Keystone Commentary: Stanislav Hreshchyshyn
Translated by Stephen Bandera
Most Ukrainians are familiar with the term “gas wars.”
Growing up, every fall and winter, I’d hear my parents talk about natural gas prices and transit tariffs, the prospect of our electricity being cut off as well as frightening conversations about someone trying to “freeze us to death.”
They were essentially talking about the network of pipelines that criss-crosses Ukraine and is controlled by the Ukrainian government and used by Russia to supply oil and gas to Ukraine and Europe.
Oil and gas are natural resources that the Russian Federation uses to generate profits that fill up its state coffers and allow Putin’s regime to stay in power and realize his geopolitical strategic goals. Like annexing Crimea or occupying Donbas, for example. Gas and oil allow Ukraine’s economy to function, homes to be heated, and politicians to constantly engage in populist battles over the topic of transit tariffs.
That is why the issues of control over the pipeline and prices for natural resources are very important components of national security. However…
“Culture war” is a term unfamiliar to most Ukrainians.
It refers to the network of channels, websites, blogs and talking heads (or pipelines) that operate in Ukraine (or for a Ukrainian audience) and are controlled (either directly, indirectly or partially) by oligarchs, Russian special services or unscrupulous people prepared to say anything for money.
These instruments are used to supply various kinds of content to Ukrainians.
Or, more precisely, it’s the raw resource that is used to influence people’s thoughts, and even their actions, and allows: a) the oligarchs to maintain their influence over all aspects of Ukrainians’ lives and protect their own interests, b) Russian special services to wage hybrid war against Ukraine, and c) people who make money by spreading lies, dirt and various forms of manipulations keep corruption a facet of Ukrainian life.
The production and distribution of such content is a separate economy, just like gas or oil extraction. It employs hundreds of thousands of people, and it pays wages and taxes. This cultural content can also be exported, and Ukraine has, for a long while, been a consumer market for this raw resource that is produced by many countries, including Russia.
Our television channels, radio stations and bookstores are accustomed to Russian content on their airwaves and shelves. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s own “deposits” of cultural resources remain actively underdeveloped, and any attempt, even minor, to secure state support for this process is actively attacked by all of the aforementioned beneficiaries of the status quo.
The central thesis to these attacks is typically the narrative that culture “can’t be spread on bread,” saying that money is better spent on more important things, like pensions, social payments, and “economic development.” Although this propagandistic thesis works very effectively on Ukrainians, that does not make it true.
The truth is that investments into culture stimulate economic development.
For example, in 1994, South Korean president Kim Young-sam was given a report that proposed making the development and support of culture a priority for his government; the report used Hollywood’s blockbuster movie “Jurassic Park” for comparative purposes and found that the film’s total earnings equalled the sale of 1.5 million “Hyundai” cars.
Comparing movies to automobiles, a tremendous source of national pride for Koreans, became a powerful argument for the recognition of culture as a full-fledged industry.
The Koreans drew the right conclusions and began actively investing in the development and export of the country’s own cultural creative content. Three hundred chairs “of cultural technology” were opened in Korean universities; the goal was to adapt Korea’s own pop culture for export. From the outset, the goal was to make South Korea’s culture an international product.
Today, K-Pop and K-Drama, together with computer games, bring billions of dollars to Korea’s economy, improve Korea’s reputation abroad and support higher sales of other Korean products, tourism, popularization of Korean language instruction and provide numerous other indirect positive effects.
Just take a look at the television and refrigerator brands you have at home.
In Ukraine, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about the cultural sector as something that cannot make any money by default and as something that has nothing to do with Ukrainians’ well-being and security. Thus, every time the government has to find a place to cut spending, it begins with culture. And when it comes to budgetary planning, culture is the very last to be considered.
On the other hand, when politicians want to influence voters before elections, we see festivals, concerts and tours across the whole country.
When it comes to oil and gas pipelines, most of Ukrainian society understands why they are important to the economy and national security. The same approach should be used for distributing another “resource”: cultural content.
The cultural and creative industries create jobs. Jobs, in turn, mean wages and taxes. Taxes come back to benefit all citizens by paying for healthcare, education, the army and other government services. Culture is considered “soft” power, but it can really be quite powerful, by allowing the promotion of Ukraine in places where official embassies cannot, or in ways where they were unsuccessful.
Deep inside, we really do recognize the power of culture. Most parents in Ukraine will gladly forego a wardrobe update so their son or daughter can take piano lessons.
Financing Ukrainian content creation, Ukrainian stories and the Ukrainian cultural market are investments, not lost costs. People who state otherwise either have a very narrow view of culture’s role, or are purposefully working on maintaining Ukraine’s status as a market for consuming foreign products.
Just like oil and gas, there are alternative sources of raw materials and there is a need to diversify sources to obtain the necessary resources. This makes the entire system healthier, more competitive and increases its quality.
In the last six years, Ukraine won several resounding victories in its “gas wars” with the Russian Federation. And that all began with the realization of the importance of behaving like the subject in a sentence, not the object being acted upon. The situation is very much the same in terms of culture.
It is important to remember that Ukrainian cultural content, in its substance and its values, is an indelible part of counteracting any form of aggression. You can win the battle for a city or raion, but lose the war for millions of hearts and souls, merely by not showing up to the cultural battlefield, or by letting the people who “play penis piano” triumph politically on a grand scale.
If we don’t support our own culture, somebody else will feed us theirs.