I didn't actually visit Odessa (steps) in Ukraine, but I couldn't resist the title, having just been to visit Kazakstan and Ukraine last week. However, in the context of an illustrated talk in Almaty, I did use the powerful image of 15,000 people on the Odessa "Potemkin" steps earlier this year from the British Council's Hitchcock Live project, part of our ongoing partnership with the Odessa Film Festival.
The talk I referred to was in a small and obsessively neat and tidy fringe theatre called Artishock underneath an apartment block in central Almaty. I talked for about 90 minutes with consecutive translation about some of "my favourite things"...
...actually an excuse to talk about some of the themes of the British Council's work through some powerful stories I have witnessed in my four years as Director, Arts. The very smart woman who runs the theatre, Anastasiya Tarassova, is one of the very articulate leaders of the small alternative scene in the arts in Almaty, in contrast to the larger post-Soviet institutions that still soak up the bulk of the financial support available for the arts.
I arrived in Almaty at 4.00am (nearly all flights arrive and depart at unsocial hours). Initially it feels... well, weird, certainly a unique cultural feel... for one thing it's SO remote, nearly six hours flight time east of Kyiv, seemingly in the middle of... well, nowhere! But you soon pick up an energetic and contemporary vibe from the predominantly young population (average age only 27). Almaty is now a city in search of a new identity, with the national government removed to the new capital Astana, shortly to be followed by the financial services sector.
The prevailing view of the city authorities is that culture and the creative industries will form a backbone of a new era for the city, but it's fair to say they are struggling with the practicalities... which is where I hope the British Council will come in during the next few years.
Back in Kyiv I visited some major arts buildings including Izolatzia, the remarkable arts cooperative, displaced from their shelled-out home in Donetsk. That disaster has not daunted their brave spirit, and they are now energetically working out of a disused factory building in Kyiv's dockland area.
There was ample evidence that, through charismatic and determined individuals, culture is more and more moving out of the state institutions and into "reclaimed" spaces. Aside from Izolatzia, we visited the Oleksandr Dovzhenko Centre (former Soviet film processing factory, now a Ukrainian Film Archive and embryonic Museum) and the Mystetski Arsenale, a bigger space for contemporary exhibitions and shows than its more famous namesake in Venice.
Ukraine may be a country in continued crisis, but I think it will take more than that to undermine the nation's spirit, two years after the revolution which saw the overthrow of the pro-Russian President, as well as the deaths of several hundred people, now commemorated in photo walls near and around the Maidan, seat of that revolution.