Yuri Vynnychuk talks about grasping the spirit of the time in the writing, passive intellectuals and the rule of the current government as purgatory for Ukraine
Yuri Vynnychuk has just celebrated his 60th anniversary, but this Lviv-based writer known for his provocative literary-political outbursts is not even thinking about retirement. He continues to write biting pieces of journalism, and his scandalous poem “Kill the sh..thead” was an instant success on the Internet. The writer was charged with pornography and incitement to remove the current government in an illegal way. In early April, the Chief Directorate of the Interior Ministry in Lviv Region submitted his poems to the Donetsk Forensic Scientific and Research Institute for “psycholinguistic and literary critical analysis”.
U.W.: Your poem “Kill the sh…thead” made an uproar and one might even say divided intellectuals into two camps: those who support it and those who consider such forms of protest inappropriate. What do you think about this?
This is the behaviour of the rotten intelligentsia. I believe that to speak tactfully and discuss things with con men is a step towards failure, because we should call a spade a spade and not be ashamed of it. Now my poem is not, of course, a sample of high poetic art, but it is no inferior to, say, the text of our national anthem, Ivan Franko’s “It’s not time, not time for us to serve Poles and Muscovites” or even “La Marseillaise”. In other words, it is for popular consumption. Moreover, when I first published it on Facebook, I signed it as Yuzio the Observer, i.e., a fictitious character, a kind of Svejk. So it is as if it’s a view of my character rather than my own. But Oksana Pakhlovska, for one, wrote in The Ukrainian Week that the poem is brutal and ridiculed the flashmob held in my support in Lviv that featured scenes from Kamasutra. But the way I understand it is that she lives there in Italy and sees things differently because of that. But our contemporary young people see the situation just like this. The flashmob was organized by young people, who also invited me to participate. Everything took place absolutely spontaneously.
U.W.: It appears that you are increasingly identified as an “irritant” for society.
I wrote many topical texts earlier, back in the 1990s when I worked in the Ne Zhurys (Cheer up!) theatre. Those text died together with the problems they discussed. Now I sometimes write political poems for Viktor Morosov which he uses for his songs and which he sings at concerts with his band Galicia.
I was interviewed by a German newspaper, and the journalist told me that the German Constitution says that every citizen has the right to protest against the government. We do not have this right, but I believe that I do have the right to demand this government leave, and to fight against it.
U.W.: Many writers have been writing essays on sociopolitical topics: Serhiy Zhadan, Yuri Andrukhovych, Andriy Bondar, Oleksandr Boichenko and Les Poderviansky, to name but a few. Do you think it is worthwhile for authors to combine literature and politics?
People now need these types of texts, i.e., they need some political slogans and songs. If I wrote a highly intellectual work, few people would read it and it would not be popular. People in the countryside or those who have not read anything would not even look at it. But Dobkin read this poem I wrote and responded, so it is clear that such texts are needed.
I don’t understand those who are accusing me. What are they going to do – sit and wait until people come out and organize another Maidan? Is it only then that they will crawl out of their holes and onto the stage to promote themselves and deliver speeches? I'm not waiting for a repeat of the Maidan – I am writing now. If I read a poem like that at the Maidan, everyone would say it is normal. But I wrote it in the circumstances we have now, so some say it is brutal, others call it untimely, still others see it as a call to do something, and so on. Dovzhenko once said that when two people look down, one sees a puddle and the other one the stars reflected in it. This is the same thing.
U.W.: What are these charges of pornography: true repressions or simply the foolishness of certain individuals?
It’s hard for me to say, but someone definitely supports them. For example, Volodoymyr Bondarenko (director of the Institute for Political, Sociological and Marketing Studies who initiated a check of Vynnychenko’s works by writing a complaint to MP Leonid Hrach who turned to the Prosecutor General’s Office. – Ed.) was rejected by the Commission on National Morals and immediately organised a press conference in the UNIAN news agency. I know that there are queues there and you have to register in advance. Moreover, you need to pay – and who will pay for all of that? And then someone actually said that we needed to introduce censorship. Hrach went as far as to say: We need to prohibit such writers. So I don't know; it may be some overture to “putting the country in order”. But it still looks more like asininity – why would someone act like that and make a poem I read before about 100 people during a poetry night in Kyiv become so popular that millions of people must have read it by now? Evidently someone needs it and someone benefits from it. If Hrach is fanning this fire, maybe he is the one who needs it.
U.W.: Do we need to have any commission on morals at all?
At one point in history, Henry Miller’s works and Nabokov’s Lolita were banned, but that was in the distant past. Works by Pushkin, Lermontov and Nekrasov that contain obscenities were published in Russia. Nearly all of the classical Russian writers wrote unprintable things. But the commission in Ukraine is working in a somewhat different way. I believe it would make sense if it monitored some TV programmes, because everybody, including children, can watch TV. In contrast, books are not so immediately accessible. A child will not go and buy a book by Jean Genet, who described homosexual acts, or one by Oles Ulianenko. So I don't know what role this commission may have. But at least it has treated me normally: I was told they review only printed works, while my poem was never printed.
U.W.: A “revolution” in the Ukrainian intellectual environment is taking place on the Internet. Should and can intellectuals themselves do something to change its format and take it beyond the limits of internal discussions?
I don't know whether intellectuals can do anything at all. Who listens to them anyway? Any revolution, any upsurge of popular wrath depends on the grassroots rather than on prominent figures. The latter can lead something, but writers should not engage in it. They are good propagandists but poor leaders of any revolution. We know that from the time of the Central Rada: all of the leaders at the time wrote something. Symon Petliura was a literary critic and translator; Mykola Mikhnovsky was a poet and critic, to say nothing about Mykhailo Hrushevsky and Volodymyr Vynnychenko. Whoever you look at, everybody wrote. Part of the otamans were also writers of sorts. I believe that all of our intellectual discussions, round-tables, etc. are limited to our own environment and fail to go beyond it. No-one knows about them. Average Ukrainians can watch on television only the things they are shown, typically some film series. The provinces often do not have access to opposition television at all, so no-one learns about all these initiatives. Evidently we simply need to reach out to people and talk.
U.W.: But people are now inert, aren’t they?
They are, but I think they will soon change, because this government will resort to large-scale falsification during the election, and it will end in a big fight. At the recent by-election in Obykhiv, the authorities showed us how it will happen. If this starts happening across the country, there will be a new Maidan. They will not permit us to win the election honestly, and I don't know any other way to re-elect the current government. But we have to do something about it, because the low standard of living, unemployment, absence of any prospects and our obscure future lead to unmotivated outbursts of anger and sadism. Part of the people do not receive structured, ordered life and begin to degenerate. As a result, morals decline.
U.W.: What do you think about generalisations such as this one: Everyone has the government they deserve?
Oftentimes, we don't have a choice. We do not have leaders, people we could trust. Instead, there are turncoats. They came to power under one banner and then deserted to another political force. David Zhvania said that he, too, “must have the right to choose.” He simply fails to understand that he does not have this right. We have it and we can refuse to elect him, because if he comes to parliament as a member of one political force, he does not have the right to defect. When they have the prospect of defection, elections as such become a mere show. Why do we need them at all in this case? People are at a loss, and they should not be rebuked for supporting these and not other politicians. What choice did we have? Many people voted for Yulia Tymoshenko not out of sympathy for her but in order to counteract Yanukovych.
However, I believe that things are changing for the better and the rule of the Party of Regions is like purgatory for Ukraine to help part of our people shed their pro-Russian illusions. And the protest may begin from eastern Ukraine, because they are close to the limit there. I am surprised by this government: it came from eastern Ukraine but drove that region into the ground. It is no government secret that people there live in completely different conditions than in western Ukraine. The demographic situation there is horrible; the population is decreasing; they have many more problems with disease, drug addiction and so on. Men rarely live to be 50 there. And they have no prospects! We see that child labour is being exploited there like in Dickens’ works – but it is the 21st century outside! So I'm surprised by this government which could arrange for better conditions for its own electorate but is doing nothing of the kind. No-one knows where the money allocated for that region has gone!
Our opposition is also rotten. I am in favour of electing people who have never been in parliament before. But of course we need to find them first. You see, to be a parliamentarian in Ukraine is a profession. They spend half of their lives in parliament. Volodymyr Yavorivsky once met with voters and offered a fantastic argument for why he, rather than his opponent, had to be elected: “Just think about it: he has never been in the Verkhovna Rada, but I know every corner there. So if he comes, he will not even be able to find the bathroom!” That was his argument. He talked some more, everybody laughed, and he was elected again. Now what has he done, this MP Yavorivsky?
U.W.: It is increasingly said that Ukrainian literature is in a condition that can be described as escapism. No one is writing about the reality, even though the current absurdities are a good background for a writer. Why is this?
We don't have literary journals or high-quality literary newspapers. But fiction would have to appear somewhere [in periodicals]. A book is a longer process – it takes time for my book to be published. There must also be literary criticism to put works of fiction into at least some context. But now literature is in a miserable state in Ukraine, and so we don't have any political pieces. I have not seen any except Yuri Shcherbak’s novel Chas smertokhrystiv (“The Time of Deathchrists”).
U.W.: The Ukrainian literary environment is quite closed. This is why professional criticism is often taken personally and most reviews read like odes to writers. Don't you feel like you live in a kind of cultural ghetto?
This is, again, primarily because of the absence of journals. If the wider public read literary criticism, writers might be ashamed to write eulogies. But because everything is revolving in one circle, they are used to agreeing on all things among themselves on the belief that there is some code of conduct according to which negative reviews should not be written. In Soviet times, in the 1980s, when all literary journals began to include sections with critical pieces, there were many sharp articles about literature. Mykola Riabchuk published a devastating review of Ivan Drach’s book Amerykanskyi zoshyt (“An American Notebook”) at the time, but the editors in Vitchyzna protected themselves and published this review alongside a positive one. I often published biting pieces back then, too. They scandalized the authors, who wrote complaints to the Central Committee [of the Communist Party]. But the thing is that few people read positive reviews. Most often these include the writer whose work is reviewed and his family: father, grandmother, etc. “Oh, what nice things they’ve written about our dear son or daughter,” they say. The public at large is not interested in reading this “cud”. In contrast, sharp pieces draw everyone's attention. But again editors are often afraid to publish them. I once submitted an article to Kurier Kryvbasu in which I criticised a volume of Yuri Kosach’s works prepared by Vira Aheieva. There were some absolutely horrible, factually incorrect commentaries in that book. But the journal refused to publish my review in order not to quarrel with Aheieva.
U.W.: The situation in Ukrainian cinema seems to be even worse…
We have young directors that make films for Russia – they could do the same thing here. Some money was recently allocated for films, but what projects were financed? Again, Russian-language films. I do not consider Russian-language films to be Ukrainian. To me, Kira Muratova, Oksana Bairak and Roman Balaian are not Ukrainian directors. They have nothing to do with Ukrainian cinema. Viktor Yanukovych Jr. recently published an article, somewhere in Ukrainska pravda (The Ukrainian Truth), about some kind of get-together with masters of cinematography, meaning our directors who conducted masterclasses. In other words, there are Ukrainian directors, but there is no Ukrainian cinema. What will they show? The things they did 20 years ago? For example, these films about the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) made by Oleksandr Yanchuk are very poor. Of course, I watched them out of patriotic feelings, but this kind of total primitivism cannot be shown in the West.