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Exploring stories of the Ukrainian genocide

We caught up with Sara Nesteruk, who is doing a PhD exploring stories from the Holdomor genocide in Ukraine in the early 1930s, to find out what life is like as a research student at Leeds Beckett.

Sara Nesteruk

Why did you choose Leeds Beckett for your PhD?

I chose Leeds Beckett because of my supervisors, Dr Lisa Stansbie and Professor Simon Morris - they are both fantastic, and really inspiring.

What is your PhD all about?

I am exploring stories from Holdomor, in Ukraine, in the early 1930s. Seven million people died as a result of the Soviet Collectivisation of farms in rural Ukraine. The events are considered genocide in many countries, including Ukraine. My work is a series of short films, exploring stories from the time. I’m using motion graphics and TV production to make a series of five short films. I’m hoping to broadcast the work in 2020.

Why did you choose this subject?

This is something I found out about when I was researching my first short film, The Accident - a commission for Channel 4.

The Accident from Sara Nesteruk on Vimeo.

My own family are Ukranian, and I didn’t know anything about Holodomor. I’ve been asked not to call it a famine, because the word suggests a natural event. I wondered if it was common for stories to remain untold and I want to explore the history, and tell the missing stories, the gaps in time, and in my own family stories and history.

What is your proudest achievement to date?

I was awarded an Artists’ International Fund Award last summer which has enabled me to visit Ukraine twice. I’ve done a residency and two exhibitions, one in Kyiv, where I was working, and one in the UK. It’s been an amazing experience.

What’s the best thing about doing a PhD?

I have wanted to make this work for a long time, around 10 years. Doing a PhD has given me access to structure, time and amazing support. I have had opportunities and input I would never have had working alone - the project is richer and stronger. I love the reading, and all the theory, and poetry I’m discovering. 

And what’s the biggest challenge so far?

Working out where I fit, and want my work to be, between academia, and design. I love making, and will always be, and be interested in, commercial practice. I want to find new ways to present this, in academic terms.

What is your favourite spot on campus?

The old BBC Building with the Arts School (Broadcasting Place). I love the gallery on the ground floor. I always check out the exhibitions there when I come for my supervision meetings.

What is your top tip for new research students?

I love Ben Shahn’s quote, from The Education of An Artist. I had this pinned onto my wall when I was an undergraduate (here at Leeds Beckett).

“Do anything. Get a job in a potato field; or work as a grease-monkey in an auto repair shop. But if you do work in a field do not fail to observe the look and the feel of earth and of all things that you handle yes - even potatoes. Listen well to all conversations and be instructed by them and take all seriousness seriously. Never look down upon anything or anyone as not worthy of notice. In college or out of college, read and form opinions.  Know at least two languages besides your own, but anyway, know French. Do not be afraid to like paintings honestly or to dislike them honestly, but if you do dislike them retain an open mind.

“Talk and talk and sit in cafés, and listen to everything, to Brahms, to Brubeck, to the Italian hour on the radio. … ”.

What’s the most useful thing that you’ve learnt so far?

One of the best things since I joined Leeds Beckett is I have met Yoni Collier: he is a composer and also a researcher at the university - he is studying for a PhD and we met at our induction. Yoni is working on the music and audio for my films – ‘Recipes for Baking Bread’ - and also worked, and composed the music for a short film I made last year called Why We (Sometimes) Wish Those We Love Might Die - it’s about Love.

What do you do to unwind?

I read - I love books, I read everything, poetry, novels, and I love cycling.

Where do you want your PhD to take you?

I’d love to return to Ukraine. I want to get my work seen by as many people as possible. It’s important for the stories I’m researching to be told - not a lot is known about Holodomor in the UK. On a personal, and more intimate level, the work is about meaning, and memories, the connections we all have, to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying for a PhD at Leeds Beckett University?

I love this quote by the poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

It’s about soul, belief and the important and true worth, and connection of work, art, making something beyond, what can be, what exists, beyond knowing. The vital connections that hold us all together. Work, research, the unknown. It’s about exploring, and mystery.

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