Life Beyond the Center: Lessons from the War in Ukraine

IWMPost Article

Through their Unwinding Empire project, Daria Badior and Anastasiia Platonova seek to challenge the prevailing hierarchies of knowledge that privilege perceived centers and silence perceived peripheries. Here they consider how Ukraine’s successes and failures in decentralization over the past eight years might point to avenues for intellectual decentralization.

Since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine in February, we have constantly been thinking of what could be the main conclusions to be drawn about Ukrainian society and its enormous efforts to fight back. Over the last eight years, our country has lived through transformations caused by the desire to maintain democratic values of equality, transparency, and freedom. This desire was why the Euromaidan protests in late 2013 turned into the Revolution of Dignity and were followed by a nationwide emancipatory and decolonization project.

The horizontal volunteer network that emerged after Euromaidan and the decentralization reform started in 2015 support Ukraine’s army and the internally displaced people across the country. If power and money were centered in the capital (as they are in Russia, for instance), life during the war, supply chains, and gathering help for the army would be much more difficult. 

Since 2015, Ukraine’s regions have gained more autonomy in decision-making and more money to spend without Kyiv’s approval. The results are showing in 2022 with the new political and civic leaders who emerged in Kharkiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odesa acting and being responsible for their decisions to their neighbors, relatives, and schoolmates rather than just to a distant and vague center. 

Decentralization is heavily backed up by civil organizations inspired by the success of the Euromaidan volunteer movement. The winter of 2013 showed that to reach their goals and to achieve justice protesters could not leave Kyiv’s main square: tents were set up on the third day of the protests, and this later developed into a whole tent town divided into hundreds (sotni) with their inner structure and supply chains. As the revolution went on, the more structured and professional this became. No one knew then in the spring of 2014 that these self-organization skills would be tested on a nationwide scale under war circumstances. The volunteer energy and strong networks of the revolution supported the first defenders of eastern Ukraine and continue to do so now, efficiently raising and spending millions of dollars on supplies for Ukrainian soldiers.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s center is not as destabilized and fluid as in 2014, when the war in the east started. Today, political power—with its control mechanisms, media, and general indifference to the country and its future—has the trust of the people, in no small part because of the phenomenon of Volodymyr Zelensky. For now at least, the political center and the civil society created after the Revolution of Dignity are united.

The situation is not as good in the cultural sector, however, where the center was always a few steps behind the real actors in the field: artists, curators, culture managers, writers, and filmmakers. Since 2014, there have been some crucial reforms: the heads of state cultural institutions are now selected via competition; the project-funding process became more transparent with the creation of the Ukrainian Culture Fund; state institutions responsible for cultural diplomacy, the publishing industry, and film funding were established or reformed. 

Still, there are big gaps in the country’s cultural policies, and one of them is showing now. Over the past eight years, the Ministry of Culture did not learn the lessons from Russia’s occupation of Crimea and parts of Donbas, during which heritage objects were looted or even destroyed. Prior to the February invasion, it had not developed an infrastructure and proper legislation to prepare the museum sector to cope with such a crisis. 

The question is what can be done to save Ukraine’s culture heritage, museums, and their workers during this war. Should the ministry’s responsibilities be decentralized and given to people and institutions more capable of professional decisions? Since February, local initiatives led by museum workers, experts, and curators have proved themselves to be very effective in raising money and responding to their colleagues’ needs in the war-torn regions while the ministry is bound by regulations and limitations.

Moreover, we can extrapolate this question of decentralization from the national to the international level and ask whether major organizations like UNESCO or the Blue Shield have been effective since Russia started its war in Ukraine in 2014. None of the conventions about the protection of heritage are having an effect, and nothing can be done as these organizations do not have any significant mechanisms to punish Russia as the violator. 

The Khan’s Palace in the Crimean town of Bakhchisaray, one of the most prominent heritage sites of the Crimean Tatars, is being ruined by the Russian occupation administration under the pretense of restoration. Russian soldiers have mined the ancient heritage site of the Stone Grave (Kamyana Mohyla) in the Zaporizhzhia region. Russian troops have looted paintings by Arkhip Kuindzhi from the Mariupol museum: probably, these will be sent to Russia and will not be seen again unless the international community figures out how to make it restitute them. Ukraine already has a long list of objects to claim back, as do other “post-Soviet” countries that were stripped of their precious art objects in favor of the Russian center in imperial times. 

In times of crisis, as in the case of this full-scale war in the heart of Europe, perhaps it would be efficient for UNESCO and other international organizations to delegate more responsibilities to their regional branches or representative offices, which could monitor, analyze, and rapidly react to the developing situation. That would strengthen the expertise in the countries or regions concerned as well as providing these centers valid data and analytics.

Decentralization means decolonization, a refusal to take someone’s “central” expertise on faith unless it proves its value, openness to the “peripheries,” and self-reflection upon one’s privileges. It is built on the belief that even a unit or a person once considered minor can significantly contribute to a cause. This is how Ukraine’s army works now, too: with autonomous units making decisions and united by strategy.

Russia still has the reputation of a state with great culture and art that needs to be appreciated a priori. This claim is based on the old imperial stance of the center that does not tolerate any reflection and criticism. This type of thinking is now being proven wrong in Ukraine. The center—whether the Russian empire, the Soviet Union, or the Russian Federation—was valued by default while the accomplishments of peripheries were constantly undermined and lessened. It has taken a full-scale war to bring attention to Ukraine’s deep history and vivid culture. The next step is to give the country agency and hear what it has to say.

For the last eight years, Ukraine has undertaken many thorny discussions. Some were limited to specific communities; some were nationwide. Some will be recognized by other Eastern European nations as ones they have already been through; others can bring something new to the table for the whole of Europe and even the world. For example, about historical memory and its policies, the implications of the violence that took place in the twentieth century (and is still taking place now), the relations between the state and art and its makers, the utopia of various avant-gardes, the pain and the pride that heritage can bring, and the challenges of reevaluating the canons in different art fields and unwinding the visible and invisible threads of empire. 

These are topics that occupy biennales, film festivals, museum projects, and publications all over the world. Ukraine can contribute to them in a very original and significant way. So let us just put the vertical-oriented center away for a while and travel towards the horizon.

Daria Badior and Anastasiia Platonova are journalists, critics, and editors based in Ukraine. They were non-residential visiting fellows at the IWM in 2022.

This article appeared in the special Ukraine supplement to IWMPost 129