«They chose their Ukrainness every day in the Russified cities,» – Oksana Mukha about Donbas, concerts for the Army and Ukrainian language

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She has to continue treatment for cancer in Rome, but finds leaving Ukraine a very hard decision. Lviv singer Oksana Mukha has recently organised a tour in support of the Ukrainian Army, and prior to the full-scale invasion, she visited the cities in Ukraine’s east to perform for the military. In this interview, we talked with Oksana about patriotism and emigration, the transformations in Ukrainian show business backward from Russia, and the language as a weapon.

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Recently, you took a small concert tour to collect money for the Armed Forces. It was Kyiv, Ternopil, and Lviv...

Uzhhorod and Ivano-Frankivsk were supposed to be there, too. But the situation with the bombing escalated, so we postponed the concerts to April.

How was the tour, was it successful? What are your impressions?

In my opinion, everything we do, even a small step, is successful because it’s more than nothing. Yes, we wanted five concerts, but three of them took place, which is more than half. So, this is a victory. We haven’t counted the money we’ve accumulated yet, but it’s a good amount. [Artist] Mykola Strus gave us his works for an auction in support of the military. Four of his paintings went under the hammer, people competed nicely, the diaspora got involved too. I offered my books and CDs to people, and they also competed for them actively. Other three small works of mine – two painted lambs made of leather and one bird of happiness – I put my love into them in my free time during the treatment [of cancer]. And one more part of the funds was from ticket sales. It’s not all as joyful as we see in the hall. People are worried, excited. We have no right to complain about them because everyone cares about their life and safety. Still, there were many brave people. The boxes were filled as well. They also had extraordinary blue-yellow bracelets, woven from threads by children of the Lviv region. These are mostly not native Lviv residents, there are also many refugees. Each bracelet had an inscription: the child’s name and age. This is very touching! People took these bracelets as a memory, this children’s hope and love, and donated money to the boxes. It was organized by the charity foundation «With an Angel on the Shoulder».

Read also: «Got up – think how to help the army,» – Serhiy Prytula about volunteering, corruption and distancing from the Russian culture

On October 27, we completed everything in Ternopil. We will summarize, report and decide where to direct these funds. By the way, yesterday there was a phenomenal case: a military man fought for my bird at the auction and chose it. It’s just something incredible. When we asked him to come down for it, his wife and daughter came, because it turns out that he was on crutches. That is, a military man, who is physically unable to defend himself, tries to provide support in this way. We will contact him, look for his comrades and find out how to help them. Our nation cannot be defeated!

Do you have to go back to Rome after that?

Yes, because I have to continue the treatment.

What feelings will you leave with?

I want to be here, at home. I honestly admit that even with those sirens, it’s psychologically calmer here. You know, there is a saying «the devil is not as scary as he is portrayed.» It is so difficult to go through all this from a distance, especially since my son remains here – this is his conscious decision. He is 13 years old, an adult boy, I respect his opinion and see that here are his friends, home, and that he is fine here. It’s hard for me to leave him and my parents. I haven’t had time to see my friends while I’m here. In fact, I was gone for a long time, and I did not have the opportunity to return since February...

I’m going because I have to. I have to live. I have to win my right to life. And I think that between therapies, I will try to do some activities in Europe. Our diaspora is always active, so I will ask for help and support for our Armed Forces.

Several years in a row have been difficult for all of us, especially for you...

Everyone has suffered because of the pandemic. It is very difficult for people of art because they work in the realm that comes after bread and comfort. That is, a person has a place to live, something to eat, and only then does she need spiritual nourishment: beauty, flowers, movies, songs, and books. There is such a thing that people, getting their daily bread, immerse themselves in routine, look below their feet, and it’s difficult for them to look up. It’s a pity... 

Read also: «Russian culture should be temporarily put under the lockdown,» – Ostap Slyvynskyi

Creative people suffer tremendously in this situation. Although, as we can see, all volunteering depends on them. All events where people gather are supported by creative individuals. They are accumulators, and they should be supported. Please, don’t forget that if you don’t support them now, then later, they simply won’t have anything to feed themselves! They change professions, start doing other things, because they have to live. However, everyone wants all the stars to look as if they just came down from heaven – beautiful, with good thoughts, filled with emotions, producing beauty... But it has to be drawn from somewhere. If they deliver Glovo, work on a construction site, then their emotional and spiritual component changes, and they lose their talent. Therefore, it is desirable that those people who developed so beautifully in creativity, still do not leave it.

Shortly before the start of the war, you toured the eastern regions of Ukraine. Was there a feeling that this audience would gather there?

There wasn’t any. On the contrary: I was very happy to see so many beautiful Ukrainians. It was a tour for the military, and we had the full halls. We gathered more than 100-200 soldiers in each city. But there were also «Plast» scouts, who I did not expect to see at all. I did not know that there are scouts in Mariupol and Severodonetsk. The whole hall sang, people came with flowers. They knew each other and communicated between themselves. It seems that in each city, there is such a small Ukraine, Ukrainians are united. 

Here, in the west of the country, it’s not difficult to be Ukrainian. Let’s put it this way: it’s difficult, but it’s nothing like choosing your Ukrainianness every day in the Russified cities. Without support and understanding, they keep their line and beliefs. When I found out that Mariupol actually became a mass grave, what happened in the drama theater where we used to have a meeting – it was a shock, these people were in front of my eyes... Until recently, I returned to them with thoughts: where are these children, these beautiful children? 

Recently, I went to visit friends in Yaremche [the town in Ukraine’s western Ivano-Frankivsk region] and met there a woman from Severodonetsk. She is a «Plast» scout who moved there to live. It’s just that the Lord gave me reassurance that I met at least one of them. Such a meeting is phenomenal, not accidental. It’s exactly what I needed. We have talked, reminisced... Of course, the emotions were special. Mariupol remained in the memory as extremely romantic, bright, with many children with mothers, hugs, and happiness in the air. Beautiful flower beds, clean benches, peace and joy. And now, all this is gone…

Read also: The military are afraid to take cars from volunteers. A follow-up interview with Sviatoslav Litynskyi 

There was a special situation in Lysychansk, it is more difficult there. We went there to our brigade. We were shown a grave where a soldier died, and a medic rescuing him was shot by a sniper from a building. Our soldiers were so annoyed that they hit so hard from the tank that demolished that sniper along with the building. A monument to these two was erected at that place. Some people from Lysychansk come, bring flowers, burn candles, pray for their souls, while others... pour paint at it. All satellite antennas are turned towards Moscow. I did not see this, a military officer drew my attention to it. I wouldn’t even think about it. The houses are covered with slate. People walk and look under their feet. When people are happy, they smile, look at something beautiful, not the ground. This is Lysychansk…

Read also: «Information war is the only one in which we totally lost,» – Serhii Haidai

Have you become a part of the Ukrainian show business?

I cannot because I’m not up to it, perhaps. Maybe I have a slightly different perception of the world, maybe I’m not as good as they are, or probably I don’t need it. Haven’t decided yet, I’m just following my heart as it suits me. I want to sing these songs – and I sing them. It would be right, probably, to have a producer who should be involved, because a performer cannot do this, just as she cannot write songs or sew clothes for herself. Because it will be for himself with his own tastes, it is for a very close family circle. And if professionals do it, accordingly, you can go public, because these are people who see the big picture and can help you have a wider audience.

I go as I can, no one produces me, no one pays me, I have no sponsors. I have nowhere to take funds for some huge fantastic clips, although it’s nice and necessary. My fate is a little different. But the songs I sing are eternal. And we, unfortunately, will not hear them from our pop stars.

One can sing songs in Ukrainian, but will they always be Ukrainian? At the beginning of the war, I had a meeting in a Lviv coffee shop and heard very Russian music. Called the waiter to find out why we should listen to this. He replied that it was Ukrainian rap. What to do with it, or does it not matter?

I think it is difficult to evaluate such things now. I understand that there are different people, they have different tastes. Someone needs it. There are people who do not accept this kind of music, they need something else. There should be a different spectrum to satisfy every listener, but it should definitely carry decent Ukrainian-language content. We will renounce what is «behind the fence» [in Russia], we will stop looking there and motivating ourselves with one or another trend. After all, our variety show has developed to this day – with an emphasis on Moscow, which is modern and fashionable. I don’t want to offend anyone, but this is a fact. I hope that not only the language of the songs will change, but that a natural desire to learn Ukrainian will come. To get to know the Ukrainian song at its root, from folk songs, to feel and understand its melismatics, melodiousness, harmonious combination with nature – this is what opens the Ukrainian folk song to the world. The extent to which a man lived closely with nature, with God.

Read also: «We’ve lost a million dollars because we gave up Russia» – musician Taras Topolia

These performers, who are now starting to adjust – they are trying to adjust to the situation. God willing, Ukrainian-language songs will appear among them and, I hope, they will stop singing their Russian-language content. Everyone has something to sacrifice.

In 2019, you were awarded the title of Honored Artist of Ukraine. What does this mean to you?

It’s nice that my existence in our Ukraine was noticed, thank you! For me, it’s a pride that I did something, and it was worth it. But, unfortunately, we see how today, the government scatters orders – the Order of III degree to Kozlovskyi [Vitalii Kozlovskyi – Ukrainian singer from Lviv], and those who are «behind the fence» receive titles, becoming «People’s» and «Honoured» artists... No, I don’t want this title, I don’t wish to be like them. The authorities absolutely levelled these ranks and this title in general. 

On the other hand, this is a kind of Soviet trend, some medals, like: «You’re obedient, sit down. Mark 5 of 5!» Well done, keep going.» Actually, I don’t work in order to be given that five, to be given some kind of medal. I’m grateful, I don’t want them to think that I’m disrespectful, I’m glad. But I go my own way without demanding it, I live without it.

Then, the question is: for whom is the artist «honoured»? If for the people, then should this issue be brought to a referendum, and if before the government, then before which one specifically? If he is honoured for Poroshenko, who awarded you with it, then not for Zelenskyi? These are the vestiges of the Soviet system.

I will explain to you what the procedure is. Everything is quite simple: a person works, acquires creativity, produces creativity, records CD albums, has a certain number of solo concerts, and has sufficient baggage. Then he can be an «honoured» artist, but if he has five concerts – then not. Here the question of the experience of this or that performer is what he has earned, what he has in his baggage, what is left to people, and what he is worthy of. It does not depend on the government. If this program is started, who to give [the title], who to take it – then it does not matter who comes, he will still look at this paper and sign it if this person really deserves it. But we know how to do it in a strange way. When we see people who have received merit, it does not enter our minds. The person was in Russia, earned money in Russia, and brought money here from there. It was such a combined organism. The already mentioned Kozlovskyi – I can’t stand it, it’s a spit in the soul from our current president.

Maybe, Putin is to blame for everything? As soon as he is gone, somehow everything improves a bit...

There is always someone to blame, but not ourselves [Smiles]. Recently, I really liked one post on Facebook by a man from the east of Ukraine. This text may help other Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The terrible expression – a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. For me, you are either Ukrainian or not Ukrainian. And Russian-speaking... it somehow breaks the Ukrainianness. That post is like a confession that he is the cause of the war: he called the «Russian world» here, in his 33 years, 30 of which were spent in independent Ukraine, where the only state language is Ukrainian, and he spoke Russian. 

Read also: «We have to completely push aside the Russians, whether «good» or bad,» – film critic Kateryna Slipchenko

But then, he has a question for the state: why is his name and surname written in two languages ​​in the passport? The state itself threw us this bone so that we would gnaw on it and constantly have questions for each other. I think our current president also went with the attitude of «what’s the difference?» I will never forget this saying in my life. Now, everyone understood «what a difference is.» And, of course, the current government is obliged to act as it does. Not because it wants to, but because it «doesn’t have the way out», because people stood up and said: «If you try to do something inappropriate now, so that we have to give in – we won’t allow it!» Why won’t the Muscovite come here, to the west? Because he will not show his nose here, he will be shot from every window.

Do you think this war would’ve been avoided if Ukrainians had understood from the very beginning that they were Ukrainians?

I’m not a politician, unfortunately, and I am not ready to answer such questions. I can definitely say that our people aren’t mature yet. I have to admit this. That is, they are under the influence of the mass media, TV series made in advance, with which they fueled their love for the current president. He is a wonderful actor, and he is doing a great job, especially now, I really take my hat off. We understand that in the first place there is a team, not the president, decisions are not made alone. This is my personal feeling. Once again, I am not a politician, but I can say my opinion and what I feel.

Read also: «Wars begin due to the lack of nurture,» – Solomiya Chubai

Who will be with us next, what will be the choice – again, it depends on us. Because if we continue to go to advertising, grab for a cool commercial, we will have some such things again. The most important thing is after the victory, and it will come. God grant that it will be as soon as possible so that we do not turn – and we slowly do – into a certain personality cult. If in the survey about the most popular people he is in the lead in our country... after Taras Shevchenko – then, in my opinion, this is a little wrong.

Does it bother you?

It does. It is the king who appears. What worries me the most are people who were against Poroshenko and did not allow anything bad to be said about Zelenskyi, but poured a bucket of crap on Poroshenko. It is wrong. Everyone has the right to say, if he sees improper actions, he has the right to speak about it. Why despise him immediately?

Isn’t there a backlash when people hate Zelenskyi simply because he is Zelenskyi? It’s hard to forget.

That’s why the situation is like this.

But if we talk about Poroshenko, I also sometimes think that the nature of such hate is irrational.

I will say this: no one is a saint – neither one nor the other. We never know what it would’ve been like if Petro Poroshenko was a president, if we hadn’t started. And we don’t know how the situation will end now under the current president. What I know for sure is that the president should be a Ukrainian who perfectly knows the history of Ukraine, and does not discover it for himself during the war, a person who sincerely loves this land and is very fair.

In the first reading, a law has already been passed stating that one will have to pass an exam to acquire Ukrainian citizenship. Not sure if all current citizens meet this minimum. From the very beginning, Ukraine has had a failed humanitarian policy, people don’t know their country’s history and culture well and do not trust it. That is why there is a temptation to say «what’s a difference?» Saying, we won it back, we are well done, and we’ll find solutions later..

...and then, in this general euphoria, we can easily lose everything. Therefore, now we need to blow even on a cold one and see what is offered to us, so that there is no confusion of concepts. These double standards always bother me. 

Should I take the citizenship test? First of all, you need at least to know language and know the basics of Ukrainian history. But the real one, not «brought up» in the East – who comes from where, who was born by Russia, who is whose brother, or sister. It is necessary to lay out everything on the shelves for our people. I dream that teachers of the history of Ukraine would be fans of their profession, teaching children to present this history correctly. It’s not that children become uninterested. They must be delighted, because this is our dignity, our strength.

The first thing the Russians do in the occupied territories is to destroy our monuments and bring their Russian teachers, they do not trust those who are left and show their loyalty. It has been like that already in 1939-1945. Even in the Lviv region, during the decade following the Second World War, imported teachers were those who had an almost exclusive right to teach. Only then, gradually, locals were allowed to do it...

In my family, it happened that a Ukrainian woman and a Russian man got married. He taught the history of Ukraine. You can imagine how he taught it... We have to be very categorical now, because this number of innocently murdered people deserves our maximum involvement and drastic steps. Even if it’s inconvenient, these steps must be done. The teaching staff must be professional and carefully selected. They must not only know, but also have skills. I would very much like our teachers to have quality pay to be interested in teaching, because they educate our children! Teachers are priority, as well as doctors. These bribes which we constantly see, these envelopes when parents collect money from the class in order to please the teacher – it’s nice but strange, at least. Why do teachers have to organize their own classrooms, new curtains, why do parents have to do it all the time? We did the following: we bought curtains, a TV, replaced the windows so that the children had normal education. But why? We are paying taxes. The law-abiding people – well, not all, but still...

I believe that everything will start from this. If our education system changes now, quality teachers will come. There should be the development of not only general education subjects. Art must be taught at school, musical instruments are a must, because this is the spiritual development of children.

More than 10 million women and children are currently abroad and gain experience of no giving bribes, when there is a certain order, rights and responsibilities. How to bring these people back, or will they return at all?

No one knows. The longer the war goes on, the more likely they won’t return. From my experience gained during the treatment, I understood that it is possible to find some kind of job, friends [abroad]. It is possible to slowly get out of the situation, get back on your feet. Because the longer people have this unwanted evacuation, resettlements – the more chances there will be to take root there. And then, we will lose these Ukrainians.

Won’t patriotism work? Just go back and rebuild your country.

I cannot be responsible for those people. There are those who cannot live outside their land, they will definitely return. People who do not need strength from this land can find it in anywhere else. If they feel comfortable there, we can’t criticize them because it’s just their life, their decision, and we have to respect that. It wasn’t their choice – that’s how it happened, that’s how their fate was. They get out of the situation the way they can. Therefore, please do not disparage any of those who made this or that decision. You made the decision to stay here – honour and praise to you; went abroad – well done, you are saving children; stayed there, did not return – it’s your personal matter. Those who should be here will return.

Nowadays, many Ukrainians often speak Russian abroad. People have lost their homes, are fleeing the war, but are still Russian-speaking...

This is a disaster. Nothing changed in their minds, they just changed their place of residence. I had a situation: I was standing in line for vegetables, and a woman next to me started speaking Russian. I didn’t know who it is, I can’t identify it by the pronunciation because I don’t feel it. For me, Russian is a Muscovite, and that’s it. Sorry, but this is my perception of the language. And I wanted to punch her in the face. I have a feeling that I would strangle her right now. Then I think: «Maybe it’s a Ukrainian woman? That’s just how she talks.» I am angry, it disgusts me to hear this language on a physical level. And how do foreigners perceive us – Ukrainians who speak Russian? It does not enter their heads, they do not understand the reasons for this war. But among us, it turns out, everything is fine, no one even feels ashamed. It seems to me that it is simply embarrassing to speak this language now. It’s not a question of convenience, it should be embarrassing to the point of blushing to speak the language of rapists and murderers. This is not the native language of Ukrainians, it was imposed by force, by death. It was humiliating if you speak Ukrainian, you are Khohol [a derogatory title that Russians use to name Ukrainians], you are from the village, you are nobody. You have to speak Russian, then you’re already a person. Remember your grandfathers, they spoke Ukrainian. So why do you speak Russian, aren’t you ashamed? I understand that the question is convenience. But look at the boys who come back from war without legs, arms, and eyes. There are children who will never see their parents again. There are those who are born and do not know who their father is, and will never touch him. This is an extraordinary tribute. 

Read also: «We’re losing our territory in language,» – translator and linguist Andrii Sodomora

And don’t compare yourself to those who speak Russian in the war. It’s really comfortable for them now. Do not compare yourself to the Russian-speaking Ukrainian warriors. You can often hear: «What kind of language are you defending? Here are the guys on the front line speaking Russian.» But you who say this are not on the front line! It’s a shame, it’s a humiliating excuse that shows the essence of a person. Then go to the front line and continue to speak Russian. And here, in a peaceful city where you don’t hold weapons in your hands, your weapon is language. It’s a matter of life and death, and some people can’t understand it. It’s uncomfortable for them.

How will Ukraine change after this war and in what way?

Live it and see it.

Andrii Saichuk spoke

Text: Marichka Ilyina, translated by Vitalii Holich

Photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi

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