In Depth Society, 24/08/2019

‘365 Women’s Stories of Kharkiv’ Exhibition: from Past to Present

For centuries, women’s history has been mostly invisible and unknown. Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, the researcher of Ukrainian women’s movement, compares it with a traditional folk art “White on White” embroidery which seemingly exists but is hardly visible.

Centre of Gender Culture with the support of the Insha Osvita NGO (English: Another Education) have developed the idea to create “365 Women’s Stories of Kharkiv” exhibition to fill that gap. The organizers aim to tell the stories of both common and prominent Kharkiv female residents in order to make the project act as a reminder about the Kharkiv women who lived in the city in different decades and eras creating its history through their own lives.

Who collected and sent the stories?

Gender Museum’s director Tetiana Isaieva announced the start of the project on March 1 at the press-conference devoted to the Month of Women’s History at the Nakipelo studio. Tetiana Drozhzhina, the coordinator of Gender-Sensitive Tutoring Studio, Svitlana Hubina, the historian, and volunteers made it possible to share the project’s idea in various schools and student’s communities. Students of the Kharkiv Humanitarian-Pedagogical Academy, teaching staff and pupils of schools No. 160, No. 26 and No. 73 actively took part in collecting the stories.

Information about the project was shared via TV, radio and social nets. All the stories, sent in by approximately 60 people, who had described their grandmothers, great grandmothers, relatives or women they personally knew or had heard about, became part of the exhibition. The organizers slightly amended the style and translated them into Ukrainian if they were sent in other languages. As a result, about 300 stories have been collected so far.

The number of stories is a reflection of the 365th anniversary of Kharkiv. It is no coincidence that the exhibition was open on August 20, just three days before the holiday.

How did the opening ceremony take place?

The opening ceremony was both warm and moving. All comers found out about the project’s roots and background, tested their knowledge on the achievements of well-known Kharkiv women and listened to unique living stories. The special event’s guest was the first Ukrainian conductor, the holder of Order of Princess Olha of the Third Class, 92-year-old Alisa Vidulina.

She was very warmly welcomed, and visitors listened carefully to the stories of this unique woman with such an “unwomanly” profession. “I have not aimed to become a conductor, moreover the first female conductor in Ukraine. But from the very beginning, I had an incredible desire for self-realization: I read a lot, I visited various events and was interested in everything. I love my city, I’m a true Kharkivite. I started my education in Kharkiv and graduated from musical college in 1943, the same year when our city was liberated from the Nazis. That’s why August 23 [Kh.O.: the liberation day of Kharkiv from Nazis] is the happiest day of my life!” Alisa Vidulina recalls.

Zhanna Komleva, musicologist and singer, Mrs. Vidulina’s daughter, performed several songs. A pleasant surprise for the event’s guests was a visit by Victoria Ratsuk, a famous Kharkiv conductor and stage director of Kharkiv National Opera and Ballet Theatre, who breaks the stereotype that conductor isn’t a women’s profession by putting on lots of performances loved not only in Ukraine but overseas.

After that, visitors were able to walk around the hall where about 40 stories were displayed, touch unique exhibits like a yearbook dated 1913, an old electric iron which is traditionally considered a women’s item, read the stories dated 1920’s-1930’s and nowadays’.

What period of time does the exhibition cover?

The exhibition covers the period from the 18th until the 21st century. From conception, the organizers wanted to find stories from the middle of the 17th century when Kharkiv was founded, but in all the documents of that period of time only men were mentioned. Women existed in their own private space and female destiny was limited to home, family and children.

Since the 18th century, women are mentioned merely as a reference, for example, giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Which stories about prominent and common female Kharkivites are presented at the event?

Only in the 19th century did certain remarkable female personalities first get a mention. Khrystyna Alchevska, a teacher and prominent activist for national education, created a methodical training system which was implemented in many schools of the Russian Empire. In 1862, Khrystyna organized the first free Sunday girls’ school in Ukraine at her own expense. Thanks to these schools, many women got the benefits of educational opportunities. She also created free libraries where women gained access to books. In 1889, she was elected vice-president of the International League of Education in Paris.

Another female Kharkivite who contributed much to the city’s cultural life is Maria Rayevska-Ivanova. There are many blind spots in her biography but it is known she was born in Izum district, Kharkiv governorate, in 1840 in a family of landowners. She was a Ukrainian painter and art teacher. Looking back when she was young, women felt themselves not only home keepers but independent members of society.  Khrystyna Alchevska who she met during her final exams influenced Maria’s destiny. Studying abroad for several years, she returned back to her homeland and became the first woman in the Russian Empire who was awarded the title of “Free Artist” by the Imperial Academy of Arts.

She also established an art school in Kharkiv where she developed teaching arts methodologies which were recognized as one of the top three in the Russian Empire. Today, this school is known as the Kharkiv Academy of Design and Arts.

The 20th century is rich in famous female personalities.

Kharkivite Valentina Grizodubova was one of the first female pilots. In September 1938, flying as a pilot-in-command, she completed the 5,910-kilometer-long flight, setting an international women’s record for a straight-line distance flight. After the flight, she and her crew members became the first women awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union in 1938. The Grizodubova Kharkiv Flying Club in Korotych was named after her.

Irina Bugrimova was born in Kharkiv in 1910. She was the first female lion tamer in the Soviet Union. She made her debut in 1939 and designed many of her own tricks, such as lions tightrope walking, acts involving motorcycles, and a giant swing which she would leap from with a lion. There were about 80 lions, eight horses and 12 dogs in here group. Her touring was successful all over the world.

Lyubov Mala was a Soviet and Ukrainian therapist, doctor of Medical Sciences, and a full member of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences. She is the first recipient of Hero of Ukraine title among women. Mala was a cardiologist and a surgeon which is traditionally considered a man’s profession. Mala Therapy National Institute and the avenue in Kharkiv were both named after her.

The 21st century is the time when we are creating history together. Women still have to fight for their rights for equality with men but now they more often occupy the high positions in local government bodies. The prime example is the only female governor in Ukraine, Kharkivite Yulia Svitlychna.

More and more women are joining the Ukrainian army. Yana Chervona, a legendary volunteer and combatant, is a vivid example of a person who sacrificed all. Being a real Ukrainian patriot, she took part in Kharkiv Euromaidan: Yana participated in rallies at the Shevchenko Monument and marched around the city together with other patriots. In summer 2016, she decided to join the army. On April 2, 2019, she was killed in the Luhansk region, as a result of hostile fire. Yana left behind two kids: a 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter and her grieving husband. She was awarded the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky of the Third Class posthumously.

However, the organizers did not aim to glorify only prominent Kharkivites. The stories of ordinary female Kharkiv residents are presented on the stands around the exhibition hall.

Visitors could learn about Holodomor, Stalin repressions, Nazis occupation, nowadays history through the stories. Some of them just deeply touch one’s hearts.

“It was freezing cold in January, 1934, when we buried my husband at the cemetery in Pushkinska Street. He died at the age of 48, debilitated by hard work on a building site.

We paid our respects to him in a hurry as it was very cold and rushed home.

We lived in the barracks for workers where the walls were made of canvas. When we returned back, we found our things in front of the building. The commandant told us as there was no one related to us who works on the site, we are not allowed to live there anymore.

I was left on the street with four kids. It became colder…”

Through this and many other stories we penetrate in that very moment that it isn’t just the story of one woman but the history of the city, society and country.

What is the highlight of the exhibition?

Olena Sukhoverkhova, the teacher from school No. 160 together with the schoolchildren made the “Women’s Stories” storybook.

The cover was drawn by a schoolboy who aimed to depict a female Kharkivite.

The book consists of the stories which were told to the kids by their grandmothers, great grandmothers, aunts or neighbors.

One of the most touching stories is about the girl who studies in that school and is very ill. All pupils take care of and support her.

“She often stays in hospital and we raise money for her. We are impressed by her confidence; she never gives up and continues struggling for life. This year, we raised money for her birthday. She was happy to see all her classmates. We are proud of her courage!”

The exhibition is being held in the Center of Gender Culture until the end of September. Anyone can still join the project and send his or her own story.

In the near future, the organizers are going to create online version of the project. Later, if they raise enough money, the project’s creators will publish a storybook.

This is the first time in Ukraine when various periods of women’s history through time is presented under one roof. The project highlights women’s life that had been scarcely covered before.

Text: Natalia Ivanova

Photo: Center of Gender Culture, Natalia Ivanova

The material was prepared as a part of Gender Sensitive Space of Modern Journalism, implemented by the Volyn Press Club in partnership with the Volyn Gender Center, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Internews international organization.