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Image And Identity In Play As Ukraine Tries Cultural Diplomacy

A woman stands on a disused railway track, known locally as the "Tunnel of Love," in the town of Kleven some 350 kilometers from Kyiv.
A woman stands on a disused railway track, known locally as the "Tunnel of Love," in the town of Kleven some 350 kilometers from Kyiv.

KYIV -- To the many challenges facing Ukraine these days, from war and occupation to economic troubles exacerbated by COVID-19, add one more: how to improve its image.

The pandemic aside, it’s probably a tall order for any country seeking to attract investment, tourism, foreign students, and general goodwill. For Ukraine, whose image has been shaped by such unenviable events as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 35 years ago and the only war currently being fought on the European continent, it may be a uniquely difficult endeavor.

This year, Kyiv has a new tool designed to take a swipe at the task: an official country website that pitches Ukraine as “modern, dynamic, free, and diverse.”

On the homepage, it trumpets the country of 44 million people as a destination for “cultural tourism, education, and business opportunities.”

Ukraine Now, as it’s called, is not the first effort to help build a brand for the country of 44 million by means of a website: It’s been tried a few times before over nearly 30 years of independence since the Soviet collapse. But their URL addresses have gone dormant as successive governments have failed to follow through with sustained reforms and strategies to capture the world’s attention when the spotlight shone on Ukraine.

The attention has been part of the problem: For audiences in the West, Ukraine can boast two cases in the past 20 years in which popular protests have brought political change, dealt blows to corruption, and dented Russian influence: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan protests of 2013-14, which pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych from power.

Volodymyr Sheiko, director of the Ukrainian Institute
Volodymyr Sheiko, director of the Ukrainian Institute

But the Kremlin’s response to the Maidan movement and the pro-Western government that it brought to the fore plunged Ukraine into a new crisis: Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and fomented separatism across swaths of the country, helped militants take control of parts of two eastern provinces and sparking a war that has killed more than 14,000 people since April 2014.

The Russian moves have brought Ukraine sympathy from some abroad, but have also led to internal disputes and made efforts to depict the country as a safe, secure place to live, study, or invest that much harder -- particularly for audiences without the time or the inclination to take in the whole picture.

Since Yanukovych abandoned office and fled to Russia, “the question of country branding and cultural diplomacy has been a question of survival” for Ukraine, said Yaryna Klyuchkovska, a Kyiv-based independent consultant in strategic communication.

In addition to its actions on the ground in Crimea and the Donbas, she asserted, Russia has been waging a “billion-dollar information war” that continues to this day and is aimed at discrediting Kyiv on the world stage.

Ukraine also got a blast of unsolicited and largely unwelcome publicity when it found itself at the center of U.S. political turbulence, with a prominent if passive role in the 2019 impeachment of President Donald Trump and the 2020 election that he lost to Joe Biden.

'Information War'

The Ukraine Now website, which was partly financed with British government support, is one of the efforts carried out by the Ukrainian Institute -- a Foreign Ministry entity established in 2018 as part of a cultural diplomacy unit that was created two years earlier for promotional and country branding purposes.

A principal goal is to explain the country and elevate its profile “through stories and various interventions…across different disciplines,” Volodymyr Sheiko, director of the Ukrainian Institute, said of its approach to ensure Ukraine is better understood beyond its borders.

To practitioners of communications and public relations, the endeavor is welcome if belated.

Several grassroots efforts to parse and promote Ukraine sprouted in the turbulent year of 2014 as journalists and other foreigners flooded the country seeking first-hand accounts.

A street cafe in downtown Kyiv. Ukraine's tourism industry has suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A street cafe in downtown Kyiv. Ukraine's tourism industry has suffered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among them is Ukraine World, a website that focuses on “explaining Ukraine and its culture, covering the most important developments in and around the country, as well as counteracting anti-Western propaganda and disinformation.”

“If you only write about the politics and economy of a country, and not culture, you won’t make Ukraine understood,” Ukraine World chief editor Volodymyr Yarmolenko told RFE/RL.

He suggested that the past, both recent and distant, has complicated that task.

“[Our] long history has been forgotten [by people] or suppressed” by empires over the centuries…. Ukraine was voiceless and we didn’t have this voice [even] in the first two decades of our independence,” he said.

Despite nearly 30 years of independence from Moscow, Sheiko said, Russia looms large in perceptions of Ukraine abroad.

“I often am told by various people that Ukraine is framed by Russia,” he said -- a phenomenon that may be both a cause and effect of Moscow’s dominance during the Soviet era and its interference in years since.

For centuries, Ukraine has often found itself buffeted by outside forces in times of war and peace, and its image has been shaped in part from abroad.

Ukraine must “take back what was taken from it” in terms of “cultural heritage, legacy and history -- it used to be written elsewhere, but not in Ukraine,” Sheiko said. “Ukraine has to constantly counter this narrative that comes from elsewhere.”

“I appreciate that our resources won’t be enough to shift or change international headlines,” he added, but “our job is to indeed offer an alternative.”

Since the institute’s inception, government decision makers have begun to see that “cultural diplomacy is a useful part of the national-security portfolio,” Sheiko said.

To ensure that it is useful requires delving deeper than dance, drama, and music, making it more than Cossacks, concerts, and “vyshyvanka” embroidered shirts, he suggested. “It’s about employing the cultural potential to creatively tell stories about difficult conversations, human stories.”

Crimea Stories

With Russian interference at the center of attention, pushing back against propaganda and promoting a Kyiv-friendly narrative that is not associated with Moscow is a challenge.

Late last year, the Ukrainian Institute launched We Are Crimea, personal stories featuring four celebrities from the peninsula including Jamala, the Crimean Tatar who won the 2016 Eurovision song contest, and Oleh Sentsov, a film director who spent five years in prison in Russia after opposing Moscow’s takeover.

A documentary film about citizen journalists who have been detained by the Russian authorities controlling Crimea has been commissioned. Its creators include Natalya Vorozhbyt, who co-wrote the screenplay for Cyborgs, a film about the Ukrainian soldiers who endured a 242-day siege at the Donetsk airport by Russia-backed forces in the ongoing Donbas war.

Given its modest budget -- about $1.4 million this year, $1 million less than in 2019 -- the institute has to be agile and “leverage partnerships” with other organizations, Sheiko said.

Such joint efforts include a “one-stop shop” database with Harvard University for scholars of Ukraine, providing “free access to primary sources in various disciplines related to Ukraine’s history and geopolitics,” Sheiko said.

Another partnership is with the independent Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, an educational institution that has a clean reputation. Together they provide a free online course in Ukrainian “history, culture, and identities” in English.

The Ukrainian Institute’s spending power is dwarfed by the much bigger budgets of long-established Western peers such as the American Councils, the British Council, and Germany’s Goethe Institute. France’s Societe Generale has been around since the mid-19th century.

A woman pushes a stroller with her son in front of a mural in Kyiv.
A woman pushes a stroller with her son in front of a mural in Kyiv.

The Ukrainian Institute can’t and won’t go their route, which would entail offering Ukrainian-language courses and setting up offices abroad.

For one thing, Ukraine’s labyrinthine bureaucracy remains an impediment: Sheiko said the Education Ministry has yet to establish standards for teaching Ukrainian as a foreign language.

Besides, comparing global demand for learning Ukrainian with the demand for learning English is like “comparing the solar system with the Milky Way,” Klyuchkovska said.

New laws would be needed to open offices in other countries. For now, at least, the institute is focusing on online and in-person events, with a priority this year on Poland, Germany, Britain, Italy, Austria, France, Turkey, and the United States, according to its five-year strategic plan.

Ukraine cannot match countries like Britain and France because they have largely “shaped Western civilization and it’s much easier for them to promote their cultural legacy than it is for smaller, developed countries,” said Vasyl Myroshnychenko, a co-founding partner of CFC Big Ideas, a consultancy that has worked on previous brand strategies for Ukraine.

But he said that “if executed correctly and funded well,” the institute’s cultural diplomacy efforts “could have a major impact on how Ukraine is perceived.”


Meanwhile, Ukraine’s own self-perception is still changing, its sense of identity still developing in the long and turbulent wake of the Soviet collapse, Klyuchkovska suggested.

She used the analogy of a metamorphosis, with the caterpillar stage in the mid-19th century and the cocoon stage in the decades of Soviet rule, when “Ukrainian identity was mostly viewed as hostile [to the state] and was Russian-driven.”

Then came independence in 1991 -- but while “it takes a few minutes for a butterfly to metamorphose,” she said, it “takes a nation much longer.”

In some ways, Ukraine’s identity is “in the making,” Sheiko said, and this evolution allows for efforts to more clearly define what the country has to offer.

The advantage is that “it allows us to constantly widen and question those boundaries for what constitutes a Ukrainian identity or nation,” he added.

For one thing, that means thinking beyond ethnic lines, said Yarmolenko of Ukraine World.

Springtime In The Tunnel Of Love
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In addition to a “huge Jewish heritage” and Crimean Tatar culture, he said, there are ethnic Bulgarians in the Odesa region, and Romanians and Hungarians in the west, and a variety of religious faiths in the predominantly Orthodox Christian country.

Yarmolenko also pointed to towering cultural figures who are far more frequently associated with other countries but had ties to Ukraine -- such as the writers Joseph Conrad, who was born in what is now part of Ukraine, and Mikhail Bulgakov, a native of Kyiv.

New Project, Old Problems

A small budget, bureaucratic red tape, and even Russian interference may not be the biggest obstacles to the successful promotion of Ukraine.

For a country to be viewed as a successful brand it should be seen as “confident, influential, politically stable, economically progressive, innovative, trustworthy, respected, tolerant, reliable, safe, honest,” among other qualities, British-based management consultancy Future Brand wrote in a November 2020 report.

And while Ukraine meets some of the criteria, it falls into "a vicious circle because it hasn’t established the rule of law, with an unruly judicial system perceived as the main bottleneck," Andy Hunder, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine, told RFE/RL.

Investors “are the best ambassadors” but “challenges with the rule of law undermine all that,” Hunder said. He said that Ukrainian companies establishing footprints abroad or those who export often question whether they should emphasize they’re Ukrainian.

The presence of far-right groups, played up by Moscow, has dented the image of tolerance, and the persistence of graft is a perennial problem.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pledged to conduct reforms, but persistent questions about the government’s determination to fight corruption and improve the judiciary raise hurdles for the image-making efforts.

Cultural diplomacy “is certainly important,” said Tony Friend, a senior partner at London-based risk management firm Strategia Worldwide, but a “greater effort needs to be made to reach beyond people who are already followers.”

He said that “steady progress in reform seldom attracts media attention, it has to be worked hard for.”

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    Mark Raczkiewycz

    Mark Raczkiewycz is a Ukraine-based journalist. A former RFE/RL news editor in Washington, he is the Kyiv correspondent for the New Jersey-based Ukrainian Weekly newspaper. He also contributes to the English-language Kyiv Post and has reported for Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Associated Press, the Irish Times, The New York Times, and other publications. 

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