Discover Ukraine from an Odesa Perspective
Vladislav Davidzon Talks to Bohdan Nahaylo how a Girl from Odesa in Paris Inspired Him to Create a Magazine, and More
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv.
CULTURE and MUSIC
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Feature Interview: Vladislav Davidzon Talks to Bohdan Nahaylo how a Girl from Odesa in Paris Inspired Him to Create a Magazine, and More
Nahaylo: I’m delighted to welcome today to our discussion focusing on a major theme, Vladislav Davidzon, who is the editor of an exciting new magazine, journal, called The Odessa Review. A lot of people have been very excited by its appearance, because it seems to fill a niche and a need. And at the same time raise standards and set sights and goals for others. More on that later. Vladislav, welcome! Let’s start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself, your background.
Davidzon: Well thank you for having me! I’m an American. I was born in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan in the mid- 1980s, mid to late-1980s, so you can figure out how old I am based on that. I am the grandson of a Ukrainian born citizens, or at that time citizens of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and parts of Romania which are now Ukrainian territories. Two of my grandparents are from here. My only living grandmother was born in Ukraine, and I was born in Tashkent. I grew up in a Russian-speaking household. We moved to America in the early 1990s, where I grew up in the Russian-speaking diaspora.
Nahaylo: But your roots are Jewish, I understand.
Davidzon: Russian and Jewish, yes.
Nahaylo: Russian and Jewish with some connections with Belarus as well?
Nahaylo: OK, so very cosmopolitan but very clued in as very much from this part of the world though now an American. Tell us, Vladislav, how did you get involved with this project?
Davidzon: Well, I was always connected to Ukraine but I became very much a Ukrainian patriot for very simple and almost banal reasons. When I was a student in Paris in my early 20s I met a beautiful and charming Ukrainian girl. And she was good enough to put up with me for several years, and then she became my wife, then I became a Ukrainian patriot! She’s from Odessa.
Nahaylo: Oh, a kind of latter day Roksolana! [The Ukrainian born favourite wife of 16th century Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, who became one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history.]
Davidzon: Exactly right! Exactement! And I started working as a foreign correspondent in Ukraine, in my late 20s, and I worked for various magazines and newspapers. I was Tablet Magazine’s European Culture Correspondent. I worked for the late departed English language Ukrainian television station Ukraine Today as their Paris correspondent for a little bit. They needed someone who spoke English in Paris and my friend Peter Dickinson, who was the head of that channel
Nahaylo: We know Peter, he’s been on this programme recently, and he’s also editor of L’viv Today which was on our recent programme too.
Davidzon: Yeah, and also Business Ukraine. He’s a fantastic guy and a good friend of mine. And he brought me aboard to work with him on Ukraine Today. Then Ukraine Today quickly folded because, you know, that’s the way things are in the world, and occasionally in Ukrainian media. And then Peter and I were sitting around, along with my wife and my friend Hares Youseff, who is my publisher. And we were thinking, this country really needs a journal of ideas, a magazine about culture, about policy, and I underline policy rather than politics, and about ideas. About culture as it’s lived today. There’s far too much politics in Ukraine today. Everyone’s concerned about politics and history all the time but there’s so much fantastic art and literature here in the last three years.
Nahaylo: So you think its politics? Or petty politics?
Davidzon: Well both. I mean all politics is petty politics and all politics is grand, right? It’s not policy.
Nahaylo: There is indeed a lack of a kind of policy, an analytical framework in policy formulation too. Because there’s very little discussion about policy, even in Parliament. Bills appear but there’s no real discussion about the strategic elements.
Davidzon: Yes, about political science, political philosophy, the origins of things.
Nahaylo: Or even the comparative perspective with other countries to put things in perspective, where are we in the scheme of things, lessons learned, best practices, that sort of thing.
Davidzon: Right, I mean you even talk to reformist MP’s. They don’t really even know which side of a spectrum, in a real country with a left-right spectrum, which axis they fall on. They don’t know really know whether they are liberals or conservatives, they don’t think in those ways. So there’s a real gap and we saw it.
Nahaylo: But is the balance more in favour of culture and lifestyle? Or is it going to be, as the journal develops, more on politics and policy formulation?
Davidzon: We’re I think what you would say 80% culture oriented. Culture’s always of course political.
Nahaylo: Certainly in this context
Davidzon: In this country certainly.
Nahaylo: To be Ukrainian, to be Jewish, to be Polish, in this part of the world to be Russian, what does it mean?
Davidzon: Right. What does it mean to be a Russian speaker who is in favour of Ukrainian nationalism and wants nothing to do with Russian irredentism?
Nahaylo: Identifies with Ukraine? People like Kurkov [Andrey Kurkov], right? Who write in Russian, one of the best literary exports, and yet identifies with an independent Ukraine and supports it strongly.
Davidzon: Absolutely. And there are many such people and there’s a lot of culture that’s neither Soviet nor traditionally Ukrainian in any kind of sense.
Nahaylo: So if I understand you right, you’re giving a voice to the political nation that’s being born?
Davidzon: The civic nationalists.
Nahaylo: The civic nationals as opposed to the ethno-centric ones involved.
Davidzon: That’s exactly right I’ve no patience with ethnic nationalism of kind of any sort. I never liked that. I’m really attracted to the cosmopolitan aspect of contemporary Ukrainian culture as is developing where everyone’s bilingual and everyone is starting to learn English. The most interesting things here are taking place in art and in fashion and in literature.
Nahaylo: Right. Now it’s also very interesting — and I would say significant — that you call it the Odessa Review and not the Kyiv Review or the Kharkiv Review. Why Odessa?
Davidzon: Well first of all, my base is there in terms of my family and my reporting. I lived there for a long time and I love Odessa, it’s a fantastic town and it is this place of fabled cosmopolitanism. So if a new Ukraine will work as its supposed to, or as we’ve been promised, or as we’ve promised ourselves that it will work, and I hope it does work – and I’ll do my best just as many other people are doing their best to make it work – its going to look like Odessa. Which is to say multiethnic, cosmopolitan, forward-looking with ties to the outside world, with ties to all these other ethnic diasporas who help out and they come back, and they have a very interesting tradition in terms of remittances, and coming back and keeping kind of mentality.
Nahaylo: A sort of cultural Porto Franco.
Davidzon: Exactly right.
Nahaylo: That’s a very interesting idea and I think it is really a great need for this country. I think it was very, very important of Ukraine during the Maidan and during the Revolution of Dignity. Odessa, at least its elite, its cultural elite, sided with the reformist Ukrainian forces and injected their sense of what it is to be a Ukrainian in the 21st century into this ongoing project.
Davidzon: Yes, it wasn’t apparent that that would have happened to me when I first started coming to Ukraine in 2010-11. When I was reporting from Odessa in 2011-12 it wasn’t apparent that that would be the case in such a situation. Although, I did see already during 2012, before the elections…I had a sense that something bad would happen after the language law because it was an MP from Odessa who signed it [Kivalov].
Nahaylo: Professor, Dr. Kivalov
Davidzon: Right, no comment, but it was apparent that something was brewing and that in some sense all the bad things and all the good things come out of Odessa.
Nahaylo: Yes well it still remains a city of its own, with its own cultural identity, but [with its own approach to] the way things are done, its approach to matters generally. Let’s look at the content now. I have before me two issues – the 8th and the 7th. On the 8th I want to point out to our listeners, who unfortunately can’t see this very, very attractive publication – on issue 8 it says ‘The Odessa Review Journal from the new Ukraine”. It has got Yury Andrukhovych and big poetry, it has got Dzhamala, the voice of Ukraine as articles. It has got a special report on urbanism, it has got Iryna Karpa, an interview. And interestingly it has got a piece on the life and death of Yevgeni Yevtushenko, the famous Russian poet, who had some origins that were Ukrainian. And at the bottom it says “Events, Culture, Business and Lifestyle.” Well, an amazingly good read, fantastic illustrations, graphics, etc., very well chosen. So, as I said at the outset, something that should set new standards. Tell us a little bit about the latest issue that is at the print, as you have just come from the print. Number 9 and 10, what is planned now?
Davidzon: Oh, yes thank you. The ninth issue is dedicated to the film festival, the Odessa Film Festival, which is a fantastic institution that Ukraine should be very proud of. Actually, Ukrainian culture is very festival-centric in many ways that in other countries it is not, that is less of a framework. Festivals are very important here – The Alfa Jazz Festival, all of these film festivals, in the autumn in Kyiv, festivals like Gogolfest. Yes, this is very important here. And there are reasons why that is so, maybe less or more interesting, but the summer’s special in Odessa, and Ukraine has a lot of festivals. We just had two excellent music festivals, and we have the film festival coming up in a week and a half. So we put out an issue for the film festival; we had to prepare people for their visit to the movies.
Nahaylo: My question will be as somebody that is observing the scene as far as culture and cinema in particular are concerned: yes, the festivals have been around for some time now and certainly they are very important. But I think what has been lacking is the content, quality Ukrainian cinematography. And hopefully now that the government has decided, and in parliament, to support the funding of Ukrainian filmmaking, these gaps will be filled. We have seen some really good films appearing. I don’t mean the ones that were expected to be blockbusters, maybe the quieter ones but with more profound deeper themes.
Davidzon: Yes, Ukraine is on the path to becoming the new Romania, in terms of Romanian style new wave film making. Everyone keeps talking about Ukraine being capable of breaking out. But there are a lot of structural impediments to Ukraine breaking out and to being the success story of European filmmaking. But it is absolutely possible and it is true that the government has blatantly got behind that process, you know, a few laws have been passed that are absolutely necessary for backing Ukrainian film production, especially, I mean it is very technical and may be boring for some people, but tax rebates are actually very important. And Ukraine was always falling behind other filmmaking nations, because filmmakers from other countries were not getting the same tax rebates that they were getting from, let’s say, Czechs or the French, when they went to film there.
Nahaylo: It would be very interesting to … the example of Italy, say…
Davidzon: Well, actually France is the direct example. The Ukrainian film industry looks very much like the French film industry in the fact that it is half government-sponsored. The French really have home-grown film production and they really can compete with the English language market, because they put a lot of money into it, because they have government sponsorship and because they have an entire infrastructure of film production plus taxation and everything. They are really serious about it.
Nahaylo: Are you planning ahead for issue ten?
Davidzon: Issue 10 is going to be about literature. And I think you have agreed to have a little piece in issue 10, right?
Nahaylo: I hope so. I hope that my piece will be worthy of such distinguished company that you have, as I said you have [Yury] Andrukhovych, [Irena] Karpa and others in the very last issue that I am holding in my hand. Ok, we will see how that develops. Tell me, among your own personal favorites from the pieces that you have published in the last 8 that we can see.
Davidzon: There are couple things that I am extremely proud of. I am really proud of being the first publication of Sergey Loiko’s “Airport” in English language. Locals are real characters, the book did really well. I don’t know if your listeners know about Sergey Loiko’s “Airport.”
Nahaylo: Just remind us?
Davidzon: You know, it is a novelization by a Russian journalist, who had spent his entire career working for LA Times, about the battle of Donetsk airport. And he went out there and he was with the Cyborgs in the airport. They were under bombardment I think for 4 or 5 days and he came back and he wrote a really interesting novel, a thriller. I think that book sold 75,000 copies in Ukraine, which is quite a lot for a contemporary novel. And we were partners of Ukrainian state for 75th anniversary of Babyn Yar, the commemorations. So, we had a special report in the fifth issue, or the sixth issue was it? Last September, which I was very proud of that we could be involved in that. I am very proud of my relationship for example with a very smart young British Ukrainian Ms Myroslava Hartman, who owns the Triptych art gallery [in Kyiv] She is really bright and a great light of contemporary Ukrainian culture. She is in her mid-twenties but she is so smart.
Nahaylo: And very attractive too, I may add as an observer, and also has the Oxford style and manners…
Davidzon: Patrimony, as we say in Yiddish. She is our arts columnist and she writes a fantastic piece for us every month on arts in Ukraine. She has written about the importance of bringing back the post-communist legacy of Taras Shevchenko. She has written a couple of fantastic pieces for us on various arts festivals. She is just really good. I have been really blessed with really great collaborators.
Nahaylo: Has Peter Pomerantsev contributed yet?
Davidzon: Peter is a friend. I accidentally called Peter on my phone yesterday from Odessa. He was in San Francisco and I accidentally called him. And he woke up at 4 in the morning and said “What? What do you want from me?” But he has not yet contributed.
Nahaylo: So, this is Peter Pomerantsev, the son of the famous broadcasting writer Ihor Pomerantsev. I remember Petia as a young boy, because I was instrumental in helping his father get established on the Western literary scene in London. So I remember him and I am very happy that he has become so established.
Davidzon: Peter, if you are listening, this is a calling out by Mr. Bohdan. He is very talented he owes us an article, right?
Nahaylo: Exactly, I think this is what we are getting at.
Davidzon: But actually, can I just interrupt, actually a lot of very good people have to write for us I think because they really like the project. We had Simon in the first issue. And you know he does not owe me anything. People like that do not owe me anything. My friend Adrian Karatnycky writes for me, Kateryna Smagliy of the Kennan Institute writes for us. I think a lot of people write for us for almost nothing compared to what they are worth, to what other people can pay them. Because they like our journal and I am very, very, very proud of that.
Nahaylo: You are finding enough Ukrainians from Ukraine that know English well enough to write for you, or do you commission pieces that you translate?
Davidzon: About 60% of our pieces are written by locals, in fact. So, as an editor I have to do a lot of rewriting. When pieces come in Ukrainian or Russian, we have them translated. I think some people like my friend Peter Zalmayev, who is fantastic and who lived for a long time in States, writes very well, has a great style in English. They can write in English. People like Adrian Karatnycky can write in English, people like Myroslava Hartman can write in English. When people can’t write in English just because they haven’t spent half of their live in English-speaking country, we help them along. So, if any young people are listening to this, I am really always open to ideas, so please shoot me an e-mail.
Nahaylo: OK, that’s another call and pitch. Now let’s ask you a little about the response so far, OK? You say you’ve had a good response from those who contributed, you’ve found distinguished individuals, writers, commentators, and critics who have voluntarily come forward and are happy to be associated with your publication, but generally, the response, who are you reaching out to at this stage, and how effective are you in getting, let’s say, your product across?
Davidzon: Well we’re writing something for the world in the sense that there’s a Ukrainian diaspora which is very hotly interested and it’s involved in America, in Canada, in Western Europe, in Britain; there’s a diaspora who is very interested and doesn’t quite always know what is going on just because it’s very difficult to live in another country and know what’s going on. There are international elites who are very much interested; Ukraine is interesting now because of, obviously, all that’s happened in terms of state building in the last three years, nation building. There’s a rising English-speaking Ukrainian cultural elite; a lot of the young people who are really smart, really ambitious, really talented, and really civically-oriented now filling up ministries, the civil service, they’re all English speakers, people like the very talented Olena Tregub. I can give you other names; Mustafa Nayyem really likes our magazine. There are lots of young people like that who are really connected to the outside world, the rising new generation of young Ukrainians are really cosmopolitan and they’re really plugged in, in terms of what’s going on in the outside world, that’s really great. We very much want contemporary Ukrainians to read us. It’s an English language magazine, maybe in the future we might have a Ukrainian edition, that’s something we’re thinking about, that’s not something we’re yet doing. But for the most part, Ukrainians and locals have been very excited also because, it’s not that we’re geniuses, it’s just that this is almost an obvious thing that’s not been done before. No one has done in 25 years of Ukrainian independence just a cool, intellectual literary magazine. Krytyka is a really great one.
Nahaylo: Yes, I think that is the closest example.
Davidzon: Krytyka is great, I read them, I like them very much, they are very good people. They’re academic and they’re very policy-oriented in the way that maybe we’re more culture-oriented, so there is a space for something new that’s half-way between The New Yorker and Snob, and maybe Fantastic Man.
Nahaylo: And The New York Review of Book?
Davidzon: Yes, The Odessa Review of Books!
Nahaylo: Which I think – The New York Review of Books – is what Krytyka initially based itself on.
Davidzon: Yeah, that’s a great model, that’s a great publication and, you know, it’s a historical model that really created a «spectrum of being» in the world, so to speak, as a writer. It’s great, but it’s not for everybody, obviously.
Nahaylo: And I read in your letter from the editor-in-chief in the eighth issue, interested readers can now find the magazine all across the country, as well as on their Ukrainian airline flight, as well as in certain spots of New York City, as well as Paris. So you say, in this sense, the journal is now becoming internationalized, as post-Soviet Ukrainian culture itself.
Davidzon: That’s great that you found that, in all the things that I wrote in that introduction, all the blabber, you pointed to the right gem of the sentence. Thank you.
Nahaylo: OK, well let’s hope that from some of our listeners in Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago, London…
Davidzon: Paris. Shakespeare and Company, Paris.
Nahaylo: Paris, whereever, that we can also have outlets for the Odessa Review because I want to emphasize to our listeners that it’s a very, very worthy publication, worthy of its day, of its times, and of the new Ukraine it represents. Anything else that we should add, anything ahead, any major plans?
Davidzon: Any major plans? We’re doing an issue on Ukrainian-Jewish relations with our partners at the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter, that’s a great organization. And if you guys or gals are around at the Odessa Film Festival, come say ‘hello’ and we’re going to have a party, come find me and I’ll tell you where the party is and where.
Nahaylo: And you yourself again are Vladyslav Davidzon, the editor-in-chief of the Odessa Review, and it’s been a pleasure talking with you, Vladyslav. I wish you a lot of success and I hope in my own humble way that I can contribute.
Davidzon: Thank you so much for having me, it’s been a pleasure.
Nahaylo: Thank you very much.
Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement
On 1 August, the Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement came into force. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said that the recently completed agreements on a free trade area (FTA) with the European Union and Canada open new opportunities and markets for Ukraine.
US imposes additional sanctions on Russia and reaffirms support for Ukraine
On 2 August President Trump grudgingly signed legislation imposing sanctions on Russia and limiting his own authority to lift them. It had passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support, and prompted Moscow to respond by ordering reduction of US diplomatic staff in Russia.
The Act reaffirms that “it is the policy of the United States to support the Government of Ukraine in restoring its sovereign and territorial integrity; to condemn and oppose all of the destabilizing efforts by the Government of the Russian Federation in Ukraine in violation of its obligations and international commitments; to never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russian Federation or the separation of any portion of Ukrainian territory through the use of military force.”
Furthermore, according to the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, under the new Russia sanctions package, the US has allocated 30 million USD to Ukraine for energy security and has also undertaken “to assist in promoting reform in regulatory oversight and operations in Ukraine’s energy sector, including the establishment and empowerment of an independent regulatory organization; to encourage and support fair competition, market liberalization, and reliability in Ukraine’s energy sector; to help Ukraine and United States allies and partners in Europe reduce their dependence on Russian energy resources, especially natural gas, which the Government of the Russian Federation uses as a weapon to coerce, intimidate, and influence other countries.”
Significantly, the Act also states that The United States will “continue to oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline given its detrimental impacts on the European Union’s energy security, gas market development in Central and Eastern Europe, and energy reforms in Ukraine,” the Act said. The latter measure has raised eyebrows in Brussels and some senior EU officials have called on Washington not to apply this sanction unilaterally.
On the domestic front, the country has been gripped by a heatwave. This and the holiday season, with parliament in recess, has resulted in a relatively quiet period.
Anti-corruption activists express more concern
Anti-corruption activists have accused the authorities of broadening what they claim is a campaign of harassment against them. On 2 August, the Anti-Corruption Action Center, one of Ukraine’s leading watchdogs, reported that the tax police, an agency that was supposed to have been liquidated at the beginning of the year, have opened a criminal case against the organization. The details have not been elaborated and the tax police say that the case was opened after an appeal from a third party. On 27 March President Poroshenko signed into law requirements that oblige anti-corruption activists to file electronic asset and income declarations identical to those of public officials. Despite protests from inside and outside of the country, this measure has not yet been revoked.
Skirmishing and shelling on the front line initially subsided but intensified again towards the end of the week. On 28July 28th the representatives of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission reported that Russian-backed forced forces had located heavy military equipment in residential areas of Donetsk. On 2 August an OSCE cargo truck was stopped and blocked by them for 7 hours. Overall, during the last week, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed in action and 20 wounded.
It’s mid-summer. And Kyiv is bubbling with cultural activities. Free open air concerts and performances in Mariins’kyi Park and classical music in the botanical gardens, but for those you need to buy a ticket. And tons of live music in clubs. Like last Sunday’s sold out show by Gypsy Lyre with guest appearance by the legendary Maria Burmaka in the ABC Docker Pub in the Passazh, just off the main street, Khreshchatyk. Museum exhibits. The National Art Museum of Ukraine is featuring Fedir Krychevs’kyi, one of the most significant figures in Ukrainian modern art. Near Parliament the Ukrainian War History Museum has exhibits dating from the ancient Scythians to artifacts from the current war in Donbass. It’s on a tiny side street called Kriposnyi Provulok, just down the street from the Central Officer’s and Armed Forces of Ukraine Building.
And here’s a song for you. Its’ called Zabuvai, which means Forget by the Kyiv-Kharkiv duo Dmytro Lazutkin (lyrics) and Borys Sevastianov (music). If you listen carefully to the lyrics, you’ll hear, ‘forget what they used to write.’
Tune in next week in for a new episode and write to us at [email protected]. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, Nykole King, Max Sviezhentsev. News by Bohdan Nahaylo. War by Max Sviezhentsev. Culture by Marta Dyczok. Music by Andriy Kulykov. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.