The anti-colonial resistance of Ukraine, since Russia’s escalation of war on 24 February 2022, is part of a wider process of decolonization. In this century, its driving forces have been the Orange Revolution of 2004, Euromaidan of 2013-2014, and the war in East of Ukraine since 2014, alongside decommunization and subsequent emancipation processes.
Ukraine became an integral part of the Muscovite state in the seventeenth century. Without its human and natural resources, Russia wouldn’t have been able to realize its imperial ambitions. Then, after yet another forceful ‘return’ of Ukraine to the bosom of Russia in 1920, Lenin was forced to grant the country broad, albeit short-lived, autonomy.
The exploitation and subjugation that existed between the two states over the centuries, however, doesn’t fit into the classic colony-empire relationship, since Ukraine was the source and localization of Russia’s ideas about itself. As an imagined community, Russia began its historical path in the early Middle Ages from its political centre in Kyiv. It was also in Kyiv, in the seventeenth century, that the historical concept of Russian autocracy was developed, based on the idea of Orthodox Messianism.
Having joined the developing empire, the Ukrainian elites in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries perceived it as their own. They occupied the main positions as its chancellors, ministers and heads of church, thus creating a system of ideas that rooted Russian identity in the depths of Ukrainian history. The imperial cultural experience was also based on Ukrainian tradition and art.
Within this context, it is unsurprising that it was the Ukrainians from the Russian Empire –historically accustomed to the creation of symbolic expression – who became the main creators of apparatus when creative production was mechanised, as happened with cinema.
In Ukrainian publications one can find regular reference to engineer Yosyp Tymchenko (sometimes written Joseph Timchenko) and his invention of the film camera in Odesa, two years before the public presentation of the Lumiere brothers’ camera. However, this happens to be the manifestation of a Ukrainian urge for mythmaking: Tymchenko’s apparatus didn’t use film. Instead, his image was recorded onto a disk and, consequently, wasn’t capable of reproducing the linear temporality that is fundamental for cinema. It was one of several kinetoscopes developed in Europe from the 1880s.
It is rather more symbolic that two of the three prominent Russian pre-revolutionary filmmakers – Dmitry Kharitonov and Aleksandr Khanzhonkov – came from Ukraine. With their entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, from the early 1910s on, they managed to create a powerful film production operation, which made hundreds of films.
Cinema in pre-revolutionary Russia embodied one of modernity’s fundamental principles – internationalism. However, Ukrainians, in particular, played a highly significant role. After the Bolshevik coup of 1917, Ukrainians Vira Kholodna (also referred to as Vera Kholodnaya), Natalia Kovanko (Nathalie Kovanko), Natalia Lysenko (Natalya Lisenko), Viktor Turzhanskyi (Victor Tourjansky) and Volodymyr Stryzhevskyi (Vladimir Striževskij) were the creators of early Russian cinema, who returned from Russia to their homeland, working at Kharytonov and Khanzhonkov’s summer production studios in Odesa and Yalta. And, by 1918, all Russian film production was concentrated at the Joseph Ermolieff Studio, another film giant, based in the then independent Ukraine.
The Bolsheviks didn’t allow the existence of centres for the production of ideas and representations beyond their ideological control. In 1919, they announced the nationalization of cinema, which they intended to use for propaganda purposes. In 1920, due to the Bolshevik offensive, the last independent filmmakers left Ukraine and emigrated to the West. There, Ukrainian actors Nataliia Lysenko, Kseniia Desni (Xenia Desni), Volodymyr Haidarov (also known as Wladimir Gaidarow) and Hryhorii Khmara (also called Gregori Chmara) became pan-European stars. In a certain sense, film acting corresponded to the nature of the Ukrainian national character that had developed over centuries of colonial subjugation, manifesting itself as forced mimicry, adjusting to the behavioural norms introduced by the empire. Perhaps this explains the widespread involvement of Ukrainians in Russian pre-revolutionary and, later, European cinema.
Meanwhile, in the Ukrainian SSR, subdued by the Bolsheviks, cinema was centralized in 1922 and transferred to the control of local cultural elites. During this period, the Ukrainian language, banned under tsarism, was actively developing in Ukraine. However, strict censorship was imposed on film subject matter. The cumulative effect of centuries-old colonial prohibitions and restrictions – on the use of the native language, on the depiction of national historical plots, on free political development and body ethos – eventually led to a paradoxical effect, namely the emergence in the 1920s of a distinct symbolic language of Ukrainian national cinema, which would later be called ‘poetic’.
In fact, after the loss of short-lived independence in the 1920s, the sublimation of the political into the aesthetic took place in Ukraine.
A peculiar Aesopian language of cinema – changeable and sensual – was arranged in a complex system that combined the depicted and the way of depicting. Its inherent allegorism and symbolism, rooted in the national artistic tradition, were enhanced by the technical ingenuity of Ukrainian cameramen – as if the prohibition to speak openly on one’s own behalf and in one’s own voice formed a reflective and expressive gaze, a unique optical approach.
This pantheistic vision and humanisation of the world, paradoxically combined with technical pathos, has become characteristic even of Ukrainian avant-garde cinema. The uniqueness of the Ukrainian avant-garde is rooted in this seemingly contradictory combination, which suggests seeing the machine not as the ideal of human aspirations but as a humanised element of nature.
Thus, in their works, Oleksandr Dovzhenko and Mykhailo Kaufman (also known as Mikhail Kaufman) humanised the machine (e.g., the dancing machines in Earth (1930) and the ‘march’ of tractors in In Spring (1929)), and the animal world (the horses, which are humanly vigilant in Earth, or even speaking in Arsenal (1929), and the insects in In Spring). Ukrainian film critic Leonid Ushakov wrote, ‘Kaufman’s snail is as beautiful as Greta Garbo’.
This pictorial eloquence formed through historical muteness, expressed differently for each author, undermined the rigour of Soviet ideology on a sensual level. Formed without verbal language, this symbolic expression was not subjected to abject criticism. In trying to define it, Soviet censorship came up with various terms (e.g., ‘formalism’ and ‘biologism’), none of which reflected it fully.
Intuitively feeling that Ukrainian cinema’s symbolic language posed a threat to the rational language of propaganda, the empire overlooked something fundamental – the uniqueness of technique, the otherness of the perspective, indeed, an alternative interpretation of the world. Behind this vision was a system of ideas created by a community that tried to present itself not together with but despite the empire. This specific, coded approach was transmitted from eye to eye through the screen.
It was on this visual field, perceived directly by the sensory organs, that the Ukrainian sabotage of Russian imperial unification discourse took place.
The ‘overproduction’ of ideas and representations, which, despite ideological restrictions and prohibitions, Ukrainian cinema demonstrated throughout the twentieth century via rampant visuals, is an example of the non-rational transmission of the political.
Today, as the whole world looks on at the war in Ukraine through Ukrainian eyes, we are witnessing the victory of the poetic’s sophisticated anti-colonial strategy over obsolete imperial propaganda mechanisms. The imaginary is the realm of freedom. In the struggle of ideas, the one who doesn’t fear being free will always win.
This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED of Cultural Strategy Institute, 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.