancers: Nikita Kuzmin and Nadiya Bychkova, with 153,000 and 168,000 Instagram followers, respectively. And, of course, there’s the previously mentioned Andriy Shevchenko, who lives in London with his family, though keeping a relatively low media profile.
If you explore the popularity of Ukrainians living outside the UK, by far, Volodymyr Zelensky comes first. Everyone knows what the Ukrainian president looks like these days, as he is, undoubtedly, the most famous president Ukraine has ever had.
The Ukrainians who became war refugees abroad, of which there are more than 8 million, brought their culture and art with them, and some creators are now establishing their careers in the UK and other Western countries. Whether or not the number of Ukrainian war refugees has contributed to this popularity, never has the UK, and Europe in general, seen so many touring Ukrainian music artists. Bands like Go-A, Kazka, Boombox, Antytila, The Hardkiss, Space of Variations, and Okean Elzy all have in the last 12 months or are due to perform in various UK cities.
And although Okean Elzy was famous outside of Ukraine before 2022, Antytila went from being only known in Ukraine to releasing a track with Ed Sheeran and doing a concert in London.
Literature, Cuisine, Drama, Fashion and Gaming
The Ukrainian boom continues in books published worldwide: Maya And Her Friends, a Ukrainian children’s book published in Ukraine in 2017, was translated into English and published in the UK in 2022. The work of Ukrainian chef Ievgen Klopotenko is about to be released in an English-language book after securing a hefty $200,000 book deal with an American publishing house. I remember trying to find Olia Hercules’s Mamushka cookbook in London, both offline and online, last May. It sold out everywhere.
Last but not least on the food topic, London has recently seen the opening of the Ukrainian restaurant Mriya, which only hires Ukrainian war refugees, and over in Manchester, the Polish restaurant Platzki hired a Ukrainian chef, Alona, and added a Ukrainian breakfast position to its menu.
In the theatre world, just last month, I participated in the play Crimea 5AM in London, uncovering Russia’s human rights violations against Crimean Tatars. This month and until April, there is a tour of Ukrainian opera around the UK with plays like Madama Butterfly and Carmen. Ukrainian ballet is regularly performed across the UK, too. Ukrainian talents are also taking over the fashion world, with designers Ksenia Schnaider, Ivan Frolov, and Julie Paskal participating in London Fashion Week this month. Frolov also famously dressed Beyoncé for her big Dubai performance last month.
The UK is about to host Eurovision on Ukraine’s behalf this May. The cheesy and extravagant song contest may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it still showcases the host country (in this case, Ukraine) in between the performances. With an audience of nearly 9 million last year in the UK alone, Eurovision is guaranteed to bring Ukrainian culture to many more households.
There isn’t a commercial field where Ukrainian talent shines brighter than the IT sector, though. Foreign companies knew this even before the full-scale war as the export of IT services brought Ukraine more than 4% of its GDP in 2021.
GSC Game World, a Ukrainian game development studio, has been releasing popular video games since 2004, including S.T.A.L.K.E.R. The company is now working on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. While Ukrainian studio Frogwares is releasing a highly anticipated game Sherlock Holmes The Awakened across PC, PlayStation and Xbox consoles, and Nintendo Switch.
The Lack of Academic Departments
Many people promoting Ukrainian identity and culture went largely unnoticed throughout the last centuries, as the world saw Ukrainians mostly through the prism of Russia, as opposed to being a separate identity. This wasn’t helped by the overarching presence of Russian centres worldwide.
Almost every well-known university across the world, the UK included, has got some sort of Russian department or Russian centre within it. Equally, there has been high interest in Russian literature, which often promotes the idea of Russianness. In some countries, like Germany, this obsession with everything Russian can be explained by Russia being equated to the Soviet Union, which translates into a feeling of guilt towards Russia and, therefore, a desire to understand and sympathise with it.
Centuries of Russian occupation sadly had their influence on Ukrainian culture and identity, despite Ukrainian history preceding Russian. Even to this day, older generations of Ukrainians who experienced communism are averse to the concept of spending money or wasting food.
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Ukrainians are often modest when they talk about themselves as if worried about taking up too much space, as the experience of being oppressed runs in our family history. But, at the same time, the 2014 Revolution of Dignity has awakened a sense of agency and community in people and is making the average Ukrainian more confident and outspoken. Russia’s full-scale invasion deepened this feeling of accountability in Ukrainians and furthered our awareness of who we are.
It’s high time the West takes more interest in Ukrainian culture, too. It is undoubtedly rich, starting with the founding of Kyiv in 482 and continuing with nearly four centuries of the development and expansion of Kyivan Rus that also contributed to the statehood of Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Belarus, and Russia.
Ukrainian centres, which could be rolled out across universities in the UK and Europe, could enlighten European students about Ukraine and Ukrainians. If the boom we have seen recently is anything to go by, the demand for this is there.
At a time when Russia is trying to steal Ukrainian culture by removing paintings and sculptures from the areas it occupies and denying Ukrainians their right to self-identify, education could be of utmost importance measured in the number of lives lost.