“Ukrainians are excellent at self-organization, but self-government is beyond them in many respects”, artist Leo Trotsenko believes. The character of this nation is recorded even in folk proverbs: “Where there are two Ukrainians, there are three hetmans”, or “All Cossacks are atamans”. This may be the reason for the difficulties in negotiating a state administration and institutions that are stable. “We have nothing to lose except for our Maidans” was the title of the fifth issue of “Krytyka Polityczna” from 2016. This paradoxical (in)ability to cooperate significantly defined the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian aggression in the phase of full-scale war in 2022. This crisis’s consequences and things that had previously been seen as potential obstacles to growth now suddenly manifested as collective actions to save the common space. They also forced a re-evaluation of all previous considerations about living together.

In the first days following February 24, countless civic initiatives were launched all over Ukraine: from foundations established by people enjoying public trust, to mobile humanitarian aid units. Artists Vitaly Kochan and Oleh Kalashnyk, while typically not very quick to act in times of peace, now managed the delivery of basic necessities to hard-to-reach districts of Kharkiv, and they did so under chaotic artillery fire. In Lviv, the self-organized Kukhnya initiative cooked for internally displaced persons who filled the square outside the railway station. Later, this initiative expanded and ran four shelters for displaced persons. Seven days a week, Kukhnya fed about 120 people each day, mostly with vegetarian meals of the “damn good food”category. The team of the Assortmenta kimnata contemporary art gallery in Ivano-Frankivsk became involved in the evacuation of works of art from endangered territories; moreover, on the initiative of the artist and curator Lesya Chomenko, they also organized a residency for artists who remained in the country. The works and reflections created during that residency travelled around Europe as a possible form of artistic diplomacy during the war.

These initiatives are unique, but they repeat certain patterns of interaction. The scale of activities ranges from one car and one airdrop to tens of thousands of volunteers who, to this day, are constantly moving between markets and pharmacies, villages and large cities, zones of relative peace and zones of combat. In the relatively short period of thirty years since regaining independence, self-organization in Ukraine has reached a peak of mutual trust. Until recently, this scenario did not seem obvious at all.

I shall write about artists whom the invasion surprised in Kharkiv, Kyiv, or Lviv. They had to abandon all their existing artistic practices and develop new ones that were appropriate to the circumstances of the war. Online diaries have become a popular genre. They fulfil the need to preserve memories and emotions and to understand from the inside what is happening – how things that until recently had been certain or, on the contrary, impossible suddenly switched places. I will also try to capture in words the events that happened a year ago – so, still not distant. They still concern us, and meanwhile they have made us new people several times over. This is the right moment to look at previous versions of oneself – from a distance, but not too far removed.

Underground city square. Mykola Kolomiyets and Aza Nizi Maza art studio

Full-blown war gave an unpredictable shape to ideas and made dreams come true. The artist Vasyl Hrublak had been interested in the problem of light pollution in large cities, especially in Kyiv, for many years. Attacks on critical infrastructure in the autumn and winter at the turn of 2023 clearly showed what life looks like with less energy consumption – and that there are many ways to survive. Blackout has become the flip side of conscious energy consumption. The artist Nikita Kadan works with the themes of memory and cultural ruins. In 2021, he talked about a nightmare he had about a post-apocalyptic world. In that dream, Kadan didn’t experience Armageddon, he just dealt with its aftermath. At the end of February 2022, he found himself at the epicentre of the collapse of the current reality. For the first few weeks, he reported his slow movement through besieged Kyiv on Instagram. In his youth, Mykola Kolomiyets did a student internship in Feodosia, where he painted murals in churches. In a nightmarish dream, the abbot praised his work but suggested that there was one more task to be done: frescoing the walls in the huge catacombs, which resembled a giant subway station. In March 2022, when Russian troops were trying to capture Kharkiv, Kolomiyets actually set up a temporary art studio at the Historical Museum metro station.

Aza Nizi Maza art studio, primarily known in Ukraine for its work with children and youth, was established in Kharkiv in 2012. The founders set up their studios in the basements of tenement houses on a quiet street called Pushkin’s Entrance. Given the movement against imperial toponyms, this street should now be called Some Ukrainian Poet’s Entrance. In 2016, Aza Nizi Maza moved to its own premises at Chernihiv Street, also in the basement. On the eve of the invasion, the principles of functioning – literally – underground and the convenient location made the studio a potential shelter for a larger number of people and animals. After the attack, this potential was used, and the joint artistic work moved to premises located even deeper underground.

Mykola Kolomiyets founded the studio and continues to conduct classes there. Soon after the aggression, he decided to continue working in the subway. Stations were turned into shelters for residents. Common, private and semi-private spaces were arranged on the platforms and in the carriages; children and teenagers also lived there or spent the night. Nothing comes easy in Kharkiv, but that has changed in the new situation. Mykola shared several observations with me.

“Everyone was stunned at some point and, strangely enough, the situation brought out the best in people. What I appreciated most was that no one disturbed the work, which is something unusual here. On the contrary, we got many offers of help. All subway stations were stocked with the necessities – there were too many of them. We were offered paints and asked about what children would wish for. I especially remember the rare opportunity to do something my way, without prohibitions or obstacles”.

The decor of the History Museum metro station – in ordinary times completely plastered with advertisements for the Ukrainian electronics market – changed dramatically over the course of a few weeks. Almost all of Aza Nizi Maza’s new students were recruited from among the people who found shelter at this station. In the most difficult time, on columns covered with white marble, they worked on a series of large-format paintings on paper. When this metro line began to function normally again, the works were not removed; instead, they remained as the main visual element of the space.

Kolomiyets says that the History Museum was a “party” station, a kind of municipal square, albeit not too crowded. Mostly families with children and elderly people lived there. In the context of Kharkiv, he calls the first six months of the invasion “a celebration of tenderness” as members of the local underground community constantly showed this tenderness to each other. All sorts of people came here, from the mayor of the city, Ihor Terekhov, to the homeless. A hairdressing salon was started, then a smoking room; children rode bicycles, and dogs were walked to a separate wing. The lights in the stations were dimmed, but they were turned back on at full power during art classes. Kolomiyets recalls how he felt at that time: he saw strangers in the street and wanted to hug them.

An adrenaline rush and living in the shadow of death. Katia Libkind

The last exhibition I visited before the invasion was Ce ne moje / Bil (It’s not mine / Pain) by Stanislav Turina and Valentyn Radchenko at The Naked Room gallery in Kyiv.

Several dozen paintings, drawings and objects, as well as poetic texts and descriptions were presented. At the opening, the curator and artist Katia Libkind said: “When I look at all these works, I think about how much I have to lose”. Valentyn Radchenko is a colleague of Katia and Stas in atelienormalno – a community and studio of artists, some with and some without Down syndrome, established in 2018 in Kyiv. One of his creative methods involves directly tracing along the edges of objects on paper. Each object is related to the artist’s personal history: people, non-human beings, and events that are revealed through the author’s commentary on this or that object/outline. Turina presented graphics and ceramic objects from the series Neskinchennyj natiurmort (Endless Still Life), which had been created over a period of eleven years and enabled its creator to continually learn drawing in dialogue with other artists. Gathering, collecting, creating archives and anthologies, the material world testifying to relations with people – all these long-term practices were threatened with extinction, and actual extinction was as real as possible on the day the exhibition opened. It was not looming in the sphere of suspicion or in the analysis of geopolitics experts. We were receiving various, increasingly strong material signs of it coming. This lasted from the annexation of Crimea until the fall of 2021, when the presence of 150,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border physically overwhelmed everyone on this side of the demarcation line.

In a conversation with Katia, a year after the invasion, I ask her about living in the shadow of death. In 2021, in an interview for the exhibition Korysni kopalyny (Minerals/mineral components), she talked about attending funerals and observing a kind of vitality she witnessed during them: “When people gather around death, everything becomes very much alive”. With the outbreak of war, anger and empathy joined the experience of death as consequences of the great injustice caused by the invasion. In the first weeks, social networks swarmed with videos showing corpses in various forms. Katia describes this as a “kittens and corpses” mode, where mutual aid and expedited care alternated with “rituals of closely examining body pieces”. She points out the links between death and solidarity: 

“Watching these videos carefully, in bulk, seemed like a way to accept your own death. These could have been the remains of our own bodies, after all”.

On March 13, 2022, the Russian army fired missiles at a psychoneurological sanatorium in Pushcha-Vodytsya. The patients and staff of the facility were evacuated to Pavlivka, i.e., to Kyiv Municipal Psychiatric Hospital No. 1, named after Ivan Pavlov. The hospital issued a public request for volunteer help. Libkind and Turina became involved in helping at the facility, operating in extreme conditions. Due to the overloaded wards, there were one hundred and fifty people in one corridor requiring assistance with moving, feeding, and hygiene procedures. It was also necessary to organize places for them to relax and do various activities. Katia set up her first studio in an old hospital canteen equipped with a public toilet. After the liberation of the Kyiv region, the painting sessions moved to the sanatorium in Pushcha-Vodytsya. Katia still works there. When asked about her approach to participants and methods of conducting workshops, she answers:

 “We brought materials, paints, and we started classes. What is important to me is the atmosphere in which I can ask questions and have a direct, relaxed conversation. I don’t force you to draw something beautiful, I don’t correct anyone during my work. I only communicate and service the process”.

In August 2022, Katia Libkind was a participant in a residency dedicated to the topic of the future. The event was organized by Assortmenta kimnata in the village of Babyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. High in the Carpathians, off the beaten track, the residents, including myself, had a peaceful space to reflect and to share experiences. We talked about the future as a paradox because suddenly we all found ourselves waiting to see what would happen next. When making plans, we often say: “after the victory”. Katia Libkind made it transparent to us that the future in Ukraine has never been clearly defined:

“Everything in this country happens according to the ‘here and now’ principle. We build a district quickly, without thinking; we don’t consider the consequences. However, when a missile is flying at you, with such a worldview you are ready to resist in an instant because you are not afraid of destruction. A system that allows you to transfer money quickly without paying tax has allowed us to create a powerful volunteer movement”.

We remained fatalists, but we are no longer driven by adrenaline and our self-organization has weakened. Surrounded by death and a multitude of other real threats, we experienced life intensely. This is one of the reasons why we are afraid of the “after victory” future.

 “I hate Russia also because it was the reason we had to ask the European Union for significant help in many areas. There is a risk that we will lose the qualities that made us resist”, Katia concluded.

A gigantic field of self-organization. Stanislav Turina

In March 2022, in EU countries and in the United States, I was often asked to theorize about the actions of Ukrainians. At the time, these requests seemed abstract to me for many reasons, including the impossibility of distancing myself. We practiced mutual aid and resistance; we talked about personal and collective experiences; we wanted to break the stereotypes about Ukraine that Russia transmitted to the rest of the world. A year later, the conditions were finally in place for an active look back, and we saw connections between pre-war practices and the events of 2022. Also in March 2022, the artist Stanislav Turina again reached for his “Z dnyem” (On the Day)1 and “Diakuju” (Thank you!) works – a series of cards he made in 2014 after his stay in a psychiatric hospital. In these works, he traced the links between the significant change in his personal life versus the events of the Euromaidan and then the full-blown war. In “On the Day” he considers every day as a celebration of life, whereas “Thank you!” became popular as information – or rather as an addendum to information – about help provided on one’s own initiative. Soon after the invasion, social media filled with photographs of receipts from stores: the authors of these posts showed that they had done shopping for those in need. Stas shared the “Diakuyu!” cycle for all those who wanted to attach postcards to their evidence of work done – individually or in teams.

“Ukraine has an impressive history of self-organization. I don’t think this story is unique as such, but it has become so thanks to unique challenges”, says Stas.

He emphasizes that art collectives contributed to that history of self-organization, but their contribution has still not been appreciated:

 “They operate locally. Galleries in apartments, inaccessible to the general public […] We do not know about everyone. Not all of them have made themselves known”.

Stas’s involvement in self-organization resulted in the creation in 2018 of atelienormalno – a community and workshop for artists, including those with Down syndrome.

“There were three people interested. They were soon followed by three more who said they would like to join. We tried. The more we did, the more interesting it became. We started with Katya Libkind and Valery Tarasenko. I initiated it because I discovered interesting artists with Down syndrome who experienced hardships in terms of their living circumstances. There was a high probability that no one would help them if we did not. In the psychiatric hospital, I learned to take care of myself and others, and to communicate with people”.

Analysis of the history of self-organization in Ukraine would show differences in the attitude of society in 2022 versus the spring of 2023. Turina stresses that the type of interaction in 2022 was determined by a new factor: trust between the authorities and self-organizing grassroots initiatives. Direct relations were established: state institutions acted in synergy with volunteers, civilians with the military. The opposition temporarily disappeared. Previously, grassroots movements had emerged to oppose weak, inaccessible, and unreliable state institutions. Turina offers a vision:

“Imagine a huge root system or a spider’s web. Various branching organizations are like a tree: at some point everything becomes covered with a cobweb, connections are made between all points. Apparently, some armies in some countries are equipped with bulletproof vests made of spider’s web. Apparently, spider’s web is an antiseptic, thanks to which a tree turns into a strong structure, as if made of steel. This is more or less what happened, I think”.

New skills and more complicated tasks appeared: people began to work with various funds, international cooperation became closer; someone received a Nobel Prize. In 2023, these self-organized initiatives again face many obstacles. Stas draws attention primarily to the lack of personnel, education, and funds:

“We are at a new zero point. Again, there is a sense of being in opposition and atomization. In today’s conditions, these are our challenges”.

Turina recalls a conversation with theatre director Pavel Yurov. It was about the long – really long – road that people involved in self-organization had travelled. On this journey, they passed through successive stages: not everyone participated in the Orange Revolution of 2004, but, for example, they invited friends who did participate to stay the night, or they shared food with them; in 2013, they joined the Euromaidan protests and fought for their values and social justice; in 2022, they realized that they could enlist in the army or support a chosen common cause to find their own place where they would work for the common good.

 “In 2004 and 2013, declarations were made. The rules and guidelines, the goals of the young generation grew out of them”, Stas summed up.

To reclaim war-torn territories. Yaroslav Futymsky

Coffee shops say something about the third stage of self-organization. In May 2022, I met the artist Yaroslav Futymsky in the “Kasztan” (Chestnut) café in Kyiv. As I waited for my coffee from the drip coffee machine and a nut-shaped cookie, Yaroslav told me about his current state of well-being and the work he is involved in every week. He is active in a self-organized team dealing with the reconstruction of Chernihiv Oblast – private houses in villages and towns destroyed during the Russian offensive in February. After the withdrawal of the occupying troops, the team was supported by the locals, and the group associated around the “Kasztan” and “Lipa” (Linden) cafés gradually began to combine cuisine with construction. Initially, volunteers delivered food and prepared meals; later, they began to look for money to buy building materials and renovate damaged houses. Soon we meet again – Yaroslav is preparing hummus and falafels in “Lipa” to collect donations for the next trip.

This self-organized initiative does not have a name and it is difficult to specify its composition.

 “Completely different people from different backgrounds came together, but they were more or less the same age, thirty plus”, Yaroslav explains. “The common denominator is subcultural movements or sports: skateboarding, rollerblading. Some of them worked in cooperatives for a long time. They have varied activist experiences, but during the war they translated them into direct action. They each face war in their own way. They develop non-military strategies. Although talking about non-war during war has nothing to do with everyday reality, I am now deeply convinced that there is utopian potential in it. This utopia is directly related to construction.

In 2022, Varvara Lushchik published a report on Futymsky’s group’s achievements on Instagram: they rebuilt twenty-five houses from the ruins, renovated a school in the village of Kolychivka, and provided materials for the renovation of one hundred and fifty houses that they then participated in; they prepared and delivered forty thousand portions of food and distributed one thousand food parcels in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.

Futymsky explains personal involvement with care. The state, especially in times of war, will not be able to show that care to all its citizens. Uneducated or weakened links between state institutions and inhabitants of villages and towns result in a demand for care without a specific addressee. Around that care, interactions are formed between volunteer initiatives and beneficiaries of these activities. Yaroslav explains that during the reconstruction he deals, among other things, with “taking care of things” – in every place he repeats the same activities that are used to “steal these areas away from war”.

It might seem that, in 2022, artistic practices had been suspended for a long time. Indeed, it took some time before it became possible to read, stage performances, or organise exhibitions again. It also took a while to explore the “landscape” to find out how much it had changed – what new elements had appeared in it, and what continues to work in the old way. “At some point, a full-blown war took me back to the twentieth century”, says Yaroslav. During his trip to Chernihiv region, he started writing again in a red hardcover notebook and took pictures with an iPhone 7 and a Canon Sure Shot multi-tele.

Text: “This is a land of scraps. This is a land of forest strips. This is a land of hiding places. This is a land of cigarette butts. This is a land of blood. It is a painful land.

I recognize something in this landscape – it is you, the territory”.

In the photo: a wooden double-leaf gate in a private house, with an inscription written in white paint: “ДЕ | ТИ” (DE | TY). This Cyrillic inscription in the combined spelling can be read in Russian as “children”; this is how the residents signalled to the military that there were children in the house. In Ukrainian, when read separately, the words mean: “Where are you” (or: “Where you are”).

Other spaces and their ghosts

In the spring of 2023, Stanislav Turina posted these words on Facebook: “Recently I’ve been thinking about ghosts…”. This sentence brings to mind Ukrainian landscapes. Within a year, they were swarmed with ghosts, both old and new. Some have appeared recently, others have returned from the abyss of oblivion. Ghosts are hunted: if they inhabit a space, you can try to disperse them by weakening the collective memory of previous life forms. Missiles and bombs, bullets and projectiles bring with them new tragedies; they obscure the view, they test the memory, which is grasping at the possibility of surviving in the ruins. My generation has just discovered that any place can be destroyed at any moment.

On September 8, 2022, I gave a speech as part of the Ukrainian day of the Venice Film Festival. I mentioned one of my favourite films by Michelangelo Antonioni, The Red Desert, which won the Golden Lion here in 1964. I also talked about the Kharkiv artist Pavlo Makov, the author of the work shown in the Ukrainian pavilion at the Art Biennale. Both themes intertwine in Kharkiv: in 2019, curator Luca Fiore and I put on the exhibition “The Way of Aeneas. Today’s artists face to face with the past”. We showed Antonioni’s latest short film and Makov’s art album Do Po. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the art centre premises turned into a bunker where Makov and his wife Maryna spent the first days of the siege. The Russian aggressor also attacked culture, spaces, their features and meanings. When an art centre becomes a bunker; when, after the withdrawal of the Russian army, it turns out that the exhibits have disappeared; when exhibits have to be taken from museum premises so that they are not destroyed or looted; when a precisely aimed rocket destroys the museum of the philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda in the village of Skovorodynivka or the house by the painter Polina Raiko in Oleshky near Kherson – then this means that the war broke into culture and forced it to take on the role of both a weapon and a shelter. In order to stay alert and not lose what the war is trying to take away, one should practice optical aberration in looking at landscapes. This method allows you to see the past versions of places which affect the present. The past versions matter if the current condition has been destabilized and we are constantly modifying our actions. “Our” spaces change; after returning to them, after losing or regaining them, they appear in a new version. On this quicksand we connect, disintegrate, and reassemble into new temporary communities.