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Time to go down to the cellar

Europe cannot continue to ignore Ukraine's buried history. By Oksana Zabuzhko

In the fall of 2006, Ukrainian television carried an extremely popular series on corruption, in which there was one particularly illuminating segment. It dealt with the construction of a protective mantle, a so-called "sarcophagus," for the notorious Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, which exploded back in 1986. With the aid of the international community, the new mantle was supposed to be finished by 2007, but it is still unclear when it will be actually be completed – if ever. The TV screen showed a discussion among three outwardly West European-seeming businessmen (rather than any variety of mafioso) in the office of the director of the Chernobyl station. Each of the three spoke Russian with a different accent – hardly unusual, since in Ukraine everyone speaks Russian with an accent, including Ukrainian-born members of the country's Russian minority.

The one foreigner in the trio was easy to identify; he was the representative of a German service company for the nuclear industry. This gentleman instructed his Ukrainian colleagues on how to set up a costing plan for the construction of a radioactive waste disposal plant and how to submit an application to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for 20 million euros for the project – from which he promised to transfer 500,000 euros directly to the bank accounts of the other two men. The German rustled his papers, explained the procedure, cited figures, while the startled Ukrainians groaned "Oh God!"

The scene felt almost biblical, the ancient theme of temptation by lesser demons. The TV segment unfortunately broke off abruptly, and the proposed criminal activity was never carried out because something went wrong at the German end of things. Later in the same broadcast the director of the Chernobyl plant (he was the one who had groaned the loudest) confirmed nervously that "Yes, such a conversation had taken place." But in another segment of the programme, the head of the European Commission's office in Ukraine refused to be interviewed on EU involvement in the corruption affair. He cut an impressive figure, quick, lean, with an intelligent face, scrunched up eyes, ironic tone, a hint of condescension – one couldn't help thinking of Church cardinals in El Greco paintings – and, speaking more or less out of the corner of his mouth, said: "No comment." "No comment?" asked the journalist irritatedly. "No comment," confirmed the European Commission official smilingly in a demonstration of power.

It was a triumph of indifference. Who were we, after all, that he should feel he owed us a reply, much less a justification (how presumptuous!). To be honest about it, I rather enjoyed the scene, because it struck me as a replay of a scene in my latest novel, in which the heroine, a journalist, experiences what all not-yet-fully-hardened journalists experience in a world dominated by irresponsible men of power.

There is, however, a "but." From a psychological perspective, the irresponsibility of the governing forces in the Ukraine is seen primarily as a purely national problem, as the burdensome legacy of the Soviet past and the growing pains of a still-young democracy. That is why Ukrainian viewers were so disturbed by the revelation that, even within the borders of the European Union, the representatives of "mature" European democracies sometimes behave like our own Ukrainian mafiosi. Which prompted the moderator of the TV programme to comment, in a voice laden with a childlike sense of insult: "The corruption in Ukraine is really a nasty business, but the corruption in the EU – well, of course that's a horse of a different colour. Right?"

The depth of the disappointment can only be understood if one comprehends the magnitude of the "myth of Europe" in the Ukrainian consciousness. Nowhere else in Europe has that myth played such a vital role in the crystallization of a national identity – except perhaps for the Balkans, in this respect a parallel by no means accidental. In the history of the Ukraine like that of the Balkan states, there was always a latent threat from the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-17th century, hostilities on two fronts – with Turkey and with Poland – forced Ukraine to forge a military alliance with the Grand Principality of Moscow, as a result of which Ukraine at least secured much-prized access to the sea. But the price for this was high, too high as it turned out: The beginnings of Ukraine's constitutional development were nipped in the bud, and at the end of the 18th century Ukraine also lost its political autonomy.

In the subsequent two centuries, with the exception of its western territories, Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, with Ukrainians playing a significant role in the Empire's structural formation. Indeed, the concept of Kiev's "formative mission" in the Russian Empire was promulgated by Ukrainian scholars in the 17th century (and a weak echo of that idea may still be found in the works of the Ukrainian author who writes in Russian, Nikolai Gogol). But the "mission" ended and Ukraine became a colonial province of Russia, a reservoir of human and natural resources.

The concept of "a return to Europe and a return to itself" ran like a red thread through the Ukrainian national rebirth in the 19th and 20th centuries. That is to say, a return to its formerly unrealised constitution, to the "rights and freedoms of the Third Estate" denied it by the Russian Empire, to an elected government, to all those things that survived only as "myths" in the Industrial Age. And most particularly a return to the sense that "we were once free Cossacks" (the Zaporog Cossacks of the Dnieper Basin were organized in the 16th century as the eastern outpost of the Maltese Order against the Ottoman Empire, and probably continue to play a more important role in Ukrainians' cultural self-image than does medieval knighthood in that of West Europeans).

Thus in the minds of modern Ukrainians (regardless of whether they have ever personally visited Central or Western Europe) the "myth of Europe" continues to constitute a kind of "paradise lost" – a place where justice and prosperity reign and where human rights are honored, with liberté, egalité, fraternité waving in the breeze like an invisible banner. We Ukrainians were once banished from that paradise, but now, like our neighbours the Poles and the Balts, we want to return home. This, or something very similar, is what a Kiev businessman, a student from the Don Basin, a taxi driver from Lemberg or a dock worker from Odessa would say.

That is why Western comments in which our "Orange Revolution" is seen as the result of our "newly awakened, pro-Western orientation" always make me smile a bit. I am 120% certain that the "orientation" of the millions of people who went out into the streets in November 2004 to demand fair elections was, in fact, purely Ukrainian. During that autumn we thought about the West no more than the West thought about us. Yet it turned out that the values for which those people were ready, without exaggeration, to put their lives on the line – namely, freedom, equality for all before the law, and the right to determine our own country's future – that those values "just happened" to coincide with the fundamental values of the established European democracies. In other words, our intellectual traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries, which despite prison and the gulag had remained firmly fixed in Ukraine's character as part of the European cultural landscape, are still very much alive today.

I am not naive enough to believe that this is sufficient grounds for rapid Ukrainian accession to the European Union. And anyway, I am concerned with a very different question: To what extent is today's EU not only limited to the borders of the Schengen Agreements, but also guarantees for that cultural landscape a reliable political climate, which also represents my spiritual sphere? Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is a good thing if the Ukraine must first "mature" in order to fulfill all the standards and conditions of EU membership. Perhaps it will turn out in the course of that intervening time that the European myth exists only in the romantic imagination of European provincials and that neither in Rome (the law), Canossa (morality) nor Paris (liberte, egalite, fraternite – yessir!) do people seriously believe in Rome, Canossa or Paris. Perhaps it will turn out that European cultural identity has long since been trampled into the ground by an army of cynical politicians and business people who clearly and comfortably divide Europe into a drawing room, where etiquette demands that everyone keep their buttons firmly buttoned, and the hallway outside, where people can let themselves go and everything is permitted that is forbidden in the drawing room. Quickly forgetting one's principles for example and suggesting to the natives: "Look, we'll steal a few million from our taxpayers, and of course you'll get a piece of the pie too, but don't forget one that it's okay for you to be corrupt out in the hallway, but for us in the drawing room it's considered indecent even to mention the word."

In other words: Is Europe's culture still in a position to exert a positive influence on political realities? I have a strong suspicion that the future of democracy in the 21st century is more or less dependent on the answer to that question, and this applies to "mature" and "young" democracies alike. You can no longer establish closed societies in today's world.

In Ukraine, European mishaps are felt with uncommon intensity, like a garish streak of oil paint on a pale pastel sketch. It is worth noting that a good two years after the "Orange Revolution" (which, I gladly repeat, was primarily a cultural phenomenon, a movement of moral protest, a struggle over values), Ukraine's political elite is allowing all "Orange" values to disappear right before the eyes of an astounded public, like some conjurer at a country fair. This Gogolian grotesquerie naturally leaps out at you, like that streak of oil paint, whereas the pastel is more subdued, more subtle, and easier to overlook if one so chooses.

To take just one example: Let us look at the EU-Russia summit which was held in Finland in October 2006. Russia at the time was casually deporting Georgians just because they were Georgians. On the streets, the militia were stopping people who were "suspicious" just because they were dark-skinned, and those "suspects" were, with the connivance of the authorities, subjected to beatings in dark corners by Russian ultra-nationalists.

At that same time, the president of Finland – the country which gave Europe its first declaration of human and civil rights more than 200 years ago (and I trust that document is still part of the European cultural canon) – declared to that nation's legislature that one "should not mix" questions of human rights and issues of economic cooperation. Translated from the pastel tones of diplomatic language, that was an admonition not to link the question of Russian natural gas deliveries with the issue of Russian right-wing radicalism. The Russians could keep their right-wing radicalism, the Europeans would take the gas. All right, I'll stop labouring the point about liberte, egalite, fraternite – but didn't the period between the two world wars, still remembered first-hand by a good many, teach European politicians that there is no such thing as "foreign" fascism? That the fascism tolerated today as another country's "internal affair" will tomorrow come marching towards our own front door in bovver boots? Or, to rephrase the question in terms of 21st century technology, that one of these days someone will be sitting beside you in an airliner with radioactive polonium in his luggage?

Historical memory constitutes the nucleus of culture; if it is lost, then the capacity to evaluate perspectives for the future is also lost, along with the ability to judge the long-term consequences of ones own undertakings.

At this point it would be appropriate to recall a highly interesting bit of history which was painted not in oils but in steaming blood. 1933 was the year of genocide against the Ukrainian people (the Holodomor), when some of Europe's most fertile soil was sown with the bodies of millions of farmers and the grain extorted from those farmers at gunpoint was dumped onto the world market at rock-bottom prices. Among the buyers of that "oddly" inexpensive wheat (its price estimated by historians at two human lives per tonne) was Hitler's Germany. Frenchmen and Britons sat at the Kremlin dinner table as Stalin's guests and reported back to their home newspapers that there could be no question of a famine in Ukraine. In the meantime, in France and Britain's immediate vicinity, there arose and flourished a regime which was about to attempt to turn all Europe into one vast concentration camp, even more terrible than those which already existed in the Soviet Union. That little tale is a possibly superfluous indication of how dangerous it can be "not to mix" the short-term advantages of economic cooperation and questions of human rights.

The experience of the 20th century should have taught us that, regardless of where the Berlin Wall once stood and where the borders of the Schengen Zone run today, there is just one single European history, bound together deep in its heart by a funeral courtege of which we are often quite unaware (and which takes us by surprise when parts of it suddenly surface). Just as the criminal code stipulates that ignorance is no excuse before the law, so history teaches that ignorance is no excuse for irresponsibility. Whenever friends from the West, often writers and journalists, make reference to corpses buried in the cellars of their own countries and to the consequences of recently revealed, black-and-white half-truths and hidden lies dating from World War II and the Cold War era, I reply: "Welcome to Ukraine!"

Indeed, after two centuries of Europe's ignoring the fact of our nation's existence (and its subsequent surprise when we suddenly reappeared on the maps), we as the "hallway" of Europe – or perhaps more aptly, its two-century old cellar – have a whole arsenal of buried corpses. Probably nowhere else can one find more convincing proof that hushed-up history has a long life and leads an underground existence, like those rivers that flow beneath the earth but rise up to the surface sooner or later. Ukraine is a mighty river flowing out of Europe's cellar, and it has yet to surface in its entirety. It would be too simple to view Ukraine purely through the prism of today's political situation, that is, as a country which cannot properly handle all its riches because of a fatally flawed government and a weak political elite. Where is a strong elite supposed to come from? None has been able to evolve, because from 1930 right up until the 1980s there were regular and thorough purges of Ukraine's educated classes.

This country has always been a crossroads and symbiosis of Greek-Byzantine and Latin traditions, a very special borscht, as it were (national dishes can also serve as metaphors for national characteristics). It derives its unique flavor from a mix of diverse ingredients, so that in this era of globalisation it should at least arouse interest as a centuries-old laboratory for multiculturalism. Here you can find almost everything that makes up the legacy of Old Europe, from the ruins of Ancient Greek colonies, through medieval fortresses and castles, to Baroque Greek Orthodox churches which were converted into mosques and then into Jesuit churches, which later still became Orthodox churches once again, but this time exclusively of the Russian Orthodox variety, and which in turn soon were turned into Soviet factories and warehouses.

The mix also includes at least 600 years of Jewish culture, with Hasidism as the legacy of Ukrainian Jewry. In addition there is the spice of an oriental note, with marked Turkish influences as a direct result of two centuries of hostilities between Cossacks and Turks.

Despite all the Soviet Empire's disastrous efforts to turn this borscht into a pallid gulag broth (a whole series of "ingredients" were liquidated; dozens of national minorities which still flourished in the 1930s no longer existed in Ukraine by the time the Soviet Union imploded), its flavour has remained. This is true not only in everyday life, but also at a deeper level, in a fundamental Ukrainian cultural polyphony – in tolerance toward "others," toward the "alien" (for example, in Ukraine you can walk into any church to pray, regardless of which denomination or patriarchate it belongs to, and you can see ordinary street scenes in which acquaintances and friends chat with one another in a variety of languages).

Ukraine's wealth of experience, however, also contains terrible and yet instructive elements. The Ukrainian war of independence waged against Russia and Poland between 1918 and 1920, after the collapse of the Czarist and Hapsburg empires, ended in defeat. The various European catastrophes of the 20th century were inevitably carried to Ukraine with particular brutality, and so calamitously that for decades there was only a narrow "spectrum of catastrophe" open for discussion or portrayal, its range confined to that which was shared either with Central and Western Europe (the horrors of the Second World War) or with the rest of the Communist world (the gulags, the persecution and murder of dissenters).

But the fact that Stalin's genocide in Ukraine cost more human lives than World War II (it is estimated that some six million Ukrainians were murdered); the fact that the Holocaust was in reality the second act of the catastrophe suffered by Ukrainian Jewry, the first having taken place in the 1930s, when Yiddish-speaking communities were transferred en masse to gulags, robbing Ukraine of an elemental part of its cultural richness; the fact that Ukraine's resistance movement, its partisan army, fought against the Nazi occupation from 1942 onward and then against the Soviet occupation on into the mid-1950s (the country's last partisan gave up the fight on August 25, 1991, one day after Ukraine's declaration of independence); the fact that Chernobyl was the psychological turning point for Ukrainians, as well as marking the total bankruptcy of the Soviet Union (which then, in accordance with the law of inertia, collapsed) – all these vast layers of historical memory, which have been passed down from generation to generation in purely oral form and about which official Ukrainian circles have spoken openly only relatively recently (in November 2006 the Ukrainian Parliament approved a declaration characterizing the tragic famine of 1933 as genocide) are naturally terra incognita outside of Ukraine.

But this situation cannot continue, if no other reason than because the European retrospective of the 20th century would be distorted without the inclusion of the buried history of Ukraine. Moreover, without that history, without those tales, historians, philosophers and writers would be deprived of basic material with which to reflect on the moral value of defeat in the fate of nations.

"You Ukrainians have it good," a Russian journalist said to me recently with an envious smile. "You argue among yourselves, you discuss, blow up, fight for something, believe in something ... But we who had a Greater Russia, what's left for us except nostalgia for Stalin?" (When I wrote the novel "Field Studies on Ukrainian Sex" - English excerpt here) I tortured myself over the Ukrainian "loser's complex," and because I didn't know how to get over it, I maintained an injured silence on the subject. It never occurred to me to even think about the great cost to nations of their "victor's complex.")

It is not just a question of re-evaluating the experience of defeat. What is more important is that Europe is still living mentally in the post-war era, in a world molded by the Cold War. It will hardly be possible to change that mold without digging up the "skeletons in the cellar." The Ukrainian "cellar" must be exposed, opened to the daylight, of that I am firmly convinced. The experiences of a country which managed to maintain its identity, however damaged, at a time when the logic of history dictated that it had hardly any chance of maintaining even its name, a country which began from square one just 15 years ago to resuscitate its traditions, revive its Third Estate, its middle class, to such an extent that it was able to demand its rights and freedoms through civic movements and mass demonstrations – that wealth of experience should not be absent from Europe's collective consciousness.

This should also be part of the joint process of casting light into the dark corners of Europe's cellar. It would be extremely dangerous to carry them along into the 21st century. Shady dealings are best carried out in dark corners, and as long as the businessmen of various nations continue to carry out their transactions behind closed doors, such things as the still incomplete mantle of Chernobyl's Reactor 4 can fall apart once and for all and, with no consideration for diplomatic protocol, could unite the EU and Ukraine into a single zone – one which would be uninhabitable for humans.

And then there would really be good reason for "No comment."


Oksana Zabuzhko
(website in English) is regarded as one of Ukraine's most important authors. Born in 1960, she was educated in philosophy and was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard and Pittsburgh. She is now vice-president of the Ukrainian Pen Center, and teaches creative writing at Kiev University. Her novel "Feldstudien über ukrainischen Sex" (field studies on Ukrainian sex) was published in German by Droschl Verlag in 2006.

A shorter version of this article appeared
in Der Standard in November 2007 and it was published in full length in Das Parlament magazine in February 2007.

Translation: Myron Gubitz

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