Ukraine is putting cultural diplomacy at the forefront. Here's why.
Ukraine's narrative has been fragmented by the political and social turmoil of their past. Volodymyr Sheiko, Director General at the Ukrainian Institute, explains how the country is using cultural diplomacy to project a more accurate portrayal of life in Ukraine - and how taking a slower approach is helping them to create impact in an ever-changing, fast-paced digital world.
To begin with, can you share what ‘cultural diplomacy’ means to you?
Cultural diplomacy is arguably one of the most complex terms in today’s political and international studies. It is also frequently misused, misunderstood or mistaken for other forms of international communication that involve state and non-state actors. Understanding of cultural diplomacy varies across countries depending on the political and historical context in which this practice emerged and developed as a public policy.
Cultural diplomacy is commonly regarded as an instrument of public diplomacy and an integral part of a country’s soft power - a set of intangible assets that allow countries to achieve influence by attraction rather than coercion. In practice, cultural diplomacy means ‘exchange of ideas, information, works of art and other components of culture between states and peoples in order to strengthen mutual understanding.’ Culture matters because it represents values of a society, its collective modality of life. Through culture, we share our values and experiences with others, thereby achieving trust and openness to cooperate. In this context, culture must be seen to include not just arts, but also science, education, material and intangible heritage, values, mentality, language and other assets.
Today’s Ukraine is a post-totalitarian and post-colonial country that has been struggling with political and economic turbulence but has achieved impressive developments in culture, creative industries, IT, public sector reforms, export industries, entrepreneurship and civil society. Ukraine has also demonstrated strong resilience throughout the ongoing Russian aggression and temporary occupation of its eastern regions and Crimea.
However, international perceptions of Ukraine shaped over the past decades are eclectic and fragmented. Ukraine is often seen as a ‘blind spot’ on the map of Europe. Frequent political crises, Russian aggression and negative news headlines, amplified by Russian propaganda and disinformation, have narrowed mainstream understanding of Ukraine to a set of clichés and prejudices (war, Russia, Chornobyl, beautiful nature, hospitable people etc), according to our studies carried out in 2020.
This makes Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy different from that of other countries. It is very much a factor of the country’s national and information security, and an effort to decolonise language, historical narratives, media policies, academic research, and cultural perceptions of Ukraine.
What is the Ukrainian Institute doing to shift international perceptions about Ukraine?
The Ukrainian Institute’s strategy aims to strengthen Ukraine’s cultural voice in the world, offer a genuine alternative to false or incomplete narratives about the country, promote contemporary art from Ukraine, and make Ukraine’s cultural assets better known in the world.
In our work, we do not focus on either ‘traditional’ or ‘high’ culture. We project voices of multiple identities that form the Ukrainian political nation. We try to present Ukraine as an open, contemporary country that can contribute to global cultural and political dialogue.
We support international touring of emerging musicians and distribution of films, promote works of classical and contemporary composers from Ukraine, organise exhibitions of Ukrainian contemporary visual art, translate new drama and support its production at theatres in other countries, cooperate with centres for Ukrainian studies at international universities, commission online courses, explainers and campaigns that make knowledge of Ukraine available to wider audiences globally.
Has your approach to cultural promotion changed since the pandemic? Is there a new urgency as we begin to emerge from lockdown?
The pandemic and the quarantine restrictions have indeed badly affected creative industries all over the world. Many cultural events were cancelled or postponed, and creative businesses closed. Last year we had to scrap 80% of our portfolio and rebuild it from scratch.
In 2020, most key cultural events in Ukraine and elsewhere (e.g. film, theatre and literary festivals) took place online. Music industry and theatres were among the most affected, with the independent sector balancing on the verge of extinction. Face-to-face audience numbers and income dropped, while digital outreach increased significantly. For example, some theatres created real-time online interactive performances, others commissioned work specifically for online viewership or released recordings of their past productions. The music industry also presented online solutions such as Intercity Live, vertical / rooftop concerts, or Ukrainian Institute’s own online showcase of Ukrainian bands at the Waves Vienna Festival in 2020. We also commissioned online learning courses about Ukraine, VR experiences telling stories of people from the occupied Crimea, and a fantastic book about culinary traditions of Ukraine that is now being translated into several global languages.
However, I feel that online or remote cultural promotion cannot replace personal interaction. Socialisation is as important at cultural events as the content itself. Our digital reach numbers may soar, but can they tell us anything about audience experience, perception change, willingness to reconnect with Ukrainian culture again? Putting all eggs into the basket of digital is a trap: eventually, we will re-emerge from lockdown, hungry to get our cultural experiences back. In fact, we see this urgency all across Europe: most cultural venues are already overbooked throughout 2022.
Rather than competing for attention in an oversaturated market, how can cities or nations think ‘slower’ in order to deliver longer-term positive impacts?
Indeed, many cultural and educational institutions invested heavily in digital products and services in the course of the pandemic. On the one hand, this has made cultural content - e.g. museum exhibitions, theatre productions or previously expensive learning programmes - much more accessible and available to literally everyone with Internet access. On the other hand, abundance of online content has led to audience fatigue: we engage less because our attention span isn’t getting any broader. Overproduction of content for the sake of it isn’t the most reasonable way to spend scarce resources either.
Therefore, I believe we all should ‘slow down’ and think of what we can do to make our work in culture more meaningful to deliver longer-term impacts. Cities or nations must take a step back and re-evaluate their cultural strategies, look at best and worst practice, understand changing habits of their audiences, launch systemic programmes that address underlying problems or needs rather than ‘scratch the surface’. In cultural diplomacy terms, we at the Ukrainian Institute have invested a lot into research that informs our medium-term programming for 2022-2024, consolidated our portfolio around longer-term projects, sought win-win partnerships that help us sustain the momentum.
Do you have any tips for engaging your citizens in your cultural diplomacy strategy?
I believe that every citizen can be a cultural ambassador of their country in the world. All of us represent our respective societies, willingly or unwillingly, as we travel abroad or communicate with people in other countries. Whenever I do so, I really want to get other people interested in Ukraine, reveal something unknown to them, debunk stereotypes, explore cultural connections that bring our countries closer together.
The so-called ‘citizen diplomacy’ can be a powerful tool if participants are equipped with knowledge of their cultures and strong intercultural skills. This works very well with cultural diplomacy projects that bring together people from similar communities that have a shared experience, e.g. people from conflict-affected regions of different countries or artists who explore cultural heritage shared across borders.
Are you working with your diaspora to tell Ukraine’s cultural story more effectively?
Ukrainian diaspora is among the most numerous in the world: between 11-15 million people, or roughly a third of Ukraine’s population. Whereas the diaspora is not our primary target audience, it is a huge community that advocates the Ukrainian cause in policy making, culture, business and trade, and has a massive potential to amplify its cultural diplomacy. We worked closely with the Ukrainian diaspora in the US, the UK, Austria, France and Turkey on many of our projects in those countries. Next year, I would be keen to strengthen our cooperation with other Ukrainian Institutes in London, New York and Stockholm founded by the Ukrainian diaspora years ago.
Finally, do you have a favourite initiative that you’ve run so far? Why was it your favourite?
I have many favourites but one stands out – the Ukraine Everywhere programme that supports digital projects that tell exciting stories about Ukrainian culture internationally and reveal the breadth of cultural connections Ukraine has had with the world for centuries. These include a digital curated archive of the phenomenal Kharkiv School of Photography; an interactive game exploring the legacy of women artists of the 1960s; an online journey through art history of Ukraine from 1920-2020, and a global interactive map of cities and places marked by work and legacy of Ukrainian artists throughout the 20th century.