Soul of Ukraine: Immersive Shevchenko
How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Valeriy Kostyuk to take action through art
TORONTO | WORDS BY STEFANIA CAMACI & MICHAEL ZARATHUS-COOK | VISUAL ARTS - Issue 9
“There are a lot of artists in Ukraine that are doing their part in regards to protecting the national heritage,” Valeriy Kostyuk states. This sentiment reflects the courageous spirit of the Ukrainian people in the face of an invasion that’s put the entire world on alert. As a producer of Immersive Shevchenko, Valeriy, a Ukrainian from Odesa, underscores the severity of the injustice taking place in his country. He is the pioneering producer behind the exhibit that celebrates Ukrainian artist and cultural icon Taras Shevchenko and was instrumental in developing the production to meet the urgent need for humanitarian aid in Ukraine. All proceeds from every ticket to the exhibit will be donated to The Red Cross and other initiatives
to provide economic relief to victims of the war in Ukraine. Shevchenko’s career spanned various artforms while simultaneously advocating for his country’s independence on all fronts. Valeriy speaks with smART Magazine about the artist, exhibit, and the nation he inspired.
Valeriy Kostyuk, by Kalya Ramu
sM | How have you been coping throughout the first couple of weeks of this invasion?
VK ─ I don’t sleep peacefully anymore. No one does. I have alarms set for every two hours to check in on family members. I worry my family will hear the sirens, warning about potential bombs, yet they don’t always go into the bomb shelters. They’ve had enough, which is why I constantly check on them. Being away from my family in different cities is stressful because if I were there, I would help make decisions. My initial thoughts were to fly or drive home to reach my family. But the situation changed so quickly that there were military personnel everywhere. So now, I check my phone to get in contact with them – most of the time, the silence means they’re sleeping. But not hearing from them can be worse because of the unpredictable times we’re in. There’s just no way of ensuring that your family is safe.
sM | What do you think is the most potent message that can be sent to the artists and people of Ukraine at this moment?
VK ─ If there were anything to distract people from war, it would probably be art. However, I will not tell artists to continue making art in these unprecedented times. Not when they are unaware of whether or not they will be safe in their own country. It’s more important for them to do their part in protecting Ukraine. I know many artists that have signed up to physically defend the cities. To patrol the streets and ensure there’s no fighting, it’s all in an effort to defend Ukraine’s national heritage. My message to artists and people of Ukraine is to simply try and get through it. There are truly no right words to say or to bring encouragement. This kind of situation leaves me speechless, but I remind the people of Ukraine that “All will be Ukraine.” We are one culture, even if we are moved. The Russians can change our borders with a pencil, but our culture and heritage is ours and within us. They cannot and will not take that away.
sM | How would you describe Shevchenko’s significance to the people of Ukraine and diasporic Ukrainian communities? And how will the profits from Immersive Shevchenko help the efforts for humanitarian aid?
VK ─ Shevchenko is a known name in every Ukrainian household, and there are statues all over the world dedicated to him. 1,384 statues, to be exact. He was fundamental to Ukraine’s history. As a serf, he was essentially a slave in his teenage years, and when he was freed, he received an education in the fine arts. During this time, he captured Ukrainian culture through his revolutionary poetry when it was trying to be destroyed by Russian hegemony. His mission was simply to provoke the soul of Ukraine. He died in St. Petersburg at the age of 47, but was buried on a hill in Dnieper as he requested in his poem entitled “My Testament.” In fact, this hill is now a place of pilgrimage for many Ukrainians, allowing us to feel the energy of Ukrainian identity. Portraits of Shevchenko are hanging in homes now, often depicting him as much older and many years after his rebellious youth. He was, and is, essential to Ukraine’s identity and independence, and visitors will be able to testify to that through this exhibit.
The profits from Immersive Shevchenko will be donated to the American Red Cross and The National Bank of Ukraine. The Red Cross is a non-profit initiative that will be on the ground helping Ukraine. The donations to the National Bank of Ukraine is to ensure the state and government continue to be able to operate for the civilians nationwide. But another way people could help right now, is by donating directly to different types of charities and sending money to personal or local initiatives. There are never enough supplies, and every day, more provisions are needed: toilet paper, shoes, paper plates, cups, and so on. The people of Ukraine will appreciate all the help they can get.
Tais Poda, Creative Director to Immersive Shevchenko, joins smART Magazine from Zakarpatya, Ukraine
sM | Can you describe the current situation in your region and how the Russian invasion has disrupted daily life?
TP ─ Normal daily life in our region is just over. It no longer exists. It seems there is no world that existed before the war, and it will not exist for a long time. My family has evacuated from Kyiv. Now the army, territorial defense, and civilians are preparing to defend Kyiv because it can be under siege. The defenders have been accumulating reserves, strengthening the city borders, and organizing logistical chains.
My family moved to Western Ukraine and live minimally in a rented apartment. The sky is quiet here, but every sharp sound makes us shudder, hoping it’s not an explosion. My child has been in psychological shock. In general, children no longer study at school, and it is unknown when learning will resume. But for thousands of people, the situation is much worse, so we do not complain in any case.
Every day I spend part of my time volunteering to coordinate and help people who come here. We are always in touch; we pass the information on how to get here, where to look for housing, where one can eat for free. Also, every day together with other women, I spend 3-4 hours weaving camouflage nets in a local school.
Almost every evening, I also communicate with people who need psychological help because I have a degree in therapy. This is not a full-fledged clinical consultation, but it does not matter because the results are what matters here.
And, of course, I dedicate part of my time to my favorite work - creating video content with my team. We are in different places, but manage to coordinate production. This is very important because it is all about cultural diplomacy. When culture is highly developed, wars are less common because people share high values and respect principles of law. Our future lies in culture, education, and morality. And it’s not just about Ukraine; it’s about the whole world.
Natalya Delieva, C0-Producer of Immersive Shevchenko, joins smART Magazine from Odesa in Ukraine
ND ─ I never imagined that Russia would attack Ukraine. But it happened in 2014. All 8 years since then, I have lived in fear. I felt that aggression in Crimea and Donbass will not end. I very much hoped that our country would be supported by the world, that these issues would be resolved at the diplomatic level, and that the crimes committed by Russia over 8 years with Ukraine would be tried in The Hague’s International Court of Justice. Unfortunately, this did not happen, and Russia went further.
On February 24, when the war broke out, I was very confused. It was like a nightmare for me. But I gathered myself, and on February 25, I became a volunteer and took care of the 18th separate battalion of the Armed Forces Marines protecting the Black Sea coast. I took care of the logistics and supply of the necessary needs for the army. I managed a theatre for 17 years, I was a producer and a filmmaker, I organized seven international comedy festivals, I held five Red Head City festivals, I, like Valeriy, produced this exhibition — and now I am practically a warrior.
sM | Aside from the proceeds from Immersive Shevchenko, what other ways can we in the West assist individuals like yourselves in grassroots operations and aid for the Territorial Defence Forces?
TP ─ There are different ways to help. Of course, our people are in dire need of financial support, as many of them have left all their property and homes with only their clothes and documents. Money is also needed to purchase ammunition for territorial defense. Ordinary people and defenders need all kinds of humanitarian goods, medicines, and food.
At the national level and as part of international cooperation, we need weapons. A lot of weapons, planes, and air defense — it’s something that will simply allow us to survive. And, perhaps most importantly, Ukraine is protecting the Western world and its values at the cost of its own lives. This was the case during the Mongol Yoke, when Kyivan Rus’ stopped the Mongol invasion by detaining them on its territory, allowing Europe to live peacefully and develop spiritually in the bosom of its own cultural paradigm. This is not the first time we have defended the West. But, it is very important that when all this is over, we are accepted into the family of Western nations and associations without additional questions, hesitations, and pharisaism.
There is no room here for a policy of double standards, and we need this political recognition of our Western perspectives. Therefore, moral, political, spiritual support will never be replaced by any humanitarian cargo. And this is what is most important to us.
ND ─ The army needs a lot of things now, and not just the army. If you write the whole list, it will take a few pages of this magazine. We now need all kinds of support from financial to moral and material assistance, from weapons, planes, bulletproof vests, and helmets for the military, to baby food and diapers. We will be grateful for any help.
The main help is to help us close the sky from missiles and enemy planes, and we will be able to deal with the military on our land. Help close the sky. Civilians are dying; our children are dying under the bombing!
TP ─ Taras Shevchenko is a genius Ukrainian artist and poet, but for our nation, he is also a national prophet, a fighter for the freedom of our people. He is iconic; literally, his portrait hangs in every second Ukrainian house and in each Ukrainian school. He was born in 1814, was the son of a serf, but his ancestors were free Cossacks in Zaporizhzhia in the 17th–18th centuries. It should be recalled that in those days, the Russian Empire brought slavery to the Ukrainian land, as well as to the lands of other nations, whose national identity was destroyed by Muscovites.
Shevchenko lived only 47 years, of which 24 years he spent in slavery, 10 years in exile, and the rest of his life under the supervision of imperial gendarmes. But his extraordinary talents had allowed him to become an academician of the Imperial Academy of Arts and create more than a thousand graphic works and paintings. He was also a poet who called all the Ukrainian people to fight against the Russian Empire for their own freedom. He became a prophet who left spiritual testaments for our nation in his poetry. These testaments have become our cultural and genetic code.
“Fight and you will win!”
“Fire does not burn the fierce...”
With these words, by Shevchenko, Ukrainians are right now fighting for their freedom, the right to physical and spiritual existence. It is an existential struggle, a fight for the moral values of the free Western world. Shevchenko believed in a certain mystical purpose of the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian language was censored in the Russian Empire because they felt that the uprising of the Ukrainian language and culture would awaken the nation. Ukrainians are those who are doomed to cause the Russian Empire to break up and help other peoples regain their national consciousness and cultural identity. And that’s exactly what happens now.
Natalya Delieva by Ella Mazur
ND ── Taras Shevchenko is a symbol of Ukraine, who fought all his life for a free Ukraine. We love and respect him very much! 177 years ago, he wrote “break the shackles, be free” [from the poem “My Friendly Epistle”]. I hope that after this war, we will finally break the shackles that Russia has put us in for centuries. Through this exhibit, let North America see what Ukraine was like two centuries ago how Shevchenko portrayed it. Let them hear Ukrainian singing and see the faces of the Ukrainian intelligentsia of that time. Let them know that Ukraine is original and special. Let them look at our Shevchenko – the symbol of Ukraine, who all his life aspired to a free Ukraine and painted it in his paintings. Let them see and know what a beautiful and peaceful country Ukraine has always been!
Sign Up to Keep Up!
Our newsletters bring you the best in the visual and performing arts.
Exclusive interviews. Global Coverage. Local Perspectives.