MYKOLAIV/ ODESSA, Ukraine — In a courtyard beside Odessa’s philharmonic theatre, people sipped cups of tea and perused stalls showcasing locally made trinkets, abstract art and books, including the prominently displayed work of Ukrainian realist-turned-impressionist author Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky. Nearby, the local experimental band Potreba Group ran through their set, a mix of ambient soundscapes, moody trip-hop and frenetic electro. As the group’s performance — part of an event called ‘Cultural Restoration’ held at the end of August — began to culminate in a dissonant, big-beat freak-out, an automated government alert made smartphones ping. Air-raid sirens blared across the city. The performance shuddered to a halt. The crowd filtered quietly out onto the street — past posters and homemade clothing, beneath the origami figurines hanging at the entrance, twisting gently as the late summer breeze winnowed its way through them.
In Ukraine, death can come from above at any moment. ‘We were just trying to have fun, play some music and make people happy,’ said the group’s drummer, Yaroslav Prokhorov. ‘Why are these fucking Russians doing this to us?’
Life in Ukraine has been turned upside down the past seven months. Yet everyday people have done their best to adapt, in the most unnatural of environments. In the vibrant south-western city of Odessa — where naval mines litter the Black Sea, a curfew cuts nightlife down to its bare bones, and the blare of sirens is a constant reminder of the violence being wrought around 150km away in Mykolaiv — the arts scene persisted, with events continuing this past summer.
In a nation which Russian president Vladimir Putin claims is indistinguishable from his Federation, creative expression is as much a refusal to allow the Kremlin’s war to determine the pulse of daily life as it is a statement of Ukrainian independence. Rock ‘n’ roll, metal and psychobilly bands perform early evening sets at a local dive bar. Small poetry recitals and lectures are held in parks. And local artists still display their work in galleries and museums, albeit to a dramatically scaled-back number of attendees. Most of the proceeds go to helping those in need. One group of artists transport water to the battered, frontline city of Mykolaiv each week, where there is a desperate shortage of drinking water. Russia routinely assails that city with surface-to-air and cruise missiles.
‘On February 24, we packed everything up and moved our collection to a secret and safe location.’ said Katherina Mikheitseva, the 33-year-old deputy director of the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. ‘Now we can only hold very small events: little concerts, lectures and exhibitions.’ That museum, referred to as WEart, is housed in a cream and pastel blue building in the baroque style — its foundations laid in 1858 — in the heart of Odessa. Assorted events are held in its subterranean annex’s four chambers, which can provide some protection from Moscow’s rocket attacks.
A mannequin made of twisted metal and coloured glass clutches a Kalashnikov, its head represented by the skull and crossbones sign that dots the beaches here and reads, ‘Danger! Mines!’ A veil suspended behind the mannequin gives a disturbing impression of streaming blood. ‘This exhibition was created in memory of the people who participated in the creation of Ukrainian history,’ said Mikheitseva, on the exhibition’s opening day on 19 August, ‘and the personalities who are creating history right now.’ In one of the chambers, handmade dolls depicted famous Ukrainians: Ilya Mechnikov, who pioneered research into immunology and was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1908; the French-Ukrainian travel writer, Sofia Yablonska-Oudin; and Daniel of Galicia, the thirteenth-century Ruthenian King.
‘The first hall is all about war, the second our hope for victory and for our national identity,’ said Olena Filippova, 44, who, along with her husband, Serhii, crafted a number of striking mannequins and puppets. ‘In Ukraine plenty of artists have decided that Ukraine is a woman, a mother, so this exhibition reflects that.’ One of the Filippovas’ creations depicts Death — Putin’s suit and tie can be seen in his robe’s folds — holding a scythe horizontally, blood dripping from his hands, chains dangling to suspended marionettes. All are prominent supporters of Putin’s war: Patriarch Kirill of Moscow; the propagandist and television presenter, Vladimir Solovyov; Grigory Leps, a Russian-Georgian musician who celebrated the annexation of Crimea at a March rally in Moscow; and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
‘Even in Odessa, I knew a lot of people who were sympathetic to Russia,’ said Serhii. ‘But now they say, “No, this is a disaster.” Instead of dividing us, the war is having the complete opposite effect.’
A Galician ascent?
Russia’s war is hardening identarian mores regionally — both entrenching and generating the Russophobia that Putin cites as the reason for his ‘special military operation’. In the Baltics, nationalism is exposing differences between a diplomatic ‘old Europe’ and the hyper-nationalistic currents of newer, more aggressive, EU members, such as Lithuania and Latvia. In Ukraine, a distinctly Galician nationalist current appears ascendent. It has its roots in a totalitarian form of nationalism that crystallised in eastern Galicia during the chaos of the interwar period. Its idol is Stepan Bandera, who headed the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), responsible for a most brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing — using agricultural tools, like scythes — against Poles, Jews and Russians, and moulded in the Italian fascist trend of the time.
This current has had a powerful influence on Ukrainian society, particularly in the post-Soviet era. Following the second world war, the United States provided safe haven to the radicals, notably Mykola Lebed — a former OUN leader whom the CIA shielded from prosecution for war crimes (1). Numerous scholars note that ultranationalist elements in the diaspora established publishing houses and research centres, where they codified a revisionist Ukrainian identity and history — recasting themselves as freedom fighters, as opposed to Nazi collaborators.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the historian Per Anders Rudling noted that the diaspora reintroduced their ideology in a nation searching for identity. It was warmly received in Kyiv and Lviv. ‘[Viktor] Yushchenko’s presidency [2005-2010] represented the pinnacle of diaspora influence on history writing in Ukraine,’ wrote Rudling (2). ‘It elevated the diaspora’s historical myths to state policy and provided state funding to institutions tasked with the development of legitimizing narratives which the cult of the OUN leaders required.’
The post-Maidan period saw this mode of identity further strengthened, with a sweeping ‘decommunisation’ campaign and the elevation of the Ukrainian language in a manner that risked discriminating against ethnic minorities. Putin’s campaign is a gift to the very forces he claims to oppose, and may imperil Russian-speaking, and other, minorities.
‘This monoethnic, monolinguistic national idea has gained a lot of traction in public discussions,’ said Anastasia Piliavsky, a social anthropologist at King’s College London, and an Odessa native. ‘Because it is now so easy to say everything Russian is evil.’ Odessa and the surrounding Oblast is home to a complex ethnolinguistic mix: Bulgarians, Gagauz, Greeks, Jews, Moldovans, Russians and Old Believers, Tatars and Ukrainians. With fascist ethnonationalist groups such as the Azov Battalion now revered by swathes of the Ukrainian public for their willingness to fight Russia, the question is whether spiking civic nationalism will fuse with the intolerant identitarianism of Bandera’s ideological followers.
In May 2014, following the Maidan protests, clashes culminated with 48 pro-Russian demonstrators killed after being surrounded by far-right and ‘pro-unity’ demonstrators in Odessa’s stately Trade Unions building — which was set ablaze. These remain a potent reminder of the dangers spiralling ethnonationalism in an environment of political polarisation presents, and the impunity that this can engender.
‘In the end, I believe and hope that this hot moment will pass,’ said Piliavsky. ‘Ukraine is a very diverse country with lots of different senses of self. That heterogeneity will win out.’ For Serhii, sat in WEart’s central chamber: ‘We are united. Before the war, we had some political disagreements. Now, we all want victory. After our victory, we can start arguing about politics again.’
‘As artists, this is our front line’
At the outdoor arts and culture hub, Green Theatre, tucked away in Odessa’s pleasant Shevchenko Park, its 4,000-seat amphitheatre, built in 1936, has fallen silent. The theatre been unable to open this year. Sandwich bars, pizza stalls and rudimentary coffee shops sit unused. Sculptures — a fountain composed of plastic chairs — gather dust. A billboard, where posters would previously advertise upcoming events, stands depressingly empty.
‘We don’t have bomb shelters in the area with the capacity for the amount of people who can visit our space,’ said Viktoriia Hrubnyk, who is twenty-nine, and the theatre’s technical manager. ‘So, we can’t safely hold events.’ She recalls events from previous years, a children’s day where kids plugged midi controllers into vegetables and made music, clay making courses, a concert by the band BoomBox and the people who would come to plant tomatoes and assorted herbs in the venue’s collective gardening space. ‘When the pandemic began, we didn’t think it could get any worse,’ she said. ‘Then the war started.’
Regardless, Green Theatre’s staff and volunteers continue to stage events at other venues: movie screenings and poetry recitals, lectures and art displays. The ‘Cultural Restoration’ event at Odessa Philharmonic Theatre, interrupted by air-raid alarms — and which some of the proceeds went towards buying water for Mykolaiv — was just one of its projects. ‘It is important that life continues despite everything,’ said Hrubnyk. ‘People should fight for their right to live normally. As artists, this is our frontline.’
She looks at a string of fiesta lights, that she hung up when the theatre opened in in 2016. ‘When I first turned these lights on,’ she said, ‘it was the happiest day of my life.’
A parched city
In late September, a few weeks after the event at the philharmonic theatre, our van sped through the Pontic-Caspian steppe east of Odessa, past fields of sunflowers wilting as autumn sets in, across the bridge — badly damaged by Russian attack helicopters — that separates the Odessa and Mykolaiv Oblasts. Potreba Group’s drummer, Prokhorov, was driving. Most Fridays, he packs his van, used to transport the group’s gear, full of supplies. There are parcels of food and sanitary packs. Bags were stuffed with soft toys and warm clothes, in anticipation of the brutal winter that lies ahead. In July, Kyiv ordered the mandatory evacuation of Donetsk, where it will be unable to provide electricity over the frosty months. ‘People in Odessa realised that we don’t actually need all these clothes,’ said Prokhorov. ‘It is better they go to people who actually need them. In Mykolaiv a lot of people are suffering.’
Prokhorov’s van was part of a large convoy of volunteers who collected donations, from benefactors both big and small, to buy some 150,000 litres of water, which they delivered from container trucks at four different locations in battered Mykolaiv over the course of the day. Since mid-April, the city has not had access to its main source of freshwater, pumped from the Dnipro River in the Russian-occupied Kherson region some 70km away. ‘We once played a gig over there in a very nice park,’ said Prokhorov as the convoy rolled across the Varvarivskyi bridge that leads into Mykolaiv city. ‘Look there! That mosaic tells us that Mykolaiv’s ships go all around the world.
Close to one thousand people had gathered: the elderly and infirm, the poor and downtrodden. Mothers pushed prams and tried to quieten anxious children. People clutched boxes and bags, rudimentary trollies. The volunteers — many wearing ballistic vests — form human chains and begin handing out three litre bottles of precious water.
‘The water supply that we have here in Mykolaiv is not very clean or safe to drink,’ said Tanya, forty-one, who, along with her husband, parents and two daughters, had filled a trolley with eight bottles of water. ‘I think we can make this last for three days.’ She talked about her concerns for the coming winter, whether they could source enough firewood to keep her young family warm. And she talked about the Russian assault. ‘When we go to bed, we don’t know if we will wake up or not,’ she said. ‘He [Putin] wants to destroy us.’
Mykolaiv, which stalled Moscow’s Black Sea sweep, has been brutalised by the war. Most of its population has fled. Schools, universities and hospitals have been targeted by missile strikes; hundreds of apartments and homes damaged. A March strike ripped a hole through the nine-storey Governor’s office, killing two dozen people.
As the convoy moved around the city, the scars of war were apparent: the Hotel Mykolaiv, where a corner of its top floor was caved in; a crater at a busy intersection — nearby buildings and stores pockmarked from lethal, flying shrapnel and debris. The volunteers set up near the crater. Hundreds queued. Upbeat music pumped from speakers.
An elderly woman pushing her grandson, who had cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair placed one bottle of water in his lap and left. Another woman, children in tow, arrived late, after food parcels had run out. She began crying. A volunteer rummaged around in Prokhorov’s van and found one final food parcel. One pensioner and former soldier, Vladimir, said that the war was not about the Ukrainian people, but a broader scramble for the nation’s land and resources. ‘We have the ideal climate here, and fertile black soil,’ he said. ‘My sons are fighting, so Ukraine has already won.’
At the final collection point, near the city’s stadium, the last few hundred bottles are being handed out to a dwindling queue. ‘This is like what we had during Soviet times,’ said Prokhorov. One little old lady stood with a hunched back, wrinkles etched into her face and hands, her grey hair swept back into a bun. She slowly placed her bottles — 18 litres worth — into plastic grocery bags and collected herself, then hobbled off, the reddening sun now low in the West.
It is at night when the rockets really start to fly.