As conflict drags on, Ukrainians spurn Russian culture


Kiev (AFP)

Five years ago Oleksandr Medvedev, like the vast majority of Ukrainians, would watch Russian movies and TV programmes and listen to Russian music.

But for him that changed after Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of a Kremlin-backed insurgency in the east of the former Soviet republic.

"I went cold turkey on it," says the Kiev-based Russian-speaker Medvedev, 45, who is now more likely to consume cultural offerings from his own country.

Medvedev's decision and the choices of many like him have given a boost to Ukrainian culture, from cinema to literature and television.

This weekend the country will vote in the first round of an unpredictable presidential election. The favourite, Volodymyr Zelensky, is an actor whose only political experience is playing the head of state in a TV show.

Whoever wins the vote -- Zelensky, incumbent Petro Poroshenko or ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- Ukraine's cultural drift away from Soviet-era master Moscow is likely to continue.

Kostyantyn Doroshenko, an influential Ukrainian art critic, described the 2014 crisis as a point of no return for the domestic cultural scene.

"Moscow always had more money, more opportunities, and the older wave of Ukrainian artists was influenced in a way by the Moscow public, Moscow tastes, Moscow dealers," he said.

Five years ago, however, Ukrainian artists refused to participate in a major biennial in Russia.

"I saw with my own eyes how this Russian prestige broke down in a flash," Doroshenko said.

- Making Russia great again -

Russian cultural products have become less widespread in Ukraine -- partly because of Ukrainians' personal boycotts, partly because of restrictions imposed by authorities.

Olena Lobova, a partner in a PR firm and the mother of a young daughter, said she had made a conscious decision not to watch movies "made by an aggressor state" -- referring to the conflict in the east of the country that has so far cost 13,000 lives.

Like many others in Ukraine, Lobova sees modern Russian cinema as a tool to promote Moscow's military might and imperial ambitions.

"These are definitely not the values we share," Lobova said.

Even Russian cartoons like the world-popular "Masha and the Bear" have episodes in which the young female lead dresses in a military uniform and sets out to attack others, she added.

Ukrainian sociologist Kateryna Ivaschenko agreed, saying: "No matter what the story is about, there's always a promotion of the idea of making Russia great again".

Ivaschenko stressed however that, while pro-Western intelligentsia has been quicker to seek alternatives to Russian culture, other parts of Ukrainian society still rely on Russian output.

- Millions invested in cinema -

Ukraine has started to develop a domestic film industry that was in ruins after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2018 the government poured a record 1 billion hryvnia (around $37 million, 32 million euros) into film production, compared to just 25 million hryvnia in 2014.

Kiev meanwhile imposed quotas demanding that TV channels offer at least 75 percent of their programming in Ukrainian and that radio stations play at least 35 percent of their songs in the language.

Dozens of Russian performers who spoke out in support of the annexation of Crimea or Moscow-backed rebels have been banned from entering Ukraine by the country's security service.

Other Russian artists have chosen to stay away from the country of their own accord.

- Global attention -

The pro-European Maidan uprising that led to the Russia crisis drew the world's attention to Ukraine.

This gave local artists a global boost, according to Nata Zhyzhchenko of the Ukrainian electronic folk band ONUKA.

The Ukrainian band KAZKA's hit "Plakala" or "Cry", for example, recently topped a Russian music channel chart -- whereas previously cultural products moved largely in the opposite direction.

The sale of Russian books has also dropped off, after Kiev made the process of importing works that could contain "pro-Russian propaganda" more complicated.

Some publishing houses are meanwhile making efforts to increase the proportion of their books published in Ukrainian.

Vivat, based in Ukraine's mostly Russian speaking eastern city of Kharkiv, said its Russian-language output had since 2014 decreased from 30 percent of its total to just five percent.

- Soviet-era methods -

Government interference in the cultural sphere has caused some controversy within Ukraine.

Some balk at moves to reduce the amount of Russian-language programming in a country with large Russian-speaking communities, while others see authorities attempting to revive restrictive methods from the Soviet era.

"Quotas themselves did not solve anything", said Sergiy Kuzin, a host at the popular Ukrainian station Radio Rocks.

"A decent song will still get to people, whether it's on the radio or not.

Yan Valetov, a Russian speaking science fiction writer, said the country should focus on the content rather than the language of individual works.

"There are plenty of mediocrities who write rubbish in Ukrainian," he said.

"We shouldn't replace culture with provincialism," Valetov added.