Kyiv as a Trauma

Tobias Zielony, Make Up, 2017, archival pigment print, 70 x 105 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, courtesy of the artist and KOW gallery.


Kyiv as a Trauma

Tobias Zielony and Vicky on Healing.

The artist Tobias Zielony visited Kyiv in 2017 for a series of conversations and portraits of the underground queer and techno scene. His series “Maskirovka” documents the complex reality of Ukrainians and the conflicting claims of diverse actors struggling to occupy the country’s contested symbolic and political space. Zielony uses the term maskirovka, commonly referring to a Russian tradition of covert warfare and military deception, to describe Russian politics toward Ukraine since the Maidan Uprising. The “hybrid war” in eastern Ukraine has never been officially declared, yet in Crimea the masked special forces, so-called “green men”, occupied Ukrainian territory. Masks also played a crucial role in protecting the Maidan protesters from tear gas, and helped to hide their identities from the authorities. The portraits and still lifes reveal the fragile and treacherous situation in which the protagonists live and act in the city in Kyiv. When we read these conversations today, we can visit a time that is past – and really not. The aftermath of the 2013 Maidan Uprising, reflected in these conversations, is still present. This war, these conversations show, has been going on for at least eight years. This is his interview with Vicky on healing.

Tobias Zielony and Vicky on Healing.

Vicky, can you briefly say what you do?

I’m a psychologist and I work for an NGO, a non-governmental organization for LGBTQI people. I also have my private practice with private clients.

You do psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

How long have you been working as a therapist?

For five years.

Have you noticed changes since Maidan?

During Maidan, I was working a lot with journalists who covered the events. Those who received this initial wave, the first wave of violence, were deeply involved. From a professional perspective, I can say they weren’t ready since they were really in shock, all of them. You could see within a year after the events whether people could manage their trauma or not. Some could and some couldn’t. Also, you could see exhaustion. Tiredness. This exhaustion, I could say, is a topic not only for journalists but for most clients. You notice how important it is because it comes like a line, an obvious line of expression, which, however briefly, everyone mentions.

Can you describe more specifically where you think this tiredness is coming from and how it manifests physically and mentally?

People were involving themselves a lot in the political struggle, and now they feel tired, not able to do as much as they did. They still feel obliged to keep going, obliged to be working. This exacerbates the other issues clients have. Because normally I didn’t have this, but now I see it again and again.

You’re sitting at home, witnessing the end of the world, but you don’t feel much because you have gone through this emotional hell before.

Are you speaking of people who were involved in an active role in the revolution? Like journalists or activists?

No. It’s about even very normal citizens. Everyone was involved, if not physically, then emotionally, especially in Kyiv. People were not prepared for what happened, nor was I, and now I feel that I have more work than I am prepared for. It’s what people come with and what they have, problems that they were not ready for. For instance I know only a few projects that are working with soldiers, and they are not richly financed, not highly professional. They are just small projects. I have many colleagues who are afraid to work on this topic, afraid to work with people with this kind of trauma.

Why do you think they’re afraid?

They are not ready, as I was not ready. They feel they will not be able to do it professionally because they will not be able to help with the trauma. I know about the situation because the NGO that I work with is running a shelter for LGBTQI people, especially those from eastern Ukraine fleeing the war. Through working with these people, I have come to know how complicated it is. My colleagues who are not involved in this kind of therapy are really astonished when I tell them about my work.

I know it’s difficult, but could you give a general picture of the situation in the Ukraine right now? You had the revolution, then the war, and things are not clearing up. Are there psychological terms for this kind of situation?

Better than a psychological term is an artistic association: you’re sitting at home, witnessing the end of the world, but you don’t feel much because you have gone through this emotional hell before. You think, here I have my heater, here I have my rifle, that’s it, I’ll drink tea and see it happening.

Tobias Zielony, Aluminium, 2017, archival pigment print, 84 x 56 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, courtesy of the artist and KOW gallery.

Comparing before and after Maidan, has the situation of the LGBTQI community improved?

It is better. We did have our pride parade going through the central streets, and we had our families and relatives there, a lot of support from gay-friendly people. Before, there were gay-friendly people who didn’t think they should be openly supportive. Now people are more publicly friendly. It has normalized itself, but still you are not supposed to be openly queer everywhere, and we don’t have any laws protecting partnerships. Nevertheless, it’s a promising situation for transgender people. I hope they will be the ones who will bring us forward. They are the mind-openers for previously homophobic people.

Historically, the fight for gay rights and the struggle for political equality and emancipation of all citizens have been connected. Here in Ukraine they seem very close, too.

Now it is much more normal to say you’re a defender of equality rights for animals, refugees, handicapped people. You have support for this. My parents are a good example. They are pretty conservative, they support the patriotic movements in many ways, but they very much acknowledge my citizenship position, and they support me in this.

Do you sometimes feel, as a psychologist, that you have to repair political failures or crimes? When you talk with your clients, what kinds of pictures do you develop together for the crisis or the war? How do people put it in words or images?

In my work it’s important for the client to be coping with what is happening. Not so much about seeing what is happening. It’s about envisioning themselves getting through, going on, overcoming the circumstances. Often people describe it in casual terms, for instance they describe the shelling as an alarm clock for them to wake up. They tell time by the shelling. Many people ask me how to avoid the topic of war, since bringing it up means a family quarrel. People want to know how to avoid family quarrels. For example, people ask about ways to deal with a part of the family, perhaps their cousins, who are soldiers on the aggressor’s side.

In my work, the most important part is to give the person responsibility for their life.

In the therapy you have to address this. How do you encourage people to cope? Do you try to find a way to get past things, or go deeper and try to analyze the problem?

I try to combine those approaches, because for me it’s about humanity. I try to tell people how to compartmentalize things. On the one hand is their political position, their occupation, and on the other is having relatives or having to share the common territory where you live. Actually the difference between the long-term work with trauma and the short-term work with trauma is that people just need to know how they should be living right now at this very moment.

I read about an Israeli therapist who worked a lot with bombing victims, and he said that 50 or 70 percent of people can cope, and some others have long-term trauma. He developed a strategy where he asked people to create a linear and somehow logical story of what had happened. Instead of people saying, “there was blood and bombing and chaos,” they put it into one fixed story that helps them cope. He said that often this was better than forcing people to live through trauma again and again.

That’s what I was mentioning when I said we need some sustainable projects, government efforts that build interventions with people long-term, since we have a lot of them in need of this kind of therapy. People who need to build up the mutual story of what is happening just to make sense of it and overcome it. What we have now is only helping citizens to cope with the moment, and it’s not for all who need it. In this respect, the work with the people who moved to Kyiv from the east is interesting because all those who moved remind the others of what they want to forget. People are really tired, and want to forget.

Tobias Zielony, Kyiv, 2017, archival pigment print, 105 x 70 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, courtesy of the artist and KOW gallery.

It seems as if there is no clear shared idea of the war. Is it Russia’s strategy to create a situation that is so unclear that people have trouble thinking about it, talking about it, and creating a common sense among the general public?

I think there are several stories that describe it, and people don’t have the ability or the will to bring them together. It’s about the direction of one psyche to trauma, where you have the split picture of the world and you can’t put the two halves together. Personally, I’m very tired. I can tell you that I do not watch or read major political news dailies and I try to stay out of conversations about this topic because if I was involving myself like that, I could not be coping with my job, which I think is important and I want to carry on with it.

You could also speak about coming out. When you dare to make a revolution, you rely on your strength to be stronger. You provoke the powers to come out of the background, and you see who is doing what, who will persist.

For me it’s about daring, but also about facing the consequences of what comes when you have dared. And being able to take the responsibility.

That’s also what therapy is.

In my work, the most important part is to give the person responsibility for their life. That is complicated. But that’s the most positive part of what is happening in our country. If you are LGBTQI, there is the possibility of being able to talk about it, along with the provocation of the spoken word coming with it.

Tobias Zielony is an artist, photographer and filmmaker based in Berlin.

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