Ukraine, An Old Country Searching For A New Soul

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has emerged as the “it” country in the global spotlight. With 56 international delegations at the inauguration of Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko and a noticeable spike in cultural and intellectual life prompted by the revolution in Kiev, Ukraine stands out as an old country with a new soul—just what the West needs.

Kiev's golden domes

Across the street from the ancient Monastery of Lavra in Kiev – a nearly 1000 year-old center of Orthodox Christianity – an avant-garde jazz concert took place one quiet evening in late May.

The performance closed a month-long art and culture marathon, the ArtForum festival.

The new artistic venture – integrating music, theater, art and brainy discussion — is the result of the Maidan revolution and the need for artistic and intellectual freedom, not only in Ukraine but outside the country, on both sides, East and West.

“Right now, I think Kiev can become that breath of fresh air, the escape,” said Yevgeny Utkin, a Ukrainian businessman who, together with his wife Irina Budyanskaya, organized the ArtForum and hosted it at their Master Class cultural and educational center near the monastery.

Utkin says that his Master Class was created as an “island of freedom and creativity” for artists and thinkers before Maidan.

But now, with Russia oppressing creative freedoms next door, having a democratic platform has gained new importance.

On the closing night, an experimental jazz vocalist, Nazgulya Shukaeva, sang a tribute to Ukrainian protesters who gave their lives during the winter’s violent clashes.

The Open University of Maidan held a lecture in one of the education rooms.

The basement displayed Maidan-themed installations and photos.

Utkin, Russian by origin, is a famous IT-entrepreneur in Ukraine who reportedly invested up to $100 million in venture capital in 2012.

Back in the Soviet days, he worked at the Science and Research institute outside of Moscow.

Later, after profiting on microelectronics, he shifted his focus towards investing and remained at the top of the list of Ukraine’s richest, as compiled by Forbes local edition.

The businessman and his family –– including both his sons – participated in the protests in Maidan throughout the entire winter.

Together with other Ukrainians they lived through all the phases of the uprising, from the peaceful gatherings in December to Molotov cocktails and deadly clashes in the square in February.

Today, the cultural activities in the Master Class center resonate with Kiev’s current mood: recovering from traumatic events and looking to the future.

In addition to flourishing as a European capital, Kiev is trending as world cultural hub that not only serves as an example of fledgling freedom among post-Soviet countries but also brings much needed freshness and sincerity to an old Europe. 

Culture is only a fraction of what makes Ukraine an emerging European magnet.

Just a few weeks ago a group of international thinkers, writers and academics from Europe – prodded by Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic and Timothy Snyder of Yale University – gathered in Kiev for an intellectual discussion they called “Ukraine: Thinking Together.”

Amidst talk of Russian propaganda and imperialism, cultural identities and geopolitics, there was a notion that Ukraine has turned into a nice alternative to Western weaknesses.

Some at the conference opined that Westerners take for granted the core principles of democracy (the rule of law, equality and fairness).

European and American politicians continue to make largely hypocritical statements stating that Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and European security deserves punishment, while enjoying money from corrupt post-Soviet sources.

All the while flirting with organizations from the extreme right.

Ukrainians that fought for the right to live in a democratic country bring a genuine level of passion to the European bureaucracy.

“Despite living under stress for the past half-year, some precious things are happening,” said Budyanskaya, co-founder of Master Class.

“People come together, they want to do something, influence something.”

Utkin’s cultural center cooperates with embassies and cultural centers from other countries.

“We are impressed by their desire to collaborate with us,” Budyanskaya said, stating that they would like to promote Ukrainian artists and musicians.

While Kiev is hopeful and energized, not everything is so rosy in other sectors of the country.

With the war in the East and an old oligarchic system still alive, Ukraine president Poroshenko, inaugurated on June 7th under the anticipative eye of Ukrainians and the international community, has to act quickly and decisively to get the country out of its political and economic hole.

“What’s happening today is saying goodbye to the Soviet Union,” Utkin said, comparing the chaos in the Donetsk region to the painful process of cutting the umbilical cord long after birth.

There is no way back.

Despite the pitfalls, the country has a chance to succeed because what took place in Kiev this past winter is irreversible.

“Today we have a society here — those millions of people who were in Maidan — that represent the healthy part of our humanity.”

Source: Forbes