Days of Ukraine in London. Post-Event Blog

Blog by Andy HunderUkrainians are generally a miserable bunch, according to the latest research presented in London on Thursday, which verifies previous studies showing that Ukraine is the unhappiest nation in Europe.

National pride is also at an all time low. People don’t feel a sense of self-esteem of belonging to the country and are often quick off the mark to put their own country down. Many are migrating, with no plans to come back anytime soon. And, as depicted in my previous blog, the perception of Ukraine in the UK, and across the world, is far from great.

Being a self-confessed eternal optimist, I see the positive news in this – that there is great opportunity for things to perk up. I, therefore, was exceedingly excited that the Days of Ukraine in the United Kingdom took place in London last week. Definitely no small undertaking for the organisers to promote a country in London that has remained a great unknown, a terra incognita, or malecognita, at best.

Lada Firtash & Oleh Skrypka in London

Lada Firtash & Oleh Skrypka in London

Lada Firtash, the chairperson of the organising committee and head of the Firtash Foundation declared before the event: ‘This is a project that every Ukrainian can be proud of.’

Londoners found out about the event mostly through the London Evening Standard, the dominant regional evening paper, which claims a daily readership of 1.7 million people. The newspaper (which is, ironically, now owned by former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev and son Evgeny) printed a number of advertisement features announcing the event, including a four page colour feature centrepiece.  Ukraine Days

The official opening of the Days of Ukraine kicked-off in Parliament on 17 October. On that day, thousands of protestors came out on to the streets of central London demanding the resignation of the Education Minister – no, not Ukraine’s vastly ostracized minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, but Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove. The teachers’ protest caused the closure to traffic of Parliament Square and some adjacent roads. This caused a bit of a stir for arriving guests as the VIPs, accustomed to being chauffeured door-to-door, had to complete the rest of their journey on foot.

Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

The official opening was all very British and sophisticated – attended by the Speaker of the House of Commons, a number of Lords and members of Parliament. Ukrainian billionaire, Dmitry Firtash, whose company funded the three day event, spoke at the opening, as did Ukraine’s first post-independence President, Leonid Kravchuk. The shrewd octogenarian former country leader reminisced how, during his first official visit to London two decades ago, he was asked by the Brits whether he had come to reclaim Polubotok’s gold from the Bank of England (one of Ukraine’s favourite legends evolves around the story that a large amount of gold, which Ukrainian Hetman Pavlo Polubotok supposedly deposited into an English bank in 1723, would have been returned upon the independence of Ukraine with an astronomical amount of interest).

Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Mayfair

Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in Mayfair

Some of the Ukrainian oligarchs present in the Churchill room in Westminster were probably as prosperous, if not more so, than Polubotok himself. Upon being introduced to another Ukrainian billionaire and philanthropist, Victor Pinchuk, I said: ‘Viktor Mychailovych, we are practically neighbours.’ I revealed to him that our Ukrainian Institute in London is on the opposite side of Holland Park, where Mr. Pinchuk and his wife, Olena, own an £80 million house, which was widely publicised in the UK media.

That evening a gala dinner took place at the Natural History Museum. Coincidentally, the architect of this grand museum, Alfred Waterhouse, also designed the church on Duke Street in Mayfair, which today is the Ukrainian Catholic Church in London.

The museum’s most prominent exhibit is the affectionately named Dippy, a 105-foot (32m) long replica dinosaur skeleton, which dominates the museum’s central hall. The black-tie dinner attracted hundreds of guests, both British and Ukrainian, some of whom had arrived especially for the London event. Among the many entrepreneurs, business leaders, politicians, academics and journalists was Olga Kurylenko, best know for role in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. Olga moved from Ukraine to Paris at the age of 16, and is now based in London.

Olga Kurylenko Photo: John Phillips, PA

Olga Kurylenko
Photo: John Phillips, PA

On the menu there was a very superior version of borscht, served with truffled crème fraîche, and a mini wild mushroom dumpling. It was lovely, even if it came served in a dish the size of an espresso cup. Nonetheless, any Ukrainian will always tell you that his/her mama’s borscht is the best in the world.

Simon Franklin, Professor of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, made a brilliant speech about the promotion of Ukraine and Ukrainian language in the UK. During the dinner, Lada Firtash announced that the Days of Ukraine in the UK will become an annual happening.

Zinaida Likhacheva collection in London Photo: PA

Zinaida Likhacheva collection in London Photo: PA

The programme of the evening was truly excellent, including Ukraine’s best contemporary living composer, Myroslav Skoryk, who conducted the orchestra’s performance of his amazingMelodiya. Among the numerous talented presentations, Zinaida Lihacheva’s Autumn is so lovely Art Performance was exceptional. The event was concluded by top Ukrainian musician, vocalist and composer Oleh Skrypka and Le Grand Orchestra. Skrypka’s great and authentic music can get any crowd going – even Dippy the Dinosaur seemed to get his tail wagging.

The next morning at Cambridge University, the unveiling of a special commemorative pavement marker in honour of Taras Shevchenko took place. Shevchenko, a namesake of former Chelsea striker, Andriy, is considered Ukraine’s cultural godfather – an orphaned serf who became a fearless poet, enduring imprisonment and exile to become the voice of a people.

From Shevchenko to Zabuzhko, London Library

From Shevchenko to Zabuzhko, London Library

Taras Shevchenko was spoken of on frequent occasions during the three days in London. One American Chief Executive later told me that during an after-party at one of London’s chic exclusive venues, he was extremely impressed that some of the Ukrainian businessmen present could recite lengthy Shevchenko poems, which they remembered learning at school during their childhood.

The next evening the focus was on literature, arts and fashion. Readings of classics and modern Ukrainian poetry called ‘From Shevchenko to Zabuzhko’ were held at the London Library in St James’s, led by Rory Finnin, Head of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, featuring

Oksana Zabuzhko at the London Library

Oksana Zabuzhko at the London Library

Oksana Zabuzhko, a best-selling contemporary Ukrainian writer. The inspirational Zabuzhko explained that her generation is the first of Ukrainian writers coming on to the international stage. ‘We appear as orphans, with no visible forefathers,’ she said. ‘Our responsibility is to bring our forefathers to the spotlight.’ Zabuzhko raised a very valid point that, to date, there is no detailed biography about the amazing life of Taras Shevchenko and the success story of a serf that became a hero of a nation. Ms. Zabuzhko had to leave London promptly as the next day she was presented with the ‘Angelus’ award, considered the ‘Booker prize of the East’ for her latest multigenerational saga The Museum of Abandoned Secrets.

Contemporary Ukrainian artists exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery

Contemporary Ukrainian artists exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery

Probably the most moving moment over the three days, for me personally, was Oksana Zabuzhko narrating Shevchenko’s poemDestiny (Доля) (see text below in original and English translation). The performance was so compelling that it got goose pimples running up my arms. The next day, I only found out after fifteen years of marriage that my wife also knows plentiful Shevchenko poems by heart, and recited ‘Destiny’ to me again.

Meanwhile, at the Saatchi Gallery over in Chelsea that evening, the opening of the Ukrainian art exhibition and fashion show was taking place. The ticket demand for these events was very high that not all managed to make it to see the models on the catwalk. The Fashion show, arranged by Iryna Danylevska brought together leading Ukrainian designers – Lilia Poustovit, Lilia Litkovska and Svitlana “Bibi” Bevza – the latter, I am told, is selling well in UK.

Oleh Skrypka in London. Photo: Ihor Polataiko, London

Oleh Skrypka in London. Photo: Ihor Polataiko, London

The contemporary Ukrainian artists’ exhibition was truly superb and positioned as ‘the most comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to Ukrainian contemporary art in the UK. For the first time on British soil, it brings together the works of 25 of Ukraine’s most influential artists.’ Ukraine has one of the most vibrant art scenes in the former Soviet Union.

Ukrainian Festival in London Photo: Ihor Polataiko

Ukrainian Festival in London Photo: Ihor Polataiko

On Saturday afternoon the biggest event with a wonderful atmosphere took place – the ethnic festival and concert featuring Ukrainian cuisine, Cossack games and traditional Ukrainian crafts. Thousands attended this event – the picture of Ukrainian music live on stage on a backdrop of one of London’s top landmarks, Tower Bridge, will remain in many hearts for a long time.

On the whole, I am convinced that the Days of Ukraine in London turned out to be a hit. Over a million people in the capital were made aware of and reminded about the existence of Ukraine, and had an opportunity to find out more about its culture and traditions. Ukraine still remains very much unfamiliar to tens of million people in the UK. Without proactive events and initiatives this isn’t going to improve anytime soon.

Some, however, still linger unmoved. One grumpy Ukrainian mumbled to me: ‘Why didn’t the Queen, or the Prime Minister, bother to turn up?’

Ukrainian Festival   Photo: Ihor Polataiko, London

Ukrainian Festival
Photo: Ihor Polataiko, London



Ти не лукавила зо мною,

Ти другом, братом і сестрою

Сіромі стала. Ти взяла

Мене, маленького, за руку

І в школу хлопця одвела

До п’яного дяка в науку.

— Учися, серденько, колись

З нас будуть люди, — ти сказала.

А я й послухав, і учивсь,

І вивчився. А ти збрехала.

Які з нас люди? Та дарма!

Ми не лукавили з тобою,

Ми просто йшли; у нас нема

Зерна неправди за собою.

Ходімо ж, доленько моя!

Мій друже вбогий, нелукавий!

Ходімо дальше, дальше слава,

А слава — заповідь моя.


You were not devious with me,

You became a friend, a brother and

A sister for a poor wretch. You took me,

A little boy, by the hand

And led me off to school

To a tipsy deacon’s lessons.

Study hard, my darling, and someday

We’ll be somebody, you said.

And I listened and studied,

And learned the lessons. But you lied.

We’re not the somebodies you promised?… But never mind!

We were not devious with you,

We walked straight; there’s not

A grain of falsity in our breasts,

So let’s go on then, my destiny!

My wretched, undeceiving friend!

Go on further. Further there’ll be fame,

And fame is my testament.

Translated by Michael M. Naydan

Ukrainian Festival by Tower Bridge  Photo: Ihor Polataiko

Ukrainian Festival by Tower Bridge
Photo: Ihor Polataiko