Leigh Biddlecome

Kateryna Yasko

Collective Bildung for Ukraine


TODAY WE INTRODUCE A NEW SERIES OF PROFILES that will be ongoing monthly through 2025 as part of Emerge’s partnership in Cohere+, a European Union Erasmus+ funded project. The multi-year project focuses on the emerging field of social change agents and organizations throughout Europe, and is in collaboration with four other partners, The Hague Center for Global Governance, Innovation and Emergence; the Institute for Integral Studies; Life Itself; and the Ekskäret Foundation. The profiles will contribute to our understanding of the on-the-ground, human experience of change agents, their challenges, and how we might address the developmental gaps within this field to develop learning innovations fit for 21st century change.

The first extended profile as part of this series is of Kateryna Yasko, an active member of the Emerge network based in Kyiv, Ukraine. To introduce her with a single descriptor – or even five – would be inadequate, as will become clear in the piece below. But for those who want an initial taste, then I would say she uses her training in psychology, international relations and business to a full range of expressions of civic organizing, education and facilitation. The intellectual and emotional resonance of our first conversation in September 2023 left me with the strong sense that this article would need a more extended engagement, and so I followed her over the last six months to learn more about how she is developing innovative programs and workshops in Kyiv, and drawing upon the arts (theater, poetry, Ukrainian folk music) to address the psychological and sociological needs of Ukrainian society during a wartime context. 

There is much we can learn from how she generates coherence through this work for various publics, and about the importance of ‘collective bildung’ within a historical context very different from the places in which we are accustomed to discussing the concept. I invite you to sink into her words and story, grapple with the role of non-violent communication in a time of war, and enter as far as possible into the context of her lived experience. If this leaves you curious to explore more, stay tuned for updates about an upcoming Emerge pilgrimage to Kyiv, scheduled for autumn 2024.

 – Leigh Biddlecome

Kateryna Yasko in front of a Banksy mural in Borodyanka, Ukraine (October 2023)
Before we start recording, I admit to Kateryna that in the hours before talking to her, I dreamt vividly of visiting a dear old friend in Kyiv — a city I’ve never actually set foot in. We speak of the strange coincidence of her President meeting my President that day, only an hour’s drive away from where I am calling her. 

With this unusual opening for a interview, she graciously and unhesitatingly invites me into her world — turning her camera around, she shows me the sweep of the Dnipro, the skyline of Kyiv outside her window, and the roof of the school where she dropped off her son that morning. She then begins a narrative of her childhood that flows naturally from this glimpse of her home, its setting, and the reality of her personal life within a wartime context.

View from Kateryna's home in Kyiv
‘The first narrative of my life could be called hospitality.’ she began. ‘There was a very interesting program for Ukrainian children starting in the early 90s, in which a number of Italian families invited and hosted children who were born in the 500-km zone around Chernobyl, summer after summer, year after year, so that we could have an experience of restoration after the catastrophe. I was one of the first children sent to a family in southern Italy, to live for the entire summer — and this was the summer of perestroika, in ’91, when the Soviet Union collapsed and nobody knew exactly what was going to happen.’

For five years Kateryna went back every summer, becoming part of this Italian family. ‘I was deeply impressed by [their] motivation — never for money or anything else. It was this pro-social tradition, opening your house and heart to a kid from a totally different culture, and doing it consistently year after year, notwithstanding all the challenges and problems.’ Beyond the profound personal connections, Kateryna also describes how this experience affected an early sense in her of the power of European civic democratic tradition, as embodied through hospitality, and on the level of ordinary families. This is a value that she has brought through to her adult life: ‘after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when we had to leave our rented home, we realized that throughout seven years while staying there, we had hosted people from 17 countries and over 35 cities. Some of them were just guests for dinner, some of them stayed for more than a year.’

The story of hospitality also includes the origins of another thread that is now at the forefront of her current work. ‘When I arrived in Italy in 1991 for the first time, I was introduced as the bambina russa [Russian girl]. My first impulse was to correct that, to say, “actually, I’m from Ukraine” but I was still quite timid then.’ 

Now, over 30 years later, she is working on the civic level to correct this narrative, standing up for the specifically Ukrainian historical, cultural, and political identity, which she identifies as the work of the ‘decolonization and liberation of Ukraine and other countries that were and still are enslaved by Russia.’ As will become evident, this work takes on a multitude of expressions, thanks to her unique interdisciplinary background, from training as a psychologist, to an undergraduate degree in international relations, and an MBA. She could variously be described as an organizational psychologist, mediator and nonviolent communication trainer. She also facilitates for communities and teams of NGOs, businesses and schools, offering short-term and long-term developmental programs. Most recently she has been designing and facilitating experiential workshops that combine theater, music, and poetry to tackle mental health and trauma specifically within a wartime context (more on these below). 

Amongst many projects, one of the most important civic initiatives she’s contributed to within the recent wartime context has been promoting the ‘Sustainable Peace Manifesto’ – a document prepared by the Ukrainian civic society leaders that offers a vision of a postwar world and how to achieve it, as well as helping other nations obtain rights for autonomy and empowerment. Kateryna is quick to emphasize the leadership role that Ukrainians have in this movement: the work is both focused on their own country, as well as providing models for other civic society leaders in the region through the Free Nations League, created in the summer of 2022. Through the promotion of capacity-building and civic education, their aim is to help leaders of nations in the region prepare for a ‘move towards democracy’. 

One of the core activities Kateryna is focused on is the New Thinking School, which provides education to civic leaders from Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine. The teachers and facilitators are a cohort of prominent Ukrainian professors – philosophers, economists, political scientists and leadership consultants – and they lead adult learners through a three-month developmental program of ‘collective maturation’. Kateryna underlines the importance of this particular format of instruction, which prepares people for civic activism, and also includes more subtle spiritual and developmental work. They are informed by integral theory, systems thinking, design thinking, and other ‘new paradigms’, with the aim to equip members of Ukrainian society across diverse sectors with theory and praxis to confront the complexity of their current and future societal context. 

Monument in Borodyanka to the 19th century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, shot by Russian soldiers (photo: Kateryna Yasko)
Another key structuring narrative for Kateryna is that of ‘collective bildung’ Beyond a vision for bildung for the 21st century — largely articulated by German, Danish, Swedish, and other northern European thinkers, — she is reimagining how it might be contextualized within the Ukrainian cultural landscape. Her daily work involves bringing this concept into lived practice, ‘reinforcing’ Ukrainian identity, and highlighting the ‘importance of cultural maturation.’ ‘Identity is like a container in which culture and cultural maturation can unfold,’ explains Kateryna. ‘This means we need to get rooted and stabilized in our identity, and we consider it as one of the key steps to social, economic and spiritual well-being.’ 

Under the restrictions of Ukrainian language by the Russian emperors and Soviet rule, various forms of Ukrainian artistic expression suffered during the 19th and 20th century. Within the context of life after the full-scale invasion, which Kateryna describes as threatening to ‘physical, cultural and spiritual manifestations of the national identity’, there is a growing consciousness around the need for this ‘collective bildung’ — and, according to Kateryna’s holistic vision, it stretches across intellectual, cultural, moral, and spiritual facets of life.

Following our first interview, she was about to head out to a nearby school. She explained that this event would start with a theater performance, after which she would facilitate a discussion with 70 educators, school teachers and school leaders present in the audience about the lessons learned from the life, legacy and murder of the Ukrainian poet and Soviet dissident Vasyl Stus. She notes the pathway through the arts as key to her emerging work now: ‘if we do this consciously and deliberately, the arts can take a lot of tensions and toxicity that we can feel in the field. We also need to create new rituals linked to the terrible losses Ukrainian society is experiencing, for mourning, and for celebration — and this has to be rooted in our identity.’ 

These new formats of workshops and rituals drawing upon the arts are partly a response to the reality of the ‘cultural boom’ happening in Kyiv right now. There are cultural figures, including theater directors and poets, whose ‘voices need to be heard’, she emphasizes — and it’s also about pioneering work as an intermediary figure between these artists and a wider general population, to ‘create new formats to self-reflect, digest complex emotions and states, and thus grow collective resilience.’ 

This autumn she designed an event for a mixed audience (general public, IT company staff, and an educational NGO) for which she brought together a performance of Ukrainian poetry, and folk and modern songs on the bandura, interwoven with a facilitated conversation with the audience. She witnessed the participants come together around these shared experiences: ‘it creates coherence, fosters trust, and supports emotional well-being.’

She’s also collaborated with theaters in Kyiv over the last two years to create plays to which she invites both community and corporate audiences, and which always involve moderated discussion afterwards between performers, herself, and the audience (and in some cases other mental health professionals and academics). These experimental practices have shown her the power of ‘creating conditions for the development of emotional, moral, and spiritual intelligence’ that reach deeper than other workshops might. They are also particularly sensitive to the Ukrainian wartime context and the need for collective, expressive forms of emerging Ukrainian cultural identity. In one of her own descriptions of why she believes this work is so important (originally in Ukrainian), she writes, ‘We need art to be emotionally present for each other, to heal wounds, and stay conscious.’

Actor Denis Kapustin in ‘Beast' (November 2023, Kyiv)
One notable project was the play ‘Beast’, a play directed by Daniil Primachev (based on a play of the same name by playwright Natalia Ignatieva), and which premiered in summer 2023. The story follows a soldier returning to his wife from time in combat, tracks the mental and emotional strain for him and everyone in his life upon his return, and offers a sharp-eyed view of the emotions and realities of PTSD. Kateryna collaborated with Primachev and the actors to bring this work to as many groups as possible, because of her belief in the need for PTSD to be ‘understood with the heart, not just with the head.’ She explained further: ‘Manuals, no matter how wonderful they are, are not enough. [...] Viewing and discussing theater performances and some films (ideally with appropriate facilitation support) can be an excellent auxiliary method of gentle education, support and cohesion for small groups.’ She also brought in a range of perspectives to the moderated conversation following the play, including an anthropologist, a military psychologist, medical doctor, and social psychologist. She has facilitated other showings of the play, including for members of a Ukrainian energy company’s internal program of training and rehabilitation for military veterans.

In each of these examples that Kateryna shared with me, there is a throughline of education, and an emphasis on coherence within civil society through shared development of cultural identity and experiences. In her own writing about the experience of co-creating the performance and discussion for ‘Beast’, she noted the equal importance of both the ‘gentle education about the mental health of compatriots and strengthening ties in the social fabric of the country through culture.’  

In the months since its première, ‘Beast’ has been shown and discussed on multiple occasions with media creators, teachers, corporate workers, soldiers and university students. She says, ‘the reaction is always the same: people leave speechless, in awe, and then report that this artistic experience changed their perception of PTSD and significantly broadened their horizons about the inner world of those who are at the front, engendering a natural flow of empathy and compassion.’ She then described the reports she has received after the performance from military personnel and their relatives, who tell her directly about the therapeutic effects of the performance, and their sense of being seen and understood. 

Kateryna and panel after a performance of 'Beast' (November 2023, Kyiv)
Kateryna emphasizes the need for this type of facilitation and experimentation to happen at a large scale given the nature of what is happening in Ukraine. ‘Right now we need smart cultural tools and methods to work on a big scale, and the arts is one of the best ways to engage more people.’ She continues, ‘there’s a lot of potential in the arts that can help us digest what we may not be able to digest, the untouched layers of our subconscious, and to point to those domains that require deeper individual psychological work.’ 

She is quick to add that this is not to discount the ‘deep and consistent’ mental health efforts being championed by Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska, and many other initiatives and capacity building programs for specialists in the field of individual PTSD-oriented therapy. At the same time, Kateryna highlights how there is room for new, creative models of response for their communities, such as performances supported by guided discussion and workshops.

One of the key needs is highly skilled facilitation. As part of the professional network of Ukrainian facilitators, she is also training others, including ‘teachers, school principals, managers.’ She explains, ‘the art of creating and holding safe space is essential [in a moment] when people are overwhelmed with stress and emotions and trauma.’ In this context, ‘conscious change — not reactive change — comes from a creative modality, and may only come from safety and safe spaces where people can digest their emotions.’ 

When she leads discussions after workshops and plays such as ‘Beast’, she emphasizes to me how she starts very simply, and asks the audience to reflect on what was ‘generated in them’ during the experience of watching and listening, or even just to describe an impactful scene. ‘The important thing’ she explained, ‘is not to send them too soon into an intellectual domain after this experience,’ so as to allow the force of the emotional impact to sink in. 

One of the most invigorating aspects of listening to Kateryna describe this work is to realize how much she and her colleagues already have to share, and the extent to which they are constantly testing new models and practices — from creating framing for a new cultural identity, to working with the performing arts, to experimenting with civic education models that engage artists and other creative actors. There is no hiding out in the purely theoretical realm here: ‘action inquiry is happening on a daily basis.’ 

She hints at a broad set of future work in which those Ukrainians with deep experience in this sector might eventually help other countries within similar wartime and social transition contexts: ‘given the challenges that we’re facing, we’ll be able to offer a lot of knowledge and unique expertise in the field of PTSD healing, psychological, cultural and spiritual well-being, and other practices that support social change.’ 

This is a powerful alternative to a narrative that usually frames new knowledge and solutions as originating in Western Europe and traveling eastward. The reality of exchange, and sources of inspiration and support, is far more nuanced and multi-directional. One recent series of workshops she organized attests to this exchange: together with Liv Larsson in Kyiv (who flew over from Sweden particularly for this work), she co-designed and co-led seven days of workshops on Nonviolent Communication, ‘designed to broaden horizons around the role of power and force in a society with democratic values with a strong focus on peace and sustainability.’ Workshops included ‘Creating a culture of nonviolence in the midst of war’, ‘Pitfalls of Nonviolent Communication (NVC)’, and ‘Gratitude, Mourning & Celebration as a Resource and Ritual’. Some of the guiding questions for this week of work with local Ukrainian psychologists and community leaders included: ‘How to live and apply nonviolent communication in a world full of violence’ and, ‘What is the role of force, and protective use of it in particular?’ 

How does this stance related to the necessary and protective use of force intersect with her work as a nonviolent communication trainer and her self-expressed identity as a ‘peacemaker and peace-builder’? As we spoke, I became more and more aware of the complexity of this position that she must navigate daily. On the one hand, she described a form of ‘Christian realism’ and Ukrainian stoicism: ‘the good has to be armed enough to protect itself.’ She continues, ‘given it’s going to be a long marathon — how can we build resilience within Ukraine and do effective advocacy in the world, across civic societies, so that we receive and produce as much armament as is needed?’ 

Over the last two years she has arrived at a philosophy based on deep reflection and on-the-ground work, living within a context that very few of us outside war-zones could imagine. One of her main objectives is to explain the lived reality of the Ukrainian situation when considering NVC principles. In our conversation in February 2024, she spoke at length on this subject: ‘NVC will save our souls — but we also have to protect our bodies and values, and we need to have guts and strength of behaviors and communication in order to react to aggressions coming from the outside.’ She went on to describe what she sees as the ‘integral approach to peace-building’, which is ‘having guts, consciousness, mindfulness, and knowing where and when to use each. How can we be strong, flexible, assertive, and humane so we can use the privileges of our democracy and protect it from aggressors? This requires us to consider what behaviors we should be ready to use – including force – to protect our values and our bodies. NVC can be practiced in a sufficiently evolved world; [our work] is to consider in what ways can we use it in this context.’

Towards the end of our conversation in September, Kateryna grew quiet and told me she wanted to share something ‘very personal,’ and held her phone up to the camera. The image was slightly fuzzy but I could see 17 symbols of drones and missiles surrounded by a few lines of text in Ukrainian. ‘In the morning we receive this kind of notification on this telegram channel which translates as “Safe Region.” My son and I were able to sleep last night and didn’t need to go down into the bomb shelter in the basement of our building because these 17 Iranian drones were intercepted by the armaments we’ve received from countries such as the US. I could take my son to school this morning instead of needing to go to the shelter at 2am and likely needing to postpone this interview. We are literally here speaking this morning because of the armaments that allowed those interceptions to happen.’

Peace activist Steinar Bryn during a visit with Kateryna to Borodyanka (October 2023)
In many public speeches and interviews, she has also been outspoken about the need for material support (such as armaments), which has a direct impact on their daily experience and lives. At the Integral European Conference in 2022, in her speech ‘Ukraine: A Heart Blown Open’, she spoke clearly about forms of ‘ignorance and arrogance’ that she believes are blindspots within certain global ‘conscious’ circles in relation to the war in Ukraine. Calls for ‘peace and dialogue with Russians’ amongst international mediation and dialogue experts are, in Kateryna’s words, another kind of ‘act of violence’ against Ukraine. She points to a document developed by a group of her Ukrainian colleagues, ‘7 Points on the War and Dialogue from Ukrainian Mediators and Dialogue Facilitators’, which offers historical context and a grounded, locally-sourced expert understanding on the place of mediation and nonviolent communication with the context of the war. She ended her speech with an impassioned call for understanding: 

‘I want you to understand the essence of what this war is about and how it relates to each of you. It’s not just an existential war that Ukrainians are fighting against Putin to survive and get rid of the centuries old yoke. It’s not just the fight for the rule of law for freedom, dignity, and democracy. It’s a clash of civilizations, authoritarian versus democratic, power over versus power with, […] open civic society with open mind and heart against the society that is vertically organized, in its overwhelming majority disempowered, and mentally, emotionally, and spiritually numb. It’s a war of society with solid ‘self-authoring collective mind’ in [Robert] Kegan’s terms, and multiple virtues, against a society with impulsive and socialized mind absorbed by propaganda [...] Ukraine has become a world leader in the battle of sense-making – [...] with its outstanding vigor, vitality and coherence, it is modeling a metamodern cultural code.’

Over a year after she gave this talk, she reflected during our conversation in September 2023 about the challenge of ‘staying awake intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, and not to fall too much into ideologies.’ She described how in the long-haul nature of this war that there must be a balance between compelling ideas that will mobilize society and individuals, and for those living it on a daily basis to simultaneously remain ‘conscious of the times and moments when we need to deconstruct [these] to remain human, to remain dignified and congruent to the moment.’ Later, when we spoke again in February 2024, she picked up on this thread and described her work using Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, which has been translated and transformed into one of the plays that she shows as part of her workshops. She highlighted the resonance of the theme of the original 19th century story: ‘what is it to be human? And how can we remain human in inhumane circumstances?’ Emphasizing the ‘eternal’ nature of these questions, she uses the story of this play to transform PTSD-related themes into wider philosophical questions. She has also invited a leading Ukrainian philosopher, Alexandr Filonenko, to support post-play discussions, including a showing as part of a performance and fundraiser for her birthday in January 2024.

Kateryna at a 'Pinocchio' performance and fundraiser (January 2024)

'Pinocchio' (January 2024)

When I ask her about other sources of personal support and resilience within the wartime context, she speaks about her family, friends, and her colleagues and mentors from all over the world who are offering their time and support. She also calls upon her connection with local Ukrainian poetry, music and theater. And — with a nod towards her childhood experiences in Italy — she describes the deep spiritual support she is finding in Stoicism and Dante’s Divine Comedy. She tells me about ‘learning circle’ groups across her network who are reading The Nordic Secret: A European Story of Beauty and Freedom (by Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Björkman) and The Divine Comedy together, adding, smiling, ‘when is a better time for Dante than in crisis?’

She also wants to leave me with a taste of what it feels like to be living there right now. As difficult as it is to convey verbally, her eyes grow vivid and her whole face lights up as she speaks of this ineffable atmosphere on the streets and amongst the people in Ukraine: 

‘When you’re protecting your culture and your language, everything helps. It’s another piece of spirituality that nobody can explain, but we experience it all over here. You need to be here to feel the vibe — a feeling of inner voices speaking to people. There are countless examples of connection, cohesion, telepathy, collective dreams – such as thinking about someone and then receiving a phone call from them. You can’t really understand, I think, unless you’re here.’

And with that, in the spirit of the narrative she had recounted earlier — the ‘deeply pro-social tradition of hospitality, opening your house and heart’ — she invites me to visit to experience this in person.

Co-funded by the European Union, part of Cohere+
Words by Leigh Biddlecome
Leigh is an American writer and translator based in Italy.