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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

Valentyn SYLVESTROV: “Read Shevchenko, until it is too late”

The outstanding contemporary composer on the current events on Maidan, moral standards, and on which Shevchenko’s works Putin must read
13 January, 2014 - 15:41
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

Our conversation with Sylvestrov is unique. It is his first interview in the past few years. Of course, we talked about Maidan, and a bit about music. Our conversation took place on the day when the subway stations in the downtown were closed because of an anonymous call about them being mined. People, unable to get home the usual way, crowded in underground passages near the subway, cars stood in long traffic jams. The snow, which melted during the day, turned into a solid skating rink. All this added special absurdity to that night. On our way to the Dukh i Litera Publishing House, where Sylvestrov’s book Dochekatysia muzyky (Waiting for Music) was published last year and where our interview was to take place, we had enough time to talk about the mining, about the toppled Lenin statue, about Maidan, about people, government, and Berkut. Sylvestrov also comes to the main square of the country. For example, one could meet him near the conservatory building one Sunday. And also, because of the existing situation, Sylvestrov decided to post online a cantata which he wrote back during the Orange Revolution. It is no less relevant right now. The composer brought Kobzar along to the interview. One could see that the book is read often. Sylvestrov opened it at the right page and said:

“To the Dead, the Living, and to Those Yet Unborn... is an overture to our events. ‘Come to your senses! Human be, or you will rue it bitterly!’ Everyone must read this poem nowadays.”

This is how our interview started.


So, 170 years have passed, but Taras Shevchenko’s work is still relevant, especially in the current situation.

“This is a unique case in history, when a poet became not only a symbol of struggle for independence, but a symbol of Ukraine. All through words. He even wrote a line: ‘And I will put the word to guard them.’ Shevchenko’s relationship with the word is biblical, his work is closely related to the Bible in general. Biblical attitude to the word is important. He had a very strange fate: he was basically an artist, but it was poetry that became his disaster and his fate. Had he not taken up poetry, he would have lived an ordinary life. He could have been a nice artist with a lot of commissions. But poets, they have to deal with the word. And it turned out in a way that his poetic word was not just of literary nature, even though it looked as if all initial conditions for it were present. His poems are like psalms, he is a psalmist. He is not a poet in that literary sense as, let us say, Pushkin or Lermontov. He is different. He did not strive for the beauty of style, he had a completely different task.

“Perhaps, his poetic works contain plenty of flaws, but this is his unique feature. Two of his poems, Caucasus and The Dream, are absolutely unique. You read Caucasus now, and you realize it describes everything Putin has done. Every word is in its right place. And it is not only political truth, when Shevchenko speaks it, he predicts some disaster. And I would like for everyone to read To the Dead, the Living...:

Come to your senses! Human be,

Or you will rue it bitterly:

The time is near when on our plains

A shackled folk will burst its chains.

The Day of Judgment is at hand!

Dnieper will speak across the land;

Hundreds of streams will surge

in flood

To bear along your children’s blood

To the blue sea,. . .

Nor man nor whelp

Will offer you the slightest help:

Brother will turn from brother wild,

The mother will forsake her child;

Thick clouds of smoke at noonday


Will hide the sunshine from your


And your own sons, for all your


Will curse you to the end of time.

[Translated by Constantine Henry Andrusyshen and Watson Kirkconnell. – Ed.]

“So, here is the attitude of the sitting government towards the people. And this is the answer to them: ‘Come to your senses! Human be.’

“I am a musician, not a politician. My ear is accustomed to picking out false notes. And what is a false note, if we talk not only about music? It is falsity in the voice, the untruthful speaking. Two years ago, when an unjust judge tried Yulia Tymoshenko’s case, I saw everything back then already, everything looked indecent. It was a frame-up. The falsity of judges was obvious. I gave an interview to TVi back then and said: I can be wrong, but I see the faces of the opposition and the government: the faces of the opposition are natural and truthful, and the faces of the government are unnatural and lying.

“I hear false intonations. For example, the president’s intonations. Besides all those errors that show, for example, that he has not read a single book in a long while, his intonation gives away a poorly educated person. A person with such a biography could not have won the elections. His biography is ‘hats and earrings.’ Obviously, a person can make mistakes at a certain age, and it can be forgiven. But this insurmountable love continues. It moved from stealing hats and earrings to stealing votes. He wins presidential elections when half of the country voted for Tymoshenko.

“At the latest shows hosted by Savik Shuster, government representatives’ faces resembled those of naughty kittens. Artificial faces, dead eyes. Shamelessness is openly demonstrated here. But our president still can fix, nullify everything, before it all becomes his final testimonial. History shows that even prominent saints often had turbulent youth, they sometimes even committed crimes, but then they changed. Any other person can do the same. They can get things straight. What government is doing now smells really bad. In everyday life, any normal person can see if a fellow is fooling them. But here, the president is fooling the whole country! You can see it!

“All of this reminds me of a bad operetta, where theatrical villains sing songs about ‘improvement’ and ‘reforms.’ Spawn so many Berkut fighters and then fling them at peaceful citizens! I have a feeling that our president is not a president of Ukraine, but a president of birds of prey, an ornithologist!

“Isn’t it clear that the mining of subway stations was set up by these monsters? And titushky? Sportsmen at least have dignity, but those are all shameless bastards! Do you think that the people are that silly? Read Shevchenko, for God’s sake! And Putin should read Caucasus, let it be translated into Russian for him, if he does not understand.”


You say that Yanukovych has a chance to get on a righteous path. How should that happen? What should he do?

“These are the steps of his consciousness. And I hope, he has some of it left, since he crosses himself in church. There are requirements that are voiced by Maidan to our president now. There are steps he must take immediately: punish the guilty, release the innocent. He must understand that those serving him, his party, are toadies. Scoundrels are to be punished, but toadies are intimidated, dependent people. Or let us look at Mykola Azarov, he should be spending his retirement fishing, he can’t even say a sentence in Ukrainian. And this person says that on the night of November 30, there were no students on Maidan. So, it turns that toadies have their own toadies, and they serve untruthful information, which is passed on higher without verification.

“What are the strengths of our president, what is he good at? His appearance and physique are good, he looks impressive. But if you take a closer look at his actions, and then listen to his voice, doubts start arising. What would my advice be? It is in a form of a joke: the president needs to go to a Moscow Patriarchate monastery and be put on bread and water. In this way he can save his soul. Soul is more precious than a palace in Mezhyhiria.”


But today we see Maidan and that “the point of no return” has already been passed, so Yanukovych must make a decision of some kind. What are the possible scenarios of the further development of Maidan and the country? A Colossal amount of energy is accumulated there today, what should it be directed at, what should be done not to waste it?

“I do not know. The government’s actions look bad for Ukrainians. Come to your senses! Any normal person sees this foulness. It says it in big letters that is FOULNESS. And this mining of the subway... It should be said in subway over the speakers: ‘Due to the mining of the subway by the Party of Regions...’ It should be pointed out who is behind all this. It is obvious, it is clear who will benefit from it. And false faces of prosecutors and judges, it is a shame to look at all this.

“I was on Maidan now and in 2004, and I saw this energy. People are different, but they do not have anger, they rather have irony and sarcasm. Even calm contempt, I would say. It is when you do not even consider it possible to talk to a person like that. On Maidan we see calm contempt in combination with humor directed at Yanukovych.

“And Yanukovych should not even think about some punishment if democratic government wins. Because the essence of democracy is that it is not bloodthirsty. It is its weakness and its strength.

“You can expect anything from those beasts and monsters. For example, they can start a case on a coup, and the judges will pass a ‘right verdict.’ The only hope is that now our situation is open for the European space.”


What makes you personally attend Maidan?

“Like any other artist, I am rather an individualist by disposition. But there comes a moment when you just cannot but take to the streets. And here a very dangerous situation arises. It is one thing when I take to the streets, just like other adult individuals, who can control their emotions. And a totally different thing with young people, who are extremely sensitive to injustice and lies. When the regime outrages the people with its foul, disgusting, bold-faced, stinky actions which are total and pervasive, this raises such a wave of resentment that you start losing control. However, it is essential that you keep it. Politicians should be aware that the young have an extremely acute ethic feeling: I can remember myself as a young man. Young people might fall for such provocations. It is dangerous. We should be aware of this. It could result in such extreme acts as, God forbid, self-immolations or terror attacks. So, ‘Come to your senses! Human be,’ and read Shevchenko before it is too late.”


In the foreword to the book Dochekatysia muzyky we read your words: “In art there are irrefutable, personal things, but on the other hand, there are things which are written in the ‘generalized’ zone. They perform an auxiliary function: to impress immediately, to create an immediate effect, to win over at first glance…” You speak first and foremost of art. Yet it seems to me that this zone of “doing things in general” spreads to all aspects of our life. In particular, to the nation’s political and social life. You have been to Maidan. What sorts of things are happening there?

“On Maidan true things are happening. This is a moment of truth. We have had various maidans: the language Maidan, the entrepreneurs’ Maidan, but they all collapsed, evaporated, came to naught. This time around everything is different. This Maidan is different. It even looks different: it does not accept only one particular category of people. Here entire Ukraine is represented. And if you look closer, very many people are better educated than politicians, those from the Party of Regions in particular. The people are already victorious.”

You have said that music is born from silence. Silence, stillness as the reference point. Are people today (in particular, those who speak today from the podium on Maidan) aware of the importance of silence, stillness and, consequently, of the value of each uttered word?

“Certainly. Take, for instance, the words by Archbishop Liubomyr Huzar, which he said from Maidan’s podium on December 8: ‘Work as if everything depends on you, and pray to Lord as if everything depends on Him.’ Every word matters.

“Not ordinary people, but the nation’s moral leaders address the president: Myroslav Popovych, Liubomyr Huzar, and others. They are speaking to him, but he won’t hear them: he listens to his toadies. Free people, artists address you, Mr. President, but you only have ears for Putin, with his rotten reputation.”


Do you think musical works can change our consciousness? Last year, for example, Leonid Hrabovsky said in an interview to The Day that all of Johann Sebastian Bach and all of Gustav Mahler are music that help man kill his inner slave. What should be sounding on Maidan today to inspire people and tune them in to the same wavelength?

“On Maidan? I don’t know, really… At home you can listen to anything, starting with Mikhail Glinka and Kyrylo Stetsenko. If you love classical music and listen to it, you need not kill your inner slave: he is already dead and gone. But Maidan is something special, such things will not fit in there. Maybe it does not have a very high music quality yet. Maybe it has not yet become part of its conscience. However, every popular song did not become a hit overnight, it needed multiple replays. Perhaps, it might be worth playing Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude on Maidan. It is more compact and not as large-scale as Beethoven, it takes only about two minutes. Speaking of Beethoven, there is an ideological nuance here. Beethoven was played at Yushchenko’s inauguration. It was also revealing. A piece of Rachmaninoff’s concerto was played, Skoryk’s Melody, a fragment of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9. However, the singing was in German, and it was a mistake. Besides, it is no fault of Beethoven’s that this piece come to be associated with some troubles. But as far as Chopin goes, yes, why not play a Chopin?”


Today we can hear people complaining that Maidan has been turned into a dance-party or a song festival. That is to say, people need music to keep them warm at night, and its functions in this case boil up to one thing: entertainment. But is it really so?

“I witnessed a moment of something very live, when the entire Maidan sang ‘Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.’ It was something special. I want to say that Ukraine’s national anthem is amazing. At first it seems to have no effect, but it is only a superficial impression. In fact, it was written by Mykhailo Verbytsky, a church composer of the mid-19th century. He lived in Austro-Hungary and, probably, was fond of Schubert: he had such a gift for tunes, you can hear that in his liturgies. So he wrote this patriotic song as a church composer, too. This is nothing but a warming up exercise, hallelujah (hums along). You won’t find this in any national anthem! This is a unique piece: it is Ukraine’s national anthem with elements of a mass. Somewhere in this anthem there glows a memory of a liturgy, of vespers. This free tune brings to mind the blowing wind, the rustling trees.

“In the very beginning of that first Maidan, on November 24 a guitarist was singing, mostly English lyrics. And suddenly he sang ‘Chervona Ruta,’ and this song sounded as the most patriotic one. Firstly, there is not a single word about politics. Secondly, it has very good lyrics, a true Ukrainian language, a living language. Besides, a very felicitous tune. He sang it, and it was immediately clear: this is the song. The language itself, the precious language, lyrics, melody: this song by Ivasiuk has it all.”


How do your fellow artists see the events of today?

“The colleagues I speak with take these events the same way I do. In my reactions I am not just some musician, some artist, but a man who did not vote for Yanukovych. Neither did half the nation, in general. What I don’t understand is how the people in government still fail to realize what they have done. I will repeat myself: I would advise Yanukovych and Co. to read Taras Shevchenko’s poem ‘To the Dead, the Living, and to Those Yet Unborn...’ and the biblical Sermon on the Mount. Any moron can make a sign of the cross, but reading these things takes not only intellect and education, but also wish and will. Now our president’s behavior is not the behavior of a politician. It is the behavior of an individual busy with his own petty affairs, who does not watch television in the evenings. Pity.

“Anyone with a conscience can see this moral falsehood. You don’t have to be a musician for this, and have a perfect ear to hear all these false notes. Your conscience is your moral tuning fork.”

P.S. “I watched Yanukovych’s press conference after his return from Moscow. He spoke to the journalists in a serious and sincere manner. However, I was left with an impression that his frankness had purely personal motives. For instance, he said this just thing about the family: ‘…it is important that everything is good in the family…’ Yet I have a question: maybe he only meant his own family? Is this the source of his sincerity?”

P.P.S. “Meanwhile, on December 20 Prosecutor General looked roguish when he came to the parliament. What sort of independent judiciary do we have? Down with such ‘prosecutors’ and ‘justices’! It is actually them who the riot police should be dispersing.

“By the way, why cannot they still find and punish those who beat up the protesters? Maybe because the president himself ordered to clear away Maidan? We can find a similar scene in Shevchenko’s poem The Dream: the tsar punches his first minister, the minister punches the following in the line, and so punches are passed on, down to their own ‘riot police.’”