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22 November, 2012

Born to Grovel

Intellectuals and the authorities are a quite inconvenient topic. More precisely, the topic is inconvenient to Ukrainian intellectuals; Ukrainian authorities are finding it increasingly palatable, especially given the current state of affairs in the country.

For several years now, we have witnessed the caring attitude Ukrainian intellectuals reserve for their generous donors who also sponsor, paradoxically or not, the Ukrainian government, purposefully and methodically bringing the country under their control and squashing any sprouts of civic society.

I am not sure it was the first wake-up call, but the following case of intellectuals caring about the good karma of oligarchs remains deeply engraved on my memory. Remarkably, it was a nationally conscious intellectual who said: “The only entity I stand against today is the Ukrainian government. I consider it an absolute evil which is leading the country and society into an increasingly steeper decline and to the ultimate corruption of all things human in people”.

When asked, this writer, who was a headliner of the Meridian Czernowitz International Poetic Festival, could not answer a question about who was sponsoring the event – he simply did not know the answer. When a journalist told him that it was the infamous Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, the intellectual briskly reacted: “Firtash? Okay, let him improve his karma with good deeds.” That’s a personal thing, of course. But then why call the Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament “an accomplice in a retribution against a journalist”? Why refer to the man who is currently president of Ukraine and at the time of speaking, in 2010, was a presidential candidate as “a primitive tongue-tied boor with a criminal past”? Three major oligarchs have contributed to the creation of the type of government Ukraine has now, and they also happen to be the unfailing sponsors of contemporary, mainstream Ukrainian literature.

What opposition on the part of the intellectual elite can we speak of, if the most prestigious institutions must bow down in reverence to these kinds of generous sponsors? These institutions include the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, the Ukrainian Catholic University, Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, Lviv Book Publishers Forum, and so on. So it makes perfect sense that intellectuals, of all people, called on the president to take a “tough” approach in putting the country in order and to bravely move on along “the chosen path, reforming Ukraine, preventing the shutdown of reforms, eradicating corruption and leading the country to democratic governance. The people are with you.” This is the same “people” who also supported Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Putin. Given this support, the president – a leader of oligarchs rather than the proletariat – did take a tough approach just like he had been asked. The request came around the time of Yulia Tymoshenko’s arrest and look who pleaded with the president: the President of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, a director who was one of the Sixtiers, a postmodernist writer, the Director of the Ukrainian Studies Institute, etc. As the saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune. In German they say, Sitz!

Consequently, what these intellectuals do comes as no surprise. For example, an ambitious reformer of Ukrainian theatre believes that a novel by Hanna Herman, an advisor to the president, is the best thing written in the independence period. A female writer, the foremost proponent of the vote-against-all strategy during the 2010 presidential election, also contributed to improving the karma of a Ukrainian gas market monopolist by reciting her poetry in Chernivtsia against the backdrop of the oligarch’s glorious initials. These are supposedly “apolitical writers” far removed from dirty politics. In Ukrainian translation this meant joining the Communist Party under the Soviets, obtaining money for a patriotic book under the Orange government and now currying favour with oligarchs who are about to dismantle the Ukrainian state as such. It turns out that these intellectuals make conspicuous exceptions to their against-all principle.

Moreover, they have come up with the perfect excuse: the oligarchs owe us because they have stolen from the state. In short, it's too bad that Akhat Brahin, the Donetsk-based criminal boss and businessman who was killed in the mid-1990s, did not have the time to facilitate the development of Ukrainian culture.

This is when the already disparaging term ukrsuchlit (an abbreviation that stands for ‘contemporary Ukrainian literature’. – Transl.)  acquired its true sense of ‘glamorous collaborationism’.

This surrealist play is crowned by an episode from the most recent Lviv Book Publishers Forum. The mass media reported: “The idea of having Viktor Yanukovych as a patron for the forum was booed in Lviv.” The next day, media reported that the forum's organizers would indeed ask the president to take the next forum under his patronage. After this, some writers said they would not bother to show up.

Now the question is: Do they teach logical reasoning anywhere in Ukrainian universities? These writers seem to reason along the following lines: if the forum is financed by the president’s sponsor, I will be there, but if the president himself is the patron, I won’t come. What is the difference, really?

The list of examples can be continued ad nauseam, but it is not about individual intellectuals with compromised morals. The problem is the inability of a large segment of Ukrainian culture activists to self-organize, act, be responsible for their actions and have moral presence in society. It is not an issue of money. We had money flowing from the diaspora. There are also Western foundations, programmes and grants – countless sources. It is about a lack of fundamental human integrity and civic consciousness.

Wouldn’t it be better to hold much smaller events than the Lviv Book Publishers Forum and the poetry festival in Chernivtsi? The costs and attendance would be down, but the voice of the intelligentsia would have its proper moral weight. Not so many chandeliers and crowds, populist poetry-related events at bazaars and narcissistic recitals and less drinking but more of enduring intellectual protest energy.

Analyzing the catastrophic effect of the Berlusconi phenomenon on Italy, one Italian political scientist said: “I’m not afraid of Berlusconi in power. I’m afraid of the Berlusconi in myself.” Ukrainian intellectuals might do well to replace Berlusconi's name with one of several Ukrainian names and take a good look in the mirror.

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