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How to create a soul, a language, and a country

Photo: Zik
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

The well-known journalist and publicist Vitaly Portnikov presented his first work of fiction, the novel Evora, on June 28 in Lviv. The audience took part in an interesting discussion about literature, language, empires, self-development and life in general.

We offer the most interesting quotes from the meeting with Vitaly Portnikov in Lviv:

Evora is a book about sadness

I began to write the novel Evora several years ago. The story takes place in a city in Portugal. The protagonist is a native of Lviv. I will explain why. When a person is born in an ancient city with such walls, with such representations of historical memory, then he can be inspired by various cities. From that point of view, the atmosphere in Lviv also helps literature. This is why a huge number of books that make up serious Ukrainian literature originate here. But popular Ukrainian literature is born in the Kyiv region because Kyiv is not such a sad city. Antiquity engenders sadness.

My book is about sadness. The main theme that I wanted to explore is how sadness arises, sadness in love. This is a love story.

There is a famous Portuguese expression “Saudade.” This is what characterizes  the Portuguese civilization and what cannot be translated into other languages. It is this light melancholy that does not cause discomfort and yet at the same time does not allow the Portuguese to live with the same joyfulness as their neighbors. The Portuguese, unlike other Europeans, do not smile in the street. The territory where they behave that way begins in Halychyna. When I imagined a Ukrainian protagonist who could reveal to the Portuguese  the source of their historical sadness, there is only one city where he could have been born — Lviv. The protagonist had to carry throughout life this longing and romanticism.

The action takes place in two periods: the present, when the protagonist finds himself in Portugal, and the medieval one.

This book is Ukrainian, Jewish by its subject, and also Portuguese.

Photo: Zik
Photo: Zik

We must fight the empire of the Putins, the Medvedevs, the Abramoviches, the Fridmans

A person always sets certain creative goals for himself. When I first took up journalism, almost everything that existed in the civilized world was missing. International journalism first of all. We saw the world through Moscow’s eyes. We even saw Moscow through Moscow’s eyes. And this was the norm for us: on television, the radio, in newspapers, we discussed harvests, and if it was necessary to write about history in relation to international affairs – from politics to culture and sport. — “it was the guy from Moscow who had to explain because he knew better than anyone, of course. How else could it be. And, in general, such things were not to be discussed in Ukrainian.”

At that time we were a country where 50 million people lived and where 1.5 million copies of a newspaper were published. It was not a small unknown country somewhere in the ocean. No! But thanks to the efforts of our Russian neighbors we were seen by the outside world as a small island.

I understood how much effort we would need to get out from under this murderous shadow. I think we must continue to exert our efforts until the final dismantling of this incredible empire, which was the empire of the Bolsheviks but became the empire of the Putins, the Medvedevs, the Abramoviches (Russian billionaire and politician — Ed.), the Fridmans (Russian billionaire — Ed,), several of whom still cannot get out of Lviv.

The world views Ukrainian literature as something exotic

I think that we should make Ukrainian literature European. Currently the outside world is interested in it as literature of the exotic. What the Ukrainian writer writes is translated, studied, noticed as the work of some absolutely exotic, obscure world.

I would like for us to have a classical European literature as well, so that the Ukrainian language could be used to write about eternal, global problems, so that Ukrainian literature could cross borders and the reader could see that the Ukrainian writer can think about other countries, other problems and worlds.

As the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian  society develop in the direction of Europe and the world, ordinary Ukrainian literature will change in the same way. I am sure that in a matter of years we will have a European literature and that nobody will be surprised that problems are discussed in the Ukrainian language that are not peculiar to Ukraine but are eternal and important.

Myroslav Marynovych at the book presentation of V. Portnikov's book Evora. Photo: Mykola Tys/ Zik
Myroslav Marynovych at the book presentation of V. Portnikov’s book Evpra. Photo: Mykola TYs/ Zik

Shevchenko and the Ukrainian people

It is possible to perform miracles with the help of literature. This is more obvious in Ukraine than in any other country, because, in principle, at the time of the imperial experiment in the unification of nations, Ukrainians were supposed to disappear. After all, the country to which the greater part of Ukraine was united absorbed not only its land, but also its history, everyday life, and the people themselves.

Therefore, Ukrainians had no opportunities, as did others during the “Spring of Nations,” to be reborn with the help of a historical myth, since the myth had been “privatized ” by another state.

Now we are surprised when Putin says that “Anna Yaroslavna is a Russian ruler.” But 30 years ago this did not surprise anyone. That is what was written in history textbooks.

It turned out that Taras Shevchenko was enough for the Ukrainian people to appear as a permanent fact on these lands, so that people in ordinary villages could be identified by those who had a Bible in the house and those who had a Bible and a “Kobzar” (book of poems by the great Ukrainian 19th century poet Taras ShevchenkoEd.). This is not exaggeration. This is how a people arose who were able to preserve themselves for further historical trials.

Ukrainian literature is as precious for me as Jewish literature

As a child, I found the world of Russian literature more distant than the world of Jewish literature. What I read in the works of Sholem Aleichem or David Hofstein, I could actually see at home and among the people I talked with. What I read I the works of Tolstoy or other Russian writers was for me the world of foreign literature, as distant as the world of English or Spanish literature — very interesting, but not mine.

Then, when I went to school, the Ukrainian language and literature appeared. I could see that in these works there was a world that I found more understandable than in the Russian books. I noticed the differences: one of the main subjects of Ukrainian village literature was the story of a boy who wants to study but cannot because he must work to help the family. I saw these children with my own eyes. They came to Kyiv with their parents.

In Russian there were no such classic images, if only because there were no schools for peasants.

Therefore, I myself wanted to answer the question why I would consider Russian my native language if civilizationally it was distant for me. Yes, I can work with it, communicate with it, but it has not become mine.

Without the Ukrainian language it is impossible to love ancient literature

If I did not know the Ukrainian language I would not love ancient literature. I once explained to my Russian-speaking friends: “You think that you’re not losing anything by not knowing Ukrainian? You think it is just some language of an Eastern European people that is so similar to Russian… But really not only do you not know Ukrainian, but you do not know ancient literature either.

Translated into Russian, Homer is completely archaic, something that the ordinary person cannot read. It is a work for specialists. I think that if I didn’t know Ukrainian, I would not like Homer, or Ovid.

A person can develop not only through books

With time I began to wonder if a person should develop only through books. Painting can have an influence, as can words. I stopped being afraid when someone says he does not read much.

The word has ceased to be central in cultural development. It competes with different options. If a person can develop through painting, through music, through new technologies, it is not necessary to teach him to read a book.

We will always side with those who are champions of the written word.  But if a person is able to develop when he looks at Raphael, Michelangelo, Chagall, Marchuk, when he listens to Mozart, Rachmaninov, Liatoshynsky, this is also a path that gives rise to images and creates a soul.

In fact, the main task of a human being is to create a soul. And a huge question is how each person approaches it. I am convinced that if a person is able to create his own soul, then he can create his own country.

People always said that a country is a place where everyone lives well. But after 2014 we understood that it is something quite different. It is not a question of the amount of money in your wallet but a question of your own development and the development of your children.

The Ukrainian language must become the language of social mobility

It is impossible to fight centuries of Russification and the destruction of language with conversation alone. That is obvious

For me, there are good examples, especially in Israel. Hebrew supplanted the languages used by Jews in their everyday life and culture throughout centuries.. The people who came to Palestine to create a state in late 19th – early 20th cen. were primarily Yiddish speakers. It would have been logical to say “what difference does it make” and to create a harmonized Yiddish. We would have had a state in the Middle East that would have been a continuation of high German culture and civilization, simply with a different alphabet, and Hebrew would have been used to pray in the synagogues. But the choice was made from the perspective of the civilizational, historical identity of the people, even though this language has to be taught from the first letter. Moreover, nobody really forces people to learn it. It is possible to not learn Hebrew and to speak Russian all your life, but only up to a certain level of development and social success. Here is an important point — the level of development and success!

In Ireland a different path was chosen. Two official languages were established. In Ireland everyone theoretically speaks Gaelic, but practically no one does. The country used to have the possibility of  expanding its language, but it has lost it.

Ireland is part of the great English-speaking civilization but its linguistic identity has been lost in fact. Is this the path we should follow? I’m not sure. Furthermore, being a part of the great English-speaking civilization and being a part of the great Russian speaking civilization are two very different things.

Therefore, I am convinced that we need a law (on language).  There is no tragedy in what we call positive discrimination. I am convinced that people do not have to be forced to learn Ukrainian, but that in the same way as in Israel, not knowing Ukrainian will create certain limitations in life. The Ukrainian language must become the language of social mobility, the language of development.

It is necessary not only to pass laws on the Ukrainian language but also to create free language courses. All the appropriate conditions must be there for those who want to learn Ukrainian! The state must be a language promoter. I hope this will be the case some day.

In Ukraine there is a political nation that does not yet exist in Russia

It is possible to have not only two ethnic identities, but also two political ones. But you must realize that the interests of the countries that are yours can differ, because different states do not have the same interests.

If I consider myself politically both a Ukrainian and a Jew who needs to respect the Jewish state, then I must view everything soberly. I am a realist. I try to behave in a way that finds paths of understanding between two countries.

We have the important standard of a Ukrainian political nation, which in essence was created only after 2014. For our neighbors this is a huge discovery. I always repeat that if you tell a Ukrainian Jew that he is Ukrainian, he will most likely agree because he already considers himself Ukrainian. But try to approach a Russian Jew and tell him he is Russian. He will consider that this is anti-Semitism.

And this is the difference: in Ukraine there is a political nation, and in Russia it does not yet exist.

Transcribed by Nadia Sapiha

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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