By Andrew Yurkovsky
Alexander Motyl is on a roll. Call his latest enterprise the “fiction factory.” Having produced six nonfiction books, the Rutgers University political scientist has embarked on a new challenge—the Great American Novel—and added a Ukrainian twist.
Not that Motyl, one of the country’s top experts on Russia and eastern Europe, has anything to prove. The New York City native—he grew up in the Lower East Side’s Ukrainian community—is an accomplished painter as well as an internationally recognized scholar.
Two years ago, Motyl published his first novel, “Whiskey Priest,” a thriller that takes place against the background of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The novel, which begins in Vienna with the murders of three high-profile professors, allowed Motyl to settle some professional scores and to reflect on post-Cold War angst.
Motyl recently completed a second novel, “Who Killed Andrei Warhol,” slated for publication later this year by Seven Locks Press. He will read from “Who Killed Andrei Warhol” and “Whiskey Priest” at the Cornelia Street Café on May 5.
The Warhol book gives Motyl a chance to combine his many interests and to riff, yet again, on things Ukrainian. Warhol’s family hailed from eastern Slovakia and was of Rusyn, or Ruthenian, stock. Rusyns speak a language similar to Ukrainian and are regarded by some as part of the same ethnic group.
As it turns out, identity has been an ongoing preoccupation of Motyl’s. He achieved renown as a Sovietologist for his focus on non-Russians in the former USSR and for his attempt to understand how the socialist state was unique.
Not long ago, Motyl and I sat down to talk about political developments in Ukraine and his extracurricular activities.
Q: Last year, Viktor Yanukovych, the rival of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and the Kremlin’s candidate for the Ukrainian presidency in 2004, returned to the prime minister’s office in Kiev. Do you think the victory of Yanukovych and his Party of Regions is a setback for democracy in Ukraine?
“I think the Orange Revolution did not erupt simply overnight. I think there was a long institutional and societal transformation that preceded it. That’s Point One. My argument is Ukraine has changed since 1990. Two: Ukraine has changed since 2004; Ukrainians have changed since 2004. ... It’s not 2004, in other words. We haven’t gone back. Maybe there’s a circle, but it’s more like a spiral.”
Q: You take your fellow academics to task in “Whiskey Priest.” There isn’t an admirable one in the lot. How do you reconcile that depiction of your profession with your own work as a teacher?
“The intellectuals among the professoriate who are on the cutting edge, developing new theories and new visions and things of that sort—I hold them in fairly low esteem. The ones doing the grunt work—teaching the students, taking care of them—those I hold in fairly high esteem. But we don’t know about them. They are like the nurses in a hospital. They do all of the work, but they generally don’t attract too much attention. ... Teaching is the one part of being an academic that I’ve always been committed to. I enjoy it immensely.”
Q: Can you tell me about your new novel, “Who Killed Andrei Warhol”?
“The book is written in the form of a diary by a Soviet Ukrainian journalist based in Leningrad And he’s totally Sovietized. He may even be a KGB agent. He comes to New York in February of ’68 at the height of the garbage strike to cover the impending American revolution. And, of course, part of his cover is he has an office at the CPUSA [the American Communist Party].”
The American Communist Party headquarters shared the same building as Andy Warhol’s Factory, on Union Square in Manhattan.
“He meets Warhol. They hit it off. They talk about art; they drink vodka. Warhol invites him home, and his mother makes pierogies. All this kind of stuff. And, of course, he also gets involved with [Warhol assailant] Valerie Solanis; he gets involved with the FBI; he witnesses the race riots in Newark; he goes up to Columbia during the student demonstrations in 1968. ...
“So I was able to draw on a lot of the stuff I read about Warhol plus on my own knowledge of what Soviet thinking/jargon was like and bring these two together. At least that’s what I tried to do. The absurdity of the encounter—aside from I think the intrinsic absurdity of a Soviet journalist meeting Andy Warhol—is that the journalist interprets Warhol as a socialist-realist painter: a working-class Ruthenian [Rusyn].”
No more absurd, perhaps, than the working-class Ukrainian who has become a professor, a painter and, now, a novelist.
The Second Annual Ukrainian Night, 5 May Cornelia Street Café (29 Cornelia Street, tel: 212-989-9319). Two sets, $10 per set. First set: 6-8 p.m. Second set: 9-11 p.m. With fiction writer Irene Zabytko, poets Vasyl Makhno and Dzvinia Orlowsky, and filmmakers Andrij Parekh and Roxy Toporowych.