Parts of the former Soviet bloc still feel very different to Western Europe. In Ukraine, which is outside the European Union, you enter back into the recent past by rail travel. There are no advertisements on these trains, no signs of capitalism — even on the sleeper trains which connect people from Chernivtsi in the west to Kharkiv in the east, and everywhere in between. An attendant manages each coach and offers you a cup of tea or coffee, served in a glass cup encased in a silver holder, with a stainless steel tea spoon left in for stirring. A patterned rug divides the two aisles of the coach, and a mirror is placed at the front for passengers to examine themselves before they leave.
How unlike the trains I am used to in the UK! In England (and elsewhere in the West), rail travel, like many other forms of public transport, is simply another means of advertising stuff to consumers. Rather than human passengers, people on British trains are most definitely service users; they have been abstracted and become statistics, potential complaints, profit boosters. Getting from A to B suddenly seems like a nuisance.
And so I thought how much more personal Eastern Europe was, where chain stores are few and far between, and cafes and restaurants are often decorated, at least in cultural centres like L’viv and Chernivtsi (which are historically more Central European), to a high standard and replete with personalised touches.
But you only have to scratch the surface to sense something different. Visitors to Chernivtsi and L’viv shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the various art galleries here, and to see the work of artists who were often at odds with the society in which they lived. Of course, the artist ranged against society is common to the West, too, and was part of the late-Victorian art for art’s sake movement, for example. But in the East the tension takes on different proportions, and signals something more poignant about the struggle for personality in the Eastern regions.
In Chernivtsi I saw the work of twentieth-century artists who tried to evoke personality in different people of the Bukovina region.
To paint a portrait of a person is an ethical gesture in its own right, choosing to represent somebody in an essential way, but to bring into being a portrait of a person in Eastern Europe takes on additional significance.
Family, religion, tradition, place — these bulwarks remain strong in former communist lands, and particularly in East Slavic countries (Ukraine, Belarus, Russia). Conservatism tends to subordinate the individual to collective harmony; the status quo is maintained and policed because it ensures the stability of otherwise fragile communities threatened by the march of ‘progress’ elsewhere in the world, particularly in other parts of Europe.
To be different, to think for oneself and to question established and conventional ways of thinking and doing is risky. On the one hand, I warm to the shrug at unadulterated capitalism displayed by those in my birthland, but on the other hand, I am left cold by the sense of pressure to conform.
To be a personality in such places is a lonely experience. At some point, I hope we learn to place allegiance to our origins in perspective, and to follow the ‘Kingdom of God’ even if we pierce a sword through our own heart — what we hold dear to ourselves by way of family and homeland. To seek the Kingdom of God is to open the personality to transformation, to transcend the limitations of the environment in which we find ourselves.
So I value the role of art galleries in places like Chernivtsi, where people who still live there can encounter the struggles of artists who sensed the personality in themselves and in others, and who took risks in drawing attention to this. In this instance, art can soothe the loneliness of personality, and bring it into greater focus.