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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

“Maidan showed that mafia structure can be broken”

Well-known American journalist and translator Peter Fedynsky on journalism after 9/11, James Mace’s lessons, and “live” Taras Shevchenko
27 May, 2014 - 11:10
Peter Fedynsky

The first full edition of Kobzar in English was presented at the International Shevchenko Congress, which took place in Cherkasy, Shevchenko’s native land, from May 19 through 22. Translation was performed by well-known “Window on America” television magazine host Peter FEDYNSKY. The book was published last year and immediately sparked a flurry of comments and positive reviews in the English-speaking world. Let us remind that the first edition of Kobzar in English was published in Canada in 1964 by Watson Kirkconnell and Constantine Andrusyshen. Fedynsky is not merely a translator, but he is a brilliant journalist, whose shows are remembered by the audience since the 1990s. After the presentation of the book in Cherkasy, The Day talked to the American journalist, who is Ukrainian patriot to the core, about the peculiarities of working on a translation, relevance of “live” Shevchenko, and rules of fighting Russian propaganda.

“During the past few months, since the beginning of this year in particular, the tonality in messages about Ukraine and from Ukraine in US mass media has changed drastically,” Fedynsky says. “It is noticeable not only in the quantitative, but in qualitative aspect too. Articles and reports from Ukraine appear in the most respectable US periodicals, The New York Times and The Washington Post, almost on a daily basis. These materials let American readers deeply comprehend the mentality and spirit of Ukraine for the first time, perhaps. You can feel the favorable attitude towards Ukraine and the cautious one for Russia in the articles. The civilized world sees that Russia threatens not only Ukraine, but the whole Europe.”

Today Ukraine continues living in the conditions of information warfare launched by the Russian mass media.

“Ukrainian mass media must respond to propaganda with truth. Russia has ruined its image completely. Today leading US media say directly: ‘Putin is lying!’ It is written about in editorials of two the most influential newspapers, it is spoken about on American TV... I read an interview with Adam Michnik of Polish Gazeta Wyborcza, in which he said that Ukraine has already won the information war, since Russia is lying so openly, scaring with mythical ‘Banderites,’ ‘national fascists,’ that normal people can only react with a smile to this and resist any messages in Russian media, not only the ones about Ukraine. Fortunately, today it is impossible to cut Ukraine off from the world in an information vacuum, as it happened during the Holodomor. International press is active, press from Ukraine is working, The Day in particular, which can be read in English in the United States. The whole civilized media world writes complimentary articles about Ukrainian patriots and their fight for their country. In particular, an emphasis on Ukrainian youth is being made in the American press. Media write about how often they met active, energetic, determined, and educated protesters at the Maidan, who knew two or three foreign languages and clearly understood what they wanted to do in their country and what vision of its future they had. From all over the world, only Putin’s media see a threat in ‘Banderites.’”

However, propaganda is being perceived as the ultimate truth in Russia. What can stimulate average Russians to look for alternative information sources and develop critical thinking?

“If there is just, independent, free Ukraine, in other words, if Maidan wins once and for all, you will become a chance for Russia. A positive example of changes. Maidan showed that mafia structure and destructive rules of the country’s existence can be broken. The Kremlin undoubtedly understands this, that is why it has a firm grip on TV. The government controls the critical mass of information, and therefore, it controls Russians. The information control provides control over Russia for the Kremlin. What can make the critical mass of Russians, educated by television, look for alternative information? I believe, it is not a picture on the TV screen, but the one behind their windows.

“I am surprised by something different, why do seemingly intelligent Russians, who have access to various information sources, who read in English freely, who live in America or Europe, why do they support Putin’s aggression against Ukraine too? This phenomenon must be studied. I think, it is caused by the feeling of inferiority and desire to join ‘the great nation.’ Putin gives them an illusion they are involved in the life of a great country, great nation, great history... But it is merely an illusion. And the world knows it.”

Ukraine felt open aggression, and virtually, an undeclared war, for the first time. What is your opinion of the “balance of thoughts” standard, which mass media use as a pretext to let terrorists go on the air?

“We have faced this issue at the Voice of America. After the September 11 terrorist attack, one of the Voice of America journalists received an interview with Bin Laden’s right hand. And it was broadcast. The New York Times reviewer wrote an article under a headline Giving Microphone to Hitler. There was a huge scandal. Head of the news department who decided to present the material on air even received an award from the Department of State ‘for courage,’ I believe. But here comes a fundamentally important detail: the Secretary of State did not shake his hand. After that incident, Voice of America does not give terrorists the floor.

“As for the situation with Ukrainian media, it is hard for me to say something. Shows featuring terrorists and separatists started being discussed now. But in what way should it be interpreted that channels let these people speak all year round? What is the end result of this? A single terrorist or a separatist may not be of great importance in the rapid stream of information. But what about a number of such conversations?

“I am deeply convinced that even if a terrorist is interviewed, it should be done by the most talented, intelligent, and informed journalists in the country. They must ask questions in a way that would make the whole country and the interviewee understand that he is a terrorist, criminal, and a worthless individual. And even after such an interview, it should be thought over how to present the story on air: in one full piece, or in small theses immediately followed by the antitheses of the Ukrainian side represented by the government, security forces, Maidan participants. I can say one thing for sure: journalism must feel its responsibility on the subconscious level. It must understand its role and function, especially during the non-peaceful time. The USSR times are over, and it is not as incredibly hard for journalists to convey the truth as, for example, the truth about the Holodomor, which my great friend James MACE, The Day’s journalist, faced once.”

Thank you for remembering James Mace. We are also deeply convinced he must become a role model for journalists. The Day has repeatedly published his proverbial article Tale of Two Journalists and founded a special James Mace Civic Stand Prize. What are your memories of him?

“Mace was a very special person. I asked him why he chose Ukraine. He wrote in the 1980s: ‘I believe that Ukraine has been, is, and will be...’ He knew its history extremely well, could sense the mentality of people, saw the country’s prospects. In Mace’s work, journalism is tightly intertwined with the understanding of responsibility not only for each article, but virtually for each word.

“I know that The Day’s editor-in-chief Larysa Ivshyna, who I have an honor to be acquainted with, has done a lot to propagate Mace’s creative heritage, in particular, his books were published in The Day’s Library series, which I have read long ago, by the way.

“We met with Mace in Washington during several weeks. I visited him in Boston, and he visited me near Washington. I remember that I was interviewing him for Voice of America once. It was a story on the Holodomor. I asked him, even Shevchenko wrote, when will we finally get to see our own George Washington? And Mace answered frankly: ‘What if Washington had already been there. And what if he died during the famine.’ I think that not a separate person, a national leader, must become the main focus for Ukrainians (even though it is crucially important), but the law. Because the law is when the people agree on the rules of the game, and the society is organized. Bohemians, oligarchs, policemen, workers – everyone must be equal before the law.”

Last year you translated Kobzar into English. Do you think Shevchenko can become a moral and esthetic platform, an ascending line for the dialog of all Ukrainian regions today?

“He already is such a platform. In order to know Shevchenko, one must know Ukraine. And in order to know Ukraine, the least one needs is to know Shevchenko. It is a closed circle. Shevchenko will not only give an opportunity for Ukrainian regions to reach understanding, but he will rediscover the country for the world in a new way. When I prepared English translation of Kobzar, I submitted over 500 footnotes for it. I explained to English-speaking readers who Mazepa is, the meaning of word ‘pokrytka’ [an unmarried woman who gave birth to a child. – Ed.], what the city of Zhovti Vody is famous for.

“Beauty, love, envy, hope, despair, faith... Shevchenko places Ukraine in the middle of all this. The content of Kobzar provides the world with understanding of today’s crisis. Shevchenko always said there is hope. And it needs to be fought for. Shevchenko does not only diagnose the present, but indicates the ways of emerging from the current crisis. One just needs to re-read his works more attentively.”

By Vadym LUBCHAK, The Day