The country that wasnt on the map. Days of Ukraine to be held in London

When I was an eight year old boy growing up in London in the late 1970’s, my school teacher one day asked our class to show on the wall map whereabouts in Britain our parents and/or grandparents were born. When it was my turn – I, like a few other kids from minority backgrounds, went to the other side of the blackboard – where the map of the world hung and proudly exclaimed to the class that my parents hail from a country called Ukraine. When everyone looked at the map I was horrified to find that the country that I so enthusiastically declared – wasn’t actually on the map – instead there was a massive land mass named the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Almost with tears in my eyes I began trying to convince my teacher and classmates that such a country really did exist and, although I had never actually visited it, as at the time it was behind the Iron Curtain, it was one of the most beautiful countries in the world where my parents and grand-parents were born. I didn’t have much luck convincing my teacher and school buddies about the existence of this country, as it just was not anywhere on the map. Some of my friends later ridiculed me that I came from a country that didn’t exist. That was, perhaps, my first attempt at promoting Ukraine in public. It wasn’t a great success.

Thankfully, much has changed over the years, especially across Eastern Europe – following Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 the country has become formally recognised around the globe. Today, my past teacher and, probably, most of my former classmates would find it relatively simple to pinpoint Ukraine on a world map.

Promoting Ukraine is something that I’ve continued to do, in some shape or form, over the past couple of decades, and more so over the past three years as director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, which I help to run on a pro-bono basis. The Institute has, since 1979, been promoting Ukrainian language, culture, history and current affairs in London.

I’ve been involved in communications and public affairs for nearly all of my professional life and continue to monitor on a daily basis the British and international press on who’s writing what about Ukraine. Over the years, the perception of Ukraine has slowly changed from an ‘unknown unknown’ to a ‘known unknown.’

I am, therefore, truly delighted that a three day event ‘Days of Ukraine in the UK’ will take place in London starting on October 17thDays-of-Ukraine-in-the-UKThe event, which will be heavily funded by one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen, Dmytro Firtash, is being organised by his wife, Lada Firtash, who is the chairperson and founder of the Firtash Foundation. According to a statement made by the organisers, the objective of the event is to ‘improve the perception of our country abroad, to promote a positive image of Ukraine as a European country with both a rich cultural heritage and vibrant contemporary culture.’

This looks like a step in the right direction. The Ukrainian government has made previous attempts to enhance the country’s image abroad, with relatively little success. One such endeavour ended in mayhem before it even started as the ministry responsible for the campaign was accused of corruption in selecting the PR agency to run the campaign. Another attempt to create a visual brand of Ukraine was made a mockery of as soon as the drafts were launched.

My hope is that this campaign will be different to previous attempts, and will make a positive impact. With significant funding from the private sector, this should allow top quality initiatives to be implemented more effectively.

I have studied the perception of Ukraine in the UK over many years. Sadly, Ukraine’s current image isn’t great – many top-of-mind perceptions of Ukraine in the UK include: brawls in parliament, political opponents in jail, a presidential candidate being mysteriously poisoned, oligarchs, corruption, a botched orange revolution and stunningly beautiful girls, some of who flash their naked breasts in public in feminist protest movements. (See link to a presentation, in Ukrainian, which I made on this last year) Much needs to be done to rectify this image. Many Ukrainian business leaders and politicians have or continue to work with London PR agencies to enhance their own image. The Days of Ukraine is a first attempt of this scale and magnitude to promote Ukraine’s positive image further.

The days of Ukraine in the UK will showcase the best cultural talent that Ukraine has to offer: top composers, writers, artists, fashion designers, musicians and rock stars will all convene to London for the three day events. This will include an opening at the Houses of Parliament, Gala Dinner at the Natural History Museum, Fashion show and art exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, Literary readings and an open air festival close to the London Mayor’s office near the river Thames. The line up, which includes the genius composer Myroslav Skoryk, charming musician Oleh Skrypka and inspirational writer Oksana Zabuzhko, is great and a lot of thought has gone in to selecting la crème de la crème of Ukrainian culture and music.Ukraine Days

The Ukrainian community in London is looking forward to this event. Although the Days of Ukraine organisers were initially rather unhurried to take up on the offers of support from local Ukrainians, such an event is likely to also bring many Ukrainians together. The current mix of Ukrainians living in London is very eclectic – starting from Ukrainian billionaires, many of whom own lavish properties in the capital, Ukrainian millionaires commuting between Kyiv and London, professionals in the City, lawyers, bankers, business leaders, representatives of the ‘old Diaspora’, students and thousands of migrants working in the capital.

Ukraine’s image in London and internationally won’t be changed overnight. There is so much to do, which will take years to fix. Hopefully, the three day event will inspire Ukrainians, around the world, to showcase the best of their homeland’s talent and achievement. This is very much the beginning of a journey and not yet the final destination. The further Ukraine’s image is kept away from politics – the better.

Today, my sons shouldn’t face the problem that I had at school: in finding Ukraine on the world map. One big hurdle has been overcome. Now it’s down to improving the image of this great country. This is a continuous and long journey and needs working on throughout 365 days of the year, both in London and other major cities around the world. A good global advertising campaign promoting Ukraine would also be a great investment and is genuinely needed.

Oscar Wilde once said: ‘The man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.’ The UK capital is definitely the place to start to rebuild the country’s image abroad.

We sincerely look forward to welcoming the best Ukraine has to offer in London next week.

 Andy Hunder is Director of the Ukrainian Institute in London