Today Ukraine marks eight months of a war, which has seen the Ukrainian people fight for their freedom and identity. Ukraine is facing a battle to defend itself from an existential threat that seems set on desecrating its culture.
The battle on the cultural front was at the centre of this year’s Sheffield DocFest, as documentaries from Ukraine laid bare the horrors of the war. In one scene in eastern Ukraine, a boy sits reading a book in what was once his home, looking for some semblance of normality in a place reduced to hell on earth: rubble and ruin. Around him, his world is broken but he is alive, trying to find meaning.
His story is one of many that are being told to the public for the first time through the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute. These are stories of loss and trauma as well as of resilience, love, hope and courage. They depict a cultural fabric set on fire by the war.
We began preparations for the UK/Ukraine Season in 2019, originally to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between the UK and Ukraine. At that time, none of us envisaged that we would be supporting Ukrainians in fighting for their freedom of expression and the very survival of their cultural independence and identity.
Against this backdrop, the season has gained new significance as a means to respond to the changing needs and priorities of Ukraine’s cultural sector. It is not only a platform to bring together British and Ukrainian artists, cultural organisations and people through a variety of arts and cultural activities to build connections between the two countries, but also a timely opportunity for Ukrainian creatives to tell their own story and assert their own identity on the international stage.
Since the war, the Ukrainian cultural identity has taken on new meaning, both as a symbol of resistance and a source of inspiration for the future of Ukraine. Ukraine’s cultural sector will be integral to how the country rebuilds after the war by, for instance, enabling people to process trauma, share a common identity and articulate shared experiences—experiences that show the world how united and resolute Ukrainians can be.
As the war rages on, we can build a strong foundation for the survival of Ukrainian culture. We can provide resources and experts to help preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage, non-profits can use technology to save or digitise historical records, and creative organisations can promote Ukrainian artists who will share stories of their heritage and culture during and after the war.
As an organisation founded in 1934 as a bulwark against Fascism, the British Council’s role to build trust through cultural relations has never been more critical. We will continue to connect people across borders through arts and culture in both calm and turbulent times. Working with the entire UK cultural sector, we stand ready to support and protect Ukraine’s cultural sector.
The threat to the Ukrainian identity is a threat to everyone who believes in a free, just and democratic world. This is not just about a little boy, sitting thousands of miles away, trying to move forward among the ruins of his home. It is about the shape of our collective future.
• Scott McDonald is the chief executive of the British Council
• The UK/Ukraine Season of Culture runs until March 2023