“Making concessions to the aggressor would be naive”

Kyiv cultural scientist Vasyl Cherepanyn once fell victim to the violence of Ukrainian extremists – today, he says, Ukraine is united in its fight against fascism.

He was at the forefront during the 2014 Euromaidan protests, when Kyiv defended its rapprochement with the EU and ousted its Putin-enslaved government: Vasyl Cherepanyn, doctor of philosophy, curator and director of the Visual Culture Research Center – an institution that builds bridges between artistic, academic and activist communities. At the invitation of the Austrian support network Office Ukraine and the ERSTE Foundation, the 42-year-old was given a special permit to leave Ukraine for three weeks to share his view of things in Vienna, among other places.


Six months into the attack on Kyiv, how would you describe the atmosphere in the city?

It is difficult to compare the current situation with February, when Kyiv was under direct attack. Back then, the city was turned into a fortress. Its inhabitants suddenly all became participants in the defensive preparations. Kyiv is where the Maidan revolution mainly took place, which everyone remembered. The important thing was the government’s decision to remain in the city. This turned the whole country into a Maidan. By now, people have gotten used to the permanent threat. Today, Kyiv feels locked in an eternal Sunday morning: half empty, half closed, but with all of its infrastructure intact. People are also proud, because they know that if Kyiv survives, the country can too.

Before the attack, Kyiv had a vibrant, burgeoning cultural scene. What’s its situation now?

The Euromaidan and then the Russian occupation of Crimea were a wake-up call for the Ukrainian cultural scene. It became highly politicised, with politics of history and filmmaking gaining in importance, and art and performance in public spaces booming. Currently, many people are trying to protect the cultural heritage from being damaged or they document war crimes. They are risking their lives in the process. The Ukrainian state has also finally realised that culture is a key element necessary to assert itself as a nation. The cultural scene, in turn, is now regrouping into many new, independent collectives, making it less susceptible to influence.

There have been concerts in underground stations and theatre performances in the basement: does culture also offer people the opportunity to get away from the horror for a few hours?

Culture cannot be a substitute for therapy here, but it can reflect, ask questions, document. The performances in the underground stations or in the theatres that have reopened have exactly the opposite effect of escapism: rather than offering ways of escaping reality, they present moments of solidarity, bringing people closer together.

Vasyl Cherepanyn (42) is a cultural scientist and curator. He has lectured at universities in Ukraine, Germany and Austria, among others. Photo: Heribert Corn

Many artists and intellectuals have left the country. How divided is the cultural community over the question of whether the right thing is to stay and fight or to speak out from exile?

The answer is quite simple: there is no division at all. I’ve never noticed anyone envying or accusing others of running away. There is generally a broad understanding for everyone who has left the country. Everyone does what is in their power. It sounds melodramatic, but everyone feels they have a mission. Those who have left are very active, many travel back and forth. This exchange is important.

Have you also considered taking up arms yourself, or was that never an option?

I’ve never been in the army myself and have never held a gun. It’s up to each person to decide whether they are prepared to kill other people or even to die. Presently, I am not. But I know people from the cultural sector who have joined the army, some of my friends have been killed, some are in captivity, in filtration camps – gruesome, fascist methods. I think everyone needs to find their role in this situation where they can be most effective. In my case, this involves organising cultural activities and providing information at home and abroad. I want to contribute to advancing the decolonisation process of the post-Soviet countries from Russia.

The Russian quest for power is a colonial project?

Yes. When it comes to decolonisation, people in the West only think of the Global South. However, the same standards should also be applied in the post-Soviet area. What’s happening here amounts to hidden colonialism. It’s just not as visible because it’s not about skin colour.

There has been a heated debate about whether to boycott Russian culture. What are your thoughts?

This is a complex issue. We have called for a boycott of Russian cultural institutions ourselves. Why? Because you cannot work with institutions that are unable to call the war a war, even before Russia made doing so illegal. On an individual level, there are of course many who have fled into exile, so we should not cast collective blame.

“The Germans have learned that this path leads to fascism; the Russians have yet to learn it.”

But it must also be said that this war of aggression did not happen overnight, this process has been going on for many years. Where have the Russian cultural institutions been during all this time? They blithely profited from and accepted everything that happened up to that point: from the restriction of the freedom of the press and the freedom to demonstrate to the assassination of opposition figures. The Germans have learned that this path leads to fascism; the Russians have yet to learn it.

The West criticised that the boycott was at times extended to the entire Russian cultural heritage, to Tchaikovsky or Pushkin. Is it okay to cancel university seminars on Russian literature?

The rule would be simple: follow your own standards! The West, and first of all Russia itself, of course, should finally begin to check Russian cultural heritage for its colonialist content. In the seminars, one should perhaps ask how Poles, Belarusians or Ukrainians view Pushkin. Ask the colonised, not the colonisers!

You were active during the pro-European Maidan protests in 2014, but that same year you also fell victim to a physical attack by Ukrainian right-wing extremists who regarded you as a communist. How do you see this attack in retrospect?

Unfortunately, this incident was generalised. Compared to what Ukrainians are suffering from the Russian side today, what happened to me was a regrettable isolated incident. The annexation of Crimea after the Euromaidan often gave rise to fascist groups in Ukraine in the first place. They are useful idiots for the Kremlin, yet they have no political significance in Ukraine. I was saved from this attack by bystanders showing civil courage, that’s the beautiful side of the story. Currently, I sense a great national effort to fight all forms of emerging right-wing extremism. This is the political mainstream.

But is Ukrainian society ready to join the EU? The EU is already very divided on issues like equality for homosexuals, women’s rights or migration.

That is why the EU must ask itself this question now already. It is not a question only for Ukraine. The privileged core EU region tends to outsource all its problems to the countries on the periphery, as if these issues did not matter in the western EU countries. Ukraine’s EU accession is not a lofty, naive idea, it’s a necessity.

“The core EU must not outsource all its problems to the periphery and the West must begin to see Russia as a coloniser.”

The project of a united Europe was supposed to prevent renewed imperialist uprisings on the continent, but it is yet incomplete, so now we have an imperialist uprising again.

There has been a lively discussion among German-speaking intellectuals about whether the West is only prolonging the war by providing military aid or whether this is simply necessary and whether one should not rather work towards reaching a compromise with the aggressor. How did you perceive this?

I think it’s an arrogant form of “Westsplaining”. It would be naive to make concessions to the aggressor because the Kremlin does not accept them anyway. If he only cared about Crimea and the Donbas, why did Putin launch an invasion on the whole country after all?

But is it realistic for Ukraine to regain the territories?

The West must understand that now there is still a chance to stop the aggressor on Ukrainian territory before he continues elsewhere. The EU is still in a privileged position, because it only pays with money, but Ukraine pays with lives.

In an earlier interview you said that the primary reason for Putin’s war is the Kremlin’s fear of democratic uprisings and that Russia itself has never found a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power. So what comes after Putin?

That is one of the reasons for the war: there is no prospect for Russia after Putin. The truth is, it is Russia that has identity problems, not Ukraine. Never before in history have Kyiv and Donetsk been at war with each other; this is an artificially created conflict invented by the Kremlin. Russia must finally come to terms with its imperialist past, otherwise it has no future. And the West should stop accepting dirty money from oligarchs in the East.

Original in German. First published on 14 August 2022 on derstandard.at
Translated into English by Barbara Maya.

This text is protected by copyright: © Stefan Weiss / Der Standard. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team. Copyright information on pictures and graphics are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Evening and night scenes in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv at the blue hour. Hotel Ukrayina on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) behind anti-tank barriers. Photo: Friedrich Bungert / SZ-Photo / picturedesk.com


Office Ukraine. Shelter for Ukrainian Artists

Office Ukraine has been set up for Ukrainian artists and cultural workers in all disciplines fleeing war in Ukraine and seeking shelter in Austria. It serves as a liaison between them and the Austrian art scene. The foremost goal is to enable displaced artists and cultural workers to pursue their practice and to fuel artistic collaboration between artists from Ukraine and Austria on a long-term basis. Office Ukraine is operated by independent arts institutions and has offices in Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck.

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