Three roles for the arts in Donbass

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Essay by Alexander Prokanov

Izborsky Klub

March 2, 2015

Translated from Russian by Tom Winter

Nikita Mikalkov is getting ready for a trip to Donbass with his celebrated film Burnt by the Sun, to show it to the tormented and weary civilians of Donbass’s cities, who have yearned for the artistic: and this gift is little less than the humanitarian convoys of bread and medical supplies, because, as you know, man does not live by bread alone.

Our legendary singer Joseph Kobzon sang in Lugansk for people who have grown weary of the whistle of bullets and bursts of shells, and now, they have heard another kind of music, that inspired in them the idea that there might be another, a different life, a different country, a different relationship among people, filled with nobility, light, and with love.

Our writers have been visiting and continue to visit the Donetsk Basin. Zakhar Prilelin has been there, and Sergei Sharganov, and Vladislav Shurygin. They have been at the battlefields, they have met with the heroes; they have opened their notebooks, they have drawn from life the future characters that will fill their novels and novellas.

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The photographs of our journalists, and photo-correspondents from the magazines and newspapers, have been truly remarkable. These reporters stayed in New Russia months on end, through the entire season of combat. They filled pages of newspapers and photo-exhibits with amazing photos, amazing portraits of these people. Their faces, covered with dust, gunpowder smoke, bearded, their eyes, weary, life-lightened. Eyes like we have seen only in the times of the Great Patriotic War. And in those eyes shone unparalleled faith, unparalleled sadness, yet with a clear light that makes these faces into images — as if these photographers were using their cameras for drawing the icons of the saints.

And the television journalists, what are they doing? They filled the ether for the whole year with great reportage that generated a whole new genre, a new aesthetic. And this wasn’t simply a matter of recording bombarded apartments or burning buildings, or airports trembling from the shots and shells and mortars. They created a new landscape, the realness of which was backed up by their being there.

We have seen them as they ran across, ducking bullets, when alongside them shells blew up, and they confirmed the accuracy of their footage with the risk, and yes, sometimes with the loss, of their own life.

The artist’s role, embedded in this war, so cruel, uncertain, still unsettled, is manifold and many-valued. If, in Igor’s Expedition there had been no writer or artist, we would not have The Ballad of Igor’s Campaign [best known in the west through Alexander Borodin’s opera, Prince Igor]. If Veregashin, the great muralist, had not followed the Skobelevsky campaign,we would never have known about this war — amazing, exotic, and brutal in Central Asia, where Russian troops stormed the Khiva and the Bukhara, and later fought in the Balkans for the Shipka, for Plevna. And had it not been for Victor Nekrasov, we would not know the truth of the Stalingrad trenches, nor have his book In the Stalingrad Trenches.

And Tolstoy! It is thanks to him and his Sevastopol Sketches, that the course of the Crimean War has entered our literary, artistic and moral record. The second task of the artist, of the portraitist, the writer, to give thought to this war, chronicle not just its heroism, but its worldview, its ideology, its ethic, its religion, to enrol the war in the coordinates of world ethical history, set it in among the categories of good and evil, belief and disbelief, and heroism or despair.

And finally, a third role, the third part for all today’s artists who are in the Donetsk Basin and stand shoulder to shoulder with the fighting militia: This role is for a future. It will not always be a matter of tanks and their cannons, and the burning homes; it will not always be a matter of one part hating and shooting at the other in this frantic civil war: This is inevitable: there will be peace, brotherhood, and the love between Ukrainian and Russian people will be restored.  And this deep, bitter chasm — dug by Kolomoisky and Poroshenko with the help of their monstrous, clunky milling machine — that has chopped apart one people from another, this moat, this gap, will get filled in. Because only artists can grasp the subtle threads and anew, reconnect them into a continuous tissue, uniting fraternal culture and fraternal people, and there, where not long before there was an open black pit, again, flowers, flowers of the prairie, will bloom.

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