June 23, 2024
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Opinion: Artists lift Ukrainian spirits; now it’s our turn to help


By Ritch K. Eich

In the face of Russia’s brutal invasion that is destroying their cities and towns, Ukrainians are using their arts training and cultural strength in ways they never imagined. Opera stars, folk singers, musicians, ballet dancers, wood carvers, textile artists, and painters are showing their resolve by doubling down on their dedication to themselves and to their crafts. The performing and decorative arts are also being showcased by everyday people, demonstrating that creativity can spring from the most unlikely places.

Ukrainian artists are fortifying their communities in the face of difficult times. They are lifting spirits, building solidarity, and demonstrating what the business world has long known: that the arts have a power few other human pursuits possess.

Ritch Eich

Impromptu concerts can be heard in cities and villages across Ukraine, even over the roar and crackle of Russian bombs and artillery. Performances and exhibits are springing up on streets and in shelters. Ukrainian artists are singing, dancing, playing their violins, and creating art in crowded basements of bombed-out high-rises, at train stations, and on streets.

In the first days after Russia’s invasion, two ballet dancers from the Kyiv National Opera stepped out of their ballet shoes to join their country’s armed forces. The lead singer of a Ukrainian rock band left his children in a safe house to take up arms alongside his countrymen and women. Other musicians are braving the attacks to deliver food to hospitalized wounded soldiers. Ukrainian dancers and choreographers have cut ties with Russia’s major dance companies. Everyday citizens are turning spaces like hotel lobbies into art studios for drawing, drama, and dance, helping children get their minds off the war, if only for a short time.

Elsewhere in the world, artists are donating proceeds from their performances to the Ukrainian army and to charities helping people displaced by the relentless Russian bombing. A Ukrainian dance group in Chicago is offering remote dance classes on Zoom. Others are buying artworks from Ukrainians or from organizations that are raising funds for the embattled country.

Performing artists and supporters of the arts are bringing comfort, calm, and community to their fellow Ukrainians in the worst of times, proving again what scientists and historians have long asserted: the arts are much more than aesthetic. They have a positive — and powerful — physiological impact on the brain. The arts have long been recognized for their power to heal, provide calm during a storm, and keep mental clouds at bay. They are largely untapped as a fertile laboratory for the development of future leaders in business. The fine and performing arts have been used in hospital programs around the world to help reduce stress levels while improving patients’ focus and future outlook.

The United States government needs to “hear the music” and do as much as possible to help Ukraine and its culture survive this latest assault. Our leaders in Washington must understand why the Ukrainians are willing to die to avoid falling again under the Kremlin’s control. This spirit of resistance and independence, so powerfully exhibited by the Ukrainian arts community, must be honored and supported by all those who believe in the right of a people to peacefully control their own destiny.

Throughout the last century, Ukraine has survived multiple assaults in the name of sustaining its independence and culture. As many as 5 million Ukrainians starved to death during the Great Famine of 1932-1933, caused by Joseph Stalin’s brutal collectivization of agriculture. Not long after that, millions of additional Ukrainians, especially Jews, were murdered, enslaved, or displaced during the German occupation of Ukraine in World War II.

Now, Ukrainians face new atrocities from Russia’s latest offensive. And, make no mistake, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to stifle the richness of the arts in his neighboring country. He understands all too well the power of the arts to create cultural identity and unite a people.

Nothing less than Ukrainian sovereignty and cultural integrity is at stake in this war. Congress and the Biden administration need to embrace and support the bravery that the Ukrainian arts community has shown. Art has immense power and application but it cannot stand forever against naked military aggression.

Ukraine needs our aid and backing in every way we can provide it. There is no time to waste.

• Ritch K. Eich, former chief of public affairs for Blue Shield of California, has authored five books on leadership and is a retired Naval Reserve captain. He is past chairman of the board of trustees at Los Robles Hospital and lives in Thousand Oaks.