Since Ukraine’s referendum for independence in 1991, the country has seen its fair share of ups and downs. Over the past thirty years, Ukraine artists have been exploring issues of identity amongst the ruins of utopia yet have only recently gained recognition.
An open letter to Oliver Stone
In December 2014, the American film director Oliver Stone interviewed the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych; and then argued that events on the Maidan last winter were the product of CIA involvement. Historian Stephen Velychenko responds.
Dear Mr. Stone,
I am an academic historian who likes to think he has some knowledge of world events during the past centuries. I am someone who has watched and thought about some of your better films and who had the good fortune to have been in Kyiv on the Maidan in November-December 2013.
I was appalled and distressed when I read that a person of your stature had decided he would make a film about Ukraine’s ousted dictator Viktor Yanukovych. What unsettled me was not your idea about interviewing a dictator on film. Documentaries about surviving ousted dictators are important and useful. What I found appalling was not only that you seem to share his interpretation of his fate, but that you seem to attach particular significance to that interpretation. You seem actually to believe Mr. Yanukovych who, understandably, like any overthrown dictator, attributes his fate to “outside forces” rather than to himself, his policies and supporters, domestic and foreign. Just like Mr. Yanukovych and Mr. Putin, you seem to think that the new government that emerged from the Maidan events 2013-14 is the product of CIA machinations, that CIA involvement was something exceptionally noteworthy, and, implicitly, that because this government is supposedly a CIA product, it has no merit or credibility.
Do you really believe Mr. Stone that in any of the great events in world history during the past centuries the intelligence services and spies of the great powers of the time were not involved? Simply noting this fact in isolation from all other events leads either to apologetics or conspiracy theories. Allow me to illustrate my point.
In so far as French secret agents were involved with the leaders of the American rebellion of 1776, some of whom were Masons, does that fact override the influence of enlightenment ideals and the interests and grievances of those who fought King George’s army? Did the presence of French spies and Masons in Philadelphia New York and Boston mean George Washington was part of a foreign plot? Does the British government’s support for Greek nationalists in the 1820s mean their anti-Turkish revolt was merely a British plot? In so far as Spanish, French and German agents supported Irish leaders in their wars against the English government, does that mean that those who fought British troops in the name of Irish independence were dupes in foreign plots? Was the 1916 Easter Rising really a failed German plot? In so far as German intelligence supported and financed the Bolsheviks in 1917-1918, does that mean the Russian revolution was simply a German plot and that those opposed to the tsar had no legitimate interests or grievances? Did covert Russian and Chinese support for Vietnam mean a sizeable proportion of the Vietnamese people had no legitimate grievances against French or American rule and that their decades long war against those governments was merely a KGB plot?
I put it to you Mr. Stone that anyone who produces a film focusing only on the participation of one particular secret service in a given event merely creates cheap propaganda – in this instance of the kind that will benefit Mr. Putin and his dictatorship. At this point, I should perhaps add that, like many others, I have a critical view of the US government and US corporations. I am well aware of the work of analysts like Chalmers Johnson, Richard Barnet, William Greider, Naomi Klein, Gregg Palast, Will Hutton, Michael Hudson, Thomas Frank and Arianna Huffington. But I am among those who do not allow their critical view of the US and corporate power to blind them to the reality of Stalinist or Putinist Russia.
In so far as I am familiar with your films they do not suggest any knowledge of or previous work on eastern Europe or Russia, let alone Ukraine on your part. This is not surprising as for many Americans, even today, Ukraine still remains a “part of Russia”, a place “far away of which we know little”. But once one decides to undertake a project related to that part of the world such intellectual indifference is no longer acceptable. Allow me therefore take the liberty to suggest that you not limit any research you might undertake to Mr. Yanukovych, his cronies and Russian advisors. Might I suggest you at least peruse Karen Dawisha’s recent book Putin’s Kleptocracy (2013) and some of Andrew Wilson‘s and Timothy Snyder‘s books on Ukraine.
I hope that, at this early stage, your first thoughts about your possible film on Yanukovych and his rule have been misinterpreted or misunderstood and that my remarks prove unnecessary and irrelevant. But, in as much as you do seem interested at this point in a documentary film about one of the great events of post war Europe, I hope that you will record not only the activities of the CIA in that event. I trust you will also record the role of Putin’s FSB in bringing Yanukovych to power in 2010, in controlling his government thereafter, and in the events of 2013-14. Since Mr. Putin’s government has obviously given you a visa and permission to visit Mr. Yanukovych in Russia, dare one imagine your hosts might also oblige you with access to FSB files about FSB activities?
In any case, I trust that any film you might make on Ukraine will pay due attention to the interests and grievances of Ukrainians, who, like their eastern European counterparts demonstrated in 1989, do not want to be ruled by pro-Kremlin elites and are now again, as in 1917-22, fighting a Russian invasion to prove it. I would also hope that if a director of your repute did make a documentary film about Ukraine it would not simply parrot the ideas of a reviled ousted dictator who built fortified fairy-land palaces with gold toilets in a country foul with corruption private wealth and public squalor. I would hope such a film explain that Ukrainians want no more to be controlled by Russia or Russian controlled dictators, than Latin American and Asian peoples want to be controlled by America or American controlled dictators.
Published 14 January 2015
Original in English
First published by Krytyka, 1 January 2015
Contributed by Krytyka © Stephen Velychenko / EurozinePDF/PRINT
In an issue of ‘Krytyka’ on Ukrainian independence: a catalogue of errors from Kuchma to Zelensky; a personal history of freedom formed; and seismic shifts in the Kremlin’s symbolic geography.