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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

An Airplane in Search of a Landing Strip

16 February, 1999 - 00:00

Interviewed by Lesia GANZHA, The Day

Once, feeling somewhat depressed - what classical poets tend to describe
as a trying hour, with one's brain haunted by doubts about the destiny
of mankind (and one's own) - I happened to read Moisei Fishbein's poem.
There were these lines:

Happiness: a minute and a half,

Repeating softly, eyes closed tight,

'Half-forgotten faces

in the countryside...

Sheepskin coats... blue villages

in the twilight

Campfires burning,

goats-milk cheese...

Twilight... ripe strawberries...

You will come back.

You'll see this in your dreams.

Trout... weeds... a drinking well.'

Repeat!"

I did. I spoke about my own minute and a half. I realized I should thank
the poet I knew nothing about at the time. Now I know. Moisei Fishbein,
born in Chernivtsi, currently an Israeli citizen, now on his seventeenth
visit to Ukraine over the past decade, this time resolved to stay, live,
and work here.

In an essay titled "Returning to the Meridian" (1985) he returns to
his youth and dreams: "I wanted to love people, travel, and shed my blood
fighting for my native land; I wanted to fall in love, find a treasure,
make a discovery or invention to make everyone happy, save someone's life,
expose a treacherous enemy, read all books, meet with Martians, write a
blockbuster poem, learn all languages, have true friends, become a world
movie star, make my parents immortal; I felt time- and space-proof and
there seemed no end to my life..." Our interview started with discussing
these long since past aspirations.

M. F.: Alas, I could not make my parents immortal. My father
died eight years ago and mother followed him last April. Nor could I make
everyone happy. Well, maybe I did somebody, just a little. There have been
no Martians and I haven't written a blockbuster poem. Instead, I have written
several poems that I think are not bad.

I haven't summed up my accomplishment or failures, because this is done
when one is back on earth and I am still flying like a plane that has no
appointed landing field, so it flies and flies, searching for a place to
land. If allowed to land, it can stay there only for so long and then must
take off again. If it does not find a permanent place it will eventually
crash. I want to get down to the earth and this earth is in Ukraine.

The Day: So what's holding you back?

M. F.: I was granted Israeli citizenship and I am not going to
surrender it. I think that man in general and a poet in particular should
have the right to live where he pleases. I want to live in Ukraine, because
I am a Ukrainian poet. My roots are here, as are my readers. Everything
here is close and dear to me.

I think that I am more a Ukrainian citizen than many of those with Ukrainian
passports. However, I have no place to live in Ukraine and no means. I
had some money saved but put it all in my actions, specifically in the
first children's trip to Israel - I mean Chornobyl victims who went there
for treatment and rest. I also put money in other charitable projects.
At the time I worked for Radio Liberty in Munich. I was well paid, and
I could not know that one day I would find myself suspended in midair,
I mean jobless.

The Day: When did you first come to Ukraine after emigrating?

M. F.: In 1989. I brought 30,000 syringes. I took them all to
a hospital in Poliske. And then I went to Volodymyrivka, a village in the
30 kilometer high risk radiation zone. It was stupid of me, as I found
out later that the radiation level was 40 curies per square kilometer,
with 0.1 curie being normal. The place was very quiet. I stepped into a
courtyard. The grass was level with my chest. I spotted something underfoot,
bent over, and saw a little doll with a punctured eye. As is customary
in the countryside the windows were pasted over with newspapers, one dated
before and another after the disaster. It was then I realized what made
me come there. I would not consider myself a Ukrainian poet if I did not
partake of that tragedy. Also, I understood that I was not a Ukrainian-language
poet. I was a Ukrainian poet. I am aware of my place in Ukrainian poetry.
I am not placed fifth but much closer to the top. Well, I guess my biography
is quite trivial. I feel brilliant only on those occasions when God allows
me to write something.

The Day: Many point to your being very categorical concerning
language.

M. F.: Without a doubt. Watching this language being maimed is
unbearable. To me it's like watching a person under torture. Out in the
street or in a subway car, hearing someone speak good Ukrainian, I feel
like walking up and embracing the person. And mind you, I am talking independent
Ukraine. Yes, I am touchy about the language, I find fault with the way
others speak and write, and I mean everybody, you included, except that
I try not be rude, because teaching implies kindness and patience. I also
know Russian, English, German, Hebrew, and several Slavic languages, but
will never allow myself to use Russian in Ukraine. It's a matter of principle,
a matter of survival of the national language and culture. In other words,
a matter of survival of the Ukrainian spirit and Ukraine as such. In a
way, I am a lingual purist, but only to an extent. You can't make a language
aqua distilata. Ukrainian is rich in dialects, sayings. It is alive.
Go to the countryside, listen to people talk, ordinary people radiating
the light of wisdom. Once I called my friends from Germany and told them,
"Get me out of Germany and to Ukraine." Now I say, "Get me out of Kyiv
and to Ukraine." I am suffocating in this city, with its Kobzon and Rybchynsky
culture. (I mean their cultural level, not parentage, God forbid! After
all, I am not Bohdan Khmelnytsky, either.)

The Day: Do you think anti-Semitism is a problem in Ukraine?

M. F.: I don't think there is a single country without this problem,
at least at what we call the everyday level. But if you remember my recent
soiree at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Ukraine's Chief Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich
and Metropolitan Ivan Shvets sat side by side. By the way, neither Symon
Petliura nor Stepan Bandera were anti-Semitic. Ze'ev Vladimir Jabotinsky,
one of the founders of Zionism, said, "I ask you to inscribe on my gravestone
that here lies a man who was friends with Petliura." Petliura gave orders
to execute those who committed pogroms. Likewise, in the Soviet concentration
camps Ukrainian and Jewish political prisoners were always the best of
friends. There are several periodicals in Ukraine (they are fixed) regularly
carrying strongly-worded anti-Semitic (I would call them Jew-eating) alongside
pseudo-patriotic slogans. I consider this a provocation, they seem to proclaim
to the world, "Look, this is what Ukrainian nationalism is really all about!"
Some are anxious to build Ukraine's pogromist image. I remember hearing
on Radio Israel that an explosive charge was discovered at the Kyiv synagogue
on the date of referendum when people voted for independence. It was a
bomb planted not so much at the synagogue as at the foundation of Ukrainian
independence.

The Day: Would you describe Ukraine as a democratic country?

M. F.: When posed similar questions in Israel, Europe, America,
or elsewhere, I have always said yes. Here in Ukraine, being a Ukrainian
poet, I say no.

The Day: What is there about today's Ukraine you dislike more
than anything else?

M. F.: Some question! I watched several programs with Verka Serdiuchka
[a popular TV show with a man acting as a woman speaking surzhyk,
a curious mixture of illiterate Russian and Ukrainian characteristic of
most cities]. Personally I call her Verka Smerdiuchka [stinker], also the
"Longnoses Show." They say the stuff is supposed to be funny. I don't think
so. It's blatant humiliation of the Ukrainian language and of Ukraine.
And your television in general is thoroughly degraded. If you want to hear
literate Ukrainian you have to switch to the Roksolana series [about a
Ukrainian slave-girl who became the favorite wife of Suleiman the Magnificent],
but again this production should be shown students majoring in filmmaking
as a case study in how motion pictures should not be made. I was outraged
to hear President Kuchma greet Yan Tabachnyk at a televised banquet, addressing
him in Russian. I am not against Russian as such, but the Ukrainian President
simply has no right to appear on national television speaking another language.

We have grown so accustomed to idiocy we no longer seem aware of its
manifestations. Just think of the official name "Lesia Ukrainka National
Russian Drama Theater." Can you picture an Ivan Turgenev National Ukrainian
Drama Theater in Russia? Absurd, isn't it? One might as well name a KGB
station for Ivan Stus [who died in the Gulag] or a matzo bakery for Cossack
chieftain Ivan Bohun [known for his pogroms].

The Day: What do you think we lack in Ukraine the most?

M. F.: Love. This is what your state lacks in the first place.
Have you ever tried to understand an irritated woman with a big mouth throwing
expletives left and right on a morning bus ride? She is mad because she
doesn't know what to give her children for lunch. All she needs is a bit
of human warmth and understanding. If she had this she would once again
become a charming Ukrainian woman.

The Day: Have you ever thought of a religious career? You
seem to have all the hallmarks.

M. F.: I am a poet, a Ukrainian poet. What more could I wish?

The Day: Talking of that angry woman, she wouldn't know your
poetry, would she?

M. F.: It's not the point, can't you see? Her children would
one of these days. On Kyiv streets, I am especially painfully aware of
my empty pockets. Nothing to give all those with outstretched hands. To
me this is a terrible moral problem. And all those homeless animals. Are
they to blame for people getting to be worse than animals? One has to take
care of the poor creatures, for they were created by the Lord the same
way as we were and, I might as well point out, they have the right to live
as much as all those sitting in high offices.

The Day: When did you feel more like a repatriate, in 1979,
arriving in Israel, or when you returned to Ukraine?

M. F.: I never parted with Ukraine in my thoughts. I had to go
to Israel in 1979, because I refused when offered to become a KGB informer.
I knew only too well what the consequences would be like for me and my
near and dear ones. Many of my friends were in prison. I am not the stealing
type, you know. I had a choice: being sent to the east (Mordovia or the
Ural Mountains) or buying a one-way ticket to the West. I chose the West.
Incidentally, just as I was leaving my older friend Mykola Lukash made
a witty remark, "Listen, man, what are you doing? Where are you going,
being hetzi goyish half Yiddish (hetzi is Hebrew for half)?"
But I had made my choice: I could only change Kyiv for Jerusalem, one sacred
place for another. And then they offered me a job at Radio Liberty, so
I went to Munich, to work, not to live there, mind you!

I had no illusions. If no one wanted my Ukrainian poetry in Ukraine,
who would want it anywhere abroad? God made me a Ukrainian poet. I never
was and never will be anything else. So you can just imagine how happily
I lived as an emigre.

I am convinced that Ukraine is a land given and chosen by God. It will
survive no matter what, because such is His Will. How do I, a Jew, know
this? I don't know how, but I know.

The Day: Aren't you afraid that some will accuse you of trying
to create another Messianic myth?

M. F.: No, not of this or any other accusations. I don't scare
easily.

 

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