The interpreters grip their notebooks, terrified someone might speak out of turn, as the delegations of forty countries take to the chamber of the Scottish Parliament. The room is vast and the journalists that perch in its upper levels can, from my side, hardly be seen – it’s why they’ve hung the plasma screens from the roof, where the Prime Minister’s face now appears. And he isn’t the only prime minister in attendance, whether virtually or hanging around the lunch tables, but as I scan the faces, a gavel is struck and the chamber goes reluctantly quiet.
Of all the speakers on Ukraine, most striking is novelist and poet Oksana Zabuzkho. The author of her country’s most controversial books, among them Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, was always likely to be direct. Haranguing her audience, chastising politicians imagined and present, she shakes the chamber by its lapels. She has brought slides: the mosaics and gilded dome of a church, in pieces. She lingers on the first victims of the Bucha Massacre, that is, the town intellectuals, their mayor and professors. The undertone is not subtle: if it were here, it would be all of you. There can be few fence-sitters by the time she returns to her seat.
Our attention is drawn from the podium to the gallery. Sitting at a microphone, eyes closed, is a woman with her instrument. Her voice is enough to drop the jaws of the delegates around me, to wake anyone who might have been resting their eyes. It is laced with the pain and defiance of a language which every attendee now feels they understand. Maryna Krut, performing under KRUTЬ, is a virtuoso of Ukraine’s national instrument, the bandura. A relative of the lute, the bandura has a history of rebellion of which Maryna, with her concerts so close to the front line, is the most recent chapter. Suppressed by Alexander II and Stalin, today it is menaced by another tsar. When I meet Maryna later in an empty function room, I’m told that she’ll require an interpreter, but, as we sit, she waves away the support. She points to the phone in my hand and laughs,
I record my songs like this.
That's no bad way to do it. I wanted to start by asking about the history of your instrument.
What I know about bandura? First it was kobza, a small instrument with not so much strings. In bandura, sixty-five. Kobza was eight to fifteen strings: like three guitars. [Laughs.] So guys who played this instrument travelled from village to village, playing their songs and talking about everything – about the news. So it was like newsreaders, you know?
Soviet Russians didn’t like this. Sometimes the news said something… not comfortable for government. And because of this, in the 1930s, there was the genocide of the kobza players. Stalin invited them to a fake conference. The instruments were burned and the players were killed. Up to one thousand people, historians say.
Outside music, you’re also a poet.
We have Oksana Zabuzhko here! [Laughs.] There is a big difference between my writing and her poetry. I only write lyrics to my songs. I’m not a poet.
Then tell me about your lyrics. Your songs range from the historic, as in your music about Chernobyl, to the personal. How do you choose your subject?
Now my life is in two parts: before war and after war. After war, I write about Ukraine. Today’s song title is Воля: liberty. Normally I close my eyes when I play, but today when I opened my eyes I saw one, two, three, four, five people cried. Because a lot of pain. I’m sorry that this song is not translated in English.
But the meaning is clear from the way you perform it, even without translation.
I know my English is not much good, but more important is what people feel when you speak. Emotion! Emotion, no? And the same thing for music. Today many people tell me they want to cry at my song. Why, when they don’t understand lyrics? But mood. Atmospheres. This is deeper.
And it seems like you’ve made the bandura popular for young people.
When I go on stage in China, America, the rest of Europe, people don’t know this instrument. But when I play for Ukrainians, there is, like, wall. And that wall is the history of the Soviet Union. Last century, the Soviet government made the bandura player… more Sovietic, more propaganda. So Ukrainians think, Oh my god, a bandura player? This is so boring! This is not sexy.
But bandura is so sexy. Really. Bandura can be popular. It can be a young person’s instrument. It can be for our time too.
What do you think is your role as an artist at war?
They came to our country and want to kill not just our bodies and soldiers, but our culture. That’s why I need to sing and scream about Ukraine. Sometimes sing, sometimes talk, and sometimes scream.
Two weeks ago, I was in Donetsk. My first concert was thirty kilometres from the front line, my second was twenty, my third was ten. I’ll show you a video. [Takes out phone.] Can you hear this or no? Those are bombs in the background. Every minute.
And what can artists in the UK do to support those in Ukraine?
I’m just scared that people forget about Ukraine. Because after six months, it’s the same bombs, the same shooting, and the same people dying. The same, the same. I was there and… for your questions, I don’t know. Collaborate with Ukrainian artists. We have a powerful voice that we didn’t have before. Ukrainian artists have a powerful voice because we love our country so much.
Maryna follows her manager to the hall where the conference has gathered for canapés. The open arms, the so-long-since-I-saw-you’s, and underneath the small talk, the large print of agreements. It is a state of conversation that Oksana Zabukho would, quite understandably, rather not be drawn from: considered the leading Ukrainian writer of her generation, her time is in demand. Besides, there is an ancestral distrust between writers and interviewers, and at first she looks at me aslant, not quite amused. As if to tell me, these questions had better be good.
Your father was a translator from Czech.
How do you know?
[Laughs.] I do research, you know.
You’ve done your homework.
A little bit. I wanted to know your perspective on languages and exchange. Why do you feel it is important, especially at a moment like this?
I think it’s crucial. I appreciate that you’ve raised this matter, as you were born in the language that the whole world speaks. I’m at the opposite extreme of this scale. I master more or less four languages well enough to give interviews and write essays, but this was not my choice. It was necessity. I was born in a language that was endangered even in its native territory.
When you are born in a language mastered by no one beyond a handful of your compatriots, of course you have to address the outer world in their languages. It’s crucial to dialogue. And it’s crucial to culture, because culture is about dialogue. This is the agora, where European culture starts. You come to exchange language: there’s no other way to exchange.
Which other languages do you speak?
Russian, Polish. Ok, some English. French and German, though I stopped at the point where I could read reviews of my work and did not proceed any further. Italian… was not good. Then there is my native language. Ukrainian is a language for which its speakers are responsible with their lives and work. As long as you write and speak it, it exists. And at the same time, this somehow helps you to develop an openness… getting into other people’s skin.
In the UK, we hear about the cultural damage of Russia’s war of aggression, but perhaps we understand less of what makes Ukrainian culture beautiful and unique – of what Ukrainians are fighting to preserve.
For this I will need a whole university course. What from Ukraine should be preserved for the sake of humanity? What is our world heritage? Of course we start with Eastern Christianity, with Kiev as the second Jerusalem, something which Putin so much desires to appropriate. Then there is the Cossack Baroque, not much of which survives, due to the Russian genocide which began in the eighteenth century. And a very interesting musical culture which we owe to the Baroque. The bandura comes from there, which is itself a good metaphor for the richness of our culture: what we have made from the lute, with its sixty-five strings. Yes, it is sensuous. Yes, it is rich in colour. Yes, it is southern. In mentality, temperament, sensitivity and culture, we are a Mediterranean nation. We are the eastern Mediterranean.
At the same time, we are a culture of the frontier. The connection between Varangians and Greeks, always a place of dialogue, always combining the two. A very interesting vanguard, unfortunately interrupted by the Stalinist purges. This was the Executed Renaissance of the 1920s, the genocide of elites that preceded the genocide of the Great Famine of the 1930s. It deserves much more attention, not just from specialists but from the broader public.
How do you see the future of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine?
This is more than a war for the independence of Ukraine. It’s a war that is intended to change the contemporary values of our entire civilisation. How people treat nature, our environment, and each other: these are absolutely the same. We are fighting against the archaic, pre-modern, resource-based empire. They are exemplars of a predatory attitude towards everything – every kind of resource, be it natural or human. You come, you take, you devour, and you go further.
That’s the point where I think, unfortunately, the current Russian authorities were able to find full understanding amongst the current Western political class and media. Russia is the extreme of consumerism. A resource-hungry empire is the most grotesque version of consumerism. So it’s time to put a full stop here, if we want to survive as a species. Ukraine versus Russia is just the tip of the iceberg: this is the war of death against life.
It is the last week of August and Edinburgh has alcohol on its breath. Along every curb is the rubbish of a dozen festivals, the bottles and the cans and the fliers filthy and scrunched. A city this beautiful has rarely been less presentable, but as I walk from parliament along the Royal Mile, I feel something – the word isn’t moved so much as shoved. I carry those conversations around for weeks. Like every attendee of the Edinburgh International Culture Summit, I’ve been picked up and shaken by the artists inside Europe’s open heart.