Pain diplomacy: How cultural warriors in Delhi are aiding Ukraine

The Ukrainians want the world to never forget their struggle against Russia

63-Artist-Olga-Syrovatko Brush to the battle: Artist Olga Syrovatko conducted a painting workshop at Alma Cafe, Delhi.

Whipped cream has never been called up to fight a war. But in the fight for Ukraine, cream, eggs and sugar are being pressed into action in Delhi. At Alma Cafe in Noida, a cheerful and welcoming spot far from the trenches in Ukraine, the weight of the offensive against Russia fell on beetroot soup.

At the heart of the battle is culture. The mission: to reclaim the Ukrainian identity and keep the world focused on the devastation.
Ukrainian books will soon be available at the central libraries in india as part of the ukrainian bookshelf project―a sort of stealth war on russian literature.

Borscht―befittingly deep-red, like blood―was served up at the cafe in March as a spark of resistance during a cultural festival organised by the Polish Institute, Delhi. The soup, ably assisted by pierogi―new moon-shaped dumplings with mashed potatoes and cottage cheese, and mlynci crepes stuffed with tender lamb―held up admirably and pushed the frontier forward.

A year after the Ukraine-Russia war began, Ukrainians living in Delhi have chosen to fashion their personal grief into a political weapon. Pain diplomacy, practised in a powerful and effective way.

“It is incumbent on us to spread our culture,” says Olga Syrovatko, an artist who conducted a painting workshop at Alma Cafe in March to introduce people to the style of Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko. “So that people can see we are unique and not Russian. They understand who we are.”

At the heart of the battle is culture. And it is aam aadmi ambassadors who are leading from the front. The mission: to reclaim the Ukrainian identity and keep the world focused on the devastation. It is a battle fought on foreign shores that the 200-odd Ukrainians in exile in Delhi are determined to win.

64-Baker-Julia-Danylenko Dough and doughtiness: Baker Julia Danylenko created a menu that brings Ukraine on a plate.

Zeroing in on Prymachenko for the workshop was deliberate. A self-taught artist, Prymachenko is known for rural scenes that seem colourful and happy, but hide a certain darkness. Her creations came out in the decade that Stalin inflicted his agriculture collectivisation on Ukraine, resulting in millions starving to death. These are the images that the country wants to project in its fight against continued Russian oppression.

“The spread of culture can only happen from heart to heart,” says Syrovatko. “You can write a paper on culture, but it will not influence anyone. People have to feel your passion, only then will they value it and remember.”

A performance of Women in the Dark. A performance of Women in the Dark.

The Ukrainians want the world to never forget. For India, which has been strategically supporting Russia, this cultural onslaught is deliberate. Any movement forward is a symbolic victory.

The Ukrainian embassy is planning a cultural festival in May to bring together artists and chefs to blitz Delhi in the blistering heat with a dose of everything blue and yellow. From food festivals that showcase their cuisine―old recipes handed down through generations―or painting or theatre, Ukrainians in Delhi are working to create a Ukrainian cultural moment.

65-Bogusia-Dhingra Bogusia Dhingra, who owns Alma Cafe.

“Food is symbolic of culture,” says Bogusia Dhingra, who owns Alma Cafe, which has been spearheading conversations around Ukraine in Delhi. Last year, under the aegis of the Polish Institute, she organised a postcard writing campaign for Ukraine. Dhingra is Polish; she grew up in a country where Russia was far from friend. “Ukrainians are now asserting themselves to say, ‘We are not Russians. We have a long history. We have our own culture,’” she says.

It is personal for her, too. She remembers going to Kyiv for vacations. “The war did not start on February 24,” says Dhingra. “It started before that. Our histories are the same.”

66-Anasuya-Vaidya Act of solidarity: Anasuya Vaidya’s Akshara Theatre staged a Ukrainian play.

She teamed up with Julia Danylenko, a Ukrainian baker based in Gurugram, to create a menu that brings Ukraine on a plate. “I want to support the cause,” says Dhingra. “I have a space. This is what I can do.”

It helps that Ukraine has won a war on soup. Associated with Russia, borscht was recently officially ascribed to Ukraine. UNESCO fast-tracked borscht’s inclusion in the list of intangible cultural heritage in danger.

Danylenko, who has lived in India for 12 years (and loves it), has used her skills as a baker to keep alive the cause. On her Instagram page are mouthwatering pictures of the Kyiv cake. Layered with toasted hazelnut, the cake was created by the Karl Marx Kyiv Confectionary Factory in 1956. The Kyiv cake has become a symbol of Danylenko’s resistance.

“We want people to know about our country; about our heritage, history and culture,” she says. “Through food, too, we can send the message that we have our own identity and special traditional food that is purely Ukrainian.”

But it is not just a battle for the stomach; it is also a fight for the heart. Akshara Theatre in Delhi staged Women in the Dark, a play it received by email from Iryna Serebriakova and Masha Denisova, to mark the first anniversary of the war. The play revolves around two women and the friendship they make in an air-raid shelter.

“My mother, who grew up in London during World War II, remembered what it felt like,” says Anasuya Vaidya, who owns Akshara Theatre. Evocative and humorous, the play brought to life the ordinary lives of Ukrainians in the war. It ran to full houses. “People were a little shell-shocked with the end,” says Vaidya.

The play is now likely to travel, taking with it a slice of the Ukrainian experience to audiences. It is expected to be performed in Chennai and Mumbai later in the year.

It is a spring offensive on culture. And it was sparked off with the arrival of Ukraine’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova in April. This was the first-ever, high-level visit by a Ukrainian minister to India after the conflict began. “Being with Russia, and we are very sincere in saying so, is actually [like] being on the wrong side of history,” said Dzhaparova, dressed in the colours of the Ukraine flag.

As she made a plea for humanitarian aid to her country, Dzhaparova also handed over Ukrainian books to Meenakshi Lekhi, India’s minister of state for external affairs and culture. Ukrainian books will soon be available at the Central libraries in India as part of the Ukrainian Bookshelf project―a sort of stealth war on Russian literature across the world.

Bookshops in the city, too, have more Ukrainian content. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s A Message from Ukraine, published by Penguin Random House, is now available across bookstores. The typical Indian bookshelf, crowded with Russian greats such as Leo Tolstoy to Fyodor Dostoevsky, is now sprinkled with Ukrainian tomes as well.

“We had a common language before―Russian,” says Angelina, a representative of the Ukrainians in Delhi. “Now I want to forget it.”

She no longer speaks Russian. “I don’t want my one-year-old son to even hear it,’’ she says. Angelina was seven months pregnant when the war broke out; unable to go home, she feared for her family in Ukraine.

“I can’t speak to my father, as the Russians are intercepting calls,” she says. “He can’t speak Ukrainian because he lives under Russian occupation. He couldn’t celebrate Easter the way we do, because our traditions are different. So we have to preserve our traditions for those back home.”