Dagmar Ostrzhanska: “People need something to identify themselves with. What should it be? Language of course!”
Dagmar Ostrzhanska, director of the Czech Centre in Kyiv tells The Ukrainian Week of Czech-Ukrainian cultural relations, the Ukrainian art underground and the language inactivity of our compatriots.
The language issue is a tool for speculation in Ukraine, the Ukrainian book publishing industry is being ruined and the country sticks to its traditional cultural isolation, while many European countries use their diplomatic missions for active representation of their humanitarian sectors. What is more, they induce Ukrainians into dialogue. Dagmar Ostrzhanska, director of the Czech Centre in Kyiv tells The Ukrainian Week of Czech-Ukrainian cultural relations, the Ukrainian art underground and the language inactivity of our compatriots.
U.W.: Could you describe the establishment of Czech cultural centres? Were they initiated by the state?
Yes, it was a state initiative. Czech centres were subordinate to the Foreign Affairs Ministry. ‘Sister states’ of the former social camp, including Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, USSR and Poland, all had similar centres. After 1989 and various geopolitical changes new centres were founded in Western Europe, America, Japan and Ukraine of course. In general most of our centres (22 in total) are located in Europe. They deal mainly with the representation and promotion of Czech culture in the world. I’d like to mention that in 1996 when the Czech Centre in Kyiv was being established negotiations were on the way as to the establishment of a similar Ukrainian centre in Prague. I don’t know why they were unsuccessful.
U.W.: Is modern Ukrainian culture presented well enough in Ukraine?
There are interesting places here, but one has to search for them. In general many events are held in Ukraine in fact, but they are, let us say, underground ones. One has to make some effort to get any relevant information or pay attention to acquaintances’ recommendations about certain events. There are very few announcements and posters advertising events of really high quality. For instance, I am not interested in mainstream, while there is plenty of information about that. The issue concerns galleries too, it is difficult to find them as they are often hidden in enclosed streets. It is totally different in the Czech Republic and the rest of Europe, where showcases of galleries and bookshops are available in central streets. Though, you know, I have never regretted spending time on ‘cultural searches’ in Ukraine.
U.W.: What challenges do you have working in the Czech Centre in Kyiv?
It is a rather complicated area. For instance, we don’t have our own gallery, unlike similar centres in Moscow, Paris and New York. So I have to look for exposition halls by myself and deal with gallery keepers who mostly treat the issue as simple business instead of cultural support. There are real supporters of course, but most of them are only willing to work on terms of leasing. Such a peremptory approach leaves no room for a gallery itself, as it should surely have its own concept and interests.
U.W.: Speaking of gallery halls, Czech contemporary art and David Černý,for instance, come to mind. Are there any joint projects with Ukraine in this area?
It is weird, but our countries have not even signed an intercultural cooperation agreement yet. It means everything we are working on is our way ‘from the bottom’. But there is no point in waiting, action is needed. That is why we want to organize a seminar for seven art curators. It will be a real journey including visits to Czech museums, galleries and exposition centres to get your managers acquainted with the area and to awaken their interest. Next year we are going to organize an exposition of three modern Ukrainian artists in the gallery of the Czech Centre in Prague. That will be a joint project with curator Mykola Skyba. Meanwhile, we would like to see our painters at the next Ukrainian ‘Arsenale’. It will be quite a surprise if the Czech Republic will not be presented either at the biennale, or at the Sculpture Festival in the Botanical Gardens, meaning that our country is absent on the world cultural map.
U.W.: Which Czech writers are going to visit Ukrainian book events this year?
The humble book is also important for us of course, as it is a lasting thing. We have a Ukrainian partner, Tempora publishing house, working jointly with us on four books to be published next year. We have also established a translators’ competition together with the Consulate General of the Czech Republic. There will be new publications based on the competition’s results. The Czech Culture Ministry also provides us with support and grants for translations of our literature abroad. Unfortunately, publishing houses lack information about it, thus we are calling on them to cooperate. Besides, currently we are deciding which writers are to visit the Lviv Publisher’s Forum. Famous authors, namely Jaroslav Rudiš, are to participate. Moreover we are planning to translate ‘End of Punk in Helsinki’, a novel by Mr. Rudiš. We are also working on the publication of Petra Hůlová’s novel about emigrant Ukrainians living in the Czech Republic. Translations of ‘Hovno hoří’ (Shit on fire) by Petr Šabach and children’s fairytales by Markéta Baňková are also on the way. We’d also like to publish three plays by Václav Havel which would be a good suite for a new book ‘Disident Václav Havel’ by Daniel Kaiser, which is now available in Ukrainian bookshops. We are interested in further cooperation, as Ukrainians probably know too few Czech writers or novels. They often mention nothing but ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ by Jaroslav Hašek and stories by Bohumil Hrabal.
U.W.: What general trends in modern Czech literature could you highlight?
I have already mentioned Petra Hůlová, Jaroslav Rudiš and Petr Šabach. Mostly they are translated in Scandinavia, Germany and Austria. Almost all our neighbouring countries know these writers. There is also an interesting young writer Kateryna Tuchkova. Her novel ‘Exile of Hertha Šnirh’ deals with complicated points of the country’s history. The thing is that Czechs’ cool tempers are always a cover for laziness. Let’s think of the fact that we were not protecting our country, when the Germans came. We did not fight and surrendered; only borders were defended. There was another point of this sort, namely expatriation of numerous Germans living in the Czech Republic after 1945, they were evicted or killed. Kateryna Tuchkova’s book tells about a woman from Brno, where a large German community had lived. A people can only realize its mistakes over time, as it is very difficult to be fair after a war.
U.W.: Which Ukrainian writers are familiar to Czechs?
Those particularly interested in this issue might mention modern authors, such as Oksana Zabuzhko, Yuriy Andrukhovych and Serhiy Zhadan. These are the authors actively visiting book events in the Czech Republic.
U.W.: What about those who have no particular interest in the issue, what do they know of Ukraine in general?
Ordinary Czechs are aware of the only thing about Ukrainians, namely of their ‘work’, they know nothing about your culture. I was not a fan of Euro 2012, but, it was the event which made many people in the world aware of the existence of Ukraine. I had a similar experience when I went abroad in 1992. Many people were sympathetic to me saying “Oh, Yugoslavia! You’re going through a war…”. Europe knew nothing of the Czech Republic’s existence! For instance, the French were really surprised to know we have a border with Germany! They often thought we were refugees… But Vaclav Havel helped the Czech Republic; he was not only a president and artist, but also a citizen of the world, opening our country to others. Meanwhile, Euro 2012 has helped you; it turned out to be an advertisement for you.
U.W.: Your Ukrainian is really good! Where did you learn it?
Well, I had Ukrainian studies and art history as my major in Brno University. Later I had a training course in Kyiv and worked in the Crimea.
U.W.: We are currently witnessing the bilingual problem of Ukraine becoming more acute. How do you think the public should respond?
The Czech Republic is known to have got rid of this problem a long time ago; it has been 150 years now since we had a language ‘turn’. Since then the Czech language has had a position equal to German, while nowadays we don’t discuss the issue at all. Czechs had no issues of this sort even when living together with Slovaks within a single republic.
Having been here earlier I was always irritated by the number of people not speaking Ukrainian, I even felt offended. I spent five years studying it, while some of the locals do not speak it and use ‘Surzhik’ (a mix of Russian and Ukrainian). I am usually surprised at being asked to pay in roubles in a store and point out that I have nothing but hryvnias. I don’t like conflicts in general and I think it is wonderful to know more languages. There is another issue – I’m not sure Russian speaking people actually know this language. Russians do not think so at least. People need something to identify themselves with. What should it be? Language of course! I think everyone should figure out what the words ‘native country’ means for him and/or her. Foreigners are always amazed at the local language issue. They are mostly unaware of your historical peculiarities, that’s why they perceive only facts, namely the one that they have come to an independent country where many people speak a different language.
For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners