Vasyl Makhno: Reflections on Israel and Ukrainian culture

[Editor’s note: Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, and essayist who is a laureate of many awards, including Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize"™ (2020), sponsored by the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE) with the support of the NGO "Publishers' Forum" (Lviv, Ukraine). Vasyl Makhno's trip to Israel in the summer of 2023 for presentations and research was supported by UJE. The interview was conducted not long after the poet’s return to the United States in July 2023.

We spoke with the writer and translator Vasyl Makhno about the annual ETHNO-Khutir Festival that took place in Tel Aviv in late June and about Ukrainian culture in the world.

ETHNO-Khutir is an annual festival celebrating Ukrainian and Jewish cultures. This year it was attended by the writer and translator Vasyl Makhno.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Why was it important for you to take part in this festival?

Vasyl Makhno: I have not lived in Ukraine for twenty years. But I have traveled there a few times a year. My mother and my relatives live there. I write in Ukrainian. I have never written myself off from Ukraine — in no way. I am connected to the country, the language, and the culture.

This trip to Israel was sponsored by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. It was a trip not just to attend the festival; it was also to meet with my readers. I visited Tel Aviv and Haifa. There were readings in several languages: Ukrainian for Ukrainian-speaking Israelis, English, and Hebrew. There were also meetings where I read first in Ukrainian and then in Hebrew.

In 2017, my book, A Private Interpretation of History, was published in Israel. It was translated by Anton Paperny. Unfortunately, at the time, I was unable to come to Israel for the launch. That's why, this time around, I had a big program that lasted two weeks.

For me, it was a surprise that such a big Ukrainian festival could be organized in Tel Aviv, where not just people from Tel Aviv and its surroundings come, but from all over Israel. This was an interesting phenomenon, where you could see and hear Ukrainian songs and see items that were being sold in improvised shops. This is the demand of people who are not indifferent to either the fate of Ukraine, the Ukrainian language, or the concept of Ukrainianness in general.

"Those who live with the thought of Ukraine are au courant with what is going on there"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: To what extent were the festivalgoers aware of what is going on in Ukraine?

Vasyl Makhno: In Haifa, for example, [one meeting] was held on the rooftop of a building. Quite a few young people gathered there; they even organized a Ukrainian book club there. It was especially pleasant for me to see that they are reading my books. The conversation was substantive. Of course, they are well-informed and aware of all Ukraine-related events. Those who live with the thought of Ukraine are certainly up-to-date on what is going on there. But when I had a meeting at the Hebrew Writers Association in Tel Aviv, it was attended by Hebrew-speaking Israelis. We held readings in Ukrainian and Hebrew, and the discussions took place in English. There were a few aspects which made me realize, for example, that the host was not entirely familiar with the situation in Ukraine or, generally, with Ukrainian language and literature. This was new territory for him. Such moments testify that Ukraine's information policy, especially in Israel, should be more active. Culture must be involved in this because culture is a bridge that enables people to find common ground, exchange information, and understand each other better. This is one aspect.

The second aspect is human. I was in a taxi driven by an Orthodox Jew. We talked. From our conversation, I realized that he doesn't understand what is happening in Ukraine. In other words, even with access to the Internet and information, people do not know about Ukraine. In Haifa, people told me that there are many pro-Russian vatniks. That's what they call people with a pro-Russian orientation. So, these vatniks are also organizing various actions and events of their own in support of Russia. All this speaks to the diversity of Israeli society. But if we're talking about aliyah from the Soviet Union [repatriation of Jews to Israel — Ed.], then the Russian-speaking aliyah is dominant. There are Russian-language newspapers, radio, and media. And Russian television, which, to a certain extent, forms narratives and stereotypes.

I met a lot of people on this trip. People came up to me and spoke flawless Ukrainian. Ukrainians from Dnipro, Kyiv, and other places. They have not forgotten the language. Moreover, they speak it regularly; in this way, they are trying to support Ukraine. There were many social events, many striking impressions. For me, this reconfirmed the idea that in every society, especially in Israel, things are not so straightforward. Ukraine must put in a lot of effort in order to achieve the necessary level of recognition and understanding of our culture and of the country in general. The Israeli government, especially the current one, is not interested in supporting Ukraine. It is casting about for various excuses and explanations as to why they cannot. I understand that there are global issues and great politics. But, in my opinion, Ukraine was counting on Israel's support. That has not happened so far. There are many different factors at play here. But, once again, Ukraine's presence in Israel's information and cultural space would help form a pro-Ukrainian lobby.

"War, like litmus paper, clarifies everything"

Vasyl Makhno: When I look at what is happening in Ukraine (the war and corruption issues), I'm embarrassed. In Poland, for example, there are questions concerning the Ukrainians, that they [the Poles] are prepared to welcome our women and children, but what are Ukrainian men doing there? I am seeing the same thing in the U.S. Recently, one program brought in a considerable number of healthy, undamaged men liable for military service. We, too, should be asking ourselves these pointed and unpleasant questions. Because, despite the fact that Ukraine was promised a lot of everything at the recent NATO summit in Vilnius, the West does not understand what is happening in our country. Why are such diffusive movements happening? These are top-priority questions for us. No one will give us the answers to them. Right now, the rebirth of the country is taking place.

Ukraine is a post-Soviet country with all kinds of shortcomings and nuances. Russian propaganda plays on all this.

War, like litmus paper, clarifies everything, from the positive to the negative. That is how it has always been. We inherited many different problems throughout the entire colonial period of dependence on various empires, the most recent one being the Soviet Union. The rebirth of Ukraine is taking place before our very eyes. It is painful and will definitely last some more time.

"Yes, we have joined the global community"

Vasyl Makhno: After 24 February [2022], the U.S. opened its doors in cultural terms to Ukrainian writers, musicians, and artists. This was a sincere exchange of handshakes. As far as I know, leading American publishers eagerly began issuing the works of Ukrainian authors in translation. This increased in arithmetic progression. I always thought that this was a credit. Constantly harping on the topic of the war will not work. And it is not enough. There will come a moment when the Western world will be looking at all these things in a different way; they will approach Ukrainian creativity more selectively. So, the following question arises: What can we, the Ukrainian culture, propose to the world, and to what extent are we ready to join this community? This is about quality. For me, everything that has taken place on the cultural front in this last year and a half has been encouraging. In a certain sense, it is continuing. There are grounds for saying, "Yes, we have joined the global community."

"Prose can make a person think"

Vasyl Makhno: I am optimistic that we can truly be full-fledged participants in the global cultural process. Of course, the war theme will be relevant to Ukrainians for many more years and, obviously, for the world. We should rethink everything that is happening right now. In my view, deeper understanding will come later. Ukrainian prose should deal with this, because prose specifically is the objectivist view. Understanding tragic events in artistic terms is more relevant than mass media. Mass media is information that disappears quickly. I am convinced that artistic creativity is more long-lasting. It provides grounds for reflection. This understanding will help avoid mistakes in the future. We are seeing that wars in Europe appear every thirty to fifty years. The frequency was established back in the days of the Roman Empire. It is difficult to say what the mechanism for avoiding this is.

But I am convinced that fiction can force a person to think and to draw certain conclusions.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk