Even the afternoon sky unfurling gloriously across a summer-sticky Cheetham Hill has risen to the occasion, choosing to mark the day by mirroring the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag.
Stretching from horizon to horizon, its colours find their echoes a thousand times over in the Cultural Centre below, on flags and ribbons, the expected balloons and the unexpected biscuits, frequently emblazoned with the tryzub; the intricate and resonant symbol of the trident of Volodymyr the Great, the first Grand Prince of Kyiv.
For Manchester’s Ukrainian community, many wearing the distinctively embroidered vyshyvanka shirts and blouses of their homeland, this is a bittersweet Independence Day – a chance to demonstrate their pride in their nation and its culture, certainly, but one that is inevitably overcast by the renewed threats to that hard-won, 31-year independence in the wake of the fresh war that has been waged upon it since February 24, 2022 by Putin’s Russia. It’s an attempted invasion, though wider in scale, that reopens the scars of earlier incursions, eight years ago, into first Crimea, and then the Donbas region.
Speaking to the unfailingly hospitable first generation Ukrainians, Volodymyr and Olga, who welcome my daughter and I into the centre, there’s a sense of their defiance, but also their dismay that history should once again have turned in on itself with such bitter cruelty.
Speaking with passion and eloquence, they describe the heartbreak of bearing witness to a new generation’s displacement, following that of their parents, driven from their native land first by the Holodomor – the unimaginable famine of 1932–1933, brought about by Stalin’s insistence on collectivisation – and then its subsummation into the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two. As Volodomyr movingly testifies, they are fighting so that the new diaspora has “somewhere to go back to”, a Ukraine whose borders cannot be redrawn or incorporated into those of its voracious eastern neighbour.
With this in mind, earlier, over the phone, Bob Sopel, chairman of the Manchester Branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, had spoken of the importance of the practical steps that the centre had been able to take through its gofundme page, offering support to the Ukrainian Army in the form of medical supplies, and a refitted tour bus that was reputedly once used by Kylie Minogue.
Exploring its meeting rooms and concert hall, it quickly becomes clear that the centre is more than just a building. For many, it is a displaced acre of home soil, a place where one can be understood, not only in gossiping over tea and cake in the fluency of a first language, but through a shared sense of a unique place in the stitching of European history.
Rooms upstairs are given over to a Saturday school, whose numbers have swollen from 90 prior to February’s invasion to more than 200 on the cusp of September’s new school year. Alongside these soon to be bustling classrooms is a pocket museum of the country’s varied folk art, named after the dissident artist Alla Horska, whose 1970 murder, while Ukraine was governed by Moscow as part of the U.S.S.R., has been linked to the censorious intent of the K.G.B.
By evening, the colours of Ukraine no longer light the sky. Far from being snuffed out, however, they’re brought down to earth, projected across the face of the Central Library; a reminder that, in spite of the shifting attention spans of a 24-hour news cycle ravenous for distracting novelty, six months after its invasion, in cities just like Manchester, from dawn to dusk, a nation faces the brutalities of a war that it did not ask for with pride in itself and a determination that the blues and yellows of its independence will never be dimmed.
Safe from harm, on an island buffered by oceans and the happier accidents of history, it’s the least we can do to keep it at the front of our minds.
Images by Betsy Bullen
Independence Day of Ukraine – Ukrainian Cultural Centre, Cheetham Hill, Manchester, August 24, 2022