A Revolution of Lost Illusions and Gained Opportunities

Markiyan Ivashchyshyn, one of the student hunger strike leaders on the art of living with dignity

Eight years ago the students on October Revolution Square (now Independence Square) were able to do what three Verkhovna Rada factions failed to do three weeks ago: bring down the government.

Eight years ago the students demanded changes: this October dozens of young people demanded stability and saw the government as its guarantee.

“Even today nobody knows for sure if our hunger strike was worthwhile at all,” says husky Markiyan Ivashchyshyn, a leader of the 1990 student hunger strike in Independence Square, formerly head of the Student Brotherhood and currently chief of the Dzyha art association in Lviv. The man who refused food and sat on the cold granite for over two weeks says on October 17 he celebrates his marriage anniversary rather than another year since the strike ended in victory.

The student revolution of the 1960s in Europe resulted in most of its participants becoming sensible, businesslike yuppies several years later. Yet, they forced the societies and governments of their countries to introduce changes that provided more opportunities for young people’s self-realization.

M. I.: I do not know how beneficial the hunger strike was for Ukraine and its society. As for me, I am in my place now, while many other participants of those events have attained higher status in society.

V. P.: Perhaps, the most important result of the strike is not the resignation of the government and the proclamation of independence, but the fact that the young people today are not staging protests on granite anymore.

M. I.: Sure, the young people today have little romanticism left. But if back in 1990 we had the same opportunities for self-realization as they do now, would we have gone on strike? Now young people are more mercantile, they are interested mostly in making a career and having good professional prospects. Perhaps, it is a different generation; or maybe the system has changed, and they got some room for activity. Now the best students go into business right away.

V. P.: In terms of its psychological impact on society, the 1990 student revolt in Ukraine can be compared with the defense of the Russian White House during the putsch — they both proved it was possible to actively oppose the system and make it change without being punished. Yet, they also made another thing quite clear — to be bold (and even to win something) is much easier than to live everyday life.

M. I.: Initially, everyone was proud of our hunger strike: thanks to it Ukraine became independent bloodlessly and peacefully. However, it turned out that no bloodshed also brought about continuity: Soviet Ukraine remained Soviet, and eclecticism has also remained eclecticism. (Although when Ukraine has been liberated with blood, the same things happened.)

V. P : As we know, revolutions are thought up by philosophers, carried out by fanatics, and their fruits used by scoundrels. The students would have hardly have risked their health and perhaps even careers for the Ukraine we have now. The country today is not at all what we all had hoped for.

M. I.: No, this is not Ukraine, not the one we thought of. What should have happened did not. The worst thing is that we are turning into Latin Americans, into some kind of Bolivia. I am under the impression that soon all of Ukraine’s black soil will be sowed with poppies. The eclecticism of the authorities and business people deprives us of any future prospects.

Every country fights for its own position in the world, but Ukraine is not fighting for anything — it is just a card played by others. Yet, we still have the chance to shuffle the deck ourselves.

V. P: It is obvious that the revolution is over for Markiyan: he is not going to dwell on his heroic past. But could it happen that he will actively protest something again?

M. I.: If somebody forgets that I am still alive and starts stepping on my feet, I will remind them at once, “These are my feet. Keep two meters away from me.” But it will all look different from what I did in 1990.

V. P: And what about protection of more general interests? For example, if the country is dying.

M. I.: If the country were really dying, I would take to the streets because it would also be dangerous for Dzyha.

V. P.: The former rebel joined the party of the power, the People’s Democratic Party (NDP), a few years ago. When explaining his choice of the party, he rejects, as a reason, his intention to take advantage of the situation. Perhaps, it makes sense since the relationship between the Lviv party group and some of the party leaders is far from friendly.

M. I.: After joining the party, we found ourselves in opposition. In Lviv oblast, the NDP lost the election because of the NDP itself. There were orders from above not to let us win.

The worst thing is stagnation. What we have to realize is that everything is so concentrated in one place that there is no economic and political competition whatever. And those who have caused this situation are themselves not developing and are becoming even more primitive.

“The Canary Islands Can Wait”

M. I. God let me be born into a Hutsul family in Rakhiv. It is a completely sealed off, archaic town. In fact, everything stayed the way it had been before the Soviets: the Jews continued to own shops, the Hungarians were involved in some sort of production of their own, and the Ukrainians continued to raise livestock. On holidays, we always had a vertep (a Ukrainian folk theater) going around town, and the authorities did not mind or bother anyone. The vertep was a family business, called “familiya.” For example, there was the Halun family, which consisted of 60 people led by a gray-haired man, from adults all the way down to toddlers.

S. V.: Is the Dzyha art association you head also that kind of “familiya?”

M. I.: Maybe. Incidentally, for next Christmas we are thinking of putting on a vertep with some characters from Bohemian Lviv.

S. V.: Dzyha seems to be an unprecedented phenomenon when compared to Kyiv, which actually does not have a united artistic environment (writers do not meet musicians, and, say, actors do not talk with painters).

M. I.: It was conceived from the outset that we all — writers, painters, and musicians alike — should stick together. After all, there have never been any disputes among Lviv artists; in addition, active artistic life has been going on for the most part outside the official art unions. Today’s youth ignores them as well. We all did not unite accidentally: we are getting close to the end of the millennium, and something has to happen. It will be a major disappointment if these hopes prove vain.

S. V.: Yet, clearly, art does not make big profits today.

M. I.: Unfortunately, our people do not believe that one can make money in an honest way. It is simple: get a loan, invest the money, pay off the debt, make more money, and keep on working. My friends and I have created a self-sufficient, multifunctional company, the main component of which is sewing. We are currently in second place in Ukrainian light industry exports. Two of our members have also taken up publishing. This enables us to also maintain an art gallery.

S. V.: In other words, everything depends on one’s own conscience, because you specifically invest the money earned in art projects, don’t you?

M. I.: We make money ourselves, so we also make our own decisions on how to spend it. Incidentally, our company has its own talisman, painter Vlodko Kaufman. He is not pragmatic at all, but we have made him a cofounder of all our business structures, so that his romanticism does not let us get spoiled by the tough business environment. I have been trying to get rid of a temptation to spend money, say, on a vacation on the Canary Islands. Well, it looks like I won’t go there, so what?

S. V.: Being a businessman, you also act as a producer in Dzyha. Don’t you believe that art, too, can be profitable?

M. I.: I do, and this is why we do not simply spend money but invest it in a promising cause. We just shouldn’t count on quick returns. In the general economic context of Ukraine, Lviv is a very weak city. It does not have much capital, hence, the potential buyers of paintings are very scarce. There is at least a minimal art market in Kyiv, although, clearly, it is dominated mostly by foreigners, by diplomats and the businessmen. The painters themselves are not quite ready for market relationships yet. And Lviv painters are oftentimes simply fooled: someone would see a painting exhibited in the Dzyha gallery, come to the painter’s studio, drink a bottle of vodka with him and buy the painting dirt cheap.

S. V.: As far as I understand, you have a hard time establishing a good relationship with the cultural authorities because of the polarity of your approaches.

M. I.: I believe those clerks have trivial jealousy because we are really doing a lot. Admission to the gallery, where every two weeks we put up a new exhibit, is free of charge, while the authorities cannot put even budget money to good use. The main thing is that all those people are old, not so much in terms of age, but in terms of mentality. They are in a constant hurry to sate their own ambitions, as if afraid that they will not live to see tomorrow come, that they are just some kind of permanent seasonal workers. And we simply think about tomorrow.

Lviv has retained its cultural aura until today. Here, we walk on the cobblestones that our ancestors left for us. At least for this very reason, we also ought to leave something behind for our successors. For this cause, we can do without the Canary Islands for a while. INCIDENTALLY

It seems that eight years after the protesting action took place on the Independence Square Ukrainian students again are in the verge of losing their patience.

Last Wednesday, the Lviv branch of the Union of Ukrainian Students made public its appeal to the President of Ukraine, Verkhovna Rada, and the Cabinet of Ministers enclosing a list of proposals regarding improving social protection for students.

The students specified that “this appeal should be treated as one of the last warnings to the power structures before a possible spontaneous outburst of student discontent.” By Roman Onyshkevych,The Day