There are new sounds in the city this summer: Ukrainian voices, singing their national songs, finding a place far from home and bringing a new culture to it. Last month, Ukrainians brought their midsummer festival, Ivana Kupala, to Preston Park. It was a beautiful and moving enactment of traditional Ukrainian culture – though not a complete performance, as the tradition of leaping over bonfires had to be omitted for safety reasons. People jumped over a red cloth instead, and decked a branch with ribbons to make wishes – for peace, of course.
Around 400 Ukrainians have come to Brighton and Hove since Russia attacked their country in February. The busy drop-in sessions held weekly at All Saints Church in Hove, and also those at St Luke’s, Prestonville, show both the Ukrainians’ resourceful spirit and the continuing need for practical support. They also show that people arriving in a foreign city as refugees need more than help with essentials like bus routes and finding school places.
Like everybody else, they need opportunities to gather together. And when people are forced to leave their country, they make sure they don’t leave their culture behind. So working with Ukrainians to create a cultural event seemed like a good way to complement the practical help local people and organisations are giving.
When I asked Ukrainians at All Saints what kind of culture such an event should include, they were unanimous: music and food. Kassia Zermon, creative director of the Rose Hill arts and music centre, was already thinking along those lines when we started to talk about the idea of welcoming Ukrainians there. Formerly a pub and still looking like one, it’s an ideal venue for people gathering under the circumstances in which the Ukrainians find themselves: cozy, sensitive and always keen to encounter different cultures.
Phill Minns of Best Foot Music, a local organisation that works with refugee and migrant musicians, took on the role of co-ordinating the performers. We called the event Razom, Pa3oM, Ukrainian for ‘together’, signifying that it was to be created by Ukrainians and local people together. With due apologies to Hove residents, we billed it as ‘a gathering for Ukrainians and Brightonians’.
Razom took place on 24 July. It was a Sunday afternoon gathering, so as to make it as easy as possible for mothers and children to come along. About a quarter of the Ukrainian refugees in the city are children, and very few of them have their fathers with them, as men aged between 18 and 60 are barred (with limited exceptions) from leaving the country. Steve Silverwood of Upside Comics ran a children’s drawing workshop, with a sideline translating useful phrases such as ‘give me sweets’.
Julia Poljakova and Kira Makohon were in charge of the food, which they had prepared over the previous couple of days. The centrepiece was a tureen of borscht, the beetroot-coloured soup that to Ukrainians is like an edible national anthem. Kira and Julia have formed a ‘borscht group’ which they hope will provide the soup to the local Ukrainian community on a regular basis.
The music was almost all Ukrainian, from a ‘For Razom’ Spotify playlist by Vlada Bondar and an acoustic solo set by Yuliya Fytsaylo to songs accompanied by a cello and a flute. A succession of women stepped up to sing, adding their voices one by one. But this wasn’t just a stage show. Everybody knew all the words, and everybody sang them.
As Dina Shenderetska and Daria Onishchenko performed a song called ‘Ukraine Is You’, and women wiped tears from their eyes as they sang along, recording the scene on their phones, we were watching them collectively sustain their nation. This is how it’s done nowadays, with smartphones, and how it was always done, with songs. The children joined in too. It left me surer than ever that the Ukrainians will prevail.
Towards the end of the afternoon, Nastya Bohdanova announced her intention to show that Ukrainians don’t just like folk music, and proved her point with accompaniment by Ivan Kostiuchenko on electric guitar. People danced and Razom turned into a party, which was more than we had expected. As, wonderfully, was the whole event. We’ll do it again on 9 October.
Before that, Brighton & Hove’s Ukrainians will be returning to Preston Park on Saturday 27 August, from 2.30 to 6pm, to celebrate Ukraine’s Independence Day.
You can find details of this and other events on the For Ukraine – Brighton&Hove Facebook page.