This Creative Ukraine is Multikulti by choice

by Andy Kozlov

Eurovision Song Contest – Baku 2012

In less than a month, Ukraine will be represented  at this year’s Eurovision in Azerbaijan by Gaitana-Lurdes Essami. Eurovision is one of the most watched non-sporting events in the world, held among active member countries of the European Broadcasting Union. And Ukraine’s face there will be the one of a young woman born to a Congolese father (Congo-Brazzaville) and Ukrainian mother. One more Gaitana factoid: this Afro-Ukrainian celebrity has pioneered R&B music in the Eastern-European nation. Not everyone in Ukraine is happy with Gaitana as the face of Ukraine. This is how William Lee Adams, staff writer at the London bureau of TIME, whose popular blog on the Eurovision quickly shot to #26 on WordPress.com’s Top Blogs indexdescribed the controversy:

While Gaitana won the support of Ukrainian voters — and the honor of representing Ukraine at the Eurovision final this May — she hasn’t won over Yuriy Syrotyuk, a high-ranking member of the ultranationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party. He doesn’t object to her upbeat song or her spilling cleavage. He objects to her race. “Gaitana is not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture,” he told the Kyiv Post at the end of February, adding that he preferred Gaydamaky — a Ukrainian group that performs Cossack rock, which draws inspiration from Ukraine’s rich musical heritage. “As we want to be accepted to the European Union, it could be our opportunity to show the Europeans that we are also a European nation. We need to show our originality.” As part of his xenophobic rant [sic!], he also suggested that Gaitana “will provoke an association of Ukraine as a country of a different continent.”

Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a media body funded by the US Congress that broadcasts in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, wasn’t that tendentious as Mr Adams, a Harvard psychology graduate with an MA in Southeast Asian Studies and Vietnamese. Radio Svoboda’s Halyna Tereshchuk talked personally to Syrotyuk and published his version of what happened:

Ні про яку расову дискримінацію не було взагалі мови. Розвернули інформаційну кампанію проти партії і мене. ..Я «буржуазний» український націоналіст, але я не расист.

We did not talk about the racial discrimination. This is an information campaign against my party and me. ..I am an Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist, but not a racist.

The Kyiv Post article referred to by Mr Adams quoted Syrotyuk as admitting that Gaitana is a “great singer.” The article went on to label his statements as racist. Although Syrotyuk does not call himself such.

After drawing a rather vindicative picture of Syrotyuk, the Radio Svoboda article discusses the underdeveloped legal procedures in Ukraine to fight ethnic and racial discrimination, and cites European (read ‘EU’) experts as saying that in Ukraine racism-based crimes are treated as mere hooliganism.

In the end, the whole Gaitana controversy, may boil down to the differences in defining how the term ‘racist’ is perceived in today’s Ukrainian society. Taking the media response to this race-cum-celebrity controversy further, one can observe the differences in the English (Western European) and Ukrainian historical memories of racism as well as in the media discourses between post-Soviet and post-colonial.

One thing is sure. There are ethnic Ukrainians in Ukraine and abroad who are vying for  more support to their traditional (and oppressed for many centuries) language and culture. And in so doing, they oftentimes overlook wider international dynamics in multiculturalism. One example of such negligence and, simply put,  lack of universal respect is a viral video by Maksym Kidruk, a young Ukrainianian globe-trotter and writer who divides his time between Sweden and Ukraine.

Mr Kidruk, a foreign-educated Ukrainian engineer, posted a YouTube video last month that critisizes Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s low level of knowledge of Ukrainian. During his last trip to Namibia, Kidruk made an amateur video with the local Himba people that criticize Mr Azarov in Ukrainian. Mr Kindruk taught them a couple phrases. The sound quality is low, and the accompanyning Ukrainian text underneath the video goes:

..блукаючи Африкою, я вирішив знайти яке-небудь плем’я і навчити його української. Щоби (хай як це дивно звучить) поставити негрів у приклад. Після тривалих пошуків мені це вдалося – і результат перевищив усі сподівання. Відтепер чорношкірі з племені хімба в Намібії розмовлять українською. Краще за пана Азарова. Устократ краще.

In this synopsis, black people are being instrumentalized and presented as someone unlikely to learn foreign languages and be an example of someone with such skills. Mr Kindruk goes on to say that, contrary to his expectations, the Himbas speak better Ukrainian than the Ukrainian Prime Minister.

Lady P, the real-life Sade, in the autopsy room on the set of “Feathered Dreams”

This being said, I think that, in pursuit to accommodate all ethnic and race groups in today’s Ukraine, Ukrainian society should do more than just follow letter-by-letter instructions from the European Union. One reason in favor of such position is the fact that the majority of Western Europeans still have lots to learn about their eastern neighbor. It’s a two-way learning process.

Attempts to build a multicultural society in Germany have “utterly failed”, Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted less than two years back. She said the so-called “multikulti” concept – where people would “live side-by-side” happily – did not work, and immigrants needed to do more to integrate – including learning German.

Learning a foreign language is certainly better than being exterminated in a gas chamber, something the German society has learned the hard way. Ukrainians should learn from the bitter German experience with other cultures and races that dates back to the 1930s and even earlier. – Make sure that the mistakes that were made in the Nazi Germany don’t repeat in Ukraine. While  German companies like Lufthansa should show more culture sensitivity, invest in learning more about their Ukrainian customers. (See Lufthansa Regional still gets Ukraine wrong) It’s a two-way learning process.

The journalistic “service” given to the Ukrainian people by Walter Duranty during the 1930s Holodomor is well-documented. The winner of the 1932 Pulitzer prize in journalism in the category of correspondence, for his dispatches on Soviet Union (called incorrectly Russia),
Mr Duranty wrote in the pages of The New York Times  that “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” and that “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” This was published by the Western paper praised the world around as a a touchstone of journalism. Meanwhile the famine was raging. (See My North Korean film classes in humanity and creativity)
Nigerian actress Omoni Oboli and Ukrainian actors and crew of “Feathered Dreams” getting ready for the Skinhead Attack scene
People working in the Western media themselves should remember about the ethical journalism principles, the ones the EU keeps promoting so vigorously outside its borders. Western international reporters working on a shoe-string budget shouldn’t forget that their potrayal of other nations can have catastrophical effects when it is not well-informed. It’s a two-way process.
Going back to the “Multikulti” Ukraine, I personally like to see it in terms of Pushkin’s Russia. Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin was a Russian author of the Romantic era who is considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin’s great-grandfather was Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an African page raised by Peter the Great.
Portrait of A. Pushkin by Konstantin Somov (1899)
Gaitana will hardly become the founder of modern Ukrainian poetry. But her ability in nation branding initiatives for Ukraine shouldn’t be underestimated.
Many Ukrainians still aren’t aware of such way of thinking about Gaitana. Neither are they aware of concious nation branding on the grassroots level when they sunbathe on the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt or chill out under palm trees in Thailand. Ukrainian society is still pretty much in the dark about cultural diplomacy tricks they could employ on behalf of their nation.
Brief tourism stints abroad are usually travel-agency planned and every in-land activity that has to do with foreigners (especially Westerners) is a status-symbol action.
From the point of view of multiculturalism, one can divide the Ukrainian society into three large chunks:
  • those who travel within the former Soviet Union
  • those whose relatives work abroad (usually in the EU and North America)
  • those who often travel, work, study outside of the former Soviet Union
The third category has two distinctive trends to it. There are former Ukrainian citizens who do their best to show off the newly-acquired citizenship somewhere in Italy or US. I personally saw one such gentleman who was going out of his element to make sure everybody waiting to board a New York-Kyiv flight sees his eagle-crested American passport.
Cosmos Ojukwu of a prominent Nigerian family lives and works in Ukraine (photo by Andy Kozlov, 2012)
The second trend is when Ukrainian nouveau riche, having enjoyed enough English tea and tasted German pretzels, start investing in foreign trips of their staff. An example of such would be an Eastern-Ukrainian organic fertilizer producer that sent their senior manager to Egypt on vacation with the family. The staff didn’t waste time and started pitching the company’s product to the Egyptians.
No matter what, Ukraine is hosting people from all corners of the world. And nowhere it can be documented better than in Kyiv, the country’s capital. Not unlike any other developing nation, Ukraine’s wealth and brainpower is concentrated in its capital.

Last week, I met Dayami Morales. I stopped by a beau monde gallery founded by this Afro-Cuban fashion model, a couple hundred meters from the main railway station, to discuss common charity projects in support of Ukrainian youth and Zimbabwean artists. (For the 6th consecutive year, the fast-food restaurant located by the train station took the 2nd place in the McDonald’s world of 33.000 outlets by the number of visitors.)

Below is a clip from a Russian-Ukrainian TV drama Ostrov nenuzhnykh lyudiej/The Worthless People Island where Dayami appeared as a dance instructor for the protagonists. The TV drama was shot in Kyiv and Thailand. It is a story of a Slav businessman who wants to get rid of his wife and invites her to go together on a cruise.

It was at Dayami’s that I met her Nigerian friend Cosmos Okigbo Ojukwu. Cosmos is married to an Ukrainian with two kids.  He contributes to What’s On Kyiv, English-language weekly covering culture and entertainment. Cosmos’ family members include Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra from 1967 to 1970, and Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu, the first and founding president of The Nigerian Stock Exchange as well as president of The African Continental Bank. When Queen of England visited Nigeria in 1956, she was chauffeured around by Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu’s personal driver. She drove in his Rolls Royce.

Cosmos got to interview former Portuguese European Commission Ambassador to Ukraine Jose Manuel Pinto Teixeira and a Nigerian member of the Ukrainian Union of Architects Alexis Opara. Mr Opara is also a Vice President of Dom Afriki/House of Africa, an Ukrainian NGO.

Dayami Morales also has an interesting story to tell. She is described by Business Ukraine as an exotic figure of Kyiv art world.

Born and raised in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Dayami had been a famous photo model who had served as a poster girl for the communist authorities, a job that involved travelling the world as part of trade missions.. It was work which the young Dayami found enormously rewarding, instilling in her a sense of pride and discipline while allowing her to travel the globe and grow accustomed to striding across the global stage at major international events. “My modeling experience in Cuba and representing my country around the world gave me the hope and courage I needed to make the best of my life. It also taught me how to carry myself in a ladylike manner whatever environment I find myself in.”

When Dayami Morales opened a gallery in Kyiv, her first project was with an Italian artist Francesco Bruscia (pictured) famous for his Hollywood-inspired works

Resident in Ukraine since 2005, Dayami first came to the country as the bride of a Russian-Belarusian rapper Seryoga. She met the Kyiv-based singer while on a modeling assignment for a video which the Russian-language star was shooting in her native Havana. In February 2007 the couple opened a rapper outfit store in Kyiv under the King Ring brand. This is how Dayami got to know many designers and fashion connoisseurs of the Ukrainian capital. Soon after that she began modelling for Ukrainian designers Sanatan and Inna Bogdanovich.

A painting by Jesús Ángel Bordetas whose works can be obtained through the gallery of Dayami Morales in Kyiv

When Dayami opened the gallery, her first project was with an Italian artist Francesco Bruscia to exhibit and sell his Hollywood-inspired works characterized by the flamboyant use of gold and silver on the images of the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn. Another artist whose paintings are sold through Dayami’s gallery is a Spaniard Jesus  Ángel Bordetas. He works at the crossroads of abstractionism and hyper-realism.

Cosmos and Dayami  are not the only creatives of African origin that work hard to put Ukraine on the mental map of the world as a multicultural nation.

Omoni Oboli and Lady P working on “Feathered Dreams” in a Kyiv park

When I was doing research for this article, I came across another inspiring example. Last October, the first Nollywood film was co-produced in Ukraine. Starring Nigerian celebrity Omoni Oboli and Ukrainian actor Andrew Rozhen, Feathered Dreams is based on the true story of a Nigerian girl sent to study in Ukraine. (See The first Nigerian film production in Europe. It turns Ukrainian phones red and challenges Half of A Yellow Sun in authenticity and We used to be glued to telenovellas: Ukrainian coproducer of a Nollywood flick thinks there is no way African films will be popular with the Post-Soviet viewer)

A scene from “Feathered Dreams,” first ever Nigerian-Ukrainian feature film produced in 2011

A young Nigerian girl Sade (the main character played by Omoni Oboli) dreams of becoming a singer, which was the last wish of her father. However, her father dies suddenly, and tragically. Complying with her mother’s desire, she is sent to study medicine in Ukraine. From dropping out of the university to near-death experience resulting from racial assaults by neo-Nazi youth, from homelessness to deportation for immigration law violations, Sade finds a boyfriend, who provides her with a safe haven and encourages her to believe in herself and achieve her dreams.

Feathered Dreams was produced by Highlight Pictures, a film investment company that also produced the first Ukrainian 3D feature Synevyr. (See We used to be glued to telenovellas: Ukrainian coproducer of a Nollywood flick thinks there is no way African films will be popular with the Post-Soviet viewer) From the Nigerian side, the production was overseen by Austeen Eboka and the above-mentioned Alexis Opara. Gaitana had also a contribution to make, according to some Ukrainian sites.

“Study in Europe,” says this poster in central Harare. Zimbabwean students are keen to go to Ukraine to study medicine and technology (photo by Andy Kozlov, 2011)
You can write to Andy Kozlov on andreakozlov@gmail.com
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