4th Danube Conference on Culture

November 24, 2016

see Ruse, Bulgaria

by Iryna Vikyrchak


Rose Ausländer, a Jewish German-speaking poetess born in Czernowitz, the capital of Bukowina, eastern for-post of the Austro-Hungarian Empire back then in 1901, is the author of one of my favorite poems, which sums up her nomadic life. It is not the words themselves that attracted my attention, but the way author presented different stages of her life. Every place she lived, every new location she had to flee to, was connected to a river. The Pruth – in Czernowitz, where she was born; the Danube – in Vienna where she had to flee at the age of sixteen; the Hudson River – in New York, where she spent many years after World War II. All three of them appear in the poem “Autobiography in Rivers”.

Every school history course starts with introducing the approach of the ancient people to choosing the place of settlement: they would stay close to water. Rivers were giving them everything to satisfy their hunger and thirst, protected them from the enemies and were a crucial element to let the life bloom around them.

Later in history, the rivers grew the largest cities “on them”, supporting the vital system of the entire societies.

Some of the rivers became borders, lines of division of the land and people.

Some united empires along them.

Rivers are also perfect for describing one’s biography. Not only of a country, but also of a person.

The Dniester.

 The place where I was born has an unusual landscape. It is a peninsula, surrounded by the Dniester river. It starts somewhere high in the Carpathians and flows through the whole western part of Ukraine and part of Moldova and flows into the Black Sea. I still return to “my” Dniester, regularly. This river has never disappeared from my personal map. It never can. On the side of the Dniester Canyon I went to school, learnt to read and write, learnt my first English words, read my first serious books. Still, the Canyon is the place of power for me. Dniester is my personal archi-river.

It is very difficult to stay in this town for a longer time. It survived it’s best years in 1930-s, when it was part of the III Rzeczpospolita. Back then, along with Gdynia and Zakopane, Zaliszczyki was one of the most popular resorts in Poland. A super-fast train called “Torpeda-Lux” could develop the speed up to 300 km/h was especially designed to take the tourists from Warsaw and Cracow to Zaliszczyki. Back then, it was full of beautiful villas, vineries, and beaches along the shore. Now, the only famous thing about Zaliszczyki is its panoramic view: no any hand-made adjustments, just what Mother-Nature gifted us with. Young people, after graduating strive to leave their home to bigger cities with opportunities, cinemas, dancing classes, theaters, concerts, festivals. Smaller towns in Ukraine are quiet. And usually neglected. But when we organized a series of culture and arts events here, the demand for cultural products was expressed by the local audience. Ukraine is heavy centralized, and the decentralization processes needs also to be conducted in the sphere of culture.

The Pruth.

 The Pruth has become my second river. Mountainous and unpredictable, it flows though Czernowitz, where after finishing my studies I have started my career as a cultural manager and got acquainted with Rose Ausländer’s poetry. But not only with her. Having being also myself a poet, I started working for the crazy idea of creating an International Poetry Festival in Czernowitz. It was back in 2010. The term “culture manager” hasn’t yet existed in my reality. Every time they asked me what I do and I answered “a poetry festival”, I would get the next question: “Yes, this is clear, but what is your job?”. Everybody reacted like this: friends, family, random people on the train with whom we would strike up a conversation. Well, I was lucky to have also a “real” job – teaching English at the university. A teacher, a doctor, a salesperson, an entrepreneur – these were the known professions. Culture worker (not an artists) raised endless amounts of questions, lack of understanding and sometimes even despise. I worked as an executive director of the festival till 2013, having created four first editions of the festival, starting a publishing house and a literary residency in Czernowitz. Nowadays, this poetry festival has become the face of the city, its cultural identity. The city dwellers do not imagine their city without its brand. The audience grew, the authors of the publishing house are the most known Ukrainian writers in Europe. It is very important to mention, that the concept of the Meridian Czernowitz festival is based on the solid foundation – cultural heritage (especially the literary one) from the Austro-Hungarian Empire time. Before that, the historical origin of the city was only seen through the facades of the buildings. But when the sound of German language was brought back to the streets of Czernowitz through the poets, who attended the festival, the identity of the city was re-created. We faced its history, its traumas, its victories and its multicultural past through the means of art – and brought the city back onto the European cultural map.

go   The Dnipro.

click here  In May 2016, half a year ago I moved to Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine. The city was not new to me. I would travel there every two weeks for meetings with official and Embassy representatives. In a centralized country, you cannot avoid traveling to the capital city if you are running international projects. And Ukraine is a huge territory. Trip from Czernowitz to Kyiv takes a fourteen hour ride on the overnight train. Just to compare, it is three times larger, than Poland, and, let’s say, fifteen times larger then the Netherlands.

Vera Bagaliantz, the former director of the Goethe-Institute in Kyiv (may her soul rest in peace) used to repeat often: remember, when everything is bad in politics and economics, culture will always be the bridge for peace. Peace and mutual understanding between cultures, nations, people. Vera did a lot for Ukrainian culture scene, but most important, it will not be an exaggeration, that with her activities she shaped a scene of culture professionals called “culture managers”. Thanks to her and to the Goethe-Institute Kyiv what I have been doing is known here as “culture management” and that is extremely important for the society. Especially in the time of crisis, when people are longing for arts and only managers can build mechanisms for artists meet their audience properly.

Right after moving to Kyiv I took part in the competition for the position of the Head of the National Desk of Creative Europe program and received most points out of the 59 candidates. I felt right away that I am a perfect candidate for this job, having a lot of international experience by that time. Ukraine joined the Creative Europe program officially exactly a year ago, in November 2015 and it is the first year for us when Ukrainian cultural actors can apply for it and participate with their European colleagues in the contest for financial support of their projects.

It was a huge victory for Ukraine to join it, a “global” one. Why? Because there, on Majdan in winter 2013-2014 Ukrainians proved their will to continue in European direction. Any doubts or questions about his should not have place at all. Now, the special conditions under which Ukraine joined the Creative Europe program are a unique chance for our society to integrate and use the culture, ‘soft power’ as the bridge and be on the same map with EU countries. Well, not politically, not economically, not even on the map of visa-free zone, but culture is a basic human right, it is universal, it is informative, and it is crucial for mutual understanding and sustaining peace.

With the beginning of the war-conflict on Donbas, it has become obvious, how culture is important for the national security reasons. For European security. What was initiated by Russia in the East of Ukraine is a very special kind of war – a hybrid kind of war. War, where information space is also a battlefield. Even here, even today. Unfortunately, Donbas and the South of the country have been neglected in the sense of cultural and informational policies all the time since Ukraine’s independence in 1991. This is the main and true reason for the unfortunate events of which you, dear audience, are aware.

On the other hand, there was a huge positive impact on our society: it has become homogenous because of the displaced persons who fled the conflict zone for other regions, thus we learnt to accept different “regional” and ethnic identities of a Ukrainian citizen [yes, Ukraine is very multiethnic country, more than 130 ethnic groups are counted here].

The Danube.

 The day I received invitation for this conference in Ruse from Márton Méhes, I was reading the book by Elias Canetti “Crowds and Power”. I got it at a “Shakespare & Company” bookstore in Vienna. It was a nice coincidence. Having walked into the bookstore with a friend, I sat down on a chair to let my feet rest after a long walk and here it was – my eyes stopped at the cover and I immediately knew I have to take it home. “Crowds and Power” – is the exact description of the momentum events that happened in a recent past in my country. I was part of that crowd there, on Majdan, my friends were, members of my family were. And only in Canetti’s book it was clearly written what the crowd is, how the crowd acts, what are the psychological forces that create an organism out of the gathering of people. Oscar-nominated film “Majdan” by Serhii Loznytsia  shows the events in Kyiv from the winter two years ago as one character of his movie, one body that acts and lives as one complex creature. But in the core of Majdan protests there were cultural activities that sustained the people there through the whole cold winter, until the dictator and oligarch finally left the country. The price was high, but now we, the Ukrainians, have proven our will to be Europe, to integrate West and we have to offer a lot to the West as well. Participation in the European cultural programs is an example of the goal of Majdan. And I feel very responsible coordinating it. Responsible in front of my people.

But coming back to the river in the title of this chapter. In August, I was a writer-in-residency at KulturKontakt Austria in Vienna. The apartment where I stayed was right next to the Danube canal. Every morning I would go for walks along the river. And Ukrainian folk songs, featuring the Danube came to my mind. Like, songs about Cossacks, love stories from that epoch etc. “How strange” – was I thinking to myself, – now, two distant countries, different languages, different cultures, different parts of Europe and different people with their history, sometimes common, sometimes different, like now, but united by a river.

Anyway, what is a history of humankind, if not the history of rivers?