H-Ukraine Spotlight: Interview with Oleksandra Gaidai

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H-Ukraine "Spotlight" Interview with Oleksandra Gaidai


*This interview originally appeared in Ukrainian and has been translated into English for H-Ukraine subscribers*



H-Ukraine: What is your current position?


OG: I develop and support projects in the academic field at the Ukrainian Institute.


H-Ukraine: What exactly is the Ukrainian Institute, and what does it hope to accomplish?


OG: The Ukrainian Institute is a state institution working in the field of cultural diplomacy to improve the understanding and perception of Ukraine in the world and to develop cultural ties with other countries. The institute was officially established in 2017 under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, but it only started working last year. Today, the Ukrainian Institute works in the fields of cinema, music, visual arts, literature, and theater in addition to the academic sector. The institute is one of several new institutions that were created to reform the cultural and humanitarian spheres in Ukraine. In turn, the Ukrainian Institute focuses on strengthening Ukrainian agendas abroad through cultural diplomacy, specifically through cooperation with foreign institutions. The immediate tasks of the institute include presenting Ukrainian culture and society, increasing interest in Ukraine among foreign audiences, as well as building a sustainable institution and developing a systematic program of cultural diplomacy in Ukraine. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of such work given the current challenges that Ukraine faces due to ongoing Russian military aggression and its hostile informational operations. 


At the same time, the Ukrainian Institute aims to develop a comprehensive approach to promoting Ukraine abroad, as well as broaden and enrich the existing spheres of cultural diplomacy of Ukraine. 


H-Ukraine: What projects are you and the Institute currently working on?


OG: This year, in the academic direction, we managed to launch the first call for a long-term program to support Ukrainian studies abroad. We strive to strengthen Ukrainian issues abroad by providing additional tools to Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian centers and institutions to implement projects in Ukrainian studies. I hope that the Program will expand, both in terms of resources involved and geography, due to the increase in the number of countries involved in the Program.


Despite the pandemic, we felt the need to launch the Program, albeit in a limited form, this year. It is important for us to start establishing contacts with institutions that want to strengthen Ukrainian issues as part of their work. We realize that the first cycle of the program is, in many ways, a challenge for us as an institution. Our goal is to strengthen Ukrainian studies, but unfortunately, the current Ukrainian legislation imposes certain restrictions on the Institute’s activities. For example, we cannot provide research grants, which is why establishing partnerships with foreign institutions is so important to us. At the same time, work continues on the formation of a long-term vision of the academic sector of the Ukrainian Institute. 


The development of Ukrainian studies is important for strengthening Ukraine’s position internationally. In fact, the program is named after Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky; it is impossible to imagine Ukrainian studies in North America without him. To this day, we are faced with the task of making Ukrainian issues more visible and pronounced within the history of imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. It is also about unlocking the potential of Ukrainian studies in understanding issues of global history and heritage of areas such as the Black Sea region and Central and Eastern Europe. Speaking about the place of Ukraine in the region, I would mention a general underestimation of the Ukrainian-Russian factor in the West.  It appeared to me while I was reading the memoirs of James Baker, former Secretary of State. Paul D’Anieri also mentioned it in his book, Ukraine and Russia: From Civilized Divorce to Uncivil War, published by Cambridge University Press last year. During the collapse of the USSR, the attention of the U.S.A. was particularly focused on Moscow/Russia, and this approach to the foreign policy towards post-Soviet countries continued in the 1990s. Baker`s memoirs left me with the impression that he did not grasp, in full, the importance of Ukraine in the US’s handling of Russia and the USSR more generally at that time. An understanding of Russia includes a closer look at Ukraine, which should not be viewed through a Russian perspective. 


We also held a competition last month for creating a concept for the publication on culinary diplomacy of Ukraine. The bilingual publication, which would present Ukrainian culinary traditions as well as modern Ukrainian cuisine, is planned to be realized by the end of the year. Gastronomic research in Ukraine is not only gaining both in popularity and methodological basis, but it is also an extremely promising resource in the public diplomacy of Ukraine. 


H-Ukraine: Many of Ukraine’s cultural institutions are on the verge of collapse due to severe budget cuts and political opposition. How can organizations outside of Ukraine help to save the rich cultural centers of your country?


OG: The support of organizations outside Ukraine is very important to us, which includes openness to cooperation and interest in the activities of both the Ukrainian Institute and other cultural institutions of Ukraine. I think that our common objective is to actualize in the public (and political) space the importance of the humanitarian sphere, especially in times of crisis. Culture is one of the most valuable resources of the state, and it needs systematic support and work. The humanitarian sphere in Ukraine has always been underestimated and underfunded. Ukraine still feels the effects of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy as well as marginalization and profanation of this sphere since independence. Building cultural institutions requires time and considerable effort, but the effect of such activities is longer lasting. There are already excellent initiatives and projects in this area that are worth supporting and developing. 


An important issue is the study of Ukrainian issues, as well as the inclusion of such topics, in Western academic institutions specializing in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. This is necessary for overcoming Russo-centric approaches. Ukrainian issues should not be the only area of interest for Ukrainians; instead, it should be an integrated part of the region’s history in foreign research and educational centers. Therefore, it is always a two-way street. Moreover, the Ukrainian experience can be valuable in studying a wide range of global issues. 


H-Ukraine: What outside organizations is the Ukrainian Institute working with to promote your work?


OG: The Ukrainian Institute cooperates with the diplomatic missions of Ukraine abroad. We also build partnerships with specialized (cultural, educational, and scientific) institutions, professional communities, and organizations abroad. Such cooperation is extremely important for the Ukrainian Institute. Presently, the Ukrainian Institute does not have any foreign representation. Our staff and resources are quite limited; therefore, such partnerships and ties are the key to the successful operation of the Institute. 


H-Ukraine: This is an H-Ukraine special: what is your favorite place in Ukraine and why?


OG: I have many favorite places in Ukraine. The Church of the Intercession—located on an island in the middle of the Dnieper near the town of Rzhyshchiv, Kyiv region—is one of them. In the 1970s, during the construction of the Kaniv Reservoir, the villages in this area flooded, including the village of Husintsi. In fact, this church, which was located on a hill, is the only one that survived from the village. This area, given its history and incredible scenery, impressed me. The church, which resisted the onslaught of water for decades, has been restored and can be visited today. In a sense, it is a place of memory that represents the painful transformation of Ukrainian society in the twentieth century, and at the same time, it serves as a reminder of the cost of modernization as such.