Notatki z podróży

The Elusive Centre (of Europe)

Notes From a Journey

Publication: 14 October 2021

NO. 10 2013

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Dictator Shevchenko

Some time ago, riding a train from Budapest to Belgrade, I involuntarily overheard a conversation between two other passengers. One of them was Bulgarian and the other Serb, both were speaking their own language and to make communication easier, they supplemented their words with dynamic gestures, thanks to which I could understand them too. The Bulgarian regarded himself as a specialist on the East – he told his neighbour about Moscow and St. Petersburg, about Novosibirsk and Novorossiysk, and also perhaps about Leninoshithole or Flycrappings, about the strange lifestyle there, but above all about the terrifying corruption.

– It is even worse than in our country! – he claimed seriously, which made the Serb shake his head in disbelief – And no democracy at all – insisted the Bulgarian – Putin is a true tsar. But this is nothing. For in Belarus… There is this dictator there, his name is… – He hesitated for a moment – Shevchenko!… And he even made it illegal to use the title “president”! For there is to be only one president in the country. And all the others, directors, what have you, they are not allowed to use this title!…

– What a nut! – sighed the Serb compassionately.

I stopped listening. I imagined the poor Serb visiting Kyiv one day and seeing the statue of Shevchenko in front of the university. And then, who knows, perhaps he will see similar monuments scattered all over Ukraine. And he will realise that even for the Orthodox Serb brothers it is impossible to understand these Ukrainians. Fair enough if they erected monuments to their own dictators. But to those oppressing their neighbours?…

Perhaps someone will explain to him that Shevchenko is not a foreign dictator but our very own poet. But wherever we look, we have foreign dictators in Ukraine, just to name the uncountable Lenins in Malorus.

“What nuts!” – the Serb will sigh. And he will be right.

Festival poetry

I have noticed that festival poetry is a peculiar genre, which has to fulfil a number of simple conditions to be received properly. Firstly, the text should be short enough not to make the audience tired; secondly, it has to be simple enough to be painlessly translatable into any language; and thirdly, it must contain some powerful metaphor, image, unexpected comparison, story, or anecdote – something striking.

But there is one more condition, which may prove absolutely sufficient even if the text does not meet any of the remaining criteria or is not a text at all, but a sequence of words or simply sounds. The author himself has to be the text or a performance, a striking event. And then he can read anything or even nothing, and just stand in silence on the stage for a couple of minutes – which was a forte of the late Nazar Honczar, who drove the enthusiastic audience almost mad.

Americans call such figures freaks, which is a bit more racy than our native “eccentrics”. The Ukrainian diaspora uses a much more colourful term: “slightly over the edge”.

At a festival in the Turkish Ordu such freaks were aplenty: one was singing his own poems, one was dancing, one was showing slides and a sartorially colourful Turkish woman changed her headgear after every recited poem – Mongolian, Eskimo, a French Rococo bonnet. Each of these hats, she said, had been brought from a journey and she had visited 98 countries all over the world. I read in the brochure that this extravagant lady worked as a business consultant for various investment companies. I would like to see these firms.

But the festival audience in Ordu applauded not freaks and other hoaxers but a small Macedonian aged around 80, with a non-Macedonian name Esad Bairam, who read uncomplicated sentimental-patriotic doggerel full of hot sun, charming eyes and the wounds of battle. In the 19th century similar poetry was also written in Ukraine.

The old man was the only participant who did not speak English, but he spoke to a Greek woman in Greek, to an Albanian woman in Albanian, to a Bulgarian in Bulgarian and to a Croat woman and me, a Ukrainian, in Serbian. He lived in a small world where the global language was of no use, for of real importance were the languages of his neighbours. He knew them all, although he himself wrote in Turkish – the language of his ancestors, who once lived in the Balkans, before their mighty Ottoman Empire evaporated one day like a glorious dream.

I recalled how at a festival in Rotterdam, the Dutch with equal enthusiasm welcomed a mediocre poet from South Africa, who wrote in Afrikaans – a variant of 17th-century Dutch. And I imagined that at a festival in Moscow a similar welcome would be extended to a Russian-speaking poet from Kyiv, who would read moving poems in the language of Karamzin, and perhaps in private conversations he would even be able to say a few words in the language of his closest neighbours.

Heritage

A friend is leading me through the streets of Poltava, enthusiastically recounting the story of every church, house and monument. He is a patriot of his city and therefore I can sense that he is a bit ashamed of all the Lenins and Peter the Greats, of the Colonel Kelins and General Zygins, of the smell of the empire which has irreversibly permeated all the pores of this mostly Ukrainian city.

We approach the building of the Agricultural University, with a modest memorial plaque dedicated to Simon Petlura. He studied here between 1895–1902, when the building housed the Poltava Seminary.

– They were to erect a statue – my friend says – But the mayor, a big fish in Julia Tymoshenko’s block, mounted a stiff resistance. And he boasted in the election campaign that he had stopped the nationalists from putting up “all kinds of mazepas, petliuras, banderas and other quislings.”

– And banderas? – My astonishment is genuine.

– Well, he just wanted it to have a nice ring. When the city you have been responsible for is crumbling to pieces, you have to invent some achievements. But he lost the elections anyway.

Young people with flowers take wedding pictures at the foot of the Column of Glory.

– Like in Kyiv – I say.

– Worse – sighs my friend – This is not even a Soviet monument but a tsarist one. Marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle on the Poltava where Ukrainians and Swedes where defeated by Russians.

– Every country has such monuments as it deserves – I say philosophically.

– And young couples – concurs my friend.

Although the young should know better, I think to myself. They are not some NKVD veterans after all. What draws them to this imperial setting, to the Soviet aura, to Moscow priests with Putin’s insignia?

On top of Ivan’s Mountain we see another couple photographing themselves with pigeons in their hands. The enterprising keeper brings a whole cage-full of the birds and rents them for a modest price.

– Listen – the bride in a white wedding dress asks her beloved flirtatiously – it won’t shit on my hand?

We pass on and do not hear the answer. Leaves rustle underfoot, small clouds of mist escape upwards in the rhythm of our breaths. A most beautiful view of the sunbathed Poltava opens up from the summit.

– Just a few more generations – I say optimistically – and this country will change beyond recognition.

The East

– I am going to Ordu – I tell my family, but it does not make any impression on them. Well, we are living in the 21st century, Orda traded horses for Volkswagens and is not particularly interested in our tribute any more – perhaps in cash exchanged for selected goods and services.

“Ordu” sounds ominous but looks nice: a biggish town on the southern shore of the Black Sea, somewhere between Samsun and Trabzon or, as our Medieval chroniclers would say, between the tsarist Amisos and Trapezund.

Until recently I did not have any notions connected with the other shore of the Black Sea: just a zigzagging line on the map, without specific landscapes, plants, animals, cities and people, without the “Mediterranean” lifestyle. In fact the area proved to be very pretty and quite unlike our Black Sea shore, both in the Crimea and adjoining the steppes. For the first time in my life I saw intensely green mountains – similar to our Carpathians – descending steeply all the way down to the sea. They say it is like that in New Zealand. Turks are relatively recent newcomers in this land. For half a millennium they taught themselves to cultivate it, to build solid houses and fast motorways, which Ukrainians can only dream of. And yet they still have not conquered this land symbolically, they have not assimilated its mythology – all these stories about Jason and the Amazons, about Troy and the Argonauts, about Genovese fortresses and Byzantine cites; they have not woven them into their cultural narrative, and last but not least, they have not learned to sell it all properly to tourists, as their Greek neighbours do, although their connection with the region’s antiquity does not have a much longer pedigree.

– Greeks have it easier – says Tozan, my friend – They really got it all for free, and we have to build it from scratch.

We ride the funicular to the top of Boztepe Mountain which hangs over the town. The gondola flows over the rooftops, over small Orthodox churches and mosques, over picturesque streets and over the slope of the 500-metre tall mountain. I notice that down there, on Ataturk Boulevard, the tower of the funicular stands right next to a minaret, which is twice as small – such are the symbols of today’s Turkey.

– Don’t worry – I say – Our politicians claim we don’t have to join Europe for we are there anyway. Although, in fact, we are far behind you. And even behind the Greek bardak.

My friend breaks out in laughter. He had just explained to me in a pub that bardak, a “brothel” in Ukrainian, in Turkish means a “glass”, “cup” or “mug”. And I had told him that we used this term to describe a way of life or the nature of a regime. It is similar with the word durak – the Ukrainian “moron” which means a “bus stop” in Turkish.

At the border

This year’s winter reminded me of one of the possible definitions of Europe, and more precisely – of its vague Eastern borders lost in the depth of Eurasia. Europe ends where the impact of both the Mediterranean and the Gulf Stream is no longer felt. That is, approximately speaking, somewhere between Tbilisi and Murmansk.

Among other definitions, which I have been collecting for some time, the following seems interesting to me: the end of Europe is the territory where castles and churches end, where roads allowing a relatively fast and safe driving peter out, clean and non-stinking toilets vanish, a polite and effective police force disappears, alongside with the population speaking at least two languages and passengers waiting patiently before a metro car while other passengers are descending.

According to some definitions, Ukraine belongs to Europe, while according to others it does not. Apparently such is the fate of every frontier.

This year, having spent all of December and half of January without snow, we almost came to believe that we could have a winter like in London or Paris. And then, who knows, perhaps the climatic thaw will be followed by a political one. And some association agreement with the distant European Union will warm us up as efficiently as the even more distant Gulf Stream.

Some 300 years ago, the English were sprightly skating on the Thames and the Dutch on their canals. Today, their descendants are watching these frolics with astonishment on paintings by old masters. Perhaps our descendants will also with similar astonishment watch photographs of anglers in waist-high boots on ice in the middle of the Dnieper. In some 300 years the steppes of the Ukraine might turn into a desert, which will be compensated for by the tropical forest growing along the Prypiat, and we will finally become what in fact we have long since been – a banana republic. From the ecological point of view it is much better than a chemical and metallurgical republic.

But in mid-January it did snow in Ukraine and our prospects connected with global warming were indefinitely postponed. Perhaps what we are faced with are not bananas at all but a glacier arriving from the north – as Oleksa Vilchynski wittily describes it in his new novel. Anyway while it is snowing, I am imagining dog-sleds and herds of reindeer against the background of, say, some ice-covered steelworks in Kryvyi Rih.

The end of Europe, I wrote to Oleksa, is a place where reality ends and mirages begin. The Gulf Stream flows into the Black Sea, the Ukraine joins the European Union, Georgia deploys tank brigades to defend its nationals in Russia – as far as Murmansk.

Donetsk. The Bridge of Friendship

All cities are tacky in their own way, and Soviet ones especially so. I more or less got used to Kyiv’s tackiness à la americano but the Donetsk one I rediscovered for myself quite recently.

Its principal expressions are of course the sculptures – from the gilded opera tenor Anatoly Solovyanenko, resembling Elvis Presley, to the singer Josif Kobzon, a spitting image of the Russian godfather Semion Mogilevich, only wearing a wig. But what seems the funniest thing to me is the bridge of Ukrainian-Russian friendship in a small park behind Rinat Akhmetov’s stadium – a bizarre structure on a high slope over the Kalmius, resembling a swimming pool trampoline or perhaps a parachute tower.

A friend who showed me all this is certain that the “bridge” is ironic in its intent. Such a taunt of Malorussians targeted at Russians, middle finger in the pocket, a suggestion: well, we have built our five or six metres and you, if you are willing, have to built the remaining thousand metres or even more across the artificial lake down there.

It seems doubtful to me, for I know that Russians are serious people and they are not particularly fond of irony, especially Malorussian irony. They are much more eager to complete some causeway to Tuzla or a gas pipe under the Baltic or even the Black Sea. And let the Malorussians fiddle with friendship on their own, they are crazy about it.

The friend shows me the refined decorations of the “bridge of friendship” – two amply built girls in a wreath and kokoshnik, cranberry and birches, coats of arms and flags, and the best of them all – a representation of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet with balloons, who are holding hands (paws? trotters?), whilst joyfully marching towards the common Eastern Slav future.

– The other way round – I opine – The Pooh should be tiny like Medvedev and Piglet two heads taller, like Yanukovych.

– Exactly – concurs my friend – I even wanted to write about it but I didn’t have the courage.

– Why?! – I ask astonished.

– I would be killed.

I am looking disbelievingly at his unmoving face and try to work it out: a joke or is he being serious? These guys from Donetsk are unfathomable! “I think he is joking.” – I finally reassure myself. And suddenly realise that my countrymen have been repeating in their minds the same reassuring mantra for two years.

About authors

Mykola Riabchuk

Literary critic and essayist. He is a senior research fellow at the Ukrainian Centre for Cultural Studies in Kyiv. He has written a number of books on transformations in post-communist Eastern Europe, three of them translated into Polish. In 2002 he was decorated with the Polish-Ukrainian Capitula Award, and in 2009 he received the Bene Merito medal awarded by the Polish minister of foreign affairs for a significant contribution to Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. Now a Reagan-Fascell visiting research fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the USA.

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