Dmytro Krapyvenko: "It is important to talk about the losses in order not to get delusional and think that there are some immortals fighting on our side"
Since 2014 Dmytro Krapyvenko, a journalist, publicist, ex-editor-in-chief Ukrainian Week, has been actively volunteering. After russian full-scale invasion in Ukraine he joined Ukrainian Army. In a conversation with him, held within Chytomo and Ukrainian PEN special project Words and Bullets, we talked about whether censorship can be justified in wartime, whether Ukrainians can answer the question "who are we?", and whether now is the right time to say goodbye to "great russian culture".
– It’s not the first year you’ve been at war. You’ve been volunteering. Yet after the full-scale invasion you joined the armed forces. How do you feel as a soldier? Is it really your thing? Is it where you belong?
– Undoubtedly. In order for this to become my thing at my age it’s probably a bit late to enroll and start military career. But I guess I always belonged here. My father is a military, a lot of my classmates are career officers. I’ve always had certain connection with militaries. I’ve known about what is happening there since I was a kid. And of course, in 2014 I dived into this atmosphere: constantly talked to soldiers. I have friends who turned into soldiers and soldiers that became my friends. That’s why, as for me, I fit in smoothly. People often ask: "where did you fight? Where did you serve?". And then they get really surprised when it turns out that military service began on February 24, 2022 for me.
– What is your biggest motivation and support in this war? What inspires you to keep going?
– Everything. The fact that this is our land. And that my city, Kyiv, held out. That the city of my childhood, Korosten, suffered more than Kyiv but still held out. Ukrainians’ solidarity inspires me. No matter how pathetic it sounds but military fraternity, support from my family that I haven’t seen for a long while – that’s what keeps me going. But you also understand that this war you’re fighting in is also a war for those people. And people themselves inspire me. When you walk down the street wearing uniform and hear something nice, words of support, that also inspires.
Even, when I was in Kyiv my neighbor, a lady of a very respectable age, met me, hugged me like a native grandmother, said warm words. Fighting for our nation that supports us inspires me. The way our country keeps living also inspires me. Some people get annoyed that life in peaceful cities got back to normal, but for me this is inspiring. That means there is a place to go back to. Because when there is nothing but war and ruins around that’s really depressing.
– The journalistic environment has nurtured several dozens of military personnel. We gained conscious, motivated warriors, but often lost brilliant journalists. Do you think such a transformation is justified?
– My opinion (it’s been like it before war and I still stick to it) is: we have too many journalists. I can’t say if it’s a good thing or bad. And there is no need to compare journalism to any other profession. I mean a plowman’s, tractor driver’s work, especially in times when we are losing our territories, is no less important than a work of a journalist. No irony. War requires every peaceful field to give up their share. In our case this share is not set by someone from the top. Those are just people who think they must go and fight. They go, and their colleagues stay and keep working.
By the way, not so long ago I had a conversation with Stas Kozliuk, and I told him that it is very good that he stayed in his profession and did not join the army, because we need such reporters now. I also have great respect for Denys Kazanskyi, who has remained in the blogosphere. And I see that a lot of different people from different departments that I’ve met know him, watch his vlogs. Therefore, I think that the basic structures of our journalism have remained unchanged. But we provided our share for the front. Unfortunately, we have already lost some, but this is war.
– Recently, the Week published your first text written since the beginning of the full-scale war. Have you thought about writing permanent columns "from the fields"? Maybe you keep a military diary or make some notes that can then be transformed into a book?
– I talked about this not so long ago with a person who has been fighting since 2014. She did not write anything about that period. And to be honest, I still think that I won’t write anything like that unless I have some super unique experience. Now we have a lot of diverse veteran literature, and I don’t see the point in adding one more pixel there. Of course, I will continue to write as much as I have the opportunity, but it is unlikely that this will ever turn into a book
Do I keep a diary? No. But some particularly memorable things, such as when guys were digging the blindage to classic music, I keep in memory.
– What books about war made an impression on you and prepared you to what’s going on around now? Is it even worth reading books about war when the reality sometimes can be even nastier?
– I’ve probably been reading war books at regular intervals throughout my life, starting from school age. The last thing I read about the war, by the way, I read the night before these events. It was Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour. I now share certain quotes from this book with my colleagues. Because there are people who are trying to learn something. And thank God, there is also someone to talk about the books to in the army.
Books hardly can prepare someone for war. But they can, however old-fashioned it may sound, enrich someone spiritually. When you read of someone else’s experience, country, war, other circumstances, that develops the way you think. You can’t help thinking: would I do the same? What were the ideas of officer’s honor in imperial British army and how modern officers behave? How society changed in general compared to the modern one, when it doesn’t matter where you come from and what name you bear?
It is important to read the books about war so that people do not get the illusions that the world is some sort of Disneyland. I have never believed that. But unfortunately looking at our social media, seeing some of our fellow Ukrainians one can notice this trend that you should think positively, only talk to successful people, post cats and read something light and romantic… Yet, sooner or later reality will get you. So, don’t fall for infancy, don’t lose the antibodies against negative things that will keep coming to our life. We cannot afford to relax and surround ourselves with illusions. This balance is probably why we need books about war for.
– Do you find time to read now? Do you feel the need to read?
– Of course, there is such a need. As for the opportunity, it depends. The pace of reading slowed down now. And I try to read something unrelated to war, but still, something pretty complicated, for mental gymnastics. Although some books still remind you of your reality. For example, you are reading a theoretical work of German romanticists and you come across a piece where russian soldiers raped German marquise in 1813… History repeats itself.
I always try to have 2-3 books at hand. It also has certain promoting effect. Because when people see it they think about reading too…
– What are you reading now?
– I’ve just finished Nataliia Ksondzyk’s Classicism and Socialist Realism the other day. That’s a theoretical work on literary studies. And now I am to read Sermons by Meister Eckhart from Tempora’s philosophy series. Earlier I’ve read The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense from Laboratoriia. And right at the beginning of the war I read Borys Shalahinov’s work on German romanticists and classicists.
– Let’s talk about military journalism. Can censorship and self-censoring be justified in wartime? What is your opinion on the situation with military expert Yurii Butusov? What was it: obstruction of journalism or necessary security measures?
– This situation with Butusov, it did not just appear yesterday. We all remember that shot across the bow when they tried to start a case on him. That was before Holodomor anniversary, in November 2021. It is important to understand that Yurii is a meta journalist. He’s an influential figure in political meaning, since he has access to the information most of the journalists don’t. Thus, he’s not just writing texts. He’s trying to influence the command, on tactical level in particular.
Obstruction of his activity seems to be the censorship aiming at belittling the objective information about negative situation on the frontline. I guess that has been typical for every Ukrainian government, and this one is no exception. But in current situation what catches the eye is the information on losses. On the one hand there is none, which lets most people relax. But on the other hand, there is this master of facile optimism – Oleksii Arestovich. And if you listen to him you get the impression that we already won two months ago and now we are just dealing with minor cleansing. All that’s left is raise Ukrainian flag over the Kremlin. People get delusional and then get conflicted when realize that their neighbor was killed in action.
– And what do you think of removing 5 Channel, Priamyi and Espresso channels from digital broadcast? Was it a rational decision considering the circumstances?
– Martial law creates more temptation for power abuse. While you have a chance you can cleanse the media, you can create a pool of loyal journalists and say it was necessary under current wartime conditions. But it is far from reality.
Fortunately, our war is fair. We are not in the situation similar to the one there was in the US in times of Vietnam War, when public opinion condemned the war and the authorities tried to explain the necessity of it, using media among other tools. Our situation is completely different. There are no disputes regarding war among the conscious part of society. So, trying to make media more loyal towards the authorities is a feature of power abuse. And that’s not ok. We better stop now and preserve the pluralism and freedom of speech. At least so that we would not lose our face in front of our Western partners. They are not stupid and see it all.
– How would you assess the information war between Ukraine and russia? On what fronts did we manage to get a tactical or strategical advantage, and on what we didn’t?
– I believe that after February 24 we saw that we were doing pretty good in the information field. The regions where pro-russian narratives were traditionally spread, where russian Tv and russian culture dominated took the brunt of the war and resisted the enemy. And this shows that, after all, everyone, including the media, worked to ensure that these people had Ukrainian identity and consciousness, so that they did not meet these so-called "liberators" with flowers. Which, by the way, was what russians relied on.
On the other hand, we have gaps outside: both in some neighboring countries, such as Hungary, and in the remote ones, that are often the powerful players, such as: China, Brazil, South Africa. Of course, not all is well there. Because russians, having their templates from the times of Cold War, always knew how to work in these markets. And we see that Russia Today is being broadcasted in many countries.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of examples of people thinking that we are going back to the Cold War discourse where Ukraine is some nursling of the US which russia tries to fight. Which in turns means the need to support russia. That is, unfortunately, we do not always speak with our voice on the world information map, we are not always present there. I understand that this requires enormous resources, but still, we need to engage our diaspora, work with embassies, foreign students studying in Ukraine, etc.
– Is culture important during war? We all understand that the top priority for us is to support the army with all we have. But what do we do with culture? Should we put it on hold?
– Culture cannot be put on hold, since it is a natural reflection of our life. Certain projects that required a lot of resources can be put on hold. For example, we’d had a big discussion regarding the Museum of Modern Art – where and how to build it. Such projects can be delayed since they need a lot of funds. But as for concerts, exhibitions and performances, they are important. Because culture can also be a weapon however cliché it may sound.
We can see there is a wave of new songs. And they are needed. Because when a soldier has a minute to take a rest they want to listen to some music. The lack of such songs was pretty obvious back in 2014, when I was coming to the frontline and soldiers were listening to Blue Berets (musical band, part of the Russian Federation Ministry of Defence as part of Song and Dance Ensemble of the airborne troops of Russia – translator’s note). Now they are listening to the collections of modern Ukrainian patriotic songs. Yes, the songs are of different quality, but still. Just look at how Kalush’s victory at Eurovision inspired people, and soldiers in particular.
– Is now the right time to bid farewell to "great russian culture"? Shall we remove pushkins from Ukrainian context?
– Without a doubt. I would say we had to do it 5, 10, even 20 years ago. Luckily now is the time when the society understands this necessity. We’ve been living by inertia for decades. My kids also studied Pushkin’s "On seashore far a green oak towers…" in World Literature classes. And now it’s time to use the opportunities of wartime and get rid of all those pushkins. I once wrote a text about how I was surprised in Ternopil, where a huge Pushkin monument stands a hundred meters from the railway station (this April the monument was removed – ed. note).
But it is also important to give qualified explanations on what is wrong with Pushkin, Tolstoy, etc. Because there are a lot of people of my age and older who studied in russian schools where three quarter of World Literature was russian literature. Thus, people – good pro-Ukrainian people – got trapped in the illusion that russian literature is great. And this is also part of russian imperial policy.
What is wrong with them? For instance, I often refer to Pushkin’s secondary nature in relation to George Byron. Why everyone is reading Eugene Onegin when we have Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage regarding which Eugene Oneging is secondary? On the one hand we have secondary nature of russian literature, on the other hand we have its imperial nature. And that’s enough. Because it turns out that Putin grew from Pushkin’s Poltava to some extent.
– How do you see the Ukrainian nation? What was it like before February 24, what is it like today and what will it be?
– The outlines of the nation were vague both in 1991 and in 2000. They started to clear up only after 2004. All this because our politicians kept telling us it was not the time to work on it. It was important to have something to eat. And we need to be more careful with the language issue cause it sows discord; we need to stay friends with russians, or as in times of Tabachnyk (former Minister of Education of Ukraine – translator’s note) to write joint history books. That is, we tried to delay resolving important, fundamental for us issues while russians took advantage of it. When the 90s crisis was over, russian political engineers and media managers started building that "common cultural space". They were like ‘let’s make this musical together, there would be funny khokhols and "russian stars".
That is why our nation was so vague and amorphous. There were some signs of identity, but hidden far away. Someone’s grandma told them something, that someone heard somewhere. I recently mentioned the history of my own Ukrainization. I came to Kyiv in 1996 when I was 17. And I was sure that Ukrainian rock music does not exist. Because in order to learn something about it, I had to make an effort. The same goes for the movies and literature. If you didn’t live in a big city, didn’t study at a decent university, it was impossible to learn about it.
Now, during such tragic events, in the crucible of war, these outlines of the nation are crystallized. And after all this, people, I think, will not think that the question of identity is somehow secondary; that the important thing is that there is salo on the table.
Luckily, they couldn’t manipulate us. The peak was when Viktor Yanukovych was the President, in 2013, when we were following Belarus’ path. That meant we would have been left with some kind of "cultural autonomy", where you could speak Ukrainian with a funny accent like in the movies, and dance hopak. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. And I think, no, I believe, that this process is irreversible. I believe that the outlines of the nation will finally be built and we’ll be able to see that all around Ukraine. It is true we are all a bit different: with our cultural and historical peculiarities. But what unites us is that we all are Ukrainians. The war proved it: we all united and hopefully we’ll win. And after that we’ll be able to answer the question "who are we?". And we’ll become that modern nation we’ve been longing to become for centuries.
Words and Bullets is the special project from Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists that joined army or started volunteering when russia invaded Ukraine in February this year. The name of the project symbolizes the weapon the heroes and heroines of the project used before February 24 and the one they had to swap it for after the full-scale invasion. The special project is realized with the support of National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
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