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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Lina Kostenko in Sevastopol

The poetry competitions marking the poetess’ jubilee, held in Ukraine’s various regions, create a “space of mutual understanding”
20 May, 2010 - 00:00
Photo by Mykhailo MARKIV

Only then is an individual a human when they are part of a people.

Lina Kostenko

Fate decreed that I visit Sevastopol in late April – ostensibly to take part in the final of a competition in honor of Lina Kostenko’s jubilee. As the event was held in Sevastopol, I had to travel to southern Ukraine in order to meet those who esteem true poetry in that complex Ukrainian city. After all, even the slightest attempt to instill Ukrainian culture in Sevastopol needs support. Sevastopol is such a unique Ukrainian (so far?) city that the yardsticks of other cities or regions cannot be applied to it. It is during my cultural and educational mission that I learned about the signing of the Russian Black Sea Fleet agreement.

Viktor Yanukovych’s gesture is in itself quite clear: we are coming increasingly closer to (being annexed by) Russia. The debasement of society is becoming worse. Very soon there will be no historically-thinking people left in this country except perhaps for those on portraits in classrooms. After all, what else can be expected from Yanukovych, who is actively carrying out his program in Ukraine? Why didn’t the previous Ukrainian president do as much as lift a finger to wrest Sevastopol from Russian control? Why did state authorities allow Russian secret services to feel at home in Sevastopol? Ukrainians account for only one-sixth of the city’s total population – just 65,000 people.

Ukrainians in Sevastopol are living in an intellectual and spiritual ghetto. Ukrainian language and literature teachers working there are either saints or kamikazes making immense sacrifices to prove in classes that the Ukrainian language is not the invention of Austrians or just the patois of Galician rubes.

There is no law in Sevastopol, there only is the truth – a great truth from the Russian imperial table. OK, it is easy to criticize history and politics. But what has been done since 1991 to promote the Ukrainian language, instill respect for Ukrainian speakers, and ensure inter-ethnic tolerance in the city? Only once in all the years of independence did actors of the Kyiv Ivan Franko Drama Theater bring Ivan Kotliarevsky’s Ukrainian Aeneid to Sevastopol…

Meanwhile, the Russians did their best to instill their culture, educate the youth in the “right” ideology, protect the monuments to Soviet glory, and foster respect for the great Russian language. The same Russians did their utmost to develop the infrastructure of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which thus became the city’s main sector, employing most of the able-bodied population.

Every year graduates of the city’s secondary schools can apply, on a privileged basis, to the most prestigious universities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Who is “luring” our graduates?

The main reason why I visited Sevastopol was to take part in the final stage of the competition “The Talented and Erudite in Sevastopol” held under the slogan “Only then is an individual a human when they are part of a people.” The contest took place in late April to mark Lina Kostenko’s 80th birthday and the 10th anniversary of Mykola Vladzimirsky’s Internet portal “Ukrainian Life in Sevastopol.” The contest was organized by the Education and Science Directorate of the Sevastopol City Administration, Sevastopol Humanitarian University, the Institute of Continuing Education, the Ukrainian Cultural and Informational Center, and the Ukrainian Sevastopol civic committee. Among those who assisted in holding the contest were Vitalii Osadchy; Ihor Vozniuk; Mykhailo Kuzmeniuk, head of the Leninsky District League of Entrepreneurs and founder of the Sevastopol-based wonderful Museum of Western Ukraine’s Ways of Life; Levko Lukianenko; Roman Koval, Myroslav Mamchak; Bohdana Protsak, chairperson of Sevastopol’s League of Ukrainian Women; Larysa Kopan; Mariana Savka; and many other good people.

On April 2, 2010 (incidentally, The Day Taras Shevchenko was freed), Sevastopol’s Ukrainian Cultural and Informational Center hosted the award ceremony. School and college students of Sevastopol had been vying for a month to be proclaimed the best connoisseurs of Lina Kostenko’s oeuvre. The prominent Ukrainian poetess’ jubilee became an event that was able to rally people together despite difficult conditions, stop animosities, and prompt people to reflect on the true values of life.

The return of the Poet has raised a lot of questions: in what cultural and historical context is this comeback being made? Is it a post-Soviet context? Neo-totalitarian? Plebby? Vandalism? “A new politico-economic system has formed in a society that in fact existed for at least three centuries in the conditions of never-ending genocide, ethnocide, and linguicide. It is a society that saw the destruction of the ethic foundations of internal and external communication and, especially in the Soviet era, the destruction of the very ethics of work, i.e., the set of moral criteria for a viable society. This determines its historical vitality and the constructive potential of its presence in other contexts.” (Oxana Pachlowska, Ave Europa!)

It is, after all, this state of political bacchanalia that forced Kostenko to come back to her people no matter how painful and bitter such dialogue may be in the times of post-modernity. The surreal existence of the “Ukrainian poet” Anton Chekhov, and the morally devalued Word, appeared at a time when Ukrainian schools are being closed and Europe is informed about Ukraine via the images of the bacchanal drag queen Vierka Serdiuchka and the good Samaritan girl Alyosha…

It is this that seems to have forced Lina Kostenko to say on March 22:

What flyblown annals!
What wretchedness is called a chance!
Unfortunately, I am slowly becoming dissonant even in this country.

Why is the Poet becoming dissonant? Which are the groups with whom the Poet is dissonant? The new-old authorities? The people? This raises far more questions. “Hard times are always my times,” Kostenko notes. She is returning to literature after many years of silence to shape a new model of Ukrainian culture. As is known, Soviet culture was not only an anti-national but also an anti-cultural culture which disregarded the spiritual void. The twenty years of Ukrainian independence have created a different kind of void – when any word spoken by a politician is devoid of value and exists in a system of double standards.

Conversely, holding such competitions in the Crimea is an attempt to break the vicious circle of problems and launch a dialogue with young Ukrainian people who do not want to become diluted in the sea of lies and false ideologies offered by both “sincere patriots” and overt representatives of the fifth column in Ukraine. This is an attempt to conceive a high-profile project of Ukraine and the Ukrainian nation which will, in spite of regional differences, bolster respect for the nation’s culture. It is perhaps easy to hold such contests-cum-celebrations in Lviv or Lutsk, but it is not so easy in Sevastopol, a city that was considered for centuries as a bastion of Russian autocracy. After all, the Ukrainian government has totally failed in the past 18 years to form an alternative socio-cultural environment in Sevastopol. They should have done so, for we are running the risk of turning Sevastopol and the whole Crimea into a non-Ukrainian territory. As a matter of fact, Ukrainian culture is already alienated in today’s Crimea, as is the Ukrainian language.

We often live, “deaf to the land beneath us.” These words of Osip Mandelstam have become a tragic motto for Ukraine in the past few decades. Neither the presidents nor the elite know anything about their own people. The nation is becoming an ephemeral notion only used in election campaigns. So the Poet becomes the only source of the Truth in this situation. For hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian schoolchildren, teachers, and educators, Lina Kostenko still remains a person “from another world,” i.e., a world of probity, morality, and ethical responsibility. We can also recall a witticism of actress Faina Ranevskaya: “I am too old to remember decent people.” Naturally, Lina Kostenko is not old because neither the Poet nor the Word can grow old. Yet this lady has managed to keep her integrity in a world of double standards and historical (un)truths. And now that Ukraine’s socio-cultural dimension has reached the acme of its schizophrenic surreality and absurdity (monuments are being built not just to Catherine II but also to Stalin; the President of Ukraine breaks the law of Ukraine, saying in public that the Ukrainian Holodomor was not an act of genocide), Lina Kostenko’s Word is perhaps the only world in which an individual can find themselves and become a Human.

When politicians were swanking about and talking of “independence,” the independent Poet set off to Chornobyl to save Ukraine from the radiological plague. It is not accidental that Lina Kostenko resumed her literary pursuit in the year of the end of Ukrainian democracy (in these “hard times”), although most people believe that she had never abandoned literature: in her silence, she was much more expressive and majestic than thousands of loud-mouthed pharisees.

Lina Kostenko’s silence was heard in Sevastopol. I was convinced of that during my week-long sojourn in the city, which is now a “ghetto” for Ukrainian culture (with a few exceptions). Never before had I felt such a driving energy in meetings with educators – Ukrainian language and literature teachers in this city are out to make an all-out effort to keep Ukraine Ukrainian. Our political helmsmen have done their utmost in the past 18 years to disunite Ukraine. Whenever you see a live broadcast from Sevastopol in the Schuster Live or Big-Time Politics with Yevgeny Kiseliov TV programs, as on May 7 this year, you can clearly see a wide mental difference between Eastern and Western Ukraine. In Schuster Live on May 7, Sevastopol residents showed placards reading “Russia, we are with you!” Another TV screen showed Lviv residents who chanted “Shame!” These two projects of Ukraine have nothing in common except for their level of aggressiveness.

This is the result of the Ukrainian state’s ruinous policy aimed at perpetuating discord rather than cementing a common identity.

In the present-day “format,” Ukraine will never manage to enter the European civilizational sphere, for in Europe every nation respects others and the “right of someone else to be different.” For many in Sevastopol, the Ukrainian language is still a Galician invention, the language of a small segment of Ukraine. Ukrainian speakers are second-rate residents of Ukraine (read: “boors”), who must under no circumstance come to power. This is why Sevastopol teachers, who are trying to instill in children respect for themselves and others, have to persuade them that Ukraine is not “the outskirts of Russia” on a daily basis.

As I have already said, my visit to Sevastopol to attend a Lina Kostenko jubilee contest coincided with rather sensitive political events which showed that Ukraine is very far from being a rule-of-law state. I am referring to the Russian Black Sea Fleet deal. Against this background, all debates on the vectors of present-day Ukrainian culture and the proliferation of “postmodernism” in Ukraine look comical. Postmodern culture in Europe is a reaction to the modern situation, a critique of modernity, and an introduction of such philosophical constants as “tranquility” and “renunciation of long narratives.” Meanwhile, our country can see the beginning of a new struggle for survival, making it difficult to speak of postmodern conditions. While the world is fighting terrorism (for this reason, it is also difficult to speak of postmodernism on a global scale after the September 11 attack), the struggle in Ukraine is against the Little Russia complex, parochial thinking, and provincialism. Great hopes are being pinned on literature. Again, the Poet, born to “draw birds with a silver pencil on a linen cloth,” is to be the defender of their people. At least in Sevastopol, most of our discussions with educators boiled down to the problem of ethical benchmarks which Lina Kostenko’s poetry offers to young people. Is it good or bad? I think every epoch will make its own conclusion. Indeed, it is difficult to speak only about deriving pleasure from artistic estheticism and perfection, when the very rights of the Ukrainian language are threatened. I hope this vicious circle will be broken some day.

So let me repeat that holding such competitions in Sevastopol is an attempt to break this vicious circle and begin a dialogue with the Ukrainian youth in search of their identity, and who do not want to get lost in the sea of lies and false ideologies. It is an attempt to form a joint project of Ukraine and the Ukrainian nation which, in spite of regional differences, will respect the culture of its state.

The competitors received a letter of greetings from Lina Kostenko’s daughter Prof. Oxana Pachlowska, holder of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the Rome-based university of La Sapienza. She said: “I know that Sevastopol saw, from March 19 until April 19, a number of events aimed at popularizing Lina Kostenko’s poetry among young people. These included contests, quizzes, and computerized competitions. Similar events took place in Donesk oblast and other regions of Ukraine. But what is being held in Sevastopol is an especially high-profile cultural event. It is also very important and significant for us, Kyivans. It is a great joy for all those who are professionally linked with Ukrainian culture as well as for those who simply love and respect this culture. For poetry can give us a chance to meet, come to know each other, and build a space of mutual understanding and cultural enrichment. Let us communicate frankly and sincerely. Let us work on unearthing the many strata of Ukrainian culture by forming a common unbiased view of our problems independently of political speculations, transient vogues, and the ghosts of the past. You, young people, are entering adult life. There is an unbounded world before you. By your birth, your youth, and your mindset, you belong to a different world. Europe is waiting – an interesting and multifaceted cultural world, where nations, which once fought each other, have managed to create the space of a true friendship, respect to one another, freedom and wellbeing, a space of the life ‘of the free with the free, of equals with equals,’ to cite a 17th-century Polish-Ukrainian formula.

“I do believe in your ability to shatter the stereotypes of the old system and look at the world with a fresh and victorious glance of free Europeans. Learn many languages and see different cultures. And may a ‘hyacinth sun’ rise above you, the sun of love, truth, hope, and trust in our fatherland’s European future and, hence, trust in your own future, a future of free and conscientious citizens of Europe.”

Olha Bohomolets, a Meritorious Medic of Ukraine, presented the competitors with her double album “Hyacinth Sun” and “Rain in the Face 2,” which contain songs based on Lina Kostenko’s poems. She also sent a greeting: “The profound interest of competitors, especially the young people, proves that the formation of a new generation which is aware of its own roots and is developing its culture. Each participant has displayed love for the oeuvre of Ukraine’s outstanding poetess, diving into the philosophical and lyrical world of her poetry. I wish you to carry this knowledge all through your lives.”

The competition’s opening also included fragments from the dramatized version of Lina Kostenko’s Berestechko, put on by a few years ago by the Rivne Oblast Theater and starring Volodymyr Petriv as Bohdan Khmelnytsky. This production won the Shevchenko Prize in 2005. Oksana Prykhodko, a Rivne-based theatrical critic and literature researcher, told the competitors about the work on this play, discoveries of the stage director, and the link between the best traditions of Les Kurbas’ theater and this production. It was agreed that Sevastopol residents will soon see this production with their own eyes, when Rivne actors come to the city. Naturally, the visit of Lina Kostenko herself would be the best treat for Sevastopol. The competition jury chair, poet Ivan Levchenko, confessed that on his way to Sevastopol he had written a poem dedicated to Lina Kostenko:

I wish from the bottom of my heart
That your poems, Ms. Lina, would fly like falcons
Over Sevastopol in springtime,
Fly high above us over the Black sea
I wish we would plunge with them
Into the whirlwind of true springtime songs,
And live without treacheries and venality.
I wish the world of poetry would not wither in our daily routine,
For your genes. Ms. Lina, are still pulsating in them…

This poem became the motto of the Sevastopol competition. It would be wrong to say today that Ukraine, and especially Sevastopol has suffered a defeat. Defeat befell those who have decided that Ukraine is just an illusion. There are some people in Sevastopol who live by breathing the ozone of Lina Kostenko’s poetry. It was gratifying to see dozens of faces who, aware of their vulnerability in their own land, grasped every word of freedom, for these young people want to live in a European Ukraine which respects its culture, history, and people. I still hope that Lina Kostenko will find time to come to Sevastopol – and this will be a true explosion that can change the course of a struggle for Ukraine in Ukraine. Sevastopol is so far a Ukrainian city. There still are people in Sevastopol, who live with the idea of Ukraine and know the price of freedom – a freedom that is life itself.

Dmytro Drozdovsky is on the staff of the journal Vsesvit and the Kyiv Mohyla Academy