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President Yushchenko speaks about Ukrainian traditional values
President of Ukraine Victor Yushchenko was interviewed by Valeriya BONDARENKO about some traditional and deeply spiritual aspects of Ukrainian culture.
Viktor Yushchenko has always been known as a person with high respect for relics from the Ukrainian past, for things Ukrainian, and for everything that has been made “with the heart and for the heart.” When he was head of Bank Ukrayina, he had an ancient Chumak (Chumaks — salt traders in the times of old — tr.) wagon installed in the courtyard of the bank, as a sort of memorial, in his words, “to the first Ukrainian businessmen, chumaks who brought salt from Crimea on their oxen-driven wagons — thus contributing to the development and growth of Ukraine’s economy.”
Of all the places where Mr Yushchenko relaxed when he was prime minister, his favourite was — and is — his dacha outside Kyiv. It is a typical Ukrainian peasant house with the traditional stove; borsch and kasha cooked in its oven are more delicious than any “foreign delicacies.” The Presidential Campaign Headquarters of the Nasha Ukrayina bloc of parties (of which Yushchenko was the leader — tr.) was decorated with four- or five-thousand year old ceramic artefacts of the Trypillya culture, the most ancient civilization on the territory of Ukraine.
Since becoming president, Mr Yushchenko has not changed his habits and preferences. He continues to go to his dacha with his family when he has time — which happens rarely— and pays visits to the studio of the painter Anatoliy Haydamaka, his old-time friend. Mr Yushchenko used to borrow brushes, paints and easel from the artist when he was ill — Mr Yushchenko, though under the weather, could not remain idle and just lie in bed recovering, so he painted. For the subjects of his paintings he mostly chose episodes from his childhood which he spent in the region of Sumshchyna — his parents’ peasant house, groves, the overcast skies, or the steppe in the evening twilight.
Mr Yushchenko is the first Ukrainian president who takes culture very seriously. He ordered the large territory of the former Arsenal Plant, which is situated across the road from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Monastery, to be turned into a cultural centre, Garden of Ukrainian Culture. A floor space of 20,000 square meters will be made available for exhibits that will trace the history of Ukraine from the most ancient down to most recent times. Collections of Scythian gold and Trypillya culture artefacts from Serhiy Platonov and Serhiy Taruta, patrons of art, Oleksandr Polyshchuk’s collection of Trypillya culture ceramics, collections from many museums of Ukraine and Viktor Yushchenko’s collection will be displayed in this new museum complex. It will likely become a major art centre.
Mr President, your fondness for things ethnographic is well known. It is also known that you not only collect such things but use many of them in your everyday life. Do they have a special significance for you?
They are inexhaustible sources of spiritual energy. All these things carry the stamp of time which man can neither speed up nor halt. We and the history of our nation are reflected in these objects. When you understand this, your attitude to your country becomes much “warmer.” Such items give us our genetic memory. I think that without all our holy symbols — crosses, rings, rushnyky (embroidered decorative towels — tr.), and icons that were used by people for generations, my conception of the world would not be complete.
Which oberih (keepsake, memento or a charm, — tr.) has been protecting you since your childhood?
An icon, the only icon that we had in our house, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was painted in the early twentieth century. It is a miracle that this icon, which was kept at the most conspicuous place in my parents’ house, survived soviet times. My parents were teachers who worked at the local school and they could have gotten in great trouble for displaying an icon in their home, but they never hid this icon from view.
I am fond of Ukrainian folk icons, creations of earnest, naive icon painters who lived by the thousands in Ukrainian villages in the early twentieth century. The simpler their manner of painting, the more evident is the spirit, the state of the painter’s soul. These icons are primitive, too “literal,” and at the same time they are very pure and honest. Even people, who have nothing to do with Orthodox Christianity, can easily understand the spirit of such paintings.
Ukrainian icons are a separate, unique world… No other Christian faith has what is typical for Orthodox icons in general, and Ukrainian icons in particular. Ukrainian icons illustrate the lives of saints and Orthodox values in such a form that they have a really strong impact upon people. If you look closely at Ukrainian icons, you’ll see that the saints are painted not in accordance with the canons. These saints look like real people, most often like the heads of families, or like prominent figures of those times. Village painters prayed while they painted the images of real people, the people about whom they thought, on whom they pinned some hops, about whom they dreamt. And when such icons found their ways into family homes, they became very dear to these families because of the likenesses that real people saw in these icons.
There was a custom to have at home icons of saints whose names coincided with the names of members of the families — St Kateryna, St Mykola (St Nicholas), St Heorhiy (St George), St Ivan (John) the Divine, and others. In this “family way” Orthodoxy came to every family.
Are there any oberehy that are always with you?
Yes, it’s my cross (Mr Yushchenko unbuttons his shirt and reveals a small cross hanging from his neck on a thick string). It was given to me as a gift by friends from the region of Volyn. This cross was found at the Berestechko Field, the place where in 1651 one of the decisive battles was fought by the Cossack troops, led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, against the Polish army. This cross for me is a symbol of all the generations of our ancestors who defended Ukraine in difficult times…
Another oberih is a Cossack ring in the shape of a horseshoe with a cross inside the shoe. It’s more than three hundred years old. And though the ring leaves a dark mark on my finger — but such is a property of copper — I feel very comfortable in it. The ring comes from the region of Cherkashchyna. It is very dear to me — it’s been with me on my visits to the holy places of Christianity — Golgotha in Jerusalem, Mount Athos in Greece, in the Church of St Panteleimon…
What does a feeling of national identity give a person of influence?
It gives self-confidence. That’s the main thing. Also, the possibility, to avoid many problems and mistakes at the executive level. I’m convinced that if all those in power had national dignity, many problems would not simply arise. The roots of most of our problems are in the past… I feel embarrassed that now, at the beginning of the third millennium, in Ukraine we still have problems with the language of our nation. That the recognition of the Famine of 1993 as a fact still meets with a fierce opposition. By the way, some people who oppose the recognition of the Famine (as genocide), have relatives who died in that Famine. It is unfortunate that there are five branches of Orthodoxy in this country who continue to bicker among themselves. There is something humiliating in this for our people in this, regardless of their religion or ethnic background.
So oberehy for you are not just objects which are precious only because they are old?
Anything that has been made by a kind person who puts his or her heart, warmth, joy and prayer into this thing can be an oberih. As recently as a hundred years ago, there was a tradition a tradition in the region of Poltavshchyna — a person who was to start on a long journey, was given a rushnyk with the Tree of Life embroidered on it red on white. And then all the events in this person’s life were blessed by this unique Ukrainian oberih.
Which colours dominate on the rushnyk of the Ukrainian a politics?
Black and red in equal proportions, but we should try hard to have more of the red colour (in Ukrainian culture black stands for grief, and red is the colour of love — tr.) Today, the Ukrainian people are expecting change — in the broadest sense of the word — in life. It is vitally important to determine our basic values, which will become the backbone of the consolidation of the democratic forces. Together with the national traditions, these values will unite us, we who are very different but who are committed to the one thing we all share — our native land.
Trip to the Past, by V. Yushchenko.