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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

What kind of civilization we would have had it not been for Sandarmokh

Oksana ZABUZHKO: We are living in a never-ending Ruin
7 February, 2012 - 00:00

The publication of ten-year-long (1992-2002) correspondence be­tween Oksana Zabuzhko and Geor­ge Shevelov was one of the major book events last year. As for our news­paper, one of this year’s intellectual events was the discussion of George She­ve­lov’s article “Moscow, Ma­rosei­ka” (written in 1954 in Boston) which The Day printed in English translation on De­cem­ber 29, 2011. Oksana Za­buzh­ko is convinced, incidentally, that this article should be part of the school curriculum. It is about the question of being able to appreciate Your Own and Reasonable, as well as about knowing how to read, after all. The writer said that George Shevelov’s study-room library is now in Japan. He willed his book treasure to Hokkaido University under the guarantee that the library will not be disbanded. Shevelov’s books are one of the world’s largest private Slavic book collections.

It would have obviously taken a special meeting to speak with Zabuzhko about Shevelov, but we found an occasion to communicate with the writer – it was Den’s action “Sandarmokh List” and the topic of overcoming the totalitarian legacy.

Actually, Den also had other questions to Ms. Zabuzhko.

You last granted an interview to Den as long ago as 1999. Tellingly, many of the problems you discussed have remained unsolved. And the headline is very significant: “Where there is no chivalry, the Mob steps in.”

“Which exactly happened: I must have had second sight… You know, this is also part of the writer’s trade. Nietzsche had such a concept as ‘a quarter of an hour earlier.’ The writer must perform this anticipatory function – to shape linguistic moulds for what is still ‘hanging in the air’ and which the greater part of society only feels at the level of under skin itching. But, in general, the better the writer is, the longer are the ‘15 minutes’ by which he leads his society.”


Do you think Ukrainian literature has coped with this in the past two decades?

“Ukrainian literature has had somewhat different tasks in the past two decades – it had first to learn to survive in market conditions and it has successfully proved its viability in this field. What sets the most ‘long-term programs’ to the nation is not modern literature (it will only show its effectiveness in the course of time) but classic literature which is in dire straits now – nobody just knows it! In general, it is one of our greatest dramas (I am fed up with saying this for so many years) that we have failed to bring back our cultural heritage over the 20 years of what we call independence.

“The Ukrainians are being reproached today for ‘forgetting how to read.’ But have they really known how to do this before? Not in the least, the notorious Soviet ‘culture of reading’ was based on the fact that it was parti­cularly nothing else to do that country. Books were cheap and easily accessible, while there were acute shortages of the other benefits of life. The book was in fact a diversion from a life that consisted for the vast majority of Soviet citizens of monotonous daily rituals, an ‘improved-type prison’ of sorts. The only way out was to read and live somebody else’s life. The collapse of the Soviet system opened innumerable other, previously inaccessible, opportunities and, accordingly, threw away that ‘involuntary reader.’ So I am personally not inclined to mourn over this loss.

“But the real drama is our cultural unconsciousness and failure to understand that it is impossible to imagine a cultured person, particularly, a cultured European (it is a vogue in this country to speak of European values, although nobody can explain what this means) who does not know where they come from and what tradition is behind them. From this angle, the Ukrainians remain totally virgin, as they were in the Soviet era. As for the classics, I do not think it will be an exag­geration to say that 90 percent of our contemporaries consider classics as something that is taught in schools and then easily forgotten. After all, even if somebody wants to read it, they will not find it in bookstores – it is just not published. Meanwhile, it is the classics that spelled out the long-term national programs we are carrying out today, without even realizing this. Incidentally, not a single Ukrainian classic, except for Shevchenko, has ever had a complete collection of their works published until recently (I am saying ‘until recently’ because a Skovo­roda volume recently came out with a laughable print run of 300 copies). For me, this fact alone overrides all the laments over what a weak president we have. I am sorry, but a nation that has managed to read, poorly at that, only one of its many illustrious classics deserves to have this very kind of president.”

What long-term “programs” does Ukrainian literature offer?

“There are lots of them. But to see this, one must know the texts. For exam­p­le, everybody must have read After Two Hares. So the ‘program’ of Svyryd Holokhvosty and Pronia Sierkova is exactly what the present-day Ukraine is: a totally nouveaux riche-style culture with all its complexes (‘Just strutting down Khreshchatyk and scorning everybody’). On the one hand, it is logical: we are a postcolonial country, we have everything ‘in the first generation’ – the first generations of money, independent journalists, and free intellectuals. ‘Nouveau-riche-ness’ is by itself no crime, but it becomes a problem only when ‘there are no role models’ for it. Just look at the 19th-century classical European novel: all the nouveaux riches of Balzac and Maupassant, whom the authors mock at, all that brand-new (‘dirty-faced,’ to quote Karpenko-Kary) business elite which replaced the ‘old’ aristocracy, were still looking back at and even learned something from the latter – from sponsorship to the culture of parliamenta­rianism. Instead, our post-Soviet ones know no ‘brakes.’ Ten years ago I heard a Ukrainian MP say a phrase that amply explained to me what was on that class’s mind. When we were talking about the ‘middle class,’ and I cited Ly­pyn­sky, it turned out that the Ukrainian lawmaker had never heard this name before and when I remarked that it was a shame that a politician did know about a classic of national political thought, he uttered without a moment of hesitation: ‘There are no role models for me in Uk­rai­ne.’ Here is the unforgettable Pronia Pro­ko­pivna who ‘stayed at a boarding school for four months and did all scien­ces’ – what can you explain to a person like this? Starytsky’s characters fully expo­se our today and make the diagnosis of a nation that has no self-respect, does not know what it should be proud of, and is ready to run after every ‘French in-thing’ without being aware of how miserable all this looks. And it is only one example – do not forget that neither Starytsky nor Karpenko-Kary belong to first-line authors, while the latter offer far more wide-scale, ‘long-playing,’ ‘programs.’”

Obviously, somebody is to blame for the fact that the nation does not know what it should be proud of even 20 years on – for example, journalists who have wallowed in political mud instead of getting back to Lysiak-Rudnytsky. Why do you think the Ukrainians have not restored their cultural heritage?

“There are some both objective and subjective factors. Before pointing an accusing finger, I would try to follow the presumption that all that is going all is not accidental. What kind of a role model can there be for Pronia Prokopivna and Svyryd Petrovych in their Kozhumiaky? To restore its cultural memory, society should have a socially prestigious stratum that will carry out this restoration. Among those who have preserved this stratum are, for example, the Poles, Hungarians, and even, partly, some of our ‘USSR brothers,’ such as Georgians and Baltic people. But in Ukraine things went differently. The ‘old’ elite was destroyed almost completely, while the new, Soviet, cultural elite was too weak – it was only capable of helping the former nomenklatura ‘update the governmental discourse’ in the first years of independence, i.e., replace the communist vocabulary with a ‘national pat­riotic’ and populist one. Do you remember how many poets were in the first parliament? It is from them that our new, independence-time and postcolonial politicians learned ‘new words.’ But these elites were also deprived of memory, for they were not bearers of the tradition that was cut short in the tract of Sandarmokh. That was essentially the first-generation intelligentsia – peasants’ children educated at the Soviet school. There were, clearly, some old-school remnants (I could see them alive), but they were accustomed to keeping silent: they had been taught to do so in all their lifetime and they had no access to the channels of societal influence. So there could have been no systemic transfer of knowledge in Ukrainian so­ciety except for perhaps in the family or, at best, in the narrow intellectual circles.”

Although society is injured and sick, Den often manages to find some “living islets.”

“Of course, there are a lot of them.”


And they are perhaps arousing hope that restoration is possible. What do you think the program of overcoming the totalitarian legacy should consist of?

“I wish somebody had drawn it up in the early 1990s! This program should have been part of the government’s cultural, informational, educational, and humanitarian, in a broad sense, policy. Our former communist-camp neighbors went down this very path. On the other hand, history left them much fewer Augean stables to clean than it did to Ukraine. From this angle, our 20th-century history is incomparable to the history of Poland or the Baltic states. No other post-communist country was in the condition Ukraine was in the late 20th century, when it gained indepen­dence in a third attempt only.”

You recently said in a Radio Liberty program that the 75th anniversary of mass-scale executions of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in Sandarmokh one of the chief events in 2012. And Den proclaimed 2012 as Sandarmokh List Year. Why do you think Sandarmokh is important today?

“It is very good that you have been highlighting this subject since the past year. Constant dripping wears away the stone. Well, from the very beginning.

“We should begin with the Holo­do­mor. The Ukrainians are supposed to have amply discussed this topic. But, while society has said ‘a,’ i.e., honored the me­mory of the dead, it did has not yet said ‘b,’ ‘c,’ etc., until we understand that today’s corrupt Ukrainian state is a direct consequence of the 1933 genocide. The year 1933 hammered an unshakable matrix into the consciousness and subconsciousness of those who survived: you can only survive if you steal from your collective farm, and the one who can steal more will be better off. And in 1991 those who ‘could steal more’ took hold of such a ‘collective farm’ as the entire Ukraine from which they began to plunder wealth and carry it ‘to their own house’: this ‘third generation of victims’ just could not have a different, state-centered, ‘managerial’ mentality. And whether ‘their own house’ is a 600-square-meter area with a hut and a pigsty or an offshore account on the Cayman Islands is a purely quantitative, not qualitative, difference. We have failed to become aware of this ‘continuity of times’: it seems to young people that this ‘was long ago’ and has no longer anything to do with today. Meanwhile, Israeli psychologists have traced post-genocidal traumas in the fourth generation of the descendants of Holocaust victims. What can we, descendants of Holodomor victims, say if even mentioning this was a taboo in the life of three generations? If we dare at last to reveal for ourselves a solid and clear picture of our historical tragedy, we will have much fewer complaints about rea­lity, fewer grounds for depression, social apa­thy, despondency, etc. The right anamnesis to a disease is half a way to recovery. This is why it is important to remember Sandarmokh: it is an indispensable link in the historical chain as a result of which ‘we have what we have.’

“1937 was the year when ‘the revolution began to devour its children,’ or, to be more exact, when one mafia had ousted another. To meet the targets dictated from above, the Ukrainian communist-party and industrial elite was also to be slaughtered. It is worthwhile recall Naum Korzhavin (incidentally, he was born in Ukraine) who was the first to say that in Ukraine ‘1937’ in fact began earlier, in 1934, immediately after the end of the Stalinist collectivization. In general, the early 1930s in Ukraine were notorious for the genocide (‘stratocide’) of not only peasants but also the intelligentsia. The latter was being exterminated in several stages. The first stage was 1930, the so-called SVU (Ukraine Li­beration League) trial which affected the ‘old,’ pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia of the nobility and ‘Petliuraites,’ what may be figuratively called ‘Lesia Ukrainka milieu.’ The SVU trial resulted in 30,000 prisoners in 1930 (according to Gely Snegiriov) – in fact the entire stratum of the ‘old’ elite. They were bearers of the cultural memory which we have been unable to put together since then. This resembles the cut-up Cossack in a fairy tale, who was first to drink some water of death in order to collect all his limbs and then to drink some water of life in order to rise. The second stage was the 1933-34 ‘harvest,’ starting with the suicide of Khvylovy and Skrypnyk: this time the ‘new,’ post-Revolutionary, intelligentsia, the se-called Executed Re­naissance, were first thrown into basements of the October Palace, the NKVD headquarters, and then shot by firing squad. This generation was not homogeneous inside, the ample proof of which being heated debates in the 1920s. There were ‘left-wingers’ and ‘right-wingers’ among them, those who sincerely believed in a ‘worldwide revolution,’ in that the world will soon be a ‘union of free republics’ – after all, Ukrainian social democracy had longtime traditions (the superb translation of Internationale by Mykola Vorony is not ‘contract stuff’ but a product of sincere inspiration). What rallied them together was the belief that the Ukrainian SSR was an independent, albeit communist, republic, ‘a state of their own’ for which they worked. Sta­lin showed this first generation of Soviet Ukraine’s elite who was really the boss.

“As for 1937, I do not think I should dwell on Soviet power: it is enough to say that, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution,’ 1,111 people were killed in five days – just like mass-scale human sacrificing ‘in honor of the holiday,’ like in cults of the Incas and Mayas. In this way, Captain Matveyev personally shot 1,111 people with a pistol in back of their heads. If we only knew what kind of people they were and how better humankind would be if they had not laid their heads in the tract of Sandarmokh but continued to think and speak! You know, this must never be forgotten: a certain Captain Matveyev was able to instantly foil the development of humanity and caused it such an ‘internal fracture’ that it will take decades, if not centuries, to heal it.

“This somewhat reminds me of the burning of the Alexandria Library. This story has been gripping me for years. Just one fire sent into oblivion the collective human memory of the extinct cultures and peoples, which will never be restored. What kind of civilization we would have if the Alexandria Library had not been burned and if there had been no Sandarmokh executions – these questions are now perhaps for those who like such genres as fantasy and alternative history. But, as an artist, I am interested in something different. After the publication of the Museum of Abandoned Secrets, Leonid Pliushch (another colorful figure to illustrate how Ukraine does not want to know its heroes) told me a formula he had found in Mandelstam’s works: ‘the law of the conservation of the energy of burnt manuscripts.’ Where does this energy go? What does it transform into? Or, maybe, it is revenging itself upon us? And what happened to the ‘energy’ of the 1,111 whose life was violently terminated? Stalin used to say: ‘No man, no problem.’ Oh yes, the problems only begin here! For the descendants. ‘Parents ate crab apples, but sons had a dry mouth.’

“There is another important thing in the Sandarmokh List. There were over 200 Ukrainians there, with a more or less proportional representation of those who came from the west and the east. In other words, it was a consolidated list. The latter comprised the most fervent part of West Ukrainian intellectuals – those who had come to Greater Ukraine, attracted by the nationwide-scale cultural construction in the 1920s, which the provincial Galicia lacked. Incidentally, this is the reason why Kurbas found himself in Kharkiv. All today’s babble about a ‘split of Ukraine’ is an attempt to step over the blood they shed. If Sandarmokh were as deep-seated in the minds of Ukrainians as, for example, Katyn is in the minds of the Polish, nobody’s tongue would ever turn to make any se­paratist calls.

“Captain Matveyev is perhaps the most representative symbol of killing the spirit. Clearly, this ‘captain’ can have thousands of names – German, Russian, Ukrainian, Chinese, etc. ‘Captain Matveyev’ is an armed man with a license to shoot. The earth has been and will be producing them. The question is different: how can we not miss the turning point in history, after which the heads of geniuses will be kept at Captain Matveyev’s gun point?

“I do not exaggerate when I say ‘geniuses.’ There are at least four of them on the Ukrainian Sandarmokh List. It is Kurbas, one of the most acclaimed reformers of Ukrainian theater. There have been just a few theater producers of this class in modern history. Another figure of genius is a still underestimated and under-read Mykola Kulish. It is also Mykola Zerov, a genius of translation, transmission, intermediacy between cultures. And, finally, a prose writer for whom I will personally never forgive the Soviet power and whom it owes to me personally – it is Valerian Pidmohylny. He was arrested at 34. For a prose writer, it is ‘the age of a debutante.’ Young Pidmohylny’s novels can be called a precursor of existentialism – two decades before Camus, and I perso­nally, as a prose writer, was robbed of all the novels the mature Pidmohylny, in his 40s, 50s, and 60s, might have written: in my green years I learned the technique of psychological prose from the French, not from him.

“In general, if we take the literature of the 1920s Ukraine, our, figuratively speaking, ‘Weimar Republic,’ I would say it clearly displays proto-existentialism. And Kulish is a precursor of the theater of the absurd: the cruel truths about man, which Western Europe discovered during World War II, were revealed for Ukraine a generation before, after the 1918-20 bloodbath. And the culture of the Executed Renaissance, in all its varieties and genres, promised to make such a contribution to humankind’s treasury that the loss of which cannot be compensated for. Believe me I am not saying this out of the patriotic propensity to exaggerate Ukrainian achievements: I am, so to speak, a nationally critical person. But in this case there are ample grounds for national pride and a scorching pain for the fact that all this was foiled or even physically destroyed, as, for example, works of the Boichukists. One of the leading British art researchers told me almost with tears in his eyes that after an exhibit of the Boichukists’ works or, to be more exact, of what was left of them, at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts he and his wife could not sleep for a month and had to be treated for a nervous breakdown. I can imagine what a shock it was for him to discover that some ‘Captain Matveyev’ should have eliminated a whole direction in the world monumental art in the 1930s. For he, as an expert, immediately recalls later monumentalists, such as Siqueiros and Rivera, and here he suddenly sees ‘destroyed’ under every sketch. For an inhabitant of Britain, where nothing has even been lost and there have been no wars and fires, the history of the Ukrainian avant-garde is almost the same as the history of the burning of the Alexandria Lib­rary. Conversely, we are living in a customary and never-ending Ruin.

“To sum it up, what happened in the tract of Sandarmokh was genocide of the elite. Sandarmokh is a symbol of the end of the Ukrainian intellectual elite as a specific historical phenomenon. From then on, this elite has been unable to revive.” ­

By Maria TOMAK, photos by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day