The process of "sobering up" the West after decades of misperceptions of Russia and Ukraine is absolutely irreversible, says Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko.
In an interview with Radio NV Editor-in-Chief Aleksey Tarasov, Zabuzhko spoke about the revolution in the world of Western Slavic studies provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, noted erroneous stereotypes about Russian culture, and commented on the sudden “epiphany” of figures like Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who she argues were until recently loyal to Russia.
NV: I want to start our conversation with your latest book, The Longest Journey. This is an essay that explains the current war to the world, including through your own experience and feelings. On the third or fourth page, you already begin showing some of your disappointment with the so-called collective West. You write about the cowardice of the West.
Zabuzhko: It's rather ironic in the place you mentioned.
NV: Since you completed this essay, five months of war have passed. Do you think the West has come together, or does it continue to watch through binoculars, as it watched Mariupol on TV?
Zabuzhko: It's not exactly through binoculars. You understand that there are some reverse optics in this book. The book is a Ukrainian woman appealing to the West, but this is not an assessment of the West for Ukrainian readers. But even by the third or fourth page, which is talking about February 16, a lot of questions to the West and well-deserved claims and irritation had accumulated. After all, there are two words: the Budapest Memorandum. Period. 1994. Accordingly, since 2014, the West owes us like the land owes farmers. And that’s why now all these deliveries of weapons, for which was required months and months of diplomatic efforts, efforts, blood, sacrifices, and heroic efforts of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to prove, I beg your pardon, that we know how to use them... What can I say, we all know this.
That is, in fact, I would say, the West is in the process of regaining consciousness, sobering up. Because for them, February 24 was that very rude awakening: brutal and cruel, unexpected. Because "what happened?" You can say the same meme. Because there was 2014, and even earlier – 2008 [the war in Georgia]. In 2008, after the attack on Georgia, the laws of God and man should have been brought down against Russia – they should have applied all the sanctions and all the instructions that we have after February 24 of last year.
NV: There is a very important idea in your book that the West did not win the Cold War, but "stopped it by disarming unilaterally." Do you see where this idea of a Western-won Cold War comes from? The West believed it. And where do all these delusions come from that Russia can be democratized or can be curbed economically, be squeezed as much as possible – and then it will cease to be a dictatorship?
Zabuzhko: Certainly. You see, we are all victims of Soviet education. And in our country, there are whole pieces of the history of the twentieth century that do not exist from a Western perspective. That is, they had their own 70s and 80s which we, in these territories on the eastern side, experienced differently. We have different reference points. It was the same in the 90s. Our education did not change. And, accordingly, neither ours nor Western education has managed to sew together this world torn apart by the Iron Curtain. And the optics, let's say, of how happy the West was with the appearance of Gorbachev, this feeling of "My God, we can finally stop being afraid of this terrible Soviet Union."
Terror bombing from Hitler to Putin
After all, it was a paranoid arms race. Just look, they are now dumping stocks of weapons that were mostly accumulated back then. But then this young General Secretary with an American smile comes, saying that now “we will have socialism with a human face” and “I'm taking troops out of Eastern Europe.” And maybe the unification of Germany, and everything will be fine, and we will trade, and we will be friends. Hurray! Let’s do it! Peace, friendship, chewing gum, corn. My God, it’s just not like a stone has fallen from their souls – it was such a non-stop festival, and, accordingly, Gorbachev was forgiven for the incidents in Tbilisi, the sapper shovels with which the demonstration was dispersed. He would also be forgiven for Vilnius, where people were run over by tanks, a few months after Gorbachev received the Nobel Prize. That is, we do not have a coherent picture of this whole process, how unhappy the West was with the collapse of the Soviet Union, because the Soviet Union was an understandable and known quantity. When it came to these smaller republics, they did not know them at all.
And here we come to a question that simply cannot be avoided in answering yours. This is a question about the propaganda role played during the Cold War in the West by this thing that was very generously sponsored by the Soviet Union – Slavic centers. That is, all Western Slavic studies are, first of all, Russian studies. And all of it developed, all the way back to Stalin's times, largely under Kremlin, Russian, and then Soviet control. And, accordingly, with Soviet and then Russian money.
NV: It has been great to see how all these agents of Russia have opened up, put their cards on the table, and stopped hiding. Has anyone surprised you in this regard? We have seen letters from the so-called "German intellectuals" that it is necessary to stop giving weapons to Ukraine- and then the war will stop. In the sense that we will be killed very quickly, raped – and that's it, there will be peace. Who surprised you among those Russian agents who have come to light during these 10 months of the war?
Zabuzhko: I didn't wake up on February 24th. Since 2008, I have been screaming and understanding that this is a war. And since 2010, it has been absolutely obvious to me that a war was coming, which the Kremlin intended to be a world war. And, of course, it was clear that we were on the road there, and that we would be next after Georgia. But at the same time, I, so to speak, followed the process for professional safety. I am a Western-translated author with about 20 years of international career behind me. That is 20+ countries where my books are translated and where in some I belong to the mainstream of translated authors. I had this parallel career the whole time, where I followed the profiles and portraits of Russian agents in the Western publishing business, in the Western media, and in the press.
The press plays an important role. We all moved to digital 20 years ago, so we no longer have a paper press as such. In Europe, it remained and is influential. As for this very "Russian soft power" – what colossal money was thrown by Russia in these pre-war twenty years. That's from the very founding of Russia Today, but this is not only about Russia Today.
This is not only a question of open agents. Yes, there were agents who got burned. But it’s not in vain that I’m talking about several generations of this Russo-centric Slavic studies, which actually replicated what we call Russian manuals. This very Putinesque version of Russian history was replicated by Slavic studies in all Western universities. And accordingly, for Western politicians who studied at these universities, it has always been like this: that there was this important Russia and then this other kind of small, ‘fraternal’ Ukraine. Almost like we have Bavarians or like we have Occitans for the French. That is, Ukraine is a Russian province, has always been a Russian province, and Kyiv is a Russian city. They supposedly have some kind of their own language, with its own nuances and details, but this is actually not a language, just a dialect. They still – at least until February 24 – still had this stereotype, replicated in Western universities.
NV: You mention in your book the then German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. We know him as a kind of "Putinversteher" [a German construction roughly meaning “Putin understander,” connoting a person who has a special capacity to understand what Putin is “re-ally thinking” – ed]. If we talk about the Kremlin's dictionary definition of this, Steinmeier is it. Now we have just seen an unreal transformation. He is now saying that Ukraine must win, and Russia must be defeated. Do you think this is because it is no longer acceptable or fashionable to say otherwise? And could it again become fashionable in Europe to say that Putin needs to "save face"?
Zabuzhko: No. With Steinmeier, let's have no illusions. Of course, he changed his tune sharply and awkwardly. And many even in the West believed how good it was for him that he went to Ukraine and sat there for two hours under shelling in a bomb shelter. Like, he immediately saw the light, I heard. I don't think this is about insight. I think he was just really scared, seeing that Russia is losing, that The Hague is coming for Putin. [There is] a whole noisy crowd of, let's say, Western collaborators of the Kremlin, who really do not want to sit next to Putin and his henchmen-servants in the dock. And these people deserve the dock. Of course, I will not brandish unsubstantiated claims, because I ultimately speak on the basis of images. As a writer, I think in images and see people as my characters. Trust me, Steinmeier is such a cynical son of a bitch that you could write an entire essay about my encounter with him in 2014 at the European Writers Forum. In principle, every experience is interesting – a dramaturgy of human relations. Especially when it comes to some outright crimes. This man understood very well, being a Putinversteher, what he was doing. “We say Steinmeier, we mean Putin,” to paraphrase a Russian classic.
NV: There are a lot of these cynical "sons of bitches" in Europe, and it is clear that it is a matter of big money. Do you think this is now an irreversible path, they can no longer return?
Zabuzhko: No, they can't. They cannot, but informationally this is a recovery, ripping the veil from their eyes, throwing off this Russo-centric and imperial-centric inertia, which inevitably becomes a collaboration and on which Putin eventually parasitizes. In February, he was sure that “it’s nothing, they will make some noise and calm down,” that there will be another session of deep concern, but they will swallow it, as they did in 2014 and in 2008, because large Russian investments in the West have been made: there is too much Russian money in the West, a colossal amount of it.
Before the new year, Google happily congratulated me on the fact that I had visited 21 countries and 93 cities that year. This had not at all been part of my plans, but I took upon this mission to travel as a goodwill ambassador to various events with my books, as a writer of a country at war. From political summits, from parliaments, from the European Parliament – and further to literary forums – it was like a full-time job. At the same time, you see these reactions. From September to December, I had my The Longest Journey presentation published in six languages. When you travel all the time, when almost every day brings you to a new country, another city, another hotel – you can scan everything in this, and do a kind of field study of the Western mentality. I could scan how Russian money was thrown into the information sphere in the fall, as Russia was losing on the battlefield. There were also expressive anti-Ukrainian campaigns – this is what [Foreign Minister Dmytro] Kuleba said, that 18 Ukrainian embassies in the European Union received these terrorist packages, with even explosives in Spain. It's not accidental, it's purely and absolutely the Kremlin's handwriting. This can also be attributed to speeches by the extreme right, some demonstrations, some manifestations. I also got hit by a tram, like Ostap Bender, when I received the Stanislaw Vincenz Kraków Prize in Kraków – there was an attempt to make a scandal and generate PR on the part of the far right.
There are and will be kickback attempts to slow down this process of the West coming into conscious-ness. But some kind of general sobering up and understanding of how deeply and incorrectly the West saw both Russia and Ukraine, what degree of ignorance and how long the process of enlightenment will take – this appeared last year, and this process is absolutely inevitable.
NV: They in the West can still watch us being killed live online. I mean, right now they can see a video of a Russian soldier shooting up a car full of women and children, or of a Russian shooting a guy in the back of the head with his hands tied behind his back. Does this help in your opinion? Or does the screen create distance, like they're watching a Netflix show? How do you see it?
Zabuzhko: Do not overestimate television and do not overestimate the meaning of these news pictures. On planet Earth, 10 years ago, there were, I remember, 358 military ongoing conflicts. That is, there is always somewhere where there is shooting, killing, and bombing that can appear on the news. Recall how Aleppo was completely erased like Mariupol, a city that belonged to the cultural heritage of mankind.
The news value of a place where something bad and unfair is happening is a very wrong tactic to explain that the truth is on our side. This is a very misleading tactic. And in 2004 we were news, but this news did not reach the level of Ukraine's cultural presence in the world space. And in 2014, the news: wow, they had a peaceful protest, then there were people shot, and so on. How beautifully they protest! What a civil society they have! Great, but [it doesn't work] without being anchored by cultural realities, without being anchored by a flood of novels, films, stage performances and musicians translated from that culture. These things which can directly represent this country as a living reality with which one can identify. Without this, all these pictures of a Russian soldier shooting someone – it will not change the mental picture to the extent that we would like.
Interpretation is put under the picture: why is the Russian soldier doing this? And if this interpretation was not provided by the cultural matrix, from which it is well clear that this aggression is absolutely inhuman, that it is Nazi, that this is Nazism of the 21st century – something that is obvious to all of us.If this interpretation is not planted, then the propaganda of 20 pre-war years is planted - that Ukraine is a rebellious part of Russia with some "Nazis" running around. This propaganda has been going on for 20 years, we have not done anything with this Russian propaganda. Russia has been interpreting us for 20 years.
In 2014, I heard words of apology – for the first and only time – from the famous German Slavicist, a pillar of German Russian studies, historian Karl Schlegel. At one international summit, he came up to me and sat down sadly. He was really the star of Western Russian studies, really a man with a career, life, and books behind him. And it was all sincere for him. He belongs to that generation of Germans who felt guilty for Hitler, for Nazism, and wanted to make peace with the Soviet Union, with Russia. It's like a moral duty to Russia. All this was truly sincere. And in 2014, this man in his 60s sits with his head in his hands and says to me: “I'm sorry. All my life I was wrong, all my life I saw Kyiv only as the third city of the Russian Empire. Forgive me".
You understand that a person had to overcome the shock he experienced in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, in order to understand that he had been so wrong all his life. And as a result, he wrote such a penitent book about Ukraine – a collection of his articles, essays. And in spring of 2014, it was translated into English. It was generally the only book available in English about Ukraine which was sold at all airports. And this also applies to the question of our self-representation, because there must be models. We are a country that for 30 years has not provided what is called concise history — some short, 60-70 page manuals on our history, so that any foreigner can take and read it. And if the country is silent about itself, then Putin comes and says: this has always been ours, this is part of our people, and now they have gone rogue, they offend the Russian-speakers, they are Nazis there – and you can think of anything – so we will come to bring them in order.
In the context of this mental picture, everything was logical. There was only one "but" – 72 hours. Because in this “Russian” version, for which humanity and the West were completely, absolutely informationally prepared, Kyiv had to be taken in 72 hours. Glory to the Ukrainian Armed Forces! The Armed Forces, Ukrainian society, and Ukrainian resistance overthrew all that Russian money – and everyone saw it. This was a discovery, and this was a shock. And thus collapsed the stereotype of the great and invincible Russia. The stereotype about “Bavarians” or “Occitans” is falling, of these people who are buzzing about something incomprehensible and need to be given to Putin as soon as possible so that they calm down, and under no circumstances join NATO.
Accordingly, this is a breakdown, a crisis of the genre, and we will be ready for another 10 months and another whole year for the fact that all those experts who screwed up and said that Kyiv would fall in 72 hours. They will now look for explanations for their mistake, try to justify themselves. This is already in some of their miscalculations, and in the miscalculations of Russian logistics, headquarters, and so on. But there is no way to say it like Schlegel: we were wrong all our lives, because we didn’t know anything about Ukraine. And we saw Russia completely wrong, and we need to rewrite our textbooks.
This is what I've been saying in the West for 10 months. Significantly longer, in fact, because [I’ve said this] during the previous 10 years, too. Only over the previous 10 years, nobody believed me. And after February 24, they were already asking what to do. And I say: to change programs at universities resolutely and categorically. I have a positive example here because in April I wrote for The Times Literary Supplement an essay published under the title How to Read Russian Literature After Bucha. This text has become one of the most controversial I have written. It's not quite Field studies of Ukrainian Sex in scale. But in terms of impact – it spread like wildfire on straw throughout Europe. It was translated into 22 languages within a month. And it caused a really serious storm in Slavic studies. In some countries, it is still being discussed – particularly in those russophilic places, like in Germany, where politicians still say that "this is Putin's war, not Pushkin's." In April, it was published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and indignant letters from German and Swiss Slavists immediately began. Because, in principle, the article is addressed specifically to this audience, and deservedly so.
NV: Because you are calling Russian literature a camouflage net for Russian tanks. And it seems that in old Europe they are not ready to accept this. I will give you a very small example. I came across a message from the British edition of the Guardian, where they quoted our Minister of Culture. A quote was placed in the title – that Tchaikovsky should be abandoned. I went into the comments – and there they thought we were crazy, that how could we throw out Tchaikovsky. Are they not ready for this?
Zabuzhko: The rejection of Tchaikovsky is a slightly separate issue. I say it's all about framing: it's all about how you bake it, roast it, and serve it. But the emphasis here should be on the fact that the Russians – even when we talk about cancel culture today, the Russians have been talking about themselves to the world for too long and a lot. It turns out that in fact this culture is absolutely historically irrelevant, as they say. As one Polish intellectual said, she would have thrown out all Russian authors, because what is the point, why care about this literature, why bother with this culture, if it raised this kind of army?
And this is a perfectly logical question. It is a huge blow that this culture is actually a camouflage net and a misrepresentation. This is a lie, this is the creation of incorrect projections. People, reading Tolstoy, think that this is Russia. And they forget that, as Eva Thompson wrote, Tolstoy writes about the life that 500 Russian families lived. That is, this is an extremely thin and completely non-representative stratum of the population – these very creative types are Moscow office workers who were happy with everything, and when mobilization was announced, they jumped up, packed their bags, and left.
NV: A very important thought, I just want to emphasize it for our audience: what really, when we talk about Tolstoy, he writes about the lives of 500 families in Russia, but when it comes to the other millions, we know nothing about them, and classical Russian literature does not narrate their lives.
Zabuzhko: Yes, that is, this is not about Russia – this is about a laboratory-grown layer. Remember that in The Longest Journey, I quote the great-grandson of [Imperial Russian Prime Minister Pyotr] Stolypin, who said in an interview in June that "Russia has no history – there is a history of my class."
That is, this thin oil film on this huge, dark and terrible swamp, which this film, by the way, has always been afraid of. And from there comes all this mythology about the people, some kind of idealization of it or the creation of all this tinsel, which actually does not exist. After all, the “film” itself also had a very weak idea of what was really out there in those dark expanses inhabited by no one knows whom.
That is, there is Moscow and St. Petersburg – and there is the rest of Russia. And when all this rest of Russia finally arranged for itself a world presentation in Bucha, Irpin, and beyond – throughout the geography of the territories liberated from Russian occupation, where the world already now has access to see – the question arises, where is this culture? Where is it? Where is Tchaikovsky? They thought this was it, and books were written about it in the West, on which they were nurtured. Here is this image of Russia, cultivated and sold for many generations.
Putin's success is that he was not stopped earlier. He is simply collecting the cream of what has been cultivated for centuries, starting with the work of the Stalinist Cheka on the western front. Therefore, for example, I am very gratified and joyful, because when I attacked them [Western researchers of the Russian Federation and its culture] in this article, they understood, and they reacted. They did not rush to fight for Russian literature. They rushed to fight, excuse me, for their own positions, pensions, and careers, because I asked a very direct question, and they understood it perfectly: where were you all the previous 20 years, when Russian fascism grew, prospered, grew strong, blossomed? Why didn't you warn us then, if it was your duty? You know the language, you professionally explore the country, you get paid for it. What did you research? Why didn't you show this degradation of modern Russian culture that accompanied the emergence and development of today's Russian fascism? How did you miss fascism? Why did you at that time research the work of Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Vladimir Sorokin, without warning that both were published in Russia with a circulation of three thousand copies. And the stuff with circulations of 150 and 200 thousand copies, you had stuff like “Donbas on Fire,” “Ukraine on Fire,” where all the scenarios for the war in Ukraine 10-15 years before the start of this war were spelled out.
All this literature and cinema where the main character ends up in some historical event and becomes a hero, all these movies like Brother 2 and so on – everything was informational, psychological preparation for the war. Not a single, sorry, Slavicist son of a bitch in the West has written about this. Not like dissertations about modern Russian mass culture, the so-called, about this military propaganda – and I didn’t write an article! Where were you, what did you get paid for? Then a wild, furious howl rose up. All this “Zabuzhko attacks Tolstoy,” “Zabuzhko calls for a ban on Russian literature.” And all the other distortions. In Germany to this day, when I was on tour with presentations for The Longest Journey from the Frankfurt Book Fair onwards, without exception, all German journalists asked me: what about Russian literature? I explained it to them meticulously and consistently.
But there is good news. Indeed, the scandal was great and, in principle, still continues, because in fact, as it turned out, this article stirred up a discussion within the entire Slavic studies establishment. That is, when young people, younger Slavists, wonder if Slavic studies ends up being Russian studies.
Why are we taught only according to the old patterns, only Russian and Serbian, as if these were the most important Slavic languages? Why are we not taught this and that? Why is the whole structure of the Slavic world tied to Russia for us, which is absolutely wrong? And this revolution of the younger generation and those conscious members of the older generation who are not completely addicted to Russian money (because there are such people), this revolution has finally begun to take shape. There has already been a split, opposing camps have already been outlined, and ours are winning. The agenda of America’s Association for Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies has already been announced. A completely different agenda is set, and already the question of studying the ethnic minorities of Russia is coming up. That is, the Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and other peoples, who in the future may acquire the right to self-determination, are coming into view. A certain intellectual, informational preparation for the coming collapse of Russia is also being planned.
NV: At the very beginning of The Longest Journey, you write that when you were going on a business trip on February 23, you were in a state of this “soldier’s fatalism.” We understand that in the five months of the war before you concluded this text, a lot had happened. Almost the entirety of Kharkiv Oblast was liberated, as was the right bank of Kherson Oblast. We finally saw the Ukrainian church in the Kyiv-Pecherska Lavra. How would you describe your condition now?
Zabuzhko: Everything remains the same: I remain mobilized. For example, I finished a column for the New York Times last night, but I haven’t sent it yet. I have not returned to interrupted work on the novel. As in February, the text broke off on an unfinished sentence – so it is still. I remain a fighter on the information front. Until there is victory, you cannot afford to run into some ivory tower of your own. Because, in the end, what's the point of all this? What's the point of writing new books when you don't know what will happen to this world tomorrow? And when you see this menacing grin that kills any culture – not only the Ukrainian word – but any culture and anything living.
NV: You characterized the spring of 2014 with the word defenselessness, and wrote that there was no more defenseless country in the world. Of course, you are talking about Ukraine in this state. In Spring 2022, what word would you use?
Zabuzhko: Anger, probably. I think anger might be the right thing to use.