Popular writer leads Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy in France
Ukraine’s bureaucracy even follows its officials abroad.
Irena Karpa, Ukrainian writer, singer, activist and the first secretary for cultural affairs at the Ukrainian Embassy in Paris, has seen the phenomenon first-hand. Having worked in her current role for two years, Karpa says significant progress has been made in Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy. But even in France, Ukrainian bureaucracy still slows the whole process down.
“It’s weird that when you talk to each individual person at Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, they understand the bureaucratic insanity, but when the process starts, everything slows down,” Karpa told the Kyiv Post. “There isn’t one particular damaging official, but somehow it doesn’t work. But we’re still moving forward.”
Karpa is probably the most uncon- ventional person to work as an embassy official for Ukraine.
A popular Ukrainian writer and avant-garde musician, she once warmed up the audience at a Marilyn Manson show in Kyiv wearing a dress made of salo, or raw pork fat — a Ukrainian delicacy.
Today the 36-year-old still occasionally performs, but also blogs about living in Paris with her two daughters, who are 6 and 7 years old.
It’s been two years since she left Kyiv to lead the cultural diplomacy efforts of Ukraine’s Embassy in France.
But until earlier this year, her hands were tied: There was no state funding for what she was trying to do. Now that it’s changed, and she’s starting to get things done.
A diplomatic breakthrough for
Ukraine came in March, when the government passed a resolution on creating a positive image of Ukraine abroad. It allowed state financing of Ukraine’s participation in foreign political and cultural events for the first time since 2012, when then-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, an ally of fugitive ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, cut the funding completely, citing an economic crisis.
For 2017, Ukraine allocated Hr 70 million ($2.6 million) to its embassies all over the world for cultural diplomacy. Karpa jokes that the Ukrainian Embassy in Paris is “the greediest one,” receiving $90,000 for two events.
One of them is “Un Weekend à l’Est,” an annual festival in Paris, scheduled for Nov. 15–20. This year, the event will focus on Kyiv, and feature music shows, lectures and exhibitions, with Ukrainian writers, photographers, directors and musicians participating.
Karpa said she would like to invite popular electronic folk band Onuka to perform, but that’s where the bureaucracy steps in: The allocated budget money can’t be spent on anything but basic organizational needs, like rent and translations.
“It’s a trap — there is money, but we can’t spend it,” Karpa said.
The thing is, Ukrainian legislation doesn’t have thorough instructions that would include all possible items of expenditure, so diplomats are limited in the way they can spend budget money when organizing events. However, a detailed ruling that would solve this problem is in the works now in the Ukrainian government.
“The embassy has requested money for several important events. But it had to back out of some of them. Because the procedure for using the funds — the part about transportation and accommodation of artists, journalists and experts — is still reviewed by Ukraine’s Justice Ministry,” Karpa said.
Another problem, according to Karpa, is that all spending should strictly correlate with the preapproved budget plan, so she can’t throw an impromptu event, or commit to participate in an upcoming festival next year, because it’s hard to say whether her department will get the money.
“Internationally, big events are vital, but to take part in those you need to be sure you’ll have the money, and that you won’t end up being considered a flake,” she said.
Karpa said that hopefully she will be able to attract philanthropists to support cultural events. She said that she has hosted countless Ukrainian artists in her Paris apartment.
According to Karpa, even though Parisians are hard to impress, they still attend Ukrainian events.
“When Lviv Opera performed in Paris, city’s Palais des Congrès was full, and it’s 3,000 seats,” she said.
Karpa combines her diplomatic job with writing books and leading the Ukrainian alternative band Qarpa.
She calls herself more of an artist than a manager, and says she feels most comfortable when she is on stage communicating with her audience. She also likes to sit on a cafe terrace and write fiction. However, as the mother of two kids, she doesn’t have much time for that.
Right now, Karpa is working on a book, a new single with her band and a screenplay.
Having been born in the central city of Cherkasy and raised in western Ukraine, Karpa says she has never felt “either embarrassed or super proud” of her origins.
“To be proud of the fact that you are a Ukrainian is like to be proud of the fact that you have kidneys,” Karpa said. “You should be proud of specific things.”
Karpa says she is proud of how Ukraine is changing, of the EuroMaidan Revolution that deposed Yanukovych, and of how Kyiv is developing, with its new co-working spaces, startups, and art.
“Culture is a living organism, it can’t be jammed in a box,” she said. “A person sees a high-quality product at first, and then finds out that Ukraine is behind it. Nobody says: ‘Ok, let’s invite Great Britain, because they have Radiohead.’ First, they get to know Radiohead, and then find out where they come from.”
Irena Karpa, Ukrainian writer, singer and activist, reads poetry by Ukrainian poet Artem Polezhaka during her show "Poetry and Jazz on the Roof" at the Roof Club in Kyiv on Aug. 2. (Yulya Weber)
Irena Karpa, lead singer of Ukrainian alternative band Qarpa, performs on the stage of Kyiv's Docker Pub on March 12. (Yulya Weber)