Vasyl Shklyar is the author of "Black Raven," a novel about the frequently overlooked anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian resistance of the 1920s. His novel was selected for the Shevchenko Prize, a top honor in Ukraine. But in March Shklyar declined the award and the accompanying $32,000 prize money to protest what critics describe as the "Ukrainophobic" policies of Education Ministry Dmytro Tabachnyk. Contributor Brian Spadora interviewed Shklyar while the writer toured the United States to raise funds for a film adaptation of his novel.
Spadora: Is "Black Raven" a commentary on Ukraine's contemporary politics, which some characterize as the continuation of the struggle against Russian influence?
The novel is not directly related to any of the current political events in Ukraine. I started this novel many years ago, and it just happens that what is taking place in Ukraine today relates to the events that occurred during the period that the novel covers. But I have been told over and over again in Ukraine that this novel has come out at the most appropriate time.
Spadora: Do you believe Russia still poses a threat to Ukrainian independence?
I don't think there is a very serious threat of Ukraine losing its independence. I think what's far more likely and more dangerous is that Ukraine be subjected to cultural repression. There is a cultural threat and a linguistic threat in that if Ukraine is forced to accept Russia as a second official language, Ukraine will lose its Ukrainian language, it will lose its Ukrainian character, and possibly sink into another period of repression. The Kremlin realized some time ago that this kind of ethnic and linguistic domination can be more effective than military force. It is easier to dominate the language and the culture through the media, as opposed to rolling in the tanks.
Spadora: You're one of a group of intellectuals that has condemned the prosecution of Yulia Tymoshenko. Ukraine has a long tradition of writers who have taken political stances, including Soviet-era poet Vasyl Stus. Is this recent effort a successor of the dissident movement, or is it something new?
It's easier to dominate the language and the culture through the media, as opposed to rolling in the tanks.
I don't think this current protest by writers and intellectuals on behalf of Tymoshenko is a continuation of the dissident days in which Stus figured so prominently. It's quite a different situation. Back then, it was a dissent and a rebellion against a foreign occupying power, whereas today's protests are in an independent Ukraine against our own government. It may be restrictive, and it may be repressive, but it doesn't rise to the level of oppression that a foreign force imposes. So, I wouldn't consider this a continuation. I consider this to be a different, new phase of political awareness.
Spadora: Do you see the writer's role as cultural, political, or both?
Among those artists and writers in Ukraine who have a national awareness, there is very little distinction between culture and politics. When people are disenchanted with political leaders, they turn to writers and artists, those who would paint a picture of life as it should be and idealize a situation that is probably out of reach in current circumstances. The writer and the artist become the standard bearer for the people, who don't see any promise in the political leadership.
Spadora: When you declined the Shevchenko prize, you cited Tabachnyk, as opposed to President Viktor Yanukovych, who appointed Tabachnyk. Do you still distinguish criticism of one from the other?
When Yanukovych sees the broad criticism and objection to Tabachnyk and his policies and refuses to remove him, then obviously we have to conclude that Yanukovych and Tabachnyk are of the same mind and perhaps have the same motives. Tabachnyk's Ukrainophobia seems to affect both Yanukovych's validity and popularity. In spite of this, Yanukovych continues to keep him in his government and listen to his advice. We can't come to any conclusion other than their agenda is one and the same.
Spadora: Do you believe the electorate is turning away from Yanukovych?
I expect the coming parliamentary elections [in October 2012] will bring about change, but a lot depends on whether the Yanukovych administration falsifies the results. If they don't, I think changes will come about in a natural, appropriate course of events. People express their view and select a new government. But if the election results are falsified, then we will probably see a new Maidan.
Spadora: Many of the reforms hoped for by protesters on the Maidan in 2004 never materialized. Is there enough faith in such demonstrations for another protest on that scale?
Many of the people who took part in the Orange Revolution today are asking each other, 'Why did I stand there at the Maidan and protest when it seems no good came of it?'
Many of the people who took part in the Orange Revolution today are asking each other, "Why did I stand there at the Maidan and protest when it seems no good came of it?" But more experienced people realize the Maidan has left its mark. It was a turning point, and there was a lasting benefit. Many realize that a collective effort or protest does have a benefit and that change can take place.
Spadora: Ukraine just marked 20 years of independence. As you look back, what are your impressions?
These 20 years have shown Ukrainians how difficult it is to obtain justice for the past. It is extremely difficult in a democratic system to redress the wrongdoings, the repression, and all the persecution of the previous regime. It is easy for totalitarian regimes to inflict catastrophes and repression. But in a democratic society, it is extremely difficult to redress that issue, because democracies have a tendency to be forgiving and liberal. It is also difficult for a newly democratic country to stabilize itself when it still has so many forces -- ethnic, linguistic -- tugging away in opposite directions, especially when you have remnants of the old regime still among you and in control of the government.
Spadora: What do you see in Ukraine's future politically?
Most of the hopes and aspirations are going to have to wait for a new generation of political leaders, leaders who were born in an independent Ukraine, as opposed to being left over from the previous regime. People born during Ukraine's independence already identify with the country, rather than its history and previous regime. That process will work itself out, and a new class of leadership will emerge.