Vera Graziadei (nee Filatova) is a familiar face to British audiences, given her role in the cult Channel 4 series Peep Show, numerous TV dramas and widely-praised theatre and film work. Born in Donetsk, to a Ukrainian mother and Russian father, she came to the UK as a teenager and was educated at the London School of Economics. But Graziadei’s passions go beyond acting. Recent events in Ukraine have left her shocked and disturbed, as she tells Liam Halligan in London.
Liam Halligan: Are you Ukrainian or Russian?
Vera Graziadei: Actually, first and foremost I’m a Brit. I swore my allegiance, took citizenship and spent my formative years here, having arrived at the age of 13. Back then, I’d tell people I was Russian but born in Ukraine. That was a kid talking. As an adult, I say I’m Ukrainian. But if I meet two people from Vladivostok and Western Ukraine, I feel culturally closer to the person from Vladivostok, even though its thousands of miles away. I’m not saying I don’t like people from Western Ukraine. I’m talking about how close I feel culturally, not personally nor in terms of friendship. So – a rather complicated answer to a simple question.
LH: How did you feel when the Kyiv protests escalated in February?
VG: I felt the initial protests were positive. I was happy Ukrainian people were standing up for their rights. And I didn’t particularly like President Yanukovich. But as the situation escalated, it became clear [Oleh] Tyahnybok [Leader of Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda] and [Dmytro] Yarosh [who heads the far-right party Praviy Sektor] were the main agitators. Their messages were so Russophobic, so extreme, that it shocked and scared me. With such people in charge, and Kyiv pushing an aggressive nationalist agenda, I was frightened for ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Our country isn’t inherently divided, but is culturally diverse. That diversity can be exploited – given the differences between the traditionally rural Western Ukraine and the more industrialized East. When the Maidan protesters were extremely violent towards young guys from Berkut [Ukrianian police], I got really worried. Berkut was doing its job – trying to protect gosdudarstvenost (statehood), maintaining law and order. It’s not as if they were backing Yanukovich. On 20th February, when the protesters were roused to become violent again, storming buildings, even though Yanukovich had agreed to earlier elections, I became disturbed. Why couldn’t they wait until the newly- scheduled elections in May? Why create these extra problems? I had little time for Yanukovich. But you must differentiate between an individual and an institution. The state, the rule of law, must be protected. The way Yanukovich was ousted undermined that. I wanted him to go in principle,
but he’d been fairly elected and that democratic contract with the people was broken. When one group gets power using violence then other groups will think, OK, so we can also get power using violence. This was a major setback for Ukrainian democracy.
LH: To what extent were events influenced from outside, in your view?
VG: Well, we have [US Secretary of State Victoria] Nuland on tape, basically ordering who should be in the Ukrainian government and who shouldn’t. If that’s not evidence, I don’t know what is. But there is plenty more. An apparently independent Ukrainian media channel Hromadske TV is sponsored by the Dutch and American governments. To my mind, that suggests Shell and Chevron – given the corporate struggle for Ukraine’s oil and gas. And we’ve had many Western-funded NGOs working in Ukraine before the protests, of course.
My mother is Ukrainian. I fully understand why some people want to preserve Ukrainian national identity. Many Western Ukrainians are happy to get outside assistance to do this. It’s not a secret – they’re proud America is helping them. But many others are different from them and would prefer to be closer to Russia. They can’t expect all Ukrainians to feel the way they do, even though I understand and respect their motivation.
What I absolutely don’t respect is the way West Ukrainian forces have tried to achieve what they want. Of course, Ukrainian consciousness is legitimate and we need civic society. But the way it has been done now makes me more and more against it.
LH: Who do you think was behind the Kyiv sniper shootings on 22nd February, which killed over 60 people?
VG: I’ve become pretty obsessed with this issue. [Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas] Paet suggested someone in the Ukrainian government may have ordered these shootings, to escalate the situation and generate total disorder. And it’s not as if he’s a friend of Russia. I can’t say if this is true or false. But, Ukrainian citizens should demand an investigation, an explanation.
LH: As a British citizen, how do you think our government has acted?
VG: It is difficult for me to accept, as a Brit, that the British government, for many months, backed a government effectively founded on violence. All governments do some things I don’t agree with – be they British, American or Russian. But in the UK an atmosphere has been created in which, if you don’t unquestioningly support our foreign policy, backing the Ukrainian government, you’re a Putin apologist. This makes me think people are only interested in Ukraine because they’re anti-Putin. They may know nothing about the history and culture of the country and broader region. They will just automatically say the side Putin supports must be wrong. Such narrow thinking, and claims that East Ukrainians are merely victims of Russian propaganda, is self-serving and generates more misunderstanding and tension.
LH: What do you make of how Russia is covered in the western media?
VG: I became angry during the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics – way before this unrest in Ukraine. There was a mania in the West to bash Russia and I felt sad for the Russian people, not least because I think they did a great job in Sochi. Many athletes, from all over the world, have since said how well organized the Games were. I was at both the opening and closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics – and felt genuinely proud of the UK. I can’t be proud of the Sochi Olympics, as I’m not a proper Russian. But I was impressed – as any objective observer would be.
LH: As the Maidan riots escalated, how did your western friends respond to you?
VG: I never felt ashamed of my views, even when I was criticized for them. They come from a place of truth, because I know what being East Ukrainian is like. I wasn’t too vocal at first, because I wasn’t sure if other East Ukrainians felt the same. But when I saw massive protests against the new Kyiv government, I knew I wasn’t alone. For us, the violent, aggressively nationalistic and Russophobic undercurrents of Euromaidan, along with all the fascist insignia, are entirely unacceptable. I’ve had some real insults thrown at me for not taking a mainstream stance, been called a Putin apologist and faced accusations he pays me money. I’ve previously argued against many of Putin’s actions – so it’s been rather bizarre suddenly to find myself placed in this pro-Putin camp. It’s pathetic blindly to accept what the Western media says without independent research or thinking. Many people I know in the arts industry were entirely uninterested in Ukraine. Then, suddenly, the rights of Ukrainian people were incredibly important to them. Sochi was over, so this was a new thing to use to beat Russia, the big evil other, allowing the West to feel good about itself in a complex world. When you have one big bad figure, and everything is Putin’s fault, the world is simple and you don’t need to think anymore.
LH: Are western commentators right to talk of “a new cold war”?
VG: You wonder what people’s motivations are. This narrative is driven by a desire to make Russia appear weak and marginalized. Just because people write newspaper columns, it doesn’t mean they’re right. Many commentators who supported the Iraq invasion are still part of the Western media establishment, writing articles all the time. Yet that was clearly a mistake – and Putin firmly opposed it, by the way. Again, you don’t have to be an apologist to agree with some of his foreign policy decisions. He was right again to argue against bombing Syria – as the British Parliament recognized. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean you agree with everything he does.
LH: How about Crimea? Despite its history, and a decisive referendum, what happened still transgressed international law.
VG: Yes, but at least there isn’t civil war in Crimea, as there is across Eastern Ukraine. Many of my friends and family from the East are now seeking refuge in Crimea. As someone with many friends living in Crimea, who has been there every summer since I was 6 years old, I know it very well. For the majority of Crimean people, the referendum, and its outcome, was a huge relief. I’m happy for them. And Crimea is now stable, compared to Donbass or Odessa, for instance, where we had a horrendous massacre at the Trade Union headquarters.
This atrocity in Odessa was celebrated in the Ukrainian press. People on prime time talk shows were applauding these deaths. Tymoshenko, too, said the Odessa massacre was a great thing, along with many other Ukrainian politicians and public figures. This total lack of empathy, with Ukraine going down a genocidal path, scares me very much. We’ve just seen slaughter in Odessa, which is part of Europe. As a Brit, it shocks me the Western media has been practically silent.
And what about other war crimes – like the bombings in Luhansk, Slavyansk and elsewhere? The British public needs to know what their government is supporting. Some people in the UK think Ukraine is now quiet. Actually, there is a civil war – and it will get much worse if the Kyiv government isn’t stopped.
LH: Does Putin want Eastern Ukraine to become part of Russia?
VG: I don’t think he wants to invade and I don’t think he will. Ukraine is just too culturally diverse, even in the East. A lot of Ukrainians, of course, want a united Ukraine – and if Putin tried taking the East of the country it would be an international scandal. On the other hand, if there’s a huge war right next to Russia’s border, some kind of action may be needed. What I think Putin truly wants is an agreement to unite Ukraine, but with Eastern Ukraine having close links to Russia. Everything should be decided, of course, by a countrywide referendum. It is for those living in Ukraine, not people abroad, to determine the outcome.
LH: What did you think of the post- protest Kyiv government? And what of the government now?
VG: In February I was frightened, and many in Eastern Ukraine were frightened too. The government instantly tried to delegitimize the use of the Russian language – an extremely provocative move. Svoboda would get barely 1pc of the vote. So why did they have 6 or 7 ministerial positions? Why was Yarosh allowed to oversee a legal militarized group? Praviy Sektor had been conducting atrocious crimes all over Ukraine and was then legalized. That was shocking.
Since the election, the extremists haven’t gone away. They’re still in power. Yarosh has a senior post in [President] Poroshenko’s private army. It makes me wonder who on the Maidan had an interest in provoking violence and getting power that way? They wouldn’t have gained power through a democratic process. Although the May election barely happened in the East, there was a glimmer of hope within me when Poroshenko took office that he’d be more intelligent than Yatsenuk and wouldn’t just be steered by the CIA and domestic anti-Russian oligarchs. But now I’m outraged at the bombing of civilians in the East by the Kyiv government. It’s very difficult to be positive. I don’t necessarily support DNR (the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic) but their motivations are powerful and legitimate. Where all this is going, I don’t know. But Iraq shows us that the more you suppress people, the more radical and extreme they become. The Party of the Regions has failed the people of East Ukraine. It always represented the oligarchs’ interests anyway. East Ukrainians feel no-one is looking out for them. We’re talking about largely working class people, with few connections to the political world. That’s why DNR has emerged – and it wants to negotiate with the government.
LH: Given your joint Ukrainian- western background, what is your advice to western political leaders?
VG: I understand the rights of East Ukrainians aren’t the primary concern of the British government. Yet there are thresholds that mustn’t be crossed. War crimes are happening in Europe. It’s a humanitarian disaster. Western governments must step up and tell the Ukrainian government to stop doing this. They won't do this as the Western media is showing little of what's happening – even though it's all over the internet. These crimes have been filmed by hundreds of people, from every angle, but our mainstream media isn’t showing any of it – and that’s scary. Instead, events in Ukraine are often reported in a patronizing colonial manner. A BBC journalist visiting Eastern Ukraine saw old Soviet relics in the street and declared that local people are stuck in a Soviet mindset, leading them to support DNR. That’s entirely wrong. You’d think the BBC would make an effort to understand the concerns of local people. Such reporting brings the Crusades to mind. “These barbaric East Ukrainians have false gods! What they need is our god!”
LH: Can this rift between Russia and Ukraine be healed?
VG: I was recently at the Moscow State circus and, when a gymnast came on to a traditional Russian theme, the music triggered in me a realization of how much has been lost, that these two countries, which have always been very close, are now basically at war. I felt very sad and cried. As an East Ukrainian, I always saw these nations as brothers. Yet something has died in that relationship. I’m now aware that, for all these years, Western Ukrainians felt differently to me. Perhaps they never had this feeling of unity that I always had. Ukraine could split in two. Whatever happens, the outcome must be decided by those living in Ukraine. My sincere hope is that not everyone in Western Ukraine hates Russians and East Ukrainians and that, hopefully in my lifetime, these nations will come closer together again.
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