Ukraine: After the revolution

Artist in Ukraine

By Joachim Jansen

 

The sun is setting as I climb the hill behind the Maidan square in Kiev – I am set to meet up with the two original members of the experimental rock band Reve ta Stohne, subject of a documentary that shows their journey into Poland, struggling to get around while looking for gigs.

They invited me to the premiere of this documentary at the Docudays documentary festival in Kiev and asked me to meet them prior to the screening in what they call their ‘squat’ – it is located right behind the epicentre of the ‘Euromaidan’ revolution that ousted the sitting president Yanukovich.

The squat, built around 1900, and now “owned by some oligarch,” is the home and hangout for a crowd of painters, musicians, artists, eccentrics and oddballs in the capital of the largest and poorest country of Europe.

The squat is invisible from the street as it’s surrounded by colossal blocks of taller and newer buildings, draped with beaming logos. It is also concealed by the stately October Palace, which overlooks the Maidan from a hill.

It holds a grim position in Ukrainian national history; this is where the Soviet secret service killed those they deemed ‘public enemies’ – some studies estimate that more than 120,000 people lost their lives in the corridors of this palace, among them many painters, writers, artists and other intellectuals.

Graffiti alongs the walls in Ukraine

Street art covers many of the walls in Ukraine.

Outside, I meet the 28-year old Eugene Slavyanov, who looks at me with soft blue eyes and greets me with a smile that bares a chipped front tooth, giving him a distinctive appearance and, he says, nicknames like ‘toothy’ and ‘beaver’.

He leads me up the dusty stairway; the halls are painted in warm colours and sinuously drawn faces look back at me. There are around five or six people in the squat. Sitting in the narrow kitchen, they are cooking, eating, smoking and playing music.

Sitting on a squeaky sofa in the room next-door is Max Ostiak, a bearded man of 29 years-old, with a messy black top knot and big brown eyes. With Eugene, he formed the band Reve ta Stohne in the first spring after the revolution of 2014.

He is sitting alongside the wall in a room with a low stage and an open door to the balcony, where people are smoking and talking. In the windowsill, a broken acoustic guitar hangs, tied together above a stack of Ukrainian books and a seized riot police helmet.

The walls of the squat are clad with such reminders of the 2014 revolution. Remnants are hung in the windows like relics in altars. Weathered helmets, newspapers and even a jagged bulletproof vest are on display.

The revolution had a strong impact on the spirit of the squat. Because of its central position between the Maidan protestors and the government forces, the squat became a barracks where people would prepare for the battle that was happening on their doorstep.

A defaced drawing of Putin on a wall

Walls have become a form of communication and protest – Russian president Vladimir Putin is a regular target

“We created Molotov cocktails in the basement,” Max says. “50?!” He exclaims, after I guess at how many he made. “No, 500!“

It was easy to make so many, he says, hailing the unity on the streets: “If we were out of petrol, we would just walk out on the Maidan, holding our hands out, clamouring for gas to make Molotovs. Within seconds our hands would be filled with thousands of hryvnias [the Ukranian currency].”

It became too dangerous and I realised it wasn’t worth it. I am a peaceful person. And after that bullet I became peaceful again

Everybody involved in the squat participated in the revolution, not only making Molotov cocktails but also preparing food. Eugene went a step further when he joined the front line, throwing Molotovs and rocks at the riot police. “You don’t think about the fact that they are also Ukrainians: they are the enemy.”

He quit after a rubber bullet hit him in the forehead. “It became too dangerous and I realised it wasn’t worth it. I am a peaceful person. And after that bullet I became peaceful again.” Why did he join the fighting in the first place? “I wanted to feel like a man. And once I did, I wanted to explore that.”

Speaking haltingly while smoking a cigarette, he says that he wanted to see what it’s like to be part of a crowd. “It felt like I was using amphetamines, it was very emotional. I felt depersonalised – my ego was gone.”

You don’t think about the fact that they are also Ukrainians: they are the enemy.

At the peak of violence during the revolution, 88 people lost their lives in a matter of 48 hours. Heavy clashes between protestors and police forces left the Maidan square blackened and burning.

“Lots of people think a revolution is bad, but I think it’s good because of the impulses it gives during and after it,” Eugene says. “When you read news about someone dying, it’s far away. But when you see a body on the street, gushing with blood, you re-evaluate yourself and what you think about death.”

He says a revolution is inspiring, because at a rapid pace, human communication is magnified. “You see relations between people. Tenderness, aggression. That all comes together during the revolution.”

A group of artists drinking and playing music

Squats regularly play host to groups of artists and musicians drinking and playing music

A year after the revolution and forming Reve ta Stohne, Max and Eugene took the train to Poland looking for gigs to finance recording an album.

This journey has been documented in Reve ta Stohne: On Tour! by the Ukrainian director Nadia Parfan. They are seen living the life of struggling artists, desperately looking for a venue that will have them.

The premiere is starting soon and we leave the squat in a hurry. Dusk is setting and it is rush hour on the Khreshchatyk, the main street of Kiev. We push through the crowd and we swerve past street vendors and men offering to take your picture with a monkey that they carry on their shoulders.

When you read news about someone dying, it’s far away. But when you see a body on the street, gushing with blood, you reevaluate yourself and what you think about death.

“You’ll see us washing dishes in Poland,” Eugene says with a raised voice, speaking over the noise of the cars. “Living the real bohemian lifestyle.”

The Euromaidan revolution took place in the winter of 2014 after the Ukrainian government suspended signing a treaty with the EU that would strengthen ties with Europe.

Instead, President Yanukovich signed a pact with Russia – this ignited demonstrations in the pro-European capital, fuelled by citizens’ bitterness over their corrupt government.

Over the course of the winter, tens of thousands joined the protest, some sleeping in the Maidan square, enduring temperatures far below freezing. Government forces tried to put down protests violently and more than a hundred people were killed.

Eugene keeps the same facetious distance to the events throughout the documentary. Huddled together with Max on a gritty staircase in Poland, they quibble over whether to write REVE TA STOHNE all-caps in an email to impress the owner of a club. Eugene is eating an unspecified pink substance out of a plastic cup in a grey room. “The real artist life,” he says.

A wall covered in graffiti by local artists.

Many walls are covered in graffiti by local artists.

The name of the band translates to ‘Roars and Groans’, an ironic name as if to prepare for a crowd’s first reaction. The two men are endowed with massive baritone voices, which they use to combine traditional throat singing with rock music.

This juxtaposition results in a strange sound, reminiscent of a shamanic ritual and the groove-heavy stoner-rock that emerged from the psychedelic sixties and seventies.

“You can call it shamanic ethno-grunge,” he later suggests, his voice echoing in the microphone during their rehearsal in their other hangout, their ‘art squat’ in the Podil area of Kiev, where during Soviet times all the blacksmiths worked.

After Ukraine’s independence in 1991, many of the buildings became deserted. In recent years, all kinds of artists and clothing designers started occupying the empty buildings.

The bands’ new bassist, Zhenia Kotenko, works as a photographer and has his lab in the neighbourhood. This is where he and the new drummer Maxym Kudymets, also a photographer, work together. Across the street there are two clubs that play electronic and alternative music.

We are now forming our own national identity. That is really the problem of our generation.

They practice in a room that used to be tailor’s workshop where military uniforms were made; in here, I first witnessed how their music washes over you and coupled with their new drummer, the throat singing becomes even more haunting.

The groove becomes steady and lures you into a trance while Max, who is standing there, looking up with his arms wide, palms facing upward, brings forth a droning bass that could summon back the dead.

It is experimental and it isn’t one-size-fits-all. This is underscored in the documentary. It shows a gig where an audience of around 20 people are bobbing their heads, seemingly trying to comprehend the music, while one guy is bouncing up and down the empty space before the stage.

It is a documentary about two experimental musicians, but also about finding artistic expression in a country full of contradictions and paradoxes.

The underlying story of the documentary is that of young Ukraine, looking for a way to express these contradictions. Ukraine is a country with a long history and, seemingly, a perpetually uncertain position in the world.

After the premiere, a crowd gathers outside the old Soviet-style movie theatre to smoke. The 24 year-old French Literature student and singer Ella Yevtushenko takes a quick drag of her cigarette.

“The problem with Ukraine,” she says, “is that it is located right between the East and the West. Both Russia and Europe have influenced us.”

“We are now forming our own national identity. That is really the problem of our generation,” she says. Her 21 year old friend and high school Ukrainian literature teacher Yanina Dyiak is standing next to her and adds: “We never had the possibility to unite.”

Right now, Ukrainian culture is being born. The thing is that, after our independence, Russian influence didn’t stop. And still, to us, Ukrainian culture is always a challenge to Russian culture.

Well into the celebrations of the premiere, a bald man with smiling eyes and a black goatee says that Ukraine’s location isn’t necessarily a problem.

“We are on the edge of Europe and Asia and we combine those cultures.” The man’s name is Bogdan-Oleg Horobchuk, a Ukrainian poet with four published books to his name. “All Ukrainian culture,” he says, “is a contradiction of those cultures.”

He tells me that the problem young Ukrainian artists now face is decades of Soviet influence in Ukraine. “We are very open by ourselves,” he says, “but because of the history we worry about creating and expressing. We are blocked by historical inconveniences; Russian culture tried to put down Ukrainian expression, we were told to hold our expression.”

“So nowadays we are always comparing ourselves to Russia – and fighting it.” Ukraine is looking to establish a culture and a corresponding national identity that is no longer crushed by outside influences.

“After our independence in 1991, we became more free in every part of society,” he says. “We now have the possibility of opening up every hidden power of our society we couldn’t open in history. Right now, Ukrainian culture is being born. The thing is that, after our independence, Russian influence didn’t stop. And still, to us, Ukrainian culture is always a challenge to Russian culture.”

A couple hugging in an artist's squat

Relationships take on many meanings in an artist’s squat

For many people, this Russian influence was the reason to go out onto the streets during the revolution in the winter of 2014; eventually President Yanukovich fled the country, but it set in motion a string of events that led to the dissatisfaction that people feel today.

A separatist movement in the east of Ukraine led to war and the Crimean peninsula was illegitimately annexed by Russia. Two years after the revolution, Ukrainian newspapers have daily reports about Yanukovich-era politicians regaining a seat somewhere in the government.

Ukrainian national identity is under duress and people feel like the revolution hasn’t changed much. This is a challenge to artists, says Bogdan-Oleg Horobchuk: “Our political and economic systems are still corrupt – we have an oligarchy – but the people are trying to do vital work and they try to create a new culture.”

“Nothing happened, fucking nothing happened,” says 24-year old performance artist and sculptor Yanka Bachynska. She uses the word “inertia” several times to explain why nothing happened.

If you say something unpatriotic, it must mean that you are a separatist!

“The same people who were in charge before the revolution, are still there.” But she is not surprised. “There are still people in charge who were there when it was still the Soviet Union!”

She says the climate for artists has worsened since the revolt; the country has become nationalistic and militarised, and walking through Kiev, it’s difficult not to notice.

It is common to see men wearing a soldiers’ uniform, casually walking down the street. And the yellow and blue of the national flag are painted everywhere and waving in every direction you look.

During the Maidan revolution, it was a common slogan to yell “Glory to Ukraine!” Anybody who heard it was then supposed to reply by calling “Glory to the heroes!”

Bachynska wanted to challenge this idea and made a piece in the colours of the flag with the text changed to “Glory to life! / Shame to the heroes”.

She tells me a story of how she was threatened after an exhibition she organised. She noticed a strange car that had been standing outside for hours. She didn’t think much of it, she says, but when she left, the car was still there and some men she didn’t know stepped out and demanded that she get in.

“Four hours of hard conversation” followed, she says. “They were not happy with the things I made. I thought, it would not be outside imagination that they would drive me out into a forest and beat me.”

A bike and a soldier's helmet in a squat.

Squats have become filled with pre-revolution artefacts

“In many ways, freedom has become limited,” she says. “It is now forbidden to criticise the army. Because, of course,” she continues sarcastically, “if you say something unpatriotic, it must mean that you are a separatist!”

In this Ukrainian context, the combination of throat singing with rock music may seem eccentric, but not absurd. In this context, Reve ta Stohne becomes an expression of the contradictions that Eugene and Max experience daily in Ukraine.

Though playing on the drizzly streets of Poland, they do stand out. The documentary shows people hurrying by, while attracting the odd passer-by who sticks around for a bit, trying to decipher the look and sound of these two guys.

It becomes clear that the band seeks out these juxtapositions, as the next shot shows their backs and a church across the street, almost mockingly tolling its bell through their song.

This documentary of the bands’ journey into Poland can be interpreted for its artistic value, showing young Ukrainians bringing an unconventional act into Europe, looking for gigs and acknowledgement of Ukrainian expression.

The documentary finishes with bands’ song Urlanda, or ‘Self-altars,’ a tribute to self-actualisation. As the screen fades to black, we hear the booming drone of the two singers:

“Why should you look for co-authors / While you created forever / And then just repeated yourself / It depends on how you perverted it all/ We are all self-provocateurs / we are all self-creators / we are all self-innovators / we are all self-altars to ourselves.”

 

 


All images by Iren Moroz