Head of Czech Centre Kyiv on how current crisis can shift Czech view on Ukrainians

Czech Centre Kyiv

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Radka Rubilina was based in Kyiv, working as director of the local Czech Centre. A few days before the invasion, she had to leave the country, but she continues to run the Czech Centre’s activities from its temporary headquarters in Prague.

What is the main focus of her work at the moment? And how can Czechs contribute to saving Ukrainian art? These are just some of the questions I discussed with Mrs Rubilina, but I first asked her what it was like having to leave Kyiv all of a sudden:

“It was a very difficult decision to leave, as we received an order from the embassy before the war started. Of course the country was surrounded by Russian and Belorussian forces, but life in Kyiv was as normal as it could be.

“Then suddenly on Friday evening, after three or four working meetings and a business lunch, I received a message from the Czech ambassador saying: please, leave the country tomorrow. So I gave him a call and asked him: Is it really necessary? And he said: Yes, it is. Please, leave the country.

“We decided not to pack and instead we paid a visit to our friends to tell them that we were leaving. We spent the whole evening together with them and now I think it was the most important decision, as it was really the last time we might see them.

“I think this connection between the Czech Republic and Ukraine on the level of personal contacts can build very good ground for any further cooperation.”

“And then in the morning, we got up at six, packed our documents and passports in one bag, woke up our children and took our dog and that was it. We got in the car and we went away.”

Are all the employees of Czech Centre Kyiv here in Prague at the moment or did someone stay behind?

“In the case of Ukrainian citizens, and I was the only Czech person working for Czech Centre Kyiv, they had to decided for themselves: Do I want to leave the country or do I want to stay?

“Nobody stayed in Kyiv. Everyone left the city pretty soon, at the latest a few days after the start of the war. But about half of them decided to stay in the western part of the country and four of them decided to leave and we are now hosting them in Prague, where we have our Czech Centre in Kyiv in exile.

“But it was an extremely hard decision for both groups. And the feeling of relief for those who decided to cross the border only came four or five days later and for some of them only after ten days.

“The shock was huge, because they were mentally still somewhere in a basement in Kyiv. It is not easy to leave such an experience behind.”

As you said, you are now in charge of Czech Centre Kyiv in exile. What is the focus of your work at the moment?

Radka Rubilina | Photo: Loreta Vašková,  Radio Prague International

“When I was evacuated I thought we could still go on with our cultural programming back in Ukraine, but of course with the war we had to change everything.

“So, together with my colleagues, we created a residence programme for Ukrainian artists who were heading to the Czech Republic or had already arrived in the country.

“The Czech Centres decided to provide some of them, around 30 people, with financial support for three months of their stay in the Czech Republic just to give them the possibility to work in the field of culture. They are producing a documentary, we have already had two concerts and so on and so on.

“So that was actually a completely new portfolio that I had to build on the basis of financing, detecting the people and administration of all the documents.

“At the beginning it was very hectic, but as soon as my colleagues from Ukraine came to Prague, the process became much smoother. The war started on February 24 and the first fellowship was paid out on February 18.”

How many Ukrainian artists had lived in the Czech Republic before the war? And how many have come since?

“To be honest I really don’t know how many artists lived here and I think this is connected to the problem of Ukrainian minority living in the Czech Republic as such.

“I think this moment is important to understand who are the Ukrainians who have been living here for ages.”

“Before the war I think people didn’t pay much attention to Ukrainians and if they did, they saw them only as workers or cleaning ladies. And that is something that changed dramatically.

“And that was also something we wanted to stress with our fellowship programme, that the Ukrainians coming to this country are also doctors and actors and artists, just like we are. We wanted to stress that the people are professionals, who were forced to leave the country.

“So that was the first thing. And then we also wanted to stress that Ukrainians are different than other nationalities. That they have something that is very specific for their culture and nationality.

“I think this is really important because in the Czech Republic, I am not sure how many people can distinguish among Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians or Moldovans.

“I think this moment is important to understand: who are our Ukrainians who have been living here for ages, but we didn’t pay them much attention? So this is a great opportunity for Czechs to do that.”

So how can Ukrainian artists enrich Czech culture?

“I was very surprised when I came to Ukraine how Ukrainian art can comment on political development and how activist it can be. I would say that in Czech art is regarded as something that is outside the political sphere. Of course it can comment on something, but very smoothly, let’s say.

Czech Centre Kyiv | Photo: Czech Centres

“In Ukraine, art was extremely sharp, always commenting on something. Sometimes it was progressive, sometimes it was aggressive, but I would say that this push into the political life could be very inspiring for us here in the Czech Republic.”

How are the Ukrainian artists settling in? Do most of them regard their stay as temporary?

“It’s also good to distinguish here. Some of the artists have very good contacts here in Europe. I have already mentioned a documentary that is already in the making. These people started filming before the war, so they will just go on with their work outside the country as they planned before.

“But for example people working in theatres, who built their career in a specific theatre with a specific group of people, these people of course see themselves back in Kyiv or back in Charkiv as soon as possible.

“They really hope to work together with the same people as before the war, but at the same time they understand that it might not be possible.

“And it is very individual how people react and how they decide: Do I go back? Do I want to see the tragedy that has happened? Am I ready to take the risk to understand that some of my colleagues are dead and I will never see them? Or is it better to start a new kind of life in a different country and come back when it doesn’t hurt that much? It is extremely difficult for any individual.”

Helping Ukrainian artists it not the only thing the Czech Centre Kyiv is doing in Prague. What else do you offer?

“Of course we wanted to react to this wave of migrants and refugees heading to the Czech Republic without any knowledge of the Czech language.

“Czech Centre Kyiv has always been very active in providing Czech language courses and we have developed the methodology how to teach the Czech language to Ukrainian and Russian native speakers.

“So we used all this knowledge to create a completely new language course that takes only twelve weeks. The course doesn’t focus on vocabulary and phonetics but it offers vocabulary and phrases used in different situations.

“For example how to use public transport, how to apologize, how to solve a conflict and so on. The first course started on March 21 and at the moment we have already started more than 20 groups.”

We spoke about the way Czechs perceive Ukrainians. But what is the image of the Czech Republic in Ukraine? What do Ukrainians know about our country?

“This is one of the questions I like to ask people I have met over the past weeks. I would say 100 percent of them mention Prague, where they spent a weekend and of course they drank beer. So all these stereotypes work even for the Ukrainians coming to our country.

“But besides that, a lot of Ukrainians know the late Czech president Václav Havel. There is even a Václav Havel Street and a tram stop in Kyiv and some people are even aware of some of his theatre plays.

Kyiv | Photo : Leonhard Niederwimmer,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“And some people also know that the Czechs remember 1968 and they remember it as an attack on Czech democracy and they don’t like the Russian language. So some of the Ukrainians were warned before going to the Czech Republic not to speak Russian because Czechs don’t like it!”

What do you think needs to be done now to repair the damage caused by the war? How can we contribute to saving Ukrainian art and culture?

“I think this is a critical phase for the cultural management of any kind of art in Ukraine. Any organization dealing with culture should find a partner in Ukraine and just get in touch with them and create personal contacts and, as soon as the war is over, start with the reconstruction of the organisation. Not necessarily financially, but by providing know-how or exchanges.

“I think this connection and creating connections between the Czech Republic and Ukraine on the level of personal contacts can now build very good ground for any further cooperation and for the reconstruction of the state and of the culture in Ukraine, which is completely damaged at the moment.

“It is very difficult to imagine how quickly festivals and other living organisms of culture can die and it is really hard to start again. But if there are deep connections with other organisations in Europe than I think it can be really helpful. And I think such help is pretty realistic from our side as well.”

Author: Ruth Fraňková
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