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July 13, 2022

Cultural Wars of the Invasion | Oleksandra Korotchuk

Cultural Wars of the Invasion | Oleksandra Korotchuk

Final recognition of Ukraine's cultural independence. 

Russia has always been trying to destroy the Ukrainian nation, language, culture and art. And has been trying to appropriate Ukrainian history. I want to discuss why Ukrainians never wanted to be a part of the Russian world and always struggled for its cultural independence. 

Vira Aheyeva, Ukrainian literary critic, believes that in Ukrainian literature Russians have always been represented as a threat and destructive force to Ukrainian society. She covers this issue in her book, a collection of essays on Ukrainian-Russian cultural relations called "Behind the scenes of the empire."

Now it’s time to remember the prohibition of Ukrainian culture and language. 

Through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the Russian Empire has been conducting policies of russification. Teaching, science and religious services in the Ukrainian language were banned. In the 19th century, when Ukraine was occupied by the Russian Empire, tsar Alexander II issued The Ems Decree, which forbade Ukrainian translations, theatrical performances, recitations and lyrics. It actually made every display of Ukrainian culture illegal. During Stalin’s repressions, Ukrainian artists, writers, and poets were persecuted for their national identity. Around 30000 Ukrainian cultural figures were arrested or executed. Even now, when Russian troops are temporarily occupying some Ukrainian territory, they are trying to find and destroy ordinary history books. Because these books could provide actual truth about Ukrainian history, which Russia always lies about, trying to say that Ukraine did not exist at all. But it's not just history books that seem threatening to Russians. For example, Vakhtang Kipiani's book "The Stus Case", which tells the truth about the murder of Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus by Russia. It seems to be forbidden literature for Russians as well. 

Russia was trying to destroy Ukrainian culture, continuing saying that it doesn’t exist at all. The reason is that Russia is afraid of Ukraine being independent. It is a threat to its imperial ambitions. And this fear always leads to war. 

Ukrainian intellectuals were sent to Siberian prisons, killed, tortured. Because they were Ukrainians. Because they were speaking and writing in Ukrainian. Because they didn’t want to be a part of the Russian world. Because they never were a part of it. Because Ukrainian culture, language and art is original, independent and carries its own thousand-year history. And has a sacred right for it. 

So this Russian narrative about the deep historical and cultural ties between Ukraine and Russia has to be banned. We wish Mr. Macron wouldn’t say again that we are brothers. Because if you don’t think of a rapist and its victim as a “family” - then you shouldn’t think of Ukrainians and Russians as brotherly nations. And therefore, we demand the recognition of Ukrainian cultural independence.

Ukrainian art goes down in history as a symbol of bravery. 

For most of Ukrainian history, our land has been occupied by Russia. They were convincing the world that we did not exist, killing our artists, banning our language, rewriting our history. And thanks to our culture, we have remained Ukrainians. Even in the most difficult times, we continue making our art: playing theatrical performances in bomb shelters during an air raid; writing songs that tell about Bayraktar and heroic deeds of Ukrainians; creating paintings that depict modern heroes and reflect all the pain; film and edit videos that are more epic than Marvel blockbusters; playing concerts in the subway for people hiding from the bombing; playing music near our destroyed houses. 

Ukrainian artists become the face and voice of resistance and freedom. Some are still making art. Some are defending our land with the weapons in their hands. Like Andriy Khlyvnyuk, musician and singer, who is standing for Kyiv now in the territorial defense forces. Like Vasyl Slipak, opera singer, who worked in Paris Opera and was killed by the Russians in 2016 in Donbas. Or film director Oleh Sentsov, who was imprisoned by Russia when they annexed Crimea, now is a territorial defense soldier. Yes, the best of our people are defending Ukraine. The whole Ukrainian nation is fighting against Russia. Not only the Armed Forces.  

We, Ukrainians, have a very strong attachment to our artists who have been speaking to us through centuries. There was a nice post on Facebook about that, by Serhiy Zhadan, a well known Ukrainian writer. He wrote that when something is going on in Ukraine, like a revolution or a war, the quotes from Taras Shevchenko’s poems immediately appear everywhere. It’s a Ukrainian poet, writer, painter, who lived in the 19th century and was promoting the idea of independence of Ukraine. So, this post by Serhiy Zhadan ends with the words: “I can't imagine the Russians going into battle reciting Pushkin.” And that’s true. Ukrainian culture is standing behind our backs and giving us bravery and strength to fight for our land. And we are protecting our artists in return - covering their monuments with sandbags, protecting our cultural heritage and identity. At the beginning of the war, a Russian missile hit a museum in the Kyiv region and a fire broke out. The locals wanted to save the paintings. There were artworks by Mariia Prymachenko, who was a Ukrainian folk artist. The locals broke the bars, smashed the windows to get inside and get the artworks out of the fire. They made it. 

Our culture is a culture of resistance. Our art is the art of freedom. The freedom that Ukraine is fighting for as long as Moscow exists. We are still standing for this freedom. Now. At this very second. They want to wipe us off the face of the earth. Kill and deny our existence. But we get up again and we’ll get what belongs to us by right. Freedom. Such a weird value for slave Russians. For a country whose culture is the culture of "small people". People who decide nothing. We have our own way.

Russian culture kills. 

The Ukrainian art community is demanding to cancel Russian culture. And sometimes it meets with absolute misunderstanding. “Russian artists are innocent.” “He just made this film, why shouldn't it be shown at Cannes?”, “this is Putin's war, not every Russian is to blame ”. I will try to explain why this is wrong.  

A well known Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko in one of her essays said that: “[Thinking about empires], where literature replaced life, where literature was the only form worthy of human life, we may conclude: literature is never innocent, even if it wants to be innocent (especially when it wants to be innocent).”

Russian culture kills. Yes, it is culture, the whole context and this horrible aesthetics that is behind it. Russian culture is chauvinistic and imperialistic. This culture has always justified violence and disrespect for other nations. Russian literature was normalizing evil. Russian culture is a culture of appropriation. Russian culture is a culture of lies. This is the culture of the world's largest propaganda. 

Why does Russian culture kill? Do you think that culture is just books and ballet? No. Culture is a choice that can be made. Do not shoot at civilians, even if you have been ordered to. Do not proudly tell your wife on the phone what you stole from Ukrainian homes. Do not justify rape and torture, do not laugh at it, as the Russian soldiers and ordinary citizens do. Culture is not just art. Culture is values. Culture is how people think. And the Russian so-called people kill. Accordingly, Russian culture kills too.

Artists are the voice of the country. What do we hear from Russian artists? Let us see. Pushkin is a Ukrainophobe. He laughed at Ukraine and its liberation struggle. Bulgakov is a Ukrainophobe too. In his book The White Guard, he portrayed Ukrainians as some stupid peasants, whom he opposes to Russian-speaking intellectuals. Iosif Brodsky once wrote an essay “Why Milan Kundera Is Wrong About Dostoyevsky”. He was offended by the fact that Milan Kundera in his essay expressed the opinion that Russian tanks in Prague in 1968 were deeply connected with Russian culture. During the Soviet occupation, Kundera drove his car past these tanks. His car was stopped and searched. Russian soldier then asked Kundera how he was feeling. He said that the Czechs should understand that the Russians love them. Kundera was very shocked by this strange conversation with a sadistic tendency. He saw in it obvious parallels with Dostoevsky's world and his aggressive sentimentality. If we talk about Brodsky, it’s hard to forget a poem On the Independence of Ukraine, written on the occasion of the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In this poem Mr. Brodsky is offensively insulting Ukrainians, because he was angry that we eventually declared our independence from Russia. That’s the point when he returns to the typical Russian imperial consciousness and only confirms the chauvinism of the great Russian culture. Which was always hiding somewhere in his soul and now eventually showed itself.

It was the "great Russian culture" that brought up murderers and rapists. Therefore culture is a reason. Missile strikes are a consequence. Therefore Russian culture kills Ukrainian children. Tortures. Bombs our cities. Destroys our lives. That's right. Yesenin kills. Tolstoy kills. Russian ballet kills. If you still want to explore great Russian culture, please, come to Ukraine. Come to Mariupol. If you still like Russian culture, look at Bucha. Look at what Russian culture has brought up. Aggression is a part of the culture. You want Russian ballet? It goes along with raped children. You like Dostoyevsky? He comes side by side with the sins of Raskolnikov. 

There is war on the cultural front as well. A lot of Russian artists, singers, actors are using their publicity to share propaganda. For example on March 18 (the date when Russia occupied Crimea 8 years ago) Polina Gagarina performed at the concert in Moscow. The main purpose of that concert was to justify the Russian war against Ukraine. There were that Nazi symbols “Z” everywhere. There was Putin himself. 

And how can someone even talk about separating Russian culture from politics after that? There is no such thing as “apolitical art”. Ukrainian art community is demanding to isolate Russian culture. And the results of the work are already visible. Film festivals in Vilnius and Sofia have canceled screenings of Russian films. Netflix has removed Russian movies from their catalog. 

Focus on Ukraine as a trend of contemporary art.

Art has the power to reflect on the present and work with pain, strong feelings or trauma. Therefore, it is not surprising that contemporary art is now focusing on Ukraine. World-wide-known artists try to understand the Ukrainian soul. Some use their artworks as a study of the nature of the Ukrainian fight. Others want to draw world attention to the war and thus support Ukraine. 

Maybe one of the most popular NFT artists, Mike Winkelmann, known by the nickname Beeple, creates many digital artworks in support of Ukraine. The sale of an anti-war piece of artwork by Banksy has raised more than 100,000 dollars for a Ukrainian children's hospital. A manga about the Ukrainian air legend Ghost of Kyiv will be published in Japan. Billie Ellish dedicated the song Your Power to Ukrainians. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus sang the Ukrainian national anthem. Patti Smith sang the Ukrainian national anthem as well. Pink Floyd have reunited to record their first new material in 28 years, a protest song against the Russian war against Ukraine. The song is built around a refrain from Ukrainian singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk of the band Boombox. David Gilmour saw the video of Khlyvnyuk on Instagram. The singer had posted footage of himself, armed and ready to face the Russians. Khlyvnyuk sang The Red Viburnum In The Meadow, a patriotic march of the Ukrainian legion, written during the first world war. Which of the leaders of the world rock scene sang the patriotic march of another nation before? Who even knew these marches? They remained important only in the context of the history of a particular nation. But Ukrainian marches are now becoming a symbol of struggle, courage and freedom. People want to sing such songs, even if they are not Ukrainians.

What are we expecting after the Ukrainian victory? 

So now the artists all over the world are speaking up to support Ukraine in our fight against evil. But something’s going to change after our victory. And that is a perception of Ukraine. And of course there will be a Renaissance of Ukrainian art, which will be processing the previous war traumas. And then the view of the whole world will be focused on Ukraine again. Not because of the war on our territory. But because the world would want to hear the voices of Ukrainian artists. Because I truly believe that Ukraine has a lot of interesting stories to tell. Now the world is just beginning to truly discover modern Ukraine. Therefore, I believe that after our victory there will be a high demand for Ukrainian stories in cinema, choreography, music, theater, literature and fine arts. I believe that after our victory we should expect high interest in investing in Ukrainian art projects. Foreign architects will want to join in the restoration of destroyed buildings as well. For example, the architect of the Apple headquarters wants to take part in the restoration of Kharkiv. British architect and designer Norman Foster, who is called the main figure of British modern architecture. 

After the Ukrainian victory, we also have to return the nationality of our artists, appropriated by Russia in the past, like Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Repin or Arkhip Kuindzhi. We have to restore historical justice.