Opening the world’s eyes on Ukrainian culture

May 29, 2023
Dave Hazzan

by Dave Hazzan, writer and academic, completing his PhD in History at York University

What is an artist’s role in a time of war? Does the artist even have a role, or does their work get lost in a time of mass devastation? Gregory Hlady, a Ukrainian-born playwright living in Montreal, has been pondering this question since Russia annexed large parts of Ukraine in 2014, which escalated to major invasion and occupation in February, 2022. 

“We must not fall into a hell of darkness with this war, we have to rise above it,” Hlady said, in French, before an audience of the Association des professeur.e.s de français des universités et collèges canadiens (APFUCC). Artists must look toward eternity, because no artistic metaphor is acceptable in such times. No comparison works against an armed soldier, Hlady said, no poem can stop a tank rolling over your car, there is no place for poetry in smashed buildings. He quoted the Ukrainian poet Halyna Kruk, who said, “There is no place for poetry [in war], only for witnessing. I wish poetry could really kill.” 

Art cannot kill but it can raise awareness about those who do. Hlady says the western world is finally waking up to what kind of country Putin’s Russia is, thanks to the works of artists, journalists, and other Ukrainians who are trying to tell the truth of what’s happening. “I am not the only Ukrainian artist to take action,” Hlady said. “It’s the job now of the artist to report what is happening. Why did it begin and why does President Putin want this? Why does he want to remove the word ‘Ukraine’ from the world?” Hlady noted that in 2008, when Russian invaded Georgia and annexed its northern provinces, the world was sluggish to react. “Had the west reacted more forcefully in 2008, this Ukrainian war may never have happened,” Hlady said. “But everyone wanted appeasement.” 

But now it is 2023 and the Ukrainian war is everywhere. Hlady was proud that westerners had finally discovered there was a Ukrainian language, culture, people, and history, different from that of “The Great Russian Culture” many of us are more familiar with. 

“We should not be naïve about Russian culture – I love it and was educated in it,” Hlady said. His feelings were conflicted when he saw a television report of a dead Russian soldier with a copy of Bulgakov, “a writer I’ve long adored.” Yet this soldier, with whom Hlady shared a taste in literature, had come to Ukraineas an implicit actor of war. “A lot of these guys, I recognize them,” Hlady said. “I lived a long time in Moscow. It’s true that war erases the individual.” 

Russian literature, music, and art are familiar to the world, but Hlady wonders why, for example, everybody knows the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, but not his Ukrainian contemporary, Taras Shevchenko. Russian culture, for all its greatness, oftensuperseded, often intentionally, Ukrainian culture. He argued that under the veil of much Russian art is a message that Russia must expand, must conquer, must dominate. Pushkin, Hlady said, celebrated Russia’s conquest of Ukraine in the previous century. 

Russia, Hlady said, is not going to stop expanding with Ukraine – unless Putin is stopped, someone will be next. As Hlady said, there is no way an artist can stop a war. But individual works, like the new anthology of short Ukrainian plays, Dictionary of Emotion in a Time of War, can transmit awareness to those who can stop wars. In the meantime, they do what they can. 

“The first artists to react [to the invasion] were in the theatre,” Hlady explained. “It became a place to hide people.”