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Ukraine - Berlin conversations

Sergei Starkowski on Maidan, Zelensky and why he’s optimistic about the future

The American-Ukrainian artist speaks to us about the solidarity in Berlin and the benefit event at Haus der Statistik.

Sergei Starkowski in 2013

We talk to American-Ukrainian writer and composer Sergei Starkowski about Ukraine politics since Maidan, the Donbas war and why he’s sure his country will come out victorious against Putin’s Russia.

You grew up in the Soviet Union and then in the US. When did you start feeling Ukrainian?

Growing up during Soviet times, in Odessa, there was a heavy Soviet sentiment – they were putting a lot of shit on the Ukrainian liberation idea. I think the seeds of my Ukrainian identity actually started being sown here in Berlin. In America when they asked where you’re from you would say “Russia” because to them Russia was the whole Soviet Union. When they would ask where in Russia, I would say Ukraine and they would say “Ah, Ukraine, the breadbasket of the world!” That’s the only thing Americans used to know about Ukraine in those years, however, it’s an important thing. Because it is. That’s what the fight is also partly about nowadays.

When I visited Germany, a friend asked why I would automatically answer “Russia” when someone asked where I was from. 

You said you were never involved in politics until Maidan –  how did you end up there? 

This was a twist of destiny. I went back to Ukraine in October 2013 to get my visa [for Germany]. Actually, I was lucky, I was surrounded by a who’s-who of Ukrainian culture. We had a headquarters in an important art gallery and that I found out revolution was coming. I was hanging out there one evening and two top-class diplomates came and sank into chairs and said “he backed out of the European Association Deal”. The “he” in question was Yanukovych, the President. They said, “five years of top-level diplomacy down the drain, something big is coming”. That’s when the bell rang for me. I didn’t understand really, until one day later when the thing took off.

Seeing the bright blue and yellow flag everywhere, it’s so trippy

How did you get involved?

We went to Maidan Square the first day and there was already a big push between the riot police and the demonstrators. From then on it snowballed. I stayed until the end of January. I didn’t witness the catharsis, but I saw the Molotov cocktails, first murders, rubber bullets, snipers, real bullets, these kinds of things. 

My immediate surroundings were artists and musicians, but slowly, people came back to the gallery smelling of Molotov cocktails, tar and smoke. For example, my friend Joel Holmes, a Grammy Award-nominated American piano player, was playing for them between clashes. He was putting them to sleep with piano solos and they’d get up two hours later and go back to the barricades. 

Now you’re supporting the Ukrainian war effort from Berlin. Can you tell us about the Jazz event at Haus der Statistik?

Me and my colleague, someone from the Belarusian community, opened a cultural front. We’re going to raise awareness and funds. Last Saturday we organized Plattenbau’s record release party, a Scottish-German-American band of post-punk persuasion touring with A Place to Bury Stangers. This was something that was planned in February, before the war, but it was rescheduled because of Covid and then they said they wanted to donate the proceeds to Ukraine and asked if we knew a charity. 

Where does the money go?

The charity is called Ukrainische Orthodoxe Kirchengemeinde E.V. It came up through Viktoria Leléka, a Ukrainian singer who last Saturday did a big event in Dresden in the philharmonic hall and raised 30,000 euros. They’re channeling the money to local territorial defense formations, the ones that don’t have resources. The most well-known charity is Save Life Ukraine, but they’re connected directly with the Ministry of Defense in Ukraine and they’re dealing with buying hundreds of thousands of supplies, big stuff. However, there are still grassroots formations that pop up everywhere and this charity from the church deals with supplying those smaller formations in smaller cities that are not so well connected. 

You’ll also be showing the work of Czech photographer David Tesinsky about Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas. It’s a reminder that this war isn’t new?

It’s still the same war. The exhibition is called The War Will Soon Be Over, when David covered the Donbas in 2017 for international media, however, by looking at them, they’re timeless. Among others he followed the famous Yulia Tolopa or “Valkyrie”, a Russian passport holder who famously went to fight alongside the Ukrainians. 

The photos of Czech photographer David Tesinsky are on display at Haus der Statistik, featuring a portrait of 22-year-old Yulia Tolopa. Photo: David Tesinsky

Are you surprised by the huge support here?

I’m past the surprise, but in the first days I was genuinely super surprised. I had healthy scepticism towards Europeans that I developed in the eight years since Maidan, because that reaction and the one to the Russian invasion of Crimea and Donbas was underwhelming. I was offended by the lack of empathy. 

But now, seeing the bright blue and yellow flag everywhere, it’s so trippy to me, psychedelic… Ukraine has something that’s unifying the whole world. I can feel precisely what it is: Ukrainians are people of the heart. Once you visit Ukraine, you’re never going to forget it. Anyone I asked, people I hadn’t seen in 16 years, reaching out to me saying that when they saw this on the news they immediately thought of me. They asked how they could help. I picked up two refugee families, and I put them into the houses of people…They reached out in the first days of the war and asked if I had anyone coming.

It seems like Volodymyr Zelensky did a good job rallying the whole nation behind him, even his bigger sceptics.

I think he’s doing a good job. Even the hardened sceptics that were super critical of him are saying it. It sort of doesn’t cancel out the horrible stuff he was responsible for, like the Wagner Group scandal. This kind of stuff is an epic fail. Also, the scandal with the arrest of three pro-Ukrainian activists for the 2016 murder of Pavel Sheremet, a journalist who was blown up in the centre of Kyiv. Now I think he was just unprepared to be a President and he was naive. The people around him were feeding him only the information he wanted to hear: that we were on the right track and that he could look in Putin’s eyes and see peace there. In those two years of his Presidency, Ukraine was almost rolling back to Russophilia. 

There doesn’t seem to be much Russophilia left … 

Today I read a post by a famous film director Marysia Nikitiuk: had Putin waited two or three more years, the Ukrainians would have surrendered by themselves to that one family thing, we were on the slippery slope. But he doesn’t know the Ukrainian spirit. We tend to unite and rally together as a nation only in times of hardcore trouble.

Putin single-handedly destroyed the entire Russian-loving camp. It was 30 percent of the people of Ukraine who still considered Russia as brothers historically and culturally, now I think it’s down to one or zero percent. 

Do you think the sanctions against Russia are going to be effective? Are they fair? 

I think it’s 100 percent fair. I believe they’re all complicit. They were tolerating this guy for years and I think strategically it’s on a chess level and a brilliant move. Don’t forget Putin seduced people to follow his agenda through material prosperity. Like everyone did before him, like Hitler who built roads. He started by offering people minimum-level financial security through petrol dollars, so he basically bought them. 

But does Putin care about his own public opinion?

I think he doesn’t, but when the Russians won’t have the comfort and security he was able to provide them until now, they’re going to turn against him. And when they do, beware.

How do you see the future?

I’m very optimistic about the future. I see the fighting spirit is super strong. This I know because I have friends on the ground fighting or joining the ranks of the Territorial Defense. 

What about the human tragedy – there are already over 80,000 refugees who have fled to Germany and there are more on the way…  

I wouldn’t be depressed because the thing about Ukrainians is it’s a hardcore networking nation. Almost all of us already have connections around the world. Relatives or friends. There are already deep human and cultural ties between Ukraine and the people of Europe. Even though this refugee crisis is a tragedy, I wouldn’t be pessimistic about its outcome. What’s going to happen is a lot of ties will be developed that push the future. I’m already seeing with my own two eyes the level of connection and human solidarity, the hardcore connection between hosts in Germany and the families that are coming. These are the seeds of a lifelong friendship.