The future of Donbass according to Izolyatsia


"Our job is not to 'correct' people or to tell them what to think, rather we should be able to offer a credible idea of a future together". Mykhailo Glubokyi is one of the organisers of the Izolyatsia cultural space, founded in Donetsk and then moved to Kyiv. We interviewed him

When history seems to repeat itself: the members of Izolyatsia – a cultural and artistic association which in 2014, at the first signs of the war in Donbass, was forced to move from Donetsk because its headquarters were occupied by separatist forces and then transformed into a prison – certainly did not imagine facing similar difficulties eight years later. Instead, as happened to many others, with the Russian invasion of February 24, their new space in Kyiv too – located in a former shipyard near the Rybalski peninsula on the Dnepr river that crosses the capital – was temporarily closed and the association's collective effort has been reoriented to address the primary needs generated by the conflict and towards the "resistance of the country against the aggressor" (as stated in the press release still displayed on the homepage of its website).

At a time like this, Izolyatsia's point of view is extremely interesting. Not only because its origin and previous activities in Donbass enable its members to read more deeply some dynamics taking place in the "people's republics" and to connect them to the war currently underway, but also to understand how culture and civil society could play a role in terms of peacemaking and social recomposition in the times to come. We talked about it with Mykhailo Glubokyi, one of the animators of the space.

What did you think on February 24?

I did not imagine that a large-scale war would start. I had many projects open, with many partners, most often from Europe, and we told everyone there was nothing to worry about. Nonetheless, at the same time, we were preparing for the remote possibility that war would ensue: also on the basis of our experience in 2014/15, we therefore took care of saving information and materials that could get lost in the event of an emergency, we hid documents, created copies of photographs and videos, etc.

Clearly, the moment when the invasion started was experienced differently by the different members of the association. But it was a shock for everyone and none of us knew exactly how to act, at least during the first two weeks. In 2013, when our space in Donbass had been stormed for the first time by separatist forces, the first thing we did was try to have the visibility to tell our experience and denounce what happened. Somehow, that's what we did this time too: in fact, on the very February 24, when I drove from Kyiv to western Ukraine with my family, I stopped along the way to talk to people from radio and media different because it seemed important to me to leave our testimony and let out as much information as possible.

Did the fact that there was a large-scale invasion somehow let you see the events in Donbass eight years earlier in a different light?

No not at all. Indeed, I can tell you more: already in 2012 we had hosted an artist from Crimea in our space in Donetsk with a very successful project (Homo Bulla by Maria Kulikovska, ed.). Shortly afterwards, in her hometown, the artist received threats due to the feminist and queer nature of her works and we then decided to welcome her to us, to grant her a safe place (after the seizure of the Izolyatsia headquarters by the separatists, her works were destroyed, ed.). So it's like for us it all started back then, we got an inkling of what could happen. However, we would never have believed that similar dynamics would also extend to Donbass.

My feeling, therefore, is that what the whole of Ukraine is going through right now has actually been going on for eight years, but now in much larger scale. Even more so when we have often worked, from a cultural and artistic point of view, with people who lived or were near the contact line or in the occupied territories. This allowed us to receive in-depth information and maintain awareness of what the situation was there and the chance that at some point Russia would decide to recognise the people's republics and to annex those territories was always on the agenda. Therefore, there has been no re-interpretation on our part of what happened in 2014/15: the escalation has finally come true in the way that we could have already foreseen some time ago.

What is your idea of everyday life in the occupied territories?

A couple of years ago, we managed to set up a travelling music project which had its final stop in Severodonetsk which was attended by artists from the Luhansk region. Something that obviously we have not publicised in any way, precisely to avoid putting those who would have taken part from the occupied territories at risk. In general, it is really difficult to obtain reliable and credible information from that area: those who decide to expose themselves publicly usually do not do it to say what they really think but just to report things that do not endanger them.

But I think we need to consider the fact that most of the people who stayed there are non-politically engaged people, trying to adapt whatever the surrounding situation is. Beyond this, the possibility of free expression is very limited: even art does not exist independently, but only if rigidly controlled and financed by the state structures established in those territories. The local Ministry of Culture has a specific programme that follows political propaganda lines. Now this situation is aggravated by the fact that there is a form of general mobilisation to face the war. I know of people who essentially barricaded themselves at home for months, fearing being conscripted, until they managed to bribe someone and escape to Europe through Russia.

What kind of reaction did you encounter in the past years in Ukrainian society for your activities, when the war of Donbass was still going on?

I think we have a good reputation and, from our perspective, we have never had any problems or experienced any prejudice against us, either as an association or on a personal level. It is true that there are attitudes among some of the Ukrainian population that tend to see anyone arriving from the eastern regions as a "separatist" or a "traitor", we have heard about it and we have heard several stories about it. In any case, one of our goals was precisely to make our perspective known even in places where war was only a distant reality.

However, I was struck by some reactions after February 24 last year: several people told us, following the large-scale invasion, that they finally understood what we in Donbass had gone through. For me it was weird, to some extent, because up until that point I always thought we were all in the same boat anyway. But it is clear that, until one goes through a personal experience, awareness cannot be the same.

Do you think there can be a peaceful reintegration of those regions into Ukrainian territory in the future?

This is clearly a very complex issue. In 2014 and 2015 it would have been easier to answer, but as time has passed, things have become even more complicated. The point is that the situation is constantly changing: at a certain moment, as an association, we thought it was necessary to draw up a point-by-point programme on how we would see the possibility of a peaceful reintegration of Donbass into the country but, in fact, the context changes every day day and we understood how difficult it is to imagine a concrete process.

Meanwhile, Russian propaganda is getting stronger and more and more part of the identity of the population. We have contacts in Donbass with whom we can speak freely, but there are some points and elements that become obstacles and on which it is almost impossible to reason together. It is also clearly a form of self-defense for those who have lived under occupation for years and constitutes their way of understanding reality. But in this regard our task is not to "correct" people or to tell them what to think, rather we should be able to offer a credible idea of the future together. It is a difficult goal, but it is what we have to aim for and I hope it will be possible. It's even more difficult if we think about teenagers who have grown up in people's republics and maybe have no contact with other people in other parts of Ukraine.

Do you think you can play a role in this process as an association?

For us it is absolutely fundamental, and for two specific reasons: we want to protect freedom of expression as much as possible; we believe that the artistic-cultural perspective of working with personal experiences in a non-intrusive way can be of great help. This is the reason why we have, for example, collaborated with associations active in the Yugoslav context which deal precisely with post-war reconciliation. Then we fear that the state is unable to properly manage the process in question: in the last eight years it has failed to do so due to lack of know-how and excessive bureaucracy. Independent associations, on the other hand, have a much better chance of success in this type of situation.

For us, who now have thirteen years of experience in this field (something not so usual in Ukraine), the important mission, however, is not only to be part of this process individually but to make our knowledge available for other associations, groups, and collectives. There is more fertile ground than one thinks: if we look at the unoccupied territories of Donbass we see how the context is totally different from what one could find in 2014. There are many socially active people, even though often in cities and villages work is almost the only occupation of the people and the only horizon of existential realisation. Eight years after the war, one can see how in almost every centre there are common spaces, active organisations, interest on the part of the population in building a new identity and understanding what the new pillars might be... Mariupol, for example, has explored its Greek and Tatar roots, new museums were about to be born before the war.

Really, I'd say there's been a surge in self-organised initiatives. Something that had also begun in Donetsk in 2012, inspired by a sort of "German model" that treasured the legacy of industrial spaces and was truly promising... On the one hand, therefore, all this gives you hope that it is possible to return to this atmosphere of building a new community, influenced by the industrial, European, and Soviet past at the same time. On the other hand, we are speaking precisely of a process that cannot be brought down from above and managed unilaterally by the state. On the contrary, it is a daily job, as independent and free as possible, that must involve people from below and value specific experiences and connect them with shared values. Only in this way can a lasting result be achieved. I truly believe that, contrary to what it may seem, there is a widespread desire to set these dynamics in motion and progress.