“The freedom has a name.
Its name is Ukraine.
And the Ukrainian flag is the flag of freedom today.”
Ursula von der Leyen
More and more often Ukrainians hear the suggestion to sacrifice territories to Russia in a deal to secure peace in Europe. These suggestions frequently come from the far left and far right of the political spectrum, despite the fact that none of these politicians have ever been to Ukraine and thus can hardly begin to understand the reality of the current situation.
At the same time, Ukrainian culture is blamed for being too anti-Russian and too nationalist. It seems there is a huge void in understanding how Ukrainian culture enables millions of Ukrainians to survive the ongoing atrocities and horrors of the Russian occupation. Ukrainian culture produces tremendous resilience and an eagerness to live, to win, and to create. There is no doubt that Ukrainian culture, the Ukrainian people, and the Ukrainian government are tightly connected to one another. They are in a symbiotic relationship, where everyone both gains and gives, even if this sometimes comes in the form of harsh criticism or demands to be better.
With this point in mind, I would like to turn to the question of double standards in the Russian war against Ukraine. In the book “Talking to Ukrainians. An outsider’s perspective” from Alexander Fontaine, I found an interesting statement: “I understand that what I wrote will be criticised. I want to clarify that any negative comment on the Russian Federation is by no means a criticism of Russians as a people.” When the Russian Federation is distinguished from its people – who, after all, built and constructed Putin’s regime, fed its corruption, and went down the path of authoritarianism – all responsibility is taken away from the real executors: the people of Russia. Furthermore, this distinction also obscures a real danger. Weaponised culture kills as effectively as a precise gun. Each time Russian culture is used as an example of the “mysterious Russian soul,” it causes irreversible damage to the realm, where we live. It sows the grain of doubt: if Russia really is so powerful, how can it ever be defeated? It is also used to justify imperialist, genocidal behaviour towards its neighbours. Finally, it skews, and may even destroy, our sense of orientation in reality. Some time ago, the Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak claimed in “Ukraïner” that during the initial days of the full-scale Russian invasion in Ukraine, he received a message from a fellow professor who had fallen in love with Russian culture after hearing the first notes of Tschaikowsky’s musical works. He fell in love enough to even make it the subject of his studies. Well, the message he sent to Yaroslav Hrytsak said: “I hope that Putin will conquer you soon and everything will be normal again.” Yaroslav Hrytsak mentioned that his fellow scientist doesn’t understand that Russian culture is something bad. For people who never experienced Russian or Soviet occupation, Prof. Hrytsak’s words may sound harsh. However, Mr. Hrytsak isn’t alone in his interpretations of and feelings toward Russian culture. It is a very common pattern among Eastern Europeans, and especially Ukrainians, who suffered under Russian and Soviet occupation or Russian-imposed regimes. The victims often lived through cultural oppression and linguicide or genocide, like Holodomor of 1932-33. Tsarist, Soviet, or today’s Russian culture make Ukrainians feel disgust or even hatred. The often-overlooked deadly shots from Russian culture can be illustrated by three world-renowned Russian poets, writers, and essayists: Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Brodsky. And, unfortunately, there are far more examples. Russian culture developed under the tsarist and later the red terror, a period characterised by the mass murder of Ukrainian intelligence officers and the extermination of Ukrainian elites, a process which continued until the dissolution of the USSR.
All three writers were caught up in an enormous Ukrainophobic narrative, yet none of them have been cancelled. Bulgakov, in his “White Guard,” “Notes About Kyiv,” and “The Days of the Turbins.” writes that the Ukrainian language is disgusting and that it is just a made-up language of non-educated people. Further, he argues that Ukrainian independence was just a historical mistake. Overall, he wants the “madness ” of Ukrainization and state-building to stop as fast as possible and everything possible to be done to rebuild the Russian empire.
Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize winner, has a more diligent strategy and in his “Rebuilding Russia” essays, he gives numerous hints arguing against Ukrainian independence. He projects his opinion that the Ukrainization of the 1920s was a huge mistake and that the Ukrainian language was created by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Germans as a weapon against “Great Russia.” Also, Solzhenitsyn seriously questions the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He would rather see Ukraine divided up into several parts or, better yet, just becoming a part of the “Great Russian Land.” It becomes even more terrifying when the Nobel Prize winner talks about so-called Ukrainian separatism and justifies crimes against Ukraine as preventive actions from the Russian side.
And last, but not least. is Brodsky. At Brodsky’s Evening in the Hall of the Jewish Community in Palo Alto in New York City on 30 October 1992, Brodsky reads a poem “On Ukrainian Independence” in which he first mocks Ukrainians as rednecks and narrow-minded peasants, then proceeds with: “So go with God, you swift Cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,.Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you Bravehearts, as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget the lies of Taras [Shevchenko], and whisper the words of Alexander[Pushkin].”
These writers’ words exhibit strong imperial chauvinism smoothly covered by the beautiful façade of Russian culture. If the culture, the government, and the people are neatly divided from one another, the cause-consequences connection gets blurred and less understandable for outsiders. When the picture is blurry, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may come as a huge surprise, but it is not. All the words of Russian writers and elites, which they poured over the Russian people decade after decade, had a direct impact on today’s situation. Russia’s war against Ukraine was built upon cultural chauvinism, disrespect, and a disgust toward the Ukrainian nation. This was a perfect combination to begin the war in 2014 and, eight years later, a full-scale invasion.
Demonisation of others comes directly from the Russian cultural code. As a consequence, Russia’s notorious oppression, dehumanisation, and bullying of the nations within its orbit has triggered major removals of Soviet and Russian monuments, such as statues of Lenin and other figures, in the Baltic states. Decommunisation in Poland took place immediately after it regained its independence and elected a new democratic government. The “Fall of the Lenin” in Ukraine during the Revolution of Dignity was a clear protest. Many forgotten Soviet cemeteries and memorials in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania will also be decommunised.
In my view, it is only the beginning of the movement to “cancel” Russian culture. The whole world can now see the loathsome deeds of Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The motif is the same: massacre in Bucha, Irpin, Olenivka, Izyum, and we still don’t know what awaits us in the still occupied territories – the torture of civilians, mass rape of Ukrainian women, public castration of Ukrainian soldiers… Who is guilty?
From my standpoint, the answer is clear: Russians, the Russian government, and Russian culture all together. Polish singer Maria Peszek describes the situation best in her song Modern Holocaust: “’cuz it’s not like the only evil is Hitler or Stalin, the evil is in everyone, we create the evil ourselves, ‘cuz it’s not like the only evil is Putin or Bin Laden you have your own rifle at home, too.” The results of Russian cultural processes are now plain to see – the reign of terror and war of terror.
We, Ukrainians, had the misfortune to face the Russian terror, and we are in our right to make use of this experience and give everyone a piece of advice. Humanity can either stay blind to the weaponisation of Russian culture or deal it a fatal strike and cancel the Russian culture for as long as possible. This will give the time and space to discover the great works of Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic culture.
In conclusion, I would like to quote one of my brave German friends and Doctor of Philosophy Schmidt: “Russia proved to be unworthy of having any monuments in any country.”