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4 October, 2017  ▪  Yelyzaveta Honcharova

The genetic code of activism

How the local women of Bakhmut change their region at home and perception of it elsewhere in Ukraine

Culture is a weapon. Especially during a war that it is now customary to call "hybrid", when Ukraine has to fight not only for every meter of its land, but also for the hearts and minds of local people. In front-line cities, there are people who are also trying to fight – in rather unconventional ways.

Svitlana Kravchenko is a folk artist from Bakhmut who has been arming herself and people in different parts of Ukraine for four years in a row and shows no signs of stopping: "In May this year, we were in Radomyshl (Zhytomyr Oblast, Central Ukraine – Ed.), where the Aristocratic Ukraine festival was held in the old castle for the second time. There, among Ukrainian brands famous around the world, we presented our folk costumes. The wives of dead soldiers were models for the show and I commented on every costume that had been reproduced by modern craftswomen. At the end, everyone gave a standing ovation. Then they came up to me and asked when I moved to Donetsk Oblast. The thing is that I was born there. I do not understand how it can be called into question whether it is Ukrainian land, when there were, are and will be Ukrainian traditions there. It cannot be given away to the enemy, no matter what slogans or manipulations are used to justify this."

Like many volunteers in front-line cities, she is in her fourth year of trying to keep hold of Ukraine in her region. She started when strange, armed men were still wandering around the city.

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In my book Somewhere Near the War, where I collected small stories from front-line cities and towns, there is a chapter about Svitlana. She is the granddaughter of Natalia Kravchenko, a holder of the Righteous Among the Nations honorific. The Israeli Ambassador presented a symbolic medal with her name to the relatives of Natalia Kravchenko, who saved two Jewish boys during the occupation of Artemivsk (the Soviet name for Bakhmut – Ed.) by the Nazis. “One who saves one life saves an entire world” is inscribed on the award. In addition, somewhere in the middle of the Israeli desert, there is a tree on the Avenue of the Righteous bearing the sign "Natalia Kravchenko, Artemivsk, Ukraine".

Like her grandmother, Svitlana rushed to help when it was vitally important. In 2014, almost every night there were armed attacks on the Ukrainian Army base in the centre of the city, where the soldiers were practically under siege. The volunteers came up with secret tactics to help: they threw new socks and underwear over the fence, passed on food and at night brought sandbags to help the defenders: they understood that the military should feel support. At the worst moments when it seemed that the base would simply be destroyed, they even offered to take the troops out of the base, dress them in civilian clothes and hide them in their homes. In the very same house where her grandmother once hid the Jewish boys. The soldiers did not agree. But then there was such a desire to protect these young men for their further struggle, for victory and for life.

In 2014, Svitlana Kravchenko and like-minded people from the Oberih workshop began putting together, or rather restoring, a unique collection after seeing an authentic old shirt in Paraskoviyivka, a village in Donetsk Oblast, hand-embroidered in "white on white" style according to all the rules of the craft with linen threads moistened in flaxseed oil. It was made in the village by an average resident of Donetsk Oblast. Svitlana persuaded the owner to sell the shirt.

The craftswomen from her group had quite a bit of work to do in order to return the shirt’s original look. That is how the idea came about not only to collect such things, but also to reproduce various elements of Ukrainian clothing from all regions from old photographs and descriptions. Recently, the women made two Hutsul costumes, inspired by their regular meetings and shows. The amazing exhibits include three hand-embroidered pieces from the 1930s and 40s that were secretly smuggled out of Makiyivka, a town in Donetsk Oblast that is now occupied. The woman who owned the pieces learned that a collection was being put together in Bakhmut, so she donated her family heirlooms.

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Oberih is working on a separate collection of hats. Svitlana’s personal exhibition is already being shown at the Museum of Chasiv Yar, another town in Donetsk Oblast. Svitlana also attended an international conference devoted to the symbolism and philosophy of folk headwear around the world, where she impressed her international counterparts with the variety of samples she had seen in Donetsk Oblast.

By now, the craftswomen have gathered more than a thousand different everyday items and ornaments from antiquity to the present. Almost all made by skilled craftspeople from Donetsk Oblast, among them men and children. Each year, the work of the Bakhmut craftswomen is included in the book The Best Work of the Year in Ukraine, which is put together by the Craft Union. The Oberih collection now has 29 costumes.

During the premiere on Embroidery Day in 2016, volunteers of different ages, students and teachers who left the occupied territories along with the Horlivka Institute of Foreign Languages, and soldiers stationed near Bakhmut walked along an improvised catwalk on the Bakhmut Alley of Roses in authentic costumes, each accompanied by historical information. The portraits taken there laid the foundations for a new initiative – the photo exhibition Genetic Code of Bakhmut, which to date has travelled around almost the whole of Ukraine and was even displayed in the Verkhovna Rada. It has been commissioned by museums, schools, public associations and universities all over the country – from west to east. It might now have too much artistic value as a photo exhibition, but it contains something much more important, says Svitlana:

"It would seem that it's just a photo exhibition: boys and girls, women and men in beautiful Ukrainian clothes. But when I talk about it, I tell the story of the Ukrainian Donbas. Here is a family of volunteers: the youngest of them was 10 at the beginning of the war, the oldest over 60. During the withdrawal of troops from near Debaltseve, they gave shelter to almost 20 soldiers. This photo shows one of the taxi service managers who had all orders cancelled on the same day so that the cars could take servicemen who were leaving the encirclement on foot into the city. This woman constantly directed efforts to help wounded soldiers. Here are the doctors from the Pirogov First Military Hospital of the National Guard. One of them not only helped to save the wounded in Bakhmut, but also wrote an insightful book about the war and us all. This is important for everyone: over the past few years, almost 300 people have worn these costumes. Some initially refused, but then all of them said "I felt natural in it!" This is also important for those who do not live in Donetsk or Luhansk oblasts, because I want us to be seen the way we are. Or maybe the way we want to be! Not only as a grey mass of separatists who can be blamed for all our troubles".

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The interesting exhibition was possible thanks to the help of another active Bakhmut resident, Viktor Zipir. As the owner of a photo studio, he constantly helps volunteers to bring their interesting initiatives to life: creating a photo chronicle of the occupation of Bakhmut and a large banner with photographs of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes, as well as supporting flashmobs and other creative activities. He offered a photo session to participants in the show, and, with the help of other donors, printed large photographs and helped to frame them. He also believes that it is only possible to defeat brainwashing and propaganda by exchange, communication and talking.

In 2014, he put forward an initiative to create a book in which every Ukrainian citizen could write anything to an average resident of Russia. He says that it still seemed then like it was possible to prevent war and hatred. More than a hundred pages of the book are filled in by now; the book has been to different cities in Donetsk Oblast, Kyiv and Lviv. Viktor confesses that residents in the east of the country tried the hardest to get through to their neighbours. Because they still believed that it was a mistake and propaganda rather than betrayal.

"The book is not so constructive, but it will still be interesting from a historical point of view – ordinary people formulating their attitude on what is happening in their city, country and the world", Viktor shares.

The book did its job: people from different generations and social strata with different political views were able to express their vision and read the sincere responses of others. Of course, it contained a lot of anger and complaints, which can be explained by the severity of the war for residents of front-line territories. But there were also many attempts to understand the reasons, which is sometimes much more important. Now the book is planning to travel around Ukrainian cities again: Viktor says that views and thoughts have changed. Then, when the last page is completed, it will go to those to whom it is addressed – to Russia. Will it be read there? Will they want to hear it? It is probably not worth arguing about. This weapon is already working.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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