Some time ago I translated into English a number of texts for kulturaenter.pl, a Polish edition that publishes an annual report on the condition of culture and NGOs in Ukraine. Among the texts, there was an essay by Oksana Zabuzhko. It was perhaps the most difficult to translate but, at the same time, the most interesting.
Ukraine: Europe’s Underground
If you know that the Lufthansa logo was created by the Ukrainian graphic artist Robert Lisovsky who emigrated to the West with the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, worked in the traditions of the Kyiv avant-garde of the 1910s-1920s and died in Genève in 1982, then you are a Ukrainian. There is no other explanation for your knowledge. The cultural presence of Ukraine in the European space still, in the 21st year since our country appeared on the political map, remains almost invisible – and usually is not recognized by non-Ukrainians. Even such widely known things as borsch and varenyky are not an exception: most of my acquaintances born to the west of the Oder had been convinced, before they came to Ukraine, that borsch is a Russian dish and varenyky are of Polish origin.
An attendant at the Leipzig Museum der Bildenden Künste, having answered my question regarding the whereabouts of the Oleksandr Arkhypenko’s work (The Portrait of the Wife with an ornamented socle, a wonderful pattern of Ukrainian Art Nouveau), hastens to boast that they have “other Russian artists” (!) as well. In Vienna, you will be gladly shown the monument to Yuriy Kulchytsky who familiarized Europe with coffee after the 1683 battle with the Turks but he will be called either an Armenian merchant (?) or a Polish nobleman (there is a kind of logic here, at least to the extent that Ukrainian kossacks really fought under the standards of the Polish crown in the environs of Vienna at that time!), and you have to go as far as Lviv, to the coffee-house with the historical (from the very Kulchytsky) name Under the Blue Bottle, to hear an exciting story about the Zaporozhian kossack Yuriy Franz Kulchytsky-Shelestovych who after having been held captive by the Turks appeared to be at that time perhaps the only one in Vienna who was able to realize that lots of sacks filled with some black grain that had been found in the Turkish camp were not camel forage at all… It goes without saying that Ukrainian song folklore was “taken to pieces” a long time ago: Semen Klymovsky’s “Yikhav kozak za Dunay” (18th century) as the result of Beethoven’s initiative was turned into the “Russian minka”; Marusia Churai’s “Oy ne khody, Hrytsiu” (17th century) was turned into the American “Yes, my darling daughter” (Helmut Lotti sings it in Ukrainian now, it’s true, as “Lutshje bulo”, but in a Russian album!); and only professional musicologists know that Gershwin’s “Summertime” is in reality a jazz version of a Ukrainian lullaby in arrangement by Oleksandr Koshyts. Among all Ukrainian composers, only Mykola Leontovych, killed by the bolsheviks in the same 1920, was lucky in the afterdeath: at least his “Schedryk”, though under the name of the “Carol of the Bells”, has not lost its Ukrainian “passport”.
In fact, there is much more “Ukrainian dust” in the cultural air of Europe than one can imagine, but it is in no way associated with the image of Ukraine. Theoretically, this is certainly the fate of all nations that have been for centuries deprived of their own “political roof”: the winds of history scatter away everything that is not secured – and another, more careful master for such things is always at call. Strictly speaking, whole Ukraine, from a geopolitical point of view, lies not secured, “on the beaten track”, according to a baroque song: on the route “from the Varangians to the Greeks”, at the eternal crossroads of differently directed civilizational influences and transit roads, “sewing” them up with her very self and melting them together. If there’s a will, one can find here everything as if at a flea market (it’s not in vain that “a fair” became, following Hohol’s example, a metaphor of Ukrainian national culture!): the Scythia of Herodotus, late antique settlements, Byzantine churches, medieval towns, traces of many ruined empires and originally remelted styles, from cossack baroque wooden churches to constructivist experiments of the same avant-garde of the 1920s (the multifacetedness which the USSR never managed to level!); as for today, a huge, “wild” fair of riches that are registered and preserved by nobody, a house without the master and with the inhabitants that were in the course of the whole last century weaned from the very idea that they can be masters here, as if it were the most terrible political sedition, weaned by means of the strictest selection (now by Stalin, now by Hitler, now by the Gulag, now by an artificial famine, and always and invariably by the colonial schooling).
It is certainly not possible to correct such a situation in 20 years of independence. Especially when the independence is still rather relative since, in informational and cultural respect, Ukraine remains, so far, a Klondike for the markets of neighbouring Russia, and the struggle of Ukrainian musicians, filmmakers, editors and many others against the dominance of Russian “guest performers” for “their territory” – namely for radio and TV broadcasts, stage and distribution areas, shelves in bookshops – is a real long-lasting epic saga that will be recalled by our ancestors some time due to news reports in the media as the chronicles of a long guerrilla warfare (when even art festivals are named if not “The Last Barricade” then directly after the national liberation struggle heroes, “Makhno-Fest” or “Mazepa-Fest”, though, one would think, what have Makhno and Mazepa to do with that?). In a certain sense, Ukraine has not yet come out of the underground, not only for the outside world but also for herself, what is much more important; the process has, for some valid reasons, taken longer than expected.
On the one hand, due to the colonial experience of the last two centuries the Ukrainians have learnt to live “bypassing” the state. In case of need, that is to say, when the state starts to “bother” them, the Ukrainians can organize themselves rather well, in an entirely guerrilla way, but, as a rule, for one-time actions and not for the systematic ones; the Orange Revolution is a classic example but the same pattern is one of the main driving forces of social life though certainly on a smaller scale. Accordingly, when a popular writer comes into conflict with the absolutely unpopular education minister and loses in so doing the state prize for a newly published historical novel, an “all-national movement” starts in the Internet on the same day in order to make the writer up for his loss, and the necessary amount (equivalent to 30,000 euro) is gathered on a purposely opened account in just a few days, and the novel after being severely criticized by the minister becomes one of the bestsellers of the year – all this is a typical algorithm of a culture accustomed to exist in the mode of chronic resistance. All the most interesting and most creative things in the cultural life of Ukraine in the last 20 years – modern art, new literature, theatre of “small forms” – have been developed within the limits of a “self-created” infrastructure, of small and middle business, so to say, that is, in a guerrilla way too. It is quite impossible, however, to protect the national product and to take care of the national heritage in a guerrilla way, bypassing the state, and if the state does not perform these functions then there will sooner or later arise the question of how much the state is representative in respect to its country.
And it is just here that our main problem comes to the foreground – the problem of the Ukrainian ruling class that resembles a closed oligarchic club more; both Ukraine and the average European citizen, who is guilty of nothing, has to watch two business clans – that of Donetsk and that of Dnipropetrovsk – making war within this club.
The class mentioned above was formed as a result of the fusion of the Ukrainian Soviet bureaucratic establishment and the criminal capital of the 1990s and is consequently marked with the “genetic defects” of the both. In the last 20 years, it has created in Ukraine its own subculture patterned on that of neighbouring Russia, an aggresively consumerist one (the very first thing that astonishes visitors from abroad in the streets of Kyiv is an incredible number of costly cars which cannot be even compared with that in any other European capital!), with two rather powerful industries, that of sport and that of show business, the latter including the subculture of “political simulacra”, from talk shows (ironically, given the name of “The Liberty of Speech”) on the three most influential national TV channels where the speakers of the two belligerent clans wage “ultimate fights” live to staged political rallies with crowd scenes that are paid-up (a constant source of income for the poorest population groups, i.e. for students, pensioners and homeless). The country is seen by this class above all as a business that has to be profitable; consequently, the representatives of this class promote above all their own interests in all fields of state management: what we have here is not even corruption in the classic sense but the mere fact that yesterday’s boys and girls from Soviet proletarian quarters are quite unfamiliar – and this is a matter of principle – with any other values except the power of money (as the same unpopular education minister said touchingly, “our national idea is welfare” – and was immediately answered by the student movement: “Speak for yourself!”). The most visual evidence of the extent to which these persons (it is just they who are identified, in the eyes of the West, with Ukraine not only politically, but also culturally and symbolically, in view of the lack of other recognizable images!) are, in fact, “foreigners in their own country”, is provided by new architecture in old towns. In Odesa, the shabby façades of old buildings loom black wall to wall with tall business centres gleaming with glass and chrome; in Lviv, a new bank building is shamelessly stuffed into the ancient ensemble in the course of restoration; even in the historical heart of Kyiv, the thousand-year-old St. Sophia cathedral, a miraculously saved from Stalin’s “architectural devastation of the city” gem of Byzantine architecture and Mazepa’s baroque, now is reflected, at full height, in the mirror walls of a Hyatt hotel: welcome, dear guests!..
“We’ll survive it, – an elderly teacher told me reassuringly not long ago; as far back as the times of Brezhnev he did his seven years of camps and five years of exile and now lives out his days receiving a pension of 200 euro per month. – All these things are passing, and Ukraine is eternal.”
I love my country too and I’m never tired to wonder at her invincible vital force. Through the smoky fumes given off by the feast of the nouveaux riches, she gives me dozens of evidences of this force every day, as well as dozens of reasons to be proud of her. How, in spite of the lack of even minimal conditions, can such a beautiful performance appear? Where have those excellent young poets sprung from, poets who speak to halls for 500 persons packed with listeners, and those young activists of protest movements that bring me another petition against raider seizure of a historical building to sign, and those inspired crowds at rock concerts, and, in general, all this warm, lively, meaningful life that pulses largely beyond the focus of TV cameras, stubbornly ignoring the total dysfunctionality of the Ukrainian state with all its simulacra?
I just feel sorry for Oleh Kiraschuk, the pysankar (Easter eggs master) whose ornaments were “in a piratical way” used by Gucci in the 2008-2009 collection: there was nobody who could defend his work. And while Kiraschuk himself is genuinely glad that his pysanky, even though anonymously, “went into the world” (went out of the “Ukrainian underground”, well… ), I’m sure he would be glad much less if he knew that traditional Ukrainian painting was this time announced – no, not Russian or Polish as before – but Persian Gypsy (!). Indeed, Ukraine is inexhaustible.
Oksana Zabuzhko – born in 1960, one of Ukraine’s major contemporary writers, the author of nineteen books of different genres (poetry, fiction, essays, criticism). She graduated from the department of philosophy of Kyiv Shevchenko University, obtained her PhD in philosophy of arts, and has worked as a research associate for the Institute of Philosophy of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Zabuzhko’s books have been translated into Bulgarian, Czech, Dutch, English, German, Hungarian, Italian, Persian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Swedish, Turkish. Among her numerous acknowledgements are Global Commitment Foundation Poetry Prize (1997), MacArthur Grant (2002), Antonovych International Foundation Prize (2008), Ukrainian National Award “The Order of Princess Olha” (2009), and many other national awards.
© Andriy Masliukh, English translation, 2012.