Coming into the fourth month of the Russo-Ukrainian war following Russia’s invasion of the country in late February this year, the world remains struck by the shock of the Kremlin’s inhuman violations inflicted onto the Ukrainian people.
Increasingly more of us know people who are housing Ukrainian refugees, know teachers that are teaching Ukrainian children in schools across Europe, are themselves housing refugees from war-torn Ukraine, or even worse – have family and close friends in the affected areas. For some of us this is more common than for others, and this goes for all of the Eastern European countries. Not only sharing a common Slavic culture and heritage, but also the living memory of the Soviet Union, those ex-satellite countries are the ones perhaps the most empathetic to what Ukraine is enduring.
As a Bulgarian I get a sense that in most of these countries the dichotomy between pro-Russia and pro-Europe has been a hot topic in politics and social discussion ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain and to this day any mention of the Marxist-Leninist infused communism during Soviet days sends a cold shudder down the spine of any progressive residing in those countries. Pro-Russian narratives, however, also remain prominent and are overcast by a rose-colored tint that reminds people of times when everybody was able to afford a car and a house – something not so common today. Nevertheless, everybody in these countries remembers one neighbour or family member sent to the worker’s camps, or the relentless hindrance of creativity. Albeit a debatable point, it is a fact that artists were not allowed to make their own money through any means and some of them were forced to part with their passion.
So today, people whose families were directly affected by Russian brutality are watching the scene unravelling on Ukrainian soil and cannot help but wonder, is this a strategic move towards a time past? Fear-induced theories have emerged and poisoned the moods all across Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria. The world saw the immediate reaction of states and organisations, coming together to impose sanctions on Russia and help Ukrainian citizens escape the aggressions. But for the spectators from Eastern and Central Europe this isn’t enough to promise the salvation of our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, neither does it promise the war will not spill over in neighbouring countries.
The mood is quite clear – nothing is off the table. From shared borders, to shared history, the Eastern Bloc countries have seen their communities come together to form alliances, organisations, and have been proactive in helping Ukrainian peoples in any way, shape, or form.
The creative community, as one with an enormous shared platform and global connective potential possibly like no other, has not fallen short of that within those countries. The questions stemming from this are a few: How has the war really affected creativity in Eastern and Central Europe and how are creatives making an impact and helping through their own creative spaces? Due to this, will the conflict leave a permanent mark on the creative scene of Central and Eastern Europe and will it provide for a more strengthened community between these countries? Is the war going to serve as a catalyst for a creative outlet long overdue among the ex-Soviet satellite states?
Looking at the state of the creative industry in both Ukraine and neighbouring states, Darko Skulsky, executive producer at Ukrainian service company radioaktivefilm, echoes two words: “Survival mode.” This is the state everybody seems to be in, including creatives, brands and the entire industry. “The war has rolled out into different markets,” explains Darko, who himself spent the early days of the war getting many of Ukrainian colleagues to safety in Poland. “Clients in general are concerned that it is going to spill out into neighbouring countries, which is a huge problem. This is something the clients can control - help minimise the horrors in surrounding NATO and EU countries, by not giving into the fear. When it comes to affecting the creative industry…it has done more. It has devastated it.” Creatives have been forced to take on roles that they normally would not think possible: “They are picking up guns, account managers become humanitarians, traffic managers do logistics.
“Of course, although all of this is the case, there has been a huge wave to put out an anti-war message and communicate what is going on in Ukraine. Help get the word out on the cruel injustices that are happening. We need to get this out.”
And at the end of the day this is the whole point in the communications industry, is it not? But in times of war things are not as black and white as one might want them to be. The aspect of fear sparked from the conflict challenges the possibility for work – Darko believes that the countries neighbouring Ukraine have undoubtedly felt the sting of the onset of the war. “Phrases such as ‘nuclear attack’ or ‘World War’ III brought panic to agencies and clients and no one wanted to travel to Eastern or Central Europe, US clients did not want to travel to Europe in general,” he explains.
When speaking to Pavla Burgetova Callegari, managing director and global executive producer at Compass Rose, Darko was exactly who she singled out as one of the catalysts of change in the creative community of Central and Eastern Europe. “We were able to offer work for Poland-based Ukraine crew, many of whom have relocated with the assistance of Darko.” She has seen first-hand the first layer of impact the war has had on the community – the mass migration of talent that has happened in the region and the stronger ties that that has brought with it. From top-notch hair and makeup keys, to female assistant directors, it has been proven that the empathy of those communities ‘runs deep.’ “It is the nature of our business to rely on filmmakers who come to our locations – in person or remotely – to create and produce their work. As such, the war in Ukraine has hurt all of us,” explains Pavla.
When looking at the long-term creative impact of the war, she is still unsure. But one thing is certain: “Creativity and creative expression will always find a way. And as we move through this time together, we believe it is crucial that space is made for creatives, artists, artisans, and tradespeople – both in Ukraine and in the neighbouring countries that have been residually impacted – to also have the opportunity to work and practice their crafts.” Dimitar Stefanov, creative director at Wunderman Thompson Sofia, echoes that. “It is surely difficult to see how the creative world of the former Eastern Bloc won’t be permanently marked by this war,” he states.
“I would say it’s still too fresh of a wound to think about the lasting consequences of it, but you have to keep in mind that we’ve been living in a post-war state ever since WWII. The anxiety of always trying to keep up with the West and always seeming to fall short is something that actually drives and pushies creatives from Eastern Europe.” Not only this, but it also provides for a sense of a shared past, whose struggles, says Dimitar, provide for a “never-ending source of region-specific insights.” As we are now seeing more collaborative work in the region, as well as more migration of talent to support the regional industry, Dimitar hopes that this collaborative work remains in a post-war environment.
Marcin Gaworski, partner and co-founder of Polish agency 180heartbeats + JUNG v MATT, knows this to be true. “Our geographic proximity to the horrible aggression against Ukraine influences the whole advertising business of Central and Eastern Europe. This is why many Polish advertising agencies are hiring employees from Ukraine, which strengthens the marketing community and creates a new outlook. The whole CEE region can benefit from the influx of talented and well-educated advertising people caused by the exodus of the people from Ukraine.”
Marcin also expects that the war will be a force in shaping consumer behaviour and marketing strategy in Central and Eastern Europe for at least the next decade. “The sense of security and partnership becomes extremely important for brands now,” he says. “They have to re-capture the emotions that people around the world feel. Especially during the war, marketing tools and knowledge remain highly needed. Advertisers must focus on humanising brands.”
That focus is needed not only from a brand perspective, but also from a creative one. Ivan Totev, another CD from Wunderman Thompson Sofia, remembers the shock of the first days of the war. “When the news of Russia attacking first broke out, we couldn’t believe it – almost nobody thought we would witness this in our lifetimes. Inspiration always comes from having a strong purpose and I think everybody felt at that point that we needed to do our best to help through our creativity.” This is when WT set a couple of fast open briefs to collect dozens of ideas that were pushed to the brands they work for. Some of them got the green light and while that was happening, other agencies helped as well – Saatchi & Saatchi Sofia & All Channels Communication changed the red and white colours of the Bulgarian Martenitsa, a traditional springtime adornment made from yarn, to blue and yellow to raise money for humanitarian aid. “Historically, creativity has always been strongest in times of turmoil and creatives are inspired to do what they do best – create. Hopefully, we are going to have more brands with guts to take a hard stance on the situation and use that creativity for good, even in post-war Europe.”
The idea of turmoil acting as a catalyst for creativity is a rather cruel one, as George Strakhov, chief strategy officer at DDB EMEA, points out, but is something that needs to be addressed. Looking at a war as a catalyst of anything but torment and devastation might seem naive, but the truth is that the effects will most probably span beyond the ‘now’ and into the foreseeable future, as Marcin Gaworski stated. There is no doubt that the world of Central and Eastern Europe turned on its head when Putin attacked Russia’s closest relative. With that act, “he completely broke down the mental models of millions of people on both sides of the border,” says George. “The world that these people knew was instantly destroyed, and a new, hostile, unpredictable, previously unimaginable world flooded all their senses. Even if they were lucky not to have their homes struck by missiles, they couldn’t help having their minds struck by the terrible new reality that didn’t match their mental models, and thus couldn’t be easily filtered out.”
Here, it is important to also note the impact of the historical layer mentioned by Dimitar from WT Sofia– the constant state of anxiety that the countries of the Eastern Bloc have been living in, that permeates every aspect of society, and has now been maintained by real-life events. To George, considering how this relates with creativity in the region, there are three mass reactions seen within the community, two of which are tunnel vision and open eyes. “The silent majority managed to put their precuneuses into overdrive, double down on tunnel vision, fully extend their blinders and maximise their reality-distortion fields – all in a desperate and mostly subconscious effort to retain their identity. The brave minority met the situation with their eyes and minds open. They saw the new reality in all its terror and sprang into action, their resourcefulness and pragmatic creativity amplified by the shared stress. They knew that words, pictures, songs or ads could not stop bullets or shelter people. So they channelled their creativity and compassion into action.”
Beyond these there is a third reaction, that George believes was the least common. “It was a response of those highly sensitive individuals who, even in normal circumstances, often find the world overwhelming. This sensitive minority, overpowered by the world that crashed in their faces, has the option to either break down completely, or find a way to process this assault into art.” For those few, creativity became a way of processing the onslaught of life and to stay alive, to enter the ‘survival mode’ that Darko points to. This originally tragic idea of having to create to survive is what could stay beyond the war.
The co-operative systems that have blossomed naturally from the creative communities of CEE are also something the future can learn from. Much like the horizontally organised systems of humanitarian aid that sprung from the pandemic, this could possibly become a stepping stone for a better and more compassionate regional creative family of countries that understand each other in ways that nobody else understands them – through a shared, region-specific culture of work and insight. This, as George pointed out, is exactly at the heart of the real creative resurgence that is happening across CEE, including Russia itself, even though it remains mostly hidden from the public eye.
“This creative resurgence is much bigger than most people realise. People who haven’t written poetry since they were kids are writing verse again – not because they think their poetry will save anybody, but because they have to write it in order to save themselves. And from this perspective, it doesn’t matter whether these poems, pictures, initiatives, performances and songs are any good. Whether this creative resurgence leaves a lasting impact, whether it leads to new masterpieces or not, doesn't really matter. Because, especially in the times of catastrophe, the first and most important function of art is to save the artist.”