Agora Europe

In this article, author Arnaud Contreras collects the thoughts and words of cultural figures operating at the back of the war, in countries and regions close to the aggression. Through these words, questions emerge: In a context of war, what changes do artists in the immediate proximity feel? What actions can they take? What is their position towards Russian artists?

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Author: Arnaud Contreras

Photo Credit: Daria Sobolevskaya

On this late Sunday afternoon of April, along the Canal Saint Martin in Paris, some 15 people are jumping with joy around a blue and yellow flag. During the whole week, day and night, they have prepared a charity pop-up on the initiative of dancer and producer Daria Mitiuk, and have transformed a Parisian hotel, the Citizen Hotel, into a Ukrainian war kitchen. In exchange for a small donation, everyone can leave with a tray containing a generous portion of a traditional dish. All profits from the sale of the meal boxes are donated to the Kyiv Volunteers association, which feeds civilians, hospitals and soldiers in Kyiv. 

A surprising incursion of the war into the sunny 10th arrondissement of Paris. A surprising crew, too. Mostly people from the cultural sector in their thirties, with stylish outfits, far from the usual image of soup kitchens volunteers.

People walking by smile, sometimes stop to listen to Daria‘s stories. In France, apart from the emotion provoked by the mass graves in Butcha, the war in Ukraine still mostly appears in our Instagram stories and on social media. The cultural world in Western Europe signs op-eds, participates in demonstrations, raises a few Ukrainian flags, but does not seem to be mobilised yet against this Russian offensive.

Finnish author and photographer Antti Nylén notes the same trend in Helsinki: “Here in Finland, aid is not very visible, it is discreet, individual. Quite frankly, the Finnish art world is not very comfortable with the war, you can feel that people don’t really know what to express, apart from the obvious rejection of Russian politics, of Vladimir Putin‘s government. 

In recent years we have been very active against racism, against sexual violence, and in the #MeToo movement. But when it comes to war, I haven’t noticed any change in the attitude of the cultural world. Here we are very concerned that other countries, foreign artists too, take us seriously. Maybe it’s the “small country syndrome”

So we hesitate to express an opinion publicly. There is a kind of stupefaction. If, from a civil resistance point of view, we are ready for a possible war, in our thoughts we are not at all.”

In other countries, war is omnipresent, invasive. “We feel guilty if we post something on Facebook or Instagram that is not related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine” a Lithuanian friend tells me. The Baltic states, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Moldova and Finland are all “on the home front of the war”, as Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, historian and director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales puts it. Many of them are on alert, ready for the worst case scenario, mentally invaded by the images coming from the bombed cities. They are involved in an incredible solidarity chain to help Ukraine. 

Kadi-Ell Tähiste, Operations Director at the Kai Art Center in Tallinn and the Estonian Contemporary Art Development Center, and her entire team have been providing aid to Ukraine since the first days of March: “What is happening is a Russian aggression. It is unbearable for us to hear about the “Ukrainian conflict”. This is a Russian aggression. All ticket sales from each Tuesday when the museum is open are donated to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Estonia. Any Ukrainian citizen can enter the museum for free. And all our meeting, reception and screening spaces are available to solidarity and fundraising initiatives for Ukraine.”

Similarly, in Kaunas, Lithuania, European Capital of Culture 2022, the museums are invested on a daily basis. In addition to organising concerts whose profits are donated to humanitarian organisations, they organise activities to welcome refugees and allow them to enjoy a cultural life again. 

The National Art Museum regularly invites groups of Ukrainian women to therapeutic writing sessions. They observe the works of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the well-known Lithuanian painter and composer, and then write texts or draw to address the contemporary situation. Daina Kamarauskienė, director of the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum also plans evacuation scenarios of their collections in case of a Russian attack. 

Together with her colleagues in the Baltic States, she is trying to help remotely to react to the massive destruction of Ukrainian heritage. Several museums have sent preventive conservation equipment, coordinated by the ICOM (International Council of Museums). But for the moment there is no massive evacuation of collections and heritage. The Louvre Museum‘s conservation center in Liévin has indicated its availability to protect artworks. 

According to Paulina Żaczek, who runs the booking agency Granko, 100 000 Ukrainians lived in Kraków before the war and the electronic music scene has welcomed them. The community has their bar SEKTA which she supports by going there and when she throws parties she tries to invite Ukrainian DJs. In two months, 3 million people have found refuge in Poland. 

The Krakow electronic music scene members helped and continue to help a lot – we look for accommodations, we do fundraising. As an Agency I co-organised a fundraising event in a Ukrainian owned SEKTA bar, it was in collaboration with TANOK crew where their and Granko DJs performed. All proceeds went to sevelifein.ua. I haven’t had too many calls for support from abroad. A friend of mine in New York wanted to help so I sent her a link to a fundraiser for a shelter that was turned from NERDKA gallery space in Kraków. 

For the next Pride, which I helped to organize by doing a music program, Ukrainian artists were involved – one did a mix for the March, one was playing a closing set at an afterparty. You may not realise it, but there are 3 million Ukrainian refugees in Poland now. There are 38 million Polish citizens. This is a real presence, we want them to feel really welcomed.

Regarding calls for a boycott of Russian artists, Paulina Żaczek believes that “As a nation that was under the political domination of the USSR  we can have some indulgence/understanding towards Russian artists behaviour, especially the generations that remember Russian power in Poland. These were dark times.

On the other hand we have been a free nation for over 30 years now and the new generation expects some kind of statement from Russian artists, they feel that you need to use your platform for good cause. Poland is in solidarity with Ukraine but there are different views on boycotting Russian artists in the scene. Some people may think one way, some other but anyone with a little empathy won’t book Russian artists if they haven’t taken a stand, or maybe even if they did. This would be out of place.

The same argument was made by Matas Puodžiūnas, an electronic music festival organiser and club manager in Vilnius, who stopped much of his professional activity to create an NGO to help Ukrainians:

“As human beings, it’s not their fault. We know that Russian DJs are losing money, but by banning them from playing, it can push them to bring about changes in their country. They will realize that they are losing their jobs because of the war, and this may push them and others to take to the streets, bring down their government, and rebuild another Russia, open to the world. Our head of security was a military man, and it was him who offered to help with our skills. Our aim is not to do politics, we shouldn’t forget that clubs are spaces to relax. We don’t have a lot of experience in humanitarian work, but we know how to manage a festival with thousands of people, the logistics, the health part, the medical part. All this experience is useful for us to organise emergency aid in Ukraine.”

With a few kilos of potatoes, vegetables and spices, with her energy and that of a whole group of friends, Daria Mituk continues to move mountains. 

She has returned to Kyiv, we are chatting via Telegram today. “The pop-up a few weeks ago brought in 3500 euros, directly to the Kyiv Volunteers organisation. And the initiative is growing. They now have 29 kitchens where they cook non-stop. They use this money to pay for fuel for the cars, as they need to transport the food, ingredients, take-away food boxes and other essential goods.

Matas Puodžiūnas continues to send medical kits, food, and vehicles every week. He insists on a point: “My NGO is called “My disability is my power”, because I have had a severe disability since an accident that happened 12 years ago. I have a paralysed arm and leg – but with a good arm and leg, you can still help a lot of people.”

During all these conversations the expression “Russian aggression” came up dozens of times. So did the word “loneliness”. These artists, activists, cultural actors in this Europe that is in the home front of the war feel very isolated. They need to feel supported in their efforts to help the Ukrainians. Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Moldovans, Finns, they all live a few kilometers away from the Russian armed forces. They feel this threat on a daily basis.

More than ever, they also need to hear our messages, to see concrete action from us, to know that we are strengthening ties, as we claim the slogan, sometimes lightly, “We Are Europe”.

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About Arnaud Contreras

Arnaud Contreras is an author, director, photographer and producer of documentaries and reports for France Culture and RFI.

Through his texts, reports and documentary projects, he seeks to shed light on the cultural and political struggles of certain communities, and the links between culture and geopolitics.

In his productions, music and its actors are often the gateway to discover societies and cultural groups. 

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