40 Iconic Figures of Ukrainian Culture

40 Iconic Figures of Ukrainian Culture

Who among Ukrainian artists should be known to the world at this critical juncture in our history?

We mean the seminal figures whose work best shows the spirit of Ukrainian culture in all its glory — its distinctive, vivid, inimitable essence.

This list, composed of 40 of the most Iconic Figures of Ukrainian Culture includes innovative artists, treasured authors, and celebrated musicians. Among them are world-renowned painters, graphicists, architects and sculptors; poets, prose writers and playwrights; actors and filmmakers; composers and singers.

The compilation of artist biographies provided here is not a formal ranking, merely a brief list of key figures in Ukrainian art. Consider this the first step of a tour through a world of culture centuries in the making.

Many renowned figures are not included here. But we hope the personalities explored below can provide a brief insight into Ukraine’s rich and complex landscape of creativity.

Millions of students, art lovers and observers have been guided by their ideas. These national treasures provide an introduction to Ukraine’s cultural heartland, while providing a window into understanding what drives the Ukrainian nation - and what motivates people to defend their land with such courage today.

The war for Ukrainian independence has lasted not for a mere month, and not for a mere eight years, but for several gruelling centuries. The contribution of those below can help the world understand why this fight will go on for years to come, no matter what happens in the coming weeks or days.



Olexandr Archipenko (1887–1964)

Born in Kyiv, Archipenko pioneered radical approaches to "the spatial cubism" of sculpture. One of his techniques involved inverting the traditional notion of sculpture beginning "where material touches space" — instead, Archipenko used the reverse idea, in which space encircles material. It led to an entirely new understanding of the form. Another of his innovations saw the optical replacement of concave and convex while depicting the human body. In Paris in the 1910s, he made polychrome Cubist sculptures, abstract reliefs and synthetic three-dimensional, movable constructions. In the 1920s, he emigrated to the USA where he opened a school for the use of contemporary plastics in art. Archipenko retained a deep connection with his native Ukraine until the end of his life in 1964.

imageKateryna Bilokur (1900–1961)

Working in the genre of Naïve Art, Bilokur spent all her life in the village of Bohdanivka in Kyiv region. Her parents and neighbours considered painting to be an unworthy occupation, an emotional burden which once drove Bilokur to attempt suicide. Like many Soviet peasants, she was denied a passport and lived under the yoke of a kolkhoz, a "collectivised farm" of the kind that defined life for many during the Soviet era. The Soviet authorities attempted to exploit Bilokur’s talent by using her as an "example of the peasant artist", which Bilkour resisted through a commitment to her own incorruptible style. The skill of her painting shone through with astonishing detail, characterised by unique flashes of light. Bilokur made her own brushes from the twigs of cherry trees and from the hair of cats and cows. A signature of her approach is found in her celebration of native flowers, in which one is visually "sewn" to the canvas after another, as if embroidering.

imageMykhailo Boichuk (1882–1937)

Mykhailo Boichuk was a monumentalist painter and the founder of an eponymous school of art that his students still adhere to today. At the beginning of the 20th century, "Boichukism" made its name — first in Paris, then throughout Europe — by adapting Byzantine and proto-Renaissance styles in a revived, modern form. Boichuk was one of the founders and professors of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts in Kyiv. A central figure of the Executed Renaissance artists, he and his close contemporaries were murdered by Soviet authorities in 1937, after facing false charges of "espionage" and "participation in a counter-revolutionary organization". Many of his works were targeted for destruction during the Soviet era.

imageVasyl (1873–1952) and Fedir (1879–1947) Krychevskyis

The Krychevskyis brothers had an exceptional artistic range that traversed painting, book illustration and industrial design. Vasyl was a foundational figure of Ukrainian art nouveau architecture, and was commissioned to design the famed Poltava Zemstvo Building in 1903. He created sketches for ceramics, carpet weaving and managed the artistic production of several films at the Odesa Film Studio. He also created the project of the Ukrainian coat of arms, based on the trident of Prince Volodymyr. During World War II, he left Ukraine. He died in Venezuela, at the age of 79.

imageVasyl’s younger brother, Fedir, who focused on painting, was a foundational member and the first rector of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts in Kyiv. His monumental triptych, Life (1927), is an example of a combination of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, using elements of Ukrainian devotional religious art. Ostracised after refusing to draw a portrait of the self-proclaimed Soviet "Father of Nations", Joseph Stalin, Fedir died of starvation with a brush in his hand in Irpin, outisde Kyiv.

imageYakiv Hnizdovskyi (1915–1985)

Hnizdovskyi was a prominent Ukrainian-American artist who pursued graphics in a bid to combine European minimalism with Japanese woodcuts. After moving to the United States in 1949, Hnizdovskyi made a name for himself at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. He received particular recognition after the gallery of the Associated American Artists in New York purchased 220 woodcuts from him. Two pieces by Yakiv Hnizdovskyi — the paintings Winter Landscape (1965) and Sunflower — decorated the office of the US President John F. Kennedy in the White House.

imageVladyslav Horodetskyi (1863–1930)

As an architect, Horodetskyi was responsible for more than 30 buildings built in his homeland, and numerous structures abroad. Horodetskyi’s legacy is seen in many architectural landmarks of Kyiv: the National Art Museum of Ukraine; the St. Nicholas Church; the Karaite Kenesa; the House with Chimaeras — part of the Presidential Office Building — as well as gymnasiums in the cities of Uman and Cherkasy; the Blue Palace; the Tehran Railway Station and many other notable locations. Horodetskyi's artistic accomplishments are a vivid example of international Art Nouveau architecture. He used the newest materials at the time — surprising observers most with his bold ideas involving the unorthodox use of concrete.

imageOlexandra Exter (1882–1949)

Exter was one of the main innovators in scenography of the early 20th century. She shed new light on the movement of the human body, and the role of lighting on the theater stage. Rather than confining herself to the floor, Exter made use of the entire theatre space to enable performance on multiple levels, in the tradition of the vertep, the Ukrainian puppet theatre. She used bright, contrasting colours in costumes, a principle borrowed from Ukrainian folk painting. During World War I, she opened one of the first private schools in Kyiv to teach children and adults the basics of Cubo-Futurism.

imageKazimir Malevich (1879–1935)

Malevich was the founder of "Suprematism", a school of painting that marked an important departure from traditional realism. Colour, shape, texture and movement are the main elements of this genre of geometric abstraction. His Black Square, completed in 1915, became iconic. Observers considered it a powerful moment of "the zero point in painting" when it was displayed at The Last Futurist Exhibition of that year. Malevich was born in Kyiv to a Polish-Ukrainian family. He was especially fascinated with Ukrainian folk art and the geometric patterns featured on country house murals. Malevich taught at the Kyiv Art Institute, but was forced to move amidst escalating Soviet persecution of artists. Under interrogation by the Soviet secret police in the 1930s, Malevich proudly announced his fealty to the Ukrainian nation in the face of accusations of "foreign espionage".

imageHeorhiy Narbut (1886–1920)

Narbut epitomised Ukrainian high art in graphic design. Through his work for national institutions, Ukraine ceased to be a fictionalised version of a "little Russia". At a critical moment in history, Narbut made a decision that was fateful for both himself and his homeland: at the height of his career, this popular artist left the then capital of the crumbling Tsarist empire, Saint Petersburg, and returned to Ukraine. Throughout 1918, he established a newfound sense of identity for his young state through trademark designs of local currency, postage stamps, magazine covers, silhouette portraits, watercolour paintings, official seals and sketches of coats of arms. At the age of 32, he became the head of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts. He withstood a lack of money and the envy of colleagues, and died at the young age of 34. His style outlived him and still inspires some of the most popular Ukrainian designers.

imageJohann Georg Pinsel (early 1720s–1762)

A prominent polychrome sculptor, Pinsel had a workshop in the town of Buchach, near Ternopil, where he created wooden and stone pieces for the sacred buildings of Galicia. He collaborated with the architect Bernard Meretyn, with whom he designed several buildings considered pinnacles of Ukrainian architecture. The Buchach town hall (est 1750s) and the St. George's Cathedral in Lviv (1760s) are examples of harmonic proportion and plastic expression. Some sculptures contain elements of avant-garde representations of cubism and expressionism from the early 20th century.

imageMariia Prymachenko (1908–1997)

Prymachenko worked in the genre of Naïve art and spent all her life in Bolotnia village in Kyiv region. She made more than 800 graphic sheets with unique images of animals, birds, reptiles, and original floral compositions. Vivid colours, unexpected combinations and new readings of ancient myths are fused in her work with responses to political events such as the 1986 environmental disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.


imageYuri Andrukhovych (born 1960)

Considered a central member of the modern Ukrainian spoken word vanguard, Yuri Andrukhovych debuted as a poet and a member of the Bu-Ba-Bu group in the mid-1980s. He changed Ukrainian letters forever with his novels Recreations (1992) and The Moscoviad (1993). Andrukhovych nudged public discourse in the direction of a European future for Ukraine as an essayist and as a columnist in the late 1990s. He established an international audience both for himself and for his colleagues, and in many ways he changed the image of Ukraine in legions of hearts and minds both at home and abroad.

imageMykola Gogol (1809–1852)

As a member of the Ukrainian School of Russian literature, Gogol created a romanticised image of Ukraine in collections such as Evenings on a Farm Near Dykanka (1831) and Myrhorod (1835). Born in Velyki Sorochyntsi after the fall of the Cossack Hetmanate, Gogol, like many of his compatriots, was seduced by the lure of the Tsarist imperial capital and the opportunity to make a career there. Throughout the period of Romanticism, during which a popular interest in folk art and ethnography was emerging, Gogol, while in Saint Petersburg, studied and collected samples of Ukrainian folk art, proverbs, and traditional legends, and used them to create phantasmagoric images of a carnivalesque "Little Russia". By adding exoticized images of folk life, Gogol depicted a previously unseen type of colonial kitsch that conveyed the true horror of the Tsarist project, while simultaneously managing to gain a popular audience in the metropole. In his interrogations of the life of Saint Petersburg, Gogol discovered the monstrosity of the imperial city, personified in the image of the "little man" who is crushed by power, seduced by wealth and infected by satanic pride. The figure of Gogol is a clear example of the conflicted identity of the colonial subject, in which the desire for shared imperial glory coexists with the need to preserve ethnic self-worth. This essential clash allowed the writer to explore the existence of two souls — Ukrainian and Russian — inside the one person.

imageSerhiy Zhadan (born 1974)

Hailed as the voice of his generation in the 1990s, Serhiy Zhadan has since become an iconic literary figure for the entire Ukrainian nation. He continues to write poems, and his novels have received praise from audiences across Germany, Poland, and North America. The author of the acclaimed Voroshilovgrad (2016), the celebrated collection What We Live For, What We Die For (2019) and, most recently, The Orphanage (2021), Zhadan has received accolades from European and Ukrainian literary award panels and is the frontman of two rock bands. Splitting his time between concerts and public readings, he is one of the best known volunteers since 2014.

imageOksana Zabuzhko (born 1960)

Oksana Zabuzhko was already known as a poet and a lecturer at Penn State University and Harvard, when her first novel Fieldwork on Ukrainian Sex debuted in 1996. She used the opportunity to introduce the concept of feminism to uninitiated compatriots, while presenting cutting-edge local prose to an international audience. Soon the novel had been translated into 15 languages, and she became an important voice advocating for the emancipation of women and the Ukrainian nation at large.

imageLesia Ukrainka (1871–1913)

Ukrainka’s work marked the beginning of the modernist era in Ukrainian literature. As a critic and translator, she introduced local audiences to the latest works of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Przybyszewski and Maeterlinck. In her own literary pursuits, she threw herself into the maelstrom of the latest themes with a healthy "contempt for death", bringing new meaning to stories from around the world. Her interpretations of Cassandra, Miriam, Don Juan and Judas bear the distinct traces of passionate female writing. The meaning of creative madness and the right of women to be heard were cherished themes for Ukrainka. In an effort to flee the "Babylonian captivity" of loneliness, she turned to feminist ideas and critiqued the position of women as mere "shadows in history and culture", a standard which left them nameless and mostly considered objects of possession. Lesia Ukrainka was a pioneering critic of Orientalism and fought against the proliferation of stereotypical representations of colonial subjects in the Caucasus, the Middle East and elsewhere.

imageIvan Franko (1856–1916)

Ivan Franko was a writer, journalist, politician and scientist who consciously dentified as an "employee in the fields of progress". A multi-lingual resident of Lviv, Franko wrote for a range of literary magazines spanning a variety of audiences. Franko established a bridge of understanding between the various communities in Galicia at the time, including Ukrainians, Poles, Germans and Jews. He was one of the nation’s first professional journalists, and the lead figure for an entire generation of Ukrainian writers known as Young Ukraine. Franko was one of the first Eastern European writers to become interested in the naturalism of Émile Zola, whose work he translated faithfully. Among his most cherished cultural influences were Goethe, Mickiewicz and Taras Shevchenko. Franko was one of the founders of Ukrainian intellectual prose, as well as true crime and detective stories. His Withered Leaves (1896) provided a foundation for 20th Century Ukrainian poetry. Franko created his own philosophical perception of culture and more than once associated himself with the victim generation which is marching towards the future but dies on its way. His myth of national rebirth not only appeals to historical optimism, but also to the tragedy of the artist as a prophet whom his people do not understand (Moses, 1905).

imageTaras Shevchenko (1814–1861)

Considered the beating heart of Ukrainian literary culture, Taras Shevchenko was a writer, artist and the author of the fabled collection Kobzar (1840), a work that was integral to the establishment of Ukrainian poetry and prose. His work introduced the powerful romantic image of the folk poet as bard - the artistic embodiment of our national consciousness. In life, Shevchenko personified the essence of Ukraine. In work, he introduced an emblematic yet conflicted image of the nation: on one hand a country torn between the threat of family disintegration, discord and the violence of history; while on the other, a place revered as a paradise defined by home, family and freedom. Shevchenko eloquently dissected the contempt shown by Tsarist Russia for Ukraine, and the false prosperity that followed, in poems such as The Dream (1844), Haidamaky (circa 1840) and The Caucasus (circa 1845). Arrested by Tsarist authorities in 1847, Shevchenko was sentenced to 10 years of military service in the Orenburg region and banned from all writing and drawing. While in exile, he created several lyrical masterpieces, and intimately recorded his experience as an individual deprived of the opportunity to live and speak freely. Among his works were illustrations, including the series Prodigal Son, depicting the life of soldiers and the so-called inorodtsy, the displaced ethnic communities on the periphery of the Tsarist empire. With apocalyptic depiction of the present and searing introspection of the past, numerous self-portraits testify to his expressive individuality. His willingness to engage in unorthodox artistic experimentation sealed his place among the avant-garde writers of the 20th century.

imageHryhorii (Gregory) Skovoroda (1722–1794)

Ukrainian philosopher Gregory Skovoroda combined Christian beliefs with ancient philosophy to create enduring morality tales. One of the greatest moral authorities of his time, he abandoned his career at the court of the Russian Tsarina Elizabeth Petrovna and chose instead to pursue the path of an itinerant philosopher. His didactic fables and songs were widely known. Skovoroda’s works profoundly influenced future Ukrainian poets, and his philosophical treatises served as the basis for creating a modern "national science" of wisdom.

imageIvan Kotliarevsky (1769–1838)

Former army officer Ivan Kotliarevsky wrote a parody of Virgil's Aeneid, which became the first major text written in the new Ukrainian language. In Kotliarevsky’s rendition, ancient heroes were replaced by cheerful Cossacks. The work gained wide popularity and remains important to this day. Kotliarevsky also laid the foundations for new Ukrainian theatre, including the operetta Natalka Poltavka and the vaudeville production, Moskal’-charivnyk (The Muscovite-Sorcerer).

imageVasyl Stus (1938–1985)

A talented poet and literary scholar, Vasyl Stus bravely fought against the persecution of intellectuals and the repression of Ukrainian culture under the USSR of the early 1960s. He was arrested in 1972 for "anti-Soviet agitation", and sentenced to five years hard labour and two years of exile, before being arrested again in 1980 after his release barely six months earlier. He died in a Soviet prison. Full of bitter irony, poems by Stus circulated in samizdat (underground dissident magazines) during the USSR and were also published abroad. His work now sits among the greatest examples of Ukrainian poetry of the late 20th century.


imageMaksym Berezovskyi (1745–1777)

Maksym Berezovskyi was a renowned composer during the Baroque and Classic period. He wrote ecclesiastic and secular music, ranging from choral and chamber to symphonies. He is best known for the concerto Do Not Forsake Me in My Old Age. Tragically, some of Berezobskyi’s works have been lost. Researchers say Berezovskyi first studied at the School of Singing and Instrumental Music in Hlukhiv (the old capital of the Cossack Hetmanate), then at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Philharmonic Academy of Bologna, where he was a disciple of Giovanni Battista Martini, the teacher of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Maksym is the founder of the choral genre of cyclical structure and the author of the first Ukrainian symphony (C major, early 1770s) — and of the first Ukrainian opera (Demofont, 1773).


DakhaBrakha is a project of the Dakh Contemporary Art Center, established and led by the ambitious theatre producer Vladyslav Troitskyi. Since its birth in 2004, DakhaBrakha has given rise to an explosive mix of Ukrainian folk music, African and Arabian traditional instrumentation, and modern rhythms of the surrounding world. Their shows amount not to mere concerts, but interactive pieces of scenic art. DakhaBrakha has appeared at international festivals ranging from Glastonbury to Sziget, and performed live on the popular BBC show Later, With Jools Holland. Fans of Fargo TV series may have heard their song Under the Roots of an Oak Tree ("Шо з-под дуба"), or seen them welcomed at KEXP and NPR studios.

imageSviatoslav Vakarchuk (1975)

Sviatoslav Vakarchuk has been the frontman of Okean Elzy, one of Ukraine’s most popular rock bands, for the last 20 years. Large stadiums fill to capacity for their concerts. A distinctive, high-octane sound, unmatched energy, unmistakable vocals in the Ukrainian language and a poignant socio-political message are among the band’s strongest drawcards. Okean Elzy provided a soundtrack to the Maidan Revolution: in 2014 their song Stand Up became the anthem of protests; and in December 2014 Okean Elzy performed during the Revolution of Dignity in its former "golden" lineup – considered the greatest musical event of Euromaidan. Vakarchuk has formed musical tastes of the youth of independent Ukraine.

imageSolomiia Krushelnytska (1872–1952)

As a Ukrainian opera singer, Krushelnytska gained worldwide fame during her colourful lifetime. From the second half of the 1890s, she enjoyed broad success on theatrical stages in Italy, France, Portugal, Austria, Poland, Russia, Egypt, Argentina and Chile. Solomiia Krushelnytska performed in operas such as Aida and Il Trovatore, originally composed by Verdi; versions of Faust; Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Bizet’s Carmen; and Elektra by Strauss. Among her numerous awards and accolades was the celebrated title of "Wagnerian Diva of the 20th Century". Titta Ruffo, Enrico Caruso and Feodor Chaliapin all sang with her on the same stage, and the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini presented her with a portrait bearing the inscription, "To the most beautiful and charming Butterfly". She performed over 60 opera roles. Her contemporaries described her as the ideal singer, who combined splendid acting with the "power and resonance of a dramatic soprano." She always preferred subtle nuances and a variety of vocal undertones, rather than posh stunts. Krushelnytska is considered a cultural saviour of the Butterfly opera. With her lead performance, the opera at the Grande theatre in Brescia saved the play from a withering season and restored it to its rightful place in the cultural pantheon.

imageOksana Lyniv (1978)

As a leading contemporary conductor, Oksana Lyniv has managed to establish herself at the forefront of a profession that until recently was reserved entirely for men. She was the first female chief conductor of the Italian orchestra and Music Director of the Bologna Opera Theatre. In 2021 she became the first female conductor in the 70-year history of the Bayreuter Opera Festival, with a celebrated stewardship of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. She was the leading conductor at the Graz Opera and the Philharmonic Orchestra in Austria, again the first woman in this position. She currently works with major opera theatres across the globe, and founded the international classical music festival at Lviv, billed as LvivMozArt.

imageMykola Lysenko (1842–1912)

Mykola Lysenko is considered a founding father of modern Ukrainian music. His life and legacy are a central part of 19th Century Ukrainian intellectual history. Lysenko is an example of how the offspring of established Ukrainian dynasties chose not only to preserve authentic Ukrainian culture, but also elevate it to an artistic form befitting the public expectations of their era. Lysenko was trained in Leipzig both as a pianist and a composer, but he invested his working life in Ukraine, where made his mark as an author of numerous operas such as Taras Bulba. He also created signature instrumental pieces and composed symphonies and songs based on the Ukrainian folk tales he had collected throughout his youth.

imageMykola Leontovych (1877–1921)

Shchedryk (Bountiful Evening, 1916) is Mykola Leontovych’s undisputed opus magnum. This work, in its different interpretations, became the global symbol of Christmas and is often referred to as "Carol of the Bells." The core of Leontovych’s legacy is the choral miniatures, each despite its fragility built on a complex landscape of musical drama. They often combine folklore with the accomplishments of the Western European polyphonic school. In 1921, Leontovych was murdered by an agent of the Soviet secret police. His death galvanised Leontovych’s contemporaries, who established the largest and most influential national music movement of the 1920s, the All-Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych Music Society. Leontovych gained fame posthumously thanks to Symon Petliura’s political project — a triumphant tour of the Ukrainian Republican under the leadership of Oleksandr Koshyts that brought global recognition to Leontovych’s seminal work, Shchedryk.

imageBorys Liatoshynskyi (1894–1968)

Borys Liatoshynskyi is one of the most renowned Ukrainian composers of the 20th century. He is a founder - and the most reputable figure - of national modernism, the movement which guided the development of Ukrainian classical music for decades. Liatoshynskyi also established the Ukrainian School of Symphony. Liatoshynskyi’s work can be divided into several stages — from bold manifestations of modernism to gradual simplification. The latter was the result of his own convictions, which he clung to in the face of relentless ideological pressure from Stalin’s Soviet regime. Even during the notorious Stalinist campaign of "combating formalism" in 1948, he was the only member of the accused who did not plead guilty at the Union of Composers Plenum. Despite unrelenting Stalinist persecution, Liatoshynskyi refused to betray his colleagues. His students, the Sixtiers — members of the Kyiv Avant-garde movement — drew lifetime inspiration from the invincibility of his convictions.

imageValentyn Sylvestrov (1937)

Valentyn Sylvestrov is one of Ukraine’s best renowned composers of all time. In the 1960s he was part of the rebellious group of young composers, the Kyiv Avant-garde, who were disciples of Borys Liatoshynskyi (above). His early works from the late 1960s paved a pathway to a Western audience, but deprived the composer of career opportunities in his homeland due to the political dynamics of the time. In the second half of the 1970s, he completely changed his style in favour of more subtle music, such as his Quiet Songs. Following the 1996 death of his wife, Larysa Bondarenko, his dearest collaborator, he temporarily withdrew from performing, before returning to music via the genre of chamber postludes, a postmodernist rethinking of works from previous eras. Despite earning the image of a recluse, he supported the Maidan in various interviews and his choral cycle. He has become an implacable irritant for the modern Kremlin. With Russia’s full-scale attack against Ukraine in 2022, Valentyn Sylvestrov was finally forced to leave his native Kyiv.

imageMyroslav Skoryk (1938–2020)

It’s difficult to name a genre or a style in which Myroslav Skoryk didn’t try his hand at and achieve great success. Among his works one may find short experimental pieces, serious undertakings with folklore, the soundtracks for movies and animations, neo-romantic and neoclassical compositions, creations in jazz and pop-music, and ambitious operatic concepts such as Moses (2001). It was the great-nephew of Solomiya Krushelnytska who discovered Skoryk’s musical talent. Despite his noble origins, as a child he taught girls from affluent families to sing the humble songs of his own hand. When Myroslav attended the third grade, his family was targeted by Soviet authorities and deported to Siberia. He was unable to return to Lviv until the age of 16, following Stalin's death. While working at the conservatoire, Myroslav founded the estrada ensemble The Joyful Violins, and in 1963 he created the first Ukrainian piece to be played by them, Don’t Trample the Lilies of the Valley. The next year he became the score composer for the celebrated Ukrainian film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), directed by Serhii Parajanov. In the soundtrack, Myroslav combined folklore and symphony orchestra with exceptional brilliance. In 1967 he composed the score for the first avant-garde episode in a popular cartoon series depicting the Cossacks — How the Cossacks Cooked the Kulish. Skoryk established an enduring legacy in the sphere of classical music, but his greatest piece is Melody in A Minor, featured in the soundtrack to the film High Pass (1981), and played in town squares throughout the country.

imageKvitka Cisyk (1953–1998)

The most well-known pop star of the Ukrainian diaspora in the second half of the 20th century, Kvitka Cisyk was born in New York, where she performed songs in both English and Ukrainian. Cisyk experimented with various musical forms throughout her life, ranging from blues to opera, blended with Ukrainian folklore. The song You Light Up My Life (1977), which featured in the movie of the same name, brought her an Oscar and the Golden Globe award.


imageDziga Vertov (born David Kaufman, 1896–1954)

Dziga Vertov (born David Kaufman in 1896), was a brilliant avant-garde cinema director, and was considered a key film theorist of the documentary genre. Born in Białystok, Vertov worked in different parts of the Soviet Union, but it was in Ukraine where he filmed his masterpiece, Man With a Movie Camera (1929). The film was named Best Documentary of all time by the British Film Institute for its exploration of a day in the life of a major European city. Enthusiasm: The Symphony of Donbas (1930), also filmed in Ukraine, is a more brutal examination, and incorporates an experimental soundtrack of industrial sounds known as "concrete music".

imageNatalka Vorozhbyt (1975)

As a playwright and director, Natalka Vorozhbyt has written scripts for numerous contemporary Ukrainian movies and TV series. Her work features memorable characters, lively and rich modern language, a spirit of documentalism and the most subtle representations of Ukrainian reality. She conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with the defenders of the Donetsk Airport for the script of Akhtem Seitablayev's Cyborgs (2017). Some of those interviews formed the basis of the play Bad Roads, which explored the wider war in Donbas. A movie based on this play premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and is one of the most powerful on-screen depictions of the events of 2014, which marked the first true phase of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

imageOleksandr Dovzhenko (1894–1956)

An internationally acclaimed film director of the 20th century and one of the "fathers" of Ukrainian cinema, Oleksandr Dovzhenko brought avant-garde visual language and unconventional form to his work, which was a curious blend of national romanticism and Soviet anti-propaganda. Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930), praised as his best movie, is an example of this cocktail of influences. Earth was prohibited in the Soviet Union on the ninth day of its release. Later, the film had been voted tenth out of twelve films on the list of the world’s best movies at the 1958 International Referendum of Critics and Filmmakers in Brussels. While Dovzhenko avoided imprisonment, the Soviet authorities still restricted his work harshly. As a result, many of his ideas and projects were never accomplished.

imageMariia Zankovetska (18541934)

A cherished Ukrainian actress, Mariia Zankovetska was famous for her dramatic theatre roles. A fanatic devotee of scenic art, she was a pioneer of Ukrainian Realistic Theatre in the 19th century, together with other members of the Coryphée. Zankovetska performed female roles in plays by Ivan Karpenko-Karyi, Mykhailo Starytskyi, Ivan Kotliarevskyi, Marko Kropyvnytskyi, and Taras Shevchenko, to much acclaim. She was also a member of the first professional theatre companies in Ukraine and Russia. Zankovetska had a particular gift for depicting the psychological complexity of female characters, especially those possessed by madness and hysteria - her ecstatic and emotional heroines. Her dramatic talent covered the whole dramatic range, from tragic to comic roles. Zankovetska was a creative magnet for the Ukrainian artistic elite, with Ukrainian playwrights composing some of their works specifically for her to perform.

imageLes Kurbas (18871937)

At the height of modernism and the avant-garde, Les Kurbas established a new chapter in Ukrainian theatre. Kurbas created several production companies, among the most famous of which is the Berezil. His works, including The People’s Malakhii or Maklena Grassa, based on the plays by Mykola Kulish, became legendary. They are still studied by researchers who attempt to reconstruct them as faithfully as history will allow, relying on sporadic photos, costume sketches or the fragments of his memoirs. Under Stalinist rule, Kurbas faced the preposterous charge of terrorism in 1933. In 1937, he was executed in the killing fields of Sandarmokh, Karelia.

imageIvan Mykolaichuk (19411987)

An outstanding actor, filmmaker, and screenwriter, Mykolaichuk is the central figure of Ukrainian poetic cinema. He gained recognition after playing a young Taras Shevchenko in Volodymyr Denysenko’s film Dream and Ivan Paliichuk in Serhii Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (which is voted 1 on the list of top 100 Ukrainian movies). "I have never known such a national people’s genius", Parajanov would write of Ivan Mykolaichuk in his memoirs. "Only Oleksandr Dovzhenko came before him." Mykolaichuk played roles in 34 movies, wrote 9 screenplays, and made 2 films as a director. He was the leading actor in The Lost Deed (1972) and Babylon XX (1979). Soviet authorities considered Mykolaichuk politically subversive and suppressed his work where they could, but his legend lives on.

imageSerhii Parajanov (Paradzanov) (1924–1990)

Armenian by origin, Paradzanov was a pioneer of Ukrainian poetic cinema. His film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) combined modern visual language with the ancient aesthetics of the Hutsuls, who traditionally live in the Carpathian Mountains. Some of his films were banned by Soviet authorities. After being convicted of "promoting Ukrainian nationalism" and being sent to distant labour camps, for many years he created collages and assemblages using the spirit of conceptualism and free association, although he did not exhibit his creations in public.


About the project

Project coordinatorOlena Pavlova

PEN Ukraine expert group who worked on the short list – Tamara Hundorova, Anatolii Dnistrovyi, Diana Klochko, Oleh Kotsarev, Olena Pavlova, Rostyslav Semkiv, Oksana Forostyna. Special thanks to Liubov Morozova

Synopsis authors:

Tamara Hundorova – Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesia Ukrainka, Mykola Gogol, Mariia Zankovetska

Anatolii Dnistrovy – Yakiv Hnizdovskyi, Ivan Mykoalichuk, Vladyslav Horodetskyi, Serge Lifar, Solomiia Krushelnytska

Oleh Kotsarev – Mykola Leontovych, Valentyn Sylvestrov, Myroslav Skoryk, Kvitka Cisyk, Dziga Vertov, Oleksander Dovzhenko, Maksym Berezovskyi

Diana Klochko – Olexandr Archipenko, Olexandra Exter, Johann Georg Pinsel, Mariia Prymachenko, Serhii Parajanov, Mykhailo Boichuk, Vasyl and Fedir Krychevskyis

Liubov Morozova – Borys Liatoshynskyi, Myroslav Skoryk, Valentyn Sylvestrov, Solomiia Krushelnytska, Oksana Lyniv, Mykola Leontovych

Olena Pavlova – Kateryna Bilokur, Heorhiy Narbut, Kazimir Malevich, Natalka Vorozhbyt, Oksana Lyniv, Sviatoslav Vakarchuk

Rostyslav Semkiv – Gregory Skovoroda, Ivan Kotliarevskyi, Vasyl Stus

Oksana Forostyna – Yuri Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, Serhii Zhadan, DakhaBrakha, Mykola Lysenko

Translators Alex Fediienko, Oksana Anatolia Wasikowska, Anna Vovchenko, Alexey Abramenko

Literary editorAnastasia Levkova

Editors – Anna Abrahams, Joel Keep

march 24, 2022
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