Below is an interview with Dmytro Chekalkin, formerly a career army officer, military translator, teacher of Arabic, Hebrew, and English. He wrote a dissertation, compiled dictionaries, worked as a diplomatic officer, movie actor, president of two television and radio companies, and vice president of a big holding company. His page is among the most popular ones on the Ukrainian Facebook. Chekalkin shares his views on new and old politicians, Ukrainians and Jews, the “Ukraine without Kuchma” campaign, anti-stress kits for ATO men, Ukraine-Israel parallels, and explains why Putin is scared to follow in Muammar Gaddafi’s footsteps.
During the Maidan you said on Espreso TV: “Laughter is our weapon. Things that are funny can’t be horrifying.”
“Voltaire said as much. Laughter rids man of phobias and fears. That was why we started working hard on project ‘Merry Eggs’ in 2004. I was impressed by statistics at the time, with 60 percent [of the electorate] prepared to cast their ballots for Viktor Yushchenko, but with a mere 15 percent believing he’d win the election. Our society was apparently suffering from apathy and disillusionment. To me this was a challenge. For some four years I’d keep my distance from politics, but then I had to get involved again. In 2010, I took an active public stand; I was outraged by, and voiced my criticism of, Tymoshenko’s spin doctors. ‘Why aren’t we doing anything in terms of political burlesque?’ [I asked myself.] Instead of reminding society that it was a shame to elect as president a man with a record of two prison terms, Tymoshenko, clad in white, toured city squares with pop stars who sang for grannies when the temperature was down to 30 degrees Centigrade.”
You’ll hardly find a cartoon with Yanukovych these days. Instead, you’ll find plenty of Demotivators with Putin turned from dictator into a character of a soccer chant. What role laughter is playing for Ukrainians?
“I receive words of gratitude for helping people ease their stress on a daily basis. The sense of life is also one’s ability to laugh at it. One must learn to see both the good and funny side of everything. Smiling stretches your lips and your life span. We’re trying to enroll the largest possible number of people in our Long-Lived Start-Ups Club.”
The Ukrainian Facebook is noticeably divided today. There are people who hate any manifestations of joys, photos with vacationers, cultural events. How can one change this situation in which joy has become a shame?
“This takes a careful approach. Feast in time of plague is wrong. Not so long ago I was invited to several charity fashion shows to collect money for the ATO men. Such projects need no publicity. You collect money and buy flak jackets. I was pleasantly surprised by the decision of my acquaintance, Viacheslav Konstantynovsky, to sell his vintage limos and send the proceeds to the ATO troops. He left on one such trip today and we gave him and ATO commanding officers our DVDs with eight hours of good morale music.”
What about your anti-stress kit initiative, including disks with “Merry Eggs,” to uphold ATO morale? How did you conceive the idea? How did the ATO men respond?
“Some thanked for the disks with a collection of songs by Vysotsky, others for Sevastianov. There are people of various age groups and preferences, so we tried to keep that in mind when writing the disks. Humorous music removes the dust of daily routine from your soul and cleanses it, because a smile is like a sun beam that drives the winter away from your face.”
NOSTALINOLOGY INSTEAD OF NOSTALGIA
Apart from your post as director general, Diva Production, you are a career army officer. You said once that you would join the Armed Forces of Ukraine if need be. Hasn’t the time come yet?
“My Military Occupational Specialty code reads ‘interpreter/translator,’ so my professional knowledge isn’t needed on the ATO missions. Today, the key field of endeavor is the ‘struggle for your mind.’ My Facebook page, it turns out, is read by up to three million persons a day.”
Do you feel responsible?
“Of course I do. Every day I receive lots of messages with comments and suggestions. Mostly obscenities from Russia and thank-yous from Ukraine. I often post such messages. A recent one read: ‘Are you so hung up on Maidan or are you fighting for someone’s interests?’ I replied, ‘Yes, I’m fighting for the interests of my four children, who live in a country that has become the target of aggression on the part of your botoxed rat.”
Talking about the “struggle for your mind.” Can this information war be won in Ukraine and is there a way to change the situation in Russia?
“Today they have a very powerful manipulator of public consciousness: television that has a public mind control monopoly. Only two years back the number of Russians who trusted their television channels was two times lower than now. Why? Because these channels inform them about something they can’t see with their own eyes. Thus, a ‘parallel reality’ – or a ‘real parallel’ – is created. Yet such falsehood can’t be produced endlessly. Three to five months from now people will start questioning what they are watching on their home screens. There seems a nice parallel to be drawn with Russia a hundred years ago, in July-August 1914, when the empire was swept under a tidal wave of patriotism, with everyone willing to join the army, bearing portraits of the tsar, praying for Great Russia, for the liberation of the fraternal Slavic peoples. Two years later, all of Russia hated the tsar, Nicholas II, because the situation at the front was catastrophic, because the economy of Russia was falling apart. A good example, indeed: frenzied patriotism comparable only to that under Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s, ending with both Uncle Joe and Der Fuehrer turning into odious figures, cursed by millions.”
Indeed, a book about Stalin has been put out only by a Russian publishing company as part of the [once popular Soviet] “Life of Outstanding People” series.
“I agree that certain individuals are afflicted not with nostalgia but nostalinology [coinage: nostalgia+ Stalin. – Ed.]. They want their country to be ruled with an iron hand. In fact, only an iron hand can save Russia from falling to pieces, so they will keep singing glory to it until they are crushed by it.”
Talking of parallels. One of your Facebook entries reads: “On August 9, 1999, an obscure head of [Russia’s secret police] FSB was appointed as head of government, shortly to be proclaimed by President Yeltsin as his successor. Half a year later, the man said, ‘Any people would get sick and tired of a single leader’s 16-year rule, even if this leader is as strong as [Helmut] Kohl, even if this people is as stable as the German one. They [Kohl’s team] should have timely realized as much.” Thus spoke Vladimir Putin who has been ruling Russia for 15 years. Is he aware of this [parallel]?
“I think that none in his inner circle has drawn his attention to this. He is provided with censored, carefully edited data. They say his ex-wife was the only one who could tell him what was actually happening. Well, she is history and he is left with his boot-licking, bowing and scraping retinue. They will tell him only what he wants to hear.”
You also worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. You were the first Ukrainian diplomat posted to the Middle East as consul and head of the advance team of the Embassy of Ukraine in Israel. Can you draw any parallels between Ukraine and Israel, considering that each time Israel responds to Hamas bombings, the international community condemns it for bombing civilian towns?
“Thank God, we don’t have as many peaceful civilians killed [in the course of the ATO] as they do on the Gaza Strip. Here the situation looks less frightening than there, with fewer bombs and rockets exploding in city districts. What is happening there boils down to a deep-rooted pain syndrome, an abyss between the Palestinians and Israelis, created over a hundred years back, so very few questions can have straight answers. We don’t have such harsh controversies, such a deep-reaching crisis, such disastrous economic problems as they have on the Gaza Strip, with a population of almost one million living in an area about the size of Troieshchyna [Kyiv city district. – Ed.]. I’ve visited the area on several occasions and each time I felt sorry about the populace because they were victims of historical circumstances. Atoning for the tragedy sustained by one people, the Jews in Europe, they made another people, the Palestinians, suffer because that land was not without people. Palestinians have to flee these territories, they were deported and have remained victims of these events. Three or four Palestinian generations have dreamed about returning to their native land since the 1940s. Given adequate living and working conditions, Palestinians would’ve never joined all those rallies of many thousands yelling ‘Death to Israel!’ I’ve never envied Israeli politicians, just as I can only sympathize with our current Ukrainian leaders who are shouldering such a heavy burden of responsibility. Likewise, I’ve always sympathized with the Israelis who had to somehow conquer another people.”
KUCHMA WITH UKRAINE AGAIN?
You must vividly remember the “Ukraine without Kuchma” Campaign because you took part in it.
“Of course I do. Radio Kyivski vidomosti secretly produced and distributed thousands of copies of Melnychenko’s audio cassettes, although their quality left much to be desired.”
Some spin doctors are trying to prove that Kuchma has to be credited for the absence of Maidan during his presidency.
“There was Maidan under Kuchma, but they simply fenced off the center of the city and started building the Hlobus underground shopping mall. All of a sudden the place was crowded by excavators and they started digging, although there was no master plan. They just wanted to liquidate Maidan as a geographical point. And so Independence Square was closed for two and a half years, for ‘reconstruction.’ It was thus the current owners of the Dream Town quietly became multimillionaires.”
Why do you think the “Ukraine without Kuchma” campaign has been almost forgotten and now they are building a positive image of our second president?
“Everything is relative. At one time I was shocked by the ‘professional level’ of the politicians who came to power with Kuchma. Among them were former managers of vegetable storage facilities (like Oleksandr Volkov) who had become his closest advisors. There was no comparison between his team and that of Kravchuk whose inner circle was made up of true intellectuals. One enjoyed sharing a table with them, but then there appeared a team of con-like corruptionists. After closely communicating with Kuchma and his inner circle, I removed his portrait from the wall of my office at the consulate. At the time the political sub bench was very short. Well, today our political gene pool looks quite worn out, too.”
Perhaps it’s time to get fresh political blood, after “social lifts,” from a civil society?
“I’d rather use Saakashvili as an example, I mean when he formed a new team made up of Western higher school graduates. Our new generation is also contaminated by corruption and hypocrisy. Look at Oles Dovhy, he is from the new generation, but I can’t think of a worse rogue and corruptionist. Or the young team of [ex-Kyiv Mayor] Chernovetsky… At one time I familiarized a friend of mine (he has been in charge of an Eastern European security program at Harvard for the past 20 years) with Ukrainian politicians. Among other things he helped Saakashvili form new political elite in Georgia. We need fresh [political] blood without corruption germs; we must focus on those vaccinated with Western civilization and democracy.”
EVERYTHING IS IN OUR HANDS AND WE MUSTN’T LOSE HEART
What made you quit politics?
“I’m trying to keep my distance so as to remain unbiased. Each should mind his own business. One ought to give today’s political leadership – Poroshenko and Yatseniuk – credit for their administrative and organizing skills, their ability to correctly prioritize the tasks on the agenda. I know I have no such skills. Poroshenko has built his business empire and he can apparently prove his worth on the highest political level. These people are far more qualified than those who were in power under Yushchenko or Yanukovych.”
How long would it take Ukraine to rebuild itself?
“It is hard to make forecasts in time of aggression from outside. We don’t know what’s on that Kremlin character’s mind. He is the key factor of all these events and the biggest obstacle in the way of settling the conflict; he is acting like a cornered rat. Putin must have in front of his eyes all those crowds of people in Mezhyhiria, he is visualizing such crowds at his [luxurious suburban estate] where the loaves are made not of gold but of diamonds [an allusion to the golden bread loaves discovered at Yanukovych’s suburban mansion by Maidan activists after his flight to Moscow. – Ed.]. He must be having nightmares about the last hours of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. Yanukovych could and did flee to Russia, but where could Putin flee except perhaps North Korea? His biggest paranoid fear is that no one could guarantee his safety if worse came to worst. On the other hand, considering that Kim Jong-un can blackmail the civilized world with a bucketful of nuclear waste, Putin stands a fair chance of holding out against all odds for quite some time. This, however, does not relieve us of the responsibility for making every effort to counteract him. What doesn’t kill us makes our memoirs longer. After all, everything is in our hands and we mustn’t lose heart.”