Cultural revival and social transformation in Ukraine

This report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at the role of culture and the arts in supporting post-Euromaidan resilience.

In the six years since its Euromaidan revolution, Ukraine has seen a renewal of cultural activity, from theatrical productions to urban regeneration projects to pop-up exhibitions, spurred by a dynamic, energetic grassroots creative community and sustained by funding from new cultural state institutions. The emergence of these institutions marks a shift from a post-Soviet system of cultural management to an approach that today bridges the gap between state and independent cultural actors, and that has solidified a new sense of civic national identity. Under pressure from civil society, the Ukrainian state has adopted a more consistent and comprehensive approach towards cultural policy, overcoming decades of official distrust towards cultural activists and the creative community. A broad consensus around key elements of reform has developed, which has included support for the principles of open access to state resources, evidence-based policies, the separation of policymaking from implementation, and the competitive selection of state cultural managers.

In response to Russia’s military interventions in 2014, Ukraine’s cultural and creative sectors promoted national unity and sought to counteract the divisive effects of Russian cultural influence in the country. Legislative reforms and policy initiatives included the establishment of state agencies such as the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, the Ukrainian Institute and the Ukrainian Book Institute, as well as the restructuring of pre-existing institutions such as the Ukrainian State Film Agency. These four bodies, in particular, became key providers of funds for the cultural sector. They promoted new management and governance principles, but also created the opportunity for public and media scrutiny, highlighting the extent to which existing financial and legal frameworks were outdated. Alongside structural changes, Ukraine’s civic identity has become more focused on shared values and pluralistic cultural spaces. Sustained EU funding and engagement via national cultural relations organizations have played a role in Ukraine’s gravitation towards European blueprints of cultural policy management. The promotion of inclusivity, openness, transparency, consensus-seeking and partnership-building has also helped efforts to restore trust between societal groups, rebuild communities and heal traumas from the war in Donbas. More broadly, the transition to a values-based identity is enabling liberal democratic principles to be built into the foundations of Ukraine’s new political settlement. A concurrent process of government decentralization, involving the devolution of power to the municipal level, has been intertwined with Ukraine’s cultural revival.

While this nationwide process has presented certain policy challenges, the authorities have demonstrated political will to reform and innovate, and an ability to work with a range of stakeholders. This has laid the foundations for further progress in forming community-led cultural development strategies. Supported by state funding and Western donors, and drawing on the expertise of external cultural relations organizations such as the British Council and Goethe-Institut, Ukraine’s cultural and creative industries are growing and innovating: they are now generating significant revenues, and contributing to the national economy through the expansion of sectors such as film-making and the emergence of new initiatives such as ‘creative hubs’ where business, education, culture and other fields intersect. As a result, popular perceptions of the importance of culture – previously considered a dispensable luxury – are gradually becoming more positive.

That said, attitudes towards culture are still often unreceptive, especially in poorer regions where cultural consumption remains low. Despite a complicated Soviet legacy, the revival of arts and cultural production in the aftermath of the Euromaidan revolution has allowed Ukraine to push back against Russian attempts to ‘weaponize’ history and identity. Ukraine has been able to mobilize local communities, support civic engagement and mature citizenship, and strengthen democracy. To build on this start, this paper’s recommendations for the government of Ukraine include further reform and restructuring of state cultural institutions, continued vigilance in avoiding political interference in ‘arms-length’ cultural agencies, and more engagement with NGOs that focus on cultural and creative industries. Recommendations for Western donors include doing more to support grassroots cultural actors outside Kyiv, directing funding to national heritage restoration, and providing more funding to combat ever-present Russian cultural influences.

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