To understand Ukrainian solidarity, look to the literature

Ukrainian and Russian literature were always taught in opposition. And the opposition was structured in such a way as to bring students to the (quote) voluntary (unquote) decision to side with Russian literature, Russian civilisation and the Russian language – and to reject the Ukrainians.

– Yuri I Shevchuk, professor at Columbia University in the United States, remembering his education in Soviet Ukraine.

When 17-year-old Yuri I Shevchuk arrived at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv in 1978, like generations of Ukrainian students before him who enrolled in literature and language courses, he was primed to embrace the classics of Russian literature and eschew Ukrainian writers. Not only had he grown up in Volodymyrets, a small town in the heavily Russified Rivne Province in northwest Ukraine, but his teachers had done their job well.

“My generation of Ukrainians grew up to hate Ukrainian literature. It was something that provoked a fog in our minds. We felt that our culture is not interesting,” says Shevchuk, now a professor who teaches in Columbia University’s Harriman Institute of Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.

A generation younger than Shevchuk, Mykhailo Nazarenko, assistant professor of philology at Taras Shevchenko National University, echoes Shevchuk’s description of how Russian literature was taught to him in the years leading up to Ukraine gaining its independence in August 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Just as Ukrainians were presented as lesser brothers of the great big brother, the great Russian nation, so their [Russian] texts were held over them. Many of the best texts of Ukrainian literature were not ever taught in the Soviet period,” Nazarenko told University World News while speaking from a small town outside of Kyiv, two weeks after the Russian troops, which had invaded Ukraine on 24 February, had retreated from their positions outside Ukraine’s capital.

A denial of Ukraine’s existence

Like most of Ukraine’s literature professors during the ‘Soviet times’, Shevchuk’s and Nazarenko’s school teachers belonged to an ideological cadre that has spent three centuries denying Ukraine’s independent existence.

Tsar Peter the Great’s 1720 decree against the use of the Ukrainian language (denigrated by the term Malorussian or ‘small Russian’) in theological literature and publishing was the first of many edicts that restricted and finally banned the use of Ukrainian in public life. (History is repeating itself in areas they have conquered: Russian troops have seized Ukrainian language textbooks and Russian authorities are making Russian the language of instruction.)

Most of what is today’s Ukraine was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth established at the end of the 16th century. Over the course of the 17th and 18th century the bulk of Ukrainian lands were taken, including Kyiv (1667) coming under the rule of the Tsars, while lands in the west were taken by Austria-Hungary.

Shorn of political identity and ruled by a foreign power, the Ukrainians were in a situation similar to the Irish under British rule and in some ways similar to that of the Germans prior to the unification of Germany in 1871. Of the period when Germans lived in dozens of kingdoms, principalities, grand duchies, duchies and free cities, albeit ruled by Germans, it was said that ‘Goethe is Germany’.

“Ukrainians in Poland or Russia in the19th century didn’t have a political entity,” says Stetson University (DeLand, Florida) Professor Mayhill Fowler, who directs the university’s Programme in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, and studies the cultural history of Russia and Ukraine.

Literature as identity

In the absence of stable political sovereignty, “literature becomes extremely important for defining that which belongs to you, for defining yourself. It takes on an incredible responsibility. If you’re a Ukrainian writer in the 1920s, or poet, or you’re a Ukrainian writer in the 19th century Russian Empire, your writing carries the weight of the people.”

The Ukrainian writer who carried the most weight was Taras Shevchenko (d 1861), who played a major role in creating the modern Ukrainian literary language. The ban on publishing in Ukrainian in the Russian Empire meant that, with the exception of books printed in the Ukrainian-speaking part of Austria-Hungary and then smuggled into Russian Ukraine, most of Shevchenko’s works remained unpublished in his mother tongue during his lifetime.

A child of the latter part of the Romantic movement, Shevchenko’s poetry celebrates Ukrainians in much the same way Rabbie Burns’ poems do for the Scots. After they conquered the short-lived (1917-21) independent Ukrainian republic, the Soviets did not re-impose the ban on Ukrainian. They did, however, co-opt some of Shevchenko’s works about the common folk and peasants, with the added twist of class struggle.

Like their Tsarist predecessors, Soviet censors suppressed Shevchenko’s criticisms of Russia. In “The Great Vault” written in 1845, the poet, who was born a serf, wrote a verse that could have come from today’s headlines.

“Cruel Russians rob and pillage
What their eyes can notice;
There are even opened graveyards
In the search for money.”

“Only in Shevchenko’s complete works”, says Nazarenko, “could you read some of his points where Russian oppressors were mentioned as Russian oppressors – not Tsarist Russian oppressors, Russian oppressors.”

A deeply imbedded narrative

What scholars call the Russian Imperial Narrative (RIN) or Great Russian Narrative (GRN), which holds that Ukrainian culture was second rate and only of folkloric interest, was so imbedded in Shevchuk’s and Serhii Tereshchenko’s intellectual psyche that each told me of the difficulties of dislodging it.

Having embraced Russian literature in school and Russian popular music and culture, Shevchuk felt it was deeply unfortunate that he was born Ukrainian.

“I wanted to be urban, with-it, modern, cool. In addition to the gravitational pull of the Russian classics,” he says, “the teaching of world literature, Shakespeare, Cervantes, American novelists in Russian instead of Ukrainian was another way to make students associate the Russian language and culture with the world, because Russian was the key to open the world.”

Shevchuk continued with an example that must amaze his students at Columbia. In a bemused tone, he told me that the Soviets had developed dubbing into such a fine art that, “If you watched a foreign film in Russia, you have a completely authentic impression that Marilyn Monroe or John Wayne spoke Russian. Their elocution completely coincided with the articulation of Russian speech,” making Russian appear as the world’s lingua franca.

The trigger for Shevchuk’s “intellectual decolonisation” occurred when he enrolled in university in Kyiv.

“I was mocked for speaking Ukrainian and for being from the area of the country that Russians linked to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [a Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary, partisan, organisation during the Second World War]. Both facts made me a Banderite (a Russian way of calling a Ukrainian a Nazi) even though I was very Russophile at the time.”

The impetus for Tereshchenko’s intellectual decolonisation is more recent. His “Dark Night of the Soul” began when the Russians invaded Ukraine this past February. “I was very slow maturing and getting rid of these tricky narratives,” he told me. “They lived in my body for a long time, and I was in constant conflict with my parents, who were anti-Russian,” says the PhD student at Columbia University, who is preparing to defend his doctoral thesis “The Birth of Alterity in Soviet Science Fiction”.

Decolonising Russian literature

Decolonising Russian literature in universities required, first, an understanding of the roots of the GRN and, secondly, explicating how its famous poets and novelists advanced the RIN.

According to Professor Tetyana Dzyadevych, who will be taking up a fellowship in Slavic studies at Harvard University this fall, the RIN was partially a response to Russians feeling that their empire did not equal the British or German empires.

The Russians, “are actually living in the 19th century because they did not get what the West, the Evil West, got. This is very important to representing themselves as a superpower in the present,” says Dzyadevych, who grew up in Ukraine and identifies as a child of Glasnost, the intellectual opening sponsored by Mikhail Gorbachev from 1985 until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“The imperial narrative,” says Myroslav Shkandrij, emeritus professor of German and Slavic studies at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, Canada) and author of Russia and Ukraine: Literature and the Discourse of Empire from Napoleonic to Postcolonial Times (2001), “is an approach to Ukraine that includes it as a seamless part of Russia, as being integrated into Russian culture. The aim of the integration of the Ukrainian language into the Russian language is to erode any kind of distinction between Ukrainian and Russian. In fact, it denies Ukrainian agency.”

Unlike the British Empire, he adds, which maintained a separate army and viceroy in India, for example, the Russian Empire and its ideologists denied “Ukraine was ever separate or had a completely different history because to do that would have been to lose Ukraine”.

Accordingly, in Shkandrij’s courses, Fyodor Dostoevsky (d 1881) is a rather different figure than the one I learned about in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to discovering the psychologist who anatomised evil (incidentally, to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s satisfaction) and witnessing jarring debate about religion, Shkandrij’s students learn that the author of Crime and Punishment was deeply committed to Russian imperialism.

“In his journalism,” notes Shkandrij, “he says, ‘Small Slavic peoples should all become part of Russia’. ‘Russia is the great Slavic nation.’ He foresaw the Russian conquering of the Dardanelles. ‘Constantinople [Istanbul] should be ours. It’s ridiculous to think that anybody else should have access.’ This is a recipe for a powerful Russian state controlling all the parts of the world that is part of the Great Russian Narrative.”

Each of the scholars I interviewed for this article stressed the difference between Shevchenko and his older contemporary Alexander Pushkin (d 1837). In the West he’s best known for Eugene Onegin and Boris Godunov (each became the basis of operas of the same names). His “Ode to Liberty” is a staple of Survey of World Literature courses.

Two years after writing in this poem, “Autocratic Miscreant! /Thee, thy throne I detest”, the 20-year-old Pushkin was arrested and sent into internal exile.

Pushkin’s radical views didn’t last. For, as Olha Poliukhovych, associate professor in the department of literature at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine, learned in university and teaches her students, “Step by step [Pushkin’s poetry] marginalised the Ukrainians and other smaller nations.” He interpreted the people of the Caucasus as “primitive and marginal”.

(The gravitational pull of Pushkin remains so great, Nazarenko told me, that, despite his disparaging remarks about non-Russians, almost every town or city in Ukraine has a street named after him or a plaque or bust commemorating him.

If anything, since the Russian invasion, Pushkin has become an even more important symbol to both Ukrainians and the Russian invaders. At least 10 busts of him or plaques have been taken down or damaged since 24 February.

After conquering the city of Kherson on 2 March, Russian authorities lost little time in erecting billboards – with a dreamy-eyed pen sketch of Pushkin holding a quill pen – that declared “Kherson is a city with Russian history” because “the creator of the Russian [literary] language” visited it twice.)

Tereshchenko explained why, especially now, university students should study Mikhail Lermontov’s (d 1841) prose as well as his poetry.

“In his prose we see the Russian soldier of today,” he says. Like Lermontov himself, “the protagonist of this (semi-autobiographical) novel, A Hero of Our Time (1840), fights in the Caucasus. He is a fatalist and, therefore, is willing to take risks. He writes about raping, kidnapping and gratuitous violence – and does proudly so.”

Considered second only to Pushkin in the House of Russian Poetry, Lermontov’s “Ismail Bey” is instructive: “Submit Cherkes! /Both West and East, /May soon share your fate, /When the time comes, you’ll say arrogantly:/ ‘Yes, I’m a slave but a slave of the Czar of the World’.”

A paternalistic vs horizontal approach

Both Pushkin’s and Lermontov’s poems came to mind when Stanford University Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures Yuliya Ilchuk explained that one of the key differences she teases out in her courses is that Russian is “paternalistic” while Ukrainian culture and literature is “horizontal”.

“There is no higher power like tradition or the church in traditional Ukrainian organised society,” she says, alluding first to the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, which for most of its history has been, as it is today, allied to the Russian ruler, and to the Cossack practice of electing their own leaders (hetman).

“There is no clear vertical power to the president; there is the prime minister and then deputies, and then the people. In our society you can remove a president who is corrupt or is not serving the people. So, this relationship between power and the people is different than in the Russian context,” which is hierarchical.

For her part, Dzyadevych pointed to Leo Tolstoy, who, as a member of the Russian army, fought in the Crimean war. He did not disparage Ukrainians directly and, famously, became a pacifist in later life. Yet his works – especially War and Peace, which credits Russia’s will, its national morale, as being decisive in its victory over Napoleon – contributed to the GRN.

When I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in my political science and comparative literature courses in university, the emphasis was on his searing critique of the Soviets and the Gulag. In today’s Russian literature courses his moral authority has waned because, as is most clearly seen in Rebuilding Russia: Reflections and tentative proposals, written the year before the Soviet Union collapsed, Dzyadevych notes, he lent his pen to the GRN.

As both Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and Patriarch Kirill, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, do today, Solzhenitsyn used the words of a medieval chronicler who spoke of “treasured Kiev” from which “the Russian land began”.

Solzhenitsyn acknowledged that Ukrainians suffered but averred that Stalin’s crimes were no reason to “hack off Ukraine”.

Indeed, he laid claim to “those parts that weren’t part of old Ukraine”, specifically “Novorossiya [essentially Eastern Ukraine] or Crimea or Donbas and areas practically to the Caspian Sea”. Today (at the time of writing, the 110th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine), holding or conquering these areas are Putin’s scaled-down war aims.

“What’s important to realise about Solzhenitsyn is that while he dissented from the Soviets, he was as much of a Russian nationalist as were the Soviet leaders,” says Tereshchenko.

For Shevchuk, the deconstruction of the GRN in film involves showing his students that the same scholars of film who lavished attention on every frame of the Soviet-Montage sequence on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film paean to the Russian Revolution, were more than just silent about the history of Ukrainian film.

To borrow a word used to describe what the KGB and its predecessor the NKVD did to those judged to be enemies of the state, they “disappeared” these works.

A flourishing of Ukrainian culture

While Russian culture dominated the Soviet Union, for most of the 1920s the official cultural policy was for Soviet nationalities to develop equally. This allowed for the flourishing of Ukrainian culture.

Shevchuk shows his students that in this period, “writers whose imagination was until then limited to village life, history and folklore suddenly discovered modernity and the city”, which became the “new locus of Ukrainian culture”.

By the late 1920s and culminating in the Great Famine of 1932-33, the Holodomor, engineered by Stalin, and in the Great Terror of the mid-1930s, the Soviets all but destroyed Ukrainian society.

Between four and five million Ukrainians, some the so-called kulaks, an insulting word coined to denote rich peasants, starved to death as Stalin extracted every last sheaf of wheat from Ukraine’s fertile black earth belt to feed workers in the rapidly industrialising cities. The Soviets killed some 80% of Ukraine’s intelligentsia, many at the mass execution in 1937 in the Sandarmokh forest.

In Shevchuk’s article, “Cinematic Depopulation as a Variety of Cultural Imperialism” (Miscellanea Posttotalitariana Wratislaviensia, Warsaw, 2021), the only article to examine Soviet films in this way, he shows that by the mid-1930s, rules laid down by cultural commissars resulted in the “cinematic depopulation of the Ukrainian ethnoscape”.

The Ukraine on the Soviet silver screen was “devoid of its indigenous population” and populated with Russians pretending to be Ukrainians, with characters that were the Soviet equivalent of ‘blackface’ in American cinema. Characters were stock caricatures of “poorly educated and primitive yokels”.

Central to the creation of this ideologically convenient image of Ukraine as a land ripe for being exploited, was the appropriation of Ukrainian aural space by, for example, substituting Russian vowels and consonants for Ukrainian ones (eg, garnyi, ‘good’, becomes harnyi).

This makes it seem as if, Shevchuk says, “Ukrainian is not a separate language but, rather, is a ‘southwest dialect of Russian’. This (false) lexical argument is one piece of evidence Russians point to when they say Ukrainians are not a separate nation but a mere variant of Russians” – a claim put forward by Putin in his infamous July 2021 essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, and regularly put forward on Russian television’s evening talk shows.

Great literature as a mask for great crimes

In Ukraine itself, the position of Russian and Ukrainian literary studies was changing by the time Poliukhovych, who graduated from high school in 2004, enrolled in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

In her high school world literature courses, her teachers spoke of “the ‘greatness’ of Russian literature” while ignoring the colonialist nature of this literature. Further, they told their charges how close they were to this literature because of their common history and that they should be proud that they could read it without translation.

At university, Poliukhovych was introduced to postcolonial and gender studies as well as various literary theories and learned how her school teacher’s rhetorical ideology worked.

The greatness of Russian literature, she says, “was ‘constructed through the specific rhetoric – for instance, ‘great Tolstoy’, ‘great Pushkin’, ‘genius Bulgakov’,” without a proper explanation of why it is great. It was a part of the Russian propaganda myth of Ukrainians and Russians as two ‘fraternal peoples’,” she told University World News from northwest Ukraine to where she had relocated during the first days of the war.

For those who think Russian culture is irredeemably linked to colonialism and imperial oppression, Nazarenko says, all the talk about the greatness of Russian literature is just a bluff, a ruse. Nazarenko disagrees: “It is obvious that there were great Russian writers, composers and painters.”

But, he added: “Irrespective of their [the artists’] merits, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Empire and the post-Soviet Empire used them as a mask to show the world the greatness of Russian culture – so that the crimes of the empire go unnoticed.”

Reclaiming Ukrainian literature

Concomitant with deconstructing the GRN in Russian literature is the reclamation of Ukrainian writers and filmmakers. In part, this includes showing how 19th century Ukrainian writers wrote from within the Russian imperial matrix.

Tereshchenko says that Marko Vovchok’s short story “After Finishing School” is a canonical example that must be taught. On the surface, this story, published in 1859, is about what happens when a girl returns from the city, where she has been educated, to her village. There, she becomes an imperialistic actor as seen from how she abuses a naive slave girl.

The story is important, Tereshchenko says, because “in it we see the huge difference between a city subject who is a stand-in for the empire and is, therefore, aggressive. The village girl has no agency. It’s the colonial perspective, the slave girl being Ukraine, metaphorically presented as a female relationship.”

Panteleimon Kulish’s The Black Council, published in 1857 (and briefly available in Ukrainian at that time), is an important novel now returned to the Ukrainian canon inside the country. To get past Russian censors, notes Shkandrij, the book contains the ritualistic genuflection towards Russia in the form of statements that the Ukrainians and Russians should cooperate.

Kulish models the novel, the first historical novel written by a Ukrainian, on Walter Scott’s works. Set in the 17th century, it focuses on how the Cossacks’ system of electing their rulers (hetman) was undermined by agents from Muscovy who handed out gifts at a Black Council so that a pro-Russian, weak leader is elected, with the result that the Ukrainian Cossack state is defeated by a Polish army in 1657.

The Black Council was also banned by the Soviets. “They were very suspicious of any attempts to stress Ukrainian democratic institutions and Ukraine’s democratic past. They were also very, very aware of anti-Russian sentiments, and particularly after 1930, any anti-imperial and anti-Russian statements,” says Shkandrij.

At the beginning of the 20th century a group of Ukrainian writers embraced European modernist trends. One that Tereshchenko considers very important for university students to study is Lesya Ukrainka (d 1913). Though not realistic, her 1910 poem “The Privileged Lady” deals with the same issues as Vovchok: slavery and lack of agency.

Ukrainka, who wrote under a male pseudonym, distances herself and her contemporary Russian readers – and provides university students with interpretive cruxes – by drawing on various ancient cultures. “Even more importantly, she focuses on the problem of the subaltern, of the slave, and how it comes full circle and harms humanity,” says Tereshchenko.

Among the modernist novels that Nazarenko’s students read at Taras Shevchenko National University is Mike (Maik) Yohansen’s The Journey of the Learned Dr Leonardo and His Future Mistress, the Beautiful Alcesta, into Slobodian Switzerland (1928).

“It is a brilliant phantasmagory that mixes space and time, dreams and reality. He makes the protagonists downright cartoonish, and he makes the landscape itself the most vivid protagonist.”

The novel may end with its “people who change their land by becoming a part of it and move with it into the unpredictable but brilliant future”, but the period ends, Nazarenko’s students know even before starting to read the book, in disaster for Ukraine. During Stalin’s Great Terror, like so many hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, including the cream of Ukraine’s intelligence, the novel disappeared.

In August 1937, the NKVD arrested Yohansen. The Soviet Union’s Military Collegium of the Supreme Court convicted him of belonging to the (non-existent) “Ukrainian bourgeois-nationalist terrorist organisation”. He was executed by firing squad in October 1937.

Having been laid waste by Stalin, the teaching of Ukrainian literature went back to the state it was at the beginning of the 20th century, says Nazarenko: “It was again all about the common folk and peasants.”

Understanding solidarity

The missiles and shells that have pounded Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Severodonetsk have shaken the students in Shkandrij’s literature classes more than 5,000 miles to the west, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, almost the exact centre point of North America.

“My students are often quite angry. They are shocked by the decision to invade and the behaviour of the Russian troops.” The Russian propaganda that surpasses just misinformation and is so cynically spread, says Shkandrij, leaves them baffled.

His students are not alone. Speaking of his own discipline as well as the allied ones of political science, history and Slavic studies, Shkandrij tells me: “What has happened is that people have realised that they missed something fundamental in their studies. They never saw this coming. They are asking, ‘How could we have missed what is happening today?’”

As important as answering these questions is, Shkandrij says professors and students must focus on an additional one: “Where does Ukraine’s solidarity come from?”

Ukrainian literature, he told me towards the end of our Zoom call, is one place where scholars will find “what makes it tick as a culture, a people, a nation”.