The Life of Youth Under Occupation in Eastern Ukraine
26 June, 2017

In the occupied territories, art and culture have not been discussed for about three years. Even before the war, there were no galleries, no venues for exhibits and discussions on Luhansk culture.

Nevertheless, according to Luhansk artist Yevhen Koroletov, a cultural environment has always existed in the city.

To Yevhen, “To leave Luhansk for an artist means to leave the battlefield”. Over the past three years, Yevhen drew patriotic graffiti in occupied Luhansk, joined the Donbas battalion, moved to Severodonetsk, made a film about artists who stayed in Luhansk, became an editor of the only magazine on cultural life in “the people’s republics” and establish the Luhansk Contemporary Diaspora.

Hromadske went to Severodonets to talk to Yevhen Koroletov.

Yevhen and his girlfriend Nastya. Photo: Hromadske

"I used to live in Luhansk but it happened that I was forced to leave it. If I didn’t leave, I would have problems. Even if I did nothing, they would find me because I was a Euromaidan activist.

I thought that I had no chances of joining the Armed Forces of Ukraine. On my military identity card, it said that I wasn’t fit for military service.I joined the “Donbas” battalion.

There is no doubt that to protect the motherland is an honor, but I did nothing to make this conflict end, on the contrary, I was helping it continue.

When I joined the Donbas battalion, my purposes were rather simple; I wanted to take part in what was going on in the country. I came to the conclusion that my participation in the war as a soldier was a mistake. I even feel guilty for it. But if I didn’t go to the frontlines as a volunteer, maybe, I wouldn’t understand what was going on and would be doing something else now. There is no doubt that to protect the motherland is an honor, but I did nothing to make this conflict end, on the contrary, I was helping it continue.

With the money I earned, I managed to buy a camera and a laptop. When I got the camera, I started making videos. I even thought that it would help me to get back to normal life.

We don’t fit into the overall picture of life. We are strangers both here and there.

Six weeks after I got discharged, my friend Roma wrote me a message (Roma is an artist, who lives and works in Luhansk). I started filming him. I didn’t even know why. Just out of curiosity. It was interesting for me to know what was going on there in Luhansk, how our graffiti company is. Then I decided to make a film.

Screenshot from Zhenya's film. 

This film is about a common thing for me and Roma, for those who are coming here from Luhansk to visit their parents, who are IDPs. We don’t fit into the overall picture of life. We are strangers both here and there. Moreover, my friends here and there feel the difference.

I use such digital aesthetics in my film on purpose: pop-ups Vkontakte, Youtube. To me, the modern youth seem to understand digital language better.

This winter, my girlfriend Nastya and I put 3D picture of rabbits in the park of Severodonetsk. From a distance, they looked real. You can see them in the film.

For me, the rabbits are a kind of metaphor, when a person wants to change something, and sometimes does it in a very unnatural way, artificially, I’d say, he is bringing a rabbit to the environment, not real, but a picture of it, thus trying to change the environment. Then it turns out that those rabbits don’t assimilate to the environment.

A lot of events take place in Severodonetsk. They like to say often that Severodonetsk is Ukraine. Each time I think, “Why shouldn’t it be Ukrainian? Why should we talk about this?” Usually, it’s said in Ukrainian, despite the fact that the Russian language prevails in Severodonetsk. I think that Severodonetsk is Ukraine, as well as Luhansk, despite the fact that it’s occupied now. For me, these things are obvious. And I am disappointed when I understood that it’s not obvious to everyone.

Besides the fighters, there are some authorities, among whom are mainly Russian-backed fighters, they adopted some laws to take away from the pensioners everything they have. They keep living there, enjoying communism which is about to be established. However, I do have friends there, I talk to them from time to time, sometimes they even come to liberated territories. They do it rather often. I know what is going on there, know about the absolutely different procedures and regulations. In particular, about regulations connecting to the arts."

Zhenya (Yevhen) and his friends from the Luhansk Contemporary Diaspora established the magazine, Golden Coal, published with contest winnings from the Shcherbenko Art Centre. They are covering alternative cultural life of Luhansk and Donetsk youth, music and art.

I’d like to go back, even though I know that Luhansk is different now.

Golden Coal is full of post-internet aesthetics. There is a bit of pathos like in the clips of rappers, and the trap clips in it. I’m usually ironic about that. I think it will be interesting to people who like art and who want to know what is going on in Luhansk.

TV is mainly used as a tool for propaganda. If I had no friends in Luhansk, didn’t follow the situation, I’d watch TV and think that there are only fighters shooting at one another. This magazine will help to fight anti-humanitarian processes (imposed by the TV channels). If we give those guys who live there that are neither Russian-backed fighters nor in power an opportunity to tell [people] how they live, what is interesting to them, we’ll have a bigger picture of what is happening in Luhansk.

I wouldn’t like to stay in Severodonetsk. I’d like to go back, even though I know that Luhansk is different now. It’s not a city I’d like to be back. However, I don’t feel comfortable here. I feel like I am on the verge of two cultures. On the one side, there is the Ukrainian culture, and on the other side – the culture of the so-called “people’s republics”.

Of course, the latter one isn’t what I appreciate, but things that are going on now in Ukraine I don’t understand well either. I’d even say that in the processes taking place now, for instance in the cultural sphere, my opinion isn’t taken into account; my existence isn’t taken into account.

The Luhansk Contemporary Diaspora was established by artist-IDPs, who are working on the issue of military conflict, its socio-cultural causes and effects. Its first exhibit, “Troubled Areas”, is located in the small gallery of Mystetskyi Arsenal.

/Translated by Olga Kuchmagra