Andriy Kurkov: “I want Ukrainian culture to incorporate everything that belongs to Ukraine”
The Ukrainian Week talks with Andriy Kurkov, Ukraine’s most translated contemporary Russian-speaking author, about the essence and tempo of social changes, the Russian language and Russian presence in Ukraine.
UW: Do you consider the recent mental evolution of Ukrainians to be rapid?
We can speak about extreme plasticity. We have gone through several stages of maturation and evolution each of which took at least decades in ordinary countries ,while Ukraine needed only two-three years. You can only wonder at the speed with which our country was heading somewhere until it ended up in the present. This simply means that our social temperament is by no means Nordic. At the same time, foreign journalists keep asking me over and over again: “What can you say about there being two Ukraines?” I reply that there may be as many as five of them but now… It suddenly dawned on me that while I lived in a democratic multi-party system, the other half of Ukraine lived under the one-party system which was so easily and painlessly inherited from the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. It perpetuated a special worldview and hierarchy of human relationships: between the boss and the subordinate, between those with the right to bang their fists on the table and those who are supposed to bow their heads and silently listen. And now these two Ukraines are indeed facing a situation in which one is fed up with treading water, while the other can’t grasp what is being asked of it. This other Ukraine did not and still does not have its own spokespeople at the level of civil society. Right, Serhiy Zhadan speaks on behalf of some community in Kharkiv and Luhansk, but he does not represent the entire community that actually resides there. And who does? No one — spokespeople are appointed there! If someone is appointed, it is already a political role. So then the representatives are Kernes, Dobkin (infamous top officials in Kharkiv – Ed.) and some other fellows… There is this organization called Oplot. Does it represent (Eastern Ukrainian) society? And if these faces voice certain thoughts and society does not disagree or say: “No, we haven’t delegated them”? In that case, does it mean that they have representative powers?
UW: The fact that you write in Russian and, at the same time, is included in the Ukrainian literary process… I mean that even a short while ago it would have been hard to imagine the Kurkov-Vynnychuk duet. Today, you are friends involved in the same publishing project and, more important, readily perceived together. This is an achievement of the last ten — OK, fifteen — years. What are your thoughts about this?
It seems that a certain circle of readers stopped dividing people by language, while intellectuals have reached a level at which thoughts are more important than the vehicles of their expression. At the same time, I can speak Ukrainian, of course. I learned it back in Soviet times when few people in Kyiv spoke the language. I worked in the Dnipro Publishing House, editing translations from foreign languages into Ukrainian. I was loyal to the Ukrainian language and literature back then and now consider this culture partly my own, because today I probably read more in Ukrainian than in English or Russian as I keep track of literature. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone perceives me as their own. There are some people who are still hostile to me and will never accept me.
UW: Some are even hostile?
If I took everything close to heart, I would be neurasthenic. Fortunately, I have a totally different attitude to life.
UW: We understand that it so happened in history that language evolved from a literary reference point (here are, say, Chekhov and Brodsky and there, Khvylovy and Stus) into a civilizational one in the sense of direction: there, backwards or here, forwards. Far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from this fact. For example, it may be asserted that the Russian component needs to be gradually cut off. It may sound barbaric from the standpoint of overall culture, but in the specific Ukrainian situation I am willing to subscribe to this view. What about you?
I don’t quite understand what it means to “cut off a component”. To me, language is still a cultural, rather than political, tool. Easily reading in five languages (including in my mother tongue, Russian), I perceive not the language itself but the thoughts, plots and messages expressed. I don’t want to go the way of assimilation. I want Ukrainian culture, national Ukrainian culture to incorporate everything that belongs to Ukraine in terms of politics, territory and simply the human dimension. All the things written in Ukraine and about Ukraine, especially by citizens of Ukraine who perceive this country as their homeland, belong to the state of Ukraine. This thought has been continually repeated for the past twenty-something years.
UW: Now about the events on the Maidan, particularly the fact that its first hero Serhiy Nigoyan– to me, he is unquestionably a hero – was an ethnic Armenian. There was also Belorusian Mikhail Zhyznevsky and two Ukrainians, Yuriy Verbytsky and Roman Senyk. Don’t you think that this symbolic fact puts to rest the question of an ethnic Ukrainian nation and affirms the existence of a political Ukrainian nation?
I would hope so, but the thing is that there will still be professional patriots and ethnic anthropologists who will argue that, just like in other countries at a time of their consolidation, ethnic origin is above all else. We simply need to proceed from the fact that normal people outnumber lunatics. That half a million people came to the Maidan, most of them Kyiv residents, proves that the Kyiv community is, in principle, not ill. Unfortunately, Kyiv has become, it seems to me, not a ground for forging one common worldview but a battlefield of opposite worldviews. Nevertheless, Kyiv residents have shown much greater involvement and have de facto become part of Western Ukraine. This has its good and bad sides. In one sense, Kyiv is gradually losing its bourgeois spirit and acquiring the romanticism that can potentially turn into radicalism. On the other hand, the people who have spent two months on the Maidan, listened to a slew of different speeches and talked among themselves are also experiencing certain mental shifts. To learn to listen, accept some things and critically reject others is good training for any person regardless of their education level. In this respect, the ability to listen to one another, even if disagreeing, is a great leap towards a more tolerant society. Perhaps if we later come across a person who clearly lacks knowledge to express his thoughts, we will send him to the library instead of rudely telling him to get lost…
UW: Do you have a feeling that a part of you remains in your historical motherland, i.e., in Russia?
We came to Ukraine when I was two. I have never lived in Russia. If you sit down and count months spent there, I seem to have lived in Britain, Cambridge, more – I spent several months a year there back in the 1990s. Political events in Russia have never interested me – unlike the direction Russian literature is taking… A long time ago, I noticed a difference between post-Soviet Russian literature and post-Soviet Ukrainian literature: they went opposite ways and continue drifting apart, each along its own path.
UW: Can you please expound on this?
Easily done. Post-Soviet Russian literature started being published back in Soviet times: Petrushevskaya, Ulitskaya, Kabakov, Yerofeyev, etc. Meanwhile, politically correct Soviet literature was published in Ukraine all the way until 1991, leaving a huge void afterwards. There were already Neborak, Zabuzhko, Andrukhovych, Herasymiuk, Rymaruk and others at the time, but this void never elevated these new writers. It only advanced them somewhat, at the same time conveying a sense that there was nothing else there. And we automatically became part of the Russian book market. In Russia, serious literature was little by little becoming part of the establishment, and Russian writers started being flown – they still are – to book fairs… Russian authors are beginning to understand what the state wants from them –not just being a patriot but being a teacher of patriotism. In contrast, the couldn’t-care-less attitude Ukrainian writers had adopted to their state set young Ukrainian literature on the path of some kind of anarchy. It has developed independently. In Ukraine, literature is separated from the state. This has led to a situation where young Ukrainian literature started being translated abroad more extensively than young Russian literature. Ukrainian literature is winning over young readers. In fact, if measured by average age, translated Ukrainian authors are the youngest writers in Europe…