This is how Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most famous poet of the 19th century, was perceived in imperial Saint-Petersburg, how Mykola Gogol was reviving demonic Ukrainian folklore for a Russian audience, and how Polish poets like Wacław Zaleski were presenting Ukrainian popular songs, or how Austrian writers like Sacher-Masoch were depicting Galicia, the borderland of his imperial motherland.
In the 20th century, the Soviet regime was busy trying to erase this “national” element. The search of national “depth” was marginalized and then openly persecuted from the 1930s. After World War II, the nostalgia for past traditions sometimes broke through the wall of censorship, creating interesting phenomena, like Ukrainian “poetic cinema” by Sergei Paradzhanov (his world famous film “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” is a classic example), Yuriy Illenko, Leonid Osyka, Ivan Mykolaychuk and others; but its creators often paid a high price for their dissidence.
After Ukraine became independent in 1991, and especially in the 2000s and 2010s, this repressed element returned with unprecedented vigour. In order to understand this phenomenon of going back to the past together with searching for modern forms of expression, one has to keep in mind an important insight of the post-independence decades. As national traditions were suppressed for decades, these traditional roots now had a strong emancipatory and freedom potential, which attracted so many artists. It was, therefore, not so much conservative as modern and looking to the future.
Let’s look at the ways in which contemporary Ukrainian culture is looking for this mixture of tradition with modern form and language.
Ethnic traditions are also inspiring the creativity of Ukrainian fashion designers.
Some of them, like Roksolana Bohutska, Chernikova , Serebrova, Oksana Polonets and others either produce their dresses in the traditional embroidery style (that of vyshyvanka), or create their own new collections inspired by Ukrainian decoration traditions. Handmade or mass-produced vyshyvankas are easy to buy in Ukrainian towns and cities; some projects like Zerno Fashion (zerno.fashion) also make interesting and tradition-inspired clothes available for a wider audience of consumers.
These are just a few examples of how today’s Ukrainian culture is combining tradition and modernity. A similar trend is also present in visual arts, literature, education, design, video games and comics.
An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it erases the difference between “archaic” and “modern”. It makes national traditions “fashionable”, taking them through a filter of contemporary or avant-garde form.
But it also performs an interesting enterprise: by re-establishing the link between the present and the past it also modernizes the past, making it less archaic than it was before.
This article has been first published on ukraineworld.org
This article has been published with the financial support of International Renaissance Foundation