Updated: Oct 7
Oleg Tistol is one of Ukraine’s leading contemporary artists, who works with stereotypes associated with Ukrainian everyday life and current affairs. His artwork cleverly juxtaposes Ukraine’s historical past with current issues through day-to-day imagery. The results are alluring and provocative, yet playful. However, since the beginning of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Tistol has sought safety from the bombs by living in his basement art studio with his wife, daughter, and a friend. His art production has been greatly affected by this war and his unique perspective on ‘freedom’ and the release of the oppressive shackles of the Russian imperialistic narrative has had a profound effect on the work he now creates.
This interview was conducted on 14 April 2022.
Oleg Tistol: My apologies, the air raid sirens are howling now. There is noise from the street.
Constance Uzwyshyn, for CJLPA: Tell us about the painting for the Journal’s back cover (fig. 1).
OT: The shadow was a very important theme for me before the war. Actually, we have lived with this feeling…the war has now lasted eight years [a reference to the initial invasion by the Russians in Donbas and annexation of Crimea in 2014]. That is why somehow this shadow is from the distant past, so I created a big exhibition from it (figs. 2, 3 & 4).
This was a premonition, a photo document, a painting more important and striking than a photo. If I was going to do a portrait now of Peter, for example, I would make a shadow, and this would be more of a document than some other vision.
Now, about this painting (fig. 1). To think about art was very difficult during this last month. I asked my daughter Nadiya to draw my portrait because self-portraits are a problem (fig. 5). Someone must draw the shadow. This was a difficult period, but it was positive in a sense as we had not spent much time together earlier. Nadiya and I were in one studio together all month and I understood that my shadows are not superfluous or arbitrary. This is something very important and serious to me; it is sort of a document. It was a very cold-blooded documentation and is the way I am today…it is how I stand. It’s very important this shadow was done by Nadiya because throughout the month it was about survival and saving your life and those of your dear ones. This was the problem that had to be resolved and this is what the painting is about. What kind of war? You either feel it or you don’t. I don’t want to say anything about the war to the viewer. Either it’s there or it isn’t. Right now, I don’t want to say anything about the ‘katsaps’ [a traditional Ukrainian derogatory term for Russians]. I don’t want to say anything about the war. This is an issue for writers, journalists, and most of all, for the military.
CU: How would you translate ‘katsap’ into English? Is its very specific terminology impossible to translate?
OT: ‘Katsap’ is in reality a Turkic word that has the meaning of ‘butcher’. This is an ancient term. Even Solzhenitsyn called them this. In this context, it is the most appropriate term. I know this word from birth. Ukrainian villagers know this term. We thought this term stems from ‘tsap’. That is, an animal, sheep. But no. It means a killer. It means butcher. In Turkey, the butcher shops are called ‘kasap’. This is not slang, and this is not an insult. I like very accurate cultural designations. And if I call a person by what they truly are, then you better understand the cultural context.
CU: I see in this painting you are standing on a crate, could you explain this?
OT: This is a very old Soviet crate. Perhaps it was some military item. I have had this in my studio for a very long time. There are instruments inside. Tools for work. Why this crate? I intuitively felt that I needed this crate. On one hand this could be a pediment for a monument. This is ironic. I understand that I can’t be a monument. But on the other hand, it provides an unevenness, an unpredictability. I am small, standing on this big crate. This does not even reflect fear, but an attempt to find our place. You understand that you are very small, that you are not confident in your place in any context. This was very important for me.
CU: This painting is evocative, so strong! Your palette presents the colours of the Ukrainian flag and your blue self-portrait, your shadow of Tistol, stands proud as you gaze into the golden horizon calmly holding a cigarette. I am very moved by the piece and for me it represents the spirit of Ukrainians.
Peter Bejger, for CJLPA: How should one work today in light of present conditions? You have had a very long and successful career. How do you continue to work, or perhaps not work, during this time of war?
OT: I have made the paintings we were discussing (Shadow Paintings) as also nine small canvases (figs. 6 & 7). Today I was in the studio, and I understood that on some of these canvases I will do something completely different. In the next month I want to redo them. My career, my life, has transpired over 31 years in the Soviet Union and now, this summer, will mark 31 years in an independent Ukraine. The 24 August, the Independence Day for Ukraine, is almost my 62nd birthday. I had an exhibition in Lutsk and Lviv in 2020 and it was called Sixty Years of Independence. I was born on 25 August. The Lutsk Museum staged a large exhibit for me, opening on my birthday, and I decided to call it that. My entire life has been a struggle for my own personal independence and an observation of the history of Ukrainian independence. This has always been a part of my art. My first known paintings were based on ‘unification’, Khmelnytsky, and the Battle of Poltava. It is called Reunion (fig. 8), which is my first well known painting.
After this painting, my artwork changed and was reactive to current affairs. Perhaps it would be shadows, or palms, or mountains, or perhaps God willing I will paint Peter with a Cat. (figs. 9, 10 & 11).
Now, my paintings will be something different and I delight in this. I like cultural attributes! That is, thirty years ago when I was explaining the meaning of Reunion, and Ukraine’s independence, very few understood the history of Ukraine. Even twenty years ago only a few understood, or knew, the history of Ukraine.
I like the current discussion about Ukraine because of the war. I like the international context because everyone understands what is happening. The word katsap is not an insult. No emotions here. It is an enemy. This is an attempt to delineate major cultural positions. Now everyone understands that Ukraine is very close to Western Civilisation, though I think there is only one civilisation. The war is cultural. A war between culture and anti-culture. What we have in this context from Russia is really a great error on the part of the global community. That is, the error has been committed during the last 200 years on what they see is ‘the great Russian culture’. It is really a cargo cult culture process. It imitates cultural processes, but it is done from completely different motivations.
PB: I would like to ask you about identity. Ukrainian identity, and Russian identity. Perhaps you can explain your views on identity and the growth of Ukrainian identity since Ukraine’s independence.
OT: This is my personal interpretation: Ukrainian identity is not ethnic. It is about territory and cultural identity. On the Maidan in 2014, there was a huge banner that proclaimed, ‘Freedom is our Religion’. Everybody immediately understood that the first trait for Ukrainians is the striving for individual freedom. And thus, I am now against Ukraine joining the EU. I don’t want to end up in a union with the French, Hungarians, and Germans. I want to be in one union with the British, the Canadians, and Americans. We have one mentality. I name these countries as those of personal freedom and individualism, the weight of the individual is very important. I don’t like these bureaucratic countries. I am from Kozak roots. This is an identity, striving for personal freedom, and that is why I speak sternly about civilization.
As for Ukrainian identity, this was understood very clearly during the war. There were very few people in Kyiv during the first month of the war and we all became very cognizant of one another, just like we did during the Maidan. People immediately asked each other, ‘How can I help you?’. People were very solicitous to one another. All these volunteer services were very well organised, and we all looked after each other. This is the behaviour of free people. These are very straightforward values, and we have a union of people for whom these values are common. Somebody who has different values becomes a collaborator or leaves. This is an ancient village culture. And what is Ukrainian culture? A pursuit for more interaction and a beautiful, joyful life.
I now identify myself as a folkloric artist. Not by coincidence, we chatted earlier about the group DakhaBrakha. This is folk music, ethno. Nadiya began her career as an ethno singer. I now feel that I am a very straightforward, let us say, ethno folkloric artist. What I do is folk, which has a relationship to European civilisation, to American. I am interested in these cultures, these cultural processes. Why do we need art? So, life would be beautiful.
PB: In the future, after this war, what is to be done with Russia? Russia is a neighbour. How do you live with this?
OT: Seriously, over the last 100 years, there were four names for Russia. First there was the Russian Empire to 1917. Then it was called the RSFR, then SSSR, then the RF. Four names in just over 100 years. Geographic boundaries changed. Doctrines changed. But all in all, it remained the same. In the future, we can’t talk about a country called ‘Russia’. We don’t know how many countries will emerge from it. What their relations will be. I am certain of this, because I am a very big specialist on katsaps. From 1984 to 1986, I was in the Soviet Army in a special unit in the nuclear forces. Yes, a specialised nuclear unit. It didn’t even have a name, just a number: 31600. This number was on my military document. Nothing else was noted, and there were no references to aviation or rocket forces, only the number. They only took people from the deepest and middle part of Russia. I ended up there because I was an artist with higher education. They needed a specialist. All the other thousands of personnel were from the Urals, or Siberia, the same people who recently did what they did in Bucha. I lived with them for two years in one barrack. I left from there a conscious Ukrainian. This did not happen after art school in Kyiv, nor after the art academy in Lviv, but after the Soviet army. I lived with them in close quarters, these katsaps, for two years in one setting, I understood we were aliens from different planets and two completely different cultural worlds. This is why I easily prognosticate their behaviour and their future. They will have many problems and will battle among each other. And for us geographically in Ukraine, we will have to control all this. They will be killing each other for quite a long time. Someone will call himself a chief or a leader and they will be battling each other. They will be battling for resources, food, or anything, and we will have to control this. I don’t see any other variant. This can’t be considered bad or frightening. God gave us this kind of neighbour. This is how it will end. There is no other variant. What is most important is to drive them away from us and not interfere. I think our war will end in Chechnya. It all started in Chechnya and will end there. They [the Russians] strongly dislike Ukrainians, but they hate the Chechens more. Whether they want it or not, it will end there. They will have to resolve their internal problems and I am absolutely sure of that. There are already the first signs of this. After Ukraine, the weakest link is the Caucasus. This is why for many years I painted the canvas Kazbek (fig. 13), and why I gave explanatory texts to that from the Kobzar by [Taras] Shevchenko, from the poem ‘Kavkaz’ (The Caucasus).
Everything is written there. Now Shevchenko is better understood in a broader sense. I was reading Shevchenko every day in the army. This book was like a Bible to me, and I read the entire library of his work. Every day a little Shevchenko was psychotherapy for me. This is why I consider myself an autochthone, not considering my complex ethnic background. I am a typical Ukrainian because culturally this is the most important book for me and now everybody understands this.
CU: In your opinion, what is the identity of a Ukrainian?
OT: To be Ukrainian is a conscious choice. If you want to live on this territory, with the rules we live by and with, you quickly become a Ukrainian. For example, the first guy who died on the Maidan was Serhiy Nigoyan, an Armenian. He read Shevchenko. He was born into an Armenian family in Ukraine. He simply was Ukrainian: by mentality, behaviour, and the cultural code. You see this in 2014 in the Revolution of Dignity, known as the Maidan. This is dignity. This is not honour. Every Ukrainian has this feeling of dignity because otherwise you couldn’t live with yourself among your own. Dignity unites us. This is reflected in behaviour by me and Nadiya. I very much like to engage with my equals, that is people who have similar values. This is a characteristic trait, something that is passed from one person to another, and you find this very much in Shevchenko. There is everything there about human dignity. This is a key Ukrainian term. This Revolution of Dignity, this is very important to study. We now have to carry it forward.
PB: We talked about Ukraine and Russia, now I would like to discuss the international community. You know that in the West now there are assertions we are in a post-national phase. We also search for identity, but it is often not built on national principles. This is a question about the role of nationalism and international relations. How can the international community support your struggle in Ukraine? There are very complex processes happening now in the West regarding nationalism and identity. I would like to hear your thoughts on what you see in the West and the international community.
OT: First of all, there is not one fascist in the Ukrainian parliament. Not one communist. So, the problem of nationalism: we don’t have ethnic problems here. What can you say about a country whose president is Jewish? Our Ukrainian nationalism is geographically cultural. There is a problem here in terminology. This word ‘nationalism’ in the Western world is very negative and I understand this. If this is about racism, then this is frightening but we don’t have this problem. I mean this is a very minor problem that is almost not discernible. Now after 30 years when someone calls themselves a nationalist, this refers to a battle with a foreign enemy. One enemy. There is one enemy. You have to be very clear here with terminology. Ukrainian nationalism is not ethnic. It is absolutely not ethnic. I understand that American problem. I understand French historical problems. Here it is completely different. We are forming a cultural nation, and what other term can we choose but nation? I like the American project, an artificial nation. A group of wise people gathered together to create a nation of the future. This is the project of the United States. This is not a technical dream, but a cultural dream. This is the same for Ukraine’s battle for national identity. This has an American sense in the national. When the national anthem is played, people of all colours stand. They are united for a way of life. This is the American dream. The Ukrainian dream is freedom and dignity. Period.
CU: How would you define who Ukrainians are?
OT: Exotic! We are all exotic. I accept this. I know who I am, and from where I originate, and this is interesting for me and informs my creativity. However, this exoticism is very important within the civilizational process. That is, the rules of behaviour among people and cultural exchanges. Culture is simply the exchange of beauty. For what? For peaceful and fortunate co-existence. How does the so-called Russian culture differ? It is an instrument of expansion. In the beginning they bring you Dostoyevsky, and later a tank will arrive. Absolutely! Look at the map of this war. Look at where the katsaps have fathered and then where they are fighting. This is in the Russian-language territories. They are there where they thought they would be greeted. The Russians are not being greeted; they are being killed. But they came to where Russian is spoken.
As for the Ukrainian cultural process, Ukrainians dissolve into the world and know themselves from the inside that they are Ukrainian. This is for the children, the family, the parents. This is very important. When you are on the street you should be like everyone else, you respect those among who you live. This is a very important cultural trait, for a true culture. This is when you offer people some sort of beauty and you accept their beauty.
Something very important happened during this war. I have long felt this and so have many others also. Perhaps this doesn’t sound very polite, but many Ukrainians absolutely don’t care what the world thinks of them. Thirty years ago, when I was in Switzerland, I was addressed, ‘Oh you’re Russian’. I quietly listened and then said, ‘Oh, you are German’. They were offended. I asked why you are offended. ‘You write in German, speak in German. You are German’. It is different now. If, after thirty years of Ukrainian existence, and the war, somebody in Switzerland doesn’t know about Ukraine, I wouldn’t bother to explain. I will not speak. I am not interested.
Now about the world context of Ukrainian culture, for example, for me, my favourite writers are Hemingway and Shakespeare, and my favourite music from my youth was by the Rolling Stones, Genesis, and Led Zeppelin. I was formed by all this. Well, I may be considered ‘exotic’, but for me all people are exotic. The more exotic the persona, the more interesting they are. If there is a trait in a person that I do not have, that is interesting for me (fig. 15).
PB: I have a last question…a question on trauma. Ukraine is experiencing a tremendous trauma now with the war. Every nation has their own trauma. How does art deal with trauma? How can Ukrainian artists deal with this trauma?
OT: It’s actually the reverse. We have had 300 years of frightening trauma living one way or another within Russia. What is happening now: this trauma is like cutting off diseased parts. We are removing the trauma. The issue is sin. For example, I served in the Soviet army. If someone asks me about this time, I say I was a collaborator. Forty years ago, I was a collaborator and there was no other alternative. The issue is that these ‘Russian’ ‘victories’ from the past were done by the hands of Ukrainians and they were the best components of the ‘Russian’ army.
Now, this trauma, meaning Russification…I am delighted is no more. A year ago, I got into a taxi and Russian ‘chanson’ music would have been playing. I no longer hear that. The trauma will not be with Ukrainians, it will be with the Russians. Those who call themselves Russian, will have a horrible trauma. It will be similar to what the Germans experienced in 1945. For Ukrainians, we will be exiting a trauma. It will never be necessary to explain why it’s not worth reading Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. We no longer have to participate in the propagandistic lie of the ‘Great Russian Narrative’. Now everything has become clear. This problem of trauma: I no longer want to paint canvases of ‘unification’ or Russians. I am no longer interested. There are very many people from my circle, and my family, who now have to decide what to do with all those books of katsap classical literature. What should we do with these books? It is not necessary to just carry them out to the garbage. We need to tear off the covers so children will no longer read them. This is escaping the trauma. No matter how horrible this may sound…for eight years we couldn’t throw out the books, because books are a treasure. But you have to understand that this is a horrible thing. It traumatises the mind. You can’t give children Mein Kampf to read. You can’t do that. It’s the same here. This cultural cleansing is already being felt. There will be no need to pass legislation on language. Speak any language you want. It’s just important you don’t carry these ideas of slavery. So, this would no longer be the case. We have transcended the trauma. You can see this in people on the streets. You see this in social media, everywhere. Done! No more trauma. No more doubts. Nobody will no longer wonder if we are Europe, or not Europe. It’s obvious we are Europe. This is geography.
I would like to add a summary. This is very important. You may think this sounds horrible and cynical, but this war is very useful. This war had to happen. You don’t want war, you absolutely don’t want it, but it had to happen. We have to await the end, and there may be more frightening events, but this addresses the issue of cleansing. We have to win in this cleansing. And we will win, definitely.
In an informal discussion after the interview Tistol described the current mood in Kyiv.
OT: Well, it is more intensive now…there is a curfew and I have to still get to my mother. As for life here now, every day it’s getting better and more peaceful. Cafes are reopening. People are coming out. There are still fewer people or children on the streets. But it is somehow better. The first month (after the start of the war) was very scary. But I understand how much we all love Kyiv. It was an absolutely empty Kyiv then, with the anti-tank barricades. I was very happy we didn’t leave. There was a very important feeling that we had to live through all this here. I am now almost a Kyivite. I never before felt I was a Kyivite. I was from Vradievka. From Mykolaiv. I always felt I was a Southerner, now I feel that I am a Kyivan artist.
This interview was conducted by Constance Uzwyshyn and Peter Bejger.
Constance Uzwyshyn is an expert on Ukrainian contemporary art. She founded Ukraine’s first foreign-owned professional art gallery, the ARTEast Gallery, in Kyiv. Having written a masters dissertation entitled The Emergence of the Ukrainian Contemporary Art Market, she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge researching Ukrainian contemporary art. She is also CJLPA 2’s Executive Editor and the Ukrainian Institute of London’s Creative Industries Advisor.
Peter Bejger is an editor, filmmaker, and writer based in San Francisco. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Ukraine, where he wrote and produced a documentary film on Secession-era architecture of the city of Lviv. Previously, he lived in Kyiv for several years, where he worked as a journalist, media consultant, and cultural critic.
 Regarding issues of Ukrainian versus Russian identity, the reign of Russian Tsar Peter I is considered by historians a crucial phase in the development of Russian imperial narratives and the appropriation of Ukrainian history, heritage, and culture by a centralising colonial power. See <http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CP%5CE%5CPeterI.htm> accessed 22 May 2022; Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History, (2nd ed, University of Toronto Press 1994) 160-7.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a notable Soviet dissident and spoke out against communism. He raised awareness of the brutality of the repressive Soviet Union, particularly the Gulag system. He was imprisoned in the Lubyanka prison and then was sentenced to an eight-year term in a hard labour camp.  Turkish word ‘Kasap’ noun means killer, slaughterer, meatman.  Cf. Serhii Plokhy (ed), Poltava 1709: The Battle and the Myth (Harvard University Press 2012).  Cf. Kristian Gerner, ‘The Battle of Poltava as a Realm of Memory and a Bone of Contention’ (2009) 31(1/4) 679-693.  In the mid-1990s, Tistol created Ukrainian Money Project. This project coincided with Ukraine producing its own currency: a reference to Ukraine’s independence and the step away from Russian domination. Tistol’s money project embodies Ukrainian contemporary stereotypes and historical references. He specifically plays with intaglio printing to achieve a subtle offset print and cleverly adds vignettes, numerals, and lettering to create his own version of money art.  This is a play on the terms Fascism and Russia. Cf. Timothy Snyder, ‘The War in Ukraine has Unleashed a New Word: Ruscism’ The New York Times Magazine (New York, 22 April 2022) <https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/22/magazine/ruscism-ukraine-russia-war.html> accessed 6 May 2022.  In another interview, Tistol elaborates on the cargo cult cultural process, stating that ‘I think the majority of people now sadly realised that one is a culture and a cultural process and the other a cargo cult operation to abolish Mariupol in truth. All people finally understood this’. See ‘КИЇВ. МАЙСТЕРНЯ ОЛЕГА ТІСТОЛА, БЕРЕЗЕНЬ, 2022’ (YouTube, 30 March 2022) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3RfiIRUxmI> accessed 30 March 2022.  The Maidan, also known as the ‘Revolution of Dignity’, was a mass political protest in late 2013 and into 2014 in Kyiv that overturned a pro-Russian government and set Ukraine on a pro-European course.  Alternative spelling of Cossack.  DakhaBrakha is a world-music quartet from Kyiv that tours extensively and has a achieved a global audience with their unique ‘ethno-chaos’ style..  Flora Drury, ‘Ukraine launches hunt for Russian soldiers accused of Bucha war Crimes’ (BBC News,29 April 2022) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-61269480> accessed 2 May 2022.  See Andrew Higgins, ‘the War that Continues to Shape Russia, 25 Years Later’ New York Times (New York, 10 December 2009) <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/10/world/europe/photos-chechen-war-russia.html> accessed 6 May 2022; Anna Politkovskaya, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya (University of Chicago Press 2007).  Taras Shevchenko is Ukraine’s national poet, an artist, and a seminal figure in the development of Ukrainian national consciousness. Kobzar is Shevchenko’s first collection of poems and a powerful expression of Ukrainian cultural rebirth..  Rory Finnin. ‘Mountains, Masks, Metre, Meaning: Taras Shevchenko’s ‘Kavkaz’’ (2005) 83(3) The Slavonic and East European Review 396-439.  See ‘Remembering Heroes of Euromaidan: Serhiy Nigoyan’ (YouTube, 25 January 2019) <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYUIB0s1YJI> accessed 1 May 2022.  Russian chanson music derives its ballad-like music by using prison slang and references to criminal life and hardship; it appeals to emotional sentiment to a loved one.