Ukrainian artist on Russia's cowardly war, "vatniks" and Putin's future


Famous Ukrainian artist speaks about the causes of popular uprisings, kamikazes in power and "vatnik" Bulgakov

There are lots of mountains among the images which art connoisseurs instantly recognize as works of one of the most famous and expensive modern Ukrainian artist, Oleg Tistol, creator of such well-known projects as "Ukrainian money", "National Geography", "Yu.Be.Ka" and "TV + realism". He painted them in the Caucasus, in Israel, in Scandinavian countries. And recently he spontaneously created "Ai-Petri" series. Now, he says, he is looking at these works with the same sadness as Armenians had once looked at his "Ararat" series of paintings. The Crimean mountain is as unattainable for him for a while as for Armenians the peak located on the territory of Turkey. Evidently there is no coincidence that in an interview with "Apostrophe" the artist spoke more about politics than about his own work.

— You're a native of Vradievka. Some don't remember, but a rebellion that rose against unrestrained police among the residents of this town in Mykolaiv region in the summer of 2013, can be considered as the first warning to authorities about Maidan that burst just six months later... What did you feel about the situation back then? Have you predicted such consequences?

— This is an aptly question. I am, in fact, not just from Vradievka. The thing is that the girl who was a victim in this terrible incident (at the hands of local police officers, who raped her and attempted to murder her — "Apostrophe"), Irina Krashkova, is my cousin. And the women who, with their bare hands, were fighting cops are my aunts. So this impressed me tremendously. And that was the last straw for me in mounting disgust for everything that has been happening in the country since 2010. I was incredibly pleased by healthy, normal reaction of the whole society, the whole country to this event. Although I was not surprised with what my aunts Lidia and Tamara did. People that live in this region are very proud and independent, with a keen sense of justice. It is at genetic level.

— Did you imagine that this will continue and will break out on a larger scale? After all, if Vradievka is, roughly speaking, a grenade, then what exploded on Maidan was megabomb.

— I seriously reflect on this for the past year and a half, in anthropological, ideological and philosophical aspects. I was terribly startled and annoyed by how the country allowed Yanukovych's revanche. I even spoke improperly of certain part of our people in interviews back then. Everything that was happening caused me incredible irritation. Because it seemed to me that civilization choice made by Ukraine in 2005 is irreversible. How again did all this trash manage to climb into power?

— But, alas, 30% of the population still voted for them...

— I think this is the result of political technology and direct manipulation. Besides, we must always consider another factor. My mother, who has worked for many years at the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, somehow corrected my ideas of life. She said that only 10% of the population know how to make decisions. And the rest of people ...

— ... act by inertia.
Ukrainian artist Oleg Tistol. Photo credit: BIRUCHIY contemporary art project/
— ... driven by those who took the decision. So there is nothing offensive in 30% for Yanukovych (in 2010 elections Yanukovych won more votes than that, but this is around what the Party of Regions recieved in 2012 — "Apostrophe"). The motivation of these people is clear. But I felt very bad, perhaps, sensing personal responsibility for what happens for the first time. What do we have here? We, the artists, the cultural figures, have failed to make something interesting and impressive in 30 years to discourage people from Soviet past. In short, if we were making culture, how was "Vladimir Central Prison" (Russian criminal song) able to win the country? Now this, thank God, came to an end.

— Do you really believe in this?

— I have no doubt in this. This does not mean that tomorrow we will become a European civilization at its best. That, by the way, I personally would not want to. I want to continue the cultural struggle. I am not interested to live in such country as Slovakia, and I do not mean anything bad. It's boring there. I brought my wife to Kyiv from Switzerland in 1993 to give birth to our daughter. Even though we had all the conditions to stay there. But I do not want to to live there. Here in Ukraine, the most interesting imaginable civilizational process is happening now.

Oleg Tistol. Ararat project. 2011
— And what are its symptoms? Or, simply put, on what is your optimism based? At a time when, in fact, there is a war?

— There is nothing strange in the war. We have long been at war with Russia. And we must understand that it has always fought exactly the way it is fighting today. Recall, for example, how it began the Crimean campaign in the XIX century. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Russian troops were in Moldova, and when asked what they were doing, they answered: "We are Orthodox." And, they said, they came to defend their co-religionists. So, these hybrid, disgusting, coward and brutal methods were used by them multiple times in history. If you know this, nothing in the behavior of the modern Russian government can surprise you. That is why it is important that today we realize the obvious gap between two global worlds. What is civilization? It is a way of cultural interaction between people. The method, if you will, to negotiate nicely. And then everything else is piling on: meanings, forms of preservation and development of culture.


I repeated this banality for many years: culture is not a product but a process. Civilization is a process too. A process of production of culture in all its forms. And what is the uncivilized world? It is a cargo cult. When external signs of culture are used for ideological ends, without understanding of purposes of these items. And here we all need to think what are we aimed for? Either for "Vladimir Central Prison", i.e. for the cult of slavish obedience or for cultural interaction and ways to negotiate with each other. I have always wondered about that. After all, in Vradievka when I was 10, I was listening to Tom Jones and Ukrainian songs, not Kobzon. I do not understand why do I have to listen Alexandra Pakhmutova if there is Paul McCartney. And finally, there comes a time when this banality is defended with arms. The only thing I regret is that I have already suffered a heart attack, that I am 55 years old, and I can not participate in this directly.


I am a religious person and I don't want to kill anybody. But it would be nice to take active part in the current process. I am not interested in banter over Yanukovich and similar characters, although I made some works on this subject. And now we have sent the most radical of them to Moscow, of all places. Our customs officers at Borispol airport laughed when they saw photos of these works with Shoigu and Putin. They need no explanations. But over there maybe someone would look at these portraits and understand something about these gentlemen and could take some important life decision. However, the exhibition, organized by curator Diana Machulina, very courageous and competent woman, was forced to move to apartment. Russian Academy of Arts officials have ordered to remove these pictures from their halls.


— So, has Russia safely returned to the Soviet Union and there's no other way?

— It is, I repeat, a cargo cult. But it is hard to call the modern Russia an empire. By the way, without Ukrainian Theophan Prokopovich, who formulated the idea of ​​empire for the Russian Tsar Peter I, these vatniks would have still not known this word. They would have been named Ulus (one of the Golden Horde names), as they were called previously. I say this without any hate or humiliation. If you parse my chromosomes, analyze my ethnic components, there are no claims to me. When in the 1980s I was dragged to KGB and accused of nationalism, I had them stumped by asking "What nationality do you mean?". My surname is Moldovan, and I was speaking only Russian at that time. But to hell with politics. I'd better explain why I am an optimist. It is easy to be a sorcerer. If you see a sergeant sawing off the bough on which he is sitting, it is easy to foresee that he will fall. For the sergeant you are a sorcerer. But I just have a primitive rural experience so to speak.

That's why I say that our generator is in civilization. And we need to think about the meaning of life, not death, as our eastern neighbors. Remember what their football fans have written on the flag, on their tricolor during last year's World Cup in Brazil? "Everybody is fucked". This is their concept really. Of course, they meant their rivals, strangers, but the motto is comprehensive and, therefore, is relevant for the Russians themselves. And Russian literature usually considers options for the best way to die — humiliated and insulted, or waving an ax, as the hero of "Crime and Punishment". But we instead have even Shevchenko's "Zapovit" ("Last Will") carrying vital energy: "Bury me, be done with me,  Rise and break your chain". And people came to Maidan to fight for their dignity. Even our literature relays the code asserting the greatness of human spirit.

Oleg Tistol. "Ukrainian money" project. "Roxelana". 1995

— Well, human life is not worth a penny in Russia since ancient times. Their power is based on this.

— I used to joke "Who are muscovites? They are wild Ukrainians." This joke is 20 years old. I think that if you throw our people into these expanses, they will become confused and wild.


— Good observation. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Ukrainians who adapted in Russia are taking especially aggressive stand against our European choice. I mean characters like Sergei Glazyev and Valentina Matvienko, or for example Iosif Kobzon, who simply burn with hatred against us.

— The slave does not tolerate competition. Many Russian businessmen who have moved to the West, confessed that their first reaction to the word "competitor" is to kill. I take competition as an extremely positive development. Someone is smarter than me, more talented, educated. Accordingly, it is necessary to catch up. But barbarian kills whatever is unclear for him. That Matvienko, who is the Head of Russian Federation Council, here in Ukraine could only manage a restaurant somewhere in Cherkassy region. Priest, who baptized her, from her native village, has disowned her. What is the normal reaction if you fucked up? Correct the error, repent, atone. But vatnik just becomes angry and starts fighting. They usually do so. This is old roots, too.
In the XVI century Ivan the Terrible wrote to the English Queen Elizabeth, that he thought she was a sovereign in her state, and that he was very indignant that there was a parliament. And that she can not afford to throw people off the roof of Kremlin for fun as he was doing. Being a vatnik, it was totally inconceivable for him. And he turned his ass to civilization and went on to behave brutally. The same thing they do today. Turn away from civilization. They fail to compete. See how Russians behave on the beach somewhere in Egypt. I saw it myself. They are drunk, rude and aggressive. Instead of learning how to behave properly or at least notice ads in the restaurant in a five star hotel that you should be dressed like the rest of the guests in the evening and not come for dinner in shorts, they, on the contrary, even flaunt the fact that they dress like that. This conversation is not about ethnicity but about the interaction of civilization and barbarian. If you don't know how to use some object, then by barbarian logic you should break it. I don't even want to think about what has become of the Roerich's immortal masterpieces that were stored in the museum's collection in Horlivka, neither about how did fine collection of the Donetsk Art Museum survive invasion of separatists. And what did the militants do to Donetsk cultural center "Isolation"?


— They destroyed all the artifacts that were not evacuated from its territory.

— Worse than that. They've made a prison there. This is a symbol. We are going in the opposite direction. And that, I'm sure, is an irreversible process. I talk a lot with the young artists. They are cool, European, civilized people. They already see themselves as a part of a global world. They participate in world artistic process. And at the same time they know what it means to have barbarians nearby. We now must prove to the world that we started all this not for nothing. We have to prevent such a failure as the one that occurred with Yushchenko. It depends on us whether we create strong and competitive cultural product. And it is our personal responsibility. There is no one to delegate this. Go and do it.

 Ukrainian artist Oleg Tistol. Photo credit: BIRUCHIY contemporary art project/

— It seems to be your matured position in life. And what is a successful person for you?

— For me a successful person is a reputation. Until recently, it seems almost no one understood that here. And now I feel that many people are very concerned about their reputation.


— And do you mind that Ukrainian politicians, at least 80 percent of them, are made up of people with tarnished and damaged reputations? And they continue to run the country, to move the levers.


— This is unpleasant, yet I don't see a danger. I am sure that these former Komsomol members and the hucksters are temporary. As they themselves said on Maidan, they are kamikaze. And they hope in vain that society reacted to it as to a joke. They can not imagine how much they were right. If they do not change, they will disappear. Ukrainians have in their blood a squeamish attitude towards people who think they grasped fortune by the forelock when they get to the top. And now we have proved that we will not be soft with them. In addition, my optimism is strengthened by the fact that we have now joined the family of civilization. And they will not let us go, because they remember consequences of how it all came together in 2005. How beautifuly it started and what did it turn out to be. We are now closely inspected. We have stated decisively that the border with Europe passes, roughly speaking, not through Chop but rather near Luhansk. No matter how much our leaders want to continue to steal, this won't happen. By the way, I believe that many of our artists will no longer brag about their skill to authentically paint an arm. You shouldn't brag about it. You may brag about your moral stance, your brains, your understanding of world culture. You have to  realize what does humanity want from you. Learn how to communicate with it. We have our own advantages. We understand things that no English or French person knows: what is it like to live inside this barbaric colony. We carry this experience inside us, knowing what is a cargo cult, what is a widely promoted cultural bullshit and so on.


— But the point of no return for us, strangely enough, is Russian aggression


They gave us the opportunity to finally decide. We've no anger or hatred. Our typical reaction is disgust. But of course we must know what are we fighting for. It is not for territory. There comes a time when you have to work seriously. And there comes a test for our leaders, as well as for all of us, a sanity test. If you don't understand what just happened, then you will go down the drain. As it happened with bandits in the 1990s. They simply became obolete. They remained only in Donetsk.


Oleg Tistol. "Yu. Be. Ka." project. "Gurzuf". 2008— What should we do now? Is it necessary to cooperate with the state? We have been avoiding it and building some parallel strategies to cope with life.

— What is the state? Aren't we all together a state? I am the state. Volunteers, who actually replaced army in the early months of the conflict in the east, understood this. Those who know what to do, will eventually be doing this. So authorities and oligarchs should think about it. Vradievka is really a symbol of our dignity. My aunts did not start to write complaints to regional prosecutor as muscovites do (if they dare to object at all). No, they knew that this two pigs raped and tried to kill Ira. My aunts, they are the state. In order to fight for justice, they don't need any intermediaries. There is a cultural progress going on here right now. The winner is common sense. And soon nobody will tolerate constantly thieving officials. I was in Egypt when Maidan started. A friend called me and said that it seems that Yanukovich is fucked.

— Back in 2010 I predicted that he will end up same as Ceausescu. But I was partially wrong.

— No, he has really ended up as Ceausescu. Just Ukrainian way. We're not animals. Nobody here gets pleasure from torturing and killing others, thank God. Ceausescu, by the way, was killed by Securitate, his own guards. Only Berkut had a chance to kill Yanukovych. But it was still a Ukrainian "Berkut". Even our barbarians are still within civilization. I for myself clearly see the difference between vatnik and redneck. Redneck is a free person anyway. He is uneducated, underdeveloped, without cultural skills, but he is free. But let's return to my conversation with the friend. I then said to him that it is not Yanukovich who is fucked, but Putin. And there is no other way. Many people in Moscow don't understand it yet. There is a global process, which you can't stop. It can be slowed down, but it can not be undone. Well, we all understand Kim Jong-un's fate. As well as Gaddafi's or Saddam Hussein's before. Their way is a historic dead end. And the more you resist, the harder will be the pain. Everything is clear.

Our Prime Minister seems to be very sluggish in the fight against corruption. But he himself asked for “the bullet in the forehead”. Well, maybe not the bullet. But a kick in the ass is guaranteed for him. I met an acquaintance the other day, a very wealthy man, a collector. He even managed to fight in Donbas himself, not to mention how much equipment did he purchase for battalions fighting there. And he's very unhappy that while decent people threw their millions to rescue the homeland, someone in Kyiv continues to embezzle state money and snatch businesses. I believe that the people in power who don't understand what has just happened in the country are doomed. We may only feel sorry and cry over them. Chariot of history has heavy wheels. They should think how to earn money honestly.


— You are very optimistic about the future.

— This is not an optimism. Optimism is when you are looking for positive aspects in some ambiguous phenomenon. I was joking on Maidan, do you understand what are you fighting for? You won't be able to sleep up to 2 PM. And you won't be able to take a bath three times a day. We'll have to work hard. To pay bills on time. Freedom has its price. We will have to pay for everything. And this is not optimistic, but realistic, we are to take power very deliberately into our hands. Not positions, of course, but the right to influence the government, to act independently. And we have much to reflect on.

 Oleg Tistol. "Vinny's Path". 2013