The President of PEN Germany recently declared that “the enemy is Putin, not Pushkin,” relying on word games to protest against the idea of a “blanket boycott” of Russian culture. He emphasized that the victims of this war are not only Ukrainians, but also ordinary Russians, including the “often deceived and always poorly equipped Russian soldiers.” (I wonder, what equipment is needed to rape children in Bucha and steal a washing machine?) Now monuments of Pushkin have been dismantled in several cities. There are also a lot of initiatives to rename streets honoring other Russian cultural figures who had nothing to do with Ukraine. “Despite the fact that this figure belongs to the classics of world literature,” one municipal statement reads, “it should be noted that in our city there are almost no streets named after equivalent representatives of other countries, and naming the street in honor of […] was meant solely to tie our city to Russian cultural heritage.”
The more people become aware of what happened, the more we must think about the future. Pressing question arise: Is Russian culture a driving force of the war in Ukraine? If so, then can we blame ordinary Russians for the deaths of Ukrainian civilians? Should we kick them out of restaurants, boycott their concerts, refuse to compete with them in sports arenas or participate with them in art festivals?
Answers will vary depending on the proximity of place and time. It is unlikely that a 14-year-old boy from the Kyiv region whose father was shot before his eyes a few weeks ago will want to hear anything about Russia. A person from Western Europe, however, may note that fascist sympathizers of the past like Celine, Riefenstahl, Pound, and Hamsun are more or less peacefully accepted in the modern world.
I have lived at several addresses. While studying in Kyiv, I lived on the street named after the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. I took a bus along the long avenue of the Russian poet Mayakovsky. In fact, I lived in the area of the so-called “Silver Age” of Russian poetry, because Akhmatova Street was also nearby. (More questions: What do I have against these authors? They were all enormously talented. But why aren’t there streets named after Sylvia Plath or Wisława Szymborska in Kyiv? Why are they somehow less significant than Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva?) Later I went to the Moscow Bridge, passing through the Peoples’ Friendship Park. And I got off at Petrivka metro station, named after Grigory Petrovsky, a Soviet Russian statesman and one of the organizers of the Great Famine of 1932–’33. At one point I lived on Lenin Street.
Many streets, squares, and monuments have been decommunized since 2014. However, due to certain cultural reflexes, Ukrainians have mostly held that art, if it had no direct connection to the glorification of terror, should not be touched, even if the amount of art from one foreign culture is much higher than that of all others combined. Therefore, Ukrainians have not been very bold re-namers, for example, of places named after Leo Tolstoy. Today in Kyiv we have the Leo Tolstoy metro station, Leo Tolstoy Square, and Leo Tolstoy Street. So what? What’s wrong with “friendship of peoples”? The answer is that it’s one of the fundamental Soviet concepts, which supposedly provided cultural exchange between “fraternal” republics like Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and so on. But this exchange was largely unilateral: a small percentage of said “small peoples” were honored while Russians, representatives of the “great culture,” dominated. This was the intentional result of Russian policies and funding, which has also affected the spread of Russian culture in Europe and elsewhere. In 2014, when Russia invaded Donbas, a sticker depicting a crack was pasted on the People’s Friendship Arch in Kyiv to represent Ukrainians’ break with this colonial mindset.
Why are so many people in the world starting to learn about Ukraine only today? Is the problem that Ukrainians did not speak? Or maybe that the world didn’t, or wouldn’t, hear them? Why are there so few translations from a literature that has more than 40 million readers? One of the main explanations, in my opinion, is non-resistance to colonialism, as well as a sentiment towards Russian imperialism by other countries with imperial pasts.
Take a look at departments of Slavic studies in American and European universities. When you look at the list of courses and recommended literature, you will understand that this is not “Slavic studies” but “Russian studies.” Yes, for legitimacy, they add a few Poles and Czechs. But we aren’t talking about real “Slavic studies.” He who pays the piper calls the tune.
Ukraine in the 20th century found itself in a state of double marginalization. The absence of a nation-state (it was destroyed by Russia in 1921) led to the fact that there were no powerful foreign missions in Ukraine and no authoritative lobbies abroad. Ukraine was also marginalized within the USSR as a “younger brother,” allowed to have its culture only at the levels of folklore and ethnography. Dissertations on philosophy and mathematics could only be written in Russian. Those responsible for republishing classic works of literature simply cut or rewrote fragments they did not like or considered anti-Soviet, and some names were simply struck out as if they never existed. The leading Ukrainian playwright of the early 20th century, Lesya Ukrainka, who criticized Russia for its colonization of Ukraine, could not simply be thrown out in Soviet times — she was too famous and loved — so her works were banally censored. The Soviet authorities even took an unprecedented step to co-opt her: they called one of the main theaters in Kyiv “Lesya Ukrainka Russian Drama Theater.” In the first days of the full-scale invasion, its staff wrote a letter announcing that the theater can no longer be called by such an nonsensical name.
When we talk about the role of culture in this war, we can recall Dostoevsky’s sacramental phrase from Crime and Punishment by which Putin is apparently now guided: “Am I a trembling creature, or do I have the right?” We can talk about the writers who shaped Russian imperialism and glorified Stalinism. We can talk about Russian dissidents who were expelled from the country and imprisoned in concentration camps, but still praised the idea of empire by hating and ridiculing Ukraine. We can talk about modern Russian writers who are awarded the main literary prizes in Russia (and not only in Russia) but also willingly traveled to Donbas to shoot peaceful Ukrainians, or justified the annexation of Crimea. All this is material for a comprehensive study of the impossibility of distancing Russia’s politics from its culture, or Putin from Russians. Whether it was the desired outcome or not, Russian culture has become a weapon that is now working against civilization itself. In addition to people and infrastructure, several museums, several archeological sites, and several religious buildings have already been destroyed in Ukraine by Russian forces. According to the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine, as of May 5, 300 cases of crimes against cultural heritage have been recorded. Russian troops destroyed or damaged 104 cultural objects, among them a museum dedicated to Hryhory Skovoroda, an 18th-century Ukrainian philosopher whose 300th anniversary is celebrated this year.
Of course, nuance is not dead, and one day we might separate those who supported the war from those who did not. Many Russian artists will no doubt survive this war and remain in world culture — we have already seen similar examples in history. But how shamefully few of them have spoken out against the war in Ukraine. It may shock some in the West to know that more than 70% of ordinary Russians support Putin’s actions. They would be less surprised if they knew how many Russians protested against Soviet tanks in Prague in ’68, the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in ’56, and other crimes committed by their state. Very few.
Ukrainians are now criticized for being too emotional, too hateful of our enemy, who came into our homes with weapons and murderous intent.
At the moment, we Ukrainians want more than just empathy from other countries. We need the world to understand why Ukrainians feel this way, and why we find it a personal offense when we are invited, for example, to a film festival with Russians, when the organizers try to “reconcile” us and expose Russians as victims. We want an understanding especially from countries that survived fascism and colonialism, because Ukrainians now are struggling against these two phenomena, united in the single concept of the “Russian world.”
In the Kyiv metro, the next stop after Leo Tolstoy Square is Independence Square. That is our destination. Don’t stand in our way.
Myroslav Laiuk is a Ukrainian novelist, poet, and screenwriter, whose work has been translated into a number of languages. He holds a PhD in philosophy and literature from National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where he teaches creative writing.