An interview with Oksana Zabuzhko
PEN/Opp publishes an exclusive interview with author Oksana Zabuzhko, made by Stefan Ingvarsson. At the time for the interview, Oksana Zabuzhko stayed at a writer's residence in the city of Gdańsk. There she was working on a wider essay on the war.
How is it to write from Poland about a war going on in your home country?
It's a public holiday today and I've taken time off from writing. Instead, me and my Polish agent visited Westerplatte. Some things can't be dismissed as coincidences. To that you must count the fact that I am in Gdańsk, writing about a new war in Europe. The same Gdańsk that no one wanted to die for in 1939, the Gdańsk that is a twin town to Mariupol, a city that no one wants to die for in 2022. Therefore, it felt right to go to Westerplatte, the peninsula of the port of Gdańsk, where World War II began. There I was struck by the thought that Snake Island, the island in the Black Sea, one day will have a similar symbolic role. It was also one of the first places attacked by the Russians and just as heroically refused to surrender. Today, for me, Gdańsk has become an charged landscape, the previous war had become more alive, and the present war melts into the memory of the former. Perspective is important in this odd war, which the world regards to be some kind of aquarium. War as infotainment. Human suffering and death taking place online.
But the war has also put a spotlight on Ukraine ...
At the moment I write on that very topic well aware that it is the first time that Ukraine has had its fifteen minutes in the world press, and that for once we have a chance to tell who we are. We must make the most of that opportunity. To this date, Ukraine has been seen as backwater, but now, unexpectedly, the world looks at us with interest and respect – because we resist the Russian army whom everyone has considered mighty and terrifying. We have risen from the "Ukraine crisis" to being somewhat heroic. I am allergic to anyone who uses the word "crisis" about the ongoings in my homeland, about the murdering of civilians, the mass sexual violence ... A cruel insensitivity hides behind such wording. Behind the insensitivity you find ignorance and lack of interest. When we spoke before this interview, you mentioned how few titles of the Ukrainian contemporary literature that have been translated into Swedish. It doesn't surprise me the slightest. There’s a shortage of translators. Because it has not been considered important, Ukrainian language teaching has not been prioritized. “After all, everyone knows Russian.”
There is a hierarchy dictating which languages that may possibly be translated. There is also a link between tanks and books. In recent years, Czech writer Milan Kundera was the one who tried to emphasize this to the world. When Europe feels threatened by Moscow militarily, interest in Russian literature increase. He meant, briefly, that culture also is defined by the idea of “might makes right”. The threat from Russian tanks made it interesting to try to understand the Russian culture. It is a sad stating, but nonetheless true. Russia is usually omitted when the links between powers and hierarchies of cultures are being re-evaluated in Europe. Today, we are experiencing something similar to what Kundera described, but vice versa. The outside world's newly aroused interest in Ukrainian literature also has a direct connection with tanks. The unexpectedly strong resistance of the Ukrainian army has generated this interest. Suddenly, Ukraine is a concern for more than a small, chosen crowd .
How does the war affect Ukrainian culture and literature today?
Since February 24, we speak the tongue of war. Everything has become black and white. Art becomes part of the defense. There is a need to sing the same songs, to be heard with one voice. A symbol of this is the soldier's song about red forest guelder rose from the First World War that can be heard all over the world today. This is not a time for the individual perspective, but a time for fellowship and battle. First, let's be frank about one thing: I was already in Poland at the end of February and heard the news about the Russian invasion in a hotel room in Warsaw. I'm constantly trying to grasp when I can return home, but for now I'm here, looking at what's happening from the outside.
How can we who try to carry forward Ukrainian voices and views today relate to the fact that much of what is said is dependent to the national narrative and can be perceived as black and white and categorical?
I don’t agree that individual voices are not heard. All reports from Ukraine today reflect individual experiences. Even Bucha consists of many different stories and learnings. Each witness captures another part of the picture. Literature is about individual perspective. Not least, we can see this in the multitude of strong depictions of the war in Donbas that has been published in Ukraine since 2014. Many of those are written by volunteers who themselves participated in the war. An example is Artem Chekh and his novel published in English, titled Absolute Zero. Another rendering that has become a real bestseller in Ukraine is Tamara Duda's novel The Daughter.
So, when your fellow writer Yuri Androchovich argued that war isn’t a time for novels eight years ago, he was wrong?
Yes, he turned out to be wrong. At least when it comes to novels that attempt to depict actual events. There has also emerged a different, much deeper, literature that takes on the unresolved the knots of the 20th century. An example is Serhiy Synhaivsky and the novel The Road to Asmara, depicting the Ethiopian famine 1983–1985 with Ukrainian eyes. The author worked as a Soviet interpreter in Ethiopia at the time and the book shows striking parallels between Soviet racism in Africa and Soviet policies in Ukraine. The book should be translated into more languages and contribute to a wider postcolonial understanding of the Soviet Union. The famine in Ethiopia was exploited politically to repress the independence aspirations in Eritrea and Tigray in ways reminiscent of how the Soviet Union used the famine in Ukraine in the 30s.
In Sweden, some people think we should pause all Russian culture right now and instead make room for the Ukrainian culture that has not been heard before. Is it possible to be so categorical? Are artists not above all individuals?
Similar debates are taking place on Ukrainian social media. This war is in many ways unusual. In a large part of Ukraine everyday life goes on, despite the war. It is in no way an ordinary everyday life, but still. Even in Mariupol there was, to the last moment, a kind of ordinary life. In the midst of this, there is an ongoing debate on how to relate to Russian culture, and whether a boycott of it is cancel culture, occurred. It is time for a re-reading of Russian literature and culture in order for us to understand how it continues to shape the mentality of a society that makes no distinction between victims and perpetrator. I have formulated myself quite clear about this. It's not about crime being possible to explain based on motive and opportunity. The first question I got when a foreign journalist called me on February 24th was very true: "What is it that Putin actually wants?" I screamed out load because it was such a blatant example of this stubborn quest to explain evil with rational motives. Putin has spoken plainly from the very beginning: he wants to destroy Ukraine as a state and as a nation. My argument is that instead Russian literature has strived to excuse and to justify evil, to show the perpetrator pity. Even today, many Russians feel more compassion for the young men who have been sent into this futile war than with their victims. Also in the West, there are many who find it easier to feel sorry for these ill-equipped and poorly trained boys. But if they had had better training and equipment, they would have killed more Ukrainians. Once again it is the perpetrator who asks for understanding and mercy.
What is said about this debate on Ukrainian social media?
Many argue that we cannot hold entire groups of people accountable for what is happening. The discussions are about how to distinguish Russians who are on the good side from those who support the war, distinguish so-called "good Russians." Now, the concept of "good Russians" has become the subject of memes and crude jokes because it is, of course, a rather absurd wording. The search for decent Russians has been a main theme for these debates. The incessant attempts to reach out to Russian friends and relatives, to reach out with the truth about what is happening to Russians. Many Ukrainians try to override the propaganda flooding out of the Russian tellies. Decency is the shortage that everyone is trying to come by. One wants to find Russians who are not preoccupied with self-pity right now. The feeling of injustice is one of the most distinct symptoms of the moral breakdown that characterizes so much of Russian society today. The really decent Russians are the ones who continue to protest and oppose the war, who are imprisoned for this, or who have volunteered in the Ukrainian army. A decent Russian strives actively for their own country to lose. Each compromise imply that Ukrainians are sacrificed. Right now, in light of what's happening, it isn’t decent to highlight the Russians as yet another in the line of victims of the Russian system. I am the first to understand the dilemma that these people are facing, but what they say must be measured against one single criterion: Do they feel compassion with Ukrainians in proportion to the crimes committed, or do they feel, above all, self-pity? Do they understand that we need and are entitled to some of the resources they believe to be their own? We who have to care for raped women and children. I know that decent Russians are under pressure from a state that shows an increasingly totalitarian face, but regardless of how we try to describe their situation and estimating their number, there is actually but one thing to say about their decency: It is not sufficient. When we have talked about the 20th century, we have been far too fixated on the ideologies behind authoritarian oppression and paid too little attention to the group psychology that unites them. It is possible to scrape off the ideological varnish and see that different totalitarian societies are ruled by a very similar logic. Now here this is clearer than in Russia, where the words, explanations and the propaganda modify from day to day. It is impossible to take seriously the claims that the leaders of Ukraine are Nazis and drug addicts. The only relevant thing in them is the essence: The Ukrainians are evil and must be removed, while we Russians are strong and righteous. Everything in its human existence is reduced to might makes right.
How to understand today's Russia as a state?
I describe today's Russia as an empire of the Chekists, that is, after the Cheka, the first Soviet security and intelligence service. After all, they change the name of the security service every ten, fifteenth year, but no matter what letter combination that apples at the moment, it sees itself as one and the same intact tradition. That the former Soviet security services continue to exist as an organization that never had to sort out its past, is one of the great unlearned lessons of the 20th century.
It begins with the end of World War II, when Europe decides that there is only one bad guy and that it is Hitler. On the other hand, among those who have defeated Hitler, there are no bad guys, on the contrary: They are the ones who restore the good. This despite the fact that all the victorious powers had committed war crimes: Just think of Dresden and Hiroshima, which are facts, or the millions and millions of innocent lives, both among their own and foreign citizens, whom the Soviet Union had on its conscience. All of this has suddenly vanished. It is a major problem today that the Soviet Union never was held accountable for these crimes in a pervasive way. I am not calling for a witch hunt, but I want to point out that it is not only Russia itself that hassettled its history. Nor has the western world made up with Soviet and Russian imperialism in its own view of the world, or, forthat matter, dealt with the fact that it is the Chekists in a descending line who rule Russia today.
After Chrustjov’s attempt to subordinate them to the party, Andropov began to re-establish the position of the security services in the 80s. This could also be seen in the Soviet popular culture. All at once, the KGB officers began to be portrayed as heroes. Also in the West they became a kind of idealized figures in the spy genre in books and in movies. There was an alliance between the KGB and Hollywood in that way. The end point of this development is stated when Boris Yeltsin appoints Vladimir Putin, a person who in every aspect represents the Chekists, and has been fostered in that tradition, to his successor. Right there, it was clearer than ever that the Western world didn’t draw any conclusions of the 20th century. It caused no consternation and no worries. It was not experienced in the same way as if a person with a background in the Gestapo had become a high-ranking representative of Germany. On the contrary. Many in the West thought well of Putin's cynicism.
He didn't even bother to pretend to be decent, and it worked. After all, this attitude was in progress even in the West. The elegant,agile and grinning KGB officer from that time’s Soviet television series was now in power: Evil in a classy suit. All this can be summarized very briefly: If someone asks Putin why he responds to human suffering with an ironic smile, the answer is: Because I can. Who can stop me? Behind this sarcasm hides a fathomless contempt for anyone who does not belong to their little clique.This is exactly how it is within the Russian Chekist elite today.
What does it mean then, for the war in Ukraine, that the adversary is this cynical, unscrupulous television dictatorship you describe?
The war denudes the tailored and world-accustomed coating of the Moscow elite and shows the system as it is: ugly, miserable,cruel, merciless and pathetic. It strips off a country that had been able to create wealth for its inhabitants considering today's commodity prices, but is instead characterized by a widespread destitution. The country's mighty army is largely filled with young men who have never seen one decent toilet throughout his life and who are shocked by the standard of living in the suburbs of Kyiv. Finally the western world sees the truth: The contempt for international law, for peace, for all agreements. It should have drawn these conclusions back in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, but then the outside world swallowed it whole and hoped for the best. After Bucha, it is no longer possible to keep your eyes closed. Despite the fact that the truth is in the open, many are prepared to sacrifice the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainian life to appease Russia and “stop” the war. Those who want to sacrifice Ukraine today does not see us as a standard European people. They also don't know much about us. They haven't attended us to find out that we actually built a perfectly okay society based on the Soviet conditions we inherited. At every people’s protests in Ukraine, a few more Westerners have gained the knowledge that we in fact want something and have accomplished something, but far too often Ukraine is diminished to play a kind of supporting role. Most people in the West are more interested in what the developments in Kyiv may say about the possible development in Russia. Would the Russians also be able to embark on such a path? Very few looks at Ukraine in its own right. Implicitly we are regarded as almost the same people. By implication, all Ukrainians that made way in any field are still Russians. That is the designation they get. There is a total confusion of us as nations, and many repeat that well-worn formulation about “fraternal people” which neither explains nor improves any of the real problems.
What should we consider as we approach Ukraine as a colonized place?
That is a very difficult question. There are so many aspects of our colonial past that we yet not really understand or see it clearly ourselves. It is only now that we begin to accomplish how the singularity of Ukraine after all survived the Soviet period from the famine and onwards. I think the concept the “subaltern”, used in both feminism and postcolonial studies, is more accurate capturing the essence of Ukraine's relationship with Russia than concepts such as “colonized” and “conquered”. It is at the breaking point between feminism and postcolonial studies I see many entrances to a deeper understanding of Ukraine. There's alot to do. Recently I finished a long essay on why the Ukrainian Anton Chekhov probably never could have become a writer in the Ukrainian language. It is time to describe the consequences of Alexander IIs decree in 1876 that banned the Ukrainian language, a ban that applied until 1905. In practice it meant a criminalization of the Ukrainian identity. We are used to describe the law as a ban on the Ukrainian language, but basically one was from Russian stay out for the entire Ukrainian press, identity and culture. What they wanted to prevent was a modernization based on Ukrainian self-consciousness. To be honest it all started far earlier, in the 1860s, immediately after the Poles revolt against the Tsar. Until Stalin these bans accompanied massive deportations in order to blur the line between Ukrainians and Russians. Then the deportations were replaced by artificial starvation, neck shots and the Gulag.
Putin's policy today is a direct heir to these predecessors. When Russian soldiers today arrive in occupied cities and burn Ukrainian textbooks and then replacing them with Russian school textbooks, it is not Putin’s own creation – he is advancing a Great Russian policy that has more than one hundred and fifty years of history. The essence of that policy is to consider the very core of being Ukrainians as an enemy. Putin is attracted by the idea of being the one to stage the final solution to Russia's problem with Ukraine, he wants to complete what neither Catherine the Great, Alexander II or Stalin succeeded in: To obliterate the Ukrainian identity as a whole. This war is about the survival of Ukraine.