It must be filmed. You know, just to film everything she says, because no written interview will ever be able to convey the way she speaks. Not just gestures which are unique to her. As well as her signature intonations, words spoken with pressure or spelled out, new word forms, and unexpectedly accurate images.
We have dinner on a late Sunday evening in the Ukrainian tavern almost in the center of Kyiv, there are a few visitors before the start of the working week. Waiters are not in a hurry, a little dim light, and music that don’t interfere.
I’m terribly afraid that I won’t be… won’t be able to convey her – this authentic, unique, individually-expressive, mercilessly accurate Oksana Zabuzhko.
I was transcribing our four-hour conversation from the voice recorder over the Atlantic Ocean. 10 hours. I had a feeling that I was listening to her again. You know a bunch of things open up again just because of her text. Oksana speaks with texts. It is like an oral, cool journalistic article, for which she was nominated for the Shevchenko Prize.
From the news: according to the results of the secret vote, it is proposed to mark the authors of literary and artistic works Bohdan Horyn and Oksana Zabuzhko in the nomination “Journalism and Opinion Journalism” by the National Prize of Ukraine named after Taras Shevchenko 2019. Oksana Zabuzhko should receive Shevchenko Prize for her book Again, I am Getting into the Tank, which included her articles, essays, interviews, and memoirs, written and published in 2012-2016. The title is a line from her poem “Diptych 2008″.
Actually, our interview with Ms. Oksana had begun from the talk about the Shevchenko Prize. It’s worth noting that Oksana Zabuzhko herself has always been skeptical about the existence of a prize in such a “Soviet” format as she calls it. She considered it a rudimentary of yet not dead Soviet state.
“The history of this prize is as lame as the history of our statehood”
I told one journalist already that the story of this prize is just as lame as the history of our statehood, that is, it reflects all our “sufferings of growth”. Originally it was “Soviet”, “Ukrainian SSR” based, but it was founded during “political thaw”, when Ukrainians were allowed to have their prizes and in general somehow to proclaim their cultural difference. During the independence times, in the early 90ies, when this award was kept in the same manner it was, I had a row with Dziuba ( Ivan Dziuba, a Ukrainian literary critic, a Soviet dissident, member of the National Academy of Sciences, the second Minister of Culture of Ukraine (1992-1994), Chairman of the Committee on the National Taras Shevchenko Prize of Ukraine in 1999-2001 – it is about a controversy with Dzyuba at the time when he was a minister), being a quarter-century younger and more energetic. Even now, let’s say, I don’t lack that fire, and back then I wasn’t thinking about myself in addition – now, little by little I start to save energy… Back then there was still a carefree self-wasting. I was hitting every wall in the deep conviction that just my head would be able to break all of them… So, I explained Dziuba that one cannot, I apologize, to give the prize to the victims posthumously, the same one their torturers got during lifetime, which they ate and drank away. So, those who were killed by them in Mordovia now will get it posthumously. Victims and torturers are in one list indeed – Stus and Shamota (Mykola Shamota is a Ukrainian literary critic, a Soviet politician. He headed the Socialist Realism Department at the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature and subsequently became the Director of the Institute. He was involved in the mayhem of the Ukrainian intellectuals in 1972). I shouted to Dziuba’s eyes, that this is totalitarianism – when “torturer and victim is in one pit,” as Octavio Paz said (Nobel laureate, Mexican writer). This is awful, it shouldn’t exist. It is necessary to change the very concept of the prize because it is so unworthy and unthinkable. However, Mr. Ivan “hadn’t understood it”. After that, I spoke publicly and said – I had one article under this title, already during Kuchma times – “Please Do not Disturb” me with these Soviet relics. I do not want to have anything in common with them – play them without me. Already in early two thousands, after the Orange Revolution, they were calling me several times, offered to be nominated after Notre Dame d`Ukraine, but I stood my ground, like a stone. I said that I don’t want to have anything to do with the Shevchenko Prize. So, out of the blue, the Revolution of Dignity had happened. They call me from the Presidential Administration and say: come and help us. An expert environment was gathered, there was not only me. I will not tell their names, but later I saw the vast majority of the invited on the list of the Shevchenko Committee. Literally, they told me: you have western awards, you know what it is and how it’s made around the world, so tell us how to reform and “humanize” our prize. There were some 4-5 sessions, it was a total pain and screams. I honestly did my work, went through the rules of all major western awards – from Angelus that I have, and to Nobel that I don’t. I suggested changing the basic principle. Okay, let the main condition remain without discussion: it is the state prize. However, what can we do next? All of us, the entire “expert community” had immediately fallen to infighting. I insisted that a democratic state can give prizes on its behalf only “in the field of literature and art”, conventionally speaking, to distribute “cultural doughnuts”, only when it is about a person, a cultural figure or a certain phenomenon that has political significance – sta-te buil-ding! Only then a state gives an assessment from the perspective of state-building and nation-building, in terms of its own prestige. Such works have always been, such works are present today, this process has been boiling all the time but it wasn’t particularly fixed – so let’s fix it! So “young and beautiful” ones immediately started to moan and cry – oh, no, then it will be only elderly people, it will be a retiree’s prize! And then there were lines which always make my blood rise – this should be a prize for avant-garde works, European ones! As soon as I hear “European”, I get angry as hell. What does it mean? Please, give me a definition, which literary work is “European” and which is “non-European”? Who will define it? Who are the judges? What are the criteria for such an areopagus formation? This will be the same principle that existed during the USSR and comrade Stalin, only personalities have changed! In short, we had a fight. Then the Presidential Administration came up with some kind of “arithmetic mean”, as I understand, it “balanced” all those proposals on its own. Well, this is like a model of all our reforms, which are made – by the method of an arithmetic mean, so that nobody is hurt. As a result, everyone remains dissatisfied, although it has actually become better. I had the feeling that once again I was trying to break through the wall – and it did not work out again. As soon as we reach “Doughnuts”, everyone starts to hog a blanket, thinking about their own interests and at the same time planning something… Well, in fact – the number of grave comments to the prize has really decreased. In addition, they did not give the first “post-reform” prize to Sodomora (Andrii Sodomora, Ukrainian translator, writer, scholar, author of translations from ancient Greek – Menander, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, from Latin – Horatio, Ovid, Lucretius, Seneca – author’s note). I was enraged. People like Sodomora are exactly those who give you the reason to tell your children and grandchildren that they belong to a cultural nation. The person that works on translations of antiquity throughout his entire life, not to mention the fact that he writes a gorgeous translator’s non-fiction, he is precisely the cultural passport that we can show to the world to signify that we are Europeans, because for any nation the symbol of affiliation to “European culture” is not young hipsters, but the tradition of translations from antiquity and the presence of people who personify and symbolize this tradition.
Your book is nominated this year, but not in the “Literature” nomination. Why journalism? Why precisely the book Again, I am Getting into the Tank?
You know, when this book was published in 2016, it was, let’s say conditional “young hipsters”, who started talks that it would be great to give this book a Shevchenko Prize. Back then all of it was bypassing me. Since I was called and asked whether I agree to be nominated or not, for according to the rules of some prizes you must give consent to the nomination, nothing has happened. No one has ever informed me that I have received it (the conversation took place on February 24). I get this information, just like everybody, only from the press.
“The period of 1972-73 should be put in a black frame”
I read you, listen to your speeches and understand that first and foremost you are your family history. What influenced Oksana Zabuzhko to become Oksana Zabuzhko? Well, where did you come from?
From home, of course. I am my home, family and the work of many generations. I do not want to say that my credit is minimal, it would be coquetry, because a person can waste everything that was given, and I had wasted, hope that not everything, but it was given to me on the fact of my birth, by the circumstances of “place and time” – well, a lot was given to me! You nailed it with the family history because I want to tell all of it in a separate book, at least the fate of the last two generations. I got this idea after my mother’s death. I promised myself that I will definitely write down our family history. I am looking for a genre that would combine the document and that “elusive” human dimension that I want to describe. This is the generation of Shistdesiatnyky (“people of the 1960s” – generation of young innovative writers that breached the confines of permited and were repressed by the Soviet system – translator’s note) – it is not described in Ukraine at all. At all! The paradox lies in the fact that we know about them even less than about their predecessors, about the Executed Renaissance (generation of Ukrainian writers and artists of 1920s and early 1930s who were executed or repressed by Stalin’s regime – translator’s note). The 1930ies are better known to us than 1960ies, because proceedings of 70ies and 80ies were destroyed in the 90ies, and it is clear why. Yesterday, for example, I had to call it a day and respond to one letter. The letter is from a journalist who works for a publication that is called “Local History”. He works in archives, writes an article about 1970ies. He found my father’s profile that KGB had made. I have a copy of it. The journalist asks: could you comment on it? And I understand that a young man doesn’t see the context. He doesn’t imagine those times, he poses to me naive questions like: “When did you realize that you are not published because of your father’s position?” – the question comes from completely different realities. This entire story is outlined in the KGB documents in their discourse, but you must be able to read that discourse! To decipher, take out facts from the shell of purely manipulative words and concepts and impose them on another, modern discourse. We don’t have that “another”, in its place we have – “light leak”, as on the old photographic film. Everything is washed and wiped. The whole evening I was commenting and explaining – to make it for a young man who was educated in an independent Ukraine, not just a separate story, but to make the context visible. To fix optics. As a result, I got almost an article. I reread it – and I thought that the guy should know from the textbooks 80 percent of what I had written. However, in Ukraine, such textbooks are still un-writ-ten! Again we have a “museum of abandoned secrets”. Again, the same principle and the same logic acts – we should start from some specific family stories, this is the only thing you can build on… That is why I will write about it.
What was happening in your family? How you were brought up? What were you talking about?
I am a living product of catacomb education. Therefore, it is very clear to me what Olena Pchilka was doing with her children. The Ukrainian intellectuals were creating all those “home-based kindergartens” in Kyiv in the 1960ies to bring their children together to celebrate Ukrainian holidays, to teach children carols, their own history a bit, they were staging plays of forbidden Oles… Back then there were still groups that saved cultural memory, you could still “pick up a thread” of 1920ies. The oppression of Shistdesiatnyky was a very heavy strike for all of us, for the fate of entire Ukraine. The period of 1972-73 should be put in a black frame; we still underestimate the significance of that wave of repressions and do not understand that we are actually coughing them out today. At that time, a lot of things could still be revived, there were still people whom you could ask, there were phenomena that could be prolonged. That is, this Stalinist catastrophe of the 1930ies could still be patched and it would be a completely different country. So, Shistdesiatnyky were doing this, but as soon as they started – they were shut up… Thank God, they managed to write about this a little – not all of them, but at least there are books that were saved along with their authors, such as History’s Carnival by Leonid Plyushch. Maybe this is the best document of the era, a testimony that shows how USSR cleansed the mind and how it fought the attempts to revive it. Complete diagnosis and I have all of it in my childhood memory. I remember myself from a very young age. Believe it or not, but I have a clear memory of the 1960ies, emotionally very strong memory. So, this difference of how it had been before 1972 and how it became after… after repressions, what was Ukraine before, what was Kyiv before – I can describe it. I distinguish Ukraine before 1972 and Ukraine after 1972.
What happened later?
We all know what had happened later. All of us, our entire generation, have already come out of “dead Soviet cities, where only those who came from the village speak Ukrainian.” Well, you were told that it was always like this. In 1970-1980ies all rural children who came from the village to study in the city still say that “Ukrainian cities have always spoken Russian”. So I pull out my Kalashnikov and say: What’s up bastards! Has your memory been erased? Excuse me, but in the 1960ies, ALL the cities of Central Ukraine were speaking Ukrainian! As of the 1990ies, they were all “Russian-speaking”. The city of Cherkasy, for example, started to speak Russian for one generation. Period of Shcherbytskyi – it wasn’t just “arrests of dissidents”, this was an entire complex of political technologies for the transformation of Ukrainians into “a new historical community of people – the Soviet people.” Among that powerful, and still not described by historians stories there is one about how in each Ukrainian city was created one “town-forming enterprise of the union’s significance” and people from all over the Soviet Union were moving there. Therefore, schools became Russian-speaking. For one generation, all that is “local” was hidden in the basement. In 20 years – “you weren’t here at all”. And in another 20 years, some conditional Dmitry Kiselyov arrives, and starts to manage the channel here and tell us that “in Ukraine, cities were always Russian-speaking”.
“The novel spilled over like the whole package of my claims to my culture, to men of my culture, to the intellectuals of my culture”
Once I heard that Zabuzhko “made a very cool move – she wrote Field Work in Ukrainian Sex first, shocked everyone, drew attention to her persona, and then began to write what she considered necessary to write.” This is about your philosophical books. However, the first and still not topped by anyone book was the first feminist novel, a revolution for a whole generation of women. I remember my emotions after reading the novel.
I still meet women from the 90s who tell me: thanks to you I realized, back then that I was normal. It’s like Maidan – when we all gathered together and only then saw “how numerous we are”. The same happened there – the book was published, and suddenly everyone sees that she is not alone. This was a great experience, a new one for our society even back then. You see, such things can’t be planned. Of course, I wanted to do something like that, because I did not like the beginning of independence. I grew up in the home laboratory of those Ukrainian elites, in the environment of passionaries, which created the illusion that all educated Ukrainians should be the same. You think that as soon as everything has collapsed and everything is possible now, – hurray, let’s run forward! Let’s do something, build a country, come on all of you, run! And then it turns out that only Solomiia Pavlychko was also running (Solomiia Pavlychko, writer, literary critic, translator, and publicist, author of works on the theory of literature, the history of feminism. She died in 1999, poisoned with carbon smoke from a faulty gas boiler, she was 41 years old). Only Solomiia Pavlychko had a home-made set up of intellectual-passionary. For what is elite? “The status obliges.” You know more than others. You can more than others. You have more than others. Therefore your responsibility is different. This is your country, and you have to think about how to do everything here to make it better. As I understand it, they are educated in diplomatic academies this way. This is how they teach civil servants. Elitism, not a silver spoon in a mouth – this is the education of elites. You have systematically been told some things since childhood, and you have an incentive to go forward. I had this setup. Well, for me it was a shock to some extent, when suddenly people who seemed to belong to these Ukrainian Soviet elites, it turned out that they were not going to do anything for the country! They were engaged in arranging their personal well-being. It turned out that this is a trend. Well, you see, Solomiia Pavlychko and I are trying to fill up the tires of exercise bike on the track. Damn, it’s interesting when something is done for the first time! Post-colonial state, wild, no television, there is no book market, nothing. And all that you do will be for the first time. It’s cool! Of course, I wanted to drop something like this. The novel spilled over like the whole package of my claims to my culture. To the men of my culture. To the intellectuals of my culture. To my entire culture. This novel had appeared, so to speak, out of my exit from Soviet “cultural underground”. Well, the story of this book publication is quite interesting. There was no publishing system, the old one was collapsed, and the new one had not been created. This was the first novel of the modern Ukrainian author about modernity, published in a separate book, on the fifth year of independence! So this was the beginning of the Ukrainian market. At that time “Crazy virgins” and other crap was on the shelves. This was the first book of the Ukrainian author, except for Hrushevsky’s History of Ukraine, which they were selling at the books stalls. It was a good time because Moscow was occupied with its own business. Back then you could still do whatever you want. Moscow hadn’t controlled our information space yet, so journalists could do whatever they wanted. They were missing an event. Then an event suddenly happens. Russian-speakers read the Ukrainian book for the first time back then. Because there was this idea – once there is a state, there must be something of its own origin. So, where is it? Here it is, made in Ukraine. I remember, they wrote in the newspapers: “Who cares about all these Limonovs, it’s better to take from your shelf Ukrainian Zabuzhko.” J We are a young country. Where are our authors? Where they were? Why they weren’t shown to us? Why did we know anything about them? Except that we heard about Lina Kostenko and Drach at school.
“After publication of my child, society should put a mirror in order to make me aware of its reality”
Ms. Oksana, do you re-read your books? Don’t you have this thought that it would be nice to rewrite something?
Well, it depends. For a long time, I could not read this very Field Work. It was already “not my” text, it was shredded, ripped to quotes, and when it’s all so stained, pawed by strangers, you can’t see it. So it turned out that I first re-read Field Work as a reader as early as in 2012 when I checked English translation. Got to the original during the check – and I got lost in it. No, I wouldn’t rewrite it now. I’m different now. This is 34-year-old text, another age, another mojo. There is certain stylistic negligence – flight through a storm. Cool text. Without hypocrisy I have always said that I do not understand why this is my most widely translated book – it is very difficult to translate it! Obviously, translators are attracted by this – challenge. I re-read and told myself – wow! I am glad that this is in my literature. I understand what Kasia Figura (Katarzyna Figura – Polish actress) meant when she said to me: “Back then they staged it in Warsaw at the Krystyna Janda Theater and during six seasons each day they gave two performances – how ahead from all of us were you! When did you write it? 1994? You outstripped us all!” No, what is written once should be left in its time. And in the new one, you have to write a new one.
How important is readers’ feedback to you? You spoke about your wise readers. How do you interact with them, except they buy a book and read it?
Sometime after the book is released, I am “attached” to it and follow feedback with interest. Then I stop. It’s like being pregnant: while your baby is in you, you do not see it. You do not know what it’s like. Although “delivery” formally occurred, the book came out, but in reality, the publication is not delivery, it’s some kind of ultrasound. The umbilical cord has not dried up; the book has not yet separated from me. And I do not know it yet. It is still in my head, I know it by heart, therefore I don’t know what it is for the others. Until I collect a certain amount of reactions to it until other people will tell me about its eyes, fingers, how good it smells. I don’t know it yet, I can’t look at it from another perspective – until I forget it. I only know how I wrote it – how I was carrying it, how my back was cracking and teeth were spilling out. Therefore, you follow the first reviews, until this portrait of reactions is formed more or less averaged, to the point when the reader’s observations start to repeat. Until I get a Social Mirror for it. It may satisfy me or not. “For myself” I can secretly know that my child is better than it is shown to me, it can be crooked or beaten – it doesn’t matter. I need a mirror. After the publication of my child, society should put a mirror in order to make me aware of its reality. This is an elementary, basic request of any writer. Otherwise, it is autism – if people don’t read you, and you continue to write. The writer moves in the dark. As one American said, it seems it was Norman Mayer: none of your novels knows that you have written some other novels before. Every time is from a scratch, every time as the first time. A leap in the dark. Will it be published or not. Lord forbid, to repeat myself. So now, I’m fighting with this, as I call it, “mother’s” novel. Again a leap in the dark. And from the dark straight to the head – bang! we have a problem. Where did we start? At unspoken. At first, I started the same way as with Museum (of Abandoned Secrets) – research in archives, the search for documents. Then I realized that if I followed this path, then I would be collecting material for 10 years. It’s because historians haven’t gathered anything, everything that covers this period – the 1960ies and 1970ies are unexplored. Everything is unspoken. I had to look for some other method. It will not work out as in Britain, where a novelist only solves his creative tasks, for whoever needed it has already prepared all the materials for him, he only takes the right books in the library. Even the way Hungarians do it won’t succeed. The writer András Forgách ( András Forgács – Hungarian writer, scriptwriter, and actor who, at his mature age, found out that his mother was a secret agent during the communist times) published the novel No Live Files Remain. His mother was a secret agent of local security services, her case was not saved – their security also set the archives on fire, the same story happened in the USSR. I looked at what he did with that. I envied him. Due to the fact that he works in a culture that has long named and described a lot of things by their names. Conditionally speaking, he doesn’t need to describe a room. He just tells the address and everyone understands where the heroine came and what is waiting for her. We have to describe everything – the house, the room, the area. We also have to explain, why it is this way and not another.
“The war made great-grandsons of the Holodomor finally stop being ashamed to speak the way they were taught at home”
What is important for us to talk about now, understanding the situation in which we are now, the country we are measuring, the state we are building?
Everything is important. At each step, we have something worth talking about. Our society does not have its own “mirror”. We were talking about books – about the importance of the reader’s “mirror” for the writer after writing a book. Our entire country “doesn’t see” itself: straight to the point when 2 million people go to Maidan it won’t work, we won’t see how many of us – those who think the same way. In Ukraine, only elections are the only form of a referendum, where one can trust the sociometry to some extent. It is possible to have an impartial measure of public opinion – yes, on a very partial question, but at least it is something. In fact, we are having incredibly important, incredibly interesting and civilizationally really huge processes – and all this is happening blindly. Let me start with the thing that let’s say, professionally itches me. In fact, there is no linguistics in our country. I am not speaking about the Institute of Linguistics, which deals with the problem of genitive case in the works of Yakov Bash ( the literary pseudonym of Yakov Bashmak, Ukrainian Soviet writer, died in 1986 – the author’s note) or makes dictionaries – well, it is also a necessary thing. However, I professionally lack another thing. They study surzhyk (mixed sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in Ukraine – translator’s note), and it is known that it is different. But we do not have a linguistic picture of our society, we don’t know how we really talk. That is why Alexander Roytburd can say that “half the country speaks Russian”. Emotionally, of course, I may want to give him a good punch, because I know that it’s a lie. So, these speeches from above about “half the country”, and nobody is accountable for his words, happen because there are no impartial figures. Putin can say “17 million Russians”, he also may say 70 – and that’s it, “try to prove”, as they call it. When nothing is measured, nor examined, or studied, it is possible to lie anything about this unexamined and to troll: try to prove! We don’t know our real language situation. And it is changing. It is empirically visible – the language pattern of cities is changing. In the past few years, rural youth for the first time I can recall have ceased being afraid to speak in Kyiv in their own way, as they do at home with parents. I heard this orthoepy of the dialect on the streets, which I miss so much. My native language is literary Ukrainian. Some time ago, it was a knockdown for me when Vasyl Herasymiuk said – well, you’re from Kyiv, your language doesn’t smell. Language does not smell! There is this feature in me – a yearning for a dialect that I have never had. So now, I hear around this orthoepy, which I can’t reproduce. I hear that it’s a rural language of Kyiv’s suburbs, which I had heard only from elderly women at the market. Now I hear it from young people, and I understand that these children of the suburbs and villages, came to Kyiv and they no longer turn to Russian, they are not ashamed of their home language. The war made great-grandsons of the Holodomor finally stop being ashamed to speak the way they were taught at home. However, this is just one moment, only one facet of our linguistic spectrum, there are only clues! For example, nobody registers or analyzes the waves of Russian-speakers transition to the Ukrainian language. How does this transition take place, and it happens differently for Russified in the second or third generation Ukrainians, ethnic non-Ukrainians, who, for example, have lost the “language of ancestors”, and for ethnic Russians – in a completely different way. How interesting it is, and how gladly I would read such a book of stories, confessions, interviews, not to mention sociolinguistic analytics. What’s triggered here, how does this happen? The ample, grandiose, colossal life is blossoming around us, not tracked by anyone. From the Syan and to the Don, from the Berestya region and to Odesa region, this fat sea of beaten, broken, defiled, clogged, but an awfully lively language is boiling. How does this clogging happen, through the TV? Nobody tracks this process as well. This should be measured by linguists in non-stop mode – it is such a thermometer, put under society’s arm! In Ukraine, the article “Language and Authorities”, which Zabuzhko wrote in 1990, is still relevant. The country was simply “paused”. It seems that they were waiting for the “Russians to come back”: in the meantime, we will steal as much as we can, and then back to the Soviet Union again. Everything was “in the meantime”. 27 years were “in the meantime”. There will be no more “in the meantime”. For during this “in the meantime” there was a natural, uncontrolled, measured by no one organic social development. Thank God that it was not measured because if it was, perhaps somewhere in Moscow some Surkov or Dugin would have “figured us out” and began directly “firing” at these areas. So it turned out that not only we didn’t know ourselves, but the enemy did not know us as well. However, it’s time to get out of this “underground”! Unique processes are happening now – Shevelov predicted it, he was an incredibly wise man (George Shevelov, Ukrainian-American Slavic-linguist, historian of Ukrainian literature, an active participant in the scientific and cultural life of Ukrainian emigration, Professor at Harvard and Columbia Universities). In 1991, he had wonderful text-books on how, in an independent state, Ukrainian would cease to be equal to only ethnic phenomena when an alien element arrives at the Ukrainian culture, the influx of “other blood” to structures that were initially “closed” and ethnically Ukrainian. It happened in the 1920ies – a strong culture attracts others… and melts. How does this remelting of otherness happen? We mentioned Odesa region, speaking about your poly-ethnic melting pot… once I wondered how many Ukrainian surnames, anthroponyms, are actually ethnonyms – Lyakh, Lyashenko, Lytvyn, Moskal, Tatarchuk, Tsyhanchuk, Zhydenko, Uhryn, Serbin, Turchyn, Nimchuk, Hrechuk Voloshchuk, Nohaiets… These are all Ukrainian surnames. Who were all these people who came to us from different lands, settled down here, and whom Ukrainians digested, assimilated? Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were also reminded that they were Voloshchuk (Romanian), Uhryniuk (Hungarian) and so on – the descendants of a foreigner. What a colossal assimilation power our nation had! These surnames are a marker of how to treat a stranger – we accept you, we absorb, assimilate you and you become our guy, your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are already one of us. The word “tolerance” has been over-hyped recently, and I do not like it. Because tolerance is a disease of the body. When a body tolerates something, it means that it has no immune barrier. Let’s look what’s happening right now. We’re sort of glad that Kyiv becomes a regional center instead of Moscow, somewhere I heard it even from officials if I’m not mistaken. It’s true. However in practice, among other things, this means that all the children of the former Soviet country who had previously traveled to Moscow will now go to Kyiv. This is also true, it is happening, and we see it. We see an incredible amount of shawarma bars, which previously hadn’t existed at all. Only last year about 200 restaurants of the Caucasus cuisine have appeared in Kyiv. Well, this is the issue of political screams and fights. We still have no plans what to do if tomorrow, let’s suppose Russia will collapse. Are we ready for this? For the time being, we see a bunch of diasporas that live with us here on sufferance. We don’t have a Ministry of Absorption, which would take care of migrants. In Israel, it exists. We are accustomed to the fact that we are a homogeneous society, a homogeneous country. Are we ready for changes – are we ready to digest, assimilate hundreds of thousands, or even millions of foreigners, while being disturbed and unsure of our own identity? We’re still not standing on our own feet, we are still rachitic, we still barely hold our head. A new level is coming, a challenge, and it’s already here! So, now all that has not been talked over for the previous three generations affects us greatly. We still don’t know how the Holodomor and all these deportations of the twentieth century have changed demographics. We don’t have a coherent picture of these changes. Conditional “foreigners”, autochthons, and the former colonial administration are still in the same proportionately identical positions, as they were in the USSR, and the question of their loyalty to the Ukrainian state has never been questioned for 27 years. It can’t be this way anymore, it’s time to choose. Children of the colonial administration must also choose and realize that they won’t be colonial administration. As Ukrainians, those kids, if they connect their future with Ukraine, will have to give up some of their privileges, which they inherited from their KGB grandpa. Some of them are ready to do this. By the way, I offered and even discussed it with some representatives of state… I was shocked by a comment on my Facebook, in a discussion about the participation of Ukrainians in the colonial wars of the Soviet Union a woman noted that her father was engaged in sabotage on the territory of the Latin America in 1970ies. So she wrote: “I’m not proud, but I remember.” Back then Russian “I remember and I’m proud” was heavily discussed. And she turned it upside down. Well, isn’t it brilliant! Let’s talk about it. Well, will we continue to look away shyly? However, society is really changing, very dynamic processes are going on indeed. It’s easier for me, I’m an artist (laughs ) and I can think with images. As for society as a whole, we all need markers, arguments, facts, figures. It takes dozens of dissertations, hundreds of popular books – these are topics for institutions for many years to come. We need to work really hard on it. To build a country we want, we all need to be loaded with work now. One of the reasons why I get so frustrated when I hear from all sides: oh, what should we do, many people are disappointed. Damn, do something! Are you disappointed? Do you have time to be disappointed? I do not have it, I have a hell of a lot of work to do.
When I’m asked what has changed in the country, I have a very simple and obvious indicator. Even before 2013, I had a lot of tours around Ukraine. So, before the war in the Intercity train, there were only a dozen of us in the first class car, in any direction. The country was stuck, the country wasn’t traveling. Now, where there was one train, there are three of them a day and tickets must be purchased a week in advance for any class. What kind of damn changes do you need? What indicators? If they travel that means the business has come to life, and domestic tourism has begun to develop. Filled up trains are rushing back and forth – it is called gathering the country, that very country which was deliberately divided, where everyone was sitting in his region, and you could tell that person from a local TV that somewhere there the Right Sector has already burned everything down and is going to pay a visit to him, and that person believe. Everybody is moving now. The movement has commenced! This is the indicator for me – the empty cars of 2013 and the cars of a present day, for which it is impossible to buy tickets. Behind this one image, there are so many facts that you can reflect on them for a long time. This is another country indeed. Therefore we really need a mirror, which I am talking about here so that people could see themselves. For they are still affected by TV screens that hammering in their heads – raped, killed, stabbed, terrible road accident and one good news – a little panda was born in the zoo – all this creates an atmosphere of annoyed dissatisfaction. Then some kind of Tymoshenko or, God forbid, Zelensky pops up and people say – screw you, I will vote for Zelensky, at least it will be fun.
“In the prodigious drama of peoples an extraordinarily serious and central role has been marked for us and we haven’t even started to prepare for it yet”
I would like to be a little younger today. There is an incredible amount of work. Or to live longer have vigor and health. We exit the last century, where we shouldn’t have existed, we are entering now our own century, in which we must exist and where in the prodigious drama of peoples an extraordinarily serious and central role has been marked for us and we haven’t even started to prepare for it yet. For everything, we’re doing is intuitive, everything is spontaneous. It is time to turn on your head because now it is about strategy. We are in the center now; Ukraine is at the forefront of a serious, big world battle, which will reformate humanity tremendously. I’m sure that in the next decade, the world map will change. We are that very solar plexus, a knot where the history is made. We are assigned to very serious civilization tasks. In the words of Vyacheslav Lypynsky, who quoted one wise Galician peasant: “I Guess, Mr. God wants to make a very sharp and good ax out of us if he strengthening us so tough”. In 2014-15, we were able to withstand, but our trials haven’t ended, they go one by one. We walked over the abyss, even though we had to fall down. Everything was set up for our fall.
What keeps Oksana Zabuzhko afloat and gives optimism?
I don’t know whether it’s optimism. But it’s such a pleasure watching the progress of history and being able to take part in it! We were talking about Kyiv – the dead city of 1970ies, in which nothing had happened. When in October 1990 I first saw students’ tents at Maidan, back then the October Revolution square, there were young people on hunger strike, they were 5 years younger than Solomiia Pavlychko and I, so I told Solomiia: listen, this is a new generation. Just 5 years of difference – but they had a normal, socially-full youth, which we never had. We did not have a sense of sociality at all, we had to grow it in ourselves, from one Maidan to another Maidan. Well, Russians still don’t have it. Since 1990 – this is the distance in just one generation! Keep in mind, this happened against the background of new global threats, which we haven’t even discussed with you. We haven’t touched education, the fact that entire humanity is made more and more stupid. About what is my book Again, I am Getting into the Tank – about this global information war, in particular. About shelling of the brains, the decay of connections in the human mind, the generation that turned to gadgets. The generation that has a memory of an aquarium fish, which can’t keep in mind the long sentence of Zabuzhko, about the tunnel space of attention. Well, there is a direct link between what the country reads – and how this country votes for populists. You have to read books in order not to follow the conditional Trump, Kaczyński or Zelensky… This is 21st-century warfare. A war for the brains. For many years, I have been monitoring how countries with different percentages of erudition behave. I see different algorithms of behavior in them. If the Czechs have the same erudition level as in Scandinavian countries, Zeman does not turn them down, he doesn’t! Poland, paralyzed in front of PiS and it turns out that people there read less, at about the same level as in Ukraine. Well, we are the nation that does not read at all. We’re fighting the book market back for four years. And what have we won? Only the range of Ukrainian book has expanded, the print run hasn’t changed. We haven’t expanded anywhere: who read previously – reads now, there are no new readers. We don’t have a propaganda program for reading, proper educational programs. However, on the other hand – when you come with a presentation to Kharkiv and Dnipro and someone from the audience asks you: how have you withstood it, knowing what was prepared and that the vast majority won’t understand you? So, you are crying from happiness – for you have such marvelous, wise, clever readers… It’s a sin to moan, I have always felt the reader’s support. There was no voice in the wilderness. It happens, of course, that you want to give up, you think – why the hell are you writing it? Then someone picks it up and it suddenly works. It’s like dust that seems to be in the air, it seems to be absent, but it is there. So to the question of “what to do?” in my opinion, Bernardyni order came up with the best answer. They have a motto – Ora et labora, pray and work. In my opinion, it is very optimistic.
By Zoya Kazanzhy