Oleksandr Roitburd was born in Odesa, where he later became an artist who won not only the hearts and minds of the admirers of his art, but also the respect of his colleagues for his qualities of a leader. In 1993 he was one of those who founded the New Art association. His artworks are in the collections of many of the world’s well-known museums and galleries.
Roitburd is not indifferent to what is going on. It is well known to the regular users of Facebook, where he actively “publishes.” He also took an active part in the congress “Ukraine-Russia: a Dialog” last April. Now that we have passed one of the most difficult landmarks – presidential elections – it was especially interesting to speak with him about the not so easy events of the past few months and his vision of the future.
Oleksandr, you have been on the front line since the very first days, taking an active part in all that is going on in this country. What is the Maidan for Ukraine and you personally?
“I would not call the Maidan in one word ‘maidan.’ The Maidan has had different periods and faces. There was a period of peaceful protest, in which I took an active part, a period of armed conflict, with which I actively sympathized but, as not so military a person, did not take an active part. There was a Maidan that was busy building new base-level self-organizational structures, but there was also a Maidan swept for some time by a wave of violence and looting. Now the Maidan is degenerating into a pigpen. Of course, this evolution must be studied. At first, there was heroism and marvelous idealistic enthusiasm. But, on the whole, it turned out that the Ukrainian revolution was not only the Maidan, but also the next events. This is a factual break with a totalitarian legacy, a break with an empire. What has previously occurred on the symbolic level still remains there because it was not filled with real content and was very easy to do. And what is occurring now is no longer a twist of fate but a deliberate choice, for which Ukraine is paying today with its territories and human lives. A new country with a new political nation and identity is being born today. It is in fact the birth of a new Ukrainian state.”
What are your own vision, appraisal, and analysis of the Odesa events?
“It is difficult for me to appraise, for I was not in Odesa during those events. Well, this all began as a farce, as an operetta-style camp on Kulikovo Field full of bribed extras, people stupefied by propaganda, people who came to earn money, and smuggled-in saboteurs. Lumpens were played down to, discontent with the Ukrainian authorities was diverted from those who had really caused this discontent to those who had risen up against an unacceptable regime. It is handiwork of the Russian propaganda machine and the result of a years-long instilment of certain blocks in mass consciousness. On the one hand, it is humanitarian impotence of the Kyiv central government which is unable to clearly define and find a commonly acceptable solution of the Russian language problem, which is in fact not a problem at all. There was neither a political will nor an elementary wisdom to define and pronounce it.”
A SELF-PORTRAIT, 2013-14
Do you think this tragedy was only an act of playing a political card?
“Yes, but this stumbled over Kyiv’s complete helplessness and Moscow’s cynical professionalism. One of Zhvanetsky’s maxims says that, from time immemorial, the Russian conflict has been a struggle between ignorance and injustice. So these have come into conflict here, and injustice turned out to be more effective than ignorance. Not only through its own fault, but also through that of Kyiv, which failed to notice this in time, Odesa ate up the blocks that had been prepared in Russia. It is like books in the Soviet Union. If you wanted to buy a book, say, Crime and Punishment, you could do so on condition you also buy The Little Land [ostensibly written by Leonid Brezhnev. – Ed.] or The Notes of a Gardener. So the Russian language which people were accustomed to speak, an attribute of their private life, the Russian culture in which people were educated, were served in package with Russian imperialism, neo-totalitarianism, neo-Stalinism, and political Orthodoxy in which the church is a ministry that caters to the basest instincts of the crowd and provides the most dyed-in-the-wool manifestations of the official ideology. It occurred to nobody in Kyiv to make an effort to break this link which is chimerical due to its heterogeneousness. Nobody made an elementary effort to use the state’s resources to do so. A situation was created, when the ideological message that was supposedly coming from Kyiv was resisted and the pantheon of heroes, customary in Western Ukraine, was demonized. Incidentally, it was totally unnecessary to make it a universal pantheon of Ukrainian heroes. Even in this case, it would be a good idea to separate the wheat from the chaff and to separate real historic figures from the propagandistic trail that was artificially added to them. No one seriously dealt with this, and, as a result, this was turned into a scare story and passed off as Kyiv’s official message in order to frighten the people – ‘look, Bandera followers are coming!’ This work was done continuously through the Russian cultural center and the Russia-funded parties. Some absolutely wild rumors were spread – for example, Yulia Tymoshenko wants to have the Donbas fenced with barbed wire and burned down. Word had it in Odesa that she was going to do the same with the 7th Kilometer market. In other words, the same nonsense was being planted in human brains, and everybody was falling for this. This brought about confrontation. Following this, a camp is pitched on Kulikovo Field, with the abovementioned population. They terrorize a very peaceful and good-mannered Odesa Maidan, stage never-ending provocations, break the Heavenly Sotnia memorial, and beat up activists. But things remain more or less balanced. The Odesa Maidan and anti-Maidan militants know each other and observe some private non-aggression agreements.”
But then the Kharkiv soccer fans come.
“They come in order not to kill somebody but to chant ‘Putin is a motherf...er,’ their favorite slogan. Just a day before this, I saw posts in the VKontakte anti-Maidan group, which said: ‘A boil has come to a head in Odesa, which must be urgently excised. Everybody come with surgical instruments.’ Violence is in the air, the police do not react, and the authorities also remain calm, saying that all is OK. The region is headed by a very well-mannered governor, Mr. Nemyrovsky, who could be very good in peacetime but proved to be absolutely inefficient in a crisis situation. He sincerely believed that laws would be obeyed and things would be all right. Now the first brawl takes place. They say the police were not at first clearly on the side of the pro-Russian protesters. But after the Kharkiv and Odesa soccer fans had cried out about Putin and, seeing the police, chanted the classical ‘The cops suck,’ the police finally chose which side they were on. From behind their backs, somebody shoots at the people who came to the match with their girlfriends, children, little dogs, and air balloons. Now the Metallist and Chornomorets fans come to the fore, and this crowd suddenly shows people whom nobody had ever seen on the Odesa Euromaidan before. They are also armed and also begin to shoot. They might well have been some covert professionals. Then the crowd detains those who were shooting in the Athena shopping center, the Alpha special-purpose unit comes and lays siege to the place. Then they form a corridor for the shooters to leave. Meanwhile, the crowd comes to the Kulikovo Field camp, but those who opened fire on Greek Square do not go there. The place was full of the people who had nothing to do with the previous bloody events. I’ve heard it said that some girl didn’t want to go there, but the group leader, a Russian citizen, phoned and told her to be there – otherwise she would be considered traitor. As a result, she came to the Trades Union House and called her mum on the cell, yelling: ‘Mum, I’m burning, I’m dying!’ but there was their boss’s voice in the background. He shouted: ‘I’m jumping out the window, you all follow me. Know that we’re dying for Russia!’ The place of the first gunshots was just 40 minutes’ walk from the place of the tragedy. There were no police there – they stood five minutes’ walk away and did not show up on the field. There was not a single fire engine. People were forced to enter the Trades Union House, where the Communist Party Oblast Committee used to be located, instead of being told: ‘Dismissed until tomorrow! Let’s avoid clashes and come back tomorrow.’ It is the Communist councilor Albu who forced them to enter, and they barricaded all the exits from inside. I don’t know if it is true that water was cut off in the building at the time and two keys were found under the windows – they were thrown out after the doors had been locked. In the last minute, a minibus came, from which some camouflage-clad armed people jumped out. Those on the roof were shooting with firearms and throwing Molotov cocktails. Then some Molotov cocktails flew in response, but let say again that the first bottles were thrown from the roof. The building blazed up in several places at the same time. There may have been some specific substances in the building, for I saw absolutely white walls, an unaffected floor, and a burnt-out doorway. Some experts say these substances were brought in well in advance. You could see a greenish smoke spreading from under the door. Some saying it was a gas of the type that poisoned the Nord-Ost hostages. So many strange things… I can’t understand why they didn’t manage to save themselves. Why couldn’t they come out through the ground-floor windows? Indeed, there were attempts to rescue people. At the same time, there were instances when the rescued were finished off.”
A PORTRAIT OF IHOR KOLOMOISKY, 2010
A terrible tragedy has occurred. Some people died, no matter which side from. But Odesa turned out to be the only city which, in the absence of the authorities and police, tried to defend itself.
“Don’t forget that there were people from Kharkiv there. All those instances, when the rescued were put on their knees, humiliated, beaten, and led through the ‘corridor of disgrace,’ are the exact repetition of what Oplot was doing to people in Kharkiv. The warring sides borrow from one another. While the anti-Maidan borrowed self-organization from the Maidan, the Maidan began to borrow some inhuman matters from the anti-Maidan, for a defeated enemy is a prisoner of war, not an enemy.”
You are, first of all, an artist with your own civic stand. You are closely watching all that is going on today, but, above all, you are an artist. To what extent do you think the hackneyed phrase “when guns talk, the Muses fall silent” is right?
“Well, when guns talk, the Muses do not necessarily fall silent. The Muses sometimes sing along with guns and sometimes try to avert [a war]. In some of the works I’ve done, I tried to abstract myself from the events, but in others these events seem to be going right through me. The artist cannot stop being an artist. The artist can’t help noticing what is going on around.”
How do you think Ukraine should be presented to the world today?
“We must finally say what we are. We must not pretend that there are no problems, nor must we make the simple decisions which somebody is trying to foist on us. We need a dialog on everything, including our identity, this country’s unity, Ukrainian culture, and the way we should live on in one country. All this must be discussed openly and seriously. Society is so far only beginning to understand that it is enough to pretend that these problems do not exist. They do.”
What is your vision of further likely developments in relations with Russia?
“I am Jewish, so it is not up to me to measure kinship between Russians and Ukrainians. But, as a citizen of Ukraine, I can say that these two countries have absolutely different political cultures that shape their mentalities. So the mentality of a person named Ivanov, who lives in Ukraine, sometimes radically differs from that of a person named Petrenko, who lives in Russia. It is about political culture, so the ethnic side of the matter recedes to the background. Indeed, these cultures are different in the two countries. This was caused not only by some mystical historical and philosophical factors of which the Russian dissident thought has been speaking since the times of Pyotr Chaadayev and Vladimir Solovyov. The very pragmatic Marxist definition – a people that oppresses other peoples cannot be free – still works.”
What is your vision of Ukraine’s future?
“I am prepared for the worst future of this country because there are very many alarming symptoms, but still I sincerely believe in a better future of Ukraine, for there are very many preconditions for this. Moreover, I love this country, for it is mine.”