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The real culture war: How the UK is supporting Ukraine beyond the battlefield

3 min read

In May the eyes of the world will once again be on the UK. Of course, there is the Coronation to look forward to.

Of course, there is the Coronation to look forward to. But next month, Europe and beyond will look to Liverpool as it hosts the Eurovision Song Contest on behalf of Ukraine. Both show the UK as a powerful convenor of nations, and both underline the power of culture in celebrating national identity and promoting international friendship.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not only an attack on the Ukrainian people and their territory, but also a direct attack on its very identity. Since the war, the Ukrainian cultural identity has taken on new meaning, both as a symbol of resistance and a source of inspiration for the future of Ukraine. It is no mistake that Putin’s missiles have destroyed valuable cultural centres, including the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol. Ironically, awareness of Ukrainian culture in the UK has arguably never been higher.

In difficult moments, the arts tell a story in a way the media can’t.  For Ukraine, this means ensuring it is seen on the world stage beyond the conflict in the face of the powerful Russian propaganda and disinformation machine. Having worked with the Ukrainian creative sector for over 30 years and with renewed vigour after the 2014 invasion of Crimea, the British Council has a proud history of platforming the unique creativity and rich cultural innovation and heritage of Ukraine.  

Following the invasion, the British Council’s UK/Ukraine Season of Culture in 2022 provided vital international opportunities for Ukrainian creatives. The Season was launched as ‘Future Reimagined’ in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute, and, among other highlights, it brought Ukrainian films to festivals across the UK from Belfast to Brighton, livestreamed into the Hay Festival from a bomb shelter in Lviv, and opened the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival with ‘Chornobyldorf’, a Ukrainian opera.

As Liverpool prepares to welcome Europe to its historic docks, we are working with Liverpool City Council’s Culture Liverpool on ‘Eurofest’, bringing Ukrainian artists and creatives into the city – inspired by Eurovision 2023’s slogan, ‘United by Music’. Liverpool will be transformed into a hotspot for Ukrainian culture in the UK, with performances and projects including a piece reflecting on the journey taken by Ukrainian refugees in Liverpool Cathedral, and a ‘Blue and Yellow Submarine Parade’ – described as ‘a huge underwater sea disco’ – dancing down the city streets.

In difficult moments, the arts tell a story in a way the media can’t.

‘Eurofest’ will be just one reflection of the solidarity the UK has shown Ukraine since the invasion. Throughout the joyous moments the UK will witness in May, we must not underestimate the strategic value of our soft power. While on Ukrainian soil, Ukrainian troops fight with British weapons, in the UK British schoolchildren learn about Ukrainian culture, and share British culture with their new Ukrainian friends. It is in these relationships that we are so vividly reminded that liberal democracy is not only hard won but must be hard defended.

We must think long term when it comes to Ukraine. As it begins the process of reconstruction, Ukraine has looked to the UK not only because of the military and diplomatic support we have provided, but because of the 30+ years of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Those cultural relationships form the bedrock of our connections around the world. By investing in them generously and ensuring that we have the capabilities to support allies overseas even during times of conflict, we will be boosting the UK’s reputation as a soft power superpower around the world and providing robust challenge to the disinformation of malign actors.

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