In Background, Ukraine

By Olga Tkachuk, op-ed commentary, published in Toronto Star, April 13 2015

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra owes pianist Valentina Lisitsa an apology. Valentina Lisitsa’s job as a musician has nothing to do with her political opinions about her homeland, to which she is perfectly entitled, writes Olga Tkachuk.

Controversy has engulfed the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, which decided to cancel the scheduled performance of a contentious pianist, Valentina Lisitsa. Though she now resides in Paris, Lisitsa was born and raised in Soviet Ukraine. Having made her feelings regarding Ukraine’s ongoing civil war well known on social media, her Twitter account has now landed her in hot water.

The Globe and Mail has reported on a couple of tweets found particularly offensive, and which apparently led the orchestra’s CEO Jeff Melanson to rescind her booking. This dangerous precedent may be related to symphony donor pressure, as Lisitsa alleges in the same article. (Melanson denies this.) In any case, Melanson who, presumably, is not an expert in the intricacies of this faraway conflict, or the languages in which Lisitsa tweets, chose not to allow the pianist to play.

Over the last year, I have watched my hometown of Donetsk ravaged by civil war. Meanwhile, half-truths, blatant lies and outright propaganda feed the conflict, and are rampant on both sides. Yet only one is singled out for criticism in much of the Canadian coverage. Both our media and government response concentrates almost exclusively on Russia’s role in this affair — which is, indeed, important. Nonetheless, most of those fighting against the government are Ukrainian nationals as opposed to “Russian terrorists.” Those who support them believe that western countries have provided uncritical support for a violent regime change of a government that was fairly elected by the south-east of the country, and overthrown by those from the central-west.

Yet the separatists and their Russian backers are the only party put under the microscope. Meanwhile, both sides have been accused of grave human rights violations, such as using cluster munitions in civilian areas.* In November, the central government stopped paying for state services such as hospitals in rebel-controlled territories. All social payments, such as pensions for seniors who are always the most vulnerable sector, have likewise been cancelled. The movements of human rights organizations trying to compensate for the shortfall, and provide basic medical relief and supplies, have been hindered by government forces.

Meanwhile in Kiev, the leader of an alliance of various ultra-nationalist groups has just been appointed as an adviser to the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Dmytro Yarosh is a colourful figure who thinks that the western lifestyle is an anti-Christian abomination that forces people into gay marriages. He says that he has dedicated his life to the de-Russification of Ukraine, and it’s easy to understand why such rhetoric from a prominent public figure might be of concern to the millions of ethnic Russians in the country.

Yarosh is also the commander of paramilitary volunteer battalions such as Azov and Aydar, some of whose fighters openly identify with the Nazis. They fight alongside the regular Ukrainian army detachments and have been accused of carrying out crimes against both soldiers and civilians during the course of the conflict. Yarosh is on record saying that these battalions refuse to abide by the latest peace accords signed in Minsk.

There are MPs in Ukraine’s new government, such as Andriy Biletsky and Vadym Troyan, who were leaders of the Patriot of Ukraine, another organization that espouses far-right ideology and has been involved in violence against minorities. Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn, an elected MP from the far-right Svoboda party, is an unabashed fan of Joseph Goebbels. He has now quit Svoboda, so that he can head the new Propaganda and Analysis unit of the Security Services, which sounds like something straight out of George Orwell. Most would find that Lisitsa’s portrayal of government figures as hogs, which was one of the tweets pointed out as particularly offensive, is less disturbing than some of the actual officials.

The history of my homeland is that of an extremely bloody and contested border region. The first half of the 20th century alone consisted of a seemingly endless procession of wars, purges, and orchestrated famines. A patchwork of bits and pieces of former empires and surrounding states, Ukraine is a brand new country with a multi-ethnic population. The fact that a civil war did not break out there when the Soviet Union first collapsed was quite rightly considered miraculous. But instead of working on creating a sense of national unity, the succession of power-hungry politicians found the “divide and rule” approach more profitable.

TSO should apologize to Lisitsa. Wars are ugly, and they do little to bring out the best in people. Her job as a musician has nothing to do with her political opinions about her homeland, to which she is perfectly entitled.

Born in Ukraine, Olga Tkachuk lives and writes in Canada.

Correction- April 13, 2015: This article was edited from a previous version that mistakenly said Valentina Lisitsa now resides in the United States.

* Note by New Cold The text of this commentary unwittingly implies that cluster weapons  have been used by both sides in the war in eastern Ukraine. No such  accusation has been levied against rebel forces, whereas the New York Times, Human Rights Watch and the observer mission of the OSCE have documented the use of these weapons by Ukrainian armed forces.



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