BLOK is republishing the translated version of an interview between journalist Paulina Siegień and Ukrainian curator Dmytro Chepurnyi for Krytyka Polityczna. On February 22, 2022, Dmytro wrote an open letter to the international arts community appealing for the condemnation of Russian aggression and the support of the Ukrainian people. Two days later, Russia launched an open and unprovoked war against Ukraine. This interview was conducted on the afternoon of February 24, on the first day of Russia’s open military aggression against Ukraine. The situation is rapidly unfolding. People in Ukraine are dying.
Paulina Siegień: How did you know the war started? How did you react?
Dmytro Chepurnyi: For me, Russia’s war against Ukraine began on April 12, 2014, with the seizure of Slavyansk by groups of Russian fighters. This war has been going on for eight years and now it has escalated to an attack on all of Ukraine, in all of the regions that border Russia or its ally, Belarus, and from the Black Sea. This is an escalation of the same war that has been going on since 2014. The Russians now call this war a military operation, but it is an act of war. I do not lose hope that it will end quickly and that it will end badly for those who unleashed it.
On Thursday, my family and I woke up around 5 am from the sound of an explosion. My friends called right away, we found information on the Internet that the Kyiv airport and other important facilities and infrastructures in the vicinity of Kyiv were being fired at, and it soon turned out that the shelling was going on not only here, but all over Ukraine.
Were you leaving the house?
We left in the morning to buy water. We contacted our relatives to coordinate our actions, we made sure that everyone was safe. Martial law was introduced, public transportation was cut off. The authorities are urging us not to leave the house unless it is absolutely necessary. So we’re not leaving.
What is the mood like in Kyiv?
I would like to emphasize once again that this situation is not new for Ukraine, therefore some people are already hardened. I’m not saying that they aren’t tired of this, but they are seasoned and know how to behave. As a result of the Russian aggression that began in 2014, Ukraine is home to about one and a half million internally displaced people, i.e. people who left the occupied parts of Donbas and Crimea. As a society, we have experience of war. For us, there is no confusion. On the contrary, there is a feeling that we are prepared. People are mobilized and organized. We watched the President’s speech and the appeal from the mayor of Kyiv. Institutions are working. We are not losing hope that the war will end soon.
You come from Donbas. You worked at the Izolatsia Foundation, the seat of which was seized by separatists and turned into a prison. The foundation moved to Kyiv.
I grew up in Luhansk, and some two years before the war started, I moved to Kyiv. Now I have a painful feeling of deja vu. Like eight years ago, we are again worried about our family that lives in the Luhansk region, very close to the Russian border. Eight years ago, part of my family was forced to flee, they became internally displaced people. We do not know what is happening to them, to those relatives who live near Starobilsk. I am afraid that overnight, we will find out that they live in the occupied territory, in the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. In recent years, at the Izolatsia Foundation, I was the curator of the Donbas Studies project, created to deepen reflection on the region. We implemented projects of great symbolic importance, organized a library, artistic residencies, a program of lectures, and collected the oral histories of people living in the region. In recent years, many projects have been developed in Ukraine that break with the imperial-colonial narrative. Undoing these changes and destroying the achievements of recent years is one of the reasons for the Russian attack. I believe that this was the last moment for Russia to stop Ukraine from drifting away from Russia. Since 2014, despite its problems, Ukraine has been on a path to reform. We have an independent state whose citizens have political subjectivity. Elections are held in Ukraine and the government has changed hands several times. The difference is profound if you compare Ukraine with some other post-soviet countries.
Have you considered leaving?
We thought about looking for a safe place, but now martial law and general mobilization have been introduced. Those who anticipated the attack left a few days ago. I think the most important piece of advice in any situation, and especially now, is to act without emotion, to think reasonably and make rational decisions. For now, we are staying in Kyiv and will make decisions depending on how the events unfold. We’ll stay home and do what needs to be done. I have already read carefully the various security instructions issued by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information about how to behave in an emergency. I hope the self-organization of Ukrainians will work.
What kind of response do you expect from us? How can we help?
On the political level, the citizens of Ukraine are represented by democratically elected authorities; by the president, the council of ministers, and the supreme council. We are expecting the same things that they call for on our behalf. That is, the most severe sanctions against Russia, which started an open war. We expect Russia to be disconnected from banking systems and sanctions that will cause severe economic losses for Russia, and a reduction in its propaganda machine. Ukraine urgently needs financial and military support. It is very important for us to be heard and not to get confused. Russian propaganda is in full swing, but the situation is clear. We know who the aggressor is. On Monday, when Russia recognized the so-called republics in Donbas, I wrote a letter to art professionals and academics around the world with whom I have cooperated before. In the letter I explained that Ukraine was under threat of open Russian aggression now more than ever. The letter was widely forwarded by email, many people read it and responded. I asked them for support, to ask their governments to help Ukraine, because this is not only a war between Ukraine and Russia. Russia has shown that it does not recognize international law, that it does not respect the borders of European countries. The current Russian aggression could lead to the collapse of peace and security around the world.
Dmytro Chepurnyi is a curator of cultural and artistic projects, including cooperation with the Izolyatsia Foundation. He was born in Donbas and lives in Kyiv.
The original letter written by Dmytro Chepurnyi on February 22, 2022:
Dear friends and colleagues!
On the 21st of February 2022, by recognizing the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics Russian Federation confirmed its responsibility for the violence that is happening in eastern Ukraine since 2014. Today, Ukraine is in more danger than ever because of Russian aggression. I am writing now to ask for help. Go to your government and demand help for our country, because this is not just a war between Ukraine and Russia, this is a direct manifestation of Russia’s disdain of the norms of international law and an act of open aggression with complete disregard of the established borders in Europe. What is happening today paves the way for further Russian military aggression, which could be the downfall of global peace and security.
Yesterday Vladimir Putin delivered an hour-long speech full of fiction, cynicism, and aggressive militaristic rhetoric against Ukraine. The Russian president referred a lot to the history of the 20th century, but his version of this history is a fabrication filled with unachieved imperialistic dreams. This is worrying because it means that Russia could initiate the occupation of any post-imperial territories across Europe, continuing a pattern of action we have witnessed in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and beyond. Putin’s speech – in which he rewrote Ukrainian history and denied the existence of an independent Ukrainian state – concluded with a formal statement recognizing the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, two territories in the east of Ukraine which have been occupied by Russian-backed forces for eight years.
Why am I writing to you right now with deep concern? I was born in Luhansk in 1994 and the best times of my childhood were spent in my grandma’s house in the beautiful village in the Luhansk region. I grew up in eastern Ukraine. Our family lived in a detached house in a suburb of Luhansk. Part of my family was forced to become internally displaced persons in 2014 because of Putin’s decision to occupy Crimea and his insurgence in Ukrainian Donbas. According to the Ministry of Social Policy in Ukraine, there are about one million internally displaced families who lost their homes due to the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. The second part of my family currently lives in a ‘safe’, non-occupied part of the Luhansk oblast.
The decision to recognize the independence of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk Peoples Republics has created an insecure situation in the non-occupied territory of the Luhansk oblast, which is currently defended by the Ukrainian army. Today there have been many announcements suggesting that the newly recognized ‘republics’ want to occupy the remainder of the Luhansk oblast with the support of Russian troops. Russia has already prepared the official military agreement with these so-called republics.
Since 2014 due to the Russian military intervention the occupied territories have become zones of violation of human rights. Among the examples include an illegal prison that is based on the territory of IZOLYATSIA, an art center in Donetsk I have regularly worked with in Kyiv after its relocation. Checkpoints allowing people in and out of these occupied territories interfere with the right for mobility and restrict economic freedom, access to medicine, and education. Russia and its republics cannot ensure basic human rights for the “new citizens”.
These personal stories and reflections have become a subject of a series of cultural projects I have initiated and realized independently and with various organizations since 2016. I know many cultural professionals and activists from Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Sievierodonetsk, Porkrovsk, Myrnograd, Starobilsk, and other towns of the Donbas region who don’t want to be occupied or to relocate in the nearest future, they are ready to defend the freedom and peace in their communities.
But in Ukraine today, my normal work is not possible. It is impossible to plan future projects, publish texts or take part in educational programs as the future is so grim and unpredictable due to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. To be clear, this is re-established colonialism in Europe. We condemn the Russian aggression and call for everyone to support Ukraine and act against Putin’s crimes together with Ukrainians.
Our response to this act must be to stop the Russian Federation from taking any further steps to undermine the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia and its government must be stopped immediately!
Your public political position and support have never been so vital.
Thank you very much for your support!
Warmest greetings from peaceful Kyiv
Edited by Ewa Borysiewicz and Katie Zazenski