If anyone, given the chauvinist war that Russia is waging against the Ukraine should be surprised that this war is also being waged against Ukrainian culture, then it’s not us Ukrainians. In the same way, there was no doubt for us from the beginning that – in addition to the destruction caused by blind anger, the acts of pure barbarism intended to channel the frustration at the lack of “real” war successes – it has no accidental or occasional or selective and certainly no collateral character , but consciously, systemically, systematically and structurally, yes, that it represents the purpose of this war.
There are at least two reasons for this. When an entire nation, a collective identity, is declared a war of annihilation (Putin speaks literally of “denazification”), ie when the physical carriers of this identity are to be eradicated, their culture must not be spared. Their creators, their institutions, their systems and symbolic orders, but also their physical bearers must be destroyed.
If we don’t exist, shouldn’t exist, how should our culture and its testimonies, its artefacts exist? No tradition may remain, no historical legend, not even the excavations should bear witness. This intention can and must be used to measure the extent of this megalomania and, from this basic attitude, derive the extent and variety of practices of destruction against culture, their persistence and their consistency.
Those who do not want to recognize a culture deny, assimilate or humiliate it
The second and by no means the second most important reason is historical experience: the past 300 years of our history have provided unmistakable evidence time and again that Ukrainian culture, in its most diverse manifestations, has been chosen in every imaginable way as the target of Greater Russia’s eradication is. The spectrum ranges from assimilation through bans, repression and silence to the extinction of its bearers, the cultural workers and everyone to whom this culture means something and is worth something.
From an anthropological point of view, there are a few typical patterns for dealing with the culture of an identity that one either does not want to recognize or does not want to admit because one perceives it as hostile or threatening. Either you declare it non-existent because it doesn’t differ significantly from your own. Or one assimilates them by appropriating all the more significant phenomena of the culture perceived as different and concealing the differences of origin in such a way that they are presented as genuinely one’s own.
Or one admits that there are differences, but proclaims that these differences do not yet result in a culture of their own and that one is dealing with an identity without culture, incapable of culture. (The analogies to historyless or eliteless are more than obvious.)
When the existence of a culture can no longer be denied, it is customary either to devalue or humiliate that culture, to ridicule it, or to ban it. Most of the time, all of this happens in parallel. Eventually, the manifestations of this culture are presented as inferior in quality, regional, not universal, irrelevant, uninteresting, primitive, folkloric, marginal, devoid of high culture and incapable of high culture.
If that doesn’t have the hoped-for success either, attempts are made to gain control over the affected culture and to regulate it in such a way that, as a result of these measures, it finally appears exactly as it was drawn before. If that also fails, attempts are made to violently destroy culture in all its dimensions and manifestations.
Ukrainian culture has been subjected to all these forms of attack from a number of Russian state formations over the last at least 300 years, at different times, in different combinations and with different intensities. They always applied to all forms of Ukrainian political culture, which were understood to be incompatible with the despotic Great Russian culture.
The Russian empire draws its legitimacy from the idea that its origins lie in Kiev
With regard to Ukraine, Russian imperialism is characterized by a historical peculiarity: in contrast to the great Western naval empires, Russia was a continental empire from its emergence in the 18th century and even before its rise to a great power in the 16th and 17th centuries , which drew its mythological legitimacy from the idea that its origins lay in Kiev. For this reason, too, the idea that there could be a genuinely Ukrainian culture that differs from that of Great Russia is unthinkable. Otherwise the entire mythology – and with it the Great Russian identity – would collapse with a bang.
But because it is just a mythology, a lot of effort has always been made, anticipating and fearing the gaps and abysses, in order to preventively avoid the possible dangers of exposure. One strategy is reversal. We Great Russians, it is said, are primary and the Ukrainians and their culture are either secondary (dependent on us, incapable of their own political and cultural existence, etc.), or the Ukrainians do not exist at all. This schizophrenia in relation to the Ukrainians can also be clearly heard in Putin’s theses, when it is said, for example, that the Ukraine is a brother nation, in order to assert in the same breath that we are one.
This is also reflected in the permanent attempts to force Ukraine’s own despotic, undemocratic political culture built on hierarchy and violence on Ukraine from the very beginning, since the first political contacts between Muscovia and Ukraine in the 17th century – so far in vain, because the Ukrainian right from the start, political culture was something really different. And it is also reflected in the constant amazement and disbelief that this is really the case.
Museum collections are looted and the most valuable items are shipped to Russia
The Great Russian Empire’s blind hatred of Ukrainian culture increased again in the 19th century, after the latter, following the West into Romanticism, began to increasingly rely on the Ukrainian language as the central characteristic of identity. Starting with the total annihilation of Baturyn in 1708, the residence of the then Ukrainian hetman Ivan Masepa, including all residents, the entire city complex and all five churches (all of them orthodox, mind you), to the bans on Ukrainian associations, movements, even the Ukrainian language in the Tsarist Russia of the 19th century, up to the “shot Renaissance” of the late 1930s, the physical decimation of the intellectual and creative elite. Of the 259 writers who were still publishing in Ukraine in 1930, only 36 were left in 1938.
Even today, in addition to the artists, musicians and singers, writers, dancers, filmmakers, photographers and theater people who are fighting at the front, those carriers of Ukrainian culture who are deliberately killed in the occupied territories are also dying, such as the children’s author and Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Wakulenko, who father of an autistic son and a patriot, refused to be evacuated and was brutally executed by the Russian occupiers in the village of Kapytolivka near Izyum in the Kharkiv region. However, the extermination lists with around two million names of Ukrainian cultural workers, politicians and civil society activists were already ready before the invasion.
Entire historic cities are being razed to the ground, so urbicide is being committed deliberately, museum collections are being looted and the most valuable items are being shipped to Russia. Archaeological graves meet a similar fate, ancient stone figures from the steppe graves are smashed with tank cannons. School and university buildings, libraries and theaters are being destroyed across the board, teachers arrested and tortured, school and textbooks, indeed all books in the Ukrainian language, are burned, and thousands of students and pupils from orphanages are sent to Russia for the purpose of “re-education” into real ones Great Russians kidnapped.
And yet, this war against Ukrainian culture causes the greatest and most severe damage to Russian culture. It has lost its credibility, its humanity and humanity. Ukrainian culture will suffer incredibly heavy losses, but it will not disappear nor will it be discredited by this war. The Russian, on the other hand, is at stake as a whole.
Jurko Prochasko, born in 1970, is a Ukrainian essayist, writer, translator and psychoanalyst. He lives in Lviv.