Pavlo Makov from the shelter in Kharkiv: “It is not an ethnic war but a clash of civilizations, the West understood it late”

The Russian artist with Ukrainian citizenship who should represent Kiev at the Venice Biennale speaks from the basement of the university

“The Russians thought they would take Ukraine in two hours, but our army and volunteer troops are holding their own: today there was fighting on the street in my city, Kharkiv, but the Russians who entered in small groups were pushed out in a few hours. At least for today ». Pavlo MakovLRussian artist with Ukrainian citizenship which it should represent Kiev at the Venice Biennale in spring, he speaks from the basement of the Contemporary Art Center, at the University of Kharkiv, transformed into a refuge since last Thursday. This morning you received the order not to leave your refuge in this eastern city, the second largest in the country, with 2 million inhabitants 25 km from the border with Russia. «I am here with my wife Marina and other artists with their families, many small children, some elderly people, cats and a dog. Of course there is tension but in the evening we eat together, we talk, someone tries to relax with board games ».

Did you expect all this?
«Of course, I expected that one day the war would reach Kiev and the rest of the country, for years there have been speeches like ‘you must be part of us’ from Moscow. This war is the continuation of the conflict that began in 2014, we have lost 15,000 soldiers in 8 years. Everyone thought it was a game. This is not an ethnic war but a clash of civilizations, a free and civilized world attacked by a barbaric and aggressive one. My story is an example of this. I am a Russian from St. Petersburg who, like others, has decided to live in Ukraine. Moscow says it wants to free the Russians in Ukraine but this, it is now clear, is only a pretext to start the war, it is a 100% lie: we have no problem living in Ukraine ».

Today Putin ordered the nuclear alert. How will it end?
“I don’t know, nobody knows. Even if we win this war on the ground, the Russians have the infamous red button, that of nuclear weapons, they have already mentioned. Let’s remember what they have been repeating for some years: “We don’t want the world without Russia. If there is no Russia there is no world ‘”».

How is the West moving?

“The West should have mobilized years ago, and do what it is doing now when there was the attack on Georgia, in 2008. Then with the aggression on Crimea the West started to move but not enough, maybe counting that the problem would resolve itself, it would disappear as if by magic. Instead, another war has begun, on the border of Europe, not just Ukraine. Europe has only now realized the enormous threat that Russia represents, but the situation did not arise today. Let’s hope it’s not too late. We certainly did not expect NATO to arrive here with the soldiers, we understand that it is not possible, it would be the third world war. But only yesterday Germany understood that in this situation it is not possible to refuse to help by providing weapons. Poland and the Baltic Republics, on the other hand, had it clear from the start, they understand it very well because they will be the next targets ».

Does Russian culture fail to provide antibodies to the nostalgia of Soviet imperialism?
“I know Russian culture well, a huge culture, between literature and music, but the Russians don’t use it to protect the world, rather to conquer it. For them, the most important thing is to be big and threatening, respected for their great strength. But this impotence of culture over politics is not a specifically Russian thing, think of Germany, Italy and Spain with Hitler, Mussolini and Franco … I once read in Italy on a street: “It takes the power of culture to overthrow the culture of power “. I don’t know if it’s possible, but we can at least try ”.

There are those who say that two years of pandemic have played a role in accelerating the crisis, that the isolation in which Putin lived has had repercussions on his mental health.
“Covid has nothing to do with the acceleration of the crisis. To understand it, it must be borne in mind that human life in Russia is almost zero. Emblematic is the phrase of the famous commander of the Second World War Zukov, who invited us to concentrate on the technique of warfare because for the soldiers there was no problem, the women took care of it. This is what Moscow still does today, sending huge numbers of men to fight. Professional soldiers go to the most important places, while the others are very young, aged 18-19, unprepared, inexperienced ».

Two months to go to the Biennale.

«Venice is now very far away for me, there is a war separating us. Who knows where we will be on April 23, the day of the inauguration? Maria Lanko, one of the curators, managed to arrive in Poland by car and brought the “heart” of my work there, which is called “The fountain of exhaustion”. We obviously can’t ship the whole construction now, too big and heavy, but 78 bronze funnels which are the fundamental part of the fountain are now safe. So, maybe we can install the fountain, but I can be sure that we will all be there, in Venice.

You have earmarked the proceeds of one of your works for the purchase of a machine gun and a bulletproof vest. Art finds itself in the service of war, a paradox: is it hard for an artist?
«At this point, art finds itself in the service of liberation, not war. And if there is nothing else but to free ourselves with weapons, we are forced to do so. And then this last one is just an episode, my colleagues and I have done similar things many times during the last 8 years, important not to forget, Russia started this war in 2014 ».

Have you ever thought about leaving Kharkiv and Ukraine?

“No, I’ve never thought about it. I’ll only do that if the Russians finally get it and we’re busy. Assuming we’re still alive, of course. ‘

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