A common misperception is that Odesa is a city of the Russian Empire: “founded by Catherine the Great” and all that. Odesans speak Russian, and this is confused with the country that today calls itself the Russian Federation. But this confusion is deliberate and malicious. In fact, Odesa is a Ukrainian city, a European city, and a multicultural city, and this has only been obscured by a couple of centuries of foreign occupation. “Treason” or “betrayal” is an apt term for the perversion of history and culture and language that was carried out by the Russian Empire and by Soviet Russia against Odesa. In Ukrainian the word is ЗРАДА, zrada. I’m sitting in front of a mural at the Museum of Modern Art of Odesa, and that is the word that is repeated along its border.
In the middle of the 19th century, Odesa was overwhelmingly Ukrainian. This census of 1851 shows that 69% of the residents of Odesa were Ukrainians (derogatively called “Little Russians” under foreign occupation by Muscovy). Russians were only the fifth most numerous ethnic group, after Ukrainians, Moldovans, Jews, and Germans. After 1991 independence but even more after the 2013-14 “EuroMaidan” events which became known as the Revolution of Dignity, Odesa is Ukraine. It is Ukrainian once more, and Ukrainian as always.
Odesa is not an ancient city like some cities in Ukraine, but nevertheless war has come to this Black Sea port many times. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Odesa was briefly the scene of a “hybrid war” attack by Russia, which was defeated by Ukrainian patriots. Unfortunately, these attacks succeeded in Crimea and Luhansk and Donetsk, and the foreign invaders from Muscovy have not yet been pushed out of those regions of Ukraine. Odesa has the feel of a Home Front city — the war seems far away, and has no noticeable effect on day-to-day life. Street entertainers play music on Primorsky Boulevard near the famous Primorsky Stairs or Richelieu steps. A photo exhibit shows scenes of Odesa at peace.
On the panels facing in the opposite direction, the photo exhibit shows scenes of Odesa at war. The men photographed are volunteers who serve on the front line in Luhansk and Donetsk regions, in the trenches against the Russian invaders. A war is raging 600 km to the east, but the only sign of that in Odesa is this art installation and the soldiers in uniform you see often in the streets.
The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry is a monumental work of over 300 embroidered panels, illustrating the influence that Scots have had on the world. It is touring the world, and this month it is in Ottawa, at the Ottawa Public Library. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry is the work of volunteer embroiderers from all over the world, many of them descendents of the the Scottish migrants whose achievements are chronicled in the panels. This panel shows Scottish Country dancing, which thrives in Ottawa and wherever Scots have settled.
Accompanying the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry around the world as Tour Director is the Scottish artist Jenny Bruce. She gave a talk about the Tapestry, before conducting a tour through the library where the panels were on display. Here she is holding up the Scottish Country dancing panel, to show and talk about it’s intricate construction. Online information about the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry is here, and there is even a downloadable app to use while viewing the exhibition.
Kyiv is booming. A youth-driven cultural renaissance is taking hold after the EuroMaidan democratic revolution of 2013-14. Murals on the sides of apartment buildings, street art, music, online content of every description — you name it, and it’s happening in Ukraine. I came across this installation, called The Director, in Mariyinsky Park. Behind me is Mariyinsky Palace, undergoing substantial renovations. Behind that is the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, where a renaissance of another kind is going on: the rebirth of the nation through anti-corruption reform, lustration, decommunization, and waging war against invaders from Russia in southern and south-eastern Ukraine.
Andriyivsky Uzviz is the steep, winding, cobblestoned road between Podil, the lower town, and the upper town of Kyiv. I have been up and down this street many times, from 1992 to now. It has changed from a grim, Soviet, boarded-up thoroughfare to what it was always meant to be: a touristy, artistic, Bohemian mecca. In the context of the twenty-teens we’re living in now, that means it’s teeming with hipsters. This is me hamming it up with a statue of Mikhail Bulgakov, a famous Kyiv writer and the author of The Master and Margarita.
Art-Factory Platform is a creative space in an abandoned factory in the Darnytsya district of Kyiv. It houses IT workers, sports events, a food festival, and artists, and is a part of the creative renaissance in Ukraine that has picked up tremendously since the EuroMaidan revolution of 2013-14.
The most evocative piece among the installations in the exhibition space was “Separation,” created as a collaboration of 12 artists. The theme was clearly the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, and what has happened there since Russia invaded in 2014. The coal on the floor shows one of the major industries of Donbas. Coal runs through the installation, but it separates the two sides of the space; coal runs through Donbas, but free Ukraine is separated from the coal in its occupied territories.
The personal toll of separation is hinted at in this detail. Trenches run from Stanytsya Luhanska in the north-east to Shyrokyne in the south-west, like trenches ran from the English Channel to Switzerland during the First World War. Just under 2 million people are internally displaced by the Russo-Ukrainian War — they’re refugees in their own country — and the people who are left are the old and the poor. Elderly parents are separated from working-age children and grandchildren. Without words, “Separation” evoked some of the awfulness, some of the injustice, some of the inhumanity, of what is happening to Ukrainians because of Russia’s invasion.