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Soviet-era privileges in modern Ukraine

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Nov. 18, 2011, 12:37 a.m. | About Kyiv — by Rina Soloveitchik

A meeting at the Writers’ Union of Ukraine in Kyiv.
© Kostyantyn Chernichkin

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Next to the President’s Administration, a neo-Renaissance yellow mansion fits well into the complex of government buildings dominating this part of Kyiv. Yet by a strange twist of history, it belongs to Writers’ Union of Ukraine, whose members promote an image of independent thinkers and unbiased writers.

But appearances can be deceptive.

The union is haunted by property scandals, nostalgia for the golden Soviet days and, it appears, writers’ bloc. Run by Volodymyr Yavorivsky, a writer and a member of parliament in opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko’s minority faction, the union is dividing Ukraine’s creative community.

Many up-and-coming writers cringe at the very mention of the organization whose founding inspiration came from Josef Stalin’s pawns. Founded in 1934, the Soviet Union of Writers was designed to cater to the masters of state-approved words.

It provided them with many privileges, including free stays in holiday homes in the Crimea, posh places for daily work, cars and a status equal to that only of a member of parliament.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, many old-time authors spoiled by the era of state dachas and feasts did not want to let go. In the age of virtual offices and coffee-infused literary evenings in friends’ homes, they cling hard to their material possessions and blame each other for misuse.

“Since the [pro-presidential] Party of Regions came to power, the union felt a massive attack, as they began to check on our property,” said deputy head of the union and treasurer Anatoly Krym.

The organization owns about a dozen properties across Ukraine, including the cream of real estate in the centers of Yalta, Lviv, Odesa and Kyiv. Some 1,800 writers belong to the union and are entitled to use the premises, including hospitals and holiday homes.

According to Yavorivsky, most of these properties have been leased out to help the union’s members financially, encourage independent writing and pay the daily bills.

But some members felt that an Hr 200 one-time payment, which some of them received, did not reflect the cost of rent on the market. Maria Yakubovska from Lviv was in their ranks.

When Yakubovska raised concerns about a clinic on Reitarska Street, she says she was excluded from the union along with three other writers “for amoral behavior.”

The writer, who headed the union’s branch in Lviv, claimed the clinic was sold. “The top management is getting wealthier and most writers die in poverty,” she said indignantly. “We only want them [union heads] to disclose finances but they refuse to do so.”

The union’s president Yavorivsky denied allegations, saying that the union has only leased this property out to a modern clinic in exchange for free services to the writers. “It’s a shared project: we came with the building and they came with the money.”

A debate exists over whether the Writers Union of Ukraine should own the neo-Renaissance yellow mansion near the Presidential Administraiton. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)

But he failed to put out the fire. Following numerous complaints from other writers, the general prosecutor’s office launched an investigation earlier this year.

“They are particularly keen to appropriate our headquarters on Bankivska because it fits so well into the complex of government buildings,” said Yavorivsky.

“The money we receive from rent goes to cover utility bills, salaries and festivals we organize annually. The state funding is meager and cannot cover these expenses,” he said, while refusing to disclose finances.

The disputed mansion next to the president’s office looks like it has not been renovated since Soviet days. Worn out carpets, tainted mirrors and flaking wall paint still remember the hey days of Ukrainian literature when many young writers like Lina Kostenko and Ivan Drach – school-studied classics today – used to walk in its corridors.

It seems that the only young blood pumping inside these walls now are young female secretaries in short skirts. A creative professional outside the guild is barred from its pompous interiors.

“The union must be reformed in order to help young talent,” said Hanna Herman, the deputy head of Presidential Administration, when asked to scale the problems with the union.

“The system of creative arts unions designed under the communist system needs to be disbanded, their properties liquidated and rather given to the children and the old.”

Denying the government’s interest in the houses, she said that fellow writers have the right to demand transparency. “And if nothing was stolen, Yavorivsky has nothing to worry about,” she added.

The union’s management, in return, has accused the administration of censorship.

Plaguing the union for the last couple of years, these disputes swelled with the election of the union’s president, which is scheduled for December.
But some writers doubt that a new chief will revamp the union.

“It is a Stalinist structure that excludes everyone who does not agree with a mainstream opinion,” said writer Taras Fedyuk, adding that most progressive writers have already broken ties with the organization.

Fedyuk defected in the late 1990s himself and entered an alternative Association of Ukrainian Writers, which he now heads as president.

“In the Soviet Union people read a lot and book sales helped writers develop their guild and maintain these properties,” Fedyuk said. But that is not the case.

The union does not even offer a strong justification for its existence.

When asked why Ukraine still needs the Writer’s Union, Yavorivsky said: “I suppose because it existed in the Soviet Union.”

Rina Soloveitchik is a freelance writer who interned with the Kyiv Post.
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