Photo by Olga Zarko
Photo by Olga Zarko

Tandem Generation of Chernivtsi

Three “generations” have grown within the Tandem Ukraine programme at the Ukrainian border city of Chernivtsi, the centre of the multicultural Bukovyna region. Meet Nataliia Yeromenko, Iaroslav Pobezhan and Andriy Tuzhykov, who have participated in three successive rounds of Tandem Ukraine. This story is brought to you by Svitlana Oslavska.

Read this story in Ukrainian

Nataliia, Iaroslav and Andriy’s work as cultural managers is closely related to the city, urban space and culture. They realised their first cultural projects in the early 2010s. At the outset of the 2020s, they reflect on the impact of their work and on how to make it more sustainable.

Their stories are about filling a rather modest cultural landscape of Chernivtsi with modern cultural practices. Their paths, different and similar at the same time, can help to understand a collective portrait of Ukrainian culture activists: who they are, why do what they do, and where draw strength from.

Photo by Olga Zarko
Photo by Olga Zarko

There are two mental and financial axes in Chernivtsi. One is the huge Kalynivsky market, and another is smuggling. This is how Andriy Tuzhykov starts a talk about his city. We meet in a cosy cafe at Universytetska street close to Chernivtsi University, a UNESCO Heritage site. This cafe is a well-known meeting point of the local intelligentsia, and nothing here recalls the Kalynivsky market or cross-border smuggling.

Andriy is a local; while I should be focusing on his words, what catches my eye every time I come to Chernivtsi is the architecture. Buildings of the Soviet period, of Romanian and Austro-Hungarian times overlap and mix in this city. But here and there one notices urban decay – ruined buildings, empty parks and vacant spaces.

These gaps have become a topic as well as the locations of the Temporary Visibility project, realized by Nataliia Yeromenko in the framework of Tandem Ukraine 2014/2015. The participants to the project explored abandoned buildings and green zones, preparing artistic interventions while also raising awareness about the local situation. Those interventions gave “temporary visibility” to those spaces. Iaroslav Pobezhan and Andriy Tuzhykov worked then with two sites: Prut riverbank and the no longer operating Soviet cinema.

In the 2016/2017 round of Tandem Ukraine, Iaroslav created the project Like At Home together with a Latvian partner. The photography project explored and compared the interior design of private and semi-private spaces of Chernivtsi and Liepaja in Latvia. Andriy, in partnership with cultural managers from Serbia and Romania, has also been working on a project called Museum of Corruption – an online platform that will be an archive and exhibition space for artists who touch on the topic of corruption with their work.

Cinema and literature as a start

Nataliia, Iaroslav and Andriy are in their thirties, which means that their childhood and teenage years fall on the early 2000s. Natalia and Andriy grew up in Chernivtsi, Iaroslav is from Storozhynets, 20 km away. This is a town with less than fifteen thousand residents, and with minimum cultural infrastructure. “Rozrukha” or “collapse” – this is how he describes the cultural situation in the town, where he created his first cultural project – cinema club Karton. The club screened works by Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky. It hadn’t gathered a large audience, but those were “the most open-minded youngsters in town”, Iaroslav says.

The cinema club was hosted by a local movie theatre, the only one in town. All the negotiations about the space were held with a technician, and the space’s manager came only once, spotted the screening of Peter Greenaway shorts and never showed up again, as Iaroslav recalls.

This situation — getting a cinema hall for your screening for a symbolic amount of money — is hard to imagine today, Iaroslav adds. But “in the case of cultural initiatives in small cities your limits can turn into your advantages”.

Nataliia has become interested in literature in her teenage years. She wrote poetry and participated in literary events in Chernivtsi and used to go to poetry evenings in other cities. Although some well-known Ukrainian writers visited Chernivtsi from time to time, generally she had a feeling that she lived on the fringes of culture, and that “high literature” does not reach her city. Later, she started dealing with this sense of periphery in her work as a cultural activist and manager.

Nataliia and Andriy met at one of those poetry nights. He started to organise poetry slams in 2011, when he was a college student at the software engineering department. He also started some literary events that showcased a diverse range of cultures from the city, for instance, by inviting Romanian-speaking poets.

Nataliia has also been inspired by this multicultural past of Chernivtsi. She recalls the first time when she clearly defined her interest in the city’s multi-layered history. It happened at the Tandem Ukraine partner forum, where the participants got the task of “organisational circles” to tell their partners about the environment they live and work in. She then described Chernivtsi as a multinational, multicultural border-straddling city, in the past and today.

Photo by Olga Zarko
Photo by Olga Zarko

Working with public space as a protest

In 2012, Nataliia started a Street University in Chernivtsi, and Iaroslav joined to help with some events. The idea was as simple as it sounds: they invited people, experts in respective fields, to give lectures in public spaces. They chose for this purpose a tiny park near the Catholic Church. “I was interested then in how people use common public spaces,” Nataliia says. In the Street University, she tried to create an event that would show that Chernivtsi and its citizens have more potential than they realise.
There has been also a rebellious part in it. She rebelled against the way of life of her parents’ generation — even against their understanding of free time, which they like to spend at home around the table with friends or relatives or eating outside. She wanted to “build relationships with the city” instead of passively spending time in restaurants and moving only back and forth between home and the office.

Eventually, Andriy moved from “pure literary events” to work with the city. In 2016, he created an organisation: Laboratory of Culture which has an open space for cultural events, supports less experienced activists and aims to conduct cultural research. Andriy voluntarily participates in the discussions about the cultural strategy of Chernivtsi at City Hall, although he admits it takes lots of time.

Discontent with culture and impostor syndrome

Iaroslav says his motivation to work in the cultural field is to create things that the local cultural landscape lacks. He also calls this “filling the empty niches”. He organises music concerts lining up non-mainstream bands, as well as public lectures programmes, and is also engaged in the Prut riverbank public space initiative. What is important for Iaroslav is the fact that he is doing this for his city and for his friends: “you work to create an adequate situation around you,” he says.

In what sense the situation in Chernivtsi is not “adequate” enough? The independent cultural scene is not developed here, as it is also not in other similar regional centres of Ukraine. Official cultural institutions, as Nataliia puts it, either transmit a national ideology or preserve post-Soviet culture: “Municipal museums, theatre or the philharmonic hall don’t touch on modern issues. They don’t serve as spaces for discussion.” There is a huge gap between this state-supported, official culture, and the islands of informal, independent ones, created by the generation of my interlocutors. As Andriy explains, when public institutions are dysfunctional, independent citizens come on stage: “In the developed countries professionals work in such fields as heritage protection or the city’s cultural strategy. Here, in Ukraine, civil society activists often deal with this.”

Activists usually earn money in one field from a main job and work on culture in their free time. Andriy, for instance, works remotely in a company that designs artificial intelligence tools. This job takes most of his time, while cultural projects occupy maybe one-fifth of it.

This situation leads to an identity crisis. One starts to ask him or herself: who am I, what is my field of competences? Andriy feels he cannot claim the absolute knowledge in any field because he is engaged in several, quite non-compatible jobs.
Iaroslav says he does not consider his work in culture as real cultural management. He also earns a living in another field and is involved in cultural initiatives in his free time. He defines his work as “half artistic, half curatorial”: “It bears some traces of cultural management, for sure. You need to find financial resources, you need a team, you need artists. But due to different limitations, your event turns out to be unique. You don’t try to comply with some hard-and-fast criteria of what you aim to achieve, as in management”.

“Emotional organisations”

By emotional organisations, Iaroslav means those founded by people who may lack professional experience or for whom this is a “side job”, but who are passionate and inspired by their work. Those organisations often hinge on one person, like his NGO Dzestra. “We have a vertical structure, and it won’t work without me”, Iaroslav says. As Andriy admits, his organization is “institutionally underdeveloped”: if one day he decides to go abroad, it will stop to exist.

However, there is another, positive side to this issue. The emotional nature of such organisations and the lack of hard structures and sustainability often create the special feeling of underground activities and human warmth — things that disappear when the projects reach a higher level in the industry. Iaroslav gives an example about concerts: in the USA, for instance, a musician comes to a city, plays his or her set, eats dinner and goes to another city — meeting the organisers is not necessary. It is different in Chernivtsi and in Ukraine in general: “Sometimes, an artist comes to the city and lives at my place, we talk about all sorts of things, touch on universal topics. So, what is culture: when you play one concert for 1000 Euros, or when you have a tour around the whole Ukraine for the same money?”

Roșa Collective, where Nataliia was an active participant in 2014 and 2015, slowly dissolved by 2016. As she recalls, from the start, it was a living organism, a community of people who wanted to discuss and do culture in the city. She believes they could grow into a sustainable organisation. During and after the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014-2015, many activists had the feeling that some new “passages” into cooperating with the city officials had been opened up – such ways seemed possible but actually were blocked before 2014: “We managed to set up good relations with the city administration. They have been supporting us. We had a feeling that the breakthrough was just about to happen and that we will come to a level that we always dreamt of,” Nataliia says. Although this hasn’t happened yet, she adds, an outcome of Roșa Collective’s activities is the fact that four people from the collective are still involved in different cultural initiatives in the city — Iaroslav and Andriy among them.

Photo by Olga Zarko
Photo by Olga Zarko

Hopes and disappointments

Nataliia lives in Berlin today. She says the turning point in her relationship with Chernivtsi were the attacks by far-right groups on the movie screening about the LGBTQ community and a book presentation on leftist ideas about Europe — both events were organized by Iaroslav. She then felt that this was not her city anymore. Despite all the efforts to develop an alternative culture, Nataliia also felt that the city drifted in a completely different direction — the direction of intolerance to otherness. She started to question whether her work was relevant. Maybe, it was not “serious” enough? She believes that in order to make such activism taken “seriously”, the city needs a consistent programme of financial support for initiatives and organisations that work in the field of culture.
Andriy thinks that, if someday he decides to create his own family and have children, he would have to sacrifice one of his current activities. He would abandon those activities of semi-volunteer, civil and cultural activism.

Iaroslav says he sees a way to make these cultural activities bring him a sustainable income one day. His ideas oscillate between creating a modern cultural centre or a festival. Iaroslav believes he would be able to find a balance “between the mainstream and the underground”. Either way, his aim would not change — he wants to make life a little more comfortable, to make a move towards a civilised city, where diversity is an integral feature: “When people understand that: there is diverse music, there is diverse cinema, diverse theatre.”

A slow move towards the sustainable support of culture by a state donor started with the creation of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation in 2017. For now, this is the only one Ukrainian donor that supports cultural projects all over Ukraine. But there is still a strong need for regional support of culture. All the collaborative work of cultural activists or cultural managers has to make cities’ administrations finally notice that culture matters.

Svitlana Oslavska