Dash Arts has put on informal discussions about a host of countries and topics since 2010 – and in April 2016 it was time to discuss how artists from former Soviet countries feel about living next to Russia today. To start off the evening at Rich Mix, Belarusian troubadour Sasha Ilyukevich and his Highly Skilled Migrants performed several songs from their latest albums. Described as an ‘incomparable brew of post punk electric energy and folk lyricism’, the concert noisy but captivating, an otherworldly mixture of jazz and electronic beats with melancholic yet humorous lyrics in Russian, translated on the screen.
The idiosyncratic sounds of Ilyukevich and his band introduced the evening perfectly: chaired by Dash Arts’ Tim Supple, it included artist-participants from Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia, who recounted their personal experience of living with Russia now, and their memories of living within the USSR.
Having panellists from different generations and from the very West to the very East of the former USSR ensured lively discussion from the start – even with a simple question like ‘What’s your earliest memory of Russia?’ Answers were mostly positive and – from the Ukrainian Lubov Mikhailova (founder of the Donetsk platform for Cultural Initiatives) to theatre director Juraboev (Uzbekistan) – stressed the positive impact of their multi-ethnic upbringing, which Soviet occupation had enabled. To begin with at least, they emphasised that it wasn’t really ‘the Russians’ that were a negative force, but political powers (‘the party’ and its successors) – that distinctions had to be made between oppressive politics and a multi-faceted legacy of Russian culture.
Soon, however, much stronger opinions came to the fore, animated by questions and comments from the audience, which also polarised ‘Russian’ and ‘Western’ points of view: Kyrgyz dancer Saeeda Kasym and Juraboev acknowledged that the Soviet Union had brought industrialisation to their countries, but had also, with its downfall, taken it away again. Its legacy in their countries today is the idea that local languages and cultures are ‘backwards’, leading to mass-emigration to Russia by the young – who through financial necessity not only forego education in their countries for menial jobs with the big neighbour, but also live in conflict about which identity to turn to – Russian, ‘other’, or a bit of both?!
By contrast, Mikhailova and Georgian theatre director David Papava’s views of Russia were much more positive: Papava continually stressed his country’s close relationship with ‘brothers Russia’, regardless of the fact that 20 % of Georgian territory is still occupied by ‘the bear next door’. Mikhailova, from the war-torn Donetsk region, argued that there was in fact no issue between Russians and Ukrainians – the problem is those who sell arms. Mikhailova added – intriguingly – that Western fascination with ‘post-Soviet’ culture is nothing but a fad with no continuing relevance, a populist branding of a complex region that calls all sorts of artists ‘Russian’ for marketing value and convenience. Her blunt choice of words left her convictions in no doubt – yet can it really be that simple?
Finally, there was Belarusian ‘troubadour’ Ilyukevich, the youngest of the participants – and the most politically outspoken. Calling former Soviet leaders and their successors ‘psychopaths’ – as he did – may seem radical, but this statement was the evening’s most pronounced note of protest, fully acknowledging the inseparability of art and politics, and the social responsibility of the former, no matter in which genre. A generational divide maybe? Or a geographical one?
The discussion sought to ask questions and start a dialogue rather than find answers, and we were left with an open ending – yet it was one that made some things poignantly clear: living with ‘the bear next door’ is still a complex issue that brings up a host of uncomfortable identities, depending on which generation and which country you belong to. And, as the discussion showed, even though 25 years have passed since the end of the Soviet Union, its legacy is still to be processed…
The Bear Next Door: Living with Russia as Your Neighbour (20/04/2016) was part of the ongoing cultural programme at Dash Arts, London.