Sen’kovka Festival, Russia

This month our director Kieran Turner was invited to join some of the young people from the Our Generation youth group in Ukraine on a trip they make each year to the Senkovka Festival. The festival is a gathering of youth groups from around the former Soviet Union. It takes place in a forest in what is effectively no-mans-land at the point where Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus meet. The groups get to know each other, show off their talent at music, dance, and drama, and engage in plenty of networking and discussion.

Reproduced below is some of Kieran’s report which was featured on our website at the time and also translated into Ukrainian for the youth group’s newspaper, “BiT” (pictured).


I’ve been to Ukraine quite a few times now, working with community groups and young people, delivering humanitarian aid, and trying to share some of the resources we’ve got in Britain with some of the institutions who need support. I’ve visited orphanages and met people educating about drugs problems. But when I came in June, it was something very different.

Often, because I come for short visits, and with work to do, I’m aware that I’m not witnessing normal life. I’m treated differently because people want to show me around, or to practice English. So going to a festival looking like just another one of the delegates had an extra appeal for me: not only would I be having fun in a great place, I’d also be blending in and “just one of the guys.”

Zhenya on stage in ChernigovBefore we set off, there was a bit of time to spend with some of those guys. I was shown a new café where one of the guys from the music club, Zhenya (pictured, holding microphone), is working. He’s actually an amazingly talented singer, songwriter and dance choreographer, who helps significantly with running the youth group and with fundraising events, while also hoping to forge a career in music. But he’s also a student and working in the café pays the rent.

So, it turned out to be a great place, and an interesting example of the changes happening here. The owner used to be a partner in a dire night club across the road. I sometimes got taken there by more affluent people from the town, with whom we also work on projects supported by the municipality. But it’s so gangster-ish — populated by people merrily spending what would be a week’s wages for any of the folk in the streets outside. So, one partner in the business tried to move away from that, and his new place couldn’t be more different. Small, intimate, and with great attention to detail in the styling. The fact that it’s friendlier too, shows that there’s a market developing for these kind of places and it does seem to herald a lessening of the gap between rich and poor, with a few more nice, ordinary people realising they’ve got just enough disposable income to go out for a beer and expect a touch of comfort in their surroundings.

I talked a lot with Tonia [leader of the youth group] about how to deal with local gossip and jealousies that develop when groups receive attention and funding from foreign organisations.

On Thursday morning, with a bizarre assortment of clothes packed in anticipation of every kind of weather, we were ready to set off to the festival. It seemed like every young person from Chernigov must be there in the crowd waiting for the buses! I liked the atmosphere of shared excitement that came from having the big group travelling together. I was eventually ushered onto the least rickety looking coach and was told, conspiratorially, that my two friends and I had been put on this one because of me, the foreigner. Certainly, it seemed luxurious compared with some of the others which looked old enough to have been taking people to the very first of these festivals in 1975!

It turned out we were getting a police escort to the site since it was technically in Russia. There’s a nifty rule in Ukraine, which I’m sure British police would love to have… when a police car is coming towards you with flashing lights on, you must get off the road. Not just slow down, mind you, but get right off. And for two hours, on little twisty country roads, our cop was going to make certain that everyone did exactly that. He drove in the middle of the road, and the coach drivers took great pleasure in following suit. No matter how much space we had, he was literally running people off into the dirt, including some big trucks which may well still be there now!

One of the villages we passed through had a building site. A crane there looked rusty and abandoned. I was told it was a regional hospital the Soviets had been building. As with so many other places, they had stopped work when the USSR collapsed, and the wages stopped coming. It’s so sad to see these places which could be so useful, but with no money to make them work.

Stage in forest at festivalEventually we arrived at the Ukraine/Russia/Belarus border and were swept through to arrive at the festival site. The chaos of trucks in the mud and people with bags reminded me of arriving at the big British music festival, “Glastonbury”— until I got through to the trees. The “friendship” festival, as it’s known, has the unique attraction of actually being inside the stunning forest, made up of immensely tall silver birches (“Russian trees” as they say) with soft flat ground in between them. Already a wooden stage had been erected and a sound system was being installed. The stage blended in with the surroundings and was being decorated with balloons in the colours of the national flags of the three countries. There were tents scattered around in the trees and a huge Ukrainian flag signalled where we were to camp. The tents really impressed me. Mostly they were of the old-fashioned ridge type, but nobody had bothered to bring any poles. Why bother when you can just cut off a bit of tree and use that? Many of the tents had drainage ditches dug around them too. You can immediately tell that many young Ukrainians have been in the army! At a British festival you see a huge number of people looking rather forlorn when the rain literally washes their tent away!

The toilets were something else and deserve a special mention. They were nicely clean. But they were pits in the ground. Four of them, with no divisions between them. I’d never before considered crouching to be an activity one did in company! Quite a few people preferred to go off and hide in the trees instead.

National flags and costumesAt the opening ceremony the lad raising the Russian flag noticed with embarrassment that he had a flagpole twice the height of the others, so he nobly and diplomatically raised it only 3/4 of the way. The arrangement appeared to have been a typically arrogant decision from an anonymous bureaucrat on the one hand (supplying the poles), and equally typical Slavic friendliness on the other.

Then we were welcomed to the festival. In a contrast which would be echoed later when a group of war veterans came on stage, the administrators arrived in their suits and gave speeches, and then the kids arrived on stage in their amazing, colourful costumes, and got on with singing and dancing. And what performances! Every single group was truly impressive. The break-dancers in particular had amazing co-ordination. There was a huge amount of raw talent there, and you could be in no doubt that a great deal of time had been spent on rehearsals too. I honestly would not have had a better experience at a festival of famous professional musicians.

A festival is never just about the performances though — it’s also about the location, and I can’t overstate how wonderful it was just hanging out in the forest. The days were extremely hot, but the trees gave dappled shade and you could lie down anywhere and choose to get a tan or find a cooler spot and just gaze up at the bright green and bright blue of the canopy. In the evenings the sunbeams came through at an angle and scattered on the woodsmoke from fires and cooking. By night… well, nights in the forest really teach you how people came up with fairy-tales.

Gradually, people realised that I wasn’t Ukrainian! I spoke in English with some people, and was relieved that I could do so, and make new friends easily. But I also enjoyed the surprise in the faces of the people I tried some Russian with! Some of my new friends invited me to play a game — and it was… “mafia”! Yes, a parlour game which revolves almost entirely around talking. I could barely follow what was going on. But it was one of those crazy experiences that really make this kind of travelling so special. We played another card game later which I lost, and as a consequence I had to see how many mattresses you could fit in the gap between the territory of Ukraine and Belarus! I don’t know why people chose this as the forfeit, but it’s the kind of random fun you can only have when hanging out on an international border. Anyway, I did it, lying down on the mattress every time I shuffled it along. The answer, by the way, was dvatset-chetiri.

I also played paintball in the forest, hiding behind trees, with a bunch of new friends from Pridnestrov’e. My team-mate captured the flag and I covered him expertly, killing two girls and not getting shot until the very end of the game. When I got shot right in the face. Next time out it was every man for himself and I didn’t actually get painted, but gained some enormous yellow bruises from where one of them who was out of ammo crept up behind me and fired several shots of compressed air, from very close range. This is a regular hazard out there, because a lot of the youngsters couldn’t afford paintballs and use the powerful guns on air alone.

Rope slide in forest at festivalOne of these new friends turns out to work for one of the political parties but is disillusioned with national politics and is focussing on local community initiatives, so I’m very glad I met him. We discussed health & safety laws a bit when we found some guys running a kind of rope slide. If you didn’t do it right you basically fell twenty feet, but if that happened, you got a free second shot!

Not everyone was so intellectual. Another new friend was an expert… vodka drinker. He accosted me late in the evening at the stage and demanded I come to meet girls with him!  His insistence was a bit perturbing, but on convoys it’s always paid off to err on the side of trust, and find out more about people. It turned out that he wanted me along because as a Scotsman I pretty much guaranteed that the girls would be curious, and would talk to us!

Later on, once I’d had just the one bottle of vodka with him, I found some Chernigov friends again and we watched some people I’d assumed were historical re-enacters. I’d seen them practicing sword-fighting earlier — they’d actually drawn blood. But on stage they turned out to be a bit less historical than I expected. More a case of swords meet modern music video. Just as amazing as the swordsmen were the ones doing fire juggling. Later we found their camp and approached a couple of the them. One of my friends said, “Wow, this is so cool, they’d never talk to ME!” So once again, it pays to be a foreigner, and thereby “interesting”!

As I mentioned before, we were also joined by war veterans. Because the festival co-incided with the 60th anniversary of peace in Europe, a group of really old people, bedecked in Soviet heroes medals, got up on stage at one point along with an army choir. Nice to see the festival bridging the gap in the generations. Also that day on the big stage was the very best Cossack dancing I’ve ever seen — they really did seem to defy gravity!

Youth group at festivalAll together, my trip to the festival has made me feel more like a citizen of Ukraine than anything else I’ve done in the country, and I’m very grateful I was able to take part. Hopefully my small contribution of conversation and friendship has helped make some nice memories for some of the other people there.