Two summers ago, I received an e-mail from Dr. Marko Robert Stech. He was taking over a series of courses on Ukrainian Culture at York University. His e-mail asked to ‘find students.' I did what I could but the students, who I was acquainted with, were busy with other studies and could not attend. However, since my circumstances allowed me the opportunity, I decided to attend the courses myself. Although it wasn't the purpose of Marko's e-mail, he did gain one class member, albeit an older one.
One should note that these courses on Ukrainian Culture are very timely. Crimea and Ukraine are very much in the news, and the available news reports are often confusing and contradictory. Many aspects of these courses provide a background to the current troubles; for example, they deal with the Greek architectural remnants of Crimea from the Classical period, the origins of the Tatars who were settled there, Russia's claim on the history of the Medieval Kyivan Principality, the development of Russian-Ukrainian relations and their impact on Crimea and Europe. Armed with such knowledge, one has a basis for understanding the sources of the present conflict and its further implications.
In my experience as both a student and a teacher, Ukrainian Culture or “Kultura” was the weakest part of the program in Ukrainian Community Schools. The objective of “Kursy Ukrainoznavstva” was mainly to learn the language, gain a basic grasp of our history and the highlights of our literature. There were other objectives: befriending other Ukrainian children comes to mind and, of course, the pupils had their own priority of tormenting their beleaguered teachers for having to attend school on Saturdays.
With such a full agenda, we learned only the barest information about architecture and of the visual arts we learned virtually nothing. In fact, the only artist I knew upon graduation was Taras Shevchenko, who I thought was primarily a writer and not a painter when, in fact, the opposite is true – a misapprehension which my teacher, Myron Levytsky, could not forgive, costing me my grade of “vidminnyi.”
I corresponded with a friend from my youth not long ago. Someone who, like me, graduated from ‘kursy', was a member of Plast and was raised in a Ukrainian family and environment. It was disheartening. She wrote, in part, “… as far as Ukraine, I have never felt connected. It’s a foreign country to me just like Syria. I find Ukrainian culture stale and stagnant. The cuisine uninteresting. And the art mediocre.”
A similar sentiment was expressed over the dinner table in Ukraine during a TV program in which callers dedicated songs to friends and family – the complaint was that the same folk songs were being played over and over – in other words, Ukrainian culture as ‘stale and stagnant', and ‘the art mediocre.' At least the meal was good.
Prof. Stech's program challenges those who think they know enough or that there is nothing more to know since they completed ‘Kursy'; it also provides an antidote for those world-weary souls bored with the same old thing. In a series of four courses held over four semesters (two years) Prof. Stech traces Ukrainian architecture and visual arts from prehistory to the present time, and analyzes Ukrainian literary and cultural history from the Medieval period up to today in the light of Ukrainian literature, drama, theatre and intellectual thought.
Most readers would be familiar with Dr. Stech as the producer of the “Eye on Culture” TV segments on Kontakt TV. However, he is also the Executive Director of the CIUS Press, the Project Manager of the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine and the Project Manager of the Hrushevsky Translation Project. Adding to his credentials, he is a writer (Holos, 2005) and movie producer (Swan Lake. Zone, 1990; Hunger for Oxygen, 1992) and a big champion of Ukrainian literature (having compiled, together with Lucia Rzegorzikova a Czech-language antology of modern Ukrainian short story Ukrajina, davaj, Ukrajina!) This is how Dr. Stech developed the encyclopaedic knowledge required to teach such a series of courses.
Culture is one of the broadest of topics. The prominent Ukrainian evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, asserted that culture is a uniquely human characteristic which is the key element in human evolution; that is, culture, evolution and our humanity are interconnected. In order to do justice to the subject, then, cultural movements need to be viewed as dynamic processes which are so fundamental that they affect the way that we perceive, express and act upon reality.
The approach taken in this program is up to the task: it weaves together the various themes which propel the development of Ukrainian Culture. First, socio-political, intellectual and scientific developments in European history are presented and their effect on European culture is analyzed. Second, the relationship between European history and Ukrainian history in each specific era is discussed, and their impact on one another is assessed. And third, the progress of Ukrainian history is presented highlighting how these inputs resolve themselves in the progress of the Ukrainian Culture.
There is much to recommend such a holistic presentation. The student gains an overview of European history, in general, and a specific knowledge of the various cultural movements through the ages. The progress of human culture is traced from prehistoric art to current times. For example, cultural movements up to the mid-19th century; such as, the Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, the Baroque and Romanticism are analyzed according to the interplay of religious and humanistic values; the political agenda of Neo-Classicism is considered in the light of the rise of Imperialism.
Later 19th century trends; such as, Realism and Impressionism are considered in the light of the rapid development of natural science and the nature of human emotion and perception which provided a foundation for a non-concrete representation of reality in art which boomeranged back on science resulting in a non-visible conception of reality; for example, nuclear science and Relativity. And late 19th and early 20th century cultural movements; for example, Modernism and the Avant-garde are contrasted in terms of their view of the nature of art itself; does art have a social purpose, or not?
Furthermore, the student is exposed to and gains a knowledge of art trends which are idiosyncratic to Ukraine, whether they are Soviet, a combination of Soviet and Ukrainian, or Soviet and Ukrainian in opposition to one another. Examples include the following: art as propaganda and propaganda as art, the cultural renaissance of the 1920's, the impact of the Holodomor, Socialist Realism, the thaw of the 1960's, dissident literature and non-conformist art of the 1970-80's, and literature in the independent Ukraine since the 1990's.
With all due respect to my Ukrainian-Canadian friend and to my Ukrainian cousin at the dinner table – the notion of Ukrainian culture which they find so unappetizing is the one which had been defined for us by others, mainly the Russian and Soviet Empires. Their criticism is of ‘official' Ukrainian culture which was restricted to folk culture, while high culture was the exclusive realm of the Russian culture. It is the ‘colonized Ukrainian culture' which turns them off.
Unfortunately, neither of them has the necessary information to properly judge the actual state of affairs. Her emigrant experience is overloaded with religious art, village variety painting and camp-fire songs; and he learned about Ukrainian culture in his living room, without the exposure to alternative forms of Ukrainian art and without the introduction to the subject which a formal (and non-Russophile) education would have provided.
Neither the Ukrainian Canadian, nor the Ukrainian, was aware of the depth, breadth nor history of Ukrainian culture, and they might even be shocked by some of the latest developments and find them unappetizing since they don't fall into the accustomed mould. I understand that certain musical ensembles; such as, DakhaBrakha, who are gaining an international following, have limited support in Ukraine since some of their pieces are jarring to the conservative Ukrainian ear – similar, I imagine, to my parents reaction when my big brother introduced Little Richard and the Rolling Stones to our home.
The depth and breadth of the courses provide a foundation in cultural studies that will be of lifelong benefit to anyone interested in the arts. One will be able to distinguish between the various styles of art and will be conversant with reasons why such cultural movements emerged. These insights provide a basis for comprehending the past masterpieces and anticipating cultural trends.
The two year cycle of the program begins again in September this year. I encourage all cultural enthusiasts and history buffs to enrol, particularly those of Ukrainian background. This is a place to fill in the gaps in your knowledge and to gain a better understanding of yourself.