This article originally appeared at Komsomolskaya Pravda. Translated for RI by Aleksei Tatu. Edited by Katy Meigs
Zahkar Prilepin has been called the “voice of a generation,” a generation raised under capitalism after leaving behind a happy childhood in the USSR. This is perhaps why Zakhar’s perspective on current developments is of such interest to his vast readership. We met with the writer the day before the release of his new book, Ne chuzhaya smuta. Odin den’ , odin god [Familiar chaos: One day, one year], a collection of articles and stories based on events in Ukraine and Novorossiya.
Zakhar, your book is a retrospective account of the events of this year to date. What was, for you, the main and biggest illusion of February 14?
I suppose I could have made up something regarding my first impressions to appear more reflective and reliable in my predictions, but when I read over what I wrote before and during Maidan, I was pleased to find that I wasn’t under any illusions. In the early days I had formed several conclusions: (a) in Ukraine a civil war is breaking out; (b) Ukraine’s European dream will fail; and (c) the sour “anticorruption” war of the Ukrainian people is essentially anti-Russian – they behave as if all their problems stem from Russia. And yet we are not the cause of their problems and did not pay particular attention to what was going on there.
You have termed the events in Novorossiya “smuta”[chaos]. We were taught in school that this means something poetic and ineffectual. So why “smuta”?
Well, you have answered that question yourselves, my friends. Because [the situation] is anarchic. Opportunists, imposters, thieves and prima donnas: they are all gathering and crave power and attention. And there are also romantics. They also gather together and even die for the cause. And, in all this chaos, dodgy businessmen serve their own interests. Of course, there is Russia as well, which has watched and watched, listened and listened to everything that was said in Kiev (“Russian special forces are at work on Maidan!”, “Tomorrow Russian forces will arrive on Maidan and shoot everyone!”). Then, with clear antipathy, it was deemed necessary to somehow react to all this chaos. Chaos is chaos, but Russians make up half the population of Ukraine. It was impossible to ignore that fact.
The war will end sooner or later. Based on the experience of history, is it possible to put this country back together again?
These are endless processes. Ukraine will never again be as it was in 1991. Everyone understands this apart from a few thousand Ukrainian bloggers. Crimea won’t be returned by anyone. Novorossiya now exists; the only question remaining is to what extent its territory will increase. For it can’t get any smaller. The Ukrainian people couldn’t cope with the clear imperial legacy they were left with. At some point in Kiev they decided that for the 20 million – or slightly fewer – Russians in Ukraine it is not actually their home but they’re just visitors, so they should start to participate in [national] choral singing and dancing and take new crazy versions of Ukrainian history as gospel. When Russians living in Ukraine began to whisper that all this scared them a bit, they got the reply: “What? I don’t understand? Either shut up or go moan to the authorities. Is someone stopping you from speaking Russian? Be happy! Ukraine is the most free country in the world!” Of course, that’s not to say that everyone in Ukraine behaved in this way. There is an intelligentsia, a group of wonderful, generous kind people, but when such comments were made in their presence, they just turned away and pretended not to hear. These are the results.
Some believe the main issue is not a military victory over Ukraine but the recovery of our Ukrainian brothers from this head injury they seem to have received. What treatment do you suggest for this?
It will be impossible to heal a large part of the population. Ukrainians today are indeed experiencing a final stage in their nation’s development. There is an expression – “God doesn’t give an angry bull big horns.” The “little Russians” [a term for the historical Ukrainian Cossack state]had fantastic folklore and gradually created their own literature, national mythology and cooking. But they weren’t part of Russia – although they wanted to be. Why else would they have printed “Rurik” on their money? Rurik doesn’t bear any connection to the Ukrainian state. Then the heroic Ukrainian iconostasis was formed, but the main problem of “professional Ukrainianisers” was that they didn’t want to be “Russia’s younger brother” but instead wanted to be the elder brother. Almost all Ukrainian heroes were those Russians who were born in Ukraine or those who were born there and stood up against Russia. This anti-Russian tradition is centuries old. It is not an illness, it is in their blood; it is part of the system. Any attempts to suppress this tradition will only strengthen it. Those who want to live in Ukraine as Russians ought to be given the chance to live as they wish and to leave others in peace.
Ukraine will be the same for us as Poland or Lithuania. You know, in the great kingdom of Lithuania, there were also times when a huge number of people spoke Russian and one could not really distinguish them from Russians because they were, in effect, Russians. What can we do now that these lands don’t belong to us anymore or about the fact that part of the population has changed its faith and lives under the rule of other states? You lose some, you win some. Of course to live in the separate country of Ukraine,where [Gogol’s] old tale of “Taras Bulba” about the age-old Russian–Ukrainian conflict was set, is not altogether comforting. However, if we say that Gogol was a “Ukrainian traitor,” then everything falls into place. But then we are forced to proclaim that a huge part of our culture is a betrayal, or to castrate it or turn it upside down. But if the goal is freedom and independence, then such things shouldn’t be done. However, many such things have been done already and will be done. It’s their right. And I’m not being sarcastic. After some time, the intensity of the conflict will pass. Ukrainian national literature will appear, along with perhaps the first genuine, world-renowned Ukrainian writer or composer, and our current views will be become obsolete.
What can be done with the Ukrainian culture that developed on Maidan?
On the territory that will become Novorossiya, they will cultivate embroidery, songs, dancing and celebrate Lesya Ukrainka [one of Ukraine’s best-known poets and writers] and the blue and yellow flag. Those in Novorossiya who identify with Russian culture will nurture it, and those who were raised with Ukrainian traditions – let them preserve them. So that at least some elements of the Ukrainian Maidan movement will be all to the good. There is another side to Ukraine, one that is poetic, beautiful, magical and proud: she is Russia’s sister, mother of her children, an incredible land. This is the Ukraine of Gogol, Khlebnikov, Bagritskii and Limonov, the Ukraine Kotovskii, of the Odessan literary school, Marshall Pybalko, “The Young Guard” and the Slavyansk rebels. Then there is the other Ukraine, the one that is turned inside out, volatile, crawling on all fours to Europe, where no one knows her, no one awaits her, and where she is secretly regarded with fear and amusement. This is the Ukraine of the “forest brothers” [a nationalist group that rebelled against the USSR], of conflicts, chaos, low-brow nationalism and farcical myths; the Ukraine of the Cossacks who went to serve the Turkish sultan or Hitler. The first Ukraine is still winning over the second one, not only in the nature of its war footing but culturally, in a metaphysical sense. And she ought to win again. But if that very Ukrainian writer and composer will be born here – in this royal fraternity of Russia and Ukraine – it will mean we have won yet again, and this will be a lesson for those who believe a sign of civilization is an anti-Russian soul and nonsensical jumping up and down on city squares.
Everyone knows that Russia is supporting Novorossiya. But has Russia got anything in return for this, apart from sanctions?
It will be her usual fate: a huge responsibility on the Eurasian landscape and the very same “Russian world” that exists and is not just a figment of our imagination. Russia is the higher authority, and she knows for sure now that she won’t have a happy retirement in the West. She now knows with certainty that she won’t be admitted into the “general European house.” At the first opportunity, she will be left standing in the rain and will be deprived of her salmon and smoked ham. It means we’ll have to provide our own salmon. Then it will be easier to negotiate with the civilized world. We’re not talking about high technology here. I don’t know about Russia, but, personally, in Novorossiya I saw that my people and all peoples settled in my country have produced men who are courageous, tough and fearless, who sacrifice so much in fighting for their principles. It was only recently that I became aware of the strength and passion of our people.
You saw how things changed in Novorossiya. What has changed from your first visit there among the rebels, among the local officials, in people’s faces?
If you look at how the attitude has changed toward Kiev and Poroshenko it becomes easier to talk about the complex attitude toward Russia. Some are gravely dismayed that Russia did not declare an all-out war on Ukraine. Others understand that she couldn’t have done this because the war would have been big and horrible and it would have been difficult to know where it would end. In Lvov? Do we even need Lvov? I don’t think so. In any case, Kiev would have been bombed. The killers are in Kiev. And this is what determines attitudes. And all these weak arguments about “if it hadn’t been for Russia, none of this would have happened” – these are just funny. Yes, the blame game has begun.