Dear Readers of Peacebuilding and the Arts Now,
In 2014, as Ukraine was reeling from a Russian invasion that had begun earlier that year, Ukrainian American scholar and dancer Katja Kolcio wrote that, “If you spend time in Ukraine, you hear the saying: Mi volyu vispivaly, vitantsiuvaly, vimalyuvaly, vishivaly ta vivirshuvaly. Our freedom we've sung, danced, painted, embroidered and inscribed through poetry.” She tells a story of Ukrainian soldiers directly approaching their heavily-armed Russian counterparts back then. They marched ahead without guns; instead, they used their voices: They sang, in Ukrainian.
Kolcio continues: “Despite the absence of political sovereignty [for most of the country’s 1000+ year history], a distinctly Ukrainian sensibility was preserved in the graphic designs of folk arts, in the philosophical words of poets, and in the historical lyrics sung by kobzari, members of a guild for blind bards. In the United States and Canada, musicians have continued the kobzar tradition with the creation of folk ensembles like the Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus, the Women's Bandura Ensemble of North America (WBENA), the Experimental Bandura Ensemble and renowned solo recording artist and World Music luminary Julian Kytasty.
“For most of the 20th century, artists fueled the social consciousness and dignity of people de-individualized under the Soviet regime, despite the dire consequences they faced… Simply to sing songs in Ukrainian was a considerably political move. In one sweeping liquidation in 1932, Soviet authorities called on all Ukrainian kobzars to attend a conference in Kharkiv. They were taken outside the city and shot.
“In Ukraine, to be an artist or composer during the Soviet era was to risk imprisonment and death. Soviet death squads and assassins targeted poets, composers, and artists that the authorities found to be too fervently pro-Ukrainian and too influential in their cultivation of Ukrainian culture. Among those murdered during the Soviet era were the stained glass artist and sculptor Alla Horska, poet Vasyl Stus, popular songwriter Volodymyr Ivasiuk, and Mykola Leontovych, composer of many iconic choral works including the haunting and universally known ‘Carol of the Bells’ (‘Shchedryk’ in Ukrainian).”
Today, this unique heritage and identity, as well as the social and cultural bonds they nurture, are in grave danger. The destruction of the built and natural environments, the slaughter of civilians, and the rupturing of communities and possibilities for the future are all happening as the world watches in horror.
We at the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, sick with disgust and fear at the actions of the Russian government, are honored and fortunate to have connected with Dr. Katja Kolcio of Wesleyan University in the U.S. where she is associate professor of Dance, core faculty member of the College of the Environment, Environmental Studies and Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies Programs, and director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. She has graciously and generously shared insights and resources with us, and put us in contact with friends and colleagues both in North America and in Ukraine who have in turn given us a window into their present circumstances, and an invitation to make a commitment to allyship and action.
We begin this special issue of Peacebuilding and the Arts Now with links to four articles by Dr. Kolcio, who writes so compellingly about the cultural and historical contexts of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasions in 2014 and 2022, and about her somatic (body/movement-focused) work on the ground in Ukraine with survivors of violence and loss. We then offer you the words of curator, writer, and lindy hop dancer Larissa Babij, with whom we spoke on March 4 of this year. A resident of Kyiv, she had fled to Lviv, and met with us from a room in that city’s public library, which was also being used as a shelter for refugees from other towns. And, finally, we present a list of links to articles and websites with information and stories about
· Ukrainian artists and arts;
· other artists’ responses to this crisis;
· performances, presentations, and events; and
· education and action.
The situation in Ukraine is deteriorating rapidly. We’ve had to pause our gathering of information in order to get this newsletter out to you. We will include a follow-up in our next regular issue of Peacebuilding and the Arts Now, set to reach the world in late April/early May, with a special focus on gendered experiences of this violent conflict.
Please be in touch.
Armine Avetisyan, Toni Shapiro-Phim, Cynthia Cohen
the Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts, Brandeis University, USA, with thanks to Ellen Gerdes and Leigh Swigart