Yuri Andrukhovych’s acceptance speech for this year’s Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding ruffled feathers in Germany.
Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen,
This speech should be, first and foremost, an expression of gratitude. This is probably the main reason that literary prizes exist: to increase this noble feeling in this world, if only by a small amount. Thus I would like to use this wonderful occasion and your presence in this hall to voice once more my deep gratitude, first of all to those who made the publication of my novel “Twelve Rings” in German translation a reality. I sincerely thank my publisher and my translator. It is only with their help that this encounter between you and me was possible. Secondly, I thank those who took notice of this book, who wrote about it, thus contributing to its fairly wide recognition in the world of German-language publishing. I am deeply grateful to all the reviewers of this novel without exception. Thirdly, I am exceedingly grateful to ordinary readers (although in reality no reader is ever ordinary, thus I beg your indulgence for resorting to this abstract generalization). In sum, I am grateful to all those people who I met and saw over the course of my numerous readings in cities large and small across this part of Europe, to all those who filled the halls where these events took place, and reacted as attentive and sensitive listeners, who laughed, posed questions, and made pencil notes in the margins. And I would also like to thank those readers – far more numerous in number – who I did not have a chance to meet and see with my own eyes, although, I hope, I was able to sense, atmospherically, their emotions and experiences provoked by my text – I am tremendously grateful to all of them.
Of course, I would like to thank the city of Leipzig and the organizers of this prize, which is all the more valuable to me because its title combines two notions that have always been and remain crucial for me: the first of them Europe, the second, understanding. I should also thank the Jury of this prize for judging my efforts so positively, and paradoxically deciding to award this prize of understanding to a work in which one of the key themes is the impossibility of this very understanding.
I am grateful to you, Ingo Schulze, for agreeing to travel with me, for describing this trip, and for turning my attention to things I had never noticed, although I had been looking at them all the time.
I could continue the list of those to whom I am immeasurably grateful for a very long time, for today I am absolutely filled with gratitude.
But my gratitude was recently dealt a serious blow. On February 20, 2006, an interview with Mr. Verheugen was published in the newspaper Die Welt. Mr. Verheugen – let me remind those of you who might not know – is one of the Commissioners of the European Union. It would be insufficient to describe him as an official person – he is a superofficial superperson. In response to the journalist’s question about the future of United Europe he said the following, “In twenty years all European states will be members of the EU, with the exception of the successor states to the Soviet Union that are not yet part of the EU today.”
Mr. Verheugen’s statement had a devastating impact on me. Yet again, I must give up my hopes and allow myself to express what I honestly feel on this occasion. Perhaps this is impolite, perhaps instead of gratitude, I will now start spouting things that are quite offensive. Quite possibly – in fact, most definitely – you are not the audience that deserves this, and this is not the right place to focus your attention on this particular drama. But I cannot not speak about this, it would be dishonest of me not to speak of it. It seems to me that the now erased possibility of a different future, the future that to a large extent gave meaning to my hopes and efforts, is reason enough for this neurosis of mine.
In December 2004, in that miraculous moment between the completion of our Orange Revolution and the repeated round of presidential elections, I was offered the opportunity to address the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The essence of my speech was a plea to the parliament and the European community at large to help a certain cursed country save itself. I told them roughly what I was hoping to hear: that Europe was waiting for us, that it couldn’t do without us, that Europe would not be able to realize itself fully without Ukraine. Now it is finally clear that I was asking for too much.
Since then, fifteen months have passed and I have spent two thirds of this time among you. That is – forgive my sarcasm – in Europe. During this time I gave dozens of interviews, agreed to participate in dozens of debates, round tables and even more literary readings. In these public appearances I became the re-broadcaster of a single idea which wasn’t really that absurd – the idea that we too are in Europe. These five words are a quotation, first formulated at the end of the nineteenth century, one hundred and ten years ago. With these words the writer, essayist, and translator Ivan Franko wanted to draw the attention of thinking Europeans to the intolerably marginalized, outsider position of the Ukrainians of Galicia and of the Ukrainians generally. This is a rather painful statement, just listen to it: We too are in Europe. A lonesome call in the dark.
So, one hundred and ten years have passed, and the need to re-broadcast this slogan is still there; in fact, it has become greater. I tried to take every opportunity to talk about it, because your assistance to this cursed country in whose language I write and explain myself is of vital importance. And this assistance need not be fantastically difficult, it consists merely of one thing: not to say things that kill hope.
As it turns out, all those dozens of speeches were a waste. Perhaps I was too inarticulate and soft-spoken. The European understanding did not take place.
Something else took place instead: the visa affair. It turned out that in Europe too, all means are justified to win an election. In this particular case,it was a large-scale attack by right-wing politicians on their opponents, which resulted in no great losses to either side but rather the formation of a shared government. It was only a third party that suffered losses here, a party to which nobody gave any thought – Ukrainian society, which from now on, will be a red danger signal in the average German subconscious. Equally regrettable is the fact that not a single German intellectual spoke up to question the logic of this campaign. Not a single writer, philosopher, or scholar questioned the representation of Ukrainian society as a bunch of criminals and prostitutes, desperate to enter the sacred Schengen territory in order to ruin the well-being and safety of its well-established inhabitants. Of course, I am ready to apologize a hundred times to anyone here who tells me that I missed something and that in fact, such voices did speak up. But I fear I won’t be given the occasion to apologize.
Yes, I was saying something that was not being heard. My sojourn here among you is coming to an end, and I return to Ukraine with just one answer to my central question, the one formulated so unambiguously by Mr. Verheugen.
You may well have noticed that the word “Ukraine” was never spoken during his interview. Things were put in general terms: “the successor states to the Soviet Union.” But only in Ukraine did this remark evoke such a dramatic response. It is everywhere, in news headlines and Internet banners, it is being reproduced and analysed, first and foremost by the political revanchists, by the anti-European forces bankrolled by Russia, by those who held the reins of power yesterday and now call themselves the opposition, even though they destroy demonstrators’ tents and set their opponents’ cars on fire in exactly the same way they did when they were the powers-that-be: insolently, brutally, and with impunity. In fact, they are already celebrating victory: what a destructive blow to the president and his European dream, what an occasion for mockery at the very notions of European choice, European integration and democratic values! There are also those outside Ukraine’s borders who rejoice at this: the Russian Internet is flooded with headlines like “UKRAINE HAS BEEN SHOWN ITS PROPER PLACE.”
It is fully understandable why things are happening this way. For it is entirely clear who Mr. Verheugen had in mind when he said “the successor states.” In the former USSR there is only one country with a European dream. And a year ago, it believed, as did I, that it would be understood.
But it turns out that in creating a miracle, we did not change anything.
The only thing we are being offered instead of the prospect of Europe is a simplified visa regime. As far as I understand, the simplification is going to consist of bribing the country’s elite, whose members will possibly be allowed to receive a single Schengen visa valid for five years – isn’t that wonderful! For the remaining ninety-nine percent of non-elite Ukrainians, this simplification is going to turn into a complication, indeed an insurmountable one. For them, new visas are being prepared, costing twice as much as before and utilizing – what do they call this? – biometric criteria. The European Union chooses the Bush method of self-defense: it demands fingerprinting. Yes, fingerprinting – as befits the criminals and prostitutes of this world! The visa affair continues to reverberate, and the cordon sanitaire is tightened and extended. Exactly the opposite of what I had hoped for, is taking place, the opposite of European understanding. Alas, by 2007, dear Ladies and Gentlemen, I will not be able to come visit you at to your invitation – because I am not going to subject myself to fingerprinting for the sake of such a visit. I do not like the presumption of guilt one bit and I am not going to pander to it. Please don’t think that this is a threat: I understand that my refusal is more likely to be a loss for me than for you. Or perhaps it will be a loss for all of us?
In fact, I’m not asking for that much: let Ukrainians travel across Europe unhindered, if only because they too are Europeans. In other words, let them also enjoy Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the one about the freedom of movement – on the basis that they too are human, even those among them who may have eight fingers and a third eye in their stomachs. Let them simply get in a car, board a train, get on a bicycle – and set out westward, legally and freely. They are not going to ruin anyone’s cities, or destroy cultural monuments, please believe me. And they are not even going to ruin the job market; it is sheer nonsense to think that they could ruin anyone’s job market!
In the meantime, I am overflowing with negative suspicions and hypotheses. I know these suspicions are tactless at the very laast, but I cannot help myself. For example: perhaps Europe is simply scared? Perhaps it is scared of Europe, of its very self? Perhaps it closes itself off from us for the very reason that we took its values too close to heart, that these values have become ours? For in reality, this Europe could not care less for these values these days. The main thing it wants is not to change. Is this incapacity to change that it secretly nurtures, its highest value?
Honorable Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends, today I would like to invite all of you to join me in the struggle against this incapacity. I suppose that ninety-nine percent of Europe is comprised of various Verheugens, but I have not lost faith in the remaining last one percent. It is very important for me to know that it does exist. For, as always, I am left with having to start, once again, from scratch. I am left with having to recognize that all my previous novels were simply horrible, and I should start working on a new one. I am left believing that despite the above-mentioned ninety-nine percent, writing books can indeed change this world; it can even change Europe. I am left with being grateful, all the same. Perhaps you did not hear me or did not really understand me, but you tried. Of course, I am grateful to you for listening, despite my convulsive movements and not entirely convincing gesticulations. But first and foremost I thank you for this occasion – the opportunity, for the first time in my life, to address you with all the bitter openness that has grown inside me during these fifteen months between Strasbourg and Leipzig.