Text by Karyna Silina
Photos by Diana Mess
Last week the London Ukrainian audience was treated to two charity concerts of the Ukrainian rock singer and song-writer Taras Chubay. One of them was a fundraiser for the Disabled Children Centre Dzherelo in Lviv, co-organised by Ukraine Charity. Another was a black-tie fundraising event held in the Houses of Parliament by the Ukrainian Catholic University. I spoke with Taras over a cup of tea and a bowl of strawberries in the leafy London suburb of Hampstead.
About the cooperation with the UCU and performing for the Diaspora
It was the Ukrainian Catholic University who brought the musician to London. Their cooperation is a result of a long-lasting friendship between Chubay and Rev. Borys Gudziak, the founder of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. “We met in Warsaw in 1986, and later in Kyiv at the Thousandth Anniversary of Rus-Ukraine’s Baptism”, Chubay recalls. Ever since he was promoting the Rev.’s projects and gave concerts for the UCU.
Singing for the Ukrainian community is predictably a successful enterprise. In London or New York, there are many of us who are eager to travel down memory lane, singing along to old hits, longing for our student years with the parties at the dormitories and the first (but strictly post marital) sexual encounters. What’s more challenging is to sing to a non-Ukrainian audience. “I first visited the United States in 1991, and it was just a tour of the local American clubs. It was a fantastic experience. I was 24, with nothing but my guitar trying to win the hearts of the Americans with Ukrainian songs. That experience helped me a lot in my life. Of course, I mainly sing for the diaspora now.”
There is indeed an interest in the Ukrainian music outside of the Ukrainian community. A rock band from Leeds, The Ukrainians, has been a successful project since 1990. Recently, they toured the UK with their new album The History of the Rock Music in Ukrainian. “I love The Ukrainians very much, and consider them the best Ukrainian rock band, despite being a British group” Chubay laughs. His initial feelings were not so jubilant though, as he remembers the gig they had together in Lviv in the early 90-s. “Their drummer punched a hole in our drum skin, which for us it was a financial catastrophe, being only paid ten dollars each for the show”.
About the changes in Ukrainian society
The money people used to live on in Ukraine back in 90s sounds unbelievable from today’s perspective. Yet, in many ways Ukraine has changed very little since then. One of the indicators of a society’s maturity is its attitude towards its most vulnerable. “The country is very poor, and people with the special needs are completely left out. There are some efforts, for example in Lviv they introduce streetcars accessible for the wheelchairs, but overall the changes are barely noticeable”, Chubay remarks. On the night of our interview, he was helping the London-based Ukraine Charity raise money to buy a specialised wheelchair-accessible bus for Dzherelo.
While talking about other problems in the modern Ukrainian society and its readiness to embrace 21st century values, we touch the topic of LGBT minorities and the recent attack on the LGBT-organised Peace March in Kyiv that sparked a hot discussion in social media. “I haven’t participated in that discussion, but without a doubt I think that no one can dictate others what to do. And it concerns everything and everyone.” Chubay observes that there is a big disappointment with the Right Sector that was winning the sympathies and trust of the public over the past year and a half. “There is no respect for individuality in our country. We are a post-totalitarian society, and it will take a lot of time until we form true respect and love for thy neighbour. The good sign is that we learnt to analyse, to reflect on any topic, although overly emotional at times. But eventually we will learn to debate properly and tolerate one another.”
There is no respect for individuality in our country. We are a post-totalitarian society, and it will take a lot of time until we form true respect and love for one another.
About patriotism and Russian cultural invasion
Last week, the Ministry of Education in Ukraine published the Concept of National-Patriotic Education. In Chubay’s opinion, there is no need in such document, as the best national-patriotic education would be simply blocking out the omnipresent Russian propaganda. He says that the temporary discrimination against the russophone content is also essential for the survival of the ukrainophone one. He believes that the demand for the Ukrainian-language music and cinema is not fulfilled, and instead substituted with low-quality surrogates from Russia. “Besides, we are losing our money and wasting our resources by letting the strangers in to feed on our territory. At the moment, fewer Russian pop-stars are touring Ukraine, but they are still invited to the private and corporate parties, and take their revenues out of our country.”
As for the Russian performers like Andrei Makarevich, who supports Ukraine and criticised the Russian government, Chubay has no particular sentiments towards them. “This is absolutely normal for a person to take this position, and there is nothing extraordinary or heroic about it. We just perceive it as heroic against the macabre background of the rest of Russia.”
We are still linked through the language to the Russkiy Mir , which will never change its brutal and aggressive nature. Breaking this link will be a long and difficult process.
However, Taras Chubay is fully aware that many Ukrainians are Russian-speakers. “It’s a pity that the Russian language became a geopolitical weapon used against our country. Russian speaking environments in Ukraine underwent a big change and became very patriotic. Many russophones are fighting for their Ukrainian motherland now and sacrificing their lives. But we are still linked through the language to the Russkiy Mir , which will never change its brutal and aggressive nature. Breaking this link will be a long and difficult process.”
A lot of difficulty also lies in the fact that most foreign texts in Ukraine are translated by Russians for the Russian audience. Books, films and newspaper articles reach the Ukrainian consumers through Russia, at times in an altered state. “This channel should be axed and a direct channel from the West should be established.” He says it should be addressed by the government and become a subject of its strategy and cultural policy. A likely precedent was the Ukrainian edition of Harry Potter, which was published earlier than the Russian edition. It quickly gained popularity among both ukraino- and russophones.
We have to embrace the bilingualism, and to promote other languages spoken within Ukraine.
Before the annexation of Crimea, Taras remembers, there were talks of how to appeal to its Russian-speaking population. He favoured the idea of founding the Russian-speaking University in Crimea that would invite world-renowned professors, and accept international students, including those from Russian Federation. In the list of mandatory subjects would be Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history course. That would gradually turn the tables, he says. “But alas, it would not bring fast results, this job is for centuries. For now, we have to embrace the bilingualism, and to promote other languages spoken within Ukraine. Russian language shouldn’t dominate”.
About modern Ukrainian culture
We continued to talk about the surge in the popularity of national Ukrainian attributes, touching on the demand for ethnic embroidered shirts, vyshyvankas. Taras notes how superficial and insubstantial this fashion can be. “A person puts on a certain marker, trying to show that he is not the same as before. Today he is suddenly pro-Ukrainian. Sometimes it looks silly, but at least it is innocent.” The danger starts when the state institutions start implementing their policies, such as Ministry of Culture that continues its sharovarnytstvo, the exclusive promotion of the folk culture. “These huge folk choirs and folk dance troupes are the Stalinist inventions to wipe out everything that is truly remarkable about Ukrainian culture. They are beautiful, but they need to fill out their little niche as to not to be so overly noticeable.”
Ukraine has lots to offer to the world. Taras Chubay believes that the right government strategy could help with promoting Ukrainian culture within and abroad. For the moment, he doesn’t have high hopes for the Ministry of Culture. “They need to understand the scope of their work. There are still Soviet people in there, and they work by Soviet methods”.
A great task is posed in front of Ukraine – to separate its traditions from the heavy influence of the long Soviet period, and preserve the best and the fittest for the 21st century world.