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The Holodomor Symphony

Stephan Maria Karl is a young Austrian composer who is currently writing a symphony about the Holodomor, the famine-genocide of 1932–1933 that took the lives of some 3 to 4 million Ukrainians. He resides in Salzburg. The interview was conducted in German.

How did a young Austrian composer decide to write a symphony about a famine-genocide in Ukraine in 1932–1933?

An artist can inspire the public and get it to question its assumptions, either through the sheer aesthetic force of his work or by means of the self-reflective process that his work induces. And if art can affect the individual, then it can also affect society. An ethically grounded artist who knows this has an obligation to create in full cognizance of the impact his art can have.

As one of the 20th century’s most horrible and internationally least recognized crimes, the Holodomor demands artistic treatment, because it’s imperative both to give voice to justice and truth and to enable Ukraine to deal objectively with its past. Coming to terms with its past is the precondition of Ukraine’s social, economic, and political development, inasmuch as the past, present, and future are inextricably interconnected.

I chose to compose a symphony about the Holodomor because I believe I can make an important, even if modest, contribution to Ukraine’s necessary coming to terms with its own history. Conversations with many Ukrainians in England, France, Canada, and Ukraine have only enhanced my passion. Moreover, I confess to having always been drawn to the Slavic spirit so evident in Slavic art.

Just how can a symphony—or music in general—convey the reality of the Holodomor?

It’s impossible to convey the actual horror of the Holodomor in music. No melody, no sound, no word, and no picture can adequately represent the pain felt by millions. But music can support the process of grieving and, by providing certain impulses and calling forth certain affective associations, enhance the healing that a tragedy requires.

Tell us more about the actual symphony. Is it tonal or atonal? Will it employ words and images? Will there be singing?

The topic of my Ph.D. dissertation, which I’m writing for the Mozarteum University of Salzburg and London’s Guildhall School of Music, is “Synthesis of Tonal and Atonal Sound Structures.” I hope to combine both elements in a dramatically meaningful whole in the symphony. Singing as well as Ukrainian folk melodies will also form an important part of the work.

Are you composing for a Ukrainian audience or for a Western audience?

By using Ukrainian folk melodies, I’m obviously hoping to elicit certain associations in Ukrainian listeners. But it would be an artistic error to make the style of my symphony dependent on the expectations and tastes of the public or of artistic fashion. After all, tastes and fashions are continually changing, while a completed work of art can endure forever. As the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina told me in a recent conversation here in Salzburg: “I don’t care whether I’m modern or not. All that matters is the inner truth of my music.”

How have your efforts been received thus far in Austria and in Ukraine?

The Holocaust is a permanent topic of concern in Austria and Germany, inasmuch as it took place right here and was brought about by our ancestors. Soviet crimes are also of great interest to Austria’s educated elite. The Holodomor, on the other hand, is virtually unknown. That’s due less to a lack of interest on the part of Austrians and more to the absence of international recognition.

Most Ukrainians are both surprised by and very supportive of my initiative, especially as I have no Ukrainian roots. All too often, however, I’m also confronted with passivity, lack of interest, suspicion, and rejection by Ukrainians. Equally frustrating are promises of assistance that aren’t kept. As a result, the completion of the project has been delayed, my faith in Ukraine has been shaken, and my motivation needs to be continually replenished. The lack of interest shown by Russians, who have to deal with the many communist crimes in their own country, has never demoralized me.

How do you hope the symphony will affect Ukrainian and other publics?

If my artistic engagement motivates Ukrainian, Russian, and international society to concern itself more with the Holodomor, and in a peaceful, unifying, and liberal—and not hypernationalist—manner, I’d consider that to be a great success.

Do you think Ukrainians and the international community adequately commemorate the Holodomor?

For a historically conscious person who believes in justice, the international community’s ignorance about the Holodomor is as disgraceful as the inadequate coming to terms with other, all too tragically numerous, genocides: Congo, 1886–1908; Armenia, 1915; Soviet Union, 1917–1989; Algeria, 1954–1962; China, 1958–1969; Cambodia, 1975–1979; Ethiopia, 1975–1978; Rwanda, 1994; and Darfur, 2008. And that’s not counting the many hitherto unacknowledged genocides committed by the colonial powers.

The international community’s understanding of the Holodomor might be promoted if Ukraine were to exert permanent pressure on it (as does Poland with respect to the Katyn massacre) and to develop an adequate coming to terms with the issue at home. Ukraine could then serve as a model for Russia and the international community.

It’s been my experience, however, that surprisingly many Ukrainians avoid an intensive confrontation with the Holodomor, be it out of annoyance with history and politics, be it out of fear of the truth and the pain that comes with it, be it out of more quotidian concerns. As a result, the Holodomor elicits fruitless controversies both between Russians and Ukrainians and between Ukrainians themselves. Needless to say, these controversies divert attention from the essential fact that millions of innocents died.

Why do you believe that coming to terms with the Holodomor is important for the continued development of Ukraine?

My interest in the Holodomor is based both on history and on its visible and invisible consequences for today’s Ukraine. The Holodomor, together with the entire period of repression by Russian and Ukrainian Communists, tore apart the Ukrainian spirit. As a result of many years of deprecation, denial, and “enforced” silence, this wound has never healed.

But coming to terms with communist rule in Ukraine shouldn’t just focus on history, the millions of victims, or the condemnation of the guilty. The most important step for Ukraine is to diagnose the psychological, social, economic, and political aftereffects of communism and the Holodomor. If, as J. Willms puts it, a nation consists of “a rich memory on the one hand and the desire to propagate the received heritage on the other,” and if “common experiences of pain are more decisive than joyful memories” for nations, then Ukraine cannot be a full-fledged nation until it absorbs the painful experience of the Holodomor.

How deep are the Ukrainian people’s wounds when, for decades, they were forced to subordinate themselves to the will of the state and to integrate fear and suspicion into their everyday lives? Did this people ever reach the point at which it could no longer distinguish truth from falsehood, justice from injustice, friend from foe? Is it possible for this people to have fallen into a kind of permanent lethargy and cowardice and to have celebrated its own persecutors? Could such behavior somehow be passed on from generation to generation?

There are striking parallels here to the Stockholm Syndrome, whereby victims motivated by self-preservation develop a positive relationship to their persecutors. The same can happen to peoples in despotic states. Unfortunately, a people suffering from such a syndrome is unlikely to change authoritarian structures easily or quickly.

What are your plans for promoting the symphony?

I’d like my symphony to be part of a larger Holodomor Project that includes many other artists, media events, and cultural activities. Unfortunately, I have still to meet anyone who’d like to adopt such an ambitious plan.

By the way, let me suggest a number of activities that could raise international consciousness of the Holodomor: a hunger strike of several days in front of such international institutions as the United Nations, UNESCO, or the European Court of Human Rights (just imagine the greatest hunger strike of all times, one incorporating thousands of Ukrainians during a Ukrainian folk music festival!); public flash mobs; international competitions for film screenplays, music, painting, and theater about the Holodomor; promoting Ph.D.’s about the Holodomor at European universities; establishing a Peace Orchestra consisting of musicians from the former Soviet republics.

Anything you’d like to tell Ukrainians?

Ukraine has been independent now for 22 years. It’s high time for Ukrainians to raise their voice peacefully against its ossified social, economic, and political structures. I wish with all my heart that Ukrainians finally find the confidence in their own ability to act independently. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

 

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