“Kupala is coming home to Europe”: How Ukrainian traditions found a new home in Brighton10 min read

 In Culture, Eastern Europe, Interview

Kupala is the Ukrainian celebration of the longest day of the year. Traditionally, people gathered – and still do – to weave flower crowns, bathe in local rivers, tell fortunes, and leap over bonfires. 

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kupala is one of many customs that have gained renewed significance. In Brighton, England, Ukrainians who had been living abroad for years teamed up with recently-arrived refugees and local volunteers to start a Kupala festival in 2022. Since then, Kupala Brighton has evolved to encompass an annual midsummer celebration, year-round activities, and ongoing research into the meaning of ancient traditions today. 

Kupala shares elements of midsummer celebrations with neighbours from across Europe. Bonfires and flower crowns are common markers of summer solstice from Denmark to Lithuania. Over time, organized religion also exerted an influence over traditions with pagan roots. In Ukraine, the result is a hyphenated festival: Ivan Kupala commemorates John (Ivan) the Baptist and is marked on his feast day, 7 July according to the old Julian calendar. Joyous gatherings that nominally honour John the Baptist are also found in other cultures, especially the former European colonies of Quebec and Brazil

Vladyslava Bondar is the lead organizer of the Kupala Festival in Brighton, working with the community group Stand for Ukraine Brighton & Hove. Vladyslava and Marek Kohn are the co-founders of the Kupala Brighton project. In an energizing and emotional video call, they spoke about the different strands of their work and their hopes for this year’s festival, coming up on 7 July.

How would you describe Kupala for someone who hasn’t heard of it?

Vladyslava Bondar: It’s a Ukrainian midsummer festival with flowers, water, fire, and community. 

How did you get involved with Kupala Brighton? 

VB: It all started with one of our volunteers. She moved to the UK a long time ago from Ukraine and she was very keen to show her four year old son what Kupala is and what the traditions are. And I was like, ‘Kids? Traditions? Say no more!’

Marek Kohn: I just got really, really interested in Kupala, and I think it’s fair to say, enchanted by it. It’s partly something that spoke to me as somebody with a background in that part of the world. Because I grew up as the son of a man who couldn’t return to his native country, after the [Second World] war, I was loosely attached to a diaspora community, which had a very strong sense of mission. That mission was to keep the Polish nation alive and healthy – through its culture – until the country itself could be free again. Standing there in [Brighton’s] Preston Park, I was thinking, ‘I’m seeing this happening again.’

And it sounds like there are different aspects of Kupala activities in Brighton, a festival but also a project? 

VB: We have Kupala Brighton Festival, which I’m doing with another Ukrainian organisation, Stand For Ukraine Brighton & Hove. Then there is the Kupala Brighton Project which we are doing with Marek. It’s rooted in the festival, but we also want to explore other traditions. 

We want to tell people about Ukrainian traditions and how they work for communities and how communities reinvent them, and what they mean for kids. For example, there are koliadky – carols – and vesnianky – spring carols – and the entire yearly cycle of Ukrainian traditions. That’s what we look at and want to achieve, while of course having Kupala at the heart of it all.

MK: It seems that Kupala has been important, almost like a tool, if you like, an art form, a cultural form for Ukrainians to help develop their modern national identity after achieving political independence. So there were all sorts of other things going on and I just thought, ‘I really want to find out about this.’ I also thought, ‘This could be a way to engage much wider communities.’ Beyond the British people who are already helping refugees.

But ultimately it is saying, what do a people’s traditions, what do a nation’s traditions do in the modern world? How are they used, how are they changed? 

How have you adapted some of the traditions of Kupala to Brighton and to the realities of wartime?

VB: When I was a child, celebrating Kupala was always about the community. But it was the established village community. For example where people knew each other; but sometimes somebody’s grandchildren would also come from the city to join. It was more about the inner circle and the processes within that circle – like finding love.

An important part of Ukrainian traditions with flower crowns is putting them in water and seeing where they drift. It is believed that your husband will be from this side of the river or that side of the river. And if your flower crown sinks, well, then you’re in trouble. Here in Brighton, after the full scale invasion when people left houses, left their country, left their communities, women have left their husbands. 

So now we make the flower crowns to show them to the local people but also to save them for kids. This way, maybe in the future, when the kids go back to Ukraine, they won’t be like, ‘Oh what are flower crowns?’ 

Another difference is with fire. People used to jump over the bonfire – while holding hands – to have a safe, healthy, strong marriage and partnership. Here, we’re in a place with lots of health and safety regulations. But we try to use symbols. Like red cloth for example. People dance with it and jump over it. Jumping over this improvised bonfire also becomes very symbolic abroad because we’re making new friends. We jump holding hands so that this new friendship with local people survives and thrives. 

These very basic things like having the opportunity to be near the water, to light a fire have changed. But also the meaning has changed: from getting married to have prosperity and health to saving Ukrainian culture, to going back to our husbands in Ukraine and having a country to go back to. It’s about having a culture to go back to – a culture that will support our kids when they grow up. Marek, what would you say about the differences?

MK: I’ve actually embraced the differences, it’s something I’ve really come to love about Preston Park – precisely because it is so totally wrong. It’s so opposite. I don’t know what the Ukrainian women thought when I took them down to the duck pond to put their flower crowns in this small patch of water. But I feel like it does sort of express the situation that Ukrainians are in. At the same time, something lovely is coming out of it.

VB: It also makes me think about how strong Ukrainian culture is and how strong the traditions are if you are keen to keep them alive. There are lots of other Ukrainian traditions that disappeared during Soviet times. For example, last year on Kupala we had a workshop on making Easter eggs. Lots of Ukrainian people came and they said that they never in their life did it. Neither as children nor as adults. Partly because their parents were just so scared. After Easter, when kids went to school, [Soviet] authorities would stand by the school doors checking children’s fingers for whether there was paint on them. Kupala could have disappeared by this time. We’re so glad it didn’t.

What have you  noticed about how Kupala supports connections between Ukrainians and others in the Brighton area? 

MK: There is a huge amount of goodwill towards Ukrainians. And I think that goodwill is still there, I don’t think it’s diminished. Speaking as someone who has lived here, my sense is that people are interested, welcoming and overwhelmingly sympathetic. Those who come by and stop, or come along with friends, everybody’s always moved. So I feel it is possible to reach people. 

I think the task for us – for those of us who are working with Ukrainians – is to be creative. To find new things to do. To respond the way that Ukrainians are responding to the situation as it evolves in their country and in their communities here. But also I just think it’s really important to innovate, and to invent. That’s one of the things I love about the festival – seeing the innovation, the creativity, the ideas. A lot of them, as Vlada has explained, are informed by the constraints that British institutional culture places on them.

VB: I’m just so  glad that we reached people from different parts of the world, not only the UK. We had people coming to Kupala from Hungary, Lithuania, Spain, Catalonia. I also think that Brighton is a good place to be for this purpose, it is quite diverse, in terms of where people come from. 

MK: The festival has elements that people can experience in other settings as well. The Ukrainian Voices choir – a vocal group – for example. They’re amazingly good and getting better and better. They work unbelievably hard, appearing at local fêtes and village fairs throughout the summer in Brighton and the surrounding area. That is very powerful. I’ve taken friends along to see the choir. People are just in tears because it’s beautiful and it’s moving. You can understand a lot about the people singing and what they represent, even without understanding the words of the songs.

In the Brighton area, how is access to flowers? It sounds like gathering flowers and creating flower crowns is very important to Kupala traditions.

VB: For the festival, one of the most difficult tasks is getting flowers for people to make crowns. We do have some similar flowers, like poppy flowers for example. But in Ukraine, in the villages, you could always find meadows or a field to gather flowers. We can’t really do that here and every time we walk in different Brighton parks before Kupala, we’re like, ‘Oh all of those flowers look really good but we can’t come here at night and take them all!’

Whenever we go to a flower shop and ask them to partner and donate some flowers they are amazing and lots of flower shops do support us. But the thing is, I feel like maybe local people do flower crowns differently: they give us roses, and all these other amazing, beautiful flowers – but the stems don’t bend. Still, we find our ways. 

In terms of timing, I understand that Kupala was traditionally celebrated in July but the plan is that starting in 2025 it will be held in June. Could you say a bit more about that decision? 

VB: We tried to celebrate in July for the past three years, including this coming year. We were thinking about having some stability because people were coming from the warzone. All of us celebrated in July when we were kids. But now we see that actually people are ready to switch to June. We really feel that it will be welcomed by the community. We want to get back to solar midsummer and we are very excited about that. 

MK: This change is saying that we are part of something much larger that spans Europe from east to west. It feels like Kupala is coming home to Europe.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

VB: I am quite keen on making sure people know the difference between Russian and Ukrainian culture. To maybe destroy the myth of ‘three Slavic brothers’ that was created by the Soviet Union. We use Kupala as a really powerful and important source to show the world that we exist as a country in  contrast to what the Russian president says. We have a unique culture, we have a rich culture, we have an ancient culture. And it is important and it is different. The world needs to know that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Feature Image: Kupala Brighton / Canva
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