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From violence to understanding

12.12.2001    source: Weekly ’Dzerkalo tyzhnia’, No. 2 (326), 13 January 2000
Interview of Evhen Sverstiuk given to the correspondent of the weekly ’Dzerkalo nedeli’ Taras Marysik

An award was given to Evhen Sverstiuk, the president of the Ukrainian PEN-club, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper ’Nasha vira’, for his book ’Na sviati nadiy’ (’At the celebration of hopes’). This award of the UNESCO for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe was given in the capital of Romania. This prize bears the name of the outstanding Romanian dissident Corneliu Kolosu ’For interethnic and interconfessional tolerance’.

-- Mr. Sverstiuk! First of all I want to congratulate you with winning this award. It would be interesting to learn, how you came to contact with the UNESCO?

E. S.: The information about the award ’For interethnic and interconfessional tolerance’ named after Corneliu Kolosu is spread through the national commissions of the UNESCO for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The letter with the proposition to Ukrainian authors to take part in the competition for this award came to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. The workers of the ministry should be praised – they did not forget about the letter and sent it to the proper addresses’. Their task was facilitated by the condition that they should find a work not merely on a religious topic, but those works of a Ukrainian author that were translated into English or French. The circle of the candidates became much narrower. In this way I got the questionnaire. I filled it in, formally and briefly. This was the way, in which I , using your phrase, came to contact with the UNESCO.

-- Which works did you send to the organizing committee of the award?

E. S.: I sent to the organizing committee my book ’At the celebration of hopes’ and I appended part of this book printed by Harvard University translated to English by Yuri Lutskiy. I also appended a French translation of my essay about Vasyl Stus, as well as my speech ’Ukrainian sources of the Russian religious philosophy’ delivered in la Sorbonne. By the way, I keep the letter, which in the 70s the Ukrainian community in France sent to the UNESCO with the petition to release from a colony the Ukrainian author Evhen Sverstiuk incarcerated for literary activities.

What is Korneliu Kolosu, with whose name the award is called?

E. S.: Corneliu Kolosu is a well-known figure, almost a saint, who has a limitless moral authority in Romania. He was an activist of People’s agricultural party in Romania. After the so-called ’liberation’ in 1947 he was incarcerated. He spent 17 years in communist prisons and then on coercive toil. A very known biography for us. Corneliu Kolosu after his release did not stop his political activities. He applied efforts for the Renaissance of the civil society in Romania, with his words and deeds he fought for the tolerance, solidarity and moral principles.

What is your attitude to the interethnic and interconfessional problems, in particular in the former USSR?

E. S.: These are Augean stables that have never been cleaned. I would even say that this is a permanently throbbing volcano, under which dark forces blow out the fire of enmity for ages. These problems were always exploited for kindling ’class struggle’. Interethnic problems were used more frequently. And although the proletarian revolution of 1917 proclaimed that it put an end to interethnic conflicts, actually, in places, where national feelings were suppressed, the Russian chauvinism showed its horns. And where the end was put to religious prejudices, the regime started to use the tamed domestic church in the struggle against other beliefs, in the struggle against so-called sects. After the disintegration of the USSR the both problems, in the wild and painful state, became actual again. That is why the problem of tolerance is, in fact, the passage from violence to the peaceful dialog, it is the passage to understanding each other and cooperating with each other. Healing of these age-old wounds is a very important problem. That is why the Blessing Commandments say: ’Blessed are peace bearers, for they are called God’s sons’.

Do you see in the modern Ukraine any opportunities for the compromise to make the interethnic and interconfessional relations more tolerant?

E. S.: I believe that the disease of the society, in which we were born and bred, lay in its ideologically cyclic character. Directives were sent from the top. The authors of these directives did not think and did not consult with other people, they were sure that they new the only correct answer. In fact, any dialog was prohibited. I mean not a banal exchange of questions and answers, I mean an argument of ideologies, a discussion about some meaningful problems. I am sure, that ’dialogic’ form is very important for 20th and 21st centuries. Beforehand it was believed that the dignified opponent was absent: those, who opposed were bourgeois fry. Now the opponents are also despised: they are backers of the communist regime. In reality, there are many respected people in our society, who need serious debates and meditations about the past. This king of the atmosphere must be healing for people with their impenetrable stereotypes.

For a long time a democratic tradition exists in Ukraine. It is known, for example, that Ukrainian villagers respectfully treated foreign gods and relics and did not know xenophobia.

E. S.: They used to say: ’The person must be good and its nation is immaterial’. I believe that in Ukraine it would be difficult to fan the fire of interreligious clashes. But the generations bred under socialism are different. Their deformed attitudes must be corrected now. In Russia intolerance was cultivated under czars. Russians always experienced a great suspicion to foreigners, westerners and catholics. Masses even did not think them to be Christians. On the contrary, it was not wonderful to see at that time in a Ukrainian small town an Orthodox Church, a Roman-Catholic church, a synagogue and sometimes a mosque. People did not spit upon alien relics. Certainly in some folk songs one may find words about pagan beliefs, but that was a mild reaction to being called a giaour.

I recollect that in concentration camps a clash between a catholic and an orthodox Christian would be unthinkable. We did our best to get Holy Scriptures, to hide it, to read and discuss it. Interconfessional problems were so insignificant that everyone, who returned from the concentration camps, became quite immune to these problems.

-- It is interesting that the award was given to you for interethnic and interconfessional tolerance. Yet, the people, who communicated with you before and communicate now, consider you one of the persons least prone to compromises in the modern Ukraine, when it concerns principles.

E. S.: However, I recollect an episode at the celebration of Pavlo Tuchyna’s centenary. Pavlo Zagrebelny chaired the celebration. He was afraid to give me the floor, since he suspected that I would spread Tuchyna on the wall. And when I was finally given the floor, the chairman was astonished that I spoke about Tuchyna as about a great poet. But there is nothing to wonder at, since one must speak about the greats basing on their best works, while their weak spots and worse creations is the task of assistant professors or psychologists of the Freudian school.

Tolerance to Soviet classics was worked out not in our country (here they would be smashed in less than no time by finding verses about Stalin, Lenin and the party). The first, who learned to read them properly were our literary critics abroad – Barka, Koshelivets, Sheveliov. Say, Barka wrote a touching obituary to Pavlo Tuchyna, as if the he had never praised the party. Koshelivets published a brilliant monograph on Oleksandr Dovzhenko, as if he had never been a Stalin prize winner. Sheveliov always made a fine distinction between literature and conjuncture noise. Yet, at the same time, no one of them sacrificed his principles. If a literary critic has no principal approach to the search of truth, then such criticism, either angry of kind, is worthless.

-- Do not you think that, on the ground of tolerance, you may be reproached with your acute speech at the readings dedicated to 15th anniversary of Vasyl Stus’ death, in particular, about the role of advocate V. Medvedchuk at Stus’ last trial?

E. S.: I believe that these are different things. The intolerance to ideas is one thing. And the intolerance to the absence of moral principles, when a man does not reform his position, but declares that he had no such principles at all and that he never served faithfully to the totalitarian party – that is quite another thing. My speech did not reduce only to Medvedchuk. Criticism is just a form to shape clear and distinct categories, typical, by the way, for European countries. There the situation when a person gets to the top of power and tries to conceal some secrets from the public, certainly secrets not concerning everyday things, cannot last too long. The Western democratic public discloses truth without mercy. Some people here confuse it with intolerance. Some weak people reckon: let sleeping dogs lie. As if what had been had disappeared. Every thing alive must purify and fight with rot. Stern laws act in the biological and social life, and the God’s justice does not stand falsehoods. That everyone must know from babyhood.

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