Stas Zhalobnyuk, a 45-year-old artist, offers us in his kitchen bread with sunflower seeds and dates, goat cheese, ginger and lime tea during an air raid. “It’s the safest place because the walls are concrete and there are no windows,” he explains. Zhalobnyuk says he is “madly in love” for his country. “I want post-war Ukraine to be a humane, western-looking society that saves animals and builds museums.”
But for now, Zhalobnyuk is glowing with rage. The mental torment that consumes him from within and keeps him awake at night has made him a supporter of a growing movement to erase Russian language and culture from Ukrainian society.
Zhalobnyuk’s hometown, Odessa, is predominantly Russian-speaking. “I don’t have a single Russian book in my library,” he boasts. “My mother tongue is Ukrainian. I learned it when I was 40.
Zhalobnyuk’s collages and paintings show bloodied bodies and dismembered limbs, stamped with the words GENOCIDE OF THE UKRAINIAN PEOPLE. He stencils the letters TOXIC on the faces of Russian writers and composers. It fills the foreground with a Russian landscape with coffins, below the words “Russia = DEATH”. His depiction of the massacre of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha last March is a whirlwind of human organs, blood, a military truck. “Damn you all Russians,” he says in bold black letters.
As a man of military age, Zhalobnyuk cannot travel outside Ukraine, but his art has been exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome since the start of the war. A collector in Paris acquired 10 pieces. An exhibition will soon open in Brussels. “These are powerful works. They will live after me,” he said.
“My albums explain how I became anti-Russian,” continues Zhalobnyuk. Successive generations of family members died in the famines created by the Soviet Union. “People know about the Holodomor [the famine imposed by Stalin in 1932-1933, which killed perhaps five million Ukrainians] but few know 1947”, he says with emotion. “My father’s brothers are dead. Stalin imposed a tax on fruit trees, so they had to cut down their trees. They ate grass and leaves. Without papers, they could not leave their village. Russia is like Mordor [in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings]a territory of total evil.
Another photograph shows Zhalobnyuk’s grandmother and great-uncle. During the Holodomor, “his family were Kurkuls [farmers who refused collectivisation]. His parents were killed in Siberia. She and her brother, aged 15 and 16, walked to Odessa. At every communist party, he sent her a communist postcard without an envelope, for the authorities to see, because he was afraid.
Zhalobnyuk’s grandmother married a Russian who was killed in World War II, so his mother was half-Russian. “This blood that is in me, I don’t know what to do with it… Some people are afraid of the verb ‘to hate’. I just want to be in a world without them. Zhalobnyuk dreams of physical separation, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall or the wall that Poland is building on its border with Belarus. “The higher, the better. High in the sky.”
The Russians, says Zhalobnyuk, “have always used culture as a weapon”. He’s making a pun on pushka, the Russian word for cannon. “Pushkin is a cannon.
Alexander Pushkin, the 19th century author of Eugene Onegin, is one of the main targets of the semi-official campaign to de-Russify Ukraine. Pushkin’s sin? For making fun of the Ukrainian Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa, and for praising the conquests of Peter the Great in poems. Busts or statues of Pushkin have been toppled in a dozen Ukrainian cities. Dozens of other monuments to Soviet or Tsarist personalities have suffered the same fate since the start of the war in February.
It is certainly unfair to hold Russians collectively responsible for their country’s past and present cruelty, I would object. “I have to survive,” Zhalobnyuk replies. “I can’t afford to meditate on tolerance towards enemies. These albums are about my family that was killed. This information has been concealed. Now when Bucha arrives, the world is watching. Do you expect me to say that there are also nice people in Russia? Would you tell me to go negotiate with nice people? I know the world is tired of this war. We too get tired. We haven’t started it. It’s an ideological war between people who have European values and people who torture children.
Hardliners like Zhalobnyuk believe that Russian culture cannot be separated from Russian aggression. “First they send a ballerina. Then they send a float,” he says. The National Opera of Ukraine has stopped playing works by Russian composers. “If you like Russian culture, you must like detention camps, deportation, everything that goes with it,” adds Zhalobnyuk.
Yevgeny Golubovsky receives us a few kilometers away in an apartment on the ground floor of a shabby concrete skyscraper. The walls are lined with books and oil paintings. The 85-year-old former engineer, journalist and editor has been called Odessa’s living memory. He has published books on the art and literature of many countries, including Greece and Italy, Russia and Ukraine. “I think culture has no borders,” he says.
Golubovsky remembers World War II well. His father was injured fighting the Nazis. His mother was a doctor. “For me, the enemy was the Nazis, the Germans. I am Jewish. You understand how this could have ended…”
Many Odessa Jews fled the pogroms of the early 20th century. After World War I, the first Zionists left Odessa for Palestine, where they founded the city of Tel Aviv.
Until World War II, Odessa was home to 180,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in the Soviet Union. Most perished at the hands of the Nazis. Jewish culture nonetheless left a lasting influence on the city’s cuisine, dialect, and humor.
Golubovsky didn’t like the Soviets either. He published himself and organized clandestine art exhibitions. He rejects the idea that Odessa was a Russian city, although it was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794. She named it after the Greek hero Odysseus – Odysseus – but insisted on feminizing the name.
Even the spelling of the city’s name has become politicized, with Ukrainian patriots abandoning Russian Odessa for their own spelling, Odessa.
“Odessa is a European city,” says Golubovsky. “It was built above a Greek colony. It embodies the Mediterranean culture. The Turks were expelled by the Russians in the 18th century. Then it became part of Ukraine and a melting pot where many nationalities melted.
Golubovsky spent practically his entire life in Odessa. He loves the Black Sea – whose shores have become inaccessible in times of war – and its neo-classical architecture. “Above all, I love the free spirit of Odessa,” he says. “When Pushkin was living in exile in Odessa in the 1820s, he wrote: ‘Everything breathes freedom here. It was a free European city in a Russia as brutal as the Mongols.
The anti-Pushkin campaign “reproaches him for two or three poems he wrote at the end of his life, and for not having supported the Polish revolt against the Russians”, says Golubovsky. “You can say it was a mistake, but he wasn’t a politician. Before Pushkin, the Russian language was archaic. He created the modern Russian language.
But it is precisely this language that many Ukrainians now oppose, I interrupt you. “No language is ever guilty,” says Golubovsky. “We fought with Germany. No one ever banned Beethoven. When I hear that they ban Tchaikovsky, I feel shame for people with twisted minds.
Golubovsky understands the passionate hatred that many Ukrainians now feel towards Russia. “When you see dead children, it creates an emotional explosion. I think in five years it will calm down.
He cites as an example the statue of Catherine the Great – Ukrainians simply call her Catherine or Catherine II – which dominates a roundabout above the Black Sea. Zhalobnyuk wants it dismantled.
The original statue was removed by the Soviets after the 1917 revolution and replaced with a statue from the battleship Potemkin, where the Bolshevik revolt began. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the city council, where Golubovsky was a representative, moved Potemkin’s statue and brought Catherine back.
I tell Golubovsky what Zhalobnyuk said about Russian culture as an instrument of imperialism, about sending a ballerina in front of a tank.
“It’s possible,” said the old man, smiling. “But in 1968, when the Soviet Union decided to punish Czechoslovakia and sent the Red Army to Prague, the only [Soviet] person who raised his voice was [the poet Yevgeny] Yevtushenko, who published Tanks in Prague. Sometimes it works the other way around. »