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Ukraine: Protecting Its Culture and its Future

Written by: Hugh Stephens

The war grinds on. Every day we see distressing, tragic coverage of the brutal destruction wrought by Russian forces as they try to crush Ukraine’s resistance. How and when it will end is not evident at this point. The invasion is about territory, forms of governance, national ambitions, history and culture. Russia under Putin refuses to accept the idea of Ukraine as a nation. To do this, it must deny the existence of a separate Ukrainian nationality and culture. It has been working hard to destroy that culture as I discussed in an earlier blog post, to the point of shelling and destroying museums. How can Ukraine fight back? One way, clearly, is through military resistance. It has already bravely demonstrated that it can stand up to the Russian bear militarily. Another is to assert its nationality and its culture. And that is where copyright comes in.

Discussing protection of copyright may seem like focusing on a “first world problem” at a time when people are lacking the basic necessities of life and being denied basic security. Yet in the long run, Ukraine will surely prevail (within exactly which boundaries at this point we cannot say) and its culture, and the protection of that culture, will be an important element in preserving nationhood, the bond that binds people together. Thus copyright industries—publishing, music, film, art—are key tools in protecting and promoting the Ukrainian presence and spirit.

I will confess that until this dreadful war broke out, I had not spent a great deal of time thinking about Ukraine. My knowledge was scant. Even though I live in a country with 1.4 million people of Ukrainian descent, (the largest community outside Ukraine itself, and Russia), the situation in Ukraine (Orange revolution, Maidan demonstrations) and Ukraine’s heritage was not something that had influenced my life very much. Of course, I knew that many Ukrainians had settled in the prairies provinces as far back as the early 1900s and had made significant contributions to Canadian life. They range from the artist William Kurelek to Governor-General Ray Hnatyshyn to the “Great One”, Wayne Gretsky. But my knowledge of Ukraine as a country and of its culture was superficial (and still is), although I am learning.

I didn’t know much about Volodymyr Zelenskyy until he became the man of the hour, the leader who rose to the occasion to express the will and determination of the Ukrainian people. I had heard a bit about this man, the actor and comedian who played a president, and who then became a president. Watching Kvartal 95 Studio’s “Servant of the People” on Netflix provides some interesting insights into Ukrainian thinking—and humour. The series, shot between 2015 and 2019, conceived, produced and starred in by Zelenskyy, clearly carries a serious message cloaked in humour, satirizing Ukrainian life as it was before February 24, 2022. It is almost painful to watch today because the topics—poking fun at corruption, the Ukrainian military, the Russians and Putin himself—hit so close to home. It is the ultimate reality TV. It is hard to go from Zelenskyy as President Goloborodko in the series to Zelenskyy the embattled leader of Ukraine simply by switching from Netflix to the news. The reality is that the horror unfurling nightly on the news is not a show; its real. And there is nothing funny about it. Yet “Servant of the People” stands as a testament to the power of creative content. It is what propelled Zelenskyy to the real presidency and put him into the spotlight of history.

If audio-visual content is one expression of Ukrainian identity, a more traditional form is the printed book. Needless to say, Ukrainian publishers are facing major challenges from the war, from destruction of printing facilities to shortages of paper. As reported in Publishing Perspectives, the Ukrainian Publishers and Booksellers Association has just released its spring catalogue featuring titles in six categories (art, biography and autobiography, business and economics, comics and graphic novels, cooking and drama). The Association is encouraging foreign publishers to download the catalogue and consider buying rights for translation of Ukrainian works, “one of the few options available to financially support Ukrainian authors and publishers in this extremely tragic situation.” Another means of tangible support is the creation of non-resident fellowships to support Ukrainian scholars, as is being done by Harvard and other universities. The spread of Ukrainian literature also serves the purposes of propagating and strengthening Ukrainian culture, so that Ukrainian realities are expressed by native Ukrainian writers, not through the lens of Russian authors. But of course, nothing is simple. One of the best known contemporary Ukrainian novelists and current president of PEN UkraineAndrey Kurkov, writes in Russian! That fact makes him no less Ukrainian, but it is indicative of the complex web of history and ethnicity that prevails in today’s Ukraine.

Kurkov’s role with PEN Ukraine links him to the work of PEN International, the international NGO first established in Britain in the 1920s to promote intellectual co-operation among writers globally and to promote literature as a tool of mutual understanding. PEN has for many years taken on the role of advocating for writers and journalists who have been imprisoned or sanctioned for freely expressing their opinions. Not surprisingly, PEN has taken a particular interest in what is happening in UkraineBelarus and Russia in terms of attacks by the Putin regime on freedom of expression in all three countries. Any forms of dissent in Russia have had to go underground. In Ukraine, despite the war, publishing continues. A recent book launch by Vivat Publishing of a Ukrainian translation of an Adam Mansbach book for parents of sleepless children took place in an underground shelter in Kharkhiv, even as the city was under bombardment.

Books are making a contribution to Ukraine’s struggle in another way. A Canadian independent publisher in Calgary is reprinting a Ukrainian children’s book “The Little Book”, a reader originally produced in Ukrainian for the children of Ukrainian families on the prairies in the 1930s. The updated edition, called “The Little Book: Story Reader for a Free Ukraine”, is translated into English by Magda Stroinska, a professor of linguistics and languages at McMaster University in Hamilton, with an introduction by Lorene Shyba (yes, she is of Ukrainian descent), the publisher. The goal is to raise $10,000 for Ukrainian relief. The book, now presumed to be in the public domain (efforts to trace descendants of the author and illustrator Mykola Matwijczuk proved to be unsuccessful), is selling well. The printers donated their services and booksellers are donating the proceeds of sales.

While books are a basic expression of culture, so too is music. But I am not talking about traditional, folkloric music but the contemporary pop scene. Ukrainian pop groups received a shot in the arm after the Maidan “revolution” and Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea because until that time the music scene had been dominated by Russian groups. Russian artists who had backed the Crimean annexation were banned, opening up opportunities for young Ukrainian performers. The irony is that it was the heavy-handed Russian response that breathed fresh life into the contemporary Ukrainian music scene; instead of suppressing Ukrainian culture and national expression the end result was a de-emphasis on things Russian, and a displacement of Russian rock groups. For sure, right now most Ukrainian musicians are either holding guns rather than guitars or have gone underground, but Ukrainian pop has come into its own and will remain part of the nation’s cultural heritage. There is no better example of this than the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra who won the Eurovision Song Contest earlier this month with their moving song Stefania. Listen, and watch, here.

If culture is the expression of a nation, copyright is one of the essential tools that nourishes cultural expression. Ukraine, as an emerging democracy, has not typically enjoyed a strong tradition of copyright protection. In fact, in past years it has featured regularly on the “Priority Watch List” (PWL) of the US Trade Representative’s (USTR) annual Section 301 report. The PWL designates countries with “serious intellectual property rights deficiencies” in USTR’s judgement. This year, however, USTR gave a nod to the obvious.

In 2020 and again in 2021, Ukraine was put into the PWL category based on three long-standing issues: “(1) the unfair, non-transparent administration of the system for collective management organizations (CMOs) that are responsible for collecting and distributing royalties to right holders; (2) widespread use of unlicensed software by Ukrainian government agencies; and (3) failure to implement an effective means to combat widespread online copyright infringement.” This year’s report noted that over the past year Ukraine had engaged meaningfully with the United States on longstanding areas of concern with its intellectual property regime, although the problems identified in earlier years remained of concern. “However, due to Russia’s premeditated and unprovoked further invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Special 301 review of Ukraine has been suspended.”

The steps that Ukraine has taken toward establishing a more transparent and fairer system for collective management of royalties, including new legislation, the progress that is being made toward ensuring that government departments actually use licensed software in addition to being instructed to do so, and tightening enforcement over online copyright infringement are all issues that Ukraine can and no doubt will address in time, once the current crisis has been overcome. When the shape of the new Ukraine becomes clearer, national rebuilding can begin, including promoting and disseminating Ukrainian cultural expression both domestically and internationally. Cultural expression through the copyright industries is a national asset, one that needs to be nurtured and protected. Encouraging and protecting artists and creators is an essential tool of nation-building and national restoration. There is no better way to do that than to respect and protect their rights.

Hugh Stephens is an Executive Fellow, The School of Public Policy; and Distinguished Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada

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