Dmitry Bykov: The initiators of the May 2 tragedy were those who wished to have Odesa join the "Novorossiya" project... That's what we need to remember
An acclaimed Russian poet and TV host Dmitry Bykov in an interview with UNIAN compared the events in Odesa on May 2, 2014, with the Beslan tragedy, told readers why he considered Odesa a city of tragic fate, and with whom of the Ukrainian poets he would sit down to have a talk.
Dmitry Bykov often happens to visit Ukraine and Odesa, in particular. However, from the Russian opposition’s poet for the most part rejects offers of interviews and press conferences. But not this time... In his interview with UNIAN, he told how the tragic fate of Odesa coexisted with the eternal Odesa holiday, why he loves teaching more than journalism, and for what reasons he had to avoid a meeting with Vladimir Putin on his birthday.
Once in the Novaya Gazeta you published a devastating article on the so-called “Odesa myth,” claiming that the city is in spiritual decline, living off of interest from capital, exploiting a mere five stories and a single play by Isaak Babel, two novels by Ilf and Petrov, and that the Odesa humor has long made people sick with its terrible monotonousness...
Yes, I wrote that the “Odesa myth” could not be exploited forever. Back in the day, many people from Odesa took offense, but now many of them agree.
I have already come to the conclusion that in order for some of my thoughts to become obvious, a period of four to five years must pass. This does not mean that I think faster than everyone, it means that I do not refuse to express myself sometimes. Yes, the Odesa myth is over, it is necessary to create a new one, and they are now creating it, within their capacity.
And how do you see the new Odesa myth?
It lays in the fact that Odesa is a rich, cosmopolitan sea port city, open to the world, a resort and a trading center with an unusually tragic past. This tragic past is somehow also a component of the eternal Odesa holiday.
The past includes civil war [in the beginning of the 20th century], which swept across Odesa to and fro in different waves; it’s the occupation [during World War 2], when almost the entire Jewish population was swept out, with less than a tenth of them surviving ... This is a kind of destruction, stunning in its cruelty, after which Odesa could never be same. Just at after the fire in the House of Trade Unions, which also covers the city’s past as a dark shadow... Although everyone understands the scenario of how everything happened, there has still been no trial, and the ultimate truth has not been told. It is being reconstructed in frames by a few professionals, while the main culprits of the tragedy, as we know, fled to safety. Therefore, there are plenty of things that remained unclear.
Odessa is a city with a tragic past and, nevertheless, with an unfading spirit. The city – and this is very important - is really separated from the rest of Ukraine, in general. It’s the city-state, a seaside capital, symmetrical to St. Petersburg back in the day, as the empire’s southern center, why was by the way built on the same geometry. It’s a sort of a very successful attempt by Queen Catherine to stand level with Peter the Great. Therefore, for me, Odesa is a city that is, at least for now, in the process of actively building up its new image. And it seems to me that the young Odesa, which was born during this time, with its magnificent, brilliant and talented local youth, will quickly complete this image.
You mentioned the fire in the Odesa Trade Union House on May 2, 2014. But on that day, the riots that led to the death of 48 people began in the other part of the city... What do you know about all this?
I know enough. Believe me, I’ve studied the question thoroughly and seriously, because there are a lot of speculations on this topic. Everything that can be read on the internet, I’ve read it all. It is quite obvious to me that there was a tragedy that no one foresaw. Because really, according to my version of events that arose after reading bits from most sources, local authorities had a certain agreement: someone will be in the field camp on Kulikovo field, while someone will smash it up a bit, for some money. But the situation spiraled out of control. It could not do otherwise, because shooting started ...
What happened here was similar to what we saw in Beslan, when they had agreed with the terrorists, who then went beyond the framework [of the agreements]. In Odesa, there was a similar situation.
This story is bitter, tragic, and the guilt should not be lifted off any of the sides. Although they will always blame the Maidan for what’s happened, it is obvious that the initiators were those who wished to have Odesa join the “Novorossiya” project. Fortunately, this did not happen, but look at the cost... That's what we need to remember.
Once again I will repeat: Odesa is a city with a tragic shadow on its face. And we will not be able to wash off that tragic shadow.
During your last visit to Odesa, speaking with your audience, you talked about a candidate for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump. You said you wanted him to win in order to eliminate "a similar precedent for the next 2,000 years" ...
Well, as you can see, the wishes of a poet are being taken into account.
And what about the future president of the Russian Federation?
The precedent has been created. I think that will last for long.
Let's move away from politics. You are engaged in research of the work of brilliant writers, you have written several books, including those about Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Okudzhava… What conclusions have you made?
As it is said in a not-my-favorite novel "The Master and Margarita" (but these words are really important): "The most terrible sin is fear." We must fight with fear. The worst of human sins is cowardice.
How do you deal with your fears?
All strangers should be interested in the result, not the process. The result has been achieved, while the process is my intimate secret.
And what is the most unacceptable human feature to you?
They say you twice refused to meet with the Russian. Is this the result?
I did not refuse from any meetings. Once I was invited, when I physically could not be there – I was performing in Voronezh, while the meeting was meant to be held in Perm.
Another time, it was postponed. The meeting took place on the president’s birthday, and I'm a kind of a man who can’t say an unpleasant thing to a president on his birthday. I would have come up to him and said: "Good afternoon, I wish you health." This would have immediately got into press, and I would have been accused of sycophancy. So no, I'm not as brave as you think, and that's very good, actually.
Why do you think your teaching experience is more useful than journalism?
Journalism influences a very narrow spectrum of people. And most importantly, while informing them, it does not make them change, unlike teaching. That is, when reading books, people acquire some new qualities. In general, literature influences people’s minds much more than journalism. Therefore, the feasible explanation of literature or its writings, which is what I do for the most part, is better.
Journalism is a very good thing for me personally. This is a wonderful way to see the world and communicate with intelligent people. But teaching is the way to always be with young people, with people who are interested in really serious things. We are already interested in "assets" and health, while they crave to know more about love, death, the meaning of life. And I try to spend more time with them rather than my peers, because with peers I'm an old man, while I feel young with the youths.
That is, you don't share a popular opinion that modern youngsters have such a low-grade sense of humor, do you?
A sense of humor can’t be low-grade. Modern teenagers have a great sense of humor and many other wonderful feelings. Modern teens are the result of evolution, and I would be happy if they took me along with them to their beautiful future.
If you give them the right books, will it improve their development and taste?
Unfortunately, people depend on the books they’ve read no more than on the amount of food eaten. People don’t even depend on the good and evil that they see. People depend on one single parameter - whether they came across a miracle or not. That’s because a miracle shows them the relativity of their concepts and limitations of their consciousness. If people can be somehow directed towards good, to evolution in general, there is only one way – by confronting the incomprehensible, something that the Strugatsky brothers portrayed very clearly. But it was known way before them - Jesus Christ has long made his point.
You can teach pupils as much as you like, but if you walk on water in front of them or raise the dead, this will work. This does not mean that they are caught only on a miracle bait. They are also caught on sacrifice, self-sacrifice. In fact, that’s what Alexei Herman's film "It's hard to be God" is about (the film is based on the Strugatsky brothers’ science-fiction novel about Arkanar, a state located on another planet, where there is a civilization with a level of development corresponding to the earthly late Middle Ages). What can I do to save Arkanar? I have to die in front of Arkanar. There is no other option. Here the answer is tougher than that given by the Strugatsky brothers. It is more accurate. In general, I really love this picture. Whenever I start watching it, I can’t stop.
Have you ever forbidden something to your children?
I never allowed my son Andrei to learn to drive a car, and spend a lot of time driving. As a result, he learned how to drive, he goes on long trips overnight, and drives girls around. In general, he spends much more time in his car than I’d like him to. I introduced a 20:00 curfew and he never came before midnight. All his life he forbade him to bring someone overnight, and all the same he’s been brigning them over. When Andrei was about twelve, I asked him why he would never tell me anything about school. "Are you afraid of me?" I asked. The answer was “No. You are afraid of me." Since then, I have not tried to educate him in any way.
I forbade my daughter to leave a mess in her room. I would go in there and rake all that garbage into a bag and carry it away. My daughter followed me in tears, trying to steal out things from that bag. And I realized, finally, that this is not a mess, but a finely organized order of which I understand nothing. Now she makes the same kind of mess in her groom's apartment. Godspeed!
How do you make a child love poetry?
What for? It is absolutely unnecessary. This is an elitist occupation. It is not for everyone.
Is it possible to cultivate a talent for poetry?
No, you can’t. You need to be born with it.
At what age did you start writing?
That was when I was 6.
Your works always have deep meaning, but are easy to read at the same time. What is hidden behind that ease?
I just work very hard and have learned a lot. Therefore, my texts, I hope, do not leave a trace of smell of my sweat. That ease you are talking about is very pleasing to me. If it was the other way round, if it was easy for me to write but the impression of hard labor was created, that would be horrible.
Where do you find inspiration?
It absolutely doesn’t depend on my state or the era - more on weather and geography. There are several locations where I always come up with new poems. Among them is that one beach in Odesa, next to the dolphins sanctuary [in Lanzheron area].
Whom of the famous Ukrainians, living or late, would you like meet?
Of those who passed, of course, it’s Lesya Ukrainka, who is my favorite Ukrainian poet. I would be interested to have an extensive conversation with Mikhailo Kotsyubinsky. Of the living - it is very difficult to say - probably, with Serhiy Zhadan. As far as I know, we are to do a joint gig in October. That’s where we’ll finally have a talk, perhaps. He is a very good poet and it will be interesting to have a chat.