As paradoxical as it may sound today, for many of my fellow citizens, this war has proven to be not only an encounter with suffering but also a reunion with themselves and their country, which had seemed so very convenient to ignore until Russia’s invasion. As paradoxical as it may seem today, for many Europeans, this horrible war has proven to be a discovery of Ukraine, a reason to realise the self-evident fact that our country is neither an extension nor on the outskirts of Russia, that we have our own culture, history and, after all, we live our own lives.
Needless to say, Moscow has succeeded in imposing on us, on Russians and on the rest of the world, the belief that Ukrainian history never existed, the Ukrainian language was nothing more than Russian, once ‘distorted by Little Russian peasants’, and Ukrainian culture was merely folk dances and jovial feasts. Whenever a Ukrainian wanted to create an attractive image of their country for the empire, as did, for example, Mykola Gogol, they told their audience merry stories about varenyky jumping directly into the mouth of their eater, or epics on brave Cossacks happily sacrificing their lives for the sake of the Tsar. Such an author was guaranteed to enjoy universal approval and admiration. If, on the contrary, a Ukrainian wanted to talk about the hopes and sorrows of their people, as did Taras Shevchenko, they faced inevitable astonishment: why should allegedly ‘peasant issues’ have been raised, especially in ‘dialect’? But these concerns were eloquent enough, it would seem, as Shevchenko’s Kobzar could be found in every Ukrainian home, while the reviews by St. Petersburg literary critics, amazed by his writing, were only available to those few hundred who subscribed to such weighty magazines; a high level of illiteracy continued in Russia up until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Still, the problem of Ukrainian culture is not just its faux ‘rustication’. Many Ukrainians have assumed that their culture is secondary to that of Russia. Now, I hope Ukrainians will finally face themselves and, when they look in the mirror, see the originality of their own cultural and historical heritage alongside the uniqueness of the social processes that are taking place today in our land and have already become an important symbol of contemporary Europe, that the future belongs to us.
Whereas the Tsardom of Muskovy marginalised and alienated many within its sphere of influence, Ukraine, at the crossroads of various civil societies, absorbed its cultures. Taras Shevchenko was one of the first poets and thinkers of the Russian Empire to reach a harsh but just verdict, predicting the imminent collapse of Empire in his native tongue. Olha Kobylianska, a brilliant German speaker raised in the Austria-Hungarian Empire’s cultural traditions, enriched Ukrainian literature with psychological German realism. Pavlo Hrabovskyi, exiled to Siberia for his political attitudes, sent his poems about Russian-suppressed peoples to Lviv publishing houses and magazines. Ivan Bahrianyi emigrated and wrote about Ukrainians of the Far East. Vasyl Stus continued to work on his poetry in a Soviet labour camp. After communist officials forced Les Kurbas, the great theatre experimentalist, out of Ukraine, Solomon Mikhoels, founder of the Moscow State Jewish Theatre, gave him a job, but they both ended up victims of the repressive regime.
Ukrainian culture is a sad martyrology of the figures who chose to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their people. And yet, this choice makes Ukrainian culture one of interaction. No Ukrainian author, director, artist or composer is above their audience but on the same level. That is why Ukrainian revolutions can be considered part of our very culture, not just political and social processes. And that is why one of the most famous contemporary Ukrainian writers and poets Serhii Zhadan is also a rock star and a Revolution of Dignity activist in Kharkiv.
Our deliverance from the complex of being secondary will be beneficial not only for Ukrainians but also for those in the world who are interested in culture – not just Ukrainian culture but culture in general. The twentieth century has presented us with the chance to get acquainted with great figures and processes that could hardly have become an integral part of our world had it not been for the nations that have emerged on the world map, sharing their treasures with others. How mentally deficient I would have been without having seen Čiurlionis’ images in my youth, or read Čapek’s War with the Newts, or unscrambled dreams alongside the protagonists of Ismail Kadare’s Palace of Dreams! The genius of Czech opera is now familiar to every enthusiast of this art, which wouldn’t have been possible without Dvořák or Smetana. Or take, for instance, Sibelius: crowds of tourists, not at a concert hall but actually at the composer’s country house near Helsinki, would find it hard to imagine today that once Finnish music was unknown to outside audiences. Perhaps none of us doubts that Lithuanian, Czech, Finnish and Albanian culture can enhance our lives as much as any other culture of ‘great people’, whose creative heritage is commonly admired. Yet none of these gems would probably be well known and available to us if the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia hadn’t been declared, if Finns hadn’t fought for their freedom in bloody wars, if Lithuanians hadn’t defended their right for independence twice in the previous century.
Independence doesn’t just equal a national anthem and a state flag. Independence is also Čiurlionis. The presence of Lithuanian theatre at world festivals is not ‘an option’ – it is a means to confirm national creative genius. It is the right to be renowned.
Now it is high time to carry out the same for Ukrainian culture. Of course, it could have been done much earlier. Everyone who has ever celebrated Christmas to Carol of the Bells, Mykola Leontovych’s music, marvelled at the sculptural genius of Oleksandr Arkhypenko, or heard lines from Taras Shevchenko emanate from the lips of US President Ronald Raegan may have wondered what these people were all about – yet I don’t know if they ever did. Today, we must unite the picture of Ukrainian culture: recall the eyes of the Virgin Orans in Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv, with her gaze towards eternally blooming and perpetually devastated land; hear the ineffable ringing of the bells in our cathedrals on the happiest and the most unsettling days of our existence; feel our own lust for life and willingness to resist those eager to take it away from us; appreciate the warmth of Ukraine from the diversity of Pontic Odesa to the Carpathian Mountains and picturesque villages of Bukovina or Galicia; grasp the social cohesion at both music celebrations and untamed revolutions, based on brotherhood and self-sacrifice; notice the figure of a small peasant boy from the past, standing as if petrified in mute ecstasy on the threshold of a humble school library; and that of his grandson, a young IT specialist from Kyiv or Lviv, sitting sunk in his work on the terrace of a city café, his glance just as romantic and visionary, like that of his forefathers. It’s probably this romantic glance that determines our whole lives and culture, since it pervades Ukrainian music, literature and pictures.
But it only takes an invader to encroach on this conviviality, on this romantic infatuation for life, as Ukrainian reverie is easily remelted into steel.
This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED, which was published as part of the 5th triennial of contemporary Ukrainian art «Ukrainian Cross-Section» with the same-name UKRAINE! UNMUTED theme. Compiled and edited by Oksana Forostyna.
The project was implemented by the Cultural Strategy Institute together with the NGO “Institute of Contemporary Art” and “Virmenska 35” with the support of the Lviv City Council, ZMIN Foundation, the International Renaissance Fund and Lithuanian partners Kaunas 2022. Ukrainian Cross-Section was launched in 2010 and aims to present a cross-section of Ukrainian contemporary art and culture primarily abroad.