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The Power of the Arts in War Time: Ukrainian Artists Confront Russia

December 7, 202315:12

In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, Distinguished Fellow Blair Ruble discusses his new book, “The Arts of War: Ukrainian Artists Confront Russia, Year One.” The stories in the book, “highlight the ways in which Ukrainians have long explored the meaning of their country and culture through the arts; and the manner in which the arts and their creators have empowered Ukrainians to confront the Russian invaders.”

Episode Transcript

  • This is an unedited transcript

    00:00:11:01 - 00:00:17:23
    Hello, I'm John Milewski. Welcome to another episode of Wilson Center NOW, a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

    00:00:18:01 - 00:00:38:15

    My guest today is Blair Ruble. Blair is Wilson Center, distinguished Fellow. And speaking of distinguished, his Wilson career includes service as vice president of programs and also director of three different programs Comparative Urban Studies, Global Sustainability and Resilience, and, of course, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies. And Blair, that's not even mentioning the seven books that you've authored before this one.

    00:00:38:15 - 00:01:00:15

    So quite a prolific record of achievement. And today we're going to be talking about Blair, his latest work, The Arts of War. Ukrainian Artists Confront Russia. Year one. I'll ask you about that later, that potentially a year or two in the works. So, Blair, welcome. Thanks for joining us. Good to be here. So tell us about the origins of the book, how this came about.

    00:01:00:15 - 00:01:21:04

    I know it's a compilation of blog posts. What inspired you to get started and how did it end up being? Well, it all happened kind of accidentally. I had I was approached, three or four years ago by Ukrainian scholars about publishing a Ukrainian translation of one of my books. And that book came out in December of 2021.

    00:01:21:04 - 00:01:53:07

    And the idea was there would be a book tour in 2022. So when the war started, I was in touch with Ukrainian colleagues, particularly in the arts, because the book, The Music of Urban Delirium, looked at the arts and I, I reached out to them, obviously on the morning of February 22nd and asked what was going on. And I began to hear stories of people in the arts community really rallying to resist Russia.

    00:01:53:10 - 00:02:26:07

    Some took up arms and other took up their creative capacity and imagination. So I wrote a piece about Odessa, and then I wrote another couple pieces that came from these contacts and the folks at the Kennan Institute. And I decided, well, maybe this would be a weekly blog post. And that's what it has turned into. And the first 50 are compiled in this book, and there have been of almost 40 more since since since this was assembled.

    00:02:26:08 - 00:02:51:21

    Wow. And so, I mean, I know we always look for silver linings in dark times because we want we want some hope. But I think it's not a stretch to see that the war has increased this sense of Ukrainian identity. Well, it not only has increased the sense of Ukrainian identity, but it also has, I think, rallied creative forces that some of which were there.

    00:02:51:24 - 00:03:23:27

    But I think it's added a whole new dimension to the art scene in Ukraine. And this was not predictable. And I have to say, when when we were coming through the close of 2021, I was not at all optimistic about Ukraine's ability to withstand very many shocks. But clearly, the invasion really set in motion a series of forces that have, have and will shape whatever Ukraine is moving forward.

    00:03:24:00 - 00:03:44:25

    It's it's obviously a difficult thing to measure. But how do you think about the role that the arts play at moments like this in good times? The arts are entertainment or a distraction, but in bad times. And you see it in the course of history of all nations. The arts become part of a movement, right? Part of a power for change.

    00:03:44:26 - 00:04:17:09

    Right. And I think this goes back to where the arts come from. You know, the performing arts in various forms go back to when we were gathered around campfires and they were a way of expressing who was around that pretty particular campfire and who wasn't being permitted to be in that that campfire. And I think that this all ties into issues of the identity of community, of of wellbeing.

    00:04:17:12 - 00:04:46:05

    And therefore, there's something very primal about artistic expression. And I think that's what emerges. At darker moments in our community's life. And I think this is one of many examples. You know, culture becomes almost the thing that people can lean on right at a time where geopolitics or other things are something to run from, not lean on. Talk to me about some of your favorite stories in the book.

    00:04:46:07 - 00:05:14:13

    I love the stuff about music because I and I've seen some of the video of people performing on a subway platform, which is now essentially a bomb shelter. Right, Right. I mean, some of the some of the favorite stories have to do with exactly that. How street artists went out and started painting walls and destroyed cities. Yeah. One motif was the sunflower, which is a symbol of Ukraine.

    00:05:14:15 - 00:05:56:18

    But I think the music, in part because the music doesn't necessarily require more than one person. It can evolve groups, but musicians went out and they took their saxophones and guitars and some became soldiers at the front and and performed during breaks and fighting. But many went out to not entertain, but gives sustenance to people who were cowering in makeshift bomb shelters and subway stations wherever they could be.

    00:05:56:20 - 00:06:33:29

    I think over time, the artists and the organizations have become more ambitious. So we're entering the Christmas season a year ago and Christmas puppet theaters across Ukraine put on special performances for kids and really tried to give kids something special in a time of war. And we don't think of puppetry necessarily as as a keystone to identity. But in fact, what they discovered was not only do the kids like it, but the adults.

    00:06:34:02 - 00:06:57:11

    It brought back positive memories for the adults attending as well. So so the puppetry story was somewhat unexpected to me. Yeah. You did a book event here at the Wilson Center and Ukrainian ambassador. U.S. was part of that. And I sat in and watched that. And one of the things I came away with this assertion that this is now become a significant source of national pride for Ukrainians.

    00:06:57:12 - 00:07:23:19

    Yes. Yes. It it you know, it all started with and it's a bottom up phenomenon. It started with individual artists doing what they could to express themselves. But pretty early on, Ukrainian government officials from the city and district level, all the way up to the national level began to realize that there was a positive force here and began to embrace it.

    00:07:23:19 - 00:08:03:13

    And it is. I mean, we've seen fairly ambitious orchestras traveling around ballet troupes. The army gives leave to permit some of the performers to go abroad because they realize it's a powerful message to send out to the world that we're still here. And it also shines a light on the fact that when it comes to the arts, Ukraine, Ukraine was there all along any way, but it was in the shadows of other other folks, obviously the Russians, but also the Europeans.

    00:08:03:13 - 00:08:26:02

    And and now it's very clear that Ukrainians can hold their own. I should tell our viewers and listeners that if you are interested in the event that I referenced the launch of Blair's book here at the Wilson Center, an appearance by the ambassador. It's available on the Wilson Center website. If you come the Wilson Center MORGAN you click the events tab to the right.

    00:08:26:02 - 00:08:52:00

    You'll see past events, and that's where you can find it. BLAIR The suggestion that you said in your opening remarks, and it's in the book as well, that we're getting hints and a preview of what a postwar Ukraine might look like. What are you talking about when you say that? Well, this goes back to what was a discovery for me, which is the power of a youth culture that grew up over the past 30 years.

    00:08:52:03 - 00:09:44:07

    And it it it's important for in many, many ways. But you now have large numbers of Ukrainians with no memory of the Soviet Union, with inbred hostility towards Russia and who are looking to the West. And I think if you take a look at it, Ukrainian hip hop has been important for the past 25 years. I think if you look at that culture, if you take a look at the rock groups who have oriented themselves towards Europe, I think what you begin to see is a younger Ukraine that is interested in innovation and along the lines of what they see happening in Europe.

    00:09:44:09 - 00:10:23:12

    I think Europe is more of a beacon for them than the U.S. is. But what that speaks to is a a a contemporary society that is playing by very different rules than their parents played by. I know you'll be modest about this, but I want to make an observation and ask you a chicken or egg question, which is in my almost 20 years of association with the Wilson Center, first from the outside, and then as an employee, I've noticed that the Wilson Center has had this beating heart of focusing on the arts and culture over time, and it's lessened in recent years as we've become more newsy.

    00:10:23:14 - 00:10:46:20

    But you are a keeper of the flame, sir. I mean, really, you have been a guy who, through your work inside and outside the center, keeps that flame alive. And my chicken or the egg question is, is this something that evolved from your work in politics and geopolitics as you started to notice the importance of culture, or did you bring this to the table initially were, you know, this is something I discovered along the way.

    00:10:46:23 - 00:11:20:15

    I remember fairly early on when I was director of the institute, one of our former scholars in Moscow said, Every time you come here, you're bogged down by looking at the heavy political issue. And every time you come here, I'm going to take you to a concert or a ballet performance. And I began to realize that, you know, I realized at some level before, but it really became ingrained that there was a whole level of how Russian society operated that was not visible.

    00:11:20:15 - 00:11:49:12

    If you just read the headlines and it became visible, if you went to theaters and went through particularly what might be thought of as second tier dance companies. And then when I began to engage with Ukraine, we opened up an office in Ukraine in the late nineties. I began to do the same thing in Ukraine, and I realized there's something else going on here that isn't captured by just looking at the politics.

    00:11:49:13 - 00:12:19:02

    And that's become a thread in your experience forever about sustainability, the whole nine yards. Yeah. You know, I've always wanted to ask you that and it took the context of this interview for me to say, Well, it was all iterative, you know, It was. I began to notice things. Now part of it is when I studied the Soviet Union, there was a strain of Soviet studies that actually looked to literature and the arts as a way for getting around the official take on what was happening.

    00:12:19:02 - 00:12:47:06

    So I was kind of primed from that background. But it really it really emerged from from what I was experiencing. So looking ahead year one, unfortunately the word doesn't have any clear end in sight. You'll be continuing this work. You said 40 blog posts since this book, right? And I the plan right now is to continue it once a week with a couple of breaks for holidays.

    00:12:47:06 - 00:13:10:05

    But basically once a week there'll be a new article. And where do you get the ideas for those articles? Well, it now they now people now they come to you can have they come to me but but it took scour I mean this would not have been possible without the internet. I mean a lot of this is scouring the internet but it's it's having in my mind the sense that I need.

    00:13:10:08 - 00:13:45:03

    I wanted also to use this as a way of telling a little bit of Ukrainian history is context. So I tried to move around the country. I tried to move around generations art forms. There are pieces on theater, dance, popular music, classical music, painting, traditional arts and so I try to mix it up and it basically takes spending a lot of time sort of poking around the corners of the Internet to begin to find things.

    00:13:45:03 - 00:14:06:06

    But because this is now so an artist here is that you did a piece about him or her, and then they tell a friend and they contact you directly. Right. Right. So and and and now artists will of various kinds will get in touch with me in advance. And then I can sort of interview them virtually and and so on.

    00:14:06:06 - 00:14:31:10

    So it's changed. But, but initially it really just came from the as I mentioned, the contacts I had developed leading me to new sources of information. And yeah, this is the other part of it's not surprising, but the future of Ukraine is going to be online. So this is all part of that change. Well, well, great stuff there.

    00:14:31:10 - 00:14:52:21

    Thank you very much. Congratulations. Thank you. The success of this project, I guess when you started, you didn't realize what I didn't know. What's been fantastic, you know, in dark times, as we mentioned, you need a little inspiration. There's a lot of inspiration here. So thank you very much. Well, thank you. If you're interested and you'd like to know more about this project and more, come to us and center dot org.

    00:14:52:21 - 00:15:00:06

    We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Milewski. Thank you for your time and interest.


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