Bulgarian actor Dolya Gavanski and Ukrainian filmmaker Fedor Levchenko have teamed up to make Golos: Ukrainian Voices, a sensitive and insightful documentary about modern-day Ukraine. Although the film takes the Euro-Maidan demonstrations of late 2013 and 2014 as its starting point, the unrest is really just a pretext. In fact, Golos: Ukrainian Voices would be better described as an examination – and a probing one – of post-Soviet national identity.
Through interviews – in both Ukrainian and Russian – with ordinary people both in urban hubs like Kyiv, Odessa and Lviv, and in smaller villages, the film-makers take a look at the many different factors making Ukraine what it is today: its history dating right back to the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, all the way through the Russian empire and the Soviet Union, to its current incarnation as a modern independent state. The film details its swathes of national holidays, each with their own accompanying traditions; its unstable position bridging East and West; and its struggle in recent years and months for an identity linked to – yet distinct from – its Russian neighbours.
There’s no overtly political agenda here, but the director’s pro-European stance is clear. Opening shots of peaceful protests in Kyiv are accompanied by Gavanski’s voiceover lamenting Yanukovych’s decision in 2013 to distance his country from the EU by rejecting a deal for closer Ukrainian-European integration.
The views expressed by her interviewees, on the other hand, are strikingly disparate. Predictably, there’s a divide between those who want closer integration with Russia and those who’d rather keep their distance. But beyond this, there are also other things: those who feel a nostalgia for the Soviet era; those who take pride in Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage and its unique straddling of East and West; and those who despair at its lack of economic stability.
Gavanski and Levchenko don’t directly address the fraught question of language in Ukraine, but the interviews are done in a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. Although it’s tempting to suppose that people who choose to speak Russian support closer Ukrainian-Russian integration, and those speaking Ukrainian the opposite, Golos: Ukrainian Voices challenges the assumption. One Russian speaker’s overjoyed when she guides tourists from St Petersburg around Odessa, because it proves to her that Russians are still interested in Ukrainian culture as distinct from their own, and apart from the political unrest. An elderly Ukrainian speaker in a village meanwhile, recalling the Soviet Union, eulogises the relative stability of that time.
With the political and economic situation in Ukraine changing on a daily basis, it’s hard to find something steady and unchanging to latch onto, but Gavanski and Levchenko end up settling on national holidays. In addition to the near-universal ones – Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day and so on – there are two particular dates which, though technically international, take on their own sort of meaning in former Soviet states: International Women’s Day and Victory Day. In the way Ukraine celebrates both of them there’s something uniquely post-Soviet: large parades, lavish displays of cards and flowers, accompanying music and reams of ribbons. Though not everyone celebrates these days the same way (or even at all), the traditions passed on through the generations may have a more lasting influence on national identity than any war.
Like so many Eastern European countries, Ukraine’s borders and rulers have changed countless times. Before gaining independence as a modern nation-state, it passed through periods of domination as the medieval empire of Kievan Rus, and subjugation under both Polish-Lithuanian and Russian empires and later the USSR. Transience has been the hallmark of Ukrainian history, and we can only hope the same is true of the current conflict too. The question Golos: Ukrainian Voices asks isn’t how we can resolve the situation, but rather how Ukraine can craft a meaningful national identity: one that endures and remains distinct whatever history hurls at it in future.
Golos: Ukrainian Voices was shown as part of the ongoing cultural programme at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute, London.