Ukraine's Cultural Scene After a Year of War – English Edition

Podcast mit Volodymyr Yermolenko

Vor einem Jahr hat Russland mit einer groß angelegten Offensive die Ukraine überfallen und damit den seit der Annexion der Krim 2014 schwelenden Konflikt eskalieren lassen. Wenige Woche nach Beginn der Invasion luden wir Volodymyr Yermolenko zu den "Kulturmittlern" ein. Damals sprach der ukrainische Schriftsteller und Philosoph über die ukrainische Gesellschaft und darüber, welche Rolle die Kultur für das Wohlbefinden in Kriegszeiten spielt.

Nun, ein Jahr später, ist Volodymyr Yermolenko wieder zu Gast im ifa-Podcast. Gemeinsam blicken wir auf das vergangene Jahr zurück und erfahren wie sich die ukrainische Zivilgesellschaft und Kulturszene unter dem Druck des Krieges entwickelt hat.

Es ist eine Grafik zu sehen. Ein weißer Kreis in der Mitte, umgeben von einem blauen Streifen über die obere Hälfte und einem gelben über die untere Hälfte. Im Kreis ist eine Illustration eines Mannes zu sehen. Er trägt eine Brille, hat eine Glatze und einen Dreitagebart. Unter ihm steht in schwarzer Schrift Volodymyr Yermolenko, über ihm Die Kulturmittler, im rechten Eck der Illustration sieht man das Logo des ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen in schwarz auf dem gelben Hintergrund. Es handelt sich um das Cover einer des sechs Sonderfolgen zur Ukraine des ifa-Podcasts "die Kulturmittler". Der Journalist und Philosoph Volodymyr Yermolenko spricht in dieser Folge über die ukrainische Kunst- und Kulturszene unter dem Druck des Ukrainekrieges. Illustration von Lea Dohle.
© Lea Dohle

Kulturaußenpolitik hörbar machen.

Das ifa liefert Hintergrundwissen und Antworten auf Fragen der Zeit im Podcastformat

Diese Folge des ifa-Podcast ist auf allen gängigen Podcastplattformen abrufbar. Um keine Folge zu verpassen, am besten "Die Kulturmittler" auf dem Streamingdienst der Wahl abonnieren.

Transkript der Folge

Folge #45: Ukraine's Cultural Scene After a Year of War. With Volodymyr Yermolenko

Amira El Ahl: Welcome to a new episode of Die Kulturmittler, the ifa podcast on Foreign Cultural Policy. My name is Amira El Ahl . I'm very glad you're joining us. On the 24th of February 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began escalating the war that had been simmering since 2014. On this occasion, we want to dedicate the upcoming six episodes to Ukraine, not only to focus on the ongoing war, but also on the developments in the fields of arts and culture and the Ukrainian civil society. This first special episode, I talked to Volodymyr Yermolenko. In April last year, he was already a guest here on the podcast, and back then the Ukrainian author and philosopher talked about Ukrainian society and what role culture plays in well being in times of war. In this episode, we'll look back at the past year together. Welcome back to the Kulturmittler, Mister Yermolenko.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

Amira El Ahl: It is a pleasure. Mr. Yermolenko, last year you described on this podcast the conflicts that Ukrainian culture has to endure and you said that on the one hand, there is an immense amount of suffering and destruction of art and living culture. But on the other hand, you said, and I quote you, "I feel there are many cultural ideas that probably are in the embryonic state right now. So I really hope that despite all the suffering culture will have a big revival". Now, a year later, what is the state of culture at the moment in the Ukraine? Do you still have this hope that you voiced back then?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Yeah, of course. I do have this hope because culture is always reacting to very dramatic and very tragic circumstances. Culture has a very difficult dialogue with the war because, of course, the war is the worst thing that can happen to us. It's destruction, it's suffering, it's amputated futures, it's amputated hopes. But at the same time, this is very strange. Culture always reacts to the war. We can think about Iliad as as the one of the starting points of European literature. We could think about the Greek tragedies. We can think about the baroque time, the time of revival of drama in Europe, etcetera. And the Ukrainian culture has a, you know, we had a very difficult history, which is also full of suffering and often full of silence. This is a silence which is imposed on us by imperial powers, but sometimes it is self imposed as if we cannot really talk about the immense suffering which happened during centuries on this land. And therefore, of course, the big task of today is to win this war, but also to win the capacity to speak in a broader sense of the world, to speak with words, to speak with art objects, to speak with theater, to speak with music. And this capacity – I see this capacity, of course, but nothing is guaranteed because so many people are broken by the war. So many people unfortunately die and will die. And this is a point where actually everything can happen and we can fall back into silence, which I hope we will not do. But at the same time, yeah, we can use this immense experience, which, as I said, always produces kind of a new culture because it's a very existential moment. The grand situation, as you say in German language, and I think this is something that will bring some new ideas and new emotions.

Amira El Ahl: Can you see already any of these new ideas of this new situation? I mean the invasion was also designed I think to eradicate Ukraine's sense of identity and history. You see, like an opposition to that in culture, how culture is trying to resist this eradication and where new things already are evolving.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Obviously, we see it in poetry, for example, we see wonderful Ukrainian poets. And by the way, many of them, many of the voices that I cherish in Ukrainian poetry are female voices, the voices of Svetlana Pavel, the voice of Katarina Khalid, the voice of Katerina Michaelides and other people. And I'm happy that in PEN Ukraine, we started a new tradition as a kind of a gathering poetic musical gatherings in Kiev where we combine poetry and music. And this is where we warmly welcomed by people in Kyiv who just came in large numbers the first time. Music is very interesting. It's interesting that even those singers who actually were playing music, rather pop music, sometimes oriented to Russian speaking audiences, sometimes lacking really the sense of identity. They are now turning to the Ukrainian music, Ukrainian traditions. And in some aspects, it is very interesting to to look at the Ukrainian music stage of pop music or folk music. As I always say, the peculiarity of the Ukrainian culture is to combine modernity and tradition, modern technologies in music and the traditional songs, traditional instruments. And this is what we have everywhere. We have this combination of folk and modernity in bands like DakhaBrakha or Onuka or Go A or Kalush Orchestra, who won the Eurovision this year, or Christina Soloviei or many others. And I think this is indeed very interesting. This is kind of a point of energy. We see also in cinemas, some things going on, but of course very difficult because cinema needs money, cinema needs funds and at the same time the Ukrainian state is not really financing cinema, it has other priorities and we have some other difficulties in this field. But at the same time, we see several documentaries, very strong documentaries which are right now watched worldwide. The documentary about Mariupol from to Mstyslav Chernov, a documentary of my friend Nadia Parfan, about the life in Kyiv during the very difficult times in February and March and the works of such directors as Irina Celik and others. So the culture is actually developing. We also have a very interesting moment in the visual culture, in the visual arts, in paintings, and for example, in Kyiv, there are galleries, not very big galleries, but which show the paintings of Ukrainian painters who react to this war, people like Matvey Weisberg or people like Vitaly Kravets or other painters. And I think this is very important. We see that the demand for this creation is actually increasing.

Amira El Ahl: But still, according to the UNHCR, there are approximately eight million Ukrainian refugees in Europe and of course many of them are also from the fields of art. How has the flight of so many people affected Ukrainian culture, you think?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Well, obviously this is a very dramatic thing. The demography is something that influences everything. And I think we kind of underestimated this demographic element when we think about societies in the past decades. And the war just highlights this. If you lose eight million people out of 38 or 40 million, that means you lose a quarter of the population, almost a quarter. And these people are primarily women with children. So it means that many children, according to some estimates, about one half of school children in Ukraine have emigrated or have left their places. I can judge from the school of my elder daughter, who had about 35 pupils in the class before the big war, and now it's about 15. So obviously, this is very dramatic because the country from which women and children flee, this country is really worried about its future, about the young people. And of course, the longer the war continues, the less incentive there is to come back. I still see many people coming back, of course. Kyiv is not ... you cannot compare Kyiv today and Kyiv in March 2022. It's now full of life. It's full of people, It's full of cars. It's full of events. The same with Charkiw. I traveled to Charkiw very often. This is the second largest city, and it's just completely different realities. What you have seen in June, in May and June and what you see now. But at the same time, of course, you feel this gap, you feel this void. You feel that there is a lower number of people. And this is something we of course need to work with, because I know that many of these people want to come back. But time is playing against us. And about culture of course, many of these talented people are actually from cultural fields. They are artists. They are musicians they are translators, they are writers. For them, it is maybe easier to find the opportunities in Europe, in America, in some other countries because there are, thanks to the support of our partners, scholarships, there are possibilities. But it is important that when they are abroad, they kind of continue to talk about Ukraine, to talk about Ukrainian culture. And maybe for many of them, this will also be a learning time, a Bildungszeit, a time of learning and of enriching their own capacities.

Amira El Ahl: But also they are, as you said earlier, kind of putting a spotlight on Ukrainian culture that maybe wasn't there before. You know, like you said, it's a point of energy and where like worldwide now people are more aware of Ukrainian culture. So they're transporting this abroad. But at the same time, I think many Ukrainians working in the fields of arts, as you also just said, have come back in the last month taking up again their jobs as dancers, playwrights, painters and so forth, because they feel they have to be in their home country – kind of as a powerful act of resistance, I assume. Is this an act of defiance or is it a tool for survival for people in the arts when they come back?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Let me add to your point that many people from the arts field are on the front line and some of my friends are there. The Ukrainian writer Yaryna Chronohuz, a female, very talented female writer, is on the very hot spot of the frontline. Writers Artem Tschech, Artem Chapeye or Artem Polezhaka. You know, all of them are temps are also on on the front line. There are cinema makers like Akhtem Seitablayev or Oleh Senzow, who are on the frontline. Unfortunately, there are people who died, very talented people who who were killed recently, and these are also people of culture. These are video makers, there are dancers, these are musicians, these are fantastic people without whom Ukrainian culture will be much more impoverished. So we should also keep that in mind. As far as for people who come back, I think for many Ukrainians actually being abroad during the war is actually a very difficult experience, psychological experience, because you have not been abroad for a long time. I've just went several times on invitations to talk in Germany, in France, in Austria, in Slovakia. But even these short trips were very difficult psychologically because you leave with all your mind, with all your heart, with all your emotions. You stay in Ukraine. You stay in Ukraine, you read Ukrainian news. When there is a missile attack, you are very nervous about your relatives, about your cities, about etcetera. So actually, psychologically, it's very difficult. And therefore, I'm not surprised that people want to come back as soon as there is an occasion to come back. And actually, well, in Ukraine, on the one hand, there is no 100% safe city because everything is reached by the Russian missile. But at the same time, living in Kiev is more or less okay. Even living in Charkiw, although it is 40 kilometers from the Russian border, became much better. Living in Lwiw or some other cities in central and Western Ukraine is okay. There is a risk that you will die because of the missile strike, but there is always a risk that you will die in a road crash or whatever else. So, I think people will search the opportunity to come back. And what actually keeps them abroad is mostly children, as far as I see. So the children went to education process, to schools. They kind of started to adapt. And of course, it's also a difficult, a difficult story. When you change one location, you moved abroad and now you should change it again and move back to Ukraine. So I do think that there is a big, you know, magnet of nostalgia, especially among the artists, and they will be seeking an opportunity to come back.

Amira El Ahl: Do you think that other countries can help Ukraine through culture? Like, is there this exchange?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Of course, as I said earlier, Ukraine suffered from this silence. And this silence was kind of a blindness. The world just didn't care about Ukraine. And in the 19th century, in the 20th century, Ukraine was absolutely unknown. And if we take, for example, the early 20th century, when there was a question of national self-determination, this Woodrow Wilson's principle of national self-determination, if we look at it closer, we understand that it concerned only the nations of Habsburg and Ottoman Empire. Maybe to some extent, some of the nations of the Russian Empire, but the most Western of them, meaning Finland, Poland and the Baltic states. Ukraine was absolutely invisible, despite the fact that Ukraine already had a vibrant culture, already had its statehood, already had everything which is needed for this state. And of course, in the 20th century, we have this story with after the crash of the Ukrainian independence and then after the Stalinist genocide against Ukrainians in the thirties, Ukraine has become again a blind spot everywhere except for some universities in America. Everywhere it was a blind spot, including in Germany, including in France, including in other countries. And therefore what we need right now, of course, is to catch up with this. So there are so many beautiful Ukrainian novels, fantastic Ukrainian literature. It's so interesting to analyze these authors, many of them. If you take the 1920s, you will see the pattern that they were young people who wrote the fantastic novels when they were aged 26, 27, like Valerian Pidmohylny or Mykola Khvylovy, and then they were either killed in the camps or they were led to suicide this whole way, or they were broken morally as Uljanovsk or Pavlo Tychyna. And what they wrote afterwards in this field of extreme violence of Stalinist regime is just you see that they are broken as artists. So you have this also element of extermination of not only physical, but also moral extermination. But still, there is something that I think that the world should discover. And it's very interesting. Ukrainian cinema is very interesting. From Dovzhenko to Paradschanow to contemporary cinema. As I said, Ukrainian music is extremely interesting, not only the classical music, but also the modern, the popular music because it combines tradition and modernity in a very interesting way. Ukrainian literature is very interesting, Ukrainian visual arts are very interesting. And some of our key artists are actually expropriated by the Russians. If we take such figures as Malewitsch, as Aiwasowski, as Repin, as Alexandra Exter, many others, they are portrayed in Western European museums or American museums, quite often as Russian artists while they are Ukrainian artists. So there are so many things to discover. And I think that I will invite your audience to listen to the Timothy Snyder scores at Yale University, which is available on YouTube. It's about 20 lectures on making a modern Ukraine to understand how interesting Ukrainian history is.

Amira El Ahl: Yes, that's very interesting. I find interesting that you said there's things to catch up on because already last year on the podcast, you said that, for example, foreign media needs to and I quote you "stop seeing Ukrainians as just objects for observation instead of asking what Ukrainians feel you said a journalist should be asking what Ukrainians think to give Ukrainians a real voice and to be seen as agents who have something to say". So this kind of goes into what you just said that the outside world didn't really know enough about Ukraine. Has this situation changed? Is there today, a year into the war, more intellectual equality, or is the Ukrainian civil society still viewed as naive and only an object of observation from your point of view?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: The situation is changing. We should not forget that this is not the year of the war, but this is already the ninth year of the war. It's just the second phase, which is more massive, more cruel. But the war has started in February 2014, and during all this time, of course, there is a process, there is a process of explanation, there is a process of understanding, there is a process of talking. Of course, we cannot compare what's happening now with where we were like five years ago. There is progress. There is much more understanding. There is much more interest in Ukrainian voices. We get invitations to write, to talk, etcetera. But I think we need to think about some strategic decisions, strategic solutions, because I do think that the whole 21st century will be more or less around the question of deimperialisation of Europe and deimperialisation, primarily of Russia. Russia is the last empire in Europe and of course it will not give up that quickly. And Ukraine here is the key story. So Ukraine is a key story to continue this long process of deimperalising Europe. Europe was made by empires as we know it was made by Western Europe. Almost all the nations were empires. At a certain point, starting from the 15th century, and the expansion of Russia also starts around the 15th, 16th century. And all the story of the European history of modern times is a story of imperialisation and deimperialisation. And the German history is, of course, one of these examples. So, if we take the 1920s, 1930s, there were some very sober people in Europe who were telling that, look, there are some empires collapsed like Habsburg Empire or Ottoman Empire or some others, but there will be a big confrontation between two imperial projects, the Russian one and the German one. And that's what we had in the Second World War, actually. And it was the end of the German imperial project, but it was not the end of the Russian imperial project. And the key to end this last empire in Europe and empires always built on violence, on expansion, on neglect to human dignity. The key to this is, of course, Ukraine, not only Ukraine, but some other countries. But Ukraine will play a key role. So, we need to think how to think in the long term because now there is interest in Ukraine. What will happen in one year, what will happen in two years? It will fall down. Everybody will think about other issues. The war can also be forgotten as it was in 2014 war. But I think we do not have a right to do that. We need to, all of us Ukrainians and our partners, need to think how to highlight Ukrainian culture, how to reflect upon Ukrainian history. Because if you want me to resume, to summarize, the Ukrainian history is one word. I will tell you that this is an attempt, a repetitive attempt, to build a republic in a geography which was dominated by empires. And now we have finally a situation where this Republican or Democratic spirit is winning in Eastern Europe. And this is the key story for the whole of Europe.

Amira El Ahl: So what do you expect then from the European partners in order to help this endeavor?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I think we need to highlight more Ukrainian culture. We need to translate more Ukrainian books. So, I expect more interest from European publishers for Ukrainian writers, not only fiction writers, not only literature, but also to nonfiction writers, to journalists, to essays, to philosophers. This is still not going on. I don't see so much of the proactive attitude of the German, Austrian, I don't know, British, French publishers towards Ukraine. Then I don't feel like they are looking for authors to highlight and to translate, of course, the highlight of the Ukrainian studies at the university, not only Ukrainian studies but also wider studies, decolonization studies, post imperialism studies. This is something where Ukrainian experience can also help connect the dots. I think there are so, so many interesting things to compare not only with the European societies but also with African society, with Asian societies, with Latin American society, with indigenous people in America, for example. These are all stories that we need to think about. We can, for example, think about how to connect environmental studies with culture, because Ukraine, as it was a culture which was developing many aspects in connection with the folk art, with the folk culture. And in the folk art you have lots of connections with, with nature, with environment, with birds, with trees, with plants. And this is something that European modernity kind of ignored because it was saying that, look, modernity is about the man taking control over nature. Now in the 21st century we no longer think in that way, right? We think about how to cooperate with nature, how to find a harmony with nature. And here such cultures, which were always in this link with the folk traditions, can actually help. And we have lots of these in our literature. For example, one of the greatest poets, Lessja Ukrajinka. Her drama Lisova pisnja, the Forest song, was named by American writer Askild Melnyczuk in a very precise way, an environmentalist poem. And I think it's very interesting how Ukraine can give interesting incentives. And the last thing of course, we should not allow Russian culture to kind of repress the Ukrainian culture. We have, unfortunately, situations like what I've heard from the festival in Wiesbaden, when Ukrainians protested against the participation of the Russian singer who actually supported Putin's regime, supported the war 2014 and the end of this story, as far as I follow, maybe I'm wrong, but is that the festival will go on with Russian singer without Ukrainian orchestras and Ukrainian musicians. I'm not sure this is the right thing to do right now under the current circumstances.

Amira El Ahl: I found very interesting what you said about if we stay with Russia and what you said about the deimperialisation of Russia last year, we talked about the differences between Russian and Ukrainian civil society. And you explained back then that Russian society is a function of the state, whereas in Ukraine the state is a function of society. So if the Russian society, as you said, is a function of the state, does the Russian society then even have the possibility to influence the war at all? Is there any hope that this change can come from within?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: I don't know. There is a very difficult question. I think that I'm not an expert on Russia. I'm judging Russia from the Ukrainian point of view. So my judgment will be, of course, subjective. I know Russian history, Russian intellectual history quite well. I read a lot of Russian philosophers. I read a lot of Russian literature at the time. Of course, I read Russian and I speak Russian. And therefore I think I understand something. And from what I understand is actually that in Russia it was not a nation state from the very beginning. Contrary, for example, to France and Britain. And this is a difference with the French and Britain imperialisms. England first became a nation state and then they expanded Russia at the very moment of its formation as a Moscow state. It created this very crazy idea that it will become a third Rome, meaning that it will become a new empire, a new global empire. And it started expanding itself. And it always was seeking for an ideology which would, you know, legitimize this expansion in early modern times. This was the idea of the third Rome that it will replace the Byzantine or the Roman Empire in the 18th century. It was Peter the First's idea and Catherine the Second's idea that it will become a kind of a enlightened monarchy, modern monarchy, which was a lie, actually a facade, because it was very barbaric internally. And then starting from the 19th century, there was this idea of the great Russian people, which is actually higher than other nations like Ukrainians, Belarusians. Then in the 20th century, we all know there is a global idea of Marxism, of the global revolution, etcetera. So, the problem is that it was throughout of its history, it was focused on some very big global ideas without being focused on really locality, how you improve your life on the local level, how you deal with your local communities, how you deal with improving the life of your local citizens. And and this is where the society, the question of society, the issue of society was absolutely taken away. And therefore what I'm saying is that we can actually doubt whether the Russian nation exists because, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, in order to make up a state and sign a social contract with a sovereign, you need to be a subject. You need to be a people, "le peuple", as he said. So first you need to have this formation, and this formation should actually have so certain difficulties with relations to this state either exist when the state is not there. This is, for example, the case of Germany, and therefore, there are so many influences of German cultural thinking of the late 18th century, early 19th century over Ukraine. And this is a very interesting topic, how the Herder philosophy was influencing Ukrainian national development, how this idea of collecting songs, of this ethnographic work, of this going through people from village to village to collect the stories of the people, which was very popular in Ukraine in the 19th century, but actually came from Germany. And why it came from Germany, because Germany at a certain moment did not have a state. It needed to develop some other forms of this cultural integration. I think this is something that Russia lacked for all these times. If you look at the 18th century, Russia was rather people at one place and the authorities, which were very often foreign authorities, foreign elites, including from Germany, by the way, they were dominating this land and the majority of peasants were actually serfs, etcetera. The same with Marxism which the Russian communism totally oppressed. Any idea of a civil society which will have its own thought, its own ideas, etcetera. And therefore, we have this situation where actually I think Russians are afraid that if you remove the state, if you remove Putin, everything will collapse. Ukrainians are not afraid of the fact that if you remove a leader, everything will collapse because as I say many times, it's not the president who is the leader of the country. It's the country who is leading the president, leading our politicians.

Amira El Ahl: Very interesting. You were elected – talking about presidents – you were elected president of PEN Ukraine last November. How important is the author's association in times of war?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: This is very important because I think the strength of the Ukrainian democracy is a certain number of associations, grassroots associations, small groups of people and we see this emerging on many levels. We see the communities of businesses, we see communities of political actors of civil society. This is extremely important because this is how democracy works. You need to start from the local community, geographically, local or local by profession, and make this community kind of a driver of change or an example of doing something.

Amira El Ahl: Can you say what kind of projects you are pushing ahead right now? Are there examples like things that you can actually realize at all under these circumstances with PEN.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: Yeah, of course. So, for example, we travel a lot. We travel across Ukraine. We have with my wife a minivan, which we bought for our three kids, a Renault Trafic, the cheapest minivan, and now it serves as a volunteer bus. We decide to go somewhere to the front line, to the occupied areas, to the south, to the east, to the north. We take writers there. We go to the very local communities, very small towns of, you know, several dozen thousand people. And we organize meetings with them, with the local people, to exchange stories. They tell us their stories of occupation, of war, of suffering, of the death of their close people. We tell our stories or stories from other parts of Ukraine. We also bring books because people really want to read, especially during the time of blackouts. When there is no electricity, no Internet, people want to read. We understood that local libraries become kind of a focal points magnets for active people in the small communities in the small towns. We went recently to the northeast of Ukraine, to the Sumy region, to towns like Hluchiw, towns like Trostjanez. It's a very interesting and very touching. When we talked to those people on the ground and both we kind of have this relation to small communities. And they feel that people from Kyiv, from the capital, are coming to them. We also go to the front line to destroyed villages, destroyed towns. We're bringing books there. We bring humanitarian aid. We bring cars for the front line for our soldiers to evacuate the wounded. So this is how cultural institution also turn into kind of a volunteer hub. Of course, we collect donations from all over the world and we are extremely grateful for this. We go to dangerous places like Cherson. We went there in late December. And for your audience, I want to say that we will publish a documentary about our trip to there soon. Also, there will be a documentary about our trip to the eastern Ukraine. They're very touching, moving, humane films, very short, actually. Up to ten minutes, ten, 15 minutes. You can find them on our YouTube Ukraine world. And you see this reality. You see the reality of the destroyed villages, but also people who continue to live there and to continue to have their optimism. We have lots of, of course, intellectual life. We organize lectures, we organize poetry meetings, we organize musical meetings. We are also a human rights organisation. Therefore, we highlight the topics which are actually related to human rights, to destruction of the cultural heritage. And recently with PEN America, their report was published about the destruction of the Ukrainian cultural facilities. Very interesting, very important report. We support our members because some of the writers are still under Russian occupation in the south or in the east. So we try to support them, try to support the families of those writers who were killed, like the family of Wolodymyr Wakulenko from the eastern Ukraine who was killed, kidnapped and killed by by the Russian soldiers just for the fact that he was a Ukrainian writer. Of course, we do a lot of work for international audiences because there is a need to explain what is happening and therefore there are people who are coming, the big famous Western intellectuals or writers, and we bring them to these places of the war. And recently, by the way, talking about Germany, we've met with the president of PEN Berlin. He went also to the eastern Ukraine. So, we traveled together. He brought some humanitarian aid and we spent a very interesting time in talking and exchanging. There are many, many other things as well. Of course, the scholarships, the prizes, very important that we try to highlight certain aspects of culture through prizes. For example, we have a prize of Schewelow prize for the best Ukrainian essays book its annual price. We have Heorhij Gongadse prize for the best Ukrainian journalist of the year. Heorhij Gongadse was a journalist who was killed by the Kutschma regime in early 2000s. We have a prize for for best translator of the Ukrainian literature brought the Drahoman prize. So there are other prizes as well.

Amira El Ahl: There's lots going on. So you mentioned that how you know with PEN, you go to the people and you travel the country and you go to all parts. So that means you are quite close to the people. Has the war changed your relationship to other people? Do you approach people different now than you maybe did before the war broke out?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: My feeling is that the war brings extreme equality and it's a real equality. It's not imposed equality. It's not that equality of the communist regime. It's equality that you feel. So you no longer feel any kind of hierarchy like, okay, I'm coming from Kyiv, I'm a Kyiv writer, I'm coming to your small town and you will listen to me. No, that's not what we're doing. We come from Kyiv sometimes bring famous writers, Ukrainian or international, and we come to these places primarily to listen. That's an incredible experience. When we recently went to Orchtyrka, which is a town and Sumy Oblast, which actually stopped the Russian offense there and in some ways saved some other big cities. And we talked to people in the library, by the way, encircled with books. And it was kind of a big collective time of collective empathy. People cried, people smiled, people laughed, but cried mostly because there were so many dramatic stories. And we talked for three hours and for many, many hours. And more and more people were coming. When we went to Kyiv, ten kilometers from the Russian border in the north of Ukraine, people are very afraid that there will be new invasion because Russians are so close. And we also asked them to share their stories and they started reading poems one after another, their poems. There were people who didn't write poems before, who are now volunteers. They were reading their poems. You know, sometimes you're skeptical about this local people who are writing poems. Well, they are, of course not professional poets, not professional writers. But there was so much energy there. And there were good poems, these poems were good. They were not some graphomanic stuff. When we went to a village, Kamyanka, which is totally destroyed village in the eastern Ukraine, and there are 200 houses, all of them are destroyed, and there are still about ten people who are living in this village. And the places around the houses are mined with these small anti infantry mines, plastic mines, which you don't see in the grass. So you really have a danger that you will lose your leg when you step in and there are some people who are living there. So we brought them a generator, thanks to our friends who are also Ukrainian writers. And it's an immense feeling that they do not feel abandoned, that there is somebody who comes to them and who brings something and helps them in that way. Because, of course, people who are, you know, imagine you are in destroyed village. There was 1,000 people who are living here. Now there is ten and nobody comes to you and you don't have water, you don't have electricity, you don't have heating. You drink the rainwater or you drink the water that you make from snow. People need this attention.

Amira El Ahl: Yeah, absolutely. So maybe one last question is like when you talk about these things and like all these things you experienced, how did you personally experience the last year? Is there anything that stands out in your memory where you say this was like, I don't know, this kind of epitomizes the year for me.

Volodymyr Yermolenko: It's difficult to pick up one image. I think that we've got a very strong belief in human beings, in the Ukrainian society, in its capacity to mobilize and to withstand the aggression. And we all feel like very intimate connection with the community, with the country. And I think this is something that really in the Western world, we need to rethink because there was too much suspicion about this idea of patriotism after the Second World War, because this idea of patriotism was linked to kind of a nationalism or whatever else. But there is something other in this patriotism, that it is just a feeling of a certain community that you are not alone, that you're part of some other people which will understand you without a word. As I am a philosopher, I'm also, you know, teaching political philosophy to my students. And I realized that if you take classics of political philosophy like Montesquieu, like Voltaire, all those people who actually formed the discourse of democracy, you will find out that one of the key values for them was the love for your country. So it's not things that are contradictory, like the idea of human rights and the idea of love for your country. And this is something that we understand now much better than before. That on the one hand, we cannot live without our country, without our community, without our nation. On the other hand, the nation cannot live without us, without each of us. So we perceive our community, our people, as a kind of an infant, as a baby that you need to take care of. And I was telling you about this. Our talks in Ochtyrka, we were impressed to see a very young girl. She is probably 15 years old or 16 years old. Of course, her parents, you know, took her abroad during the start of the war. And she spent some time in the foreign country. And she was telling us how she was missing Ukraine, how she was missing her town, how she was missing her Ochtyrka and she was crying and she was telling this story. And she said, I never thought that I can love a country like I love a human being, like I love a person. And I think this summarizes it.

Amira El Ahl: It says everything. Thank you so much, Mr. Yermolenko, thank you for the interview. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. And I'm very glad that the Internet connection to Kyiv didn't break up and we were able to speak for that long. Please stay safe and take care of yourself. That brings us to the end of this special episode on Ukraine. If you enjoyed it, please feel free to recommend the podcast to others. The next episode will be published next week where I'll be talking with political scientist Susann Worschech. To make sure you don't miss this and all upcoming episodes, you can subscribe to the podcast. You can do that wherever there are good podcasts to be found, for example, on Spotify, Apple Podcast or Deezer. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to email us at podcast(at) And for more information on our organization, ifa, Institut for Auslandsbeziehungen, visit With that, I say goodbye. My name is Amina El Ahl. Thank you for listening and I hope you join us for the next episode.


Sie haben Themenwünsche, Lob und Kritik?


Charlottenplatz 17
D-70173 Stuttgart