Maria MATIOS: A man comes into this world to live, not to resist
As soon as Maria Matios’s airplane landed in Kyiv she called The Day. The writer was our guest on the eve of the Canadian tour of the Ivano-Frankivsk-based Ivan Franko Academic Oblast Music Drama Theater. She called to tell us about the reception the theater was given abroad.
In Canada the theater showed Solodka Darusia (Sweet Darusia; director: Rostyslav Derzhypilsky) for the 70th time. The premiere took place in 2008. On April 7 the play was shown in Ottawa, April 8 – in Toronto, and on April 10 – in Montreal. All the performances enjoyed full houses, bursting applause, and in the end the audiences sang the Ukrainian hymn. A renowned actor and former Kyiv resident, Hryhorii Hladii, called the production a “blow to the solar plexus.”
It was the first time since 1994 that the Ukrainian theater went on tour to Canada. The invitation came from the Canadians. As usual, our government stayed aloof. However, Ukraine’s Embassy to Canada helped to promote the event, and Ambassador Ihor Ostash with his wife Maryna Hrymych were present at the performance in Ottawa. Moreover, as soon as it ended the couple organized a reception for actors and the audience.
Besides the performances, the writer also held creative soirees. Incidentally, the most frequent questions at these evenings were as follows: when will the president fire the Minister of Science and Education, and whether anyone apologized for the scandalous incident involving the police and prosecutor’s office. These and many other questions were also raised in The Day’s interview with Maria MATIOS.
At Lina Kostenko’s creative soiree at the Ivan Franko Theater in Kyiv she said kind words about you. What did you feel while sitting among the audience?
“Surely, this is pleasant. But a more gratifying fact is that Lina Kostenko reads my books.”
Do you feel any connection between the generations of writers, the connection with your predecessors?
“Honestly, no. It is more appropriate to speak about the closeness with some specific personalities in the literary process. There are two living persons in the Ukrainian culture, who have never befouled my opinion about them: Ivan Dziuba and Lina Kostenko. I don’t communicate much with Lina Kostenko, but it was she who called me when I felt very bad both physically and morally, and when those who owe me never called. And I have worked with Dziuba at the Shevchenko Prize Committee. He took me on. And The Torn Pages from Autobiography (Piramida, 2010) has a big chapter dedicated to Dziuba. This person has always made me feel amazed, sometimes even numb. Human and intellectual virtues rarely coincide. I think that Dziuba is underestimated in the Ukrainian cultural and historical context.”
One of my friends, who works at a central channel, made a report about Lina Kostenko, but it did not air because it was considered a “trash” by the channel’s editors. Oxana Pachlovska writes about the period of lonely voices in her book Ave Europe! I thought this period was in the past, because we have Maria Matios, Valerii Shevchuk, Vasyl Shkliar, Ivan Dziuba, and Lina Kostenko. However, your voices are rarely heard in the media, and politicians don’t take heed of them, though they should. If society heard and saw you, this would have helped it to purify itself. For me this is a sign that the society needs these voices: people supported you when you were attacked by the General Prosecutor’s Office, the pressrun of your books is high, many people come to Lina Kostenko’s soirees, after all, and journalists stood up to send off Liubomyr Huzar when he announced that he was resigning. There is a demand, yet the information space is occupied. How is it possible to overcome this occupation?
“My own example proves that there is a demand for these voices. And it is clear as daylight that you will never hear these voices on our leading channels. The reason is common knowledge. No leading Ukrainian channel covers positive issues in Ukrainian culture, only scandals. It is upsetting, when the public mostly knows you as a person being hunted by the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Interior Ministry. On the other hand, I have recently seen significant interest among the Russian-language media, especially the electronic ones. Namely Russian-language media interviewed me, asking interesting, deep, and non-banal questions.
“Last year together with the Piramida Publishing House we launched a charity social project ‘From heart to heart – from west to east’: we published Solodka Darusia in two languages, the authentic Ukrainian version plus its Russian translation, published as a separate book in Moscow in 2007. This book was given as a present to eastern Ukrainian libraries. Believe me, people want to know what was taking place in western Ukraine in the prewar period. I started my tour from Lviv, then there was Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, where I met with students, librarians, in bookshops, and I was told: ‘We speak Russian, but we love Ukraine no less than the residents of Lviv.’ I trust many of these people more than those who wear embroidered skirts, being at the same involved in all kinds of corrupted schemes, like Don Corleone. If not for the incident with the police, which broke my tour in eastern Ukraine, I would have visited Dniprodzerzhynsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, and Luhansk, where I was supposed to go next. But I will do so for sure. By the way, almost the same story has recently happened to Serhii Zhadan, who was not allowed by Donetsk and Luhansk’s ‘cultural establishments’ to hold creative soirees in these cities. And a month before that Hanna Herman tearfully deplored that Zhadan’s Voroshylovhrad was not awarded with the Shevchenko Prize. Mysterious are the ways of the Lord, when Petro is not aware of what Pavlo is doing. They are both playing the fool, as Lviv’s saying goes.
“The politicians have deliberately overheated the current social situation. They raise highly explosive topics. Their vocabulary is growing more and more radical. In this period there is a need for people who are able to cool down the social heat. Those are artists, who are able to tell people in a simple language about sensitive social phenomena, both historical and current, without anguish, claims, hysterics, or verdicts, without bloodthirstiness, or calls for revenge.
“No reader from eastern Ukraine or the Crimea (I receive regular invitations from there, I often go there and have my audience there) has ever returned a book to me. People threw Knut Hamsun’s books over the fence because he cooperated with fascists. But the current Minister of Education Tabachnyk says that those who included Solodka Darusia in the school curriculum ‘should be imprisoned for the harm caused to the children’s psyches.’ Is he an adequate man? Is not he cleaning the Ukraine from the Ukrainian word? We are living in a time of political vendettas. After all, those who have declared a war on Ukraine, Ukrainians and bearers of all things Ukrainian, may simply fail to manage a situation they think is under their control. On the other hand, not only politicians become radical in their expressions, but workers of culture, too. Like in the late 1980s, writers gather meetings. This is abnormal. The audience should be passionate about the writers’ books, not their political invectives. Radical calls of the creative intelligentsia combined with extremism, voiced by all the mouthpieces of state politics, are a very dangerous thing.
“I don’t see all of the current European values. Analyzing the European cultural market, it can be puzzling: it is unclear why one or another phenomenon, name, pieces of literature or art are taken as a model. There are many things Europe can pick up from us. I have the right to say so, because I have never left Europe. I was born in Bukovyna, and Europe has always been present there. Yew furniture was manufactured in my village for Parisian salons. The problem is that Ukraine is scarcely present in the world as a state. Don’t we have poets of Nobel Prize Winner Wislawa Szymborska’s caliber? We do, but unlike Poland, our state does not put any efforts to promote our literature. Szymborska is supported by the state, and Lina Kostenko – by her own name.
“I recently came back from the Paris Book Salon, an annual book exhibit. It had a huge stand of Congo, not the richest or most developed African country. There were three huge Russian stands. Even Tunisia, where a revolution was underway then, had a stand. But Ukraine has never been represented at the Paris Book Salon as a state. Andrii Kurkov and I went there at the invitation of the French Embassy to Ukraine. Andrii’s eight books have been translated into French. As he was going along the exhibit, people were literary grasping him by hand — they recognize him, France’s Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterand came to his stand. But there were eight books by Kurkov, two by Andrukhovych, and one by Liubko Deresh – all Ukrainian books that have been translated into French in the 20 years of our independence. And the state has nothing to do with these modest achievements.
“A Russian-speaking Frenchman told me that Ukrainians lead a luxurious life, if the state can afford to make 10 generals look for one writer because of a single word in a book, whereas France has a total of 10 generals. As you can understand, my interlocutor read about my police encounter on the Internet.”
Anyway, how can one oppose this ‘Russian world’ and build a ‘Ukrainian world’ in a civilized manner, to balance it?
“Above all with quality, not just talk. Action is the best example: a high-quality product of domestic culture, the demand to fulfill your social and public rights, and to declare your stand.”
Tell us about the incident with the police and prosecutor’s office? What was it, in your opinion?
“I think, several moments coincided there, but first and foremost they were working out the technology of intimidating well-known people, whose world outlook has a clear-cut accent and whose stand may have an influence on a certain part of the society. Their aim was to cut off access for such people to media resources that help them to profess their world outlook. They wanted to verify what a well-known person will do. Will s/he remain silent, frightened, or put up a fight. Now I know for sure, if I did not make the situation with the General Prosecutor’s Office known, for me personally this situation would have had a bad ending. And not only for me, because today I am the target, and tomorrow another person will be targeted, unable to defend himself. Therefore I did not go either to the General Prosecutor’s Office, or the police before making the information known via the media, and only after this did I go to these institutions, but they let me in only up to the turnstile at the control post. Of course, all these ‘special operations’ taken by the General Prosecutor’s Office and the police look absurd, but in fact they are well-weighed, and there is nothing accidental about them. Ten Ukrainian generals were involved in this, nine colonels, the VR speaker, a lot of MPs, and even the president, and international mass media. As far as I understand, a clever person advised the president to meet with me – not to coax me (because no one is able to coax me, if it runs counter to my beliefs), but because of the social pressure and the fact that the entire world – from America to Australia – responded to the absurd tandem of the General Prosecutor’s Office and the police. I did not expect that, I just defended my sovereignty. But now I know for sure that our society is a healthy one.”
It seems to me that this story is not from the 21st century, but from the 20th century at best, and not from a democratic state, but from a totalitarian one. Why is it still possible, it seemed that we had moved forward?
“It never seemed to me so. From time to time similar things have happened in Ukraine in one way or another (though perhaps in less bold a manner). After all, the same people stay in politics, shuffled like cards. Look what moth-eaten thing they have brought back!
“I know one thing for sure: there can be order in a state, if there is political will for this. If there will be political will, there will be 25-30 people in every oblast to fulfill this political will, but only if they will be protected by legal and state guaranties from the revenge of their successors. Like the US has a law on witness protection, we should have an efficient law to protect those who intend to and are able to cut off corruption metastases. I am absolutely sure that society is ready to support a real struggle against these metastases, though not a fake one. Somebody should carry out this surgery. I am sure there are such people in the country. But the political will should not make one suspect that it is actually political revenge. Because the answer on whether the carol-singing judge Zvarych is waiting for a state award or accusation remains open.”
Your book Torn Pages from Autobiography is the most personal and acute opinion journalism work. There you describe your family, neighbors, fellow villagers, and teachers. In all of your works, including this one, we can see a person in the historical background. This book could also be entitled Torn Pages from the Ukrainian History. Bukovyna under Austria and Romania: you are a compiler, piercing historical events. Meanwhile, when the Soviet power comes, the first word is “fear.” Your family faced a choice: either to go to collective farm, or to Siberia.
“All of us faced this choice.”
It seems to me that we collapsed during the Soviet empire. Fear was instilled in our subconscious for a long time. Have we liberated ourselves from this fear?
“No. We have this fear on a genetic level. Otherwise, could there be two churches in my village, a Ukrainian one from time immemorial? Could families be divided along this line — when a priest asked during a confession, whom we would vote for? I have been thinking a lot about why Solodka Darusia is such a success. This book is about universal values, which can be projected on any epoch. I was watching the performance of the Ivano-Frankivsk Theater and thought: if the actors put on usual clothes instead of vyshyvankas, and the NKVD man – a Brioni suit instead of a leather jacket, even with the same folders with the titles changed, we will see present-day of Ukraine. Ukrainians are always living like a gun is being held to their head. They are always living in a world where somebody is hunting for them. In Solodka Darusia it is the NKVD, the UPA, informers, inhuman monsters, circumstances... Nowadays we can build the same gradation: parties, the police, tax inspectorate, employers. And a man comes into this world not to resist, but to live. The people’s struggle for their independent territory, independent territory of their souls and actions as a personality, is the leading topic of my books, as well as all things human in a man that do not depend on the time, ideology, place of living, faith, or color of skin. They depend on background, conscience, and God.
“I chose the history of Bukovyna and Galicia, which is glossed over in Ukrainian history. Some other person will write about the history of another region. This is how we will sew the country together. For when I here nonsense, like let us give one part of Ukraine to one party, and another part to a different one, I understand that people say this under the effect of a hangover. They say so to deliberately arouse social tensions. What should we do with people who went of their own will or were forced to go to the Donbas, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions before the war? Cut them into two pieces. At that time there was an order: 120,000 residents from western Ukraine had to move to eastern Ukraine. My uncle left an unmapped village for a Donbas mine. Others were brought there as witnesses of NKVD operations. My classmate, whose surname is Matios as well, has been working as a miner there for 30 years. So, not all of them were forced to go there. They are not Ukrainophobes – as many people think – because they speak surzhyk. In Donetsk I have met people who almost whispered that their ‘origins are western Ukrainian.’ The social opinion was shaped in such a way that they are scared to admit this. But they would like somebody to say that they are Ukrainians too. They want to be loved, they want Ukrainian investments to come, they do not want to be blamed for being non-Ukrainians.
“Some think that we have no place in a common house only because we are all different; I prove with my Torn Pages from Autobiography that there is a place for us. My teachers were from Cherkasy, Zaporizhia, Poltava, Donetsk, Mykolaiv oblasts. It was them who taught me to be the way I am. And from the Donbas, too. In my village a Tartar woman Anuzia spoke better Ukrainian than our premier. And not only her.
“Many Ukrainian writers want to achieve international acclaim. My books have been published in Poland, Russia, and Australia, some works have been translated into over 10 languages. Sincerely, it is gratifying. But I have a secret wish: I want to encircle Ukraine with books. Maybe then we will understand each other better.”
Because of the complicated history of the 20th century, as well as the complex present, Ukrainians face not only a choice between good and evil, but the need to identify these notions. What should we do?
“The Bible says, look at the fruit, i.e., the person’s actions. People are clever, even if they are not very knowledgeable, they can distinguish between good and evil. Apparently, in our state much depends on the government: it frequently influences social moods. In my opinion, what the current power lacks most of all is education. Ignorance makes dark and turbid things rise from the bottom of a person’s soul.”
Does not it seem to you that the power often confuses the notions of “people” and “electorate,” and acts correspondingly, resolving problems to earn popularity and win the elections?
“This is their typical behavior. It seems to me, there has not been any government in independent Ukraine that took care about Ukrainians as a people, only when we supported it. Otherwise they view us as a shepherd views the sheep in a flock. He can count how many of the sheep belong to him, and how many – to another host. However, power as a rule overestimates its possibilities, because it thinks that it has the armed forces and law-enforcement bodies. But events may go out of control and then the people will speak. The same thing happened during the USSR’s collapse. The same thing happened in 2004.
“Ukraine is going through a complicated and somewhat dangerous time. Above all, it is dangerous for the authorities, because domestic resistance is developing faster than previously. As a result, an unpredicted social explosion may occur. It seems to me the politicians face the highest danger from the country’s east. Their social discontent may overweigh the ideological discontent of the Galicians. On the whole, Galicia can burst out and calm down, create an idol, bring him high and than trample over him in the same ardent manner as when raising him high. Then they will create idols of other people. And the Donbas… It is heavy like a bronze elephant in the shop ‘All things for the interior.’ But if this elephant turns round, it will not care when porcelain and Faberge eggs will fall from the showcases.
“I think society is now taking shape (I’m an irremediable optimist). People start to see clearer. The generations who were biased in some areas are naturally dying off. The new generation is coming. These people are cynical in many things. And politicians teach them to be cynical in many cases. But this is a different generation. They identify themselves with Ukraine, which spells an end for the moth-eaten politicians.
“I was told that only two years ago France stopped paying life-long pensions to the last descendant of the soldier who was killed in time of a Louis, having performed great services before the state. Two hundred years have passed since his exploit. This is how patriotism takes shape.”