Alexander Roitburd: If we don't win, Ukraine will leave the civilization's realm altogether

Original interview:


Up until recently, artist Alexander Roitburd has continually been on Maidan. He is one of the first well-known and influential people who supported EuroMaidan and did it publicly.

On November 21st, Roitburd wrote on his Facebook, "Well, here's what. I understand that not much can be done about what happened, but I'm getting a cab and going to Maidan. So that I could look myself in the eye with clear conscience when I'm looking in the mirror. Whoever wants to see me – come by. Maybe things can still be remedied."

After that, Roitburd seems to not have missed a single Viche (a general popular assembly that is usually called on Maidan on Sundays), a single important event on Maidan, regularly reporting on social networks about his observations of the events.

But we found him in his workshop–the artist has returned to his familiar surroundings and resumed working on his art.

As Alexander explains, right now Maidan needs strong people who are able to stand up against Berkut (the SWAT police), and the revolution doesn't need his public support. We talked with the artist about why it turned out this way, how an artist can help the revolution, about the "Right Sector" and violence.


- You have been participating in the revolution since day one…

- I had been participating in the revolution at a stage when it was important that protests get support from a certain number of people whose stance would be noticed by the society. The fact that I went out to Maidan and said something there influenced the decision of a number of people.


- When did you understand that your presence on Maidan was no longer needed? When did you stop going there?

- When it got colder.

I have been on Hrushevskoho Street and have seen everything with my own eyes. Right now I have already started to work so as to distance myself a bit. The impressions from the revolution have been overlaid on impressions from a museum, and everything has taken on a different tone.

After the New Year, I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid, and when I found myself on Hrushevskoho after that visit, I felt like I was watching a movie. Not just 3D, but 4 or 5D, and it was a movie about the Middle Ages.

Here, a trumpeter is summoning people; there, one can see Berkut troops who look like centurions; over there is the monastery to which Maidan's defenders flee for refuge; there, a bell tolls in alarm; here is a catapult. It felt like I was inside Luigi Malerba's novel "Greek fire".

But all of this was being streamed live with gadgets.

Today, I think opinion leaders are no longer needed there; rather, Maidan needs people who are physically fit and who are able to put aside all their personal affairs and be there. The time of beautiful dilettantism is over. Now I know that I am more useful in the world of media or in my workshop rather than on the battlefield.

If there is once again a necessity that several thousand people with a positive attitude be gathered on the street—my place will be among them. But when everything is already subdivided into quasi-militia companies: veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, former SWAT policemen… A young man from Lviv was staying at my place for a week, an architect. He came here specifically to fight. This is all a different world.


- Have you not expected that it would turn into violent hostilities?

- No one has expected anything at the beginning. I remember one of the first days. On Friday I talked with Yuri Lutsenko who said back then, "Well, if 30 thousand go out on the streets tomorrow…"—and 250 thousand went out.

No one could expect anything. Either the Berkut's stupidity or such a blunt use of force. And no one expected that political leaders (on both sides) would be at such a loss, either.

This is all reminiscent of the February Revolution, when the popular mutiny started initially from verbal fights of people standing in lines to buy bread, and then all of these Rodzyankos and Milyukovs were barely able to keep up with the changing sentiment of the people… until finally the Bolsheviks came and sorted things out.


- Why haven't the other artists of your generation been so outspoken in public?

- I don't know. As you can guess, I don't phone them asking questions like this. Everyone has their own understanding of what to do in a situation like this. For example, I was pretty sure that [Oleh] Tistol would be critical of this Maidan, because his stance had been very negative back in 2004. But I heard that this time he made plywood shields, printed Yanukovych's portraits on them, wrote "go f.. yourself" on them and distributed them to guys who were advancing against Berkut: let Berkut shoot at Yanukovych.

But I haven't spoken to him for a long time, and I have heard this from someone else. Arsen Savadov is in princile for it, but against brutish behavior and against the defacing of the city. And Oleksa Mann's "Barbakan" (a name given to an art booth) is one of Maidan's center-points.

Our "leftist" artists also were on Maidan. Although they came with slogans which can be actually viewed as trolling. In my view, it was a simulation, because a real Marxist, when there is a protest of the middle class against oligarchic capital, should in principle support it and not troll it.


- But they did support it.

- Just as a symbolic gesture. In reality, they came there to troll, and it was not a friendly kind of trolling like Mann's—they came with a certain leftist agenda that was out of place, since they knew that it would cause aggression on the part of the right wing.


- But isn't this maybe the point? In showing that this protest is not homogeneous, that there are different positions there...

- Of course it's not homogeneous, but it is the right wing that is engaging the Berkut. And I kind of don't see any well-organized and trained military companies of left liberals or just leftists who would be able to hold off the Berkut's onslaught.


- Fair enough, but…

- The "Right Sector" right now includes not just right-wing activists, but it was them who shaped the violent stage of these people's street resistance. The right is considered to be Antisemitic parties, but there are Jews fighting there. Because there is time for sorting out relationships with each other, and there is a common enemy. Right now, there is a common enemy there. And any trolling is not constructive.


- Those who do it take a different position, and it has the right to existence. They think that it is important to talk about differences and solve problems already now, and not later. Because later, it might be too late.

- Their position is aimed at achieving very specific levels of capitalization. I could have said a lot of things too… But today, when Lubyanka (the seat of the Russian security forces) is conducting a spec op with the view to discrediting Maidan through Antisemitism – here is where I make a statement that there is no Antisemitism on Maidan. Although this statement is a bit of a stretch. 

But it is important to obstruct this kind of ideological subversion.

I have a clear idea why I am adjusting my impressions. I wrote that there is no Antisemitism there but there are Antisemites, who can be found anywhere.

Antisemites can be found at the philharmonic hall during the performance of Rachmaninoff's 3rd concerto; they came there not to beat the Jews who are playing violins but to listen to music. Today, when such topics are thrown in, they need to be forcefully dismissed. The same should be done to any leftist slogans. We have a line fight there. On the one side, there is the Berkut, with truncheons, tear gas, grenades, water cannons and sniper rifles, and on the other side are these boys who are holding them off with their bodies…

I understand that I would have very differing views with many of them. For example, I am sure that not all of them have an equally tolerant attitude toward sexual minorities. However, going there with an LGBT flag will be a provocation, I think.


- On the one hand, you are right, there are the wartime rules, but on the other hand, no one knows for how long this will be going on. And what kind of warps the society's consciousness will undergo unless we start discussing it and denouncing violence now. Many experts said that the fact that people went out on the streets and peaceful protest began was the result of the successful outcome of the 2004 Maidan.


Then, an idea made home in our minds that peaceful protest can achieve something. And right now when peaceful protest turned into a violent conflict, the social consciousness will breed the idea that only violent methods can achieve anything. We don't know how this all will end, so possible we should introduce an antidote by and by.

This is what those who are criticizing the actions of the Right Sector and the Maidan's self-defense are doing. It is important to support an ambivalence toward the use of violence in the social consciousness. Only denouncing violence is a sign that the society is civilized, which is how we'd like to keep it by the time this conflict ends, however the outcome is.

- If the outcome is that the protests go to crap – no antidote in existence will be able to save us. We will have Russia here, or Belorussia, or North Korea. Ukraine will leave the civilization's realm altogether if we let them win.

Regarding the Right Sector, I'm not a huge fan of the movements that the Right Sector has created. But however long I pore over their interviews, they are not broaching the issue of their ideology at all. They said: we are not Antisemites, we are not xenophobes, we are not racists, we have a different agenda.


- But there is too much aggression there. And there is no mechanism for suppressing it. People look for agents provocateurs in everyone, they lynch each other, catch titushkas, beat them, insult them, smear them with brilliant green dye, bring them up on stage [for public humiliation]—it's just nonsense.

- It is bad. But there is the question. You have caught a titushka—what do you do with him? Telling him, you know, you are wrong—to him, you will be a wuss. There is no mechanism…

Any other methods beside the one you are describing are much less lawful. If we arrest him for a month, we fall under the criminal charge of "unlawful imprisonment" which is more serious than beating some crap out of him.

If he gets a fine, this will be termed robbery. A beating is a lesser offense under law. Well, he gets some punches. But this is what our "kind" government engenders. Moral methods don't work.


- Even more so, if there are no methods which would work, it would be important to at least keep criticizing this kind of attitude of some people toward other people. This is important not for considerations of treating the guilty titushka in a humane way, but in order to preserve the moral health of people who in this way are getting a signal that violence is normal. Because we have not invented other tools of dealing with provocations.

- I have jokingly suggested giving them a flogging, beating them with whips. A public whipping would be quite a sight as well as a lesson. And no serious injuries, although of course I do not condone violence.


- This is even worse, a measure like this is humiliating, it does not allow the person to keep their dignity, and thus cannot be acceptable in a democratic society.

- But what do you do if any criminal activity here is done under the cover of the legal system? Any symmetric attempts to respond will fall under a criminal charge. Cops get dressed like civilians, kidnap Bulatov, drag him to the woods, crucify him, cut off a piece of his ear, and throw him into the frost. Suppose he finds them, what does he do with them? Take him to a precinct? And who killed Nigoyan?


- I don't know.

- Well, they do know. The guy has even given an interview. Everyone over there knows who killed Nigoyan. And he is a hero for them. The Red Army, while saving the world from the brown plague, committed a lot of war crimes. As did the armies of other Allies. They shouldn't have bombed Dresden. But it was bombed. One shouldn't have left as many dead bodies on battlefields as Zhukov did, one shouldn't have raped German women. One shouldn't have done a lot of things. A war is generally a very bad thing.


- But this here is not exactly a war.

- What is it, then, if people are being killed and maimed? We have a light version of a war, but it is already a war. Laws don't work, there is a stake in violence, police and law enforcement behave like terrorists.

When a bomb disguised as a box of meds is being smuggled into a hospital, and then cops are trying to arrest the wounded guy while he is in hospital, and he is a volunteer medic, not an extremist. And he is being guarded by veterans of the Afghan war. What is this: peace? We have a war here.


- This is horrible. But I insist that there is no justifying violence, however noble the excuse is—so as to support the moral health of people who are observing all of this. Otherwise it will be very easy to get reduced to medieval consciousness where no one had ever heard of human rights.

- Has anyone been killed on Maidan? Any cop, any titushka? No. This means they are holding it for now. I think that if there will be more killings, if there are more victims—there will be manhunts and killings [in response].


- This will kick-start a process which we will not be able to stop. If it comes to this, we will not be able to maintain a tolerant attitude toward this protest and associate ourselves with it. I will not be able to do that.

- I'm not associating myself that much with it either at this point, but I understand that there is no alternative. I maintain a distance toward what is happening there, I understand that there are right-wing radicals there, that there are violent methods, and I understand I don't have a place there any more, but I'm for them.

I know that they are standing there for me. And they are beating that titushka for me, so that he would not beat me. This line that you are talking about, it has already been crossed.


- Are you sometimes afraid of anything now?

- I'm not afraid although some threats were made. But if the situation continues and the atmosphere becomes unbearably stifling, I'll have to vamoose from here.

I am aware that this will be the end of my career as an artist, but I don't want to live in the midst of this crap either.


- How did it come to this? When was the moment when we lost it?

- We lost it in 2010, when an uncivilized person with a criminal background was elected President of the country.


- And Maidan? Was there a point where it could develop differently, without blood?

- Yes, there was. If, on December the 1st when the right-wing radicals went to assault the building of the Presidential Administration, opposition leaders hadn't been trying to hold back people, saying, don't go there, let's sing the anthem. If they had said, let's go and help them. That was it.


- You have participated in the events as an activist or as a person who has invested his symbolical capital into the common cause. But you haven't participated as an artist. A question that I'm interested in and that I have asked of many artists: what can an artist offer to a revolution?

- What the "Barbakan" artists or Tistol offered is adequate, but I don't think in this vein. Their mentality is on the verge of advertising, pop-art, this can be seen by the similarities of what they do to "goon-art" or "national production".

I, however, am an easel painter who in the quiet of his workshop is creating "eternal values" and, whatever he is doing, is also thinking about museums. So the only thing I can do is to reflect on the events and transform my reflection into a saying. Everybody can decide what is acceptable for them, what is close to their heart, what turns them on.

- During all this time you have been staying in Kyiv, with the exception of a trip to Spain. And what is happening is your native Odessa? Are you following the events there?

- That city is less politicized, but there are protests there, too. Of course, there are a lot of pro-authorities and pro-Russian zombies there who sit in front of their TVs. But there are also a lot of normal people with and adequate perception of the events.

- Kyiv and Maidan are one thing, while regions are a totally different thing. It seems to me we are not fully aware of what is happening in the provinces and how different everything really is there.

- The problem with the provinces is that Kyiv has never tried to find an adequate message to send to the Southeast. Kyiv doesn't know how to talk with the Southeast.

I have started visiting Kyiv in 1987 and my visits were increasingly frequent and lengthy, so I was able to follow the change of sentiment. I remember this city when it had not yet become a capital of an independent state. Then it became a capital of an independent state, but it was not yet fully clear that it was independent and that it was a state.

It was not even totally clear whether Perestroika has ended and whether statebuilding has already begun. Well, until the mid-1990s, Kyiv hadn't perceived itself as a capital of a state at all. It was the city of Kyiv whose attitude toward other regions was "we are cool and you are losers", "you are a backcountry and we are a capital". Regions were perceived by Kyiv not as a resource but as competitors.


- Why so?

- Ukraine had never been an independent country. It had always been a source of intellectual resources and labor for some empire—one or another. Today, Kyiv has become a consumer of these kinds of human resources and not a provider, but for a long time it had perceived itself as such.

Hence the absence of understanding that the message from Kyiv should be equally readable both in the West and in the East. Western Ukraine is a land of passionaries. It radicalizes the message that was formed in Kyiv. It puts certain ideas on the agenda and pushes it through. Would anyone have tried to say "Glory to the nation—Death to our enemies" here half a year ago, or "Ukraine above all"? We have always said we were patriots, but a fascist slogan "Ukraine above all"—who would have thought?

But today, this slogan is no longer a fascist one in the minds of Kyiv residents. While Eastern and Southern Ukraine are characterized by quite an inertia. The more distinctive the Galician accent is getting in Kyiv, the more distanced becomes the Southeast, the less it considers Ukraine to be its own country. The less of a role the center is playing as an arbiter or a filter for some ideas, the greater the probability of a split.

- What kind of consequences can all of this lead to?

- Depending on how it ends: in victory or in defeat. If there is victory, it will be the celebration of human dignity. If there is defeat, it will be a collective trauma and depression. The country might then not come out of depression while the losing generation remains alive. Alternatively, what is happening now might turn out to be something like the Russian revolution of 1905, upon which, as we know, the revolution of 1917 followed.

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