UKRAINIAN PROPHECIES: writer Yan Valetov on the lessons of history, the price of freedom and belief in miracles
Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
How can fiction foresee the future? We will discuss it with Yan Valetov — a famous Ukrainian writer and author of several bestsellers, among which the novel «No Man’s Land» stands out.
When Valetov is called a fiction writer, it doesn’t quite correspond to reality. Since his warning novel turned out to be not much more fantastic than a scientific forecast. The reality of the war between Russia and Ukraine seems to have slipped off the pages he wrote.
This interview with Yan is an attempt to understand the nature of literary prophecies.
THE WRITER SPEAKS «NOT FROM HIMSELF»
I have never tried to prophesy. Remember the famous anecdote about a man sawing the branch he was sitting on? As he fell down, he asked the one who had warned him, «Damn shaman, how did you know that?»
Everything I’ve ever written has been the result of analysis. It was not always profound because I was talking about things that were all too obvious to me. Alas, it later turned out that they weren’t apparent to everyone. So, it’s not so easy for me to talk about the predictive function of a writer…
You see, a writer doesn’t always write «from himself». Often, someone stands behind his back and, as if dictates — an evil or a good angel. That’s why people endowed with the gift of writing sometimes speak in words other than their own.
Is this a predictive function? Is it a gift of God or a gift of the devil? No one knows! But in any case, I have not met a writer who at least once in his life has not uttered: «I told you so!»
I SAW WHERE THIS WAS GOING
I don’t know how it happened that the novel «No Man’s Land»(1), which I started writing in 2005, became a kind of prediction of Russia’s war with Georgia and Ukraine.
I don’t know how, but many things, like exploding dams, turned out to be predicted pretty accurately. Or Putin’s transformation from «heir» to «emperor»… At the time, it seemed like something out of the realm of possibility.
My spouse is usually my first reader. When she read the first chapters of No Man’s Land, she said: «You must be crazy! What are you writing? Well, what kind of emperor is Putin?».
Now she shakes her head and says, «Who would have thought it?» But even then, it was obvious to me: I observed signs of this «transformation» in 2004 and 2005…
I finished the novel in 2008. And in 2009, the novel «No Man’s Land» won one of the prestigious literary awards in Russia. But in Ukraine, interestingly enough, they refused to publish it.
READING BOOKS IS NOT ALWAYS A PLEASURE
My regular publisher, of blessed memory, Pyotr Moiseevich Khazin, was one of the pioneers of Ukrainian publishing. He said that the novel did not correspond to his perception of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. That was his right — a publisher doesn’t have to like everything you write.
He thought I was hyperbolizing a lot of things. That’s why, as the novel was being written, and it was a big one — as many as four books (!), Pyotr Moiseyevich became less and less willing to publish it. But it was not only Khazin who refused to publish the book at that time — not a single Ukrainian publishing house took the manuscript!
You can understand them: the novel is really very tough, controversial, and scary. To read such things, you need a certain mindset. Sometimes, I hear, «Now I’m going to take your book and start enjoying reading».
I’m pleased when a person likes what I’ve written. But I have a hard time seeing how reading a book like «No Man’s Land» can be enjoyed.
A WARNING NOVEL
Remember from Vysotsky: «But clairvoyants, like witnesses, have in all ages been burned by people at the fires». No one really likes prophecy. And people especially can’t stand it when they come true.
«No Man’s Land» was initially conceived by me as a warning novel. The novella «Aiming Range»(2) was created with roughly the same spirit. I was one of the first to support Maidan-2004. And I was one of the first to be disappointed with its results.
Already at the beginning of 2005, its consequences became evident to me. But I naively believed that I was not the only one… The story described an assassination attempt on the female Prime Minister of Ukraine. Many people saw it as an allusion to the Prime Minister of that time, Yulia Tymoshenko, who, as we know, was imprisoned under President Yanukovych, though not killed, but «only» imprisoned.
But in « Aiming Range», as in the novel «No Man’s Land», I was only describing what could happen, not what will happen with inevitability. If disaster happened, it wasn’t about someone’s clairvoyance but about our collective «blunder».
We were so careless that we didn’t notice the first sprouts of evil. The 2000s were the «good» years for Ukraine; everyone was making money, dividing markets, and arguing about gas prices… Who wanted to hear about the Russian invasion then?
ANNEXATION OF CRIMEA: THE PRICE OF CARELESSNESS
Take Crimea, for example. Who doesn’t understand what will happen if the South Coast of Crimea is deforested and the peninsula is not integrated? We have quietly watched how, for 30 years, those who later supported the annexation were raised there.
We saw how Luzhkov and then Putin came to Crimea. They behave like owners there. Entire neighborhoods were populated with Russian military specialists. This was very different, for example, from the American base in Guantanamo Bay, which is surrounded by a wall with no access to the city.
The Americans have autonomous support without entering Cuban territory. In our country, the entire peninsula has become the base of a foreign country. No wonder it stopped being Ukrainian. It is unclear, though, why the Russian Federation needed the occupation — they could buy everything anyway.
About 70% of large businesses in Crimea were owned by Russians. Until 2014, Ukraine was not embarrassed by it. Therefore, when in 2014, I wrote an article entitled «You and I f… up» again, I did not invent anything. Unconsciously, everyone knew about everything, but for some reason, they did not compare knowledge with reality.
The collective unconscious is not the smartest thing in society. The notions of a «wise nation» are, to put it mildly, exaggerated. The mind of the nation is those who make accurate decisions. But here, unfortunately, we are dealing with negative selection — intelligent people do not go into power. That is why there are no surprises for me concerning the ruling elites either.
WE DO NOT KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH OUR WEALTH
Long before the full-scale invasion began, I warned in my article published in the book «Ukrainian Basics»: either we will learn to cooperate or we will lose another war. Again, this is not a prophecy in any way but an obvious conclusion of Ukrainian history.
We constantly measure who has a longer saber and who is more Ukrainian. Although it is obvious that Ukrainians are a political nation that was formed at the crossroads of civilizations, at the crossroads of trade routes — from the Varangians to the Greeks and the Great Salt Route.
I did a genetic analysis and found blood from 7 different ethnic groups in me and in my wife — 5. And on 3 positions, we did not match with her at all. Our whole country consists of such people — people who do not match. And this genetic, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity is a colossal wealth.
God gave us a beautiful land, a sea, mountains, rivers, and national diversity. But unfortunately, he did not give us an understanding of how to dispose of the wealth we possess.
IF YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO NEGOTIATE? YOU LOSE YOUR FREEDOM!
When I say that it is not the time for us to quarrel and share power, the historical context speaks for me: the situation when Ukraine missed its chance. Ukraine has, unfortunately, a historically established concept — where there are two Ukrainians, there are three hetmans.
Yes, a nation that does not know how to obey is a free nation. However, not being able to negotiate will always cost them their freedom. And this problem from century to century. Because of this, we have a series of bitter failures from Bogdan to Vinnichenko, from Ruins and 1654 to today.
I realize that Petliura and Skoropadskyi represented two completely different projects. But united, they could do what they could not do separately. Then, the Bolshevik invaders would never have been able to seize Ukraine.
YOU CAN NOT BUILD A STRATEGY ON A MIRACLE
Historically, Ukrainian statehood is constantly under attack. Unfortunately, today, one of these blows is being inflicted on it by people whose duty it is to preserve the statehood. I do not see a force that could unite Ukrainians into a single fist. We continue to live in expectation of a miracle when «Our enemies will perish, like dew in the morning sun». But you cannot build a strategy on a miracle.
Strategy is a systemic work; it is the coherence of the state machine, people, and the army. If Ukrainians do not become united as a political nation, the enemy will devour us. They will devour us in a year, in two years, in five years.
And I would hate to see these assessments and conclusions become sad prophecies again.
(1) Yan Valetov’s warning novel «No Man’s Land» was published in Russia in 2008. A year earlier, Ukrainian publishers refused to publish it. The novel describes a world in which the dams collapsed and millions of people parted with their lives in a few days….
A disaster zone, contaminated for hundreds of years to come, in which neither the laws of nature nor human laws operate. The former Ukraine was torn apart by the Western Confederation and the Russian Empire, led by the iron hand of the Emperor of All Russia.
In the east of Ukraine — the Republic is led by the Council of Oligarchs. In the west was the Confederation, headed by the Hetman. And between them — no man’s land, a haven for the rabble, outcasts, and heroes. A place where it is impossible to live but still possible to hope.
(2) Yan Valetov’s short story «Aiming Range» is a bloody thriller about the events of the Orange Revolution of 2004. The author finished the story in August 2005, anticipating the events that played out in the political arena a month later.
Valetov draws a completely unbelievable and, simultaneously, real, recognizable in details and personalizes political intrigue unfolding in Ukraine. The plot of the political detective story centers on an assassination attempt on the female Prime Minister of Ukraine.
This assassination attempt did not happen in reality, but it could have happened… The parallels with one of the then leaders of the Maidan and later Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are self-explanatory.
Photo courtesy of Yan Valetov