University of Helsinki,
Ukrainian Association in Finland
It’s quite symbolic that by the time this issue is printed the annual festival of the Ukrainian Film Days in Helsinki will be over. ‘A short course on the modern history of Ukraine’ – this is how the line-up could be described. We started with the musical Hutsulka Ksenia – a playful film, set in the Carpathian Mountains in the 1930s, however, the end of the movie warns about the upcoming threat of the WWII. Another film – Mr. Jones – premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and is also set in the 1930s. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, it tells about the Great Famine in Ukraine, touches on the topic of media propaganda and fake news, and shows what can happen if politicians refuse to see small tyrants as a threat to European security. The third film in our line-up was The Wild Fields, based on the novel of well-known contemporary Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, which describes Donbas before Russian tanks entered the territory of sovereign Ukraine in 2014.
The idea of showing Ukrainian films in Helsinki was a reaction to the fact that Ukraine is quite unknown in Finland and still stays in the shadow of “big brother”. I remember, that in 2015 I was shocked to spot Oleg Sentsov’s film Gamer as an entry of the Russian Film Festival in Helsinki. At that time Oleg, a Ukrainian citizen, was already a political prisoner of the Kremlin.
I’ve chosen cinema as a popular and accessible medium of cultural diplomacy. We show Ukraine as it is; having problems, struggling and succeeding. Despite being involved in a hybrid war with Russia, the state can develop and produce new senses and new competitive cultural products.
Any topic can enter the international discourse if it receives the proper platform. The issue of the authoritarian and repressive Soviet Union and its legacy received worldwide attention when the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Svetlana Alexievich in 2015 “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” In her Nobel lecture she stated: “Twenty years ago, we bid farewell to the ‘Red Empire’ of the Soviets with curses and tears. We can now look at that past more calmly, as an historical experiment. This is important, because arguments about socialism have not died down. A new generation has grown up with a different picture of the world, but many young people are reading Marx and Lenin again. In Russian towns there are new museums dedicated to Stalin, and new monuments have been erected to him.” The events of at least last decade showed that that empire has not died. It has been reborn as the Russian Federation, that doesn’t want its former colonies to be free. In the modern world we have a euphemism for colonies – spheres of influence.
To understand the Ukrainian question, we must recognize the existence of modern imperialism and its destructive policies. “By the time the Iron Curtain was torn down, the former Western colonial empires had already entered an era where the exploitation of former colonies was being recognized and dealt with. The mother country of the former Soviet empire, Russia, never undertook a similar decolonization process because it was never forced to do so,” said acknowledged Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen in her key speech at the European Union Literature Prize Celebration in Brussels in October 2019.
When empire is well heard, the spheres of influence are practically muted. As far as I know, there was only one book by a Ukrainian author translated and published in Finland – a 1990s detective novel by Andrey Kurkov. No contemporary fiction serving as a mirror of society. No historical books that speak for the millions of prosecuted and killed. Is Ukraine too small or not important enough to be interesting? No. Probably, its issues have not reached the proper levels to be on the international agenda. Probably, something dominates over it (see Sentsov’s case at the Russian film festival). There are a bunch of probablys.
Therefore, it is extremely important to develop cultural diplomacy at the level of the civil society. Person to person contact is not less important than interstate relationships. Cultural diplomacy has been the task for the Ukrainian diaspora worldwide since the war broke off. Ironically, the Russian aggression gave some positive fruits – Ukrainians abroad, of different waves of emigration, realized the necessity to distance from the empire (in Ukrainian terms it is called ‘Russian world’). Those people have been organizing bigger festivals and smaller events, as well as showcasing borsch as the trademark of the Ukrainian cuisine.
Cultural diplomacy on the civil level is the case of the Ukrainian Cinema Days, a cultural project of the Ukrainian Association of Finland. We love Finland, we absorb its history, culture and traditions and we respect its laws and privileges. On the other hand, we want to share the values we carry as well as the painful experiences we have survived.
Expert article 2612