Yurii Butusov (right) and Dmitry Gordon. Photo courtersy of GORDON
– Hello, Yurii, happy to see you!
– Good evening!
– You come from an intelligent Kyiv family. You mother is a microbiologist, your father is an engineer and inventor. It’s a unique combination, as many important posts in Kyiv are currently taken by people who hail from other regions and for whom Kyiv is not a home city. They feel like immigrants here. How do you, as a native Kyivite, feel this city?
– It’s a place the energy of which I can feel, it’s my home city. It’s people who live here. I didn’t grow up in downtown, but in a neighborhood where many people from other cities were living, at Lisovyi. I do not think Kyiv is only for Kyivites. It’s such a huge melting pot, a reactor tank that exists to attract, melt down and create new energy.
– How did you get that scar on your face?
– It’s from Maidan, from Dec. 1, 2013, when I had a clash with Berkut [riot police – ed.].
– How did it happen? What it after the clashes started?
– It happened at the end of the day, at 4-4.30 p.m....
–...at Dynamo stadium?
– No, at Bankova Street. Berkuts started to throw diversionary grenades and stones into the crowd. I mean first they were thrown stones at, and they retaliated against the people. I was chosen as a target for some reason, because I was standing alone, and some big stones were thrown well-aimed at me…
– Yes. One did hit me. They could see me. I believed I did not pose a threat for law enforcers, so they would not target me. But they had a different task: as soon as they saw me, they started throwing the stones upon me. A stone hit my face.
– Was it a big one?
– Yes, a cobblestone from the roadway.
– Do you remember the moment when it happened?
– I do.
– Did you feel anything, did it hurt?
– Something warm was streaming down my face. I was conscious, I lost my glasses… Well I felt my face was covered in blood. I was on a tractor then, so I got down and stepped away and sat down. A guy wearing a mask approached me, provided with medical aid, and then I was taken away. I was met by Yehor Soboliev, he is an MP now. He took me to an ambulance and covered from Berkut guys who then started chasing people and hitting hard…
–...beating up, I remember...
–...yes, beating up everyone they could see. It was their task.
– Did you have a brain concussion?
– Sure. Bodily injuries of moderate severity, including a brain concussion and an open fracture of skull bones.
– Do you have headaches sometimes?
– When weather changes, but not too bad though.
– I communicate with so many people, and some of them, even progressive and pro-Ukrainian, say that Maidan was a technology and people were paid to go there…
– I think everyone who came to Maidan knows it perfectly: it was a civil society movement. Only those who never were there or people with different political views can say that.
– You don’t think Maidan was plotted by people who had their own political goals?
– I don’t believe Maidan was plotted by anyone. In late November [2013 – ed], after the first protests at Europeiska Square, I spoke to leaders of opposition parties. So I know for sure that all of them were certain that on Sunday they would thank people, people would go home, and the protests would end. Well, it looked like a realistic scenario: the protests were going down, people were getting fewer, and it didn’t make much sense to keep several tents in the downtown. And there was this agreement to go home on Sunday. That’s why it came as a surprise…
–...the beating up of the students...
–...yes. It was not provoked or planned by anyone. Well, except for the government.
– Do you know who gave the order to beat the students?
– Of course, all direct perpetrators are known. According to the data possessed by the investigation, the order came from then minister of interior, Zakharchenko, and NSDC Secretary Kliuiev. Of course, the list of all the perpetrators is long; one of those people is now in Ukraine — direct commander of the operation, Colonel Marynenko. He was in charge of the state security then and the operation of putting the border of Interior Troops at Bankova Street.
– Some respected people told me that the order to disperse the students came from Yanukovych personally. Do you agree with that?
– It might be. What I am saying is what’s known by the investigation. If Kliuiev and Zakharchenko were testifying in Ukraine, I am certain they would have provided the details of what was going on then. They are officially responsible for what happened. But who stood behind them? I believe it might have been Yanukovych, because when I was on Maidan at around 4 a.m., I saw Berkut pushing everyone, including me, outside the Maidan perimeter. I did not get why they wanted to push away everyone, including passers-by. They emptied the square, and I thought they were demonstrating to someone that there is not a single person there. No other logic could be applied.
– You were an active participant of the Revolution of Dignity. What is your most vivid memory of that period?
– Every day, heroism and consciousness were escalating. It was such energy that forced that people to act. Everyone was doing everything just to prove that he or she is fighting for his or her rights, for the rights of other citizens, and it inspired other people take the same steps. The people’s deeds were forming some kind of a puzzle, something new happened every day, and Maidan kept surprising.
– Did Maidan have a leader?
– Not an official one, but hundreds of instrumental leaders were there to…
–... yes, to take responsibility for their area. Speaking about the political situation, of course, the leadership in this area was assumed by members of the parliament. Their role, especially during early days, was indispensable. But the same leaders could be found on any positions. The miracles of self-organization were happening here and there: some person assumed responsibility, and people would quickly gather around. It was a totally new informational reality, created by gadgets, smartphones, social media, and internet. Ukrainians used to be an atomized society prior to that, but now the new horizontal ties emerged. I knew the revolution would win, on Dec. 1, when I arrived in the downtown and saw how two vehicles with loudspeakers from Batkivshchyna [the party of Yuliia Tymoshenko – ed.] were not able to get inside Maidan due to the extreme density of the people that I had never seen before, and probably would never see again. As I was leaving home, I saw thousands of people going to the metro stations to get to Maidan… Those vehicles with loudspeakers did somehow get in the middle of Maidan and started their broadcast, but few people could hear them over some technical issues. But people didn’t want to listen anyway. This is how Maidan was different from the rest of protests, where people needed to be told something, to be led. Here, no one was interested in that. People were just standing, reading from the internet, talking to each other — and that was enough. I saw this was the first time when Ukrainians did not need to be entertained, and that politics is no longer an entertainment, but a conscious choice to be here, to participate. On Dec. 1 [2013 – ed.] Ukrainians created a new reality, a new society that rushed ahead.
– Do you agree that if not for the beating up of the students, Maidan would have died?
– I guess so.
– My next question is a serious one, but I would like you to answer honestly. Each Sunday, there was a popular assembly. Every Friday prior to that something would happen: Tetiana Chornovol was beaten, Bulatov’s ear was cut. Were they man-made reasons for the people to come, or did it happen for real?
– I think it’s just a chain of coincidences. Many things were happening since late December, almost daily, but just a few of them caused a stir. Regarding Chornovol, it’s crystal clear — it’s one of the few crimes against Maidan that have been solved, and guilt of masterminds and perpetrators proven. Some of them were punished, others disappeared in Russia. You can look in open sources how it all happened. Obviously, it’s not a provocation, but a conscious act by the mafia group supported by certain bandits from the Yanukovych’s cronies.
– How about Bulatov, is it crystal clear as well? Was his ear cut off?
– I can’t say anything of Bulatov, I do not know, there was no trial in that case. But for Chornovol, there was a trial, and it was open, and the materials are openly published, so it’s easy to see by yourself how it all happened.
– It’s been three and a half years since Maidan won. But have the people who were on Maidan, who were the Maidan, have they won, what do you think?
– I think yes, it’s a victory for everyone. It was a revolution against human rights violations, for the human dignity and civic honor. Those who violated the human rights, who didn’t give a damn about them, they have vanished from the country, most of them. It’s a victory, of course, but also a serious lesson for both Ukrainian politicians and the society. The real independence started there, on the Maidan. The independence of the state began with the independence of a citizen.
– Three and a half years passed, and little has been done in terms of reform — is that the victory of Maidan? I will put it differently: if you were in the government, how much time would you need to implement the required reforms? You personally.
– Look, we’re building a democratic society where you’ll never see just one person or one political group at the realm of the government; the Ukrainian society is different — a model when someone decides for everyone else will never work here. The decisions made must please the majority; otherwise it will not work out. And the reforms are slow because Ukraine has never been an independent state for real. For the past 25 years it has been a raw materials and resources addition to the Russian Federation, and economic dependence of Ukraine from Russia has only increased. This led to Russia taking control over the government in Ukraine through controlling Ukrainian oligarchs. So our independence was factitious, and in terms of foreign policy, we’ve been trying over the past three years to prove the West that we are not a quasi-autonomous unit, that we have left the Russian sphere of influence and are an independent player in global policy. Certainly, without traditions of an independent state and without attributes of an independent state we find it hard. Our army in 2013 was still aimed at defending…
–...we had no army back then...
–...well, the remains of the army were conducting the same tasks as in the Soviet Union. All forces were aimed at defending the country from NATO, Russia was not deemed an enemy, a large number of our military units were located at the western border — getting ready to fight with NATO, probably. All of this was happening because the country had no independent economy, independent government, army, security… Well, what to say if the minister of defense was a Russian citizen, the head of SBU was a Russian citizen? It’s a factitious independence — of certain people, society domains. But not of the state. What we are doing now is not reform, it’s an attempt to create some kind of an independent state able to make independent decisions. So when we are able to make such decisions (and I think this is the only manageable task for our current government), the next generation of politicians after the election in 2019 will have a task to implement reforms. President Poroshenko was not elected as a reformer — he was elected in the first round just for the purpose of legitimizing the authority in Ukraine. We needed a legitimate president elected in accordance with the Constitution, as long as there was another one in Rostov, who was trying to send in Russian peacemaking troops. So the society was solving different political issues in 2014 — people have forgotten… And the goal of the next election will be different — just the reforms. I am certain that Ukrainians will unite for the sake of the reforms the same way they united for the revolution and the war. And after the reload of the government, we will have another agenda.
– Some decade ago you were a producer of Illusion of Fear movie based on a novel by Oleksandr Turchynov [NSDC secretary — ed.]. Today you are chief editor of popular Ukrainian online news outlet Censor.NET. Does Turchynov stand behind Censor?
– No. Censor has been and still is my personal project.
– Is it a profitable project? Can an online news outlet be profitable?
– In 2014-2015 it was profitable. Now we are getting smaller — reacting to the market. We are flexible, not too many people can keep up. As long as there is no market for mass media, we are not able to create a big outlet that we need. I dreamt of opening a permanent bureau in the Donbas, in ATO [anti-terrorist operation – ed.], but we cannot afford it. We can support our activities with the money we earn from advertising — cars, online stores selling different stuff, etc.
– Did leading Ukrainian politicians propose you buying your website? Or, as I know, some websites are offered monthly payments for not mentioning some politicians at all…
– Well, it did happen, back in the reality during Yanukovych times. Some were trying to offer something like that, but… We’re small, it’s not a big company, we don’t have assets, cameras — it’s a small project. Buying Censor means buying several people, starting from me.
– But you’re worth it!
– Well, a person is not an asset…
– Brain is what matters most...
– But you can only buy someone who can at least think together with you, in the same direction. Even during Yanukovych era no one thought of that. It’s different here: if a politician has some resources, he or she creates his or her own website.
– A crony one...
–...yes, and publishes his or her opinions there. Censor is not an asset, we are not The New York Times, we are small, and without the mass media market this number of people cannot attract buyers. If we get lazy and stop posting news to the website from dawn to dusk, Censor will disappear. It’s not a huge machine, not a network of reporters, just several people who write their own articles and a few editors posting the news. We have two small editorial boards, for politics and economic news, and the rest is not profitable at all. We made a decision not to publish beautiful women and yellow reports: we are a different format.
– You are a master of socially important articles, investigative reports, explosive materials about corruption and crimes among top state officials. Who gives you this information? Do you have sources in the government who provide you with information?
– I would like to clarify one thing. I don’t think that my articles are a fight against corruption. I try to fight this mess by covering it. Speaking of corruption in Ukraine is, honestly, a huge kudos to our system of governance. Corruption is a sign of an organized system. You have a system, and corruption exists within it. What we have is not even a post-Soviet, but a post-feudal system of managing the relations within the society. The government is only one player in this system. It’s not weak — sometimes you can’t even understand whether it’s there in this or that sector. So when I cover problems in any sector, I cover the problems in the activities of the state officials. It’s not corruption, it’s just chaos, and I want to streamline it somehow. I realize that any person, especially the one living in a dynamic society such as Ukrainian, is able to change everything around him or her during his or her life. I believe it’s true, and I believe that if we change the game rules, we will quickly change ourselves and everything around us, and build a state that we will be proud of and those who were killed in the past three years would have been proud of.
– When you cover this chaos, does it hurt because this is happening in the country that you were dreaming to have changed?
– It hurts when I think of those people who died because they believed, just like I did, that things could be changed quickly. It’s just that when I got into journalism, I thought this was a reality that exists and has its roots. It’s not a decade long problem or even hundred years long problem, a problem of society and state development. Of course I do realize this can be changed, and I strive to show how this could be done…
– You said you believed — I did believe as well. And I think of myself as an idiot because I believed in something that should not and could not be believed. I don’t mean the idea of changes but the people who were implementing those ‘changes.’ After the Orange revolution [in 2004 – ed.] that I believed in, after the Revolution of Dignity that I believed in, there is nothing more to believe in as I see it. Could you believe again?
– Well, not again, I have believed and still do...
– So we keep hitting the same wall…
– No. There are many things without which we wouldn’t have learnt anything. When we take a child to a kindergarten, we do not force him or her to solve college-level math problems, right? First, he or she needs to learn how to walk, jump, speak, think, feel, and then grows into an adequate citizen and a member of society. Same here: some things make us feel angry, there are some systemic mistakes that pop up every day. But we have to understand that we are changing a living thing, not a dead one. Improving a living thing is the most difficult process that could not be done over one day. Some things take time. The easiest thing to do is to say: let’s make another revolution, shoot down all the bad guys and leave the good ones to take good decisions… But we cannot take this path because democracy is about respect to everyone. Even to those who we do not like and who are not good people indeed. But a bad person has the rights as well. We are now facing an extremely important task: we must hold a democratic and transparent election that will be either early or as scheduled, but it needs to be honest and competitive. This is the most challenging task for Ukraine, and we all should be working towards it. The outcome of the election will be a demonstration of how mature we have grown as a democratic state and a society.
– So we keep being naïve people… I remember when I served in the Soviet Army, my commander was Captain Matveev. When he scolded us, I, a sergeant, was saying: “Well, we’ll learn from our mistakes.” He would then said: “Only idiots learn from their own mistakes; smart guys learn from the mistakes of other people.” We’re trying to learn from our mistakes, but we keep failing… But my question is: were you threatened often?
– Well, not often, but there were some instances...
–...after you ran an article or prior to?
– During the Yanukovych tenure I was threatened several times over articles about the state enterprise Ukrspyrt [the largest state spirits producer – ed.]. I once received an interesting text message…
– Like what?
–...like if you love this subject of spirits so much, you will be swimming in formalin. I went to my friend and teacher Yuliia Mostova, chief editor of Dzerkalo Tyzhnia. She checked this phone number through her channels, and it turned out someone bought a phone number, sent one text, and threw it away. I was the only one covering this subject for Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, no one else was interested in it.
– Is independent journalism possible in Ukraine?
– We have to understand what it’s independent from. Some Western terms are not applicable to Ukraine. In our country, journalism cannot be absolutely independent because it’s a part of the society it works for, not the entire society but certain social groups of readers. So you cannot be like totally independent. I know some Western media practice this approach, but we have to understand that the Western values are not always good for us as they are based on totally different level of society development. Not all stuff that’s effective in the West would be effective here. Ukraine is capable of having competing journalism, the one that promotes civil society development, but it has to be independent from those exploiting the society. We used to live in a feudal state where heads of agencies, similar to feudal rulers, owned an area each, and this feudalism governed us all. Of course, any journalist has to be independent from feudalism that had existed here for 23 years and hasn’t been totally destroyed. And not to support exploiting the people by a group of guys who get into their chairs for a short period of time.
– I watch Russian TV channels almost daily — I want to know how the Russian propaganda operates. I can say it’s 10 times better than Ukrainian. Why is it so?
– Russia is an heir to the Russian empire. Both during the empire and the USSR, Moscow and St. Petersburg were the intellectual centers and integrators of intellectual powers of this huge territory, one sixth of the planet land. Of course, they were based on serious traditions and institutions of the statehood. It was an authoritarian statehood, of course, but it existed during many years, and these traditions have remained in place until now. The intellectual level of officials is very high there, plus Russia has a huge raw material base, it’s the richest country in the world in these terms. The issue is that unfortunately, it has authoritarian government and it has mobilized the best forces for waging the war, put them into structures created for the war and restoration of some light version of the Soviet Union. They put hundreds of millions of dollars into propaganda, so they are able to attract the most professional personnel, the most powerful army, the secret services…
–... and this works.
– Yes, it started working back during Putin times 17 years ago.
– The system has formed.
– They have certain traditions, they’ve had several generations of officials, some inefficient executive decisions were dismissed over constant wars. I am saying that the authoritarian system, which is more inert, which is not able to react quickly, it has gone this path and is able to make more systemic decisions than us. What have they been doing during these 17 years? They’ve been surviving by exploiting former borderlands of the Soviet Union, the markets and resource colonies for them. Just like Ukraine. They were comfortably surrounded by a circle of border states — quasi independent states that were governed by pro-Russian authorities, doing what was needed, and enriched and reinforced Moscow — the Russian center. So it’s no wonder everything works better there: they’ve had 17 years of practice, and we’re only trying to create something of our own now.
– You mentioned Yuliia Mostova, a journalist I respect very much. Who of Ukrainian colleagues is an example for you?
– The people I learned from: Yuliia Mostova, Serhii Rakhmanin. The first political article I read in a newspaper was penned by Mostova about the parliamentary election of 1998. It was March 1998, I was reading it with a pencil and thinking: “Oh Lord, it’s incredible. How can one write like that, how does she do it?”
– You are a chronicler of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Which episodes of this war impressed you the most?
– It’s hard to name all of them here… It’s like Maidan, a puzzle that keeps impressing you. The first episode was on March 2, 2014, when military draft was announced. I thought I should go to my local military recruiting office, probably no one will be there, but I’ll just stop by. When I came I saw that the office was still closed, and there’s a huge line to it. I didn’t even wait until it opened — I ran home to write an article about what I’ve seen. And there were many surprises like this one, several each day, so it’s not even for a book, it’s a series of books.
– What makes you mad about the ATO?
– The lack of goal. It made me mad since the very beginning, and not just about ATO, but the entire state. You’ve mentioned corruption — it’s a matter of goal as well. Why are these and that processes taking place on our country? It’s a problem of lack of independent statehood traditions in the society and the state apparatus. Because our officials do not think in terms of projects. They function by sitting in an office without understanding why this office was created, who needs this system of the staff, who planned this apparatus, what are its goals and tasks. Governing is not a building where you sit with a phone with buttons, you push those buttons and give orders, as everyone sees it. All of this was created back in the day with a certain goal. Several generations of officials have passed, the state has changed, it’s a new age outside, and you have to understand when you enter that cabinet that possibly this is no longer needed. You have to know your goals, not just for this cabinet, but in general, in accordance with your status and beliefs. These problems are the most visible in ATO because the war is the protection of the state, it’s the biggest concentration of all resources, intellectual and material, to secure the state’s existence. It’s like soccer — the game everyone tries to understand and follow. The lack of a goal in ATO strikes me the most, and I’ve written dozens of pages on that.
– Is army really corrupted now?
– Yes, unfortunately.
– And this kills, right? The state is at war, and some people are getting extremely rich. And the guys die almost every day.
– Yes, you’re right. But again, the perception of corruption in the army is changing. In Ukraine, corruption is the only way of governing some areas.
– No way!
– But you can’t act in accordance with the law because we’ve been living in a feudal society. It’s not a state, but a feudal institution — an organization comprised of separate princedoms. Each leader of a princedom, especially after the 1991 independence, had been trying to improve his or her positions for the sake of his or her own interests. Nothing can be done here quickly without corruption as long as the rules contradict themselves. If you want to act in accordance with the law, you’d be going in circles for ever, until one of the officials claims responsibility, shows his or her will and solves the issue. In order for the will to be shown, corruption must be used. This is why if we want to build an honest and transparent system…
– There are some who want?
– You know, the war is the factor that has forced the government to make decisions that diminished this corruption. Not destroyed, it’s still there. But it’s got lesser, it’s true, and thanks to that people have some more air to breath and more resources for the army and combat activities. But unfortunately, it’s not enough.
– What should Ukraine do to have the peace?
– Only win the war.
– How should we do that?
– First of all, we need to find a goal, the tasks, the strategy, and organize ourselves to win.
– But Putin does not want to leave, how should we force him out?
– He does not, but the world history knows numerous examples of small countries winning over big ones.
– Do we need visa regime with Russia?
– If it ’ s introduced, Russia will do the same. Will Ukrainian workers in Russia be affected?
– They definitely will. Millions of them. But much more people have suffered over the lack of it. And thousands have died.
– Does current political elite of Ukraine irritate you?
– No. Because I understand they are a part of our society. We will have to build democracy with all those Ukrainians that we have. We will not be able to order a new people from America or another civilized country.
– Do you think you are a part of Ukrainian elite?
– I don’t think the term ‘elite’ is suitable to modern Ukrainian society. We still need to realize many things to become an elite, and I am not the part of it. It would be weird if a public activist called himself ‘elite.’
– Is there at least a hint of corruption fight in Ukraine, what do you think?
– Of course. There’s an ongoing fight with the mess that some think is a fight with corruption. Moral rules are changing, criteria are changing, and a lot of people stopped living in accordance with the old rules.
– So we do have some progress!
– A significant one! If you talk to, let’s say, entrepreneurs, big businessmen, you will learn that they…
–...operate with official books...
– Yes, and they are many. Not because this is their posture, but because it’s better this way, and it’s possible.
– What do you think of NABU?
– I believe this is the first successful professional project of a state institute in Ukraine. I do not speak of success of their results: we will see the sentences. But I repeat: we’ve been living in a feudal country, where state officials were appointed by backstairs influence; and then boom! — some job competition, decent salaries, new regulation. These are the three major criteria that allow forming a normal state agency, and that’s the fight with the mess.
– You ’ re an optimist, right?
– I ’ m a realist. A person who tries to see a solution. If you see what goals the society is facing, and what you as a journalist should be doing to reach them, you cannot be a pessimist.
– Have you had moments of despair in these three and a half years?
– No, never. Oh wait. On Nov. 29, 2013, at around 7 a.m. I had these three hours of not despair, but incomprehension. In the morning, we all went home from Maidan after having released a detainee by blocking a riot police car. I was there with some public activists like Ihor Lutsenko, Oleksii Hrytsenko. We were there, and Lutsenko says: “You know, this is North Korea. What should we do? Maybe, we should not be going home? Some 20 people came from around Kyiv after the students were dispersed.” And I was like: why do we really do this? I came home and could not fall asleep. I wrote a text and still couldn’t. So I went to Maidan — and there were thousands of people, and cars were honking in support. I was so happy! And this happiness and optimism have been with me for all these three years.
– And my last question is a ‘yes-no’ one. Will Ukraine break through?
– Thank you.