Mapping a ‘Nowhere Nation’
‘The Nowhere Nation’ was the title of the featured article published in 2000 in the reputable New York Review of Books by a reputable author, the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock. The disparaging title was typical rather than unique; other titles, throughout the 1990s, referred with similar wit (and analytical depth) to ‘Nasty Ukraine’, the ‘Cleft Country’ or, whimsically, to the ‘Unwanted Stepchild of Soviet Perestroika’. It was the time when anybody who spent a few years in Moscow, learnt some Russian and read Riasanovsky’s antiquated Russian history textbook could boldly comment on all things Ukrainian – either in politics, history, culture, religion or language. Unintentionally, they became custodians and promotors of the empire that supposedly rested in peace in 1991 but still retained its discursive power and rhetorical dominance.
‘Imperial knowledge’ – as the major empire’s legacy – remained largely intact. Ewa Thompson defined it (after Edward Said) as a system of imperial narratives aimed at silencing, undermining and provincializing subjugated nations, making them voiceless and almost invisible on the international scene, insofar as the empire monopolized the authority to speak and act on their behalf. That peculiar ‘knowledge’, produced and disseminated by powerful imperial institutions over the centuries, became international. It strongly influenced Western academia, media, mass culture and common wisdom. The world both adopted and normalized it; the international public tuned its sensors habitually to imperial messages as presumably the most comprehensive, ‘important’ and authoritative – rather than to the marginal voices of minor, subaltern and ‘less important’ nations. Common wisdom doesn’t require any proof; it is something that everybody knows. There is no need to question or problematize it.
Nobody doubts that: Russia’s status can be elevated to a ‘thousand-year-old’ empire rather than Peter the Great’s eighteenth century invention; Russia can be equated with Ruś, their names used interchangeably rather than strictly attached to profoundly different historical entities; Crimea ‘has always been Russian’ rather than being the homeland and state of its native people (Crimean Tatars); and Ukrainians and Russians are very proximate, an intertwined people, rather than very dissimilar and distinctly informed politically in very different societies.
‘Imperial knowledge’ pops-up in myriad falsehoods, mostly minor and seemingly innocent when taken separately yet accumulatively producing a highly distorted view of reality, harmful to Kyiv, beneficial to Moscow. Day by day, decade by decade, Ukrainians have had to bother with very dull things like explaining that: the Ukrainian language doesn’t ‘derive from Russian in the sixteenth century’; Taras Bulba wasn’t a ‘popular Russian ataman’ and hopak wasn’t a ‘Russian folk dance’ (as leading Western newspapers occasionally contend); Ivan Franko wasn’t a subject of the Russian Empire (as introduced by the Nobel Prize Committee’s official website); Kyivan princess Olga couldn’t possibly represent any kind of ‘Russia’ in the tenth century (as organisers of the Davos Forum averred last year); and the trident officially blacklisted by the British police isn’t a terrorist symbol but Ukraine’s national coat of arms. All these anecdotes, which otherwise may have looked funny, became highly sinister within the context of Putin’s obsessive claims that: ‘Ukraine is not even a country’; Ukrainians and Russians are ‘the same people’; and Russia, after (and because of) Ukraine’s secession, became ‘the largest divided nation’ in the world. All of them as part and parcel of ‘imperial knowledge’ have paved the way to Russian military aggression, facilitating the denial of Ukraine existence and, ultimately, contributing, though unintentionally, to genocidal policies.
My personal encounter with this ‘imperial knowledge’ occurred in my early teens when I started asking some unusual questions, first to myself and then to parents and friends, such as: why Ukraine, however communist, can’t be independent like Poland and Czechoslovakia; why no movies and virtually no TV programmes are screened in Ukrainian; and why all Ukrainians switch to Russian when conversing with Russian-speakers and never vice versa. I questioned the social reality that was supposed to be ‘normal’ and, therefore, unquestionable. I hadn’t yet read Michel Foucault or even heard of him; I merely tried to grasp why large chunks of social ‘normality’ were manifestly unjust and, hence, abnormal. My infantile curiosity led me deeper to the roots of the problem: while unfair social relations, I figured out, were normalized – just because the dominant group had enough power to promote that view and suppress alternatives, the subaltern group had neither the coercive nor discursive power to fight back.
Much later, Foucault helped me to verbalize all those feelings in a more coherent and articulate form. But my earlier intuitions were basically correct and they set me on an increasingly divergent trajectory vis-à-vis the Soviet system, ideology and way of life. By the end of high school, I felt my views sufficiently incompatible with officialdom. I didn’t even try to continue my education in the liberal arts, overwhelmed as it was at the time by Marxism-Leninism and ideological brainwashing. Instead, I opted for something seemingly neutral and apolitical – electric engineering, which allowed me to spend three years in relative freedom at Lviv Polytechnic University, until the KGB came along and expelled me for producing unauthorized publications, having improper contact with ‘nationalistic elements’ and, as stated in their official inditement, for ‘insincere behavior during interrogations’.
They couldn’t bar me, however, from self-education, and from further writing unauthorized material and communicating with dubious elements. Luckily, there were plenty of these elements in the late Soviet years, especially in big cities like Kyiv and Lviv. Informal literary readings, art exhibitions, film screenings and even overnight jam sessions in some remote community centres were recurrent parts of a vivid and versatile ‘countercultural’ life in the 1970s and 1980s. Later, as perestroika advanced and censorship loosened, that picturesque underground scene resurfaced in cultural journals and publishing houses, concert halls and theatre stages, open-air exhibitions and festivals. ‘Imperial knowledge’ implies that: Ukrainian culture is provincial and ethnographic; the Ukrainian language is unsuitable for high topics and diverse matters; and the only channel of regional communication with the external world runs via Moscow, as if it were the only place for a professional career and international recognition.
We have challenged that ‘knowledge’ with not only our work but also other activity that pursues two major strategies. One reclaims the powerful legacy of Ukrainian modernism, banned and buried under the Soviets alongside its extinguished authors. The second develops direct ties with the world, unmediated by Moscow, cutting the mythical umbilical cord that pumped ‘imperial knowledge’ to the brains of our co-citizens and those of foreigners who had simply never heard of an alternative. The task has been Herculean, both at home and abroad. At home, independent Ukraine inherited twenty percent of colonial settlers indifferent (at best) to all things Ukrainian, and many more heavily Russified Ukrainians (including all the ruling post-Soviet elite) who internalized a profound inferiority complex vis-à-vis all things Russian.
I remember the candid confession of my Russophone colleague in Kyiv when, in 1992, I offered to read to her from the newly published Andrukhovych novel, Recreations. ‘You know,’ she ultimately exclaimed, ‘I didn’t believe that something like this was even possible in Ukrainian!’ Not all Russophones were so open minded. The more typical attitude was one that I observed in an Odesa bookstore in the late 1990s. An intelligent lady looked with apparent interest through the Ukrainian translation of Patricia Herligy’s History of Odesa and put it back on the shelf with a bitter sigh: ‘They’ve spoilt such a nice book!’ (the ‘spoiling’ meant translating it into Ukrainian instead of Russian).
International challenges were even more problematic since their only reference point to the new independent country (the ‘nowhere nation’) was either Russia or the Soviet Union. And, as they entailed all of the stereotypes, distortions and lies embedded in ‘imperial knowledge’, complete ignorance of Ukraine was in most cases better than the dubious ‘expertise’ provided by the self-styled specialists on everything (and, of course, on Ukraine). As a colleague of mine recently joked: ‘A history of Ukraine provided by [imperial] Russians is like a history of Jews provided by Nazis.’ The same goes for Ukrainian culture, language and, of course, politics.
International scholars who pioneered Ukrainian studies in the West in the 1980s and 1990s recollect how they encountered a biased, often hostile environment when presenting their allegedly ‘odd’ topic in Western academia. Professor Orest Subtelny, an eminent Canadian historian, contends that ‘well into the 1980s, Ukrainian history was considered not only a peripheral but even intellectually suspect area of specialization by many North American historians.’ The assumption prevailed, he says, that ‘a historian of Ukraine was, almost by definition, a Ukrainian nationalist’.
Putin has gone further by defining any Ukrainian who refuses to be Russian, a ‘nationalist’ or, worse still, a ‘Nazi’. The connection between these two approaches is not really close and obvious, but it does exist and deserves to be scrutinized. And, hopefully, repented.
The view of Ukraine in international academia has notably changed in the past three decades, but popular wisdom still lags behind. Mass media still report nonsensically about: ‘Kievan Russia’ (instead of Ruś); Ukraine’s ‘nationalistic West’ versus its ‘pro-Russian East’; and the primordial ‘affinity’ of the allegedly ‘brotherly’ nations – as if rapists and murderers can be the ‘brothers’ of anybody, and a freedom-loving, democracy-leaning Ukraine can feel any ‘affinity’ with a fascistoid, totalitarian Russia. Two Ukrainian revolutions and the pending horrific war with its former colonial master have made the country discernable on both mental and physical maps, and put the notorious ‘imperial knowledge’ on hold if not into the dustbin. At least, it is being questioned and problematized; the Russo-Ukrainian war is increasingly being understood as a postponed war of national liberation, essentially anticolonial. This may provide a good antidote to yet another kind of ‘imperial knowledge’ – one that now emanates not from Moscow but from Western capitals, reflecting the old-fashion imperial view of the ‘Orient’ as lacking agency of its own and, therefore, managed by Western masters, peacekeepers and intermediaries within agreed spheres of influence.
While Russian ‘imperial knowledge’ has been largely discredited (though not dismantled yet), Western supremacism remains strong-willed, especially in the voices of ‘political realists’ who press Ukraine for capitulation, for various concessions to its tormentors and for a negotiated settlement with a rogue state that has never observed any agreements, least of all with its colonies. Russian ‘imperial knowledge’ denies Ukraine’s very existence and promotes its extinction; Western ‘realist knowledge’ denies ‘only’ Ukraine’s agency and implies paternalistic guardianship. Within a few months of war, Ukrainians have proven they form a consolidated nation with strong civic identity, despite much talked of divides. They have also proven they can build a resilient state with functional institutions, in spite of alleged corruption and other deficiencies. Ukraine has firmly established itself as a viable nation-state with a vibrant civil society, strong armed forces, and a rich, dynamic and versatile European culture. It has taken months of war and thousands of deaths to prove the obvious – that Ukraine does exist and definitely deserves to be rediscovered, unmuted, and brought to the world from the shadow (and hopefully ruins) of the empire.
Mykola Riabchuk is honorary president of the Ukrainian PEN Center and a Senior Research Fellow in the Institute of Political and Nationalities’ Studies at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. He is a visiting researcher at Princeton, also teaching a course in Comparative Politics: ‘Russia, Ukraine, and the New Cold War’. He penned а dozen books on postcommunist transformation, state-nation building, national identity and nationalism, including the last one, in English, At the Fence of Metternich’s Garden. Essays on Europe, Ukraine and Europeanization (Stuttgart: ibidem Verlag, 2021).
This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED published as part of the 5th triennial of contemporary Ukrainian art «Ukrainian Cross-Section» (held in Kaunas, 2022). Compiled and edited by Oksana Forostyna. The project was implemented by Cultural Strategy Institute in Lviv together with Kaunas 2022 (Lithuania). Ukrainian Cr