segunda-feira, maio 07, 2007

They're asking if we have culture!

A presentation by Oksana Zabuzhko (in Ukrainian)
At the Conference "New Ukraine in New Europe"
Translated by Sofiya Skachko, Ukrayins'ka Pravda On-line
Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 15, 2007
The pain and frustration expressed by the author in this article is very real. However, when the day comes that Ukraine has a Holodomor monument (for its millions who died) anything like the Vimy Ridge monument erected by Canada (for its 3,598 soldiers who died April 9 - 12, 1917) is when the world will begin to fully understand why Ukraine does not have the "culture" which the author seeks.
Ukraine has nothing to be ashamed of. No country in Europe, if not the world, has gone through what Ukraine has gone through. Ukraine is brave and she is a miracle.
My deepest conviction is that numerous Ukrainian problems, connected with the indeterminate status we have at the international level, are caused by one very sad fact: contemporary Ukraine has no culture.
Fifteen years of independence haven't been enough for the Ukrainian state to grasp why a state needs a culture, and what sort of whim compels even the poorer countries to 'turn out their pockets' only to invest in cultural development. Why on earth would they do it?
However, the answer lies on the surface. The 'trademark' of any country is not its political order, nor the faces of its leaders, nor even, however paradoxical this may sound, its economic prosperity and well-being.
Bah, I have to say that even its sports achievements ain't it, even though they are an excellent tool to win fans' dedication.
The trademark of any country that has the most direct and intimate influence on the foreign audience, touching them on the most personal and subconscious level, is its national culture.
Chopin has always been and still remains the trademark of Poland in the world, Finland has Sibelius, Sweden has Pippi Longstocking and Carlson That Lives on the Roof. These examples are taken at random, since every "mature" country, no matter how big or small, has its "cultural passports."
These are the most delicate and subtle - and oh how powerful! - "first call signs", that a country sends out into the world, bringing about sometimes barely conscious attraction and trust towards itself. They prepare the ground in the mind of every and any foreigner for an a priori positive image of a country.
As long as Ukraine fails to send these cultural call signs, it will always be a dark horse for the international community, who will remain weary about what to expect from it.
One can endlessly visit all kinds of summits and symposia, wear Armani and Brioni, memorize the names of the delegates in order to avoid mispronouncing them at the negotiation table, and assure everyone that we are nice and honest, and we should be received everywhere - however, if we don't have these recognizable trademarks as our herald, it's difficult to be perceived in a positive light.
Let's not forget: over a hundred years Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have been Russia's trademark, and to a large extent all of the Bolshevik revolution was mediated in the consciousness of western political and intellectual elite through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as the "guides" to the "mysterious Russian soul".
Lenin, Bolsheviks, even Chekists headed by Dzerzhinsky were perceived from behind the iron curtain not as political criminals, who were liquidating every living soul, including the "Russian" one, but as heroes from Russian classics, anxious to "save the world" - and this had the most direct impact on the international success of Stalinist politics.
It's that level of influence that allowed NKVD to recruit the Cambridge Five headed by Tim Philby only based on their romantic motivation, rather than mercenary interest.
I pass in silence over the whole army of duped Frenchmen, including Sartre & Co. that for decades were providing USSR with a rosy free publicity.
The Dostoevsky-syndrome in the choice of western affiliations towards Soviet Union was always present. There is a plethora of literature on the subject, which is, unfortunately, barely known in Ukraine.
Alas, for lack of knowledge of these things makes it hard to estimate realistically the meaning of country's cultural image in the world and how well it works even in the most pragmatic and cynical contexts.
Those, who in the recent times took a Polish airlines transatlantic flight, should remember a 10-minute TV presentation of Poland.
Poland begins with Chopin, the sounds of his music accompanies the changing images on the screen: faces of eminent Poles, Nobel laureates, including Maria Sklodowska-Curie, Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska; wonderfully montaged landscapes, and in between you are unobtrusively told about the modern achievements in the spheres of education, science, technology and economics.
Chopin's music remains the emotional background, playing the role of the emotional "greeting" the country sends to the world, and owing to which the world enthusiastically cognizes and recognizes the country.
When in 1991 Ukraine appeared on the world map, it had no recognizable signposts of the kind, so the reaction of the international community was legitimate - quoting Mayakovsky: "Where are they from, and what are these geographical novelties?" [1]
I'll make a wild guess and say if at the time Lesya Ukrainka and Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi had been known in the world to the extent Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are, our country needn't have given up its nuclear weapons. And this is not just a metaphor.
I will never forget one conversation I had with the editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe. That man had a chance to see the exhibition of works by the Boichukisty group at the Metropolitan, or rather what's left of them.
After that for the period of two months his whole family were struck by the deep sadness, caused by a shocking discovery: that such an astounding avant-garde school, which in fact was way ahead the work of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, all this bunch that would later become the trademark of Mexico, was completely annihilated - not only were the artists shot, but their works had been destroyed as well.
This very editor was ready to grant Ukraine forgiveness for all its future errors in domestic and foreign policy, and offer all Ukrainians his understanding and sympathy, for their being a strategic victim of the XXth century totalitarianism.
One single episode from our cultural history was enough for him to see Ukraine through different eyes. One can cite a large number of such stories.
I have to state the sad fact that the Ukrainian state has not taken advantage of the opportunities to present its culture in this most effective way on the institutional level, as its landmark.
And it has had enough of these opportunities, especially following the events of the Orange revolution, when the whole world took a serious interest in Ukraine, when it opened all the doors leading to the world cultural mainstream and shouted "Welcome!"
There was a chance to make Ukraine a guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2008, there was a similar invitation from Leipzig Book Fair in 2006, which our state institutions pooh-poohed in the most careless way, just like other similar occasions, only because the responsible officials (responsible to who? what for?) simply did not understand what this "export of culture" is and what to serve it with.
They failed to understand that it is the clever politics of cultural export that integrates a country into European information space much faster and much more efficiently than all the round table talks.
Every breakthrough of the Ukrainian culture into European space has been carried out by the use of guerrilla tactics - by-passing all the state authorities.
I myself belong to this guerrilla group of those who have successfully "integrated into Europe" within the limits of an individual creative biography, who have made a name for themselves, and personally I ask for one single thing from the Ukrainian state - to just let me be. But it continuously jumps at me from behind like a devil from a box, and each time it puts me to shame.
They translate, publish and stage your works, they give you awards, you go to presentations, meet the readers, journalists, give interviews, start telling about the bulk of culture behind you, what tradition you represent, who were your literary predecessors and what contribution they made into the treasury of human creation - and you see how the eyes of your interlocutors widen and widen.
Finally, I can only quote one Swedish journalist, that told me during one interview: "I'm really sorry, but if I'm not mistaken, your country seems to say very little about itself, it provides little information about what's interesting about it."
And I, humbly lowering my eyes, mumble: you're right, but you know, unfortunately, no experience, a young country only starting to learn... How long does it need to learn, I wonder?
Here is another telling example. My Czech translator, working on the book "Oh Sister, My Sister," revealed in the novel "The Alien Woman" hidden allusions to Lesya Ukrainka's drama "Cassandra". The translator came to Ukraine on a research trip, went to a book-store and asked for "Cassandra" by Lesya Ukrainka.
She was told at this point that she must have confused something, for they have heard in the book-store who Lesya Ukrainka is, but this Kalandra is an unheard-of person.
It's hard to imagine the cultural shock of a European person, who comes to Ukraine, to its capital, which has almost a European look to it, there are more expensive cars in the streets than in any capital of a European country, the cafes are crowded, at a first glance everything looks decent, even quite glamorous - but then you enter a book store and it turns out that an "almost European" country simply does not have national classics on sale.
The effect is almost the same as if a person opened the front door of Radisson hotel and slumped down into a cesspit. One big Potemkin village.
I support wholeheartedly the pathos of the statement that Ukraine is part of Europe. Provided we know our history, our achievements, then no doubt, based on its origins, its legacy and its psychological matrix our country is a part of European cultural continent.
However, Ukraine itself does not know about this. An average Ukrainian citizen, a "layperson", knows poorly his or her history, and practically knows nothing about Ukrainian cultural heritage.
It's very difficult to "integrate" anywhere, if we ourselves are not culturally "integrated". The entity that is deprived of historical memory, lacks self-understanding and has only a vague idea of the point of reference or criteria for comparison, is difficult to "integrate".
The incident with my translator concluded with me presenting her with my own little volume with Lesya Ukrainka's "Cassandra." Recently I got a note that she is finishing the translation of this drama and leading the negotiations with the Prague theater, which has expressed eagerness to create a stage production of "Cassandra."
I really hope that afterwards - at least in the city quarter, where "Cassandra" is played on stage - the announcements on the doors of some houses saying something in the vein of "dogs and Ukrainians not wanted" will disappear.
After all the image of Ukraine in Europe should not be shaped only by Ostarbeiter and female sex workers, but also by the realization that this country had high culture in the past and is capable of exporting it.
Sometimes it seems to me we're back in 1920s, in the times sarcastically described by Tychyna: "For God's sake, pull up your cuffs, tell them something: they're asking if we have culture!" [2]
Indeed "they" ask, but it's "we" who have the task. The completion of this task depends on how we can answer "them", and if we can take on this challenge.
Without exaggeration it's the question of our country's survival in the foreseeable future, - if we really want to integrate into Europe and become a part of the civilized world.

[1] Mayakovsky Vladimir "Soviet Passport," translated into English by Herbert Marshall;

[2] Tychyna Pavlo "A Test", translated into English by Michael M. Naydan
The Complete Early Poetry Collections of Pavlo Tychyna, Litopys Publishers, 2000, p.251

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