I must admit that it was not my idea to interview Ekaterina Barabash. It was an assignment given to me by Den/The Day’s Editor-in-Chief Larysa Ivshyna, who long time ago has paid attention to Ekaterina’s straightforward, sometimes desperate anti-Putin posts on social media and deeply respects the Russian journalist’s honest and well-articulated civic stand. It also turned out that Ekaterina is a daughter of Yurii Barabash, who authors insightful literary criticism works about Ukrainian writers and whose oeuvre is well-known and appreciated by Den/The Day.
These arguments were the reason why I called my colleague whom I had known for many years, and it was a pleasure for me to talk to her.
Ekaterina is an intelligent and well-educated woman, and her self-irony will give you a belly laugh. Besides, she’s quite uncompromising, tough, and straightforward in her civic stand. It doesn’t matter in which country your true friends live.
Over the past five years Ekaterina has been working at the Interfax news agency. She was a diligent employee and had a chance to take a high office at the company, be it not for her Facebook posts where she unequivocally declared her pro-Ukrainian anti-Putin stand.
One of her first publications after the Crimean referendum reads: “I want to ask a question to those who are now rejoicing that Russia has returned Crimea: do you really think that changing the color above a piece of land from yellow-and-blue to three-colored one was worth of what we got in the result? Don’t you understand that two nations fell out with each other forever? That hatred fuelled on both sides has knocked the rubberneck and yellow foam has covered everything around and for many years ahead no flower or grass will ever grow here? That huge amounts of lies, rudeness, insults, and hatred were poured down on a whole country for the demonstration of force and grabbing this piece of land, and it was done, by the way, not by a handful of marginals, the Right Sector, but from the TV screens to merry yells of the crowd? That everyone is glad to feel the smell of the blood, shed by the Heavenly Hundred, because the leaders of the wolf pack so badly needed this smell – the pack rushed to tear what hadn’t been torn before. And now there are no bigger enemies than Russians and Ukrainians, and they seem to remain so forever. Do you understand this, elephants in the china shop? People say: this is politics, it is never ethical. That’s right. The war has rules of its own – that’s right too. But some take the wounded to the medical battalion, and some other – to the nearest ravine, to finish them there.”
Past summer Ekaterina Barabash resigned from Interfax at her own will. It was a formal action, because in fact she was given a choice: freedom of speech or work. She chose the freedom of speech. Today she jokes that she is a proud freelancer now: she cooperated with the Russian office of the International French Radio (RFC) and publishes her articles on a Russian website takiedela.ru as well as the magazine Ukrainsky Tyzhden. She is a frequent guest to Kyiv, so we had a talk over a cup of coffee.
“TOBACCO AROMA IS THE KHARKIV OF MY CHILDHOOD”
I’m ashamed to admit that only during my preparation to the interview I learned that well-known literary critic and publicist Yurii Barabash [a winner of the Shevchenko National Prize in 2004 for his monograph If I Forget You, Jerusalem… Hohol and Shevchenko: Comparative-Typological Studies. – Author] is your father. How did your connection with Ukraine influence your attitude to the events in our country?
“Let’s start with the fact that I was born in Kharkiv. But when I was five months old, my father (at that time he was the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine Prapor) was invited to work as first deputy editor-in-chief of Literaturnaya Gazeta and we moved to Moscow. Although I have been residing in Russia for my whole life, I have always felt my roots. Probably the reason is that as a child I often visited my grandparents who lived in Kharkiv. They lived in a single-family house in inner suburbs of the city, there were apple-trees and pears in the yard. I was 12 when my grandparents moved in with us, and I immediately started to feel nostalgic (chuckling), but I have always associated Ukraine namely with this house, with the smell of aromatic tobacco growing on the flowerbed.
“I should pay due to my parents: they have never lost connection with Ukraine. They are Russian speakers, but they speak Ukrainian very well, they know and love the language. That is why I have always felt that I have two homelands. When there was the column ‘nationality’ in passports, I asked to write down that I was Ukrainian, probably, to please my parents and my first (or second) homeland. And before 2014 my two homelands were living peacefully in me: I was born in Ukraine, I am living in Russia, I have studied here, my son was born here. By the way, nine years ago he moved to Ukraine, bringing the Barabash surname to the country, and now he resides and works in Kyiv.”
Do you understand Ukrainian?
“Of course, since my childhood. My grandfather from Kharkiv was a real Ukrainian from Sumy oblast, Romny. He spoke Ukrainian. He was joking, telling anecdotes into my ear. I heard Ukrainian in the markets where the adults took me. I heard it at home, in Moscow. Because guests from Ukraine came to visit us, my father often spoke Ukrainian with his colleagues on the phone. When my parents were younger, they often sang the songs ‘I’m looking at the sky,’ ‘The night is lit with the moonlight,’ etc. My father read Shevchenko’s poems to me. Moreover, I always knew how the Ukrainian flag looked like, although it ‘didn’t exist’ in the USSR. So, Ukraine has always been present in my life.”
“BEFORE MAIDAN MY SON WAS DEPORTED FROM UKRAINE”
Did your parents felt comfortable, when they moved to Moscow? Didn’t they have an inferiority complex?
“My father as an educated man adapted to the life in Russia absolutely normally. My mom (she is a philologist too) was working at the Goskino, at Mosfilm, she started to make the country’s first TV series (back in the USSR). She was respected and she didn’t have any complexes. But with my child’s sensitivity I have always felt certain despise to Ukrainians. For example, when everyone started laughing and joking about lard and vodka, whenever I said a Ukrainian word on my return from Kharkiv. More ‘knowledgeable’ classmates made jokes about Bandera and fascism. At that time I didn’t understand much of what they were saying, but I felt very much offended. I felt clearly: in Moscow they didn’t like anyone different from them. Especially, in terms of nationality. At that time I didn’t hear anything of sexual minorities. The louder the slogans about the ‘one united Soviet nation’ and ‘all nations are equal in our country,’ the clearer it became that there was no equality whatsoever. I started to understand this in my childhood.”
How did your parents react to the Ukrainian Maidan and the events that destroyed the peaceful relations between Ukraine and Russia?
“You can guess. It was twice as hard for them, especially for my father, because with age (he is 85 now) he started to feel a stronger connection with Ukraine. He feels homesick. During Maidan events he felt especially separated from his home. The thought that he is living in safe, but aggressive Moscow, while his compatriots are suffering and fighting with Russia, is still worrying him. This is a very difficult situation for him.”
Was anyone from your family staying in Ukraine during revolution?
“My parents were not here because of the age. Unfortunately, because of family circumstances, I wasn’t here either. My son at that time was deported to Russia. If he were in Ukraine, I would have left everything and came to Kyiv.”
Why did they deport him?
“For the preparation of Maidan (laughing). It happened when Yanukovych was in office. I think Yura is like me, he has a firm civic stand. He didn’t like that power, he took part in the protests. Most often as a photographer. His photos were published in Ukrainian press. Apparently, someone traced him, and when my son went to Moscow again to see us, he wasn’t let back. They showed him an SBU decision that he posed a threat to Ukraine’s security and they deported him for five years. Yurii stayed for seven months in Moscow. After the power changed after Maidan, the ban was cancelled, and he immediately returned to Ukraine.”
“ADEQUATE PEOPLE DON’T MIX THE NOTIONS ‘FATHERLAND’ AND ‘YOUR HIGHNESS’”
You visited Kyiv before the revolution and after Maidan. In your opinion, as a neutral person, has our society really changed after those events, or we are simply creating a utopian picture of new Ukraine we would like to see?
“It is hard for me to judge, because I don’t know many political realities of your country. When I came to Ukraine in mid-March 2014, everything was destroyed in Khreshchatyk, barricaded with tires, there were tents. I could feel the revolutionary elevation and mourning for the dead. When the war in the east of Ukraine broke out, I visited a small touching exhibit of children’s drawings for the ATO servicemen at the Museum of History of Kyiv. I immediately recalled how we were told that during World War Two kids were making something to send to the soldiers to the front. There were many billboards featuring portraits of soldiers, cyborgs with their call signs. I could feel that I came to the country where there was war underway.
YURII BARABASH WITH HIS GRANDSON YURII BARABASH / Photo from Ekaterina BARABASH’s private archives
“Time has passed, and on one of my visits I found out to my surprise that everything was disappearing: the portraits on the billboards, the boxes to help the ATO servicemen in all shops and restaurants. Previously, in a taxi I would hear radio and felt like I was listening to a report from a battlefield. All of this has disappeared now, and at first I didn’t know whether I should be sad or glad about that. On the one hand, the war doesn’t seem to be present in everyday life, the city started to live a peaceful life. On the other hand, the war is still underway (for how many more years? One, five, fifteen?), people are killed, and on both sides of the front line there is backwater. Of course, I understand that Ukrainians remember about the war every day.
“I should note that when I return to Russia, and people start asking me about the ‘fascist regime’ and the hatred all Ukrainians feel to Russians, I always say, ‘Go to Kyiv and you will see that any Ukrainian-speaking person, if s/he sees that you don’t understand them, will switch to Russian. I tell them how on the anniversary of Maidan many people were shouting, ‘Russia, we are with you!’ (they meant: Russia, join us in our fight!) For me it is important that most Ukrainians have a strict division between the Russian government and the Russian people. Although a popular belief is that 86 percent of population in our country support Putin, there are many adequate people who understand that you shouldn’t mix ‘fatherland’ with ‘your highness.’ There is cynical power and thinking people.”
RUSSIAN HABIT IS THE HABIT TO SERVE
I have no doubt about this. I have many friends in Russia (both real, and virtual ones) who express their opinion on the social media, for example. These people evoke huge respect, because we all known what can be the end to their honesty. They can be banned from profession (like documentary director Vitaly Mansky), fired from their jobs, like it happened to you. You understood that your position was vulnerable. Even when you expressed your solidarity with Ukraine, couldn’t you avoid criticizing the Russian power?
“No, I couldn’t. I think that the freedom of speech is in possibility to write text with any level of criticism. I can give any assessment, in terms of taste, morality, any other, except for the political and administrative ones. This is unacceptable for me. A person who will tell me what to say and what not to say hasn’t been born yet. They tried to explain: since the information agency Interfax is working with news, it should be in good relations with all newsmakers. That I was offending the minister of culture and other officials, which is why they will refuse to talk to such a journalist. That because of such conflicts the agency loses a lot of information. If this is the current situation in Russian mass media, we have to adjust to the newsmakers, who are doing one stupid thing after another, one bad thing after another, then I don’t need such journalism. I simply cannot exist in such journalism.”
In your opinion, is the level of conformism that allows not lying and remaining in the profession possible in current Russia?
“It’s different for everyone. For some it is five centimeters above the floor, for some it is above their head. Everything is individual. For example, I cannot work for the state. No matter how many times they tell me that you are paid so you must fulfill certain requirements of the authorities, I know for sure that this money belongs to the citizens. The state is only distributing it, but for some reason the government thinks it is the owner of the money. I don’t need to receive a salary from such a state. I cannot work in the governmental mass media, even working in culture (today it is in the frontline of ideology) is unacceptable for me. But they don’t offer me any jobs now (chuckling). I know many colleagues who share my pro-Ukrainian anti-Putin policy, but at that same time they are working in the governmental mass media. I cannot blame them, these people simply can find ways and remain decent at the same time. I cannot do this.
“Speaking about the television, of course, the Culture TV channel can be distinguished. However, now they start the news with official reports: Putin receives the minister of culture and the minister of energy, Medvedev went somewhere and gave some award, Medinsky opened an exhibit. But on this channel there are many educational shows, which are interesting to watch. As for other federal channels, they show either politics or tasteless TV series or shows, like ‘Let’s get married.’ That is why people who own a TV set (I don’t have any) prefer to watch cable TV. My parents have a paper, where they wrote down the shows they like, channels No. 55, 86, etc.”
Are there any private publications in Russia that dare deviate from the “party’s line”?
“I can name The New Times magazine which doesn’t have a printed version anymore. It continues to function, they have their own course and their own preferences, to which the editors stick. Novaya Gazeta. Its contributors write things others don’t. I’m thankful to them for this.”
Can the notorious letter to Putin in support of the annexation of Crimea be called conformism? I asked many of those who signed it why they did so, the answers are predictable. But I still don’t understand: why did our former compatriots – people who are famous, talented, and independent (I don’t tell the names, because I think it’s a misunderstanding) – need to do this three years later? What is your opinion?
“Conformism is fear. If not for the team you head, then for yourself. This is the situation when people who seemed decent started to act mean. This is a psychological puzzle. Incidentally, in that list there are many Ukraine-born people, I call them ‘former Ukrainians.’ It would seem strange, but in fact it’s a specific kind of nostalgia. Apparently, it’s an offence they feel to the country that allowed them to leave. Like revenge to former lover – see what I’ve achieved, and you didn’t appreciate me. The list included Dmitri Bak, the head of the Literature Museum in Moscow, who needed new premises. He comes from western Ukraine.”
Maybe. But there were people with flawless reputation in the list (or at least I thought so). For example, the head of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts Irina Antonova who has worked there for over 50 years. Actually, she has immunity already. Why did she need to cast a blur on her reputation?
“Just in case. They all are ‘Belikovs.’ In his time Chekhov said genius words, ‘Just in case something happens.’ This is the Russian habit, to serve. Even intelligent people have broken. Irina Antonova is a great woman, without doubt. But she has worked in a state structure for her whole life. It isn’t known whether she would have kept this position, if she expressed opposition beliefs. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why it was so hard for me to work at Interfax. All people who signed the letter were newsmakers. I could phone any of them, talk on any topic, and then the news would be placed on the Interfax newsfeed, or the website. After the letter in support of the annexation of Crimea I couldn’t talk to them anymore. I couldn’t shake hands with them. No matter how much they tried to persuade me that they are responsible for theaters, museums, and orchestras, I cannot accept such arguments. There is always a choice, and everyone makes it independently. History remembers Janusz Korczak, who was responsible for the children, and orphanage. He followed them to the concentration camp and died there.
“I know people who didn’t make a compromise. Our famous director was threatened to refuse funding to his film, if he wouldn’t sign the letter. He didn’t sign it, but he received the funding. So those who accomplished these assignments are simply indecent people, and also cowards. They probably thought that it would be easier to allot a big sum of money for a picture than settle another row.”
“KYIV HAS A SPECIAL ENVIRONMENT, THE EXPRESSIONS ON THE FACES OF THE PEOPLE ARE DIFFERENT”
What is going on in the Russian culture today, for example, in cinema?
“The situation is very sad. Last year’s Open Russian Film Festival Kinotavr, which I attend to watch the best films from the ones shot over the year’s time, was a sad show this time. They were showing films that were released based on the new system of state funding. The picture is depressing.
“No doubt, there are talented film directors in Russia, such as Andrey Zvyagintsev. But he has a good producer, Oleksandr Rodniansky. Aleksandr Sokurov gets funding from the West. It is practically impossible to find private investors in Russia these days, therefore no one can make films without state support. And the post of the minister of culture is occupied by the man who is obsessed with pseudopatriotism, statehood, and the glory of the Russian weapons. He knows nothing about culture, but he has also surrounded himself with non-qualified and stupid assistants. After all, they are shooting either patriotic, or entertainment films. I don’t want even to speak about the first category, as for the second one, they simply are unable to make such films, which is why our audience is satisfied with Sarik Andreasyan’s films [A Pregnant Man; Office Romance. Our Time; Unforgiven. – Author], compared to whom Fedor Bondarchuk seems Spinoza in cinema.”
When the situation is so sad, what is the source of your joy?
“Many things. I love life very much. For me a glass, even if it is empty, is filled with wonderful emptiness at which you can look as at an abyss and imagine what could be there, if the glass was full. You cannot do otherwise in Russia. This is the only way.
“In Ukraine I feel joy because of my son, my grandson, and beautiful Kyiv, although it is developed in a very ugly way. It is wonderful that there are people here with whom I can speak freely and calmly.”
Can you feel the atmosphere of inner freedom?
“Kyiv has a special environment, the expressions on the faces of the people in the street and in public places are different. Your people drive in a different fashion. We are not used to people saying at a checkout, ‘Thank you for your purchase. Come again.’ In Russia people are narrow-minded, very aggressive, and arrogant. It’s terrible.”
Are you speaking about Moscow or Russian provincial towns too?
“In small Russian towns the atmosphere is different, of course. The aggressive people have left. Those who have stayed (they cannot leave or don’t want to) value the place where they live. This is not a dogma, of course they are people who grow with television and they are sure that Crimea is ours. But not all of them. Frankly, I don’t know, where did they get this number, 86 percent? I hear more often criticism of the current policy rather than support. People with brains see and understand everything.”
Have you ever thought of leaving Russia?
“There is nothing more important than internal freedom. These are not empty words. There is a concept of ‘internal emigration,’ it helps me more than leaving the country. Of course, like many Russians, I have thought about it: why didn’t I leave in time? Let’s see what happens next. I think it’s never too late to make such decisions, if you want it and if you’re strong enough.”
For whom is it good to live in Russia now?
That’s unexpected. Why?
“It is good to live because life is inside you. There are books, family, friends. I’m not responsible for Putin, Medvedev, for anyone who started and is leading this war with Ukraine. I’m not ashamed of what I do. I have a possibility to travel and meet with wonderful people. Therefore I can say for sure – it is good to live. Even in Russia.”