Ukrainian Cultural Center in Moscow strives to tell the truth about Ukraine

by Maryna Makhnonos
Special to The Ukrainian Weekly

MOSCOW - In the very heart of Moscow on the Arbat, among vendors selling colorful souvenirs and paintings, one unexpectedly comes across Ukraine's national flag, which streams before a large, old building. It is the Ukrainian Cultural Center that welcomes all to publicize Ukrainian culture, science and history.

The Ukrainian Cultural Center is located in a 200-year-old building that first belonged to a minor Russian official. Giving historical note during his presentation of his recently published book on June 17, the center's director, Volodymyr Melnychenko, said the building was witness to a long chain of esteemed dwellers and their guests, among them the niece of Russian writer Lev Tolstoy, Elizabeth Obolenskaya, who had hosted her legendary uncle, writer Anton Chekhov, who would visit his publisher in this residence.

Later, Russian poets Sergei Yesenin and Vladimir Mayakovsky were visitors of a literary cafe in the building's basement - a favorite among bohemians of the era. Most recently a Ukrainian bookstore operated in the building before it became the cultural center for Ukraine in 1993.

Taking into account the side scale of the center's activities, which range from scientific, historical and agricultural conferences to evenings of poetry, folk concerts and international art exhibitions, it could be called one of the most active institutions of this kind. It doesn't take a back seat to the local British Council office or German Goethe Institute in this respect, said the Center's deputy director Yuriy Vasylenko.

About 13,000 people annually attend events organized at the center, explained Mr. Vasylenko. The institution usually arranges up to 50 events per year - all of them are offered for free - with the purpose of sharing the Ukrainian spirit with Russians and uniting local Ukrainians.

The center also offers lodging to high-ranking state officials as well as ordinary diaspora members either on music tours or on other trips who cannot afford Moscow's expensive hotels.

The center interacts with representatives of the Ukrainian community in Russia and houses organizational offices. It also provides facilities for regional Ukrainian community organizations, visitors with their achievements at concerts, conferences and exhibitions, as well as hosting meetings of the Ukrainian Cinema club. In addition the center invites foreign missions to present their national arts exhibitions on its premises.

However, Moscow's public is a "heavy load to pick up," said Mr. Vasylenko. "We lack an information campaign (to draw people)," he added with concern.

"Large funds are needed to gain people's interest. ... Lack of government funding is our biggest problem," Mr. Vasylenko told The Weekly. His organization lives mostly on revenues from rent while Ukraine's Ministry of Culture sends scarce funds.

Instead of focusing on its problems the center's organizational team tries to concentrate on telling the truth about Ukraine to this country of more than 200 nationalities. Of some 20 million Ukrainians living outside their native land, about five million live in Russia.

Towards this end the center continues to develop the story of the active presence of Ukrainians on the Arbat, which began in the early 20th century. The street was not only Moscow's main artery with a 500-year history, but home to Ukrainian heroes of the past.

"I am settled in Moscow, Arbat, 55, Apt. 8," said Ukraine's first president, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, in his letter to friend Serhii Yefremov in 1916. Hrushevsky lived on the Arbat for six months when he worked on his "History of Ukraine," taking a breath of relative freedom after a forced long exile in Russia's hinterlands. He left Moscow from here to assure leadership of the Central Rada, the Ukrainian government, in Kyiv in 1917.

"First of all, we jointly conduct events with the Association of Ukrainians in Russia to unite Ukrainian organizations to solve short- and long-term tasks," Mr. Vasylenko said. "And we always work to give a sense of Ukraine felt at even those events which one would think are irrelevant, such as if we celebrate anniversaries of (Russian artists) Rachmaninoff, Pushkin or Tchaikovsky."

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 3, 2003, No. 31, Vol. LXXI

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