Stas Zhalobnyuk, an artist aged 45, offers us bread made with sunflower seeds and dates, goat cheese, ginger and lime tea in his kitchen during an air raid alert. “It’s the safest place, because the walls are concrete and there are no windows,” he explains. Zhalobnyuk says he is “mental with love” for his country. “I want post-war Ukraine to be a humane, western-looking society that saves animals and builds museums.”
But for now, Zhalobnyuk is incandescent with rage. The mental torment that consumes him from the inside and keeps him awake at night has made him a proponent of a growing movement to expunge the Russian language and culture from Ukrainian society.
Zhalobnyuk’s home city of Odesa is predominantly Russian-speaking. “I don’t have a single Russian book in my library,” he boasts. “My mother tongue is Ukrainian. I learned it at the age of 40.”
Zhalobnyuk’s collages and paintings show bloodied bodies and dismembered limbs, stamped with the words GENOCIDE OF THE UKRAINIAN PEOPLE. He stencils the letters TOXIC over the faces of Russian writers and composers. He fills the foreground of a Russian landscape with coffins, beneath the words “Russia = DEATH”. His depiction of the massacre of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians at Bucha last March is a swirl of human organs, blood, a military truck. “Damn you all Russians”, it says in boldface black letters.
As a male of military age, Zhalobnyuk cannot travel outside Ukraine, but his art has been exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome since the war started. A collector in Paris has acquired 10 pieces. An exhibition will soon open in Brussels. “These are powerful works. They will live after me,” he says.
“My albums explain how I became anti-Russian,” Zhalobnyuk continues. Successive generations of family members died in famines created by the Soviet Union. “People know about the Holodomor [the famine imposed by Stalin in 1932-1933, which killed perhaps five million Ukrainians] but not many know about 1947,” he says with emotion. “My father’s brothers died. Stalin imposed a tax on fruit trees, so they had to cut down their trees. They ate grass and leaves. Without documents, they could not leave their village. Russia is like Mordor [in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings], a territory of total evil.”
Another photograph shows Zhalobnyuk’s grandmother and great uncle. During the Holodomor, “her family were Kurkuls [farmers who refused collectivisation]. Her parents were killed in Siberia. She and her brother, aged 15 and 16, walked to Odesa. Every communist holiday, he sent her a communist postcard without an envelope, so the authorities would see it, because he was afraid.”
Zhalobnyuk’s grandmother married a Russian who was killed in the second World War, so his mother was half-Russian. “This blood that is in me, I don’t know what to do with it… Some people are afraid of the verb ‘hate’. I just want to be in a world without them.” Zhalobnyuk dreams of a physical separation, the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall or the wall that Poland is building on its border with Belarus. “The higher the better. Up to the sky.”
The Russians, Zhalobnyuk argues, “have always used culture as a weapon”. He makes a pun on pushka, the Russian word for canon. “Pushkin is a canon.”
Alexander Pushkin, the 19th-century author of Eugene Onegin, is one of the main targets of Ukraine’s semi-official campaign of de-Russification. Pushkin’s sin? To have mocked the Ukrainian Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa, and to have praised the conquests of Peter the Great in poems. Busts or statues of Pushkin have been toppled in about a dozen Ukrainian cities. Dozens more monuments to Soviet or tsarist figures have met the same fate since the war started in February.
Surely it is unfair to hold Russians collectively responsible for their country’s cruelty, past and present, I object. “I have to survive,” Zhalobnyuk replies. “I cannot allow myself to meditate about tolerance of enemies. These albums are about my family being killed. That information was covered up. Now, when Bucha happens, the world is watching. Do you expect me to say there are nice people in Russia as well? Would you tell me to go and negotiate with nice people? I know the world is getting tired of this war. We are getting tired as well. We didn’t start it. This is an ideological war between people with European values and people who torture children.”
Hardliners like Zhalobnyuk believe Russian culture cannot be dissociated from Russian aggression. “First they send a ballerina. Then they send a tank,” he says. Ukraine’s National Opera has ceased performing works by Russian composers. “If you love Russian culture, you have to love detention camps, deportation, everything that comes with it,” Zhalobnyuk adds.
Yevgeny Golubovsky receives us a few miles away in a ground-floor apartment in a shabby concrete high-rise. The walls are lined with books and oil paintings. The 85-year-old former engineer, journalist and editor has been called the living memory of Odesa. He has published books on the art and literature of many countries, including Greece and Italy, Russia and Ukraine. “I think that culture has no borders,” he says.
Golubovsky remembers the second World War well. His father was wounded fighting the Nazis. His mother was a medic. “For me, the enemy were the Nazis, the Germans. I am a Jew. You understand how it could have ended…”
Many of Odesa’s Jews fled pogroms in the early 20th century. After the first World War, early Zionists left Odesa for Palestine, where they founded the city of Tel Aviv.
Until the second World War, Odesa was home to 180,000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in the Soviet Union. Most perished at the hands of the Nazis. Jewish culture nonetheless left a lasting influence on the city’s cuisine, dialect and humour.
Golubovsky did not like the Soviets either. He self-published, and organised clandestine art exhibitions. He rejects the idea that Odesa was a Russian city, though it was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794. She named it after the Greek hero Odysseus – Ulysses – but insisted on feminising the name.
Even the spelling of the city’s name has become politicised, with Ukrainian patriots abandoning the Russian Odessa for their own spelling, Odesa.
“Odesa is a European city,” Golubovsky says. “It was built above a Greek settlement. It embodies Mediterranean culture. The Turks were kicked out by the Russians in the 18th century. Then it became part of Ukraine and a crucible where many nationalities were melted.”
Golubovsky has spent virtually his entire life in Odesa. He loves the Black Sea – whose shore has become inaccessible in war – and its neo-classical architecture. “Most of all, I love the free spirit of Odesa,” he says. “When Pushkin lived in exile in Odesa in the 1820s, he wrote, ‘Everything breathes freedom here’. It was a free European city in a Russia as brutal as the Mongols.”
The anti-Pushkin campaign “are blaming him for two or three poems he wrote at the end of his life, and for failing to support the Polish revolt against the Russians”, says Golubovsky. “You can say this was a mistake, but he was not a politician. Before Pushkin, the Russian language was archaic. He created the modern Russian language.”
But it is precisely that language which many Ukrainians now object to, I interrupt. “No language is ever guilty,” says Golubovsky. “We fought with Germany. No one ever banned Beethoven. When I hear they are banning Tchaikovsky, I feel shame for people with twisted minds.”
Golubovsky understands the passionate hatred that many Ukrainians now feel towards Russia. “When you see dead children, it creates an emotional deflagration. I think that in five years it will calm down.”
He cites as an example the statue of Catherine the Great – Ukrainians refer to her simply as Catherine or Catherine II – which dominates a roundabout high above the Black Sea. Zhalobnyuk wants it dismantled.
The original statue was removed by the Soviets after the 1917 revolution, and replaced with a statue of the Battleship Potemkin, where the Bolshevik revolt started. Following Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the city council, where Golubovsky was a representative, moved the Potemkin statue and brought Catherine back.
I tell Golubovsky what Zhalobnyuk said about Russian culture being an instrument of imperialism, about sending a ballerina in front of a tank.
“That is possible,” the old man says, smiling. “But in 1968, when the Soviet Union decided to punish Czechoslovakia and sent the Red Army to Prague, the only [Soviet] person who raised their voice was [the poet Yevgeny] Yevtushenko, who published Tanks in Prague. Sometimes it works the other way around.”