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  • valerydankoactress

A life of Kyivan Londoner

After the invasion I noticed an uprising interest in Ukrainian culture. So I thought I'll share more about Kyivan life from my point of view.

For me it's a city of crazy nightlife, ballet, art, speak-easy cocktail bars, beach clubs and yacht river trips in summer.

Since I was 14 I was drawn to ballet and occult history. I was an artist since I was 2 and started drawing as soon as I started to speak. My first drawing was a witch from Ukrainian folklore "Baba Yaga" and I guess since then folklore and art predominated my interests.


I recall crispy snow under my feet in winter, cosy cinema screening, little pizza in university canteen, lots of laugh and pranks.


I loved playing hide-and-seek with my parents in winter and travelling to warm countries in January.


I could have left Ukraine when I was 17. My parents were happy to pay for my education somewhere abroad but I was reluctant to go. I loved Kyiv so much that I didn't want to study elsewhere and I am happy I didn't. The only drawback of being from Kyiv was being in close proximity to a hostile country, which later has affected everyone’s life.


The other drawback of being Ukrainian was limitation in freedom. Since I was a child my parents took me everywhere on almost all their trips abroad.


Travelling


When you were a child going abroad for you perhaps meant to book tickets and hotel. For us - going abroad was about collecting folders of documents proving that we will come back to Ukraine. Once my dad couldn't go anywhere for a year because Italian embassy just took his passport.


Needless to say that there were lots of humiliating questions. What is a purpose of your visit? Will you come back to Ukraine? What reasons do you have to come back to Ukraine? Do you sleep with your producer? That sort of questions you had to go through from visa officers.

Everyone asks me if I ever been to United States. No, I haven't. The only reason why? Because I am Ukrainian. I was refused in visa twice because I am Ukrainian.


I was asked in American embassy if I sleep with my producer.

Erm, even if I did would I tell him about it? However at that point I haven't even met producer face 2 face. We only communicated via email or WhatsApp.


You can’t imagine how happy I am to travel now without answering hundreds of annoying questions. Maybe that’s why I am always painting birds. They are free to fly through borders. Afterall, borders and nations are only in our head. If you look on the land from the sky, there are no borders an no nations.


Nationality


That’s why I don’t like saying that I am Ukrainian. I don’t like being framed. Whenever you say that you belong to a certain nationality people try to classify you and put you in a frame.


I am not a fan of stereotypes. I don’t feel that I belong anywhere, I am just me. I belong to arts and history. By arts I mean all the arts I am doing, both performing and visual ones.


My nationality is being an artist.


After years of moving from place to place I learned to feel home within me. Now I can feel home in any country. It must be a civilised country though with vegan food options and not something like R****a.

In many countries I have my people. I can text my people in Qatar, Ukraine, Canada. We are on the same wavelength and united by shared interests.


Those who are from Ukraine say that I don’t act like Ukrainian. Those from Britain say I don’t behave like British. Who I am then if I don’t belong to any nation? I’d rather say I am a Kyivan Londoner. That would be more precise at least.



What stereotypes I heard about?

Once a German friend asked me – is it true that Ukrainian women are so slim because they spend money on shoes instead of food? No idea where did he hear that from.


Face palm. We just count calories and go to the gym, that’s it.

Most of my income today goes to education though. You can’t even imagine how many Louis Vuitton bags are buried into my ongoing education :)


Before it were stereotypes, now it’s the war. If I say I am Ukrainian people hide their smiles and shift their facial expressions. They don’t know how to react. But it's ok to smile and be happy and share your joy from life even when you know there is war in the country I am from.

Jealousy


Jealousy is a dark part of Ukrainian culture. When I was a kid, I never said that I plan to travel somewhere. You would always share everything after it happened. Same was about expressing emotions. You had to hide them up to not appear vulnerable.


In London I learned how to bury that mask away, I don’t need it anymore. My strength lies in my vulnerability as an actor.


Once I was competing in “Face of Britain 2021” and I texted Ukrainian group on Facebook if they wouldn’t mind voting for me. Because I was the only Ukrainian among Top 10 the most beautiful women in Britain competing at the National Reality TV awards night



So, in Ukrainian group everyone said that I am a whore who perhaps has an only fans profile (never had it) and I had to delete my post because of hate speech.


Somehow society wants to punish beautiful women. They also want to punish free spirits. I am glad I wasn’t born in medieval times though, otherwise I would have been burned at stake already. I am not guilty of being beautiful, it’s just genes combined with healthy lifestyle. Don’t judge me by my face, I am not guilty in it.



I remember how at university everyone tried to put me down just because of my looks. Laughed whenever I gave my answers. I recall how once I brough a project work and a tutor who never worked with me before said – it’s not yours, I don’t believe you, it’s too good to be yours. At that point I wished I wore burqa.

Being beautiful was a curse.

After that if I had to contact tutors, I would remove my photo from WhatsApp or email and have a picture of cat instead. At least then I was taken seriously.


In London I was treated differently. No one wanted to punish me because of my looks. I could just be me.


When I just started my tour website, I didn’t have my photos anywhere. I didn’t want anyone to book a tour just because of my physical look.


I was happy when everyone was buying a product of my mind not knowing who their London guide will be. I enjoyed and still enjoy creating microcosmoses in my tours.


I wanted to open my themed tour company in Kyiv but then the war 2014 happened. Just finished a tour guiding course and did research in archives. But no one was willing to go to Kyiv back then and I wasn’t too keen on showing Kyiv to Russians, as I didn’t consider invaders worthy of my service.

When I just moved to London, I lowered my standards for a moment and made one tour for Russians. They said that disabled people are not people and LGBTQ community should not exist.


I thought well, in that case russians don’t deserve my services and I never ever did tours for those who lived in russia.

I did however for those who fled russia many years ago and lived in Israel, USA and Belgium.


Soviet background


I come from an old aristocratic family on my mother’s side. My Great-great-grandfather owned a shoe factory, forests and lakes. One night in 1917 he was taken away from the family to Siberia and shot there. The lands were expropriated, and his family sent away to a small wooden house in a remoted village. They were punished for being hardworking and offering jobs for locals. My great-grandmother never went to the art academy as she dreamed but the passion to arts passed from generation to generation.


I was disgusted when I saw an exhibition few years ago in London dedicated to the 1917 revolution. Needless to say, I avoided it, as I avoid everything Soviet.


So perhaps if Soviet Union didn’t exist my family would still have owned forests and lands and I would have had some sort of title :)


My mum was a fashion designer, now a fashion buyer and my dad always had an entrepreneurial spirit looking for opportunities everywhere. So, I guess I am a mixture of both of them, combining arts and business.

Why my parents don't speak English?


Once my mum was walking down the Main Street in Kyiv - Khreshatyk ( It's an equivalent of Oxford street in London) and one foreigner asked her something. She was so scared to reply him back that she just crossed the road. Why? Because in Soviet Union you would have been interrogated by secret services if they suspected you to be in any contact with foreigners. So talking to a foreigner was putting your safety at risk. Learning English was a life threat.


Dad's "illegal" business


When you think about illegal the pictures of drug cartels come in mind. Right before I was born the illegal business of my dad was ... sewing jeans. Yep. In Soviet Union doing ANY sort of business was illegal.

Sewing custom-made colourful clothes to people who were forced to wear clothes that looked like potato sacks of different colours was tremendously popular and he had lots of secret clients.


Once someone complained to police that they heard a sound of a sewing machine in his flat. In a matter of hours, a soviet policeman was at my dad’s doorstep to take him to jail for sewing at home. But the issue was resolved fast, as policeman also needed some jeans  And my dad turned someone who was about to imprison him into a customer.


That is one of the reason why Eastern Europeans are hungry for fashion trends. For generations people were forced to wear ugly clothes so no wonder fashion industry flourishes there.


Do you want more stories?







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5 Comments


evernomore
Apr 24, 2023

”My nationality is being an artist.”


Love that.

I hope you continue to share more about who you are and what makes you uniquely “you”! :)

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elenarussuart
Apr 23, 2023

Great article ,hope more people will read, very inspiring and I can relate to the part with beauty.

About Kiev , Moldavian people like this city a lot , unfortunelty I have not chance to see it , but I have heard nice stories and amothosphere in Kiev it was.

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kirilharbov
Apr 23, 2023

great story you can be proud many of the things are similar to my life. the hard way makes strong people

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chrisgobby
Apr 23, 2023

An interesting read! More stories please

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johnclarkson
Apr 23, 2023

Beautifully written Valery. I think that your life and background has made you the fabulous person and intellect you are.

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