This year Irena Karpa presented a new novel Good News from the Aral Sea. The book was one of the record holders during the Book Arsenal in Kyiv – during 5 days of the festival about 1000 copies of it were sold. But great attention is attracted not only by the new novel but also by the work of Irena Karpa as a manager of culture. For three years she worked in the team of the Embassy of Ukraine in France, creating the reasons for the French public to talk about the Ukrainian culture. There was a bright episode widespread in the media – Macron has been presented a book of French translations of texts by Oleh Sentsov during the 2018 Salon in Paris. And many events remained behind the scenes! This conversation with Irena Karpa took place during the Book Space festival in Dnipro in a short pause between performances and autograph sessions. This interview is not as much about the artistic life of the writer, as about her work in the embassy and the results of her own experience of cultural management.
Let’s start with the story about Ukrainian Paris. Are there a lot of Ukrainians? What is this environment like?
There are a lot of Ukrainians in Paris. This community gathers mainly around the church. This community is very diverse – from those who came to earn money, even semi-legally, to those who have lived here for many years and built a career. It’s a mini-model of society, like everywhere else.
There are also people from the old emigration: some of Ukrainians went to the United States and Canada at the time, and some remained in France. Once I heard that often the poorest who did not have money for a ticket stayed there. Also, a lot of old emigration representatives remained here because they fled from the war. Some came here with Ukrainian battalions. Everyone has their own history; the descendants of these people tell interesting and often heroic stories.
There is a part of society that only attends the church, there is another part that only attends secular events, including more elitist ones, such as large design salons. A striking example is our architect of the Ukrainian stand at Salon du Livre, Nadine Kobylko. In the spring of 2019, she brought her daughter to the Ukrainian event for the first time – it was a showroom of our designers in the cultural centre. Nadine was finally not ashamed to show her French-born child or friends the interesting and advanced Ukraine.
What do these people do?
Of course, I don’t know everyone, so my experience is purely empirical. For example, I live on the principle of “money for the family”, so my nannies, cleaners and manicurists are all Ukrainians. And not just them. For example, my lawyer is also a Ukrainian. I trust her more, it’s easier for me to find a common language with her.
Among those I know, most are blue collars, but I also know a lot of those who work in the public sector, study, have a variety of careers. For example, Ania Koriahina, who works in the cultural sector, produces films. Or Iryna Dmytryshyn, who works at the only department of the Ukrainian language and literature in France and translates Ukrainian books into French. Such people are cultural heroes. Their work creates a context that shapes the image of Ukraine in France.
Is it possible to make these different environments meet and to make them interact with the help of the cultural process?
I’m not sure about the culture, but civilian cases are indeed effective. We became sure of it during the Maidan, people rallied then very much. They united to volunteer, raise funds, go to protests.
For example, Dmytro Atamaniuk, who heads the charitable medical association, negotiates with hospitals about the transfer of equipment to the Ukrainian hospitals. For example, a hospital bed is cleared in a French hospital – it is in excellent condition, almost new… and very useful in the Ukrainian hospital. Same with medical machinery.
People are incredible. They take part in the organization of events and projects and also manage to work, support their families… All of this causes my endless admiration.
The period 2013-2014-2015 was a period of maximum solidarity. There were separate associations before that, that often quarrelled with each other, as it happens in different countries. Together they could be seen only at the concert of “Variaty-Show” or “Quarter 95”. A lot of Ukrainians attended such events – like the Church during the Easter.
You see, concerts are also cultural events.
But it is difficult to imagine something universal, for everyone. People have very different levels and different tastes. You can’t force everyone to voluntarily go and listen to Sylvestrov. This is normal, in any other country audience is the same, because different people like different things.
Maidan and the war in Ukraine united everyone.
An interesting case of the interaction of the community is the case of a lawsuit of a journalist Moreira against Anna Chesanovska, an interpreter who previously accused him of improper use of interviews and translation.
Yes, he sued and won… And we could only support her emotionally. The community helped to hire lawyers and pay them. Then there was a fundraiser to pay the fine.
It seems we can also recall the unifying figure of Vasyl Slipak rat in this context. His life is an amazing story of success as well as a brave work as a volunteer and a warrior.
He was very charismatic, a classic example of a passionary. Outstanding appearance, voice, expressiveness… He was one of those who organized protests against the sale of Mistrals to the Russian Federation. He was always in the centre. Vasyl is a unique case, he seems to be loved by everyone.
Also, the late Natalka Pasternak. A very bright personality. We met just 2 weeks before she died, I wish we had talked more. She promoted all Ukrainian things, and everyone joined her in it. But there are very few charismatic people like her.
In the novel Good News from the Aral Sea there is a hero, who is noticeably parallel to the figure of Vasyl Slipak. Did you know him?
We met when we came to perform in the Ukrainian cultural center with Babkina and Pomerantsev. He approached me to get acquainted, started to send greetings to our common acquaintances… then it turned out that he listened to our music and knew it well. Vasyl was very educated but very easy to speak to.
Later he wrote to me when I was assigned to work at the embassy and was getting ready to go to Paris to work. He informed me that there was a big concern and that he was trying to reassure people who are worried about the fact that I have to come. It was strange that he stood up for me because we hardly knew each other. It was important for me to feel his support. I am surprised by both meaninglessly aggressive people and those who know how to appease the hatred of others.
Natalka Pasternak is also a cult figure. She is not well known to the Ukrainians who do not live in France, but for our diaspora, she really was an iconic person.
She was. Unfortunately, we met in her last days. But I think that we would have talked a lot and worked together if life had taken a different course.
She made very interesting projects, for example, she wanted to create an application Ukrainian Montmartre, which would allow learning more about the Ukrainian pages of life in Paris. She also did touching projects, such as Ukrainian cuisine tastings. In general, I have a feeling that she was a unique person.
Did you manage to make friends with the Ukrainian community? Did you go from expectations and fear to contacts and mutual understanding?
Of course. We cooperated in different areas – from helping the Ukrainian plumbers to the logistics of the importation of the Ukrainian authors to France. Oksana Mizerak from the literary club and other concerned Ukrainians helped us in it. Any help and presence are very important – for example, the presence as listeners and visitors at the Ukrainian events of the Book Salon, where our events were always sold out.
I think that with the end of my contract at the embassy, these intersection points will significantly decrease… Yes, I will not be able to participate in protocol events, such as laying flowers at the graves. But I would like to be able to organize the Ukrainian cultural events, so I would be grateful to see all those with whom we have already established cooperation, and who understand what modern Ukrainian culture can be.
What was the hardest part of your work at the embassy at the beginning?
Bureaucracy and unwillingness of the representatives of the system to look at logical things. For example, how can the authors go to represent Ukraine at their own expenses, without fees, without compensations for housing and travel?
What was the reason?
The fact that culture was not put to the fore. For example, Azarov’s resolution of 2012 “On approval of the Procedure for the use of funds provided in the state budget for financial support to ensure a positive international image of Ukraine and the implementation of measures to support ties with the Ukrainians who live outside Ukraine” was still at the force, which provided for many restrictions. At some point, the work of Olia Zhuk in the Foreign Ministry helped to move this topic and achieve real changes in the situation.
For some reason, officials did not understand that one festival can do more than a hundred round tables. Working with a wide audience is in some cases more effective than talking to fifty people who just nod their heads and leave.
I see real changes that occurred during this time. The department of cultural diplomacy in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is operating, the Ukrainian Institute has finally appeared. It’s all-important.
And what about some applied things? Like dress code, media restrictions, some mundane things? Once after a broadcast, a European diplomat explained to me that the task of a diplomat during an interview is not to tell the news, that is, to say nothing that can become news.
I’m a cultural diplomat, so it was easy for me to stick to the limitations of commenting on political topics. I just dodged such comments and sent to the relevant colleagues. Though journalists often called me, as a civil servant, I had my own restrictions.
But I did not refuse to comment on cultural and social processes. At the same time, my interviews were read closely at the embassy to check if I said anything superfluous. It amused me because I didn’t have such editors before, I gave all things clear and precise names. Although it didn’t really bother me, because I was conscious of not wanting to pursue a lifelong diplomatic career. There really was a lot of ridiculous situations – if not in Kafkaesque style, then in Schweikesque. It was a useful experience for a satirist.
The biggest problem was the trips to Ukraine. For some reason, our ambassador decided that I did not have to come here too often, so I had to submit written requests to get permissions every time I wanted to go and perform in the Ukrainian cities on my own weekends. It was very humiliating. It harmed my artistic activity because I could not go to a rehearsal or a performance at my own expense on my own day off. It also harmed my work as a cultural diplomat, because to understand the new phenomena in Ukrainian art, I have to see what is happening in Ukraine. It is hard to follow the new things and new trends in Ukraine from Paris. There was a time when I even thought about quitting.
What kept you going?
At the embassy, I found a few true friends, whose support helped me a lot. And the events I organized were the biggest outlet. When artists came, and when I heard all this feedback from the French people, I realized that it was not for nothing that I went to work every day.
Now my contract is over and my post is liquidated. The fact that I survived for so long was a surprise for me and for the bureaucrats.
What projects are you proud of?
I think my favourite “child” is the interaction with the Book Salon, where the Ukrainian stand is successfully presented. In 2019, we even got into a special guest program to the Europe stage.
The cooperation with the festival “Week-end à l’Est” was also a great success. Then we managed to convince the Foreign Ministry to give 50 thousand euros for this festival. The French managers and curators who invited the Ukrainian writers and musicians worked there. This festival had an excellent press, all the major French publications wrote about it. It is not surprising, because the work of the press attaché cost about 10 thousand euros for the full support of the festival.
After these three years, I am sure that the best option for cultural low-budget diplomacy is to be included in the already prepared framework of other activities. This allows to save money on logistics and communication, and also allows reaching a wider audience, which in itself is not interested in the Ukrainian culture, but is ready to discover it in the framework of a great artistic event. Thanks to this approach, the Ukrainian works were first exhibited, for example, in the Grand Palais within the framework of the “Revelations” biennale. In a similar way, it works for our couturiers, designers, writers and others.
When you talk about the success of cultural projects, what criteria do you consider?
This number of reviews in the press, the press is very important in general. Also – awards which were received by our designers. And agreements on cooperation signed with our artists. Of course, sometimes you spend a lot of effort, and only two journalists come. Unfortunately, no one is immune to this. Also, there are no paid materials – all our media coverage has always been organic.
But this happens not only with the Ukrainian events. I remember there was a big exhibition of famous German artists in Palais de Tokyo. A fellowship very similar to the Ukrainian one gathered there – diaspora and a German TV channel. When I saw that – I was relieved.
Why? Because few countries are interesting for France if it is not the US, or China, or Russia… An empire understands other empires well and other exotic distant countries that may attract from purely aesthetic longings.
Does the love for the “great Russian culture” undermine the promotion of the Ukrainian culture?
We are often confused. It even happens without malice. In Ukraine, an average person will not really understand where the conditional Serb, the Bosnian, the Albanian are, and what the difference between them is. Also, if there is a common term “Russian avant-garde”, few people want to figure out what is the “Vitebsk school”, and remember that Malevich is from Kyiv. For a layperson, this will all be “Russe”.
It is unpleasant, but it is necessary to work hard and consistently for a long time to eliminate it. Sometimes you explain to cultural managers what the Virsky ensemble is, and sometimes you just tell a taxi driver that what happens in Ukraine is not a civil war.
Sometimes very simple things work – delicious food, cool clubs, good music. I remember participating in the presentation of Ukraine for a dozen bankers. They woke up when I started talking about restaurants, clubs, cocktail bar culture, and when I offered to look in a new way at shabby post-Soviet houses – as if they are the scenery of a cool movie.
A phrase “language cannot be smeared on bread” was once voiced in a political talk show. Can cultural diplomacy be spread on bread?
Yes, in the truest sense of the word. As a result of cultural diplomacy, contracts are signed with our artists – for example, for the production of lamps or chairs… or for the cooperation in a movie shooting. High-quality chairs or other Ukrainian products can be our brand: they are easy to spread on bread.
Will cooperation and exchanges continue when a new person comes to work on your position?
My position has been eliminated. I think the only justification of this decision for the system is the creation of the Ukrainian Institute. Maybe this organization is expected to do all this work. But the Ukrainian Institute does not yet have its own regional departments, so I do not know how it will develop. I really want this to go on.
My successor will be more of a press attaché. If she wants to keep these contacts and cooperation – I wish her luck.
How have you changed over the time of working and living in France?
I’ve become much more tolerant. Today I understand that human rights are above all and they are above purely national or political issues. In no way did I cease to love Ukraine, but I started to pay attention to other things. Although, if you take me to talk to a Russian and raise the subject of the Holodomor… I won’t be quieter or more tolerant here, no. When it’s your personal story – you can’t tell it in a detached way. During this time in France, I dropped out of a detailed analysis of political processes. I don’t know if I want to go back to them.
Interview by Iryna Slavinska
Photo by Alina Kondratenko