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“Russian Intellectuals Should Have Chosen the Tactic of Silence Rather Than Sneaking Onto International Platforms to Complain About Fate.” Interview With the Director of the Ukrainian Institute, Volodymyr Sheiko

“Russian Intellectuals Should Have Chosen the Tactic of Silence Rather Than Sneaking Onto International Platforms to Complain About Fate.” Interview With the Director of the Ukrainian Institute, Volodymyr Sheiko

Nastya Kalyta

Director of the Ukrainian Institute Volodymyr Sheiko is one of the conceptual architects of Ukrainian cultural diplomacy and image makers of our country abroad. At Zaborona’s request, journalist Anastasia Kalyta spoke with Sheiko about the culture of cancellation in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, whether Ukrainians can speak on the same panels with pro-Ukrainian Russians, whether the boycott of the Russian Federation works effectively, and why society should remain open to a deeper dialogue.

Volodymyr Sheiko is the director of the Ukrainian Institute, an expert in cultural diplomacy and cultural management. The Ukrainian Institute takes care of the representation of Ukrainian culture in the international arena and forms a positive image of the country worldwide through cultural diplomacy. Sheiko headed the institution immediately after its establishment under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 2017. He was re-elected for the second time in 2021. Sheiko also held senior positions in the Ukrainian representative office of the British Council and organized cultural projects in Great Britain and 15 European countries.

How do you feel about, let’s say, cancel culture in the conditions of the Russian-Ukrainian war?

In the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, this term acquired a new meaning: it began to describe the attempts of Ukrainians to withdraw Russian culture from international circulation, which is not entirely correct. It often becomes the subject of very unpleasant manipulations, especially among Western left-wing intellectuals. In fact, Ukraine is not trying to abolish Russia. Ukraine’s intentions and messages are much deeper than the quick, often superficial culture of cancellation, which we have observed in the example of various media scandals.

I am not a fan of cancel culture because cultural diplomacy is, among other things, the art of communication. In my work, meaningful dialogue and the search for a common denominator are more productive than hanging quick shortcuts. It hurts everyone and sets dangerous precedents for manipulating public opinion. So we become more vulnerable.

Can you give an example?

A very revealing case happened with the writer and poet Yuriy Andruhovych, who faced great condemnation from a part of the Ukrainian journalistic and cultural community because he decided to take part in a discussion on the same international platform with the Russian Mikhail Shishkin. At the same time, Andruhovych had arguments in favor of his decision: he believed that Shishkin had a completely pro-Ukrainian position, and such a conversation would attract the attention of a wider circle of foreigners to Ukrainian issues and would allow our position to be heard.

Ukrainians made a lot of efforts to refuse joint participation with Russians in international events or to demand their exclusion from the programs of festivals, concert venues, or conferences. Andruhovych’s act was perceived as a cancellation of previous gains. People did not want to hear arguments and explanations; they had enough of the headlines that Andruhovych spoke at the same event as Shishkin.

I do not agree with this and would leave the right to each person to do as they see fit if it is an informed, justified, and rational decision that does not harm the interests of Ukraine.

So, do you think that participation with the Russians on international platforms can be productive, and refusing is unproductive? For example, I have an acquaintance of a researcher who refused to participate in the panel even with Serhii Loznitsa.

I didn’t say that, but I analyzed a specific case of how the community “canceled” Andruhovych for performing on the same platform with a “good Russian.” We, the Ukrainian Institute, and I advocate the non-participation of Ukrainians in joint events with Russians — this is our institutional position, which has many arguments. But we shouldn’t automatically apply a culture of cancellation when a person in authority decides to do otherwise and has a case for it. We must be able to hear and listen, even if we disagree with each other.

Since the first days of the invasion, the Ukrainian Institute has consistently issued public appeals to Ukrainians and foreigners to exclude the Russian presence from international cultural events, not to invite Russians to cooperate, and even more so to join events with Ukrainians. We believe any cultural presence of Russia in the world legitimizes its aggression against Ukraine and justifies and normalizes the war.

This argument is often incomprehensible to our foreign interlocutors, especially those who profess left-liberal views. War is not the product of Putin or a few decision-makers. War is a product of Russian society and history, imperial ambitions, and colonial, aggressive, and xenophobic views, which are present, in particular, in classical and modern Russian literature, cinema, music, theater, etc.

You mentioned Loznitsa, and that is also a good example. The Ukrainian Institute at least twice achieved the exclusion of Loznitsa from international film events because we do not consider him a person authorized to speak on behalf of Ukraine and Ukrainian cinema, especially given his pro-Russian position [in more detail Zaborona discussed the cancellation of Loznitsa with the director himself in this material].

Another dimension of this problem is the participation of Ukrainian cultural figures, who are currently serving in the Armed Forces, in international events. For example, writers Artem Cheh and Artem Chapai recently took part in the World Voices literary festival in New York. There was also a scandal due to the presence of Russians. Although the Ukrainians’ position had been communicated to the organizers in advance — that they could not participate in an event where Russians were present. This stance is both ethical and professional: members of the Armed Forces of Ukraine should not be seen alongside Russians, and the organizers should understand this. The status of being a military serviceman adds another layer to their identity, which must be taken into account during such events.

I will clarify: Russians are both good and bad, right?

In general, yes, because Ukrainians and foreigners understand the term “good Russians” differently. For many foreigners, to be a good Russian is to be against Putin, and if Putin is replaced by Navalny, then everything will be fine. I recently gave a lecture at the University of San Diego in California to a wonderful, well-informed group of listeners. In the end, one listener said he would pray for Navalny to be released and become president of Russia. We had a long conversation with him about why qualitative changes are impossible in a country that has never had a single period of real democracy during its entire existence.

For Ukrainians, a good Russian is someone who wishes Russia an unconditional defeat in Ukraine. Anyone who professes a decolonial view of Russia, its past, present, and future, understands the impossibility of the existence of the Russian Federation in its current form. Anyone who recognizes the joint and personal responsibility of the Russians for the war in Ukraine does not have this superior imperial-colonial view of our language, culture, and history. And who, after all, has authority and influence over their society. Accordingly, the list of requirements Ukrainians have for so-called good Russians is much bigger than our Western partners. Therefore, we seem too radical to them.

Recently, another difficult case happened: Ukrainian journalist and poet Olena Huseynova and writer Anna Gruver refused to participate in the literary festival in Tartu because the Russian writer and poet Linor Goralik was invited to it. Olena wrote a very apt essay about it: “…when I look into the windows of the wooden houses in Supillin and see cozy kitchens and living rooms, the memory instantly throws up the bare kitchens of the bombed-out house on Peremohy in Dnipro, I imagine myself a Russian poetess. I imagine what I would do all this year. And I can’t imagine anything but silence. I probably would have felt powerless, I probably wouldn’t have felt the ground under my feet, and I probably would have been hurt and ashamed. But the main thing would be silence.”

Olena says that Russian intellectuals should now choose a tactic of silence instead of crawling to all possible international platforms to complain about the difficult fate without proposing specific actions. They do not offer future scenarios that could resolve this crisis and hold Russia accountable for atrocities committed in Ukraine. Instead, “good Russians” use international events to talk about themselves without respect for what is happening in Ukraine. They also began to promote the dangerous narrative that Russians are double victims: first, of the Putin regime, which forced them to leave their profession or country, and second, victims of “cruel Ukrainians” who take away their access to privileges.

What in the West is called the culture of Russia’s abolition is not in the context of war. Ukrainians demand to finally give us the right to vote, which we have been deprived of for a very long time. The war gave Ukrainians the opportunity to speak. Therefore, today silence is the only correct ethical choice for Russians in the international context. Until they can offer Ukraine and the world added value, dialogue between us is impossible. Obviously, that time has not yet come.

So you think the boycott is productive because it’s time for us to speak?

And to us and other people and communities colonized by Russia. Time to speak to Georgians, Moldovans, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and those peoples who are internally colonized in today’s Russia. Some of them are also beginning to acquire their own voice and understand themselves as separate communities fighting for emancipation and separation from the dominant, violently planted Russian culture.

I attended a lecture where the cultural expert Oleksandr Mykhed spoke. He recorded a separate video for the lecture, in which he discussed his current work on the topic of “The Language of War” and concluded his speech by stating that, after achieving victory, we will search for the language of peace. How do I envision the interaction between Russians and Ukrainians in the future? What could this language of peace be like?

Interestingly, some Western partners are actively imposing on us the position of the inevitability of dialogue with the Russians. Even in Britain, a representative of one partner institution directly said that we have to sit at the same table and talk with the Russians because we cannot exist in a position of non-recognition and ignore each other. I replied that we can and have every right to stay in this position as long as we need.

No imperative or law obliges the victim and the rapist to sit down at the same table and agree on something. Dialogue may never take place at all, but it may take place when both sides are ready for it. Russians have been absent from my life since February 24, 2022. I do not consider my existence to be inferior since there is no dialogue with the Russians. But it opened up a lot of space for dialogue with other people and cultures that I had less interaction with in my professional or personal life. And they are much more interesting to me.

I understand what Sashko [Mihed] is talking about. He expressed similar ideas at the end of this year’s Book Arsenal. Many legal, ethical, and cultural categories used by Western liberal societies are becoming increasingly outdated. This existing language is already imperfect and inadequate in describing the reality that has emerged since 2014 or even 2022. Firstly, we have witnessed the failure of international institutions and the flaws in international law. Secondly, the language of art also struggles to capture the depths of the abyss we have peered into due to the war. We must either assign new meanings to existing words or create an entirely new language to accurately depict the surrounding reality.

How can culture help people and society in a war situation?

I think culture is a space where we can feel united. One immediately remembers the concerts, literary or poetry evenings in the Kharkiv metro last spring, which were a space where people could gather in relative safety and feel unity. For many artists, culture is a way to live, reflect, and cope with the trauma of war. Many of my acquaintances write texts, create works of art or simply participate in cultural projects because this is their contribution to the victory.

Not everyone can or knows how to fight. Someone much more useful as an artist who is an authoritative voice for their society. Of course, culture is a powerful communication tool, so cultural diplomacy is more important than ever for Ukraine. Some experiences can be transmitted to other societies only through culture.

If we move on to cultural diplomacy and international projects, it is interesting to hear if any projects raised questions for you personally. What do you think about our presence on the international stage?

A significant window of opportunity has emerged, accompanied by a new request. Over the past year and a half, numerous cultural events have taken place in support of Ukraine. However, not all of them have been of high quality or organized by individuals who are professionally involved in the cultural sphere. At times, this situation works against us. While I respect and understand the sincerity of everyone’s intentions in wanting to contribute to the support of Ukraine, we operate within an intensely competitive environment, particularly in Europe and North America, where various cultures vie for the viewer’s attention.

So far, foreigners are in solidarity with Ukraine and forgive us a lot in terms of the quality or level of project organization, but this will not last forever. If we want to be persuasive and authoritative in cultural diplomacy, we need to take an honest look at ourselves and understand where we lack experience, expertise, or financial resources. Sometimes it’s better not to do something than to hurt yourself. Over time, enthusiasm should convert into quality.

I think the credit of trust in the international community is beginning to fall. What do the directions of Ukrainian cultural diplomacy look like geographically? What are the main zones, regions, and countries?

For us, the Euro-Atlantic direction remains a priority, focusing on countries such as Poland, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, and the USA. Recently, we have established a close collaboration with the newly opened Ukrainian House in Denmark. Additionally, we view Lithuania as a strategic platform for enhancing our presence in all three Baltic countries. Each year, we also organize several recurring projects in the Czech Republic and Austria.

Starting this year, we will also expand our activities to the countries of the so-called Global South — selected countries in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. This May, together with the Embassy of Ukraine in India and other European cultural institutes, we organized a several-day Ukrainian festival, which became the first major cultural project in this country.

We are starting to form a team at the Ukrainian Institute, which will be responsible for cultural cooperation with such countries as Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and India. Until now, our culture has been very little represented in these regions, but we understand how important their political and economic support is. Through cultural diplomacy, it is necessary to talk about Ukraine, where Russian culture and propaganda are actively working.

What challenges may face Ukrainian cultural diplomacy after the victory?

The biggest challenge is the state’s understanding of the importance of this function. We are making a lot of efforts to convince both the state and society of the importance of cultural diplomacy in the period of war and post-war reconstruction. At the recent conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine in London, everything was discussed, but not the issue of culture. For me, this is an alarming signal that culture may again be “out of time” in the period of post-war recovery.

Another problem is money and resources because now culture in Ukraine exists with virtually zero funding for project activities. It cannot last long because our foreign partners are already exhausted and are beginning to reduce their support for Ukraine compared to 2022. We will also need to overcome the challenges of the post-war period. Yes, we charmed the whole world with our resilience, bravery, and humanity, but the recovery of Ukraine will be accompanied by many communication and reputational risks. Perhaps it will be even more difficult for us than it has been so far.

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