Pádraig Belton

Postcard from Ukraine – meet the artists in exile from the People’s Republic of Donetsk

It was Orthodox Trinity Sunday when Luba Michailova received word that separatists would soon occupy the premises of the Donetsk art centre she founded. She was in Kiev at the time, and recalls now that her first response was religious: ‘Any difficulties in life you get, it’s for your good, and for testing you.’ The following morning, at 8 o’clock, several staff were at work cleaning when 15 men in balaclavas appeared, firing Kalashnikovs into the air. Michailova tells me, ‘So when it happened, I knew it would happen, but I never thought it would be so painful.’

Donetsk now is in the hands of the masked separatists who brought down MH17. But before May, Donetsk boasted TEDxDonetsk talks, literary festivals, residencies, and exhibitions by artists from abroad. Nearly all of this was linked to Michailova’s art centre, Izolyatsia.

The centre was housed in a disused Soviet factory; Michailova’s father once ran an insulation factory there. (The name ‘Izolyatsia’ means both ‘insulation’ and ‘isolation’.) Since its occupation by the Donetsk People’s Republic on June 9, the artists are now in exile, mostly in Kiev.

Izolyatsia’s staff were told they could return to collect their property the next day. The next morning, they were initially denied entry; then, they were permitted to enter a building that was filled with empty vodka bottles, and from which had been looted all tools, machines and computer equipment – even the safe holding small change from the café, and steel doors that had been cut and sold for scrap.

‘It’s the same people who shot the Boeing,’ says Michailova. Likewise, ‘the people who took over Izolyatsia didn’t even realise what was in it.’

Certainly, the separatists’ taste in art is not contemporary. Leonid Baranov, head of the People’s Republic of Donetsk’s special committee (or Cheka), is now installed in the art centre’s premises.

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