Repossessions

25 August 2017
Only in en
In a deeply personal reflection on identity, emigration and dispossession, writer Mykola Riabchuk surveys the recent history of his native Ukraine. He also describes the work of Vladimir Rafeenko, published in Eurozine for the first time in English on 21 August 2017.

1.

Forty-two years ago, when Jean Raspail, a renowned French writer and traveller, published his novel The Camp of the Saints (1973), the public apparently was not inclined to accept his dystopian vision of the French and, more generally, the global future. Even though some of his colleagues, like Jean Anouilh, praised The Camp as a ‘haunting book of irresistible force and calm logic,’ most critics accused him of anti-immigration bias, supremacy, and even implicit racism.

The novel’s title refers menacingly to St. John’s Book of Revelation:

And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison. And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. (Rev 20:7‑9)

The plot of the novel revolves around the imaginary arrival of millions of immigrants from India and elsewhere on hijacked ships to the shores of France and other better-off countries, ‘in a scramble to reach the streams of milk and honey.’ By the end of the novel, the mayor of New York shares his residence with three families from Harlem, the British Queen marries her son to a Pakistani woman, and a lone drunken Soviet general stands in the way of Chinese throngs flocking into Siberia. Switzerland remains the last fortress resisting the flow of ‘barbarians’ but finally, being isolated and ostracised as a rogue state, yields to the international pressure.

Raspail does not take any side; his view is rather sardonic and pessimistic. One may interpret it even as compliance with the fate that white people deserved for five centuries of their own ‘illegal migration’ to other continents, their conquest and exploitation. It is ‘just a question of rotation’, with ‘different ones on top at different times,’ says the fictitious Grand Mufti of Paris, and the author has no objection to him.

He vehemently denied, however, any accusation of racism. The very fact that the soldiers and sailors in his novel refrain from using the arms against immigrants is said to prove his non-militant, perhaps even repentant, stance: ‘I have denied the white Occident, at least in my novel, its last chance for salvation.’ In the preface to a later edition of his book, he elaborated upon his stance:

‘A million poor wretches, armed only with their weakness and their numbers, overwhelmed by misery, encumbered with starving brown and black children, ready to disembark on our soil, the vanguard of the multitudes pressing hard against every part of the tired and overfed West. I literally saw them, saw the major problem they presented, a problem absolutely insoluble by our present moral standards. To let them in would destroy us. To reject them would destroy them.’

Today, as the mass exodus of people from war-torn and poverty-haunted nations has dramatically accelerated, Jean Raspail’s novel has got a new life, being translated into a number of European languages and debated again in intellectual salons and periodicals. The dilemma posed by the writer and reinforced by today’s developments looks insoluble and therefore tragic. Politicians look desperately for palliatives to alleviate the problem but all their measures bring little help as long as they address just symptoms, not the essence of a global disease.

No real solution is possible until at least three fundamental issues have been addressed at the global level by all the governments, yet primarily by the ‘First World’ nations.

Firstly, a principled agreement should be reached to curb the over-consumption and waste of resources. Moral responsibility, ecological education and public advocacy is not enough. Harsh taxation should be introduced on any luxury; actually any consumption beyond basic needs should be progressively taxed.

Secondly, all discriminatory tariffs should be lifted as they only support and deepen the global inequality and flagrantly contradict the professed liberal principles of the free flow of goods, money and information (let alone people), never actually observed and often manipulated by the rich countries to their own advantage.

And thirdly, a zero-tolerance principle should be introduced against rogue, dictatorial, corrupt regimes and their dirty money safely located in Western banks. As long as the Third World elites keep their nations in poverty and despair, and enjoy dolce vita in Western capitals and resorts, no assistance to those poor nations will help and no reforms in those states will ever advance.

The proposed measures might look utopian and certainly unpalatable for the global elites who have their personal reasons to maintain the existing status quo; they might be frustrating also for the common people of the First World, who benefit variously from today’s global disparity. But the neo-colonial status quo is over. And the sooner we recognise this, the better. Otherwise, Jean Raspail’s dystopia will fully materialise, and the only alternative to it (rejected by the French author but not necessarily by real life) might become a bunch of supremacist, racist and overtly fascist regimes claiming to be rescuing the beleaguered First World from ‘barbarians.’

2.

Jean Raspail does not overtly take any side in his novel but the very way he depicts the encounter reveals, volens-nolens, his pro-European bias and typically ‘orientalising’ view of the aliens. None of them has any individuality, any conceivable past, any place he or she was attached to, any projects and dreams besides the proverbial ‘streams of milk and honey’ pouring on them from Western TV advertisements and fancy magazines.

Perhaps my greatest impression from Dispossession – the Polish-German- Ukrainian exhibition at the 56th Biennale in Venice – comes from a sudden recognition that any immigration, exile, dispossession is very personal. It has a name, a story, a colour and form, a sound and smell. You can touch it and listen to it, open the door and look inside, discover a dozen useless things and obsolete words that make up somebody’s life and protect it from anonymity and dissolution in sheer figures.

I have never met refugees in my life even though quite a few of my friends would have been happy to find refuge in the West if the Soviet borders had been open. Actually, only one of them managed to sneak out in the late 1970s, as he married a Jewish girl and was allowed to leave the communist paradise with a crowd of fellow-repatriates to Israel. I remember the special train from Lviv to Vienna – the empty platform as very few people dared to show up under police surveillance; I remember my friend in a huge fur-coat and fur-cap – he never wore stuff like this even in winter, let alone now, so in a quite warm April, he looked slightly grotesque as at a film shooting, but I knew that the immigrants were allowed to bring only personal items – no money, no valuables – they should have been just grateful that the socialist state let them out rather than packing them off to Siberia, as they definitely deserved. ‘Ну, по вагонам, товарищи беженцы!’ (‘Take your cars, comrades refugees!), the conductor commanded. He apparently meant some irony when he put together the Soviet-style ‘comrades’ and anti-Soviet ‘refugees’. But it only made the scene even more grotesque. Nobody joked, nobody smiled. It was like a funeral. They left forever and everything we could expect in the future were occasional letters – dreamlike messages from an extra-terrestrial world.

Ten years later, however, the Iron Curtain fell, in spite of all our predictions and expectations, and I met my friend – first in Kyiv, where he came for a medical congress, and then in the States, where I staying as a Fulbrighter. The friend looked fine. After a few hard years, he re-approved his diploma, got a job at a state psychiatric hospital, bought a house, discovered the pleasure of skiing, travelled around the world, flavoured his Ukrainian with an American accent and added an exotic ‘-ff’ to his quite ordinary Ukrainian surname Hunko. He left no relatives in Ukraine, and had little reason for either real or imaginary comeback.

He seemed a bit surprised that none of our mutual friends had followed in his footsteps – even though the Iron Curtain had fallen and everybody could easily accomplish his or her dream. I tried to explain to him that the very fall of the curtain, of communism, of the repressive political system, made our immigration unnecessary. Some people, I knew, moved to the West for career, for education, for a better salary, for adventures and out of sheer curiosity. But most remained at home, for better or worse, in a ‘middle-income country’ where ‘middle’ referred rather to the average income of your co-citizens than to your own. And where the word ‘transition’ was as nebulous and convoluted as the phenomenon it defined: everybody knew where we were transiting from and nobody knew where to.

Most people usually feel no need to look for a better life elsewhere as long as they have a chance to make it at home, or perhaps to keep it just bearable. And our life, indeed, became much freer and open to multiple opportunities than it had ever been. We could finally speak out what we thought and think as we wished; we were no longer expelled from universities for unauthorised publications nor imprisoned for political statements, inappropriate contacts or merely reading the wrong books. Nobody actually cared about us, and this was far better than the daily care of the omnipresent and omnipotent state – with the entire party-cum- KGB network.

But you couldn’t spread freedom on bread, quite a few people said. And their nostalgia for a careful ‘father’ herding the post-Soviet flock soon materialised in a comeback of paternalistic regimes – first in Belarus, then in Russia. And then came Ukraine’s turn. But here, nobody had a critical mass to push the country in either direction. One group had an advantage in numbers, the other in dedication. In 2004, we managed to defend our freedom peacefully. In 2014, a hundred lives were lost. And then the ‘little green men’ came from Russia – first in Crimea, then in Donbas. At some point we managed to stop them, but it cost us an additional six thousand lives, and half a million displaced people from the war-torn and occupied regions. This is how I met refugees for the first time in my life, in a place I never expected – in my own country.

My colleague Vladimir Rafeenko, a talented poet and prose writer, came from Donetsk. He had a difficult choice between Kyiv, where his political loyalty and democratic commitment belonged, and Moscow, where he published his books, got two prestigious awards for non-Russian citizens who wrote in Russian, and to which he had always felt a deep cultural affinity. His life story is rather typical of many middle-class, educated people from both Donbas and Crimea, whose political and cultural loyalty were placed dramatically at odds during the Russian aggression and whose political, values-based attitudes, in most cases, prevailed.

‘I’m a very emotional person’, Vladimir says, ‘so there was a period after I came here, to Kyiv, that I couldn’t answer even the simplest question, but just started crying. I fully understood my inadequacy but couldn’t do anything about it. I felt like in early childhood when my father took me beyond the gate and told me to go and play with other kids. Socialise yourself, they say – but how to do it now, at my age… I brought my family here but I still think about my parents left in Donetsk, and of two elderly grannies who just cannot move…’

As he describes his home, where he used to live virtually without interruption, I try to imagine what a real dispossession means. It should be probably a terminal loss of something that is highly important to you, something more than a place, a thing, a habit, a dream, a way of life. It should be part of yourself, your identity, your enracinement, as Simone Weil put it in her famous book. Dispossession in such a context means uprooting and the ensuing challenge to develop new roots, new enracinement.

Yes, I happened to lose two places that were part of my ‘I’, my possessions. One was my grandparents’ house in the countryside where I spent all my holidays as a schoolboy. And the other was a small flat in Lviv where I had been living for two decades with my parents until they moved to a bigger apartment, so that I could transform the remaining decrepit space into a kind of a cultural or, for that time, countercultural centre. Both places, indeed, were dear to me – just as a part, a specific period of my life – but I never perceived their ultimate loss as any traumatic uprooting or dispossession. Maybe I felt that the loss was inevitable as time passed by and the new period of life unfolded, no less interesting and inviting. Maybe the passage of time, in general, was much easier to accept as ‘natural’ and therefore not so dramatic as a reshuffling of space. Maybe it also was of some import that the space was not really ‘lost’ – I could easily visit it at any time and assure myself that there was nothing particular to regret – just an empty shell, a chrysalis’ capsule without a butterfly.

Photo: Andrew Kudrin. Source: Flickr.

It might be more difficult to accept an irreversible loss, occurring against your will, in an unnatural and therefore unjust way – as has happened recently to two remote pieces of Ukrainian land taken over by Russians. I had never had any special attachment to Donbas or Crimea, even though I visited them a few times, made some friends, and even enjoyed my stay there – at least in the irresistibly beautiful Crimean seaside. It is not the Crimean beauty, however, that makes my sorrow at the loss of Crimea more bitter than at Donbas. Crimea has been for centuries the land of Crimean Tatars, the only native people of the peninsula. Their state was destroyed by the Russian Empire in the late 18th century, their people were gradually outnumbered by the imperial settlers to become a despised minority in their own land, and finally, to add insult to injury, all the Crimean Tatars, nearly 200,000 people – the population of Iceland, were forcibly packed into cattle wagons and deported to the empty spaces of Central Asia. Everything was done with a perfect logistics – within just one day, or actually night, on May 18, 1944, with hundreds of cars and thousands of NKVD troops involved, so that not a single person could sneak away.

All my friends from Donbas and Crimea moved to the mainland, finding the costs of maintaining their personal freedom under Moscow rule overwhelmingly high, regardless of their ethnicity or spoken language. But the Tatars have nothing like ‘mainland’. Their main and only land is Crimea. They have been dispossessed from it, once again, by intruders. To give in to intruders’ brutality would probably be tantamount to self-deportation, to acquiescence not only to this dispossession but all the previous seizures and injuries inflicted on them by the colonisers.

I feel I betrayed them. We, Ukrainians, betrayed them – a small and powerless nation that bet on us, on a loyalty to Ukraine, on a rather naïve belief in international solidarity and world order. I know that Ukrainians often address the same grievances to the West – exactly as Milan Kundera did some three decades ago on behalf of the arguably betrayed Central Europe, dispossessed of its freedom and dignity, its Europeanness. But I also know that thirty years later and two thousand kilometres eastward, any complaints of this kind are irrelevant. Because here, so far away from the ‘Camp of the Saints’, God helps only those who help themselves, charity begins at home, might makes right, and beggars certainly cannot be choosers.

Just go to Maidan, take an orange ribbon, keep your head high, and nobody will dispossess you of freedom and dignity as long as you do not give them up yourself. Mustafa Djemilev, who spent 15 years in the Gulag for defending the right of his people to come back from exile to their native Crimea, knew this perfectly well. Now it might be the turn of his fellow-countryman from Simferopol, an ethnic Russian and Ukrainian patriot, the prominent film director Oleg Sentsov, to teach us a similar lesson – after being sentenced to 20 years in prison by Putin’s kangaroo court on thoroughly faked accusations of ‘terrorism’.

 3.

At some point, in my mid twenties, I discovered that I had also been benefiting from dispossessions inflicted upon other people. Until then, I knew mostly about the losses suffered by my relatives. The heaviest blow came from the Bolsheviks, who starved to death my mother’s family in eastern Ukraine in 1933, alongside a few million other peasants. There are still debates about whether this was a deliberate genocide or just Stalin’s attempt to pacify the peasants who refused collectivisation. Ukrainians were arguably most obstinate, so they had to be punished exemplarily. The punishment squads consisting of military and police units and of party and Komsomol activists moved from village to village, from house to house and confiscated not only grain but any food that was found. If they could not take away all the finds, they simply destroyed them.

The survivors were enslaved for decades in the so-called ‘kolkhozes’. They were dispossessed not only of their property, land, and livestock. but also of freedom and dignity. Worse still, they were dispossessed of their memory. Any reference to the famine was criminalised as ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’. They could not commemorate their dead. Instead, they had to thank, to celebrate and to glorify their tormentors – in prose and poems.

My mother and granny were the only two persons from the family of nine who survived the ordeal. But she never told me a word about the Catastrophe until my twenties. And even then, she contended that all those terrible things were a kind of local initiative, allegedly carried out without Stalin’s consent.

My father’s story was less dramatic, even though his family also lost some land and property when the Soviets came. It was in 1939 that Stalin and Hitler partitioned Poland, and western Ukraine, where my father’s family lived, was incorporated into the Soviet Union. The first Soviets he saw were not deadly terrible. Rather, they were funny. They stood, mesmerised in front of their village house with a zinc roof and exclaimed ‘Wow! What a house! Under the silver! Like a hospital!’

My father was lucky: the guys were not from a special squad but just from the regular army marching westward to hold a joint military parade with their German comrades in the city of Brest. So his story of dispossession is relatively mild. It relates primarily to the books – a few dozen volumes that his father, my grandpa, packed in waterproof boxes and hid somewhere in the field, being afraid of possible searches and inevitable confiscation of the subversive literature. He never found them again – and we often recollect this family story as quite a graphic illustration of our intellectual history – so profoundly underground that it turns out to be almost invisible.

And then, being well aware of these family dispossessions, I discovered that the house we lived in with my parents in Lviv was privately owned by a Polish lady before the Soviets ‘nationalised’ it, split into three parts and gave them to three families from either Russia or heavily Russified south-east Ukraine. My mother, a young graduate from university and a devoted member of the Communist Party, was welcome as an ideologically reliable cadre in an ideologically untrustworthy city.

There was nothing, indeed, that had prevented me from learning the story for such an embarrassingly long time. I lived in a city that had all the imprints of dispossessions – neglected Polish monuments and cemeteries, streets and places like Kaiserwald that still were referred to by their old names rather than the new ones imposed by the Soviets, signs on buildings in Latin alphabet that resurfaced from beneath fresh paint like ancient palimpsests. The building we lived in had a name, ‘Willa Wanda, the letters were quite readable on the wall, but I never wondered about them – was it the name of the owner? Or just the owner’s whim? Who were those people and, most importantly, what happened to all of them?

We can do little, if anything, for all those people – exiled, deported, dispossessed, uprooted. Maybe to express some interest, offer some empathy, recollect a shared memory that should always be very specific, detailed and personalised. Or just keep silent – as we did with my wife when, in Italy, we were approached by a Ukrainian man who recognised us as compatriots and enquired about a possible job. He believed we could share the knowledge – as all fellow-gastarbeiters usually do. And we did not dare to tell him the truth – that we were just tourists, not interested in any illegal job whatsoever and certainly not aware of any opportunity of the kind. It was shameful to be a tourist when somebody’s looking for a job, for food, for a shelter. We were approaching the ‘Camp of the Saints’ – but still far away from it.

Published 25 August 2017

Original in English
First published in ‘Dispossesion’, a catalogue accompanying the eponymous Polish-Ukrainian-German exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale, and then in Wroclaw.

© Mykola Riabchuk / Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

recommended articles