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Painting with ash and earth. How Oleh Bazylevych – a military man, screenwriter, scientist, polyglot, artist – sees and captures the war

Painting with ash and earth. How Oleh Bazylevych – a military man, screenwriter, scientist, polyglot, artist – sees and captures the war © Фото предоставлено автором

The phenomenon of the modern Ukrainian army is that there are many civilians in it, including teachers, lecturers, military personnel, engineers, managers, artists and poets. One of such heroes, in the literal sense of the word, is Oleh Bazylevych – a geographer, historian, writer, feature and documentary screenwriter, polyglot translator, and artist.

The reason for the exclusive interview was the recent opening of Oleh Bazylevych's first personal exhibition in the halls of the "Hlibnia" gallery of the National Sanctuary Complex "Sophia of Kyiv". Art exhibition of a volunteer (he took part in hostilities from February 24, 2022), a senior lieutenant, deputy battery commander of the 1st self-propelled artillery division of the 1st separate tank brigade called "Severia". All of the works presented in the exhibition were written by Oleh on the front line in the period from March 2022 to February 2024. The "Front Palette" exhibition, organized with the support of the Dom Master Klass cultural center, will last until March 16.

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We will try to present the facets of Oleh Bazylevych, in which he is vividly represented and about which we were able to talk. As Oleh shared, since his mature years, he, who is a Catholic, has been helped by the ancient Buddhist practice of "vertical dissociation": "You need to single out a certain aspect of your consciousness, the "inner observer", and separate it from yourself. This should be done in order to look at yourself not "from the side", but "from above". Then you understand more clearly what that person "below" should think about now, what to pay attention to and what needs to be done. That's how I try to do what is really necessary."

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— Oleh, you put albums, pencils, paints, brushes and even a flute in your military backpack. Why?

— Because I understood that I might never return to these activities. If you go to war, you are already a fatalist. You understand that everything can stop at any moment.

— Since 2022, your palette consists mainly of earth, clay, soot, ash...

— And also from vegetable juice, for example from sunflower petals in separate works. It was the rains of the summer of 2022, the incredible mud in which various tasks had to be performed, that prompted the idea that soil and clay from the trenches could be used instead of paints. Drawing with earth is not something that you put some mystical meaning into, it is put there by itself. This is our land, the Motherland, strength comes from it. We are all strongly connected to it – although perhaps not all of us are aware of this connection.

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— When did you start painting?

—  I started painting at the age of three. I saw a red motorcycle, I really liked it, so I took a red pencil and drew it. (Smiles.) It turned out quite well. And to this day, I am engaged in painting as an inner vocation. I had the example of my father (Oleh Petrovych Bazilevych - a famous football player, coach.M.M.). He painted, was fascinated by sculpture. His mother and grandmother also painted. Dad's grandmother was a well-known master of Petrykiv painting in Poltava region, she painted stoves. Karlivka district of Poltava region — no one remained there during the Holodomor, everyone died. Descendants of Zaporozhian Cossacks, evicted by Catherine the Great, after the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich. Many interesting stories have been preserved about them. I know that my great-great-grandfather was engaged in the merchant, trade and cart industry... But during the Holodomor, all the inhabitants of their village died. Dad's mother survived, because at that time she was already working as a teacher in Kharkiv. And all other relatives died.

Returning to my passion for painting, I must confess that when I was already a student of the Faculty of Geography, I still went to the preparatory department of the Faculty of Architecture of the Art Institute, where my teacher was such a master as Viktor Volodymyrovych Kryzhanivskyi. Then I studied separately with our outstanding teacher Hryhoriy Yakovych Husid.  

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— Why did you choose the Faculty of Geography?

I loved all sciences, both social, natural, exact, and humanitarian. But I chose the geography faculty, because I knew geography the best, and, for example, for the history faculty you had to have so-called support, that is, the infamous "cronyism". I believe that history and geography are, in their depth, one and the same science, which was simply separated to make it easier to teach. In fact, there is nothing historical that is not geographical. And vice versa. I was also attracted by international relations, philosophy, Romano-Germanic philology. If I had a free choice, I would probably go to study a discipline related to something international, because I really liked to study foreign languages, I read a lot in the original language since childhood.

— What languages do you speak?

— I speak English, Polish, Spanish, a little Czech and Bulgarian. I have plans to study other languages as well.

— But let's go back to history, because you have been studying history since you were young, working with it and on it as a publicist, writer, screenwriter.

— History is personally interesting to me because it explores the causes, consequences, opportunities, windows of opportunity that arise at certain historical moments. Unfortunately, the interpretation of history simply as a record of the chronology of events is more common. I am more interested in the content of what is happening. I'm sure everything has a hidden meaning, a hidden reason. I have many historians in my family. (Smiles.) Dad's sister and mother are candidates of historical sciences and taught at Kyiv University at one time.

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— In 2015, you wrote an article about "the war of all against all, when all the branches on this terrible "tree of war" will suddenly begin to bear their consequences." Based on the thesis of your article, a major documentary film "The Third World War" was created. At the beginning of 2024, you already had practical military experience. So how can you comment on this study today?

— I agree with what they say: the third year of the "three-day operation" in the ten-year war, which has been going on for almost nine centuries, is passing. (Smiles.) They burned Kyiv for the first time during the time of Andrii, the so-called Boholiubskyi, in the distant 12th century.

— Where are we now?

— I always thought that we should think in big categories. And at the same time to see both the small and the big. It is important to understand that the war for the creation of the largest empire in the world was started by Genghis Khan, and is now being continued by Putin. This war for conquest and control over territories corresponds to the thinking of tyrants, despots who rule on earth. There are different types of civilizations: civilizations of routes and civilizations of borders. Kyiv, our historical Rus, is a civilization of routes, "from the Varangians to the Greeks", all our rivers were trade routes. And the empire of Genghis Khan, the Russian Empire are frontier civilizations. There is a deep systemic conflict between these two types of civilizations. These are deep archetypal things that underlie different cultures and all long-term military conflicts. Frontier civilizations try to expand and often do not allow their neighbors the right to independent existence. We are faced with a very important question, the importance of which is often underestimated. Namely: how strong or even determining the influence of a geographical map can be. Let's look at the factors of the development of the Anglo-Saxon civilization: communication routes, seafaring, diffusion of innovations and institutions, contacts and commerce. And let's compare it with the policy of the Russian Federation, whose only goal is to "maximize pastures", conquer new territories, subjugate all civilized living things to the great Eurasian steppe, as in the days of the Golden Horde. These things need to be understood and talked about with the world, which, judging by everything, does not really understand what we are dealing with.

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Writer, screenwriter

— You write a lot about it. You have more than 50 screenplays and dozens of awards in the field of feature and documentary films. Tell us about your biggest project, for which, as far as we know, you do not lose hope of getting government support.

— The novel "Paratichion" reveals the secret of the life of one of the most amazing authors, writers of medieval Russia - Nestor-Iskander, who left a serious literary and historical work "The Tale of the Conquest of Constantinople by the Turks". Subsequently, I wrote the script for a full-length feature film in Ukrainian and English, which collected many awards at prestigious international film festivals and screenplay competitions. The Ukrainian Cultural Foundation supported this initiative a little, allocated money for a game documentary, which also won awards.

However, this project has the ambition of a full-length feature film, a historical drama. There is a huge black hole in the history of Ukraine – we do not know what happened from the time of Batu Khan to Bohdan Khmelnytsky. And this is a whole 400 years. I discovered the topic related to Nestor-Iskander 15 years ago. The fall of Constantinople is the 15th century, it is a turning point. The Middle Ages ended, the early modern era and great geographical discoveries began. But there are no successful films about this historical moment, and we understand why. This is very difficult to do, because during this period of time there were many events, everything was intertwined, as it is now. But the figure of Nestor-Iskander is, figuratively speaking, the nail on which one can hang one large complex and integral picture of the change of eras. Perhaps now we are also living in such an important historical moment, which will directly or indirectly determine the fate of the world for centuries to come. And our role at this moment is key.

— So, are you still looking for opportunities for state financing of this powerful image project?

— We submitted an application to the Ukrainian State Film Agency, because the initiative to create a film of this scale should come from the state... We are waiting for a response... And foreign partners are ready to participate in this initiative. I believe that the implemented project will also be a commercial success.

(The script "Parateihion" won twelve international awards, including the London Movie Awards and the Florence Movie Awards.M.M.)

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— What influenced your decision to defend Ukraine with weapons in your hands? What prompted you to do this?

— I have accounts with Russia within the framework of my family and ancestors. My great-grandfather, who was a prosecutor in Kyiv, was shot by the Bolsheviks when Mikhail Muravyov invaded the city (during the undeclared war of Soviet Russia against the Ukrainian People's Republic.M.M.), he was killed during the first wave of Russian repression. Then there are the consequences of the Holodomor, which I have already mentioned. Many branches of my family tree were destroyed by the empire.

I had a little time to think before taking action, but very little. Half of the day. Made a decision by exclusion. If I go, I might get killed, but at least I'll have a gun in my hand, and that's a plus. I will not die a defenseless victim, but will be a participant in the events - this is again a plus. Yes, it can be cold, uncomfortable, traumatic, dangerous at the front, I can be hungry – these are a lot of negative aspects. But if I don't go, all my life I will feel remorse that I didn't go when I should have done it. This is an objective need, even higher than our ability to comprehend it. When this happens, it is an imperative. Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev wrote about passion, passionate drive. He wrote very interesting things. When there is a critical mass of people (but we are talking about a small percentage) who are ready to sacrifice their lives for a higher goal, it is they who give a passionate impulse to the whole nation. It is quite natural. And Ukraine is now experiencing such a passionate impulse. For the sake of Ukraine, let the nation be. Because we may not exist. The historical fate of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people is being weighed right now on the scales of History. You can't stand aside and watch.

— We will talk to you at the end of February 2024. Many Ukrainian pasionarians died, were physically and mentally maimed... The nation's gene pool suffered. And we are very worried about those who are on the front right now, about you personally. What message would you like to convey to the men in the rear, who can, but are afraid, hesitant?

— Well, you can't help but go to the front. Do you understand?

— Suppose, I understand, but many healthy men in Ukraine think differently. What would you say to them?

— Let them get ready. Those who do not have a military specialty will be sent to the course of a young fighter or will be given such a specialty. Do you hesitate? Do you have any shame at all? Think "I don't know anything about military affairs"? That won't work. This is a people's war –  for the survival of the people. And if you are a part of your people, then raise your ass and go to the Military Commissariat. If not, then you are either a foreigner or a coward. You can also understand when there are really objective reasons – sick parents, health conditions, or some family circumstances. Of course, there are different situations. But in general, hiding from war is a shame for a real man.

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—  You call yourself an optimist. What is your optimism based on?

— On the desire to believe in something good. Faith always has a part of hope that we will be saved. Faith without hope is not faith. And I am a religious person.

— Your current rules of life, crystallized by the war?

— Crystallization took place much earlier, in his youth. For example, I realized that I do not accept alcoholic beverages. I hate their taste. I also want to have a clean, clear conscience. This is generally difficult to achieve in life. Also, I realized a long time ago that I want to live with a clear conscience. Maybe because I don't want to burn in hell. But in general, it's simply better.



A few days ago, Oleh Bazilevych had his stitches removed. He passes the Military Medical Commission of Ukraine. Thirty days to recover – and he returns to his brothers at the front, where he definitely plans to be until he is demobilized due to age. Oleh will turn 60 in November 2024. "We are now near Huliaipole, in the Zaporizhzhia region. This, of course, is not the hottest part of the front, but even there, we have enough of many different challenges..." ​

Read this article in Ukrainian and russian.

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