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A film crew travels along the routes that once a Ukrainian philosopher took
“Our life is a journey,” said the eighteenth-century Ukrainian philosopher and poet Hryhory Skovoroda. At a ripe age of forty seven, he put all his meagre possessions into a haversack, and went wandering across the length and breadth of Ukraine, observing the vanities of the world and doing a lot of soul-searching.
Recently, a group of film makers, headed by Vasyl Ilashchuk, travelled along the routes that Skovoroda had walked two hundred years ago, and made a twenty-five part film, Dorohamy Ukrayiny (Travelling the Roads of Ukraine).
Mr Ilashchuk, who is also a well-known Ukrainian television presenter, was interviewed by Myroslava BARCHUK, WU Senior Editor.
The name of the serial, Travelling the Roads of Ukraine, is both symbolic and literary. As I understand, the film was inspired by Skovoroda’s itinerancy. But what about his philosophy — did it find any reflection in the film?
We wanted to show Ukraine as though seen through the prism of Skovoroda’s view of life and of the world, and we went to the places he had once been at. Skovoroda became a spiritual guide, as it were, of our travels. We proceeded from Skovoroda’s works — his philosophical reflections, his views, his impressions. I see a great symbolic significance in it, the continuity of culture — from the eighteenth century to the twenty first. There are also other things that link us to Skovoroda — he was the one who brought the first grapevine to the land of Zakarpattya (Transcarpathia). And now Zakarpattya is a major wine producing region of Ukraine — with all the vineyards tracing their ancestry to Skovoroda’s grapevine! Isn’t it amazing?
Yes, it sure is. Ukraine is a culturally and visually diverse country, and what you see may be very much different from what others would see. Do you think you’ve been able to look at Ukraine objectively?
We did not try to make our film an objective observation. The other way round — we wanted to present our subjective point of view.
As far as I could gather from your film, you have avoided showing negative sides of the current Ukrainian life, or social and economic problems that the Ukrainians face.
Frankly, we did not want to put any emphasis on the problems. The format of our film was of an absolutely different kind — it’s a film about attractive sides of Ukraine. I think you could call our film lyrical and philosophical rather than socially aggressive and problem oriented. It was the Ukraine of our dreams, the Ukraine the way we wanted it to be, the Enchanted Ukraine, somewhat similar to The Enchanted River Desna by Oleksandr Dovzhenko — the romantic legends and enigmatic spirit of the Carpathians, the endless, sun-drenched steppe… We wanted to bring across to the viewers the colourful nature of our land, to make them feel the excitement of travelling. It seems to me it will be interesting both for foreigners and Ukrainians alike. Do we really know what actually Ukraine is like? I don’t think we do.
But doesn’t such an approach make your film “a tourist product”? The way I understand it, you wanted to present a Ukrainian’s view of Ukraine, did you not?
Yes, we did, and we introduced bits of history, art and destinies of people. We showed coffee shops, and old churches and fortresses, and people at work — and a lot more into every twenty-minute part. Each part is devoted to one particular locality or a region with all those things making their appearance in the film. We had to condense the four or more hours of filmed materials for every part into a twenty-minute run. Believe me, it was the most difficult thing and a painful thing too — to cut down, to trim this wealth of material. But we had to do it because ours is a documentary, and it is known from psychology that in films of this kind, the perception lasts best for the first fifteen or twenty minutes of viewing and then it begins to flag.
And what was the public’s reaction to your film?
They accorded it a very warm reception. Unfortunately, the film did not get enough promotion, and because of limited publicity, the television audiences began to grow as the film unfolded, part after part. We were pleased by the reception given to our films by the television people who made it possible to have the film shown on TV. And the television audiences are the biggest.
What state of preservation or neglect did you find the architectural landmarks in?
Most of them are in the same sorry state the whole of Ukraine is in. It’s too bad there are so few enthusiasts who would care and do their best to maintain the architectural landmarks in a proper condition, or to restore them. We do not find such people either at the state level or in the private sector. That’s very unfortunate, of course. Showing a church, a fortress or a castle in our film, we always made it a point to draw our audience’s attention to the state this or that building was in.
These travels of yours must have made a great impression upon you and your group. Did it?
Very much so. Our group was made up of people who are creative and impressionable. At the start of our travels some of them, though they knew Ukrainian, preferred to speak Russian in everyday life, but at the end of our filming, everybody spoke only Ukrainian. I find it significant that Russian-speaking people of Ukrainian descent turned to Ukrainian as the language of their everyday conversation! They must have realized where their roots were — what greater impression could there be? I do believe their transformation took place at the deepest level, at the ground roots, so deep that it’s beyond consciousness, and thus becomes mystical.
All this travelling must have been hard on you physically, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was rather trying. There were days when we went to bed after midnight, and had to be up no later than four thirty in the morning. On our way we stopped whenever and wherever we could to take swims in rivers and lakes — at any time of the day or night or in any weather at that. We even took swims in Karpatske Oko (Carpathian Eye), the Carpathian high-altitude lake. In fact, there is no lake in Ukraine that is situated higher than Oko. It is so cold at that altitude that even in June the grass on its shores is covered with hoar frost in the morning.
The whole project must have cost a lot of money. Who financed and backed you up?
The Ukrzaliznytsya (Ukrainian Railroads Board), Derzhturadministratsiya (State Tourist Administration) of Ukraine and the National Television Company. Our films will be shown not only on television — in trains too, on domestic and foreign routes. It was dubbed in three languages — Ukrainian, Russian and English. Diplomatic representations in Ukraine and Ukrainian ones abroad will have copies of our film as well.
How long did it take to make the film, from the starting point to its release?
With the time spent on the preparatory work, we took nine months to make it. When at Ukrzaliznytsya they asked how much a film like that would cost and how much time it would take to make, I told them — and they smiled sceptically, evidently thinking I’d not be able to make it within such a short period of time and for so little money. I think we broke some records as to the time taken to carry out such a vast project, and at such a low cost. But we did it.
So you went to every region of this country and saw a lot. What kind of advice could you give to a person who comes to Ukraine for the first time? Where to begin?
It’s a difficult question, you know… Maybe in Vylkove, this Ukrainian Venice? Or in Verkhovyna, the centre of the land of the Hutsuls? But there’s also the Crimea, a fairy tale land, or the National Preserve Askaniya Nova, the steppe and the mountains… It all depends on what your newcomer would be looking for.
Incidentally, what, in your opinion, attracts foreigners most in Ukraine? What are this country’s most attractive features?
Another difficult question… Maybe something mystical? The spirit of the land? The people? Yes, the people, and the spirit of the land.
Did you find the mentality of the people living in the east and in the west of the country much different?
I would not say it differs that much but enough to be quite noticeable. The eastern part of Ukraine was under Russia’s domination for several centuries, and the west was under the domination of Poland, Austria, Hungary and Rumania. And this foreign domination did leave its mark on the national character. I find the easterners to be more open-minded, more sincere and straightforward, more generous. The westerners are more conservative, more rational, less candid. But both the easterners and the westerners possess such primordial depths in their character that can only be guessed at, not studied. They all of them have their own understanding of life, their unique vision. You can feel it when you get to know people a little better. I’m saying it not because I think it makes us, Ukrainians, special. These qualities and traits were discovered in the Ukrainians by foreign travellers a long time ago. I find the Ukrainian people to be wise, gentle, lyrical and persevering.
Now the right time has come to ask you about your next project. It’s to be called “Dorohamy Ukrayintsiv (The Roads Ukrainians Take), right? What is it going to be about? About Ukrainians abroad? About their ability to retain their national spirit in the foreign lands?
That’s correct. But first of all, I’d like to say that this project was also financed by Ukrzaliznytsya… Emigration for Ukrainians is a tragic subject. Millions of Ukrainians were forced to leave their native land in search of a better life, or fleeing from persecution, social or religious, seeking shelter. A great number of eastern Ukrainians moved to Russia — or were deported to Siberia, and the western Ukrainians moved further west in considerable numbers, with so many of them winding up in the Americas. In fact, Ukrainians had begun to immigrate to America even before the massive emigration wave of the end of the nineteenth–early twentieth centuries swept through the country. Ukrainian names are present among the names of the founders of Jamestown in Virginia, and among the participants of the American War of Independence and among those who fought in the Civil War. When, in the early nineteenth century, first Russian settlements were established in Alaska and California, there were Ukrainians among the first settlers. These facts are little known, and it is wrongly assumed that the first known Ukrainian in America was Ahapy Honcharenko, an Orthodox priest from Kyiv Huberniya (Province) who had met and personally known Taras Shevchenko. Honcharenko was the editor of the periodical Visnyk Alyasky (Alaska’s Herald) that featured some materials about Ukraine. That’s the Ukrainian spirit for you, tenacious, full of vitality and perseverance.
Yes, but this spirit was continually tempered under the most trying conditions, in the coal mines of Ohio, metallurgical works of Pennsylvania, in the virgin Brazilian forests, in the western wilderness of Canada. Ukrainians were often called “dregs of Europe”…
Our film is going to tell a story of Ukrainians in Poland, Canada and in the USA, in Russia’s Siberia, in the countries of Western Europe and in Far East. Many stories will be as sad as the plight of Ukraine herself.
“Roads” in the name of the film is also provided with a symbolic meaning?
Yes, the second film is a sort of a sequel to the first one, and both are united by certain common philosophy. The Ukrainian life has always been crisscrossed by roads. Everyone has one’s own road to travel, the road of life which can be long or short, difficult or easy, leading to the truth or into the dead end. But we chose our roads ourselves, and the road Ukrainian emigrants wanted to travel most was the road back home, to their native land. Too bad that only a few have travelled that road…
What can the people living in Ukraine today learn from the destiny of the Ukrainian emigrants? What can the Ukrainian diaspora in the west and in the east teach us?
Maybe, to be more open to the world? To be more receptive? I’ve got a feeling that Ukrainians are conservative and rather closed to the world around them. Probably we have been affected too much by the Soviet mentality and have failed to get rid of it in the post-Soviet period. The Ukrainian diaspora can teach Ukrainians living in Ukraine some basic things which are well known in the western democracies — how to struggle for our rights, what the functions of a state are, what the responsibilities of a conscientious citizen are, but at the same time what citizens should do to avoid being imposed upon this state. They can teach us what it means to have the right to have the right. Ukraine, it seems to me, has not learnt these things yet. For too long a time we were forced to unlearn them. Understanding of democracy does not come from textbooks — it’s best to learn it from someone directly, through person-to-person communication.
Will your film be based on your personal view of the emigration from Ukraine?
I hope it will be based on facts. There were several waves of Ukrainian emigration. The first one of the late nineteenth–early twentieth centuries was caused mostly by the economic reasons — people went west to seek a life that would make it possible for them to feed their children, to rise above destitution. The second and third waves were caused mostly by political reasons — the Bolshevik coup of October 1917, and the Second World War. Very often it was a matter of life and death — so many of those who stayed in Ukraine died in the gulag, in repressions and in famines. Over two million Ukrainians were taken by the Nazis to Germany as labour force. Many of them returned to Ukraine, and there are some who are still living. Many of the former “Ostarbeiter” went across the ocean to America. They found shelter, a better life, better prospects for the future. They were given citizenship in the western countries, they found their new home there. They became free citizens in free society. But they lived with gnawing nostalgia, they were subjected to discrimination, they found it so difficult to get integrated — particularly difficult was the psychological incompatibility. They lived through all that, but it is Ukraine herself that has suffered the greatest loss — if you take a good look at the Ukrainian emigre organizations in the Americas and in Europe you’ll easily understand that Ukraine has lost the most active part of its population…
And continues to lose. According to one of the recent polls, every third Ukrainian wants to leave their country in search of a better life abroad.
I do not blame them but can hardly understand their motives. As far as I am concerned, the decision to leave one’s own country, to emigrate is most traumatic and tragic. These days it is not difficult at all to go abroad and find work as a labourer, or if you have good qualifications to land a well-paying job in the west. But I think that we should stay in this country and struggle for its future, we should do our collective best to develop our country for the sake of our children and of all the generations to come. We should be working for our own country, and there are many opportunities available for that. I’ll be happy if the destinies of Ukrainians abroad that our film will deal with, will help our fellow citizens to understand the importance of staying at home and working hard for the benefit of their country. Hryhory Skovoroda who wandered across Ukraine, said at the end of his life, “Do not look for happiness across the seas… Only when you’ve got your own light, you’ll be able to truly see the light of the world.” Isn’t it a wonderful bequest to all of us?