After a year of war, the struggle for cultural sovereignty has triggered complex sentiments.
The New Yorker
Feb 15, 2023
For Ukrainians, the looming first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of their country is a historic milestone within an ongoing tragedy of unprovoked bloodshed, one which seems to be escalating again. But the war’s relentless destruction also poses a more existential question, one which fuels an urgent need to resist and prevail. For centuries, Ukrainians have struggled against Russian cultural dominance. A short respite came with the country’s independence, but then, in 2014, Vladimir Putin’s aggressions began in Crimea, and carried on afterward in the Donbas. The struggle for identity is further complicated by the fact that many Ukrainians grew up in Russian-speaking households. But Putin’s invasion has accelerated a growing sense of a need to reassert a Ukrainian identity once and for all.
A few months ago, I joined a group of writers in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, for the twenty-ninth annual Lviv Book Forum, which the organizers, this time, in partnership with those of the British Hay Festival, intended to showcase that Ukrainians are as indomitable culturally as they are militarily, notwithstanding the Russian invasion of their country. Then, as now, except for a few missile attacks, Lviv is probably one of the safest places to be in Ukraine, far from the front lines in the east and the south. Even so, rather than taking place in different public locations around the city, as usual, the forum was convened in an underground theatre on the hilltop campus of Ukrainian Catholic University, a ten-minute drive from the city center. There, for three days, panelists addressed topics related to Ukraine, Russia, war, and culture.
The participants were an eclectic group, which included the British-French human-rights lawyer Philippe Sands; the Vienna-based academic and journalist Misha Glenny; the Guardian journalists Emma Graham-Harrison and Charlotte Higgins; the British doctors and authors Rachel Clarke and Henry Marsh (a noted neurosurgeon); the Ukrainian-British journalist Peter Pomerantsev and his father, Igor, a poet and playwright; the American author and photographer Michael Katakis; and the Mexican author and human-rights activist Lydia Cacho. Ukrainian writers included the literary critic and psychoanalyst Jurko Prochasko, the poet slam-singer Artem Polezhaka, the novelist Victoria Amelina, the arts activist Diana Berg, and the philosopher and editor Volodymyr Yermolenko. The novelists Margaret Atwood,
Elif Shafak, Neil Gaiman, and Abdulrazak Gurnah joined via video. The person who pulled all this together was an unlikely figure: Sofia Cheliak, a twenty-five-year-old Ukrainian journalist and television host who, before the war, had worked as a translator.
Most panels began with video calls from uniformed Ukrainian women and men who were serving on the front lines. They, themselves, were also writers, poets, and journalists. Some of them gave short, moving testimonials; one recited poetry. Their virtual appearances were a reminder of the event’s purpose: to show solidarity with the idea of a sovereign, independent Ukraine.
Even so, the messages made for some jarring moments for some of those present, featuring as they often did ultra-patriotic and sometimes militaristic declarations. Many of the Ukrainian writers at the forum also expressed similar sentiments. In a panel I moderated, the Ukrainian historian and author Olena Stiazhkina began her remarks by expressing her gratitude to the Ukrainian armed forces for their defense of the homeland. “We’re all living on credit given to us by the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” she said. “Not just us but all of Europe is living on this credit.” She added, “I want to mark my position as someone lacking objectivity. I cannot have a broad outlook now, because the prevailing emotion, including the intellectual emotion, is rage.” In another panel, “Art in Times of Conflict,” moderated by Emma Graham-Harrison, Diana Berg (who was internally displaced twice over, first from Donetsk and, more recently, from Mariupol) agreed about the national sense of rage, explaining that Ukrainians, as a means of countering Russia’s attempts to overwhelm their country, were reclaiming their culture through “de-Russification” measures.
Since the war began, dozens of monuments and statues of Russian cultural figures that were imposed on Ukraine during the Soviet era—particularly Pushkin, who, in his poem “Poltava,” cast aspersions on a Ukrainian historical figure—have been dismantled or destroyed, and streets honoring others—Gogol, Chekhov, and Lermontov—are being renamed. In June, Volodymyr Yermolenko, the editor of the English-language multimedia site Ukraine World, wrote an article in Foreign Policy, titled “From Pushkin to Putin: Russian Literature’s Imperial Ideology,” in which he emphasized the significance of such actions, arguing that Putin’s military assault, based on the denial of Ukrainian identity, had given them an existential urgency. “Naming streets in every city, town and village is just one instrument for an empire to designate and control its colonial space,” he wrote. “Every prominent Russian name was a way to exclude a Ukrainian one.” And Russia, Berg argued in Lviv, is still a big, powerful culture globally, so “ we
need more Russophobia, all over the world,” adding that it must be “everywhere, if we want to survive, and not only survive but win, in this war against humanity.”
Graham-Harrison acknowledged the harsh reality of the war that led to such sentiments, but worried about “a collective dislike of any group.” She said, “I totally understand why Ukrainians are angry that there are not more voices inside Russia, more protests,” but added that “this war, to a degree, comes from a hatred of Ukrainians and their right to exist.” This exchange led to a discussion about terms such as neliudy, “non-humans,” which some Ukrainians now use when referring to Russians. The essayist and translator Ostap Slyvynsky said that he would never use that word to describe Russians, but added that he’d realized that, since the brutal occupation of Bucha, last year, which had seen dozens of civilians raped, tortured, and murdered by Russian troops, he had nothing more to say to them. By their actions, the Russians had “placed themselves outside of humanity,” he said. “That’s why Ukraine, on different levels, now refuses any talks.” He added, “It’s impossible to communicate with them, with the representatives of their élites, of their power, of their regime. What to talk about with them?”
After the forum had ended, I made a visit to Kyiv that coincided with a Russian missile-and-drone barrage that heralded the start of Putin’s extensive campaign on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. A missile had hit a playground in a city park—thankfully, when no children were present—near a sandbagged statue of the nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet, painter, and patriot Taras Shevchenko, who had promoted the Ukrainian language and the idea of Ukrainian culture as one distinct from Russia’s. People I met in the park wondered whether the statue had been the intended target, or whether the missile had been meant to hit a nearby government installation, and been downed by an air-defense missile? On the next block, fragments had struck the façade of a neoclassical building that once housed Ukraine’s first sovereign Congress, during a previous, short-lived attempt at independence, just before the country’s absorption by the Soviet Union. The hits on two symbols of Ukrainian sovereignty struck many as not coincidental.
One of the people I spoke with was a professional woman in her forties. She had grown up in Ukraine, during the Soviet era, in a Russian-speaking household, and the idea of Ukraine’s national identity had never been a particular issue for her. She told me that her grandmother had kept a portrait of Stalin in pride of place in her living room, a symbol of the unquestioned union of Ukrainians and Russians within the fraternal Socialist order. But, over time, the woman had come to identify personally as a Ukrainian, and that feeling deepened after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formalization of Ukraine’s independence. She had not agreed with her grandmother’s enduring attachments to Stalin, whose brutal policies had cost the lives of
millions of Ukrainians, but she accepted them as the legacy of a different time. What was happening now had changed things, however. She told me, “I didn’t hate before, but now I do. I really hate the Russians.”
Was hatred a natural and ultimately inevitable response to the atrocities Ukrainians were being subjected to? Does it change anything to know that many Russians oppose Putin’s war but are powerless to stop him, or to understand that others have been duped into supporting it through his hyper-nationalistic discourse? A few weeks after my trip, I contacted Peter Pomerantsev, who had accompanied me from Lviv to Kyiv. He had been born in Kyiv in 1977, when Ukraine was still a part of the Soviet Union, but was brought up and educated in the United Kingdom, after his parents went into exile there. He has worked in both London and Moscow, where he became an expert on Russian propaganda. Now a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Pomerantsev shuttles between Washington, D.C., and Ukraine. I asked him how he felt about the notion of justifiable hatred in the context of Ukraine.
“Never has there been a war without those feelings,” he told me. “You are attacked, you hate the people attacking you.” The exchanges at the Lviv Book Forum were, he said, “I guess, about how Russian culture is used to whitewash Russian imperialism in the world. That’s a thornier question. In principle, I agree with this: it was important to see the connection between German Romanticism and the Nazis. Or between Kipling and the Bengal famine. That doesn’t mean one can’t read Pushkin again, but without decoding the imperialist influence, and seeing how it permeates all of Russian culture, we won’t get to the root of this war.” He added, “This isn’t just ‘Putin’s war.’ It reflects centuries of Russian culture and social attitudes. Russian culture and society is totally invested in this war. So, yes, in that sense, it’s a war of all that is Russian.”
Reflecting on the Lviv panel, Emma Graham-Harrison wrote, “You can argue that it isn’t realistic or human to force all Russians into a black-and-white response—either oppose the war or you are complicit. People have young children to look after, cancer and other illnesses to manage, aging parents to care for. It’s easy to imagine that they feel they can’t—or don’t want to—get arrested for opposing a distant war because of these kinds of responsibilities, even if it is being waged in their name. This war is based in no small part on dehumanizing Ukrainians as a group. You can be horrified by what Russia has done and is doing—as of course I am—and, at the same time, be concerned about dehumanizing a whole group of people in response. But, at the same time, I can understand why this might seem like sophistry to Ukrainians who have lost their homes, their friends, and seen their fellow Ukrainians tortured and murdered.”
I spent my last afternoon in Kviv with Jurko Prochasko, the literary critic and psychoanalyst. He led me to a cavernous Soviet-era metro station, named after Leo Tolstoy. It had borne the Russian author’s name for decades—as, formally, Leo Tolstoy Square—Prochasko told me, but would soon be renamed. (The station is now called Ukrainian Heroes Square.) He said, “This isn’t about hatred, even though Tolstoy was a representative of Russian imperial ideas. It’s because we now understand that, if the Russians had not colonized us, the station would never have been named after him. We didn’t choose Tolstoy. He was imposed on us.”
More recently, on the eve of a renewed Russian missile-and-drone barrage of Ukrainian cities, I followed up with Prochasko. In an e-mail, he wrote, “Regarding hatred: for the offended party, which has been despicably attacked and is experiencing minute-by-minute torment and destruction inflicted by the aggressor, the very feeling of hatred is existentially important.” He went on, “It serves not only as a guide to distinguish between good and evil, but also as a support in completely confused experiences. It is the very way to identify oneself as the offended one.” Ukrainians, however, he wrote, “are well aware that, hatred stretched over time harms and destroys the hater himself. How to protect yourself from this, so as not to poison your own life and your own future?” Prochasko wasn’t sure he had the answer to this, but he had a suggestion: “Perhaps by changing hatred into contempt?”
Some Ukrainians have found other ways to deal with the question. The young novelist Victoria Amelina, whom I met in Lviv, has set fiction writing aside in order to document the work of war-crimes investigators. I saw her again last month, when she was still recovering from pneumonia she had contracted after an end-of-year visit to the recently liberated frontline city of Kherson. She wore a traditional vyshyvanka, an embroidered sash, which, she told me, was not the kind of thing she had ever worn before the war, but now, she always tries to wear something “indigenous.”
Later, Amelina wrote to me about her current feelings toward Russia. “We should talk about reconciliation and forgiveness, of course. But, before talking about it to Ukrainians, it’s crucial to let Russians know that they have to do lots of work on their end,” she said. “So I’d rather postpone the discussion until one side is not being bombed by the other. She continued, “As for me, I don’t hate Russians at all; I’m so exhausted by the war they have waged on us that I cannot feel anything. I am numb. There’s a beautiful song by the Ukrainian band Kozak System, a wartime song with many profanities but no hatred. It starts like this: ‘Our national idea— fuck the hell off!’ ”
In a postscript, Amelina added, “I know a little bit too much as I was brought up to be Russian: I attended a Russian school in Lviv, a Russian Orthodox church, a teens’ summer camp in Russia, etc. When I was 15, I was even chosen to go to Moscow to represent my city at the international Russian language contest. Hopefully, I turned out to be a terrible investment for Russia.”