New East Digital Archive

‘We’re still fighting for independence:’ 6 cultural figures reflect on 30 years since the end of the USSR

After The Fall

2 September 2021
Top image: Djaparov Ulan

Between 1990 and 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and 15 new countries appeared on the world map in its place. That era was full of hope for more freedom, democracy, and prosperity. While in some of these new states, like the Baltics, Moldova, or Ukraine, the promises of liberty and democracy have been fulfilled, in others, such as Belarus or Turkmenistan, dictatorship has remained in place. Meanwhile, in many countries, disappointments with economic instability and inequality, political corruption, and a lack of funding for culture and the arts, have also embittered millions of people. Even more troubling, states such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, have been marred by wars, while the continuing presence of the Russian military still prevent Georgia and Moldova from forging their own paths. The Calvert Journal has asked six leading artists and writers from five different countries how their lives have changed throughout these three tumultuous decades.

Oksana Zabuzhko

novelist, Ukraine

I can’t speak of these 30 years as one story — it’s half of my life. There were the daring 1990s… Everything was new, and there were no role models. We had to rediscover our own cultural legacy — a process that is still ongoing in Ukraine today. During the Soviet years, we did not get taught Ukrainian history as a course, we only studied the history of the Soviet Union — which was mostly Russian history, taught in the Russian language. This was cultural colonialism. So in the 90s, we had to find our identity politically, culturally, as well as professionally.

We had also to educate ourselves, to learn about the book market, about readership, and how to construct relations with the audience… Mine was a pioneering generation, learning how to do all this in those first transition years. Yes, it was hard, yes, there were lots of dramatic turns, but now I see this as an extremely intense, provocative, but creative and productive period. We were dropped into the water and we either swam, or drowned. And so, we swam. I don’t miss anything from the Soviet era. The only thing I lost with the Soviet collapse, are the two feelings that I associate with that regime: fear and humiliation.

Ukraine is a free country now, that’s why we’ve had all of these Maidans. Any time we sense we’re going back to the authoritarian rule that we’ knew under the Soviet regime, Ukrainians say “no, never again!” We have lots of problems, but the 30th independence anniversary is a good occasion to say thanks to all the gods that we’ve made it for 30 years — it would have been a totally different life, with no Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, no Museum of Abandoned Secrets. Everything I’ve read and written in these 30 years are works of freedom, written in a free country.

For me, 1996 was a turning point. That’s when my first novel, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, appeared, causing a huge scandal and giving birth to the Ukrainian book market. It was the first time a Ukrainian-language book about the present day life of present day Ukrainians, written by a Ukrainian author, and published by an independent Ukrainian publisher, had commercial success. Prior to that, Ukrainian publishers weren’t sure that Ukrainian contemporary literature was marketable. In the Soviet Union, what sold wasn’t a question; books just needed to be approved by the party leadership. For a year, I preached to the media about women’s right to talk about good and bad sex, and about what we now call toxic relationships. Women more than men opened small businesses in 90s Ukraine. The book spoke to them. It helped shape the first generation of women post-independence.

Then, without any doubt, the year 2000 was a key event, with the introduction of Kuchma’s media law, as a result of which journalists now don’t know for whom they’re working. I call it the big media counter-revolution, when Ukraine lost control over its media in a hybrid war. Between 2000-2014, most Ukrainian TV channels broadcasted mostly Russian films, Russian music, Russian news — they were preparing the dismantling of Ukraine according to the Kremlin’s plans. Things changed only slightly after 2014. That’s why we’re calling the war in Donbas a “war of independence” for Ukraine. Thirty years later, we’re still fighting for independence.

Pavel Brăila

visual artist, Moldova

Refueller at the gas station, from the series Father's dreams 2008. Image: Pavel Brăila

Refueller at the gas station, from the series Father's dreams 2008. Image: Pavel Brăila

When the movement of democratisation and independence started in Moldova in the late 80s, I was still at school. I remember the enthusiasm and euphoria in the air. For me, personally, the changes sparked by perestroika were a really great time. As a teenager, all I wanted was to listen to the music that I liked – AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Def Leppard, Metallica, etc. Beforehand, that music was simply forbidden and then suddenly we had democracy – listen to what you want! Wow!..

When I became an engineering student at the Technical University, I started to feel that the events were way above us, and beyond our power. One important thing that happened was the return tothe Latin alphabet — the Soviets had imposed the Cyrillics, in order to prevent any Romanian national feeling in occupied Moldova. (The international 2003 hit Dragostea din Tei, maya hi, maya ha, deserves a monument, because they proved that Romanian and “Moldovan” language are one, as everybody thought the song came from Romania.) On that day I was at university, and suddenly the professor turned on the TV and we all watched the live broadcast of the parliamentary session passing this decree. My father said that he never thought he would see this day. I remember very well the vibration of the “wind of change”… Everybody was super excited and looking forward to the future with high expectations. If you ask me to describe the 90s in three words, they would be: protests, strikes, and no money.

The monetary reforms impoverished, or more precisely, robbed, the whole country. Like most citizens, my parents lost all their savings. People thought that the chaos would be temporary. When I entered university in 1989, my father told me: “By the time you graduate, things will have calmed down, and you will get a job at a factory.” By the time I graduated, however, in 1994, all of the factories and plants had been shut down, and the workers lost their jobs. Until then, I only associated the term ‘jobless’ — as well as advertisement, bankruptcy, gastarbeiter — with the Western world. Now it all came to us in full tilt. Artists, too, have won the freedom to express themselves, but they have lost economic stability. I am working on a short film about Moldovan weddings as a source of income for artists. Since independence, photographers, cinematographers, dancers, chefs, a lot of creators can only rely on weddings as a source of income.

I, myself, am 100% the product of the Soros Foundation in Moldova. Had they not opened English courses, and had they not opened the Contemporary Arts Centre here in the 90s, I wouldn’t have become an independent artist, or at least I wouldn’t have been where I am today. After university, I started to take photographs of children in kindergartens, and sell the pictures to their parents. Learning English, and taking part in an international art summer camp, I learned about contemporary art. Then I went to study it in Maastricht in 1999.

Something else we’ve gained over the past 30 years has been free visa travel to EU countries. Before 2013, the word “visa” meant endless queues, travels, humiliation, and absurd certificates… In 2005, I made a performance called Welcome to the EU. I invited everyone who wished to get a European passport to come to the Centre of Contemporary Art in Chișinău to pick it up. Back then, the Moldovan passport had its light blue cover, like the EU flag, which symbolises the “free sky over Europe”. For me, ours was the most European passport, but unfortunately Moldovans were only able to go visa-free to CIS states, and to Andorra. It’s as if we lived in a cage. So everybody who came to the performance got the 12 stars of the EU flag on the cover of their Moldovan passport. Thus, the Moldovan passport suddenly turned into a 100% EU passport. Now, our passports have changed colour to red, but still, we have some of the best passports in the region: we can go visa-free to both Europe and to the former Soviet states.

Luckily, unlike Belarus or Russia, we haven’t had a real dictatorship in Moldova during these 30 years. We’ve had the privilege of changing governments and transferring power relatively peacefully — with the exception of the April 2009 protests, when four people were killed in police repressions. In these 30 years of independence, many things happened, but I would emphasise that it took Moldovans 30 years to elect a “healthy” parliament and president (fingers crossed). It takes a person 16-18 years to mature, but it took us twice as long as a country. This is also the first tithat both Romanian, and Russian speaking Moldovans voted for a pro-European party. This is a small but important step in uniting us. Until now, Romanian and Russian speakers lived in two different dimensions, consuming different media, and the previous governments tried to build their own political capital by antagonising these groups. Hopefully, from this point onwards, things will change and we’ll manage to create a common identity for all of us, based on the real problems we face, rather than on divisive ethnic criteria.

Nicolai Khalezin

playwright and founder of The Belarus Free Theatre

Nikolai Khalezin with his wife and co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Koliada,

Nikolai Khalezin with his wife and co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, Natalia Koliada,

The 30 year independence anniversary is relevant and very important, especially given what is happening in Belarus today. But Belarusians are not in the mood to think about it right now. They are experiencing the greatest repression they’ve ever been through — even greater than the Soviet repression. You can now get five years in prison even for a Facebook comment. We will probably reflect upon these 30 years after Lukashenko’s transition of power. But now, in people’s minds, there’s only fear and hatred for this regime, there isn’t room for thinking about something else.

I am not a lover of the Soviet period. I understood all of the unfreedoms of that era I lived through. I never loved political power. But then, at least people believed in values, especially the older generations. We didn’t challenge the Soviet state’s right to exist. But with Lukashenko, we are doubting the regime’s right to exist — it’s just a power grab. Belarus now is just a corrupt state serving one man. There isn’t even something to talk about ideologically. It’s just an autocracy based on a power grab, corruption, and violence.

The first years of independence, between 1991 and 1994, were full of hopes and changes. But then Lukashenko came and things became even worse. Now, we do have the right to travel — I was 30 when I first made my first trip outside the Soviet Union, to Hungary, in 1984. And we have the internet, and freer access to information as a result.

But despite the fact that we’ve been on the biggest stages in the world, our theatre is still illegal in Belarus. Now, we can’t even rehearse. Today, no theatres — except three state theatres — are open in Belarus. It’s like wartime. Half of our staff have been jailed for a few days or weeks over the past year, but if we go on now, they would get years in prison. The sentences have become harsher. We have relocated seven people from our team now, and are actually looking to relocate everyone else, too.

At the same time, over the past year, Belarus has been experiencing a cultural renaissance. The quality of art has become one of the highest in Europe, in all genres — theatre, music, art, literature. It has become an art of the people, part of the political process.

Similarly, Belarusian language is going through a renaissance. Over the past year, people have embraced Belarusian as their native tongue, just like they have embraced their historical, red-and-white flag, as a symbol for their fight against Lukashenko’s autocracy. There were times during Lukashenko’s regime when you could be arrested simply for speaking Belarusian — he doesn’t speak any. So, it’s like we are embracing, and creating our identity.

The quality of self-organisation has also gone through the roof over the past year. I call our movement “blockchain protest” — each structure decides what to do themselves. If one person is fined, for instance, then people will instantly organise to crowdfund and help them pay the fine very quickly. It’s incredible. I thought we would need a lot more time to build civil society processes, but Belarusians have very quickly embraced them.

I am hoping for a transfer of power. I am currently organising the Belarusian Cultural Reform Fund, and people try to push me to go into politics but being a politician has never attracted me. Over the past year, I also wrote a play about a person who killed a peaceful protester, which was put on in Estonia. Three presidents of countries have seen it so far — this is when art becomes an important bridge in the political process.

Narine Abgaryan

novelist, Armenia

Image: Anna Danilova via Facebook

Image: Anna Danilova via Facebook

I go back to Armenia a few times every year. For me, this is like returning to an intrauterine state, when you lie curled up and wait for something wonderful. Armenia is the place of my strength and endless weakness. The place where the characters in my books live. The place where I was born and stayed forever.

I left Armenia in 1993 — it was my parents’ decision rather than mine: my country was then at war, and the natural desire of any parents was to send their children to a safer place. One of the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union began in Transcaucasia, with the war in Karabakh. Of course, there were many other reasons in addition to the war in Karabakh: the fact that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime, its cold war with the West, failed economic policies, the war in Afghanistan, and so on. But the trigger really was the events in the Transcaucasus. This is not our personal merit, it’s just a fact in the history of a huge empire, which was not lucky with its rulers. And [in Armenia], we haven’t, and still have no luck, in my opinion, even now.

I would like to proudly write about a strong and self-confident country, but unfortunately I cannot. In 2020, my homeland suffered a heavy defeat in the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, and it needs a long time to recover.

Deprived of sensible state support, Armenian artists, writers, and cultural workers survived with great difficulty. I would, however, like to note the great success of such writers as Mariam Petrosyan and Aram Pachyan. Their books have been translated into many languages, and Aram will soon have a premiere of an opera based on his novel in Germany. The artist Tigran Dzitokhtsyan is exhibited all over the world. For many years, Levon Aroyan was the world chess champion. I am listing exactly those people who worked in Armenia, because it was more difficult for them. They made it despite having almost no government support.

The priorities of those in power were completely different: oligopoly, personal enrichment, corruption. As you can see, we were unlucky with the rulers — 30 years of Armenia’s independence represented a huge test for it. I really hope that we, Armenians, will finally draw the right conclusions and be able to correct our mistakes.

Dreaming of good things may be naive, but it is also very necessary. I dream of a strong Armenia, whose citizens are aware of their personal responsibility for it. I dream about artists, directors and writers, of whom, believe me, there are so many who could achieve well-deserved recognition, among other things, if the government realized its responsibility to future generations. If there is no culture, there is no tomorrow. And I really want this tomorrow for my homeland.

Paata Shamugia

poet and head of PEN Georgia

Image: Guram Tsibakhashvili via Facebook

Image: Guram Tsibakhashvili via Facebook

It feels quite weird to realise that you are eight years older than your country. Like most Soviet republics, Georgia was totally unprepared for independence, and that was directly reflected on its economic, social, and geopolitical landscape. But with the collapse of the USSR, we gained the main thing: freedom. The freedom to define our own form of existence.

I was raised at demonstrations, protests, rallies. I was a little boy, four-five years-old, when my dad started taking me to the rallies. Because I could not see the speakers, he would always put me on his shoulders for a better view. Kids in other countries might have sweeter, and more childlike memories. The kids of 1980s-1990s Georgia mostly remember demonstrations.

Writers and artists have always played a huge role in the countrys development, be it before, or after its independence. They were among the main leaders of Georgia’s independence movement. Moreover, independent Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was himself a poet, and the son of the most renown Georgian novelist, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia. I have participated in rallies in other countries but I have not seen as many poems read during demonstrations, as in Georgia.

Then the war in Abkhazia, where I was born and grew up, broke out in 1992. One late night in September 1993, my entire family woke up and got on a trailer, carrying only one sack – that was all we could take with us from our life there. As in the film Life is Beautiful, my parents told me and my brothers that we were just taking a trip to relatives, and that we would soon return home. That was the night when the war in Abkhazia ended, and we became Internally Displaced Persons. In general, I try to avoid talking about Abkhazia, perhaps because I am afraid of re-traumatization. But I’m sure I will write about it one day.

Georgians always emphasise that we are Europeans, and there is truth in it. But this identity has had almost zero impact on building European institutions within the country. After the Rose Revolution in 2003, we made some significant progress in modernising and strengthening our institutions.

One moment when I realised Georgia moved forward as a country was soon after 2003, when poor students were also able to enter prestigious universities, without having to bribe. The end of massive corruption was revolutionary in our minds. Saakashvili transformed Georgia from a territory into a country. In the 90s, we didn’t have electricity, people were constantly getting robbed. He made reforms that solved lawlessness. But, unfortunately, he also completely squandered the ideals of the Rose Revolution in his later years by investing state resources in maintaining his power, rather than continuing to build strong institutions.

Ivanishvili’s current government is an ordinary oligarchy. Most recently, on 5 June, 53 journalists were beaten, and one died as a result, yet no rally organisers were punished.

To this day, the most independent artists in Georgia are writers. because they are not fully dependent on the state budget. For example, recently Georgia’s Minister of Culture included state representatives in the jury of the national literary award “Litera”. This reminded Georgians of the Soviet era, and so writers protested: 100 out of 112 participants withdrew their books from the competition, and the contest failed. This was a gesture of unprecedented solidarity for writers. They have shown that they can stand together despite political differences.

Djaparov Ulan

Curator and artist, Kyrgyzstan

In the 90s, we were full of hope: we believed that something new and good would come our way. But in the 00s, we realised we had come full circle, and that everything went back to politicians’ individual interests, like in the Soviet era.

Still, unlike our neighbours, we haven’t had vertical power, or a dictatorship. We have had some instances of censorship, but not in a systematic way. Our first revolution, in 2005, demystified power and showed people that they can change political regimes. Then we had two other revolutions, in 2010 and 2020 — but they were more like a change of cast. The people ruling the country changed, but the situation stayed the same. It’s a vicious circle. History keeps repeating itself. Big changes don’t happen. We’ve been a presidential republic, a parliamentary republic, now we are once again a presidential state. But what is important to me is that during all of these revolutions, people started self-organising. Not many people speak about it, but this civic organisation is key to me.

Personally, since independence, I have gained more creative freedom and opportunities as an artist. Until the 90s, I mostly did drawing. By the late 90s, I realised this more traditional art form wasn’t enough for me. So, I stopped drawing and started making art objects, installations, and using my body more, in performance art. I stopped being lyrical, and became more critical.

In 2009-2010, for instance, I created a performance called Unheard Song. It was based on Chinghiz Aitmatov’s classic novel, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, whose protagonist, Mankurt, loses his memory. At that point, people from smaller towns and villages, who only spoke Kyrgyz language, resented people who didn’t speak Kyrgyz. I am myself Kyrgyz but I speak Russian. So, my performance was about the fact that we stay Kyrgyz even if we lose our roots. It was a collective performance, and I was overseeing it. We went outside, by a river, and had an architect looking a bit like me taking stones, and throwing them in water, rhythmically, like a sysiphical work. We took photographs, and wrote texts about how we changed culturally throughout our lives, how we started doing yoga, eating or not eating meat, while still staying Kyrgyz. Whatever loss of tradition or memory happens, our point was that the connection with the country still stays strong.

I think contemporary art has helped broaden people’s horizons in Kyrgyzstan. Coming from below rather than being encouraged by the state, it has formed many creators who then either stay on the small art scene here, or go into architecture, design, and other creative paths.

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