Thursday, 21 February

“A modern Ukrainian writer whose books are the most frequently stolen from libraries.” This is how Vasyl Shkliar, a writer, is introduced at a meeting in Uzhhorod 

It is a “Wild West” of Ukraine, but people brought additional chairs to the hall where Vasyl Shkliar had a meeting – people had been waiting for him. He says that Zakarpattia is still waiting for a great novel about liberation struggle. We will be persuading him to get acquainted with a Zakarpattia dialect to turn a local bloody history into a novel. But now, we are speaking about our national history – the history of Ukraine. Which he enlivens in his novels. Vasyl Shkliar is one of the most successful novelists in Ukraine. However, he seems to be not a daydreamer but rather a realist. And without a doubt, a Ukraine-centrist, whom, actually, each Ukrainian should be.

    Officially, Vasyl Shkliar is one of the most read Ukrainian authors today, and finally, his famous novel “Raven” is going to become a film. He is smiling when asked about the Shevchenko Award which he didn’t accept even after the government changed. He’s telling about essential things for himself: pages of our liberation struggle which is still ongoing. He also tells us about a new Ukrainian cinema and Ukrainian culture in general and mostly about the language which is like a capstone of the nation. He almost doesn’t speak about politics. There will be many questions, but I offer the key thing: answers.

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

“Raven” is my biggest, the most important work. When I hadn’t yet written it, I already knew that it would be the book of my life. I reckon that if the novel “Kholodny Yar” by Yuri Horlis-Horsky had been put into a school program at the beginning of the independence, in 1991, Ukraine would be different. One book can change a lot. We didn’t know our history. And I swore… This great non-fiction book ended at the 1921 events, and I continued the story, basing on documentary sources. For ten years, it was a struggle without hope. My village was within the Kholodny Yar territory (the Kholodny Yar Republic was a self-proclaimed republic in the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-1921), no, it wasn’t within an “official” area of the republic, but ottoman Liuty-Liutenko said that Kholodny Yar was the territory of spirit, and it covered the area from Lysianka to Chyhyryn, and I was born in the Lysianka district. One of my grandfathers fought for Kholodny Yar but he didn’t tell about it. Elder people were keeping us away from those memories. Seldom, senior men were telling each other, “Well, Trohym Holyi came on a grey pied horse, saw those wires between poles, stood still, got his gun out – bang-bang – wires were hanging.” There were only such scarce stories. I knew Kholodny Yar as Haidamachchyna described by a national poet Taras Shevchenko (the haidamakas (singular haidamaka) were cossack paramilitary bands of commoners, peasants, craftsmen, former Cossacks, and impoverished noblemen in the 18th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which had an anti-Ukrainian policy). But I didn’t know that his XIX century prediction turned out to be true in the 1920s: “… and will be there a fire coming from Kholodny Yar”. We were told that there were “bandits” here. But no, there weren’t even any memorials to “Red Army soldiers who heroically died in the fight against bandits”. To burn this Ukrainian history page out of Ukrainian memory, they forbade mentioning this topic, not even in a negative tone. And those secret service agents, who could have told in their diaries about the struggle against Kholodny Yar soldiers and boasted that they killed Vasyl Chuchupaka, Pylyp Khmara or another ottoman, they were executed. Each memory or mentioning had to be erased. Each word.

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

“Each western Ukrainian village has its own tragedy”

I came here just from the “Raven” filming. I have there, what is usual for me, many mystical and strange coincidences. I guess it is early yet to tell about everything, but I will tell one thing. This novel, the theme itself, was inspired by Taras Shevchenko. He made a prediction “… and will be there a fire coming from Kholodny Yar” and my landsmen made it come true. So, everything began from Taras. Next: this project was pushed by one man, I won’t tell his last name, but the first one is Taras. A film director is a very talented man, he is known for “The Nest of the Turtledove” film – Taras Tkachenko. A co-director is also called Taras. The lead role of Raven is played by Taras Tsymbaliuk. So many Tarases! Can we fail to shoot a good film?

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

“Reed” (“Troshcha”) is my newest book, and I love it. This book also has its history. After Raven’s success, when I was traveling across Volyn and Galicia regions, I was asked or even demanded at each meeting to write about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. I answered: local writers have to write about it because the magic of a book is hidden in language, a writer has to perfectly know local dialects because if you write it in a literary language, it will be fake. I was saying that there were novels by local authors but people were demanding: they wanted this book to be the same as “Raven”. Of course, I can’t make it one more time but deep inside, I wanted to write such a book, I have the Russian-Ukrainian war series, I have written “Marusia” about the Ukrainian Galician Army… I was looking for a universal story for a long time. Each village in western Ukraine has its own tragedy, drama, witnesses of those events are still alive… It is painful, painful, people tell about it, and I wanted to write a story which will touch everybody. I have met many people, many UIA soldiers, I am proud to be a friend of captain Yaroslav Symchych, Kryvonos who killed the whole battalion of Red Army soldiers when they were going to attack Banderites (Ukrainian right-wing nationalists who fought for Ukraine’s independence). I was searching, looked through many documents and finally found a story which I liked. It is about 1917 events, a tough period for the struggle. A few men survived the underground. The events took place in the Ternopil region, above the Stripa river. There was a communication point, about a dozen men were guarding it in reeds, locals call it “troshcha”. What a beautiful name: it means a place and holds in itself a feeling of disaster, it is a massacre… The novel is mostly about a betrayal. Some readers, who are used to a pathetic problem solving, can be disappointed but it was really one of the key problems then. A devil KGB machine had penetrated Ukrainian nationalist community, and betrayals happened very often… There are documents about the events described in the novel. There are interrogations files where our guys, security agents interview participants of these events, their relatives. Looking through these files, I saw that something was wrong, that a betrayal could be committed from the other side as well. I was reading it not only as a writer but as an Appeal Court Judge. And I found extremely interesting and painful nerves of those events.

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

The “Reed” book also had a mystical story. In 1948, our guys, “black ones”, they were called “woodsmen”, came to one house in the village of Krasnopushcha, the Ternopil region. They said to a schoolgirl, “Stefa, we want to ask for a favor. We are going to bury some important documents this night, one container at the cemetery, one in the wood. The point is, Stefa that we all will die. We are to die, we are struggling to death. And you will survive, will see an independent Ukraine and will show these documents to our Ukrainian government. Will you, Stefa?” What a faith they had! They believed that the girl would see an independent Ukraine! The next generation, dissidents, who came to prisons after Banderites, were not so optimistic. I was a spokesman of the Ukrainian Republican Party headed by dissidents Mykhailo Horyn and Levko Lukianenko. I asked them, “What did you think – when we would be independent?” They answered that they thought it would happen in the XXI century. And these guys say, “Stefa, you will see the Independence!” She saw the Independence, but in 1991, she was afraid to show the documents to authorities. She trusted only to the Republican Party, which became a part of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. Stefa got terribly ill, called her husband and said, “Fellows, you have to find something important!” They dug out these containers and gave them to the regional office of the party. There, they were kept safely under a secret. The secret was revealed to me only as some time passed. And these container documents became the base of the “Reed” book.

This summer, I was invited to meet Lithuanian “Forest Brothers”. They are like our Banderites, they were fighting up to the middle of the 1950s, they were called “green”… They invited me and asked for a strange favor. Lithuanians, as it turned out, haven’t yet written a good book about the struggle which “brothers” will like, which would memorialize them. I answered: it was a damn hard thing to learn Galicia dialects and now I have to learn the Lithuanian language?! They told that they would assist me and, actually, it is interesting… And I am interested in a betrayal issue there as well. There are few of them left alive… What vivid old men they are! Yonas (pseudonym – Bida (Mischief) is 98, he lives alone in a forest, feels OK! Another Yonas (pseudonym – Lutas (Lion) is 91, he also lives alone… These men told me that they were betrayed by one of their brothers. They said that but for betrayals, they would fight until Lithuania gained its independence!

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

“Yes, I have some prejudgements as for people from Donbas”

… Yes, I am an advocate of unpopular ideas. And sometimes I have some prejudgements as for people from Donbas. However, there is, you know, an adequate feeling of human dignity which is integral with the feeling of national dignity. These are people in East of Ukraine, in the environment where people haven’t’ ever heard the Ukrainian language who move my heart. No, these are not those people who say in Russian, “I fight here for the Russian language in Ukraine”, there are such people as well, there are also those who are indifferent. And some people are not against it, they have just known nothing different. I know the man… There was a wedding of an “Azov” regiment soldier in the town of Kryvi Rih. It was a great Ukrainian wedding, many soldiers were invited, and one guy from Donetsk (code name – Professor) said, “I didn’t know what Ukraine is like, guys, believe me, I didn’t know!”

… I was traveling across Donbas a lot, through the biggest flashpoints, and the most amusing story happened in the town of Kramatorsk. The town is very wide and long, there was a long distance from my hotel to the place where I had a meeting, I went there by taxi, a driver was doom and it was dark outside, I was speaking with him in Ukrainian, he looked at me and said, “may I come up to my house for a minute to bring my wife her medicine?” I thought: well, this is it; it was the time when the hit list had just appeared. Babchenko was in the list, and I was the 12th. What could I say: go. He parked his car in a dark place and went away, and I was looking out of car’s windows… He came back, we talked a little, he brought me where I needed, I paid him, said good-bye, got out of the car, and he said, “Wait. May I hug you?” You know, tears welled up. Anyway, that worn out land has those scions which fell down from a pole…

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

How can we take back the Crimea, how can we believe politicians who say that they will take it back if people who hate Ukraine live there? The truth has to be said. They don’t have to say that they have been fooled or something like that, that they are unhappy because now they are a part of Russia. It concerns not only Russians who live there. One girl from the village in the Cherkasy region (central Ukraine) said, “God, it is a true happiness to live in Russia.” Whether they are fooled or not, they were just brought up like this. I think they really wanted to be in Russia. The same thing is in Donbas. And here the government seems to do everything to worsen our lives. Nothing is done to return territories. That’s why I say: no catastrophe can scuttle an aim, it has been proved by our history, we have to build our state without them, and later, we’ll play it by ear. If they really want to be with us, it will be good. If they don’t’… Well, many countries have lost their territories, for example, Finland or Lithuania… You know, when Khrushchev was gifting the Crimea to Ukraine, he wanted to give the whole Kaliningrad region to Lithuanians. It is a huge territory for a tiny Lithuania. At that time, the Lithuanian Communist Party was headed by Sniečkus, and he bent over backwards not to take those lands. Because it is a platform for russification, for Russian influence. Lithuania could just disappear. Many countries lost their territories, sometimes huge ones. So What? We are still the biggest country in Europe. We are the country which seems to be unsuccessful at all, unhappy but the biggest in Europe even without the Crimea and Donbas. Don’t take it to heart. But we have to remember about the main thing. Language is the most powerful border. Occupants will never win where people speak Ukrainian. Even now, they haven’t attacked northern Luhansk region, because villages there are Ukrainian-speaking. They know that it will never be theirs. So when our dear soldiers tell me: we will conquer Kuban and Voronezh region, – I answer to them: why only Kuban, take all the Russia, it doesn’t mind joining Ukraine and having Kyiv as a capital. But we will disappear… You know, I give such naïve examples because this is what life is like. No, we mustn’t give anything to the enemy! And we must take everything! But only what a nation is naturally able to take in, inside its borders!

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

Once, Yurii Andrukhovych (modern Ukrainian author) said that a national idea of Ukraine is a collapse of the Russian Empire. Yes, many people dream of that. And when I speak about geopolitical collapses of the XXI century, I also mean the collapse of Russia. It is hard to say when it will happen, because despite many sanctions – it is still functioning. But it is the thing which can happen very unexpectedly due to some coincidence. Like the USSR, it collapsed very unexpectedly, and nobody thought it could happen. Nevertheless, when Russia collapses, Ukraine will have some problems as well: many refugees will come here. And Ukraine, damn the tolerance, will be welcoming them. When some old rooskie, who seem to be against Putin, come here, we give them Ukrainian passports… I say it with a biting irony that Russia seems to have a factory where it produces Ukrainian MPs. The only thing needed is to put somebody imprisoned and give him a black caviar for lunch… I don’t mean anybody particular. But I am surprised how people here treat a person who is said to be imprisoned there. Because he or she is just “against Putin”. But it doesn’t mean a person supports Ukraine.

There is one biggest hero in Ukraine, the only one! The one who saved the nation, who were repressed, attacked, disrespected, beaten, oppressed the most. It is the Ukrainian language! It is the main Ukrainian hero of all the times. Despite it all, it managed to survive. Today, Ukrainian is one of the most spoken languages in the world. It takes the 12th position. I repeat it: our defeats are temporary. Like our insurgents, Banderites, Kholodny Yar soldiers, who seemed to lose the fight, but in fact, they won it! We will as well win the war with our main enemy. This is the world war. The world has come to the defense of Ukraine. This is a civilizational war. There was a period when the number of killed foreigners was bigger than of Ukrainians: when the Malaysia Boeing was shot down, we hadn’t yet had 300 killed more… The world swallowed it. But it is Ukraine which defines the future of Europe and the world.

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

“Ukrainians are more patient than needed”

Ukraine-centrism has to be normal and comprehensive. What do we need for that? In the first place, legislation – yes, laws seem to exist but actually they don’t, it means they are fake – we have to make it impossible to live in Ukraine without the Ukrainian language. It is simple as that: if you don’t know the language – you can work only as a cleaner, can’t get married and so on. These regulations work in developed countries: in the USA, Israel, Europe. It needs no discussion. And in Ukraine, it is still possible, I don’t know why, to become a Prime-Minister without knowing the Ukrainian language, it is possible to participate in elections and become a President… The second thing is in order to have a Ukraine-centrist state, we have to do our best for creating the environment for fair community communication. It is a package of measures. But the key thing is to balk major social deformations. Yes, Ukrainians are ready to be patient, and they are, but unfortunately, more than needed. Nor for decades. They are able to be patient when they see: this burden is shared in the society collectively. Yes, I lack something, but so are MPs and the President, there is no economic waste …  For example, Poland experienced “the shock therapy”  – challenging life conditions for a short period of time when people needed to be patient for a while but then their life standards increased considerably. We are still in a shocking therapy mode. But people need to see some improvements. But they see only increasing tariffs. The experiments with subsidies. It discourages Ukrainians to work. It is something like collectivization which destroyed a natural entrepreneurial spirit of Ukrainians. People don’t want to work for 200 $ a month because they will lose their subsidies. They get divorced to be officially single to get the subsidy… I am talking about social fairness. Why does a teacher have to suffer while someone gets a 1 million bonus?

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

Is culture a weapon? Culture is the existence of a nation. I am bored with citing these famous Churchill’s words when the British government wanted to cut culture expenses during the war, “What are we fighting for then?”, but it is really that way. Culture is where a nation shows its identity, its face. It can’t exist without it. Some people say: it doesn’t matter if Ukraine is Russian-speaking if it is wealthy and successful. I answer: it would be uninteresting for the world then. Ukraine without its language, music, painting, other arts – doesn’t have its face, it is unneeded and useless. Then, join Russia and build your “superstate” or how you call it.

Some people think that Ukraine’s history is the history of defeats. Some say that we should live for Ukraine, not die for it. That we need fewer tears, less talks about defeats… Of course, that’s right. But in fact, on our mythological, legendary level, it is a bit different. Our insurgents who were fighting in Ukraine knew they would die. They could have survived: they could hide, ask for an “amnesty”, escape abroad. When Raven’s love, Tina, asked him to go away, he answered, “My flag doesn’t say “Freedom to Ukraine or migration”, it says “Freedom to Ukraine or death”. I haven’t gained freedom, but the aim will spring on my grave”. Our freedom was springing on the blood of insurgents. Why do we take it as a defeat, particularly when speaking about Banderites? What did they fight against? Against Germany Nazism and Russian communism. And this is it – these two systems are destroyed, they have lost, they have been judged by the world. And the Banderites’ idea resulted in Ukraine’s Independence. So who is the winner?

No, I don’t call for death. Our independence was… I don’t heroize all the soldiers who are fighting now in Donbas. War gives birth not only to heroes but to bandits, sadists, villains, and others. But there are the best of the best. I know many guys. I have recently been near the front: Shyrokyne, Vodiane, Pavlopil, Marianka, Krasnohorka. You can see the enemy from there… And there are also such guys! They meet me with a black Kholodny Yar flag which says “Freedom to Ukraine or death!” And death is the biggest mystery in the world. And there are absolute fearless men. Men who take a battle as a holiday. And they are not afraid to die.

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

“Who has been to Kholodny Yar – will come back there!”

If our independence had happened a bit earlier, we would have met with living witnesses of the Kholodny Yar struggle. People hardly recall these events. Except for studying many documents, I conducted many pieces of research. Such tragic fates… I found a woman in the village of Liubentsi, she was about 90 years old. She told me about Ponomarenko who was the best master in Kholodny Yar, he had an interesting pseudonym Kvochka (Brood Hen). He escaped to mines as men often did it, to the Kryvy Rih mines, but he was missing Kholodny Yar and came back. He met his former love and started to live with her, he managed to settle his life so he had no problems with Soviets. But he couldn’t live that way, he liked freedom, he didn’t work at a collective farm. He worked at a wood farm. People who managed to conceal their past mostly began working with horses because they liked and were keen on it or to the wood… But he couldn’t get used to it. His wife left and separated from him: they used to have two houses in the yard: bigger and smaller ones divided by a wall, so he lived in a smaller part. He was alone, she neither cooked nor washed his clothes for him. So that senior woman tells me: she brought him some horilka and a bowl of food on an Easter Day. He brought her a clean bowl back, returned home and hanged himself. There are many tragic stories, not each of them is in the book. About freedom lovers who had to work at collective farms… About that tragedy.

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

Kholodny Yar is really a special place, which has been a border for hundreds of years. Dyke Pole is nearby. There are many forests there. It was favorable for partisan struggle, it was already during Cossacks times, and Haidamachchyna was born there… Motryn Monastery which, unfortunately, belongs to the Moscow Patriarchy, but has many hundred years of history, “Motria” (as a girl’s name) – that’s how Haidamaks called it. Under the monastery, there are unstudied tunnels which are dozens of kilometers long. I don’t know whether somebody will study them one day, they have many mysteries. There is a legend that the river of Dnipro used to flow on this territory. A special magnetism lives there. Horlis-Horsky who in the spring of 1921 left Kholodny Yar involuntarily, he was ordered to go abroad, said that everybody who had once breathed in that air would come back. In 1942, he came back, in a German uniform, because the territory was occupied by Germans. He was fond of adventures, he seems to have worked on different intelligences, fought for the Carpathian Ukraine, was captured by Hungarians… Later, he worked as a teacher in one of the Ukrainian villages. He came, visited ottomans’ graves, brought about fifty books about Kholodny Yar, gave them to people, they were hiding them because if somebody had found those books people would have been imprisoned… Yet in 1974, when everybody had already forgotten, the Cherkasy KGB had a “Kholodny Yar agent”… That area is attractive for many people. I was so happy after “Raven” was published… in the 1990s when we came there, about 6 people of us, we were heading to the Ottomans’ graves, and people were hiding behind their fences, they were afraid. And in 2011, thousands of people came there – from Kyiv, Odesa, Dnipro, from East and West… Who has been to Kholodny Yar – will come back there!

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

“I am happy when I put a full stop”

Yes, I have material for a big novel about this war. But I haven’t shaped its composition yet. I guess it will let me know when it is ready. Some events happen to live in the unconscious, and it can become a part of a book later. I reckon that literature about war should be created from the time point of view. Time has to pass. The best thing is to write not less than after 5-10 years after events to see it from distance. Our key task today is to record each fact, each name. Besides, we can witness how heroes become anti-heroes. War is, unfortunately, reveals not only knights but a darker side of a person as well. Of course, such a novel should be written not just in black and white colors, conveying interesting people’s tempers and fates.

What Zakarpattia peculiarity could become a base for a book about struggle and what could inspire? The Carpathian Ukraine. There is no book about that time. There is no that essential novel, but it should exist.

What makes me happy? I am happy with my colleagues’ achievements. Yes, unlike many other writers. I believe it is my writer’s advantage. Because I know that each good step in literature – no matter whose – changes and enhance. It is the environment which shapes a writer. The more quality, talented the environment is the better professional as an author you become. It is good to be a successful author in a decent literature because it is no honor to be a successful honor in bad literature. I don’t understand people who can’t sleep well because of somebody else’s success. Along with that, I have learned to be patient about those arrows and even stones which are thrown at me. Perhaps, I don’t have more opponents than fans, the former has always bothered me, particularly when it comes to a screen adaption of my books. I used to fail to believe that a network of Ukrainian anti-propaganda is so powerful and spread across the world, I thought: who cared about my books? But when “Raven” was being translated overseas, some people came to each translator who was working on a book and asked to refuse: in Italy, Slovakia, Brazil… These men persuaded Hoffman, however during Yushchenko’s administration, negotiations about filming even started… It’s a small world, and due to technologies and opportunities, it’s like a village. And Russia spends much money on that work. But I always say to my opponents: each stone thrown at me only makes my pedestal higher. I catch these stones and put them in walls…

Василь Шкляр: «Мова – найбільший герой України»

What do I dream about? I am not a daydreamer. Dreams sometimes only double sorrow. Do you know that the Ukrainian language didn’t have the word “dream”? It appeared, as far as I remember, at the beginning of the last century. This is what we have talked about: ottomans didn’t know what “a dream” is like. Perhaps, only in a sleeping regard… They desired, they acted… We have to be moderate with our dreams. Evidently, we should use our imagination. But our imagination doesn’t have to be put in public. I guess my biggest dreams came true. I am happy. As they say: if it is not worse, it is already good. And as for better, we will do it.

So, I am happy when I put a full stop at the end of a book. I never know until the end whether I would be able to do it… And suddenly it is done, and I am happy about it.

In fact, his main full stops are… an ellipsis. For the struggle is still on. Soldiers take call signs from his novel when they go to the war. The war which is happening today.

By Alla Khayatova

Photo Serhiy Hudak

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