Executive director of Middfest that explored Ukraine 29 years ago: ‘We need to do more over there’

Twenty-nine years after Middfest International, a cultural celebration in Middletown, explored Ukraine and the Czech Republic, the executive director’s memory is flashing back.

Virginia Ritan, now 87 and living in Miami Twp., said she’s been “rethinking” the 1993 Middfest International after Russia turned Ukraine into a war-torn country that reminded her of World War II photos.

“It’s horrible what is happening in that part of the world,” Ritan said. “We need to get our priorities straight and do more than stand on the sidelines and cheer them on.”

Otherwise, she said, Russian President Vladimir Putin will continue his military assault “as long as the Western world will let him go. It will only get worse. I’m by no means a warmonger. We’re in a difficult spot.”

Middfest International started by celebrating Luxembourg in 1981 and continued every fall until 2017. There were educational displays throughout the City Building, entertainment, art displays and food booths on Donham Plaza, and a business conference meeting in the Manchester Inn.

Ritan said Eastern Europe with a theme of “Bridges to Understanding” was selected in 1993 because Miami University was working on an European project, there were students studying Czech Republic architectural at Miami, and an active member in the Middletown community was connected to Cincinnati that calls Kharkiv, Ukraine one of its sister cities.

Participating in the business conference and opening ceremonies were Ambassador Oleh Bilorus of Ukraine; Ambassador Micahel Zantovsky of the Czech Republic; Ambassador Ognian Pishev of Bulgaria; and Peter Burian, from Slovakia.

As part of her duties, Ritan traveled to Eastern Europe and remembers meeting with embassy representatives from Czech Republic and Slovakia. Toward the end of the meeting, Ritan said she needed a copy of their national anthems to be played at Middfest.

Someone from the embassy took a printed copy, tore it in half and told Ritan that was both anthems.

The “first wave” of people from Eastern Europe was mostly performers and artists, Ritan said. “Delightful people,” she said.

Then as the weekend approached, another group from Eastern Europe arrived. There were several older men and one woman and they were sponsors.

“They controlled the money,” Ritan said. “They seemed to frighten the performers. There was tension there.”

She said it was like their “heavy shoe” was on the hearts of the performers.

“I’m sad about that,” she said.

Most of the contemporary art was exhibited in the hallways of the City Building and was a popular destination for local students. But one photo exhibit that was “darker” was displayed in an office and was only open to those 18 and older, she said.

“A lot of the hurt was evident,” she said.

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