The Unlikely Success Story of Ukrainian Culture

Collage: yumikrum,

It is all too easy to paint the history of Ukrainian culture as one of losses. There’s the loss of continuity between one generation and the next as the result of another large-scale calamity and repressions. There’s the loss of cultural artifacts destroyed in historic conflagrations or looted for imperial museums. And, last but not least, there’s the loss of status and prestige that came with working not in a dominant language but in a language, banned from public life at various points, stigmatized as that of the uneducated masses, scrutinised by coercive state apparatus, or outright denied official language status within a dominant imperial culture. During many periods, most notably during the Stalinist Great Terror, choosing to develop a modern, urban Ukrainian culture, independent of Russian influences, effectively painted a target on the artist’s back. Many Ukrainian modernist’s biography follows the same formula: while the beginnings may vary, too many end with mass graves in the frozen expanses of the Gulag archipelago.

Risky though it was, the transgressive choice also came with advantages, many of them quite strategic. For all its painful, often devastating losses, Ukrainian culture is an unlikely success story – and not just for the fact of its survival. The factors conspiring against Ukrainian culture have provided fertile ground for an insightful and often experimental body of work that was thematically significantly ahead of its time. Their precarious position encouraged many Ukrainian authors and artists to probe their beliefs and strategies with more intensity than their contemporaries working in imperial cultures. This produced a culture inclined to look sideways at inherited narratives and styles, to say ‘yes, but’ to every ideological proposition, and to examine the power structures underpinning cultural production – not, I suspect, out of any inborn predisposition of the authors, but because for many decades, their cultural choice wasn’t the default position and required justification.

Some of the advantages, in no particular order, include:

1) Because choosing Ukrainian culture meant rooting for the underdog and making a democratic anti-imperial choice, from the very first days of its modern history, Ukrainian culture has been rich in works that invite solidarity between the colonized subjects whose very existence was a challenge to the Empire and probed the conditions of (self)representation of those often exoticized Others. In one of the most fascinating Ukrainian drawings from the nineteenth century, a Kazakh boy in a national headdress plays with his kitten on the threshold of his home. Behind his back, against a melancholy vista with romantic ruins, can be seen the brooding figure of Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national bard and painter who created this sepia drawing during his exile in what is now Kazakhstan, then within the Russian Empire. Aside from playing into quintessential Romantic dichotomies (youth/old age, a home with agricultural tools and domesticated animals/crumbling ruins, civilization/nature, etc.), why introduce the self-portrait into what otherwise looks like a straightforward ethnographic study? Moreover, why sideline this usually solipsistic figure of a romantic author and put him in the background? For one, this sly self-portrait serves as a reminder that all knowledge, especially that of marginalized communities subjected to Othering rhetoric, comes to the viewer in a mediated form, and it does us well to acknowledge the mediating presence of the author. With both the Kazakh boy and the Ukrainian artist put on display in this ethnographic tableau, Shevchenko creates a solidarity between colonized ethnicities, but there seems to be something else at play here too. The artist’s gaze in the self-portrait is directed both at the Kazakh boy, as the primary subject of the drawing, and at the space outside the frame, occupied by the viewer, who also becomes a subject of scrutiny. Do we like what can be found there? What are the rules that would govern the artistic representations of us, or others like us? Questions of this kind had been a leitmotif of Ukrainian literature in modern times, from Ivan Nechui-Levytskyi’s proposal of an inclusive civic society as an anti-imperial alternative based on solidarity between oppressed minorities, from Ukrainians to Jews, in his novella Clouds (1874) to Lesia Ukrainka’s criticism of Western-centric beauty standards imposed on North African women in her short story Ekbal Hanem (1913).

2) Because middle and upper classes were supposed to have assimilated imperial culture while Ukrainian language and culture were often framed as being ‘for the simple folk’, writing in Ukrainian for the educated writer often meant writing of the Other and/or donning a folksy persona. While ethnographic endeavours became symbolically useful for consolidating the national community, writing in the name of or from the perspective of those positioned on the lower social strata than yourself, while remaining an impassive observer outside and above this community, could result in the exploitation of those who didn’t have the resources or platforms to speak for themselves. This ethical challenge produced awareness of the inherent dangers of cultural appropriation long before it became a trite, commonplace term. Some of the most striking examples of the anxiety of representing the Other ethically come from the self-reflexive letters of Vasyl Stefanyk (1871-1936), one of the most prominent representatives of expressionism in Ukrainian literature, a medical doctor by training, a member of the Austrian parliament from the Ukrainian Radical Party by chance (or so he insisted), and a writer by vocation.

While Stefanyk often framed his harrowing short stories as ‘photographs from life’, seemingly objective accounts from his native village untainted by the writer’s subjectivity, his letters betray a more anguished relationship with his sources. Intelligentsia descending to the villages to gather ethnographic materials (and votes for their parties) are scathingly described as ‘spiders that take the peasants’ voices to become Ruthenian ambassadors or to overhear a folk song and publish ethnography’. What is a tragedy for the ‘native informants’, so to speak, should not be shoehorned into the formula of the fine arts and transformed into easy-to-consume sentimental drivel: ‘aesthetic flourishes round off the edges and make sure that the reader passes them by quickly, without giving his mouldy brain any work’. Mediating between several languages and cultures – Ukrainian, Polish and German – on the outskirts of the Habsburg Empire, Stefanyk ended up developing an obscure literary language very much his own based on the peculiar dialect of his home village.

While the choice has caused much grief to pupils having to decipher his works ever since, it was of paramount importance to the writer that, when the public ‘devours the short stories, let them scratch and tickle’. And Stefanyk was far from unique in seeing the challenges implicit in creating on the margins, without a ready-made formula to fall back on when facing tough choices, as an opportunity to stretch artistic conventions and the limits of expression. I suspect that it is no coincidence that avant-garde art was one of the main items of export from these territories in the early twentieth century. From Kazimir Malevich, Oleksandr Archipenko and Alexandra Exter, all graduates of the Kyiv Art School, to Wassily Kandinsky, graduate of the Odesa Art School, to name but a few, many artists who abandoned aesthetic verities of days past in favour of daring experiments originated from these lands, even if they might now be associated with national traditions.

3) Because choosing Ukrainian culture meant thinking beyond the mainstream, embracing the transgressive, celebrating difference and defiantly existing outside the default while often adopting art forms that might be seen as low and kitsch, artists that worked and revelled in the margins paradoxically gained centrality in the national canon. The history of modern Ukrainian literature is conventionally believed to begin with The Aeneid by Ivan Kotliarevsky (1797), a burlesque retelling of Virgil’s epic that takes what is arguably the most celebrated text glorifying the foundation of an empire in the entire Western literary canon, and creates an impious and impudent riff on it describing the larks and frolics of a merry band of Cossacks – all within living memory of the destruction of Cossack autonomy on the orders of Catherine II. On this note of dialogues with the classical legacy, while cultures better endowed with armies could afford to be enamoured with tales of military conquest, many Ukrainian artists tended to look for those voices that would be overheard in the jingoistic din.

The canonical play Cassandra by Lesia Ukrainka (1907) engages with The Iliad by foregrounding the female experience of war, including gendered violence, while also addressing the temptations of anodyne populist pronouncements that might seem more palatable than the bitter truth. On the periphery of the Empires that had always fought to write their own history, inherited narratives and tropes gave way to semantic openness and ambiguity. This might always be dangerous for authors living under repressive regimes, but it is also rewarding for the reader. 

For all these reasons and many more, Unmuting Ukraine is far from an arduous duty some might feel obliged to take on in an ethical response to the genocidal war unleashed by Russia: it is a rewarding and fun romp across the lesser-known literary woods. Moreover, embracing the lessons that lie at the foundations of Ukrainian culture – to be wary of the power hierarchies underpinning cultural production, to be aware of the sources of our knowledge, to be mindful when representing the Other, etc. – could be, I would contend, useful for the field of Slavic studies at large. For much too long, Slavic studies in the West were broadly Slavic in name only, limiting their horizon in reality to Russian literature and culture. In many respects, Russian culture as the culture of an empire is the odd one out among Slavic literatures, so its exclusive focus is bound to produce a highly non-representative view of the field. Furthermore, even the understanding of the Russian culture that Slavic studies produced in many cases seemed to lean closer to uncritical adoration than to proper research and deconstruction of its more problematic aspects.

To name just a few examples, Aleksander Pushkin is taught as a democrat and the author of Eugene Onegin, not as the Russian imperialist who penned To the Slanderers of Russia, although it’s the latter that would have better prepared students for deconstructing Putin’s rhetoric. The tropes of this jingoist poem, written in response to the November Uprising of 1830-31, when Poles tried to liberate themselves from the Russian Empire, ring eerily familiar to those who follow the news of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine: overlooking the suffering of peoples subjugated by Russia, the situation is reframed as the West ‘hating’ Russia and meddling with ‘Slavonic streams meet[ing] in a Russian ocean’. The Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Brodsky is taught as a dissident who stood boldly against the Soviet power, not as a Russian chauvinist who went on a diatribe against Ukraine’s independence in his poem On the Independence of Ukraine. Derisively mangling Ukrainian language, Brodsky denied the very existence of Ukrainian culture as a Western import that masks the essentially Russian nature of Ukrainians: ‘Only when you bullheads die … will you wheeze lines from Aleksander [Pushkin], and not the lies of Taras [Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet].’ It’s this overlooked poem though that might have made it easier to foresee Putin’s genocidal rage that makes the Russian army raze Ukrainian cities to the ground in an attempt to affirm Russian cultural and political hegemony.

In opting for a very selective focus on the less representative if more democratic phenomena within Russian culture and letting the dominant imperialist strain slide out of view, Slavic studies have produced a partial and biased view of reality. For some, decentering Russia in order to unmute Ukraine and, more broadly, other Slavic cultures and experiences that aren’t Russian might seem like a loss. In fact, it’s a strategic gain that would benefit readers by enriching their bookshelves, students by giving them a more rounded view of reality, and the broader public by giving them a more solid context for what they are seeing on the evening news.


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 Cross-Section triennial was launched in 2010 and aims to present a cross-section of Ukrainian contemporary art and culture primarily abroad.