Home>Agatha Gorski: "Today, the existence of Ukrainian culture, history, and literal identity is at risk of destruction"

02.06.2022

Agatha Gorski: "Today, the existence of Ukrainian culture, history, and literal identity is at risk of destruction"

Agatha Gorski is currently finishing her Bachelor's degree at Sciences Po and will pursue her studies with the Joint Master in Journalism and International Affairs in September, with a specialisation in International Development. She is the co-founder of the Shadows Project, a cultural initiative for young Ukrainians to interact with their culture and history in a contemporary way. We met her to discuss about her background and about Skrynia, the Ukrainian cultural heritage protection program she participates in, in the context of the current war in Ukraine.

You are currently a third-year student at Sciences Po. What brought you here? Can you tell us more about your background?

I am Ukrainian, and this has been the most defining aspect of my background. Ukraine is a country of only 30 years (officially) so is still in the process of its nation-building. Growing up in Ukraine meant living in a country with many problems like corruption, poverty, political instability, and later war, but at the same time a country with incredible ambitions and progressive tendencies. Growing up I witnessed two revolutions - the "Orange Revolution" in 2005, and the "Revolution of Dignity" in 2014. We all felt a desire for change - we were willing to pay a heavy price for it. But even after the second revolution, there still seemed to be a lack of delivery by our country’s leaders.
At the time, I was working on two social projects in Kyiv. I worked with children who lost their fathers in the war, some of whom escaped from active war zones. I also worked as a volunteer in Djerela – a center for people with mental disabilities. The center was underfunded and largely depended on grants and donations. 

I began asking myself - how can I help create meaningful social change in Ukraine? This was the first question that brought me to Sciences Po. 

I also developed a very strong love for my country as I took part in my own personal process of identity building. I was born to a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother in California. I grew up in Kyiv, studying in an international school and speaking Russian at home because my father never learned Ukrainian. Was I even Ukrainian? I was always puzzled by my identity.  For many young Ukrainians, like myself, the 2014 Revolution was an awakening moment. It was a physical manifestation of our patriotism and a declaration of love for our country. We told Russia and the world that a unique Ukrainian identity does exist. But after that, there was a lack of understanding of what to do with this bold declaration. We all still had this energy and passion inside us, because our existence was still challenged by Russia. But we did not know where to channel it anymore. There was no physical platform. 

I myself was looking to understand where do I go and what do I do to partake in shaping Ukraine today. How can I have a say in the discussion and decision-making? This was the second question that brought me to Sciences Po.

Can you present Skrynia, the Ukrainian cultural heritage protection program in which you participate? What are your role and missions within the project?

On February 24th, Russia launched an unprovoked, brutal war on Ukraine. Since the beginning of the invasion, the Russian bombs have not spared anyone — our cultural heritage sites and museums have also fallen victim to their attacks. In just the first four days of the invasion, Russian forces targeted the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum and its extensive collection of Ukrainian folk art. A few days later, the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was damaged. Russian soldiers also raided the Popov Manor House Museum. These are just a handful of examples from the first weeks of the war. Since then, Ukrainian cultural heritage sites have continued to be systematically destroyed. At the Shadows Project, we believe in the intimate connection between a flourishing cultural heritage and a strong, sovereign state. As do the Russians. The Kremlin knows that destroying a nation’s culture is a crucial step in destroying its people. This is why protecting Ukrainian cultural heritage is a key part of protecting the Ukrainian state. As a response, we have launched two initiatives to promote and preserve Ukrainian cultural heritage, which is more important than ever today.

Skrynia is an initiative launched to provide direct support to museums and cultural institutions across Ukraine by supplying them with materials and supplies needed to protect our cultural heritage, so that our art, artifacts, and cultural heritage can remain undamaged throughout the course of the war. Cat (my wonderful other co-founder) and I developed this initiative at the start of the war. We were in Poland, helping send humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and saw that museums desperately needed funds they were not receiving. We decided to take on this role.

"Skrynia" is the Ukrainian word for chest trunk. It is also the name of an underground dissident literary and art magazine published in Lviv in 1971. Our culture was under attack then and forced to exist only in the shadows. Decades later, we are still fighting. But we refuse to exist in the shadows once again. We chose the name Skrynia as a tribute to our cultural leaders who fought before us and as a hope that we can preserve our art, artifacts, and archives in safe chests to be protected forever.

am"We provide museums and galleries a platform where they can communicate their needs while donors will also have the opportunity to donate to a general slush fund, which Skrynia will allocate to purchasing equipment. Usually, museums need materials used for packaging, storing, and safely transporting our art and artifacts. This can include things such as wrapping materials for packaging and fireproof materials for safe storage. MFA Boston, The Hoover Institute, MOCA (USA), and other donors have been among our partners. We continue to contact universities, museums, art schools, etc., and hope to provide critical help to dozens of institutions around Ukraine. Essentially regarding my role today, I co-developed the project. 

Currently, I am in the process of developing a new large-scale project called The Ukrainian Encyclopedia which is a digital Ukrainian cultural website where dozens of museums, activists, historians, and Ukrainian cultural workers share unique parts of our culture and history. It is an interactive digital archive of Ukrainian culture which will serve as the main body of credible information about our country. It also aims to connect and encourage the cultural community to work together to create a place where people can learn about our unique culture through interesting and interactive content.

How does your education at Sciences Po help you set up projects or take part in very engaging initiatives such as this one?

I really value the education I received at Sciences Po for various reasons. Firstly, for its openness to different perspectives and intention to celebrate very different yet equally valid and valuable narratives. For example, the History of Empires class really opened my eyes to a new dimension of how we perceive history - especially in the case of my own country. Even today, I am sometimes oblivious to the lasting presence of Russian Imperialism in Ukraine because we have only recently begun questioning its validity. Deconstructing the reality I considered “normal” and looking at it from a decolonial perspective made me more passionate about helping bring Ukraine’s true identity to light and learn more about things I was and am still oblivious to.

Furthermore, being in a classroom with people from all over the planet really helped me look at the world in a new light. Living in the West, I think that we sometimes forget that different societies have different values and belief systems. There are many more cultures, customs, and ways of living. Sciences Po taught me the importance of being open-minded towards other experiences because in politics you are bound to come into contact with extremely different people and multidimensional issues. Open mindedness is the best gift and my classes really cultivated that in me.

Apart from the course material themselves I value the approach to teaching at Sciences Po. I am a very hands-on person. I want the work I do to have a purpose. A lot of the assignments and work I do at Sciences Po I have used in my profession. For example, last year, in my Narratives History class, my final multimedia project was an interactive and immersive history website, I designed and created myself. This is exactly what I do at the Shadows Project today, and I find this very useful!

Very concretely, how can we help the Skrynia program and the Shadows Project?

In two ways. All of our projects are ambitious and impactful. Sustaining them requires funds and exposure. At the moment, we are a team of 17 volunteers. All of our projects are run on a voluntary basis, and we are actively searching to help fund our goals. Skrynia is working on a network of volunteers willing to transport the items into Ukraine for free and while it is safe. We then store the arts and artifacts with the necessary equipment at the museum sites themselves. However, we are rapidly expanding and soon we will need to find larger storage locations and hire transportation services. The same goes for the Encyclopedia which needs funds to be able to bring to life the ambitious and incredibly important vision of a website with podcasts, videos, and other interactive elements that we set in stone on paper.

Just as importantly, we also need exposure and promotion of our efforts. Today, the existence of Ukrainian culture, history, and literal identity is at risk of destruction by Russia. We need the rest of the world to know about what we are doing and why, in order to support the existence and future of our country.

The Sciences Po Editorial Team

Find out more:

Download our brochure

DOWNLOAD OUR BROCHURE

Open house days 2022

Students in front of the entrance at 1 St-Thomas (credits: Pierre Morel)

UNDERGRADUATE OPEN HOUSE DAY, 26 NOVEMBER 2022

Discover Sciences Po, France leading university in social sciences and our Bachelor's degree!

Sign-up

GRADUATE OPEN HOUSE DAY, 19 NOVEMBER 2022

Meet faculty members, students and representatives and learn more about our 30 Master's programmes.

Sign-up