The Devolution of Ukrainian culture beyond its borders

Recently on a business trip to Madrid to examine the state of the Ukrainian community and examining the Spanish market for a number of different projects there were a few things that shed light on what some of the problems that exist in the Ukrainian cultural sphere. While the weather and the general state of the streets in Madrid were a pleasant change from what I had left behind in Kyiv for a few days, I was appalled at some of the other things I experienced in Madrid. Though it did not at all surprise me, given the sad state of affairs in the Ukrainian music industry.

There are many who will read the above statement and not agree with me, but in fact the state of the cultural industry in Ukraine is in a worse condition that it was in the early 1990s, due to the inactivity of the State in the area of cultural development and the protection of its own market. Some industry insiders have told me that in one recent year, Russian performers took out close to $500 million out of Ukraine for performances. It is important to understand that this money was taken out by the Russian music clans that were formed prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union and still exist and those who are in the music industry understand that these clans exist. The Allego, Alla Pugachova, Kirkorov and the Kobzon clans, and there is a high likelihood that not a penny of taxes were paid on this income in Ukraine. As an aside, a monument to Kobzon put up in Donetsk not long ago. Musicians I know have commented that such a figure is very possible and that if Ukrainian contemporary bands even hit a gross figure which was one tenth of this amount then we could start to talk about the existence of a music industry in Ukraine.

Now as a prelude to what appalled me in Madrid, let’s examine some of the problems that exist in Ukraine itself. Back in 2000 I was approached by a number of musicians and members of the Verkhovna Rada regarding the Canadian experience in applying content laws in radio and television, it took some time before such laws came to light in Ukraine, but at the current time Ukrainian law states that 50% of broadcasting both television and radio must be a Ukrainian product. While this may be the case, when watching M1 a leading music TV station in Ukraine and according to some sources under the control of Victor Pinchuk, it is seldom that I have seen anywhere close to the required percentage of Ukrainian performers. Sure, I have seen videos of groups like Tartak and TNMK, but knowing that there are so many other groups with videos out, I have seldom seen any of them and it seems to me that there is no where close to the percentage of required Ukrainian content. In a recent, interview with Rostyslav Shtyn, a patriarch of the Ukrainian music industry and one who gave such groups as Mertviy Pivni and Skryabin and Iryna Bilyk their start, M1 seems to be staffed not only by non-professionals but people who have no taste in music or are working against the development of the Ukrainian music industry.

Though this is not the only problem, think back of when the USA dropped sanctions against Ukraine when it finally passed legislation to deal with piracy, sure the legislation was passed and the sanctions dropped, however, some insiders have told me little has changed. Musicians who produce an album, have no guarantee that by the time that they receive their copies, that hundreds of copies are already not in the hands of those who sell pirated CDs.

After a long meeting with some Ukrainians living in Madrid, we set out to get a better understanding of where they get their Ukrainian cultural products. Our first stop was the store run by Meest near the Central train station in Madrid. As I walked in I noticed a number of products that I recall seeing on the shelves of grocery stores in L’viv, Ternopil and Kyiv, though this is not was what of interest to us, and we made our way to a small corner in the back of the store.

I ran my finger along a shelf of CDs on a shelf. Not one of these were in Ukrainian, and as I looked through a rotating stand I could not find a single licensed/legal CD, let alone anything Ukrainian. Nothing else was different when I looked over to a display stand, where the most of literature was in Russian, with one sole Ukrainian children’s book for learning Spanish. Estimates are that close to 80% of Ukrainians living in Madrid are from Western Ukraine, hence it seems to me that Meest in Madrid, must be catering not only to the Ukrainian population, but also the local Russian population. While from a business point of view there is nothing wrong with this; however, from the legal, moral and the attitude of taking the easiest path of providing products to shoppers raises a question. When will Ukrainians stop putting themselves in a ghetto and start working on a professional and legal level? I have reason to state that this is also a problem of Ukrainians at home was well as abroad.

I think that regardless of where Ukrainians are, we must act professionally and within the realms of legality. What I saw in Madrid appalled me, and the current situation in Ukraine isn’t much better. I can only hope that Ukrainian musicians will be able to join forces and take on the stations that pretend to be working in their interests. It has been accomplished in Canada, but then again Ukraine isn’t Canada, but there is no reason why the best practices of Canada can not be exported. This should have been done years ago, but we have no choice but to begin the battle on a new front with not only the radio and TV stations that pander to those with money and not talent, but in with the listener’s of these stations that really have no opportunity to understand the broad spectrum of music available to them. In the words of Rostyslav Shtyn, “When a person doesn’t have a choice – they swallow whatever they are given!”

I think it is time that people start getting a choice and that when faced with what is blatantly illegal to scream out against it. We have started to scream… and are going to be taking steps to combat this problem.