On 21 January 1990, more than 300,000 Ukrainians formed a human chain from Kyiv to Lviv to commemorate the 71st anniversary of the Zluky Act of 1919 — the law intended to mark the birth of an independent and unified Ukrainian state. Although the signers of the Zluky Act failed to realise their goal, with the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic being established soon after, the dream of an independent Ukraine lived on. Ukrainians’ pride in their rich culture and traditions has endured through even the most difficult times in the country’s history. Under Soviet rule, Ukraine was caught in a decades-long back-and-forth between periods of Ukrainisation — during which Ukrainian language and culture were promoted — and Russification, including the brutal repression of those who were seen as nationalist counter-revolutionaries. During the Great Terror, nearly an entire generation of Ukrainian writers — known today as “the Executed Renaissance” — perished. This trend continued well into the twilight years of the Soviet Union. Born in 1938, the poet Vasyl Stus would likely still be alive today if he had not died on a hunger strike in Perm-36, a penal colony, in 1985.
With the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the push for an independent Ukraine finally had its moment: the country officially declared its independence on 24 August. In the 30 years which followed, Ukrainians have faced economic uncertainty, corruption, inept politicians failing to deliver on much-needed reforms, and an ongoing war with Russia that has claimed thousands of lives. Throughout these three decades, Ukrainian artists have explored important and taboo topics in their work, ranging from sex and drugs to poverty and war.
Following the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, there was a renewed surge in national pride and the start of efforts to promote Ukrainian language in the public sphere in order to solidify Ukrainian identity in wartime. Writers, singers, and filmmakers have played a large role in this. Some, such as the rapper alyona alyona, made the conscious switch to Ukrainian-language content, whereas other, such as the writer Serhiy Zhadan, or Okean Elzy lead singer Svyataslov Vakarchuk, have been creating Ukrainian-language art from the onset of their careers. Today’s Ukrainian cultural landscape is a new frontier, brimming with uncertainty, but also filled with great promise.
by Oksana Zabuzhko
Often called “the most influential Ukrainian book since independence”, Zabuzhko’s 1996 novel Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex follows a talented young poet who has recently ended a relationship with a Ukrainian artist. As she tries to understand and come to terms with her love for a deeply abusive man, she begins to reflect upon her identity as a Ukrainian woman. The struggles of the newly independent Ukraine begin to intertwine with the narrator’s personal troubles, and Zabuzhko masterfully portrays how the darkest parts of a country’s history corrupt even the most intimate aspects of a person’s life. The narrator recalls, for example, how as a young woman growing up in the Soviet Union, she put an abrupt end to a conversation with a handsome classmate when he asked if she’d ever read the banned works of Ukrainian author and statesman Volodymyr Vynnychenko for fear of someone overhearing them. Many critics — especially male ones — took issue with the ideas put forth by Zabuzhko in this book. However, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex has stood the test of time and remains read and praised today by female and male readers alike.
by Yuri Andrukhovych
Andrukovych’s 1993 novel captures a Ukrainian perspective on the Soviet collapse. Otto von F., the main character, is a debauched Ukrainian poet studying at the Gorky Institute in Moscow. The city stifles his creative spirit, however, and he begins to prepare for the return to his beloved Ukraine. His departure from Moscow is a surreal, alcohol-fueled odyssey that includes some sinister KGB agents following him and trying to implicate him in crimes, as well as a mix of people from the far reaches of the former Soviet Union. Otto’s misadventures are a metaphor for Ukrainian independence that take a celebratory, fantastic turn at the end.
by Serhiy Zhadan
Herman, an aimless do-nothing living in Kharkiv, gets a phone call one day that his brother Yura has disappeared from their unnamed hometown in the Luhansk region of southeastern Ukraine: he must return to manage his brother’s gas station. Shady figures who want to take over the gas station keep showing up and it becomes clear that the situation is more complicated than Herman had expected. As time goes by and Yura’s return becomes more and more unlikely, Herman ends up resettling in his hometown, surrounded by ghosts of the past. The region of Luhansk, which borders Russia, now bears the brunt of much of the conflict in the Russo-Ukrainian war today. Zhadan’s 2011 novel, in many ways, is a foreshadowing of the violence that was to come. A film adaptation was released to critical acclaim in 2018.
Okean Elzy helped make the Ukrainian music scene what it is today. This legendary rock band was formed in Lviv in 1994 and has shown no signs of slowing down, even during frontman Svyatoslav Vakarchuk’s brief forays into politics. The band performed during the EuroMaidan protests and their single “Stand Up!” (“Vstavay!”) became one of its unofficial anthems. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war, they were one of the few Ukrainian musicians who made the decision to stop performing in Russia altogether. “Stand up, my dear, stand up!” cries Vakarchuk, compelling Ukrainians not only to demand more but show others how to take the first step. The message of the song is that active Ukrainian civil society has a choice to make: between East and West, that is, between its Soviet history and a more democratic, European future. Although the single was first released in 2001, the lyrics are prescient, hinting that the long and at times arduous history of relations between Ukraine and Russia would inevitably lead to a breaking point.
Alyona Alyona, a 30-year-old former kindergarten teacher turned rap superstar, drops songs filled packed with punch: each has such an insane life energy that you can’t help falling in love with the Ukrainian language as you listen. The rapper’s lyrics aren’t about riches and excess, but rather self worth, self belief, and loving life. “Pushka”, the single from her debut album of the same name, can be interpreted in many ways: it means a gun, but also someone who is “hot shit”. The singer’s immense popularity is arguably also a success for the women’s movement in Ukraine too. Unlike many local female music stars, alyona alyona does not market herself as a hypersexualised object of the male gaze. She is not ashamed of being a plus-sized woman (playing off the word “pushka” by pairing it with “pyshka”, Russian slang for “doughnut”). Sporting Adidas rather than six-inch heels, this larger-than-life rap phenomenon inspires women to live as their most authentic selves — and to do so with pride.
Serhiy Zhadan isn’t just a novelist: he is a rockstar in every sense of the word. Ska band Zhadan and the Dogs is one of his two musical projects (the other being Linia Mannerheima, where he performs his poetry to electronic/synth music). Many of Zhadan and the Dogs’ expletive-filled songs address the harsh realities of daily life in Ukraine, from alcoholism to corruption, but not without having a little fun. The title of their 2018 single “Kobzon” is a reference to the Russian crooner Iosif Kobzon, who died that same year. Kobzon’s songs belong to a wide-ranging genre known as Russian chanson, romantic tales often featuring prison life. These songs can still be heard in Ukraine sometimes — mostly in taxis — and they manifest the ethos of the greater “Russian world”, a term used to signify Russia’s cultural dominance over the region. When Zhadan cries “Four years without Kobzon, bitch!” in the chorus, accompanied by blaring trumpets and guitar riffs, it is a celebration of how cultural figures like Kobzon, even before his death, had started to become symbols of a bygone era in the country.
Directed by Akhtem Seitablayev, the feature film Cyborgs: Heroes Never Die is the first and undoubtedly the best of the many movies tackling the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. Through hyper-realistic shots, the picture recounts the story of the Ukrainian volunteer servicemen who defended the Donetsk International Airport against Russian-backed forces from May 2014 to January 2015. Ultimately they were defeated, but their refusal to give up over those 200+ days earned them the nickname “cyborgs” from the soldiers of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, who had expected an easy victory. The film is a lucid portrayal — in both Ukrainian and Russian languages — of those chaotic early days of the war, portraying soldiers from different generations and walks of life who chose to risk everything for Ukraine in its greatest time of need.
Vadim, a young sound recordist and aspiring musician, dreams of leaving Ukraine for a chance at a better life. A Canadian video game company tasks him with recording the mating sounds of a rare bird in the Transcarpathian mountains and offers a lucrative award: if he manages to do it, they’ll offer him a full-time job, and he’ll be able to emigrate. The only problem is that Vadim’s semi-estranged mother comes along for the ride, and she has strong opinions of her own about how her son should live his new emigre life. This heartwarming dramedy, directed by Antonio Lukich, touches on many youth issues in modern-day Ukraine, including one of the most painful problems: how the country’s young generations often struggle to envision a future for themselves in the country.
Before he was elected the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky played the role on television. The satirical comedy show Servant of the People (“Sluha narodu”), premiering in 2015, follows Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, a high school history teacher whose boisterous rant about corrupt politicians goes viral, inspiring a wave of write-in votes for him during the presidential election. There are some pretty outrageous moments in the show, like when a frustrated President Holoborodko imagines killing the entire parliament in a flood of bullets, or when he has a hallucinatory verbal confrontation that turns violent with Ivan the Terrible about how Ukraine is not part of Russia. The mostly Russian-language show was a huge success in Ukraine, and part of the reason why Zelensky won as many votes as he did: Ukrainians already saw him as the president. While the hit television show is far from being considered “high art”, it had an undeniable cultural impact on the whole country, not only its viewers.