What do most foreigners know about Ukraine? There is a good chance they know next to nothing, while what little information they may have is likely to be both distorted and negative in character. This unsatisfactory state of affairs may be about to change. After decades of neglect, Ukraine is finally addressing the country’s international image problems. Autumn 2017 will see preparations continue for the launch of a public diplomacy initiative designed to promote Brand Ukraine internationally and raise the country’s cultural profile around the world.
Ukraine Embraces Public Diplomacy
The Ukrainian Institute is the brainchild of Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin and Ukrainian diplomat Dmytro Kuleba. It is part of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s ongoing public diplomacy efforts and represents the latest stage in a developing strategy that began to take shape in the aftermath of the 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity. The first major institutional step in this process was the creation of a Public Diplomacy Division within the Foreign Ministry in late 2015. The Ukrainian Institute concept then went public in February 2017, with initial funding included in this year’s state budget. With a 2018 launch date tentatively penciled in, the key task over the coming months will be to appoint a Ukrainian Institute Director via public competition who will then have responsibility for overseeing the rollout of this ambitious concept.
Foreign Ministry officials envisage an initial network of Ukrainian Institutes in key capital cities including Paris, Berlin, Rome, Warsaw, Vienna, Beijing and Washington DC. Ukraine already has suitable premises available in some of these cities, with other Institutes planned on a rental basis. Up to 40 staff will take up positions in designated countries or join the coordination team in Kyiv itself. There are also plans to cooperate with existing and independently managed Ukrainian Institutes that already operate in London, New York and Stockholm. These non-state institutes currently rely on support from Ukrainian expats and members of the diaspora along with the Ukrainian Catholic University.
Beyond Folk Themes
Iryna Shum, who is coordinator of the Ukrainian Institute project and a member of the Public Diplomacy team at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, says the basic goal of the Ukrainian Institute is to open the country up to the outside world. “There is currently virtually no awareness of Ukraine internationally. We want to change that and act as a platform for cultural dialogue,” she says. Ms. Shum anticipates a primary focus on contemporary Ukrainian culture and speaks enthusiastically about the country’s fashion, music, cinematography and literature scenes. She is well aware that this self-consciously contemporary take on Ukrainian culture is at odds with the more traditional depictions that have previously enjoyed ascendency. “If you look at typical diaspora events and cultural websites, you will find a lot of vyshyvankas (traditional embroidered shirts), Ukrainian cuisine, and Taras Shevchenko,” says Ms. Shum. “We aim to show international audiences that we have much more in common with them, and much more to share. We will not neglect folk themes and classical aspects of Ukrainian culture, but the emphasis needs to be placed on more contemporary elements.”
Showcasing Ukraine’s Cultural Awakening
This contemporary emphasis is very much in line with the current ambience in Kyiv, where talk of an unprecedented cultural awakening has been steadily gaining ground since 2014. The most prominent cultural ambassadors of Ukraine’s post-Maidan generation are the country’s fashion designers, many of whom have earned international acclaim for creations that play heavily on traditional Ukrainian embroidery. However, funky takes on folksy styles are only part of the Ukrainian fashion industry’s recent success story. A new generation of designers has come of age since 2014, attracting the attention of global fashion authorities like Vogue magazine while benefitting from the patriotically driven domestic passion for “Made in Ukraine” labels.
The Ukrainian contemporary arts and music scenes are also flourishing, buoyed by the revolutionary impulses of Maidan and jolted by the subsequent hybrid war with Russia. Successes such as Crimean Tatar singer Jamala’s 2016 Eurovision Song Contest victory have raised the profile of Ukrainian performers and imbued the country’s creative community with a sense of self-confidence that has helped to broaden horizons and amplify aspirations. Meanwhile, the global media attention generated by ongoing geopolitical turbulence in the country has put Ukraine on the international radar for the first time, fuelling unprecedented outside interest and creating a buzz around all things Ukrainian. “I see big potential for Ukrainian musicians in particular as cultural ambassadors,” says Ms. Shum. “The Ukrainian fashion industry and visual arts are also developing very rapidly. We want to be able to create cultural programs that can tour entire countries, taking contemporary Ukraine beyond the major capital cities and participating in festivals and other forms of cultural collaboration.”
Starting from Scratch
Creating a brand new state institution is a daunting task but recent experience suggests it is in many ways easier than attempting to reform an existing Ukrainian government body. Starting with a clean slate means there are no mid-level bureaucrats to retrain or bad habits to eradicate. However, building up governmental support and securing sufficient state funding for the establishment of the Ukrainian Institute has proved a painstaking process. The coming selection of a Ukrainian Institute Director to oversee the development of the project will prove crucial, with Ms. Shum adamant that the process must be wholly transparent in order to ward off accusations of corruption in the appointments process.
As Ms. Shum and her colleagues have expanded on their vision for the Ukrainian Institute, they have drawn on the experiences of European colleagues. The original inspiration for the Ukrainian Institute came from Ukrainian diplomatic interaction with the UK’s British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institute, but Ms. Shum says the closest parallel in terms of state ties and official status will likely be the Polish Institute. She expects the outcome to represent a fresh chapter in Ukraine’s fledgling public diplomacy and a long overdue step away from the image woes and ambiguity that have dogged Ukraine since independence. The historic events of the past three years have transformed the way Ukrainians see themselves and their nation, but this message has yet to reach mainstream international audiences. Many in Kyiv are now hoping the Ukrainian Institute can introduce the world to the vibrant realities of contemporary Ukraine.
About the interviewee: Iryna Shum is the coordinator of the Ukrainian Institute project and a member of the Public Diplomacy team at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry