The "Interrupted Revival" of Donbas: Art as a Form of Protest and Protest as a Form of Art. An excerpt from Kateryna Zarembo's book

Kateryna Zarembo
The "Interrupted Revival" of Donbas: Art as a Form of Protest and Protest as a Form of Art. An excerpt from Kateryna Zarembo's book

For a long time, even before Ukraine's independence, the culture of the region was strongly neglected by the Soviet authorities, who said that in an economically powerful region, it was unimportant and even harmful. With the advent of the Soviets, the number of cinemas, theatres, libraries and clubs in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk gradually decreased. So after the restoration of Independence, there was not enough space to develop cultural life.  There were few cultural institutions, and those that did operate were Soviet-type. Therefore, those who sought new cultural meanings had only one option — to create their alternative.

Literary slams: "a permanent Sich where meanings are produced"

The founder of the Donetsk slam is a Ukrainian poet and novelist, Oleksii Chupa. The writer worked at a factory while developing the poetic environment of Donetsk. Remarkably, he wrote most of his books while still working as a machine operator at the Makiivka Iron and Steel Works. For Chupa, art became an internal act of protest and, simultaneously, the creation of a parallel Ukrainian and political identity. The literary slam in Lviv inspired Chupa. In the "poetry recited while being beaten with cops' billy clubs", Chupa recognised a recurring theme in Ukraine: art that the government tries to suppress as alien and hostile to it, "a constant Sich in which meanings are produced". He decided he had to be involved and organise the slam in Donetsk.

Chupa and his team invited poets from all over Ukraine because, first and foremost, they wanted to include Donetsk in the national literary context.  The team expected at most ten participants for the first event, but over fifty showed up. The Donetsk slams helped the participants find their audience — students of the Faculty of Philology, heat exchange engineers from the boiler house and waiters at local cafes who, like Chupa, wouldn’t tell about their passion. While in 2006, only a few people came from Donetsk to Huliaipole (a town in the Donetsk region) for the literary festival "Independence Day with Makhno", in 2008, two busloads of participants travelled from Donetsk. An environment was created.

Although the poems were mainly in Russian, as it was natural in Donetsk in the early 2000s, the environment considered itself Ukrainian. They didn't talk about it because they didn't question it. In addition, slams were used as a tool of protest. For example, in 2011, the Luhansk Human Rights Centre Postup initiated a slam tournament as a protest against the Law "On the Protection of Public Morality", which artists considered an attack on freedom of speech and the establishment of censorship. Donetsk slams lasted until 2014. With the Russian invasion, everything stopped: someone went to war, someone became a volunteer, someone left, and someone stayed in the occupied territories. According to Chupa, no one switched to a pro-Russian stance.

Luhansk STAN: creativity against the regime

STAN was an artistic community that rallied around the Luhansk writer Oleksandr Sihida, and in terms of Luhansk, it was definitely a challenge to the urban environment of the time. The peculiarity of STAN was that it attracted people of very different philosophical and ideological backgrounds. It brought together Ukrainian and Russian speakers, national democrats, communists, and radicals of all kinds. They included writers, musicians, artists, and activists from both Luhansk and other regions of Ukraine: poet Kostiantyn Skorkin, poetess Liubov Yakymchuk, Yaroslav Minkin, Kostiantyn Reutskyi, artist Viacheslav Bondarenko, and many others. Russian was the language of communication and expression for most of the members of Stan. Of course, there were exceptions. Some of the Stan participants were bilingual: for example, they spoke Russian daily but wrote poetry in Ukrainian or both languages. At the same time, being Russian-speaking did not befriend the Luhansk artists with their Russian colleagues; contacts with modern Russia were more ad hoc than systematic. Serhii Zhadan and Yurii Pokalchuk were the literary idols of Luhansk's creative youth. By the way, it was Pokalchuk who was the first famous Ukrainian-language writer to come to Luhansk to present his book), not their Russian colleagues.

One of STAN's key themes was revolution, terror, war, and anarchy. STAN members burned the membership cards of writers' unions, declared a civil war in the field of aesthetic content, and the governing body of STAN was the "Revolutionary Military Council". But all this was more provocative than violent. The organisation coordinated all actions with law enforcement agencies and local authorities in advance. STAN's activities were primarily peaceful and even served as an example of exemplary democratic coexistence between the community and local authorities in the region, belonging to the pro-Russian Party of Regions. The community's protests did not include precise demands or an agenda with recommendations for the authorities - the actions were somewhat anarchic against the authorities in general. One of the most provocative actions concerned the then-president, Viktor Yanukovych. The artist Viacheslav Bondarenko (Slava Bo) made a pseudo-icon of Yanukovych out of candy boxes. At the time, the local authorities did not react to this either, as they were simply too confident to feel threatened by a handful of freaks, which the Stan members were undoubtedly for Luhansk at the time.

Over time, the organisation moved from protests to more systematic activities: it became a partner of the Docudays festival, developed the Cultural Map of Luhansk, created an anthology against gender-based violence, From Victims to Liquidators, and more. After the Russian invasion in 2014, an ideological split occurred within STAN. The founder, Oleksandr Sihida, remained in the so-called "LPR" and became a member of the "Writers' Union" there. The poetess Olena Zaslavska also joined the "LPR", surprising her former friends. Kostiantyn Skorkin moved to Moscow and now writes for the Carnegie Moscow Centre. STAN still exists today. It is headed by Yaroslav Minkin, who moved to Ivano-Frankivsk in 2014. Now it is a youth NGO specialising in non-formal education in human rights, cultural management, democratic practices and other areas.

IZOLYATSIA. Reconsideration

Donetsk was the first city in Ukraine to transform an old industrial space into a creative hub. The IZOLYATSIA Foundation was set up in Donetsk in 2010 based on the factory producing mineral cotton wool, a raw material used to make insulation. The idea to turn the bankrupt enterprise into a centre for contemporary art belonged to Liubov Mykhailova and her daughter Viktoriia Ivanova, the daughter and, respectively, granddaughter of Ivan Mykhailov, the plant's director who had been running it for 50 years. The founders' goal was to revive the plant as a centre of social life in Donetsk - only through the cultural rather than industrial perspective. The IZOLYATSIA. Platform for cultural initiatives Foundation became the first institution in Donetsk to systematically work in contemporary culture and art, organising exhibitions, events and festivals. From the very first events, it became clear that people were interested in the foundation's activities: the lectures held at the Art Museum were attended by more people than there were seats.

The topics the foundation worked with were also rooted in the local context. For example, IZOLYATSIA invited the Chinese-American artist Cai Guo-Qiang to create portraits of miners, which he made using gunpowder. Another example is the Lipstick installation, designed in 2012 by the Cameroonian-Belgian artist Pascale Marthine Tayou, dedicated to the women of Donbas. Metallic red lipstick is suspended on the top of a factory pipe. IZOLYATSIA refused to take money from politicians and oligarchs as a matter of principle. It also positioned itself as an apolitical organisation. During the four years of its existence, the foundation grew into a powerful organisation whose activities often displeased local authorities. For example, in April 2013, the space hosted a seminar with the participation of the US ambassador, and the then NGO "Donetsk People's Republic" conducted an attack on IZOLYATSIA. 

In occupied Donetsk, on April 23-25, 2014, IZOLYATSIA hosted the Ukrainian Literary Festival, the first literary event of its kind in Donetsk. It brought together writers and poets from all over Ukraine. The event had been planned before the Russian invasion. Still, when the "Russian Spring" broke out in the region, the foundation's team decided to hold the festival as a cultural protest against the "voice of Donbas" that the occupiers tried to impose and pass off as genuine. The festival went off without a hitch, but it turned out to be the first and last time that the organisers managed to hold such an event in Donetsk. Liubov Mykhailova received threats, and for safety reasons, she decided to hold a strategic planning retreat with her team in Kyiv. On June 9, the day the team members gathered in the capital, they learned that the paramilitary had seized the foundation's premises.

The art space was turned into a prison and a torture chamber, as described by its former prisoner, writer and activist, Stanislav Aseiev, in his book The Bright Path. The Story of One Concentration Camp. The metaphor inherent in the title IZOLYATSIA has acquired another, this time eerie, meaning. The occupiers destroyed most artworks: The Lipstick was blown up with explosives, sculptures were shot at as targets, and whatever was worthy was dismantled for scrap.

Since 2014, the IZOLYATSIA Foundation has been working in Kyiv. The team continued the idea of transforming the industrial zone into a creative hub - in Kyiv. The foundation occupies the premises of a former factory, where the IZONE coworking space was created. IZOLYATSIA Foundation also established the Donbas Studies programme, which combines a library, research and a public programme for artists. "In 2020, IZOLYATSIA continued to work in small towns in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and opened a representative office in Soledar, the city where Cai Guo-Qiang's 1040 M Underground project began. Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion, IZOLYATSIA has devoted all its resources to supporting communities and individuals affected by the war and to supporting cultural and artistic resistance.

To learn more, read Kateryna Zarembo's book "The Rise of Ukraine's Sun" and listen to the third episode of "FAQ-U Donetsk and Luhansk: A Short History" podcast.