Friday, February 14, 2014

Beyond left and right: A multidimensional, vibrant picture of Ukraine

I view this blog that Yulia and I write as an alternative window into everyday life in Ukraine. We try to reveal a side of the country that is hard to find in the larger media portrayal of the place.

We feel that much of what we read about our country is fine, but hearing the same kind of people all the time can make Ukraine out to be quite two dimensional. Politicians, economists and other experts are often quite knowledgeable about the place, but they have one very big weak spot--a lack of imagination.

What Yulia and I have become increasingly drawn to in the news are interviews with artists about the events in Ukraine. We find that we relate much more to artists than to formal analysts. It's gotten to the point where Yulia has me turn off the news whenever most experts are on. They can't teach us anything new she reasons. She's right.

Sometimes I just want to shout to these people, "People are being kidnapped from hospitals and tortured and killed! The government doesn't feel that it has to follow the law and selectively uses that same law to lock people up who simply disagree with them. No one from the government or police has had to face any consequences for the illegal and violent stuff they have been doing. They don't care about your diplomatic procedures! They don't care about calls for peace! You can't just keep doing and saying the same things as if things were normal! Be creative. Be clever. Give us some new ideas finally!" As Michael Shchur says in his new song (which I will discuss below), "We're going to call black, black. We're going to call white, white."

This is why we were refreshed yesterday morning to watch an interview with Oleksa Mann.

He talked a bit about his artwork, but also talked about being on the Maidan, not as an artist, but as a citizen. Towards the end of the interview I was even relieved to hear his criticism of foreign journalists who continue to repeat the same old story--that Ukraine is being taken over by fascists who want to establish some kind of right wing state here. They superimpose right and left wing politics from their own countries onto Ukraine, a problem I have noticed for quite some time now. The left in Ukraine, Mann says, are historically the communists, while the right are liberals. To take the American left or right, for example, and force that onto Ukraine distorts the nature of things here.

But to stay focused on right and left only, no matter how careful and accurate one is, still simplifies Ukraine too much. It approaches the world as if there were only two dimensions.

Lately, we've seen some wonderful artistic performances responding to current events in Ukraine. They do the best job, in our opinion, of expressing the depth and complexity society here.

Take Michael Shchur's most recent video.

Shchur, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is a fictional character created by a Ukrainian journalist. He pretends to be a journalist from the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada and usually makes comedic videos spoofing Ukrainian society. But his most recent release is actually a song. It is called, "We'll arm ourselves with t-shirts." The song confronts present and former authorities of Ukraine: "You've paid off thousands. We're familiar with millions of those that you've killed. Who do you think you demeaned?" The lyrics demand an end to this period of Ukrainian history and give an ultimatum--"We're going to burn this epoch. This is our first demand." The lyrics seem to be directed at the present and past foes of Ukraine. The millions of deaths are, I presume, made up of those who died in the Holodomor and gulag through to those killed last month in the violence in Kyiv. Mykhaylo Hrushevskyi's portrait on the t-shirt in the video represents the Ukrainian revolutionary spirit and the epicenter of the current fighting in the country's capital. Hrushevskyi helped form and govern Ukraine during a brief period of independence in 1917. Most of the current fighting has taken place on a street named after him.

Okean Elzy's Euromaidan concert in December was also moving. It had touching moments. I'll never forget when the tens of thousands of people in the audience took out their flashlights in unison. I'll let the hour long concert do the talking. What a spectacle:

Then there's Ot Vinta, who made a curious music video filmed in front of a line of police on the streets of Kyiv. The burly (all male) members of the band appear dressed in yellow skirts. They play a banjo, ukulele, and drum. The bass has a deer head on it for some reason. After it aired on Hromadske TV, all the host could ask the singer was, "What was this?" Unfortunately, I can't remember his response. Yulia thinks the way they sound is kind of annoying. I think they are a hoot! 

Are they left or right wingers? Would they be in the American Tea Party or the British Labour Party? I'm not sure. I just know they are dressed in yellow skirts. :)

The song "Rozy/Donbass" by the Dakh Daughters is equally bewildering to me, though the song is sung in English. Donbass is the area of eastern Ukraine where the president and many oligarchs are from. Perhaps there is a political message in there somewhere, but whenever I watch this song and video I am overwhelmed by all that is going on musically and visually. The song starts out rather harsh, but is a lot of fun towards the end. The Dakh Daughters are quite versatile. Yulia and I have seen them perform pretty traditional folk songs on TV as well. But here is "Rozy/Donbass:"

Hopefully these performances and videos were a breath of fresh Ukrainian air to you, our dear matter how strange that breath of fresh air was!

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