“My youth lay in ruins”

by Diana Berg

Finally! (Issue I/2020)


The activist Diana Berg at the harbour of Mariupol. Photographer: Oleksandr Sosnovsky

Sometimes I feel like I've only been alive for five and a half years. That dates back to when the Euromaidan protests started in my hometown Donetsk and I became an activist. Before that I had led a quiet and orderly life. I was an excellent student, I studied graphic design and worked with international agencies on brand design. I wasn’t politically active. As a child I danced ballet at the “youth” Palace of Culture, where my father worked as a musician and arranger. Later I went there to the famous disco “Mystik”. When the palace was destroyed by grenades during the war, it felt as if my youth lay in ruins.

After the Kiev Maidan, at the end of February 2014, pro-Russian forces took power in Donetsk. But nobody called for demonstrations. Nothing happened! So I decided I needed to get active. My friends and I posted plans for a protest march on our social networks. “Donetsk, this is Ukraine” was our simple slogan. A lot of people turned out, a lot of people. The next time we took to the streets we counted around a thousand participants. We were very surprised and even electrified. Around that time it felt like I was born again: I suddenly understood the history book we live in is being written right now. We ourselves are writing its pages. It was an overwhelming feeling.

It was a matter of survival. Nobody thought about art and cultural development during this time

I didn't want to leave until the end, even though I was threatened. During a protest on April 28, 2014, we were brutally attacked by our opponents, the pro-Russian separatists who had declared Donetsk a People's Republic. Many people were injured. My mother begged me to leave the city for a week. That week continues to this day. My then partner Katja and I fled to Odessa, then to Lviv. After four months we couldn't stand it any longer and moved as close as possible to home: to Mariupol. But here, too, the separatists threatened to attack again. It was a matter of survival. Nobody thought about art and cultural development during this time. When actor and musician friends from Lviv wanted to support us with their Ukrainian art, I organized the performances, and in the process I became a cultural manager.

Today I understand cultural development as the development of a critical way of thinking and tolerance. During a war any society radicalizes itself. We are just ten kilometres from the front. We hear the explosions and we see the blood. It's clear that people are divided into “us” and “the foreigners”, into right and left. The history of Donetsk has shown where this binary thinking leads.

I unite different minorities within me: I am a refugee, a representative of LGBT and an ethnic minority,

For four years I have been running the cultural platform “Tju”, which was financed by international foundations. We invite artists from home and abroad, to develop art projects, exhibitions, organize creative protest on controversial topics. I observe that people in Mariupol have become more open, more interested in art and debates. But there are also inhabitants who feel provoked by us and are even hostile towards us. Six people form the core of “Tju”. They support me in everything, even in my craziest ideas. They are my new family. I unite different minorities within me: I am a refugee, a representative of LGBT and probably an ethnic minority, because my mother is Russian and my father Latvian. Apart from that I am a feminist. Women here are oppressed by the system. Fugitives, mothers with many children, wives of soldiers who suffer from depression, abused women, they all need support.

I dream that one day we will have liberated Donetsk and that Tju will open a branch there. Maybe I'll teach there or run the local culture department. I don't think that dream will come true any time soon. But unless you have a higher goal, everything is meaningless.

reported by Ivette Löcker

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