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Alexander Roitburd.    Photo from private archive. Alexander Roitburd. Photo from private archive.

Alexander Roitburd: “The religion of Victory must be destroyed, because it disguises a new fascism”

In an interview with Jewishnews.com.ua, one of the most famous and scandalous artists of Ukraine talks about the “guys” and Maidan, the war of symbols and languages, and also on his complex relations with his own nationality.

Alexander, as a successful person and “free artist” – in both your work and your nature – how and why did you end up on Maidan?

I lived in a country where the regime offended me by the very fact of its existence. I don’t remember such an offensive regime. When an animal lacking any signs of intellect apart from a grasping reflex and an instinct for self-preservation prescribes the boundaries in which I have to exist, this is offensive for me. When a bunch of thugs occupy the place of the elite of society, this is offensive. When they start to organize the country’s economy based on the model of a thieves’ community, it is simply indecent to reconcile yourself with this. I encountered those “guys”…
After they deprived the people who they regarded as scum, of the hope of European integration, and there was a drastic turn towards the Customs Union… This destroyed the hope that they had stirred up themselves. I understood what was happening in Russia at that time… Khodorkovsky was in jail, so were Pussy Riot, and oxygen had been cut off to all my friends and fellow thinkers, everyone was complaining that the regime was becoming fascist… And at that time the “guys” suddenly decided that they would benefit from pushing us in that direction as well. And when I was sitting I my Kiev apartment and read Mustafa Naem’s post on the Internet that people were gathered on Maidan, and inviting others to come to them with tea, I went there. On the first day it was like a Facebook party – everyone there were friends and acquaintances, it was as if I’d gone to an exhibition opening… There were over 1,000 people, perhaps a few thousand… There were not yet any people from West Ukraine or the Poltava Oblast. It was the “creative class”, the middle class, successful people.

Did you expect that you would be able to change anything?

I knew that in a country where the entire higher political echelon was corrupt, an ideal, moral leader of the nation could not emerge. I knew that we would all be unhappy with the result, that the government which would come to replace this gang of thieves would have many shortcomings… That’s how it all turned out, and even in some ways it was even worse than I expected. But this dictatorship of the criminal class – not just anti-cultural, but which despised culture and education – this savage criminal class was not supposed to exist.

When you went out then, you didn’t know that Maidan would turn out the way it did, did you/?

We knew that we had a chance to organize a second Maidan. But on the 23rd or the 24th, on Saturday, I talked to Yury Lutsenko at Maidan, and he said that if 30,000 people came out tomorrow, then we wouldn’t leave. And one and a half million came out. Then they said that these were games by oligarchs who wanted to force out “Yanukovich’s family”, and that Mustafa had pressed the “start” button at their order… I didn’t care who gave the order, whose interests were at stake… perhaps the oligarchs who were unhappy with the expansion of the business of Yanukovich’s sons did have their own interests, but I had my own as well. And the people who went out on to the square had their own interests, and no one intended to back down from their interests. The result is that the regime no longer exists. What we have got as a result can and should be criticized, but nevertheless, it is not the stinking carrion that it seemed would stay for good. And there were not such blatant falsifications at the elections as there used to be, and there probably won’t be again. Although, of course there are falsifications everywhere… but the country has been turned away from the path of hopelessness.

Yes, but this was paid for in blood… In February I didn’t leave the computer for several nights – I watched the direct broadcast. And all the time the pendulum swung back and forth – when people were shot and killed. The whole time there was the idea about the effectiveness of violence. Some of my friends said that the Polish Solidarity movement took 15 years to change the regime, but by peaceful means.

Maidan didn’t want blood. People started firing at it, and it started to respond. We already know the names and military titles of the snipers from the Russian Federation who fired at Maidan. Did they start a war against Ukraine because they feared that it would join NATO? Although now, God willing, we are going to join it. But they were more afraid of something else – that Russians would see that we succeeded in changing the government here. So it was important to suffocate this at the very beginning. It wasn’t Yanukovich with his limited intellect who gave the order to shoot. His will was paralyzed, he only thought about fleeing.

Maidan went a peaceful way. When Nigoyan died, it was a shock, everyone posted his photographs, and an excerpt from the news which showed him reading poems by Shevchenko, everyone talked about him, what a good boy he was, and wanted to be an actor. Then Zhiznevsky died… Who was the 15th to die? Do you remember the name? At least three Jews died at Maidan. Do Jews remember their names?

No, of course not.

Death became ordinary. Russia decided to drown us in blood. But the people proved to have qualities that the people in the Kremlin’s offices did not suspect, and did not take seriously. It was with good reason that this revolution was called the “revolution of dignity”.

During all these events, there was a war of symbols. People were clearly being manipulated – with the ribbon of St. George, the tricolor, the words “fascism”, “nationalism”… And even the national anthem of Ukraine, embroidered shirts, the Ukrainian flag – they are also symbols, so manipulation, “control of the mob” came from different sides…

I wouldn’t put the national anthem of Ukraine on the same level as the tricolor. During Maidan, I followed an exhibition at Maidan which was called “Mantru het!” like “Bandu het!” I was irritated by all these slogans and cries that were thrown out into the crowd. I understand their mobilizing significance, but they irritated me. But from “that side” there was conscious manipulation – brazen, with a substitution of notions, with ready-made concepts. When Gordon told Goncharenko that he wished his grandfather would turn in his grave, he said this by political order – it was give to him, this was the method used. Because back in May, on the air, when people started to talk about how our grandfathers fought, I said: yes, my grandfather fought and never came back from that war. And a person who asked a question live on air said: I wish your grandfather turns in his grave because his grandson supports fascists. This was a prepared answer – it’s a manipulating cliché.
Russians are good, Ukrainians are Banderites. The Russians saved the world from fascism. There were also non-Russians in the Soviet army, and Ukrainians made up at least a third of it… And incidentally, there were also many Jews – we know how many Jews were heroes of the Soviet Union. But Putin said that the Russians could have won the war without other peoples.

Well, Stalin drank to the victory of the Russian people…

Yes, it’s an ideologeme: Stalin took on the national socialist doctrine in a form that was groomed to fir Marxism. I don’t remember who said that all fascists are proud of something: German fascists of the purity of the race, Italian fascists of the Roman empire, and Russian fascists of the victory over fascism.

When the activist of the Odessa Euromaidan Alyona Balaba burnt a St. George’s ribbon, some of my friends took a pro-Russian position…

This was an emotional act on Balaba’s part – a reaction to the St. George’s ribbon which was made an irritating factor. And if some of your friends took this position, then for another group the cult of reverence for the St. George’s ribbon was destroyed. This is what Okudhzava began to notice back in the 1970s, when he sang: “But still, it’s a shame: sometimes above our victories / Stand pedestals which are higher than victories”.
That is to say, the cult of the Second World War in certain visual symbols has begun to replace the realization of the war and the real memory of it. And this ribbon was turned into a symbol of falsification, and a symbol of the fascism that is proud of victory over fascism. Some things need to be desacralized. The cult of war, which serves the new expansionist ideology, must be destroyed. This has nothing to do with our grandfathers, and doesn’t mean that we should forget about the fallen. We must destroy the religion of victory, because it covers a new fascism.

But still, the battalion of symbols, I think, could not have failed to move you as an artist.

More important than the battalion of symbols for me was the spirit present on the side of the barricades with which I identified myself. For me it was a clash between good and evil. Whatever people may say, I still believe that good was only on one side.

Let’s talk about language. It is a colossal, amalgamated theme, which includes everything – culture, history with its wounds that have yet to heal in people’s memory, geography, mentality, even psychology… And when people started to argue about language, a split took place in society…

It isn’t language that split society, but manipulations surrounding language. In reality, there is no language problem in Ukraine. If you don’t inflame it. People on that side began pretending that a forced Ukrainization was taking place here. There really was Ukrainization, but it was mild, quite tolerable and useful. There is nothing bad about citizens knowing the official language.
We have a country of bilingual people. When one participant of the dialogue speaks Ukrainian, and the other speaks Russian, and they don’t need an interpreter – that’s a unique phenomenon, which should actually be cherished.
When Ukrainization of film distribution began, many perceived it with horror. Several months later, when people came out of movie theaters, they couldn’t say for certain what language they had watched the film in. but this Ukrainization was capable of creating at least some kind of information space autonomous from the Russian one. Did you see the movie “The Iron Lady” about Margaret Thatcher?


In what language?

I don’t remember.

At the cinema?


So you saw it in Ukrainian. I also saw it in the cinema in Ukrainian, and then I watched it on DVD – in Russian. These are two different films. They are films with different ideologies. The Russian version is manipulative. But the Ukrainian version is accurate, it conveys the difficult clashes and psychological problems that the heroine faces, and her reactions to the challenges of the times. But the Russian translation portrays an image of an enemy. The manipulation takes place at the approximate level: when at one time Timoshenko said: “What should we do now, put barbed wire around Donbass?” this was interpreted as her statement, that we would put barbed wire around Donbass. And there, in Donbass, which “no one put on its knees”, this primitive manipulation took place.
The entire translation of the film about Thatcher is built on these manipulations. So the Ukrainian language was a means to create an autonomous information space, an autonomous space of meanings, protected from what Russia forces on us. I believe that it is a big mistake that they only work with the Ukrainian language. This autonomous space should also be created in Russian, and not leave the Russian-speaking audience to the prey of Kremlin manipulators. A country where at least 40% of the population speaks Russian should create its own Russian-speaking space.

You say “they” – who do you mean?

Mr. Kirillenko, who is responsible for Ukrainization. He is the deputy prime minister again, the culture minister, which appalls me. I was called before a meeting with Kirillenko at the Culture Ministry, I was invited. I wrote him a note where I expressed my concerns. Kirillenko and I think in incompatible categories. What for me is the primary task of Ukrainian culture – the cultural modernization of the country, is a loss of identity for him. The modernization program “Strategy2-205”, which was developed by a group of Europe-educated functionaries headed by the deputy cultural minister Olesya Ostrovskaya was rejected for being too cosmopolitan. I asked one of the people who developed it – where is the cosmopolitanism? The reply was: there is no national ideology. I believe that national ideology, under which culture is formed, should not exist. On the basis of culture the national idea can be formulated, and not the other way around. And culture should be modern and European.

I have the feeling that when you juggle Jewish symbols in your work, there is an effect of attraction and repulsion: the fear of an assimilated Jew who shuns “this medievalism”, this Jewish ghetto, and at the same time, the interest of a child as about what lies behind this cobwebbed door.

You’re practically right. There is a monograph being prepared about me at the moment, and it contains a passage that I have never been ashamed of my Jewishness, never tried to hide it, but I reject it. It’s a very Jewish feature – to reject Jewishness – as Bagritsky writes: “Tell me, how will my Jewish disbelief believe in this permanence?” I did not accept the culture of galut with its truths that seem to me to be outdated nowadays. At the same time there was something that attracted me. I first encountered this “genuine Jewishness” in Borough Park in New York. I saw people who lived in the 18th century – for me it was a real experience, a “Jewish Chinatown”, people living in their own reality, who had their “own cinema”.
Rejecting Jewishness in its everyday manifestations, I still took an interest in it on the level of discourse. When I was about 18, I made friends with Chaya Gisser, who was called Sasha back then. This entire thread of contact with Jewish tradition in the late 1970s came through Chaya. During perestroika, when books were sold in great numbers, I bought the Talmud of Pereferkovich and read it several times. I was interested in the algorithm of thinking of the wise men of the Talmud. Not the rules of using water which is in a well, and the well is in a mavoi which five houses look out on to. Or levirate marriage with the widows of the brother, if one is deformed and the other has one leg… it’s all written in the Talmud. Of course, I wasn’t interested in this, but in how the Talmud chachams thought. But I look at all this “from the outside”: it is mine, I belong to this community, because of my blood, because it is the religion of my ancestors, but I am an atheist myself.

Do you think that this world appeared of its own accord?

I probably spent five years torturously searching for an answer to this question. When I realized that I wouldn’t find a convincing answer, I decided to concentrate on other problems. This is probably agnosticism, but I prefer the word “atheist”, because it works better in the era of “official spirituality”, in an era when the church in neighboring Russia carries out the role of the ideological department of the Communist Party, when suddenly all the Jews, who usually earned a lot of money by not particularly honest means start going to synagogue devoutly… I remember when Chaya returned from America after a long absence, some gangster came to him and said: “Rebe, grant me absolution.” Chaya replied to him: “You’re confusing me with a priest”. This specific Jewish religiosity that comes from the 1990s is often organized according to the Orthodox matrix – we sinned, and now we will repent.

But this is still not characteristic for the majority of people born in CIS countries who have done teshuva.

Yes, most people go to the synagogue to fill a spiritual vacuum. I have never had one. There are some spiritual problems that concern me, but I feel quite calmly about eating shrimps, for example. I like them very much. There was a moment in my life when I almost decided to become religious, but then I realized that if I started to observe something, then I wouldn’t stop, because it is not for a person to decide what commandment is more important, and what one is less important. If you observe them, you must observe them all. And that means completely changing one’s life style.

But you know that no one observes all 613 commandments…

Yes, but who are you to decide which ones to observe, and which not to.

These are your scores with God, you should talk to him directly.

Yes, these are also my scores with God. They include shrimps (smiles).


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