The ge­netic code of ac­tivism:

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS -

A grass­roots move­ment to change Don­bas through em­broi­dery

Cul­ture is a weapon. Es­pe­cially dur­ing a war that it is now cus­tom­ary to call "hy­brid", when Ukraine has to fight not only for ev­ery me­ter of its land, but also for the hearts and minds of lo­cal peo­ple. In front-line cities, there are peo­ple who are also try­ing to fight – in rather un­con­ven­tional ways.

Svit­lana Kravchenko is a folk artist from Bakhmut who has been arm­ing her­self and peo­ple in dif­fer­ent parts of Ukraine for four years in a row and shows no signs of stop­ping: "In May this year, we were in Radomyshl (Zhy­to­myr Oblast, Cen­tral Ukraine – Ed.), where the Aris­to­cratic Ukraine fes­ti­val was held in the old cas­tle for the sec­ond time. There, among Ukrainian brands fa­mous around the world, we pre­sented our folk cos­tumes. The wives of dead sol­diers were mod­els for the show and I com­mented on ev­ery cos­tume that had been re­pro­duced by mod­ern craftswomen. At the end, ev­ery­one gave a stand­ing ova­tion. Then they came up to me and asked when I moved to Donetsk Oblast. The thing is that I was born there. I do not un­der­stand how it can be called into ques­tion whether it is Ukrainian land, when there were, are and will be Ukrainian tra­di­tions there. It can­not be given away to the en­emy, no mat­ter what slo­gans or ma­nip­u­la­tions are used to jus­tify this."

Like many vol­un­teers in front-line cities, she is in her fourth year of try­ing to keep hold of Ukraine in her re­gion. She started when strange, armed men were still wan­der­ing around the city.

In my book Some­where Near the War, where I col­lected small sto­ries from front­line cities and towns, there is a chap­ter about Svit­lana. She is the grand­daugh­ter of Natalia Kravchenko, a holder of the Righteous Among the Na­tions hon­orific. The Is­raeli Am­bas­sador pre­sented a sym­bolic medal with her name to the rel­a­tives of Natalia Kravchenko, who saved two Jewish boys dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion of Artemivsk (the Soviet name for Bakhmut – Ed.) by the Nazis. “One who saves one life saves an en­tire world” is in­scribed on the award. In ad­di­tion, some­where in the mid­dle of the Is­raeli desert, there is a tree on the Av­enue of the Righteous bear­ing the sign "Natalia Kravchenko, Artemivsk, Ukraine".

Like her grand­mother, Svit­lana rushed to help when it was vi­tally im­por­tant. In 2014, al­most ev­ery night there were armed at­tacks on the Ukrainian Army base in the cen­tre of the city, where the sol­diers were prac­ti­cally un­der siege. The vol­un­teers came up with se­cret tac­tics to help: they threw new socks and un­der­wear over the fence, passed on food and at night brought sand­bags to help the de­fend­ers: they un­der­stood that the mil­i­tary should feel sup­port. At the worst mo­ments when it seemed that the base would sim­ply be de­stroyed, they even of­fered to take the troops out of the base, dress them in civil­ian clothes and hide them in their homes. In the very same house where her grand­mother once hid the Jewish boys. The sol­diers did not agree. But then there was such a de­sire to pro­tect th­ese young men for their fur­ther strug­gle, for vic­tory and for life.

In 2014, Svit­lana Kravchenko and like­minded peo­ple from the Oberih work­shop be­gan putting to­gether, or rather restor­ing, a unique col­lec­tion af­ter see­ing an au­then­tic old shirt in Paraskoviyivka, a vil­lage in Donetsk Oblast, hand-em­broi­dered in "white on white" style ac­cord­ing to all the rules of the craft with linen threads moist­ened in flaxseed oil. It was made in the vil­lage by an av­er­age res­i­dent of Donetsk Oblast. Svit­lana per­suaded the owner to sell the shirt.

The craftswomen from her group had quite a bit of work to do in or­der to re­turn the shirt’s orig­i­nal look. That is how the idea came about not only to col­lect such things, but also to re­pro­duce var­i­ous el­e­ments of Ukrainian cloth­ing from all re­gions from old pho­to­graphs and de­scrip­tions. Re­cently, the women made two Hut­sul cos­tumes, in­spired by their reg­u­lar meet­ings and shows. The amaz­ing ex­hibits in­clude three han­dem­broi­dered pieces from the 1930s and 40s that were se­cretly smug­gled out of Makiyivka, a town in Donetsk Oblast that is now oc­cu­pied. The woman who owned the pieces learned that a col­lec­tion was be­ing put to­gether in Bakhmut, so she do­nated her fam­ily heir­looms.

Oberih is work­ing on a sep­a­rate col­lec­tion of hats. Svit­lana’s per­sonal ex­hi­bi­tion is al­ready be­ing shown at the Mu­seum of Cha­siv Yar, an­other town in Donetsk Oblast. Svit­lana also at­tended an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence de­voted to the sym­bol­ism and phi­los­o­phy of folk head­wear around the world, where she im­pressed her in­ter­na­tional coun­ter­parts with the va­ri­ety of sam­ples she had seen in Donetsk Oblast.

By now, the craftswomen have gath­ered more than a thou­sand dif­fer­ent ev­ery­day items and or­na­ments from an­tiq­uity to the present. Al­most all made by skilled crafts­peo­ple from Donetsk Oblast, among them men and chil­dren. Each year, the work of the Bakhmut craftswomen is in­cluded in the book The Best Work of the Year in Ukraine, which is put to­gether by the Craft Union. The Oberih col­lec­tion now has 29 cos­tumes.

Dur­ing the pre­miere on Em­broi­dery Day in 2016, vol­un­teers of dif­fer­ent ages, stu­dents and teach­ers who left the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries along with the Hor­livka In­sti­tute of For­eign Lan­guages, and sol­diers sta­tioned near Bakhmut walked along an im­pro­vised cat­walk on the Bakhmut Al­ley of Roses in au­then­tic cos­tumes, each ac­com­pa­nied by

his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. The por­traits taken there laid the foun­da­tions for a new ini­tia­tive – the photo ex­hi­bi­tion Ge­netic Code of Bakhmut, which to date has trav­elled around al­most the whole of Ukraine and was even dis­played in the Verkhovna Rada. It has been com­mis­sioned by mu­se­ums, schools, pub­lic as­so­ci­a­tions and uni­ver­si­ties all over the coun­try – from west to east. It might now have too much artis­tic value as a photo ex­hi­bi­tion, but it con­tains some­thing much more im­por­tant, says Svit­lana:

"It would seem that it's just a photo ex­hi­bi­tion: boys and girls, women and men in beau­ti­ful Ukrainian clothes. But when I talk about it, I tell the story of the Ukrainian Don­bas. Here is a fam­ily of vol­un­teers: the youngest of them was 10 at the be­gin­ning of the war, the old­est over 60. Dur­ing the with­drawal of troops from near De­balt­seve, they gave shel­ter to al­most 20 sol­diers. This photo shows one of the taxi ser­vice man­agers who had all or­ders can­celled on the same day so that the cars could take ser­vice­men who were leav­ing the en­cir­clement on foot into the city. This woman con­stantly di­rected ef­forts to help wounded sol­diers. Here are the doc­tors from the Pirogov First Mil­i­tary Hos­pi­tal of the Na­tional Guard. One of them not only helped to save the wounded in Bakhmut, but also wrote an in­sight­ful book about the war and us all. This is im­por­tant for ev­ery­one: over the past few years, al­most 300 peo­ple have worn th­ese cos­tumes. Some ini­tially re­fused, but then all of them said "I felt nat­u­ral in it!" This is also im­por­tant for those who do not live in Donetsk or Luhansk oblasts, be­cause I want us to be seen the way we are. Or maybe the way we want to be! Not only as a grey mass of sep­a­ratists who can be blamed for all our trou­bles".

The in­ter­est­ing ex­hi­bi­tion was pos­si­ble thanks to the help of an­other ac­tive Bakhmut res­i­dent, Vik­tor Zipir. As the owner of a photo stu­dio, he con­stantly helps vol­un­teers to bring their in­ter­est­ing ini­tia­tives to life: cre­at­ing a photo chron­i­cle of the oc­cu­pa­tion of Bakhmut and a large ban­ner with pho­to­graphs of the Heav­enly Hun­dred He­roes, as well as sup­port­ing flash­mobs and other cre­ative ac­tiv­i­ties. He of­fered a photo ses­sion to par­tic­i­pants in the show, and, with the help of other donors, printed large pho­to­graphs and helped to frame them. He also be­lieves that it is only pos­si­ble to de­feat brain­wash­ing and pro­pa­ganda by ex­change, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and talk­ing.

In 2014, he put for­ward an ini­tia­tive to cre­ate a book in which ev­ery Ukrainian cit­i­zen could write any­thing to an av­er­age res­i­dent of Rus­sia. He says that it still seemed then like it was pos­si­ble to pre­vent war and ha­tred. More than a hun­dred pages of the book are filled in by now; the book has been to dif­fer­ent cities in Donetsk Oblast, Kyiv and Lviv. Vik­tor con­fesses that res­i­dents in the east of the coun­try tried the hard­est to get through to their neigh­bours. Be­cause they still be­lieved that it was a mis­take and pro­pa­ganda rather than be­trayal.

"The book is not so con­struc­tive, but it will still be in­ter­est­ing from a his­tor­i­cal point of view – or­di­nary peo­ple for­mu­lat­ing their at­ti­tude on what is hap­pen­ing in their city, coun­try and the world", Vik­tor shares.

The book did its job: peo­ple from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions and so­cial strata with dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal views were able to ex­press their vi­sion and read the sin­cere re­sponses of oth­ers. Of course, it con­tained a lot of anger and com­plaints, which can be ex­plained by the sever­ity of the war for res­i­dents of front-line ter­ri­to­ries. But there were also many at­tempts to un­der­stand the rea­sons, which is some­times much more im­por­tant. Now the book is plan­ning to travel around Ukrainian cities again: Vik­tor says that views and thoughts have changed. Then, when the last page is com­pleted, it will go to those to whom it is ad­dressed – to Rus­sia. Will it be read there? Will they want to hear it? It is prob­a­bly not worth ar­gu­ing about. This weapon is al­ready work­ing.

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