What is de-Russification and why it is happening in Ukraine
What is de-Russification and why it is happening in Ukraine

In the second month of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, public activists started talking about "PushkinopadAs a "Pushkinfall" – Editor`s Note" – the demolition of monuments to Russian cultural figures and renaming toponyms dedicated to them. In several western cities, a bust of Pushkin has already been dismantled, and the Kyiv Underground offers to rename stations. Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulić writes about decommunization in her book 2021 “Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism", including de-Russification in Ukraine. "Despite 30% of the Russian-speaking population, this language is not official in Ukraine," the author is perplexed.

How did it happen that many Ukrainian writers were Russian-speaking? Even Shevchenko himself(!), the author of the lines “O lovely maidens, fall in love, but not with Muscovites,” wrote some letters in Russian and kept a Russian-language diary. An extensive array of Ukrainian culture has Soviet attributes or was created in Russian. Therefore – what should guide you in your emotional impulse to destroy everything Russian so as not to accidentally ruin Ukrainian (or something from other cultures)? And even more difficult – how to explain these contexts properly?

Suspilne journalist Mariia Blindiuk studies the complexities of the identity of the culture of Ukraine and tries to answer the questions above together with an art critic and participant of the initiative DE NE DEAn artistic initiative emerged as a reaction to adopting "decommunization" laws. It examines the processes of decommunization and offers a critical rethinking of the Soviet heritage – Editor's Note, Zhenia Moliar. Let's go.

The Ukrainian version is available here.

Translated from Ukrainian by Maryna Bakalo.

Russian-speaking ≠ Russian

The easiest way now would be to expel everything Russian, the enemy's language. Russia is waging war in Ukraine, destroying everything Ukrainian, including culture and history. Why should Ukrainians understand the varieties of Russian and carefully distinguish their own from someone else's?

It's simple. Russia strives to clean out everything within the borders of Ukraine, and if it accidentally touches its own Belgorod or Turkey and Panama – it's okay.

A cold mind should guide us because the destruction of Ukrainian, even if Russian-speaking, will only facilitate the work of Russian troops, propaganda in particular.

Answering her own question about 30% of the Russian-speaking population, Slavenka Drakulić quotes Ukrainian publisher and journalist Oksana Forostyna: “Most Russian-speakers here are children and grandchildren of Ukrainian peasants.” And when we consider that Fedir Dostoievskyi, arguably the most important writer in Russian literature, came from a family of Belarusian (Brest) landowners, one of whose branches went to the Ukrainian Volyn region, things get even more complicated, right?

Let me start with a disclaimer that Slavenka Drakulić's book was published in 2021. On March 19, 2022, the results of a poll done by the Rating sociological group were published, with the following figures: at the end of 2021, 26% of Ukrainians regarded themselves as Russian-speaking, compared to 18% in 2022. At the same time, 83% believe that Ukrainian should be the state language. Only 7% favor granting the Russian language a state status. To put the numbers in context, 40% of Ukraine's population regarded themselves as Russian-speaking in 2012.

Still, many people of my generation, who are now 20-30 years old, were brought up in Russian-speaking families. Indeed, as Oksana Forostyna told Slavenka Drakulić, many peasants, moving to the city searching for a better life and work, switched to Russian – it was easier to find a job as a Russian speaker. Even in imperial times, Ukrainian was considered the language of "less educated people" or simply – "redneck".

Moreover, the Ukrainian language has been repeatedly banned. Starting in the seventeenth century, nearly every Russian ruler proposed a new law prohibiting the teaching of Ukrainian in schools, the publication of Ukrainian-language books, communication in Ukrainian, and even the direct extinction of Ukrainians as a nation. On Wikipedia, there is also an extensive article about the Russification of Ukraine.

Ukrainian poet and artist Taras Shevchenko also switched to Russian in his letters. So, he wrote to Fedir Tolstoi, vice-president of the Russian Academy of Arts, to be released from exile and lift the ban on drawing. But Shevchenko was imprisoned as a political criminal again and again for writing in Ukrainian about free Ukrainians.

During the Soviet era, propaganda became more active that the Ukrainian language was “peasant,” and people who spoke it belonged to the “lower class” than Russian speakers. My mother, born in 1969, told me that the family was gradually switching to Russian because Ukrainian was considered “not that prestigious”.

Remember aunt Motia's quote from the play “Myna Mazailo” by Mykola Kulish: “In my opinion, it is more appropriate to be raped, rather than ukrainized.” Considering that while I'm writing this material, there appears more and more evidence about the atrocities of Russian soldiers in the Kyiv region, which means a dark joke turns out, as for the composition of the school curriculum. But the Ukrainian school curriculum is full of such “dark” facts.

A poster of the play "Myna Mazailo" in the theater Berezil by the Ukrainian theater director Les` Kurbas (executed for being Ukrainian in 1937).
A poster of the play "Myna Mazailo" in the theater Berezil by the Ukrainian theater director Les` Kurbas (executed for being Ukrainian in 1937). https://bukva.info/blog/myna-mazaylo-skorocheno-analiz-tvoru/

What a dreadful tragedy of the Executed Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, the generation that produced some of the best Ukrainian works of literature, painting, music, theater, and cinema – and was murdered for it. By the way, including the above-mentioned Mykola Kulish. Believe me, you can write an action-packed novel about each of them. A novel about attempts to create a majestic country within the framework of an alliance with its own language and culture, and the collapse of these ideals of national communism.

A family of Krushelnytskyi (Ukrainian science and culture figures) In 1935-37 Volodymyr, Taras, Antin, Ostap, Ivan, and Bogdan were repressed and executed
A family of Krushelnytskyi (Ukrainian science and culture figures) In 1935-37 Volodymyr, Taras, Antin, Ostap, Ivan, and Bogdan were repressed and executed. https://uk.wikipedia.org/wiki/Розстріляне_відродження

So, no, we don't speak Russian because we chose this language. And many modern Ukrainian writers and musicians start by creating a Russian-language product, not because they decided so. But because Russian has been imposed on Ukraine for centuries. At the same time, some Russian speakers are regarded as Russian people. They first declare Hohol a Russian writer, then Malevych a Russian artist, and after they're forcibly deported Mariupol inhabitants to Russia. Who disagrees is executed.

Decommunization, de-Russification, de-Ukrainization

During the Maidan in 2014, the so-called “LeninopadAs a "Leninfall"” took place in Ukraine, which stood for the widespread demolition of monuments to Lenin. In 2015, a law was passed prohibiting symbols of the Nazi and totalitarian regimes. Thus, the process of decommunization began in Ukraine. They removed monuments to the leaders of the Soviet Union and renamed streets and even cities named after the criminal regime.

Demolition of the monument to Lenin in Kyiv, December 8th, 2014. Photo: Max Levin
Demolition of the monument to Lenin in Kyiv, December 8th, 2014. Photo: Max Levin. Макс Левін/Reuters

Cultural objects had survived because the law clearly states that the ban does not apply to the use of symbols in works made before the law came into force. Consequently, in Kyiv, you can find stars on balustrades or red flags immortalized in mosaics.

Zhenia Moliar, an art critic and participant of the DE NE DE initiative, explains: “I believe it is impossible to decommunize art. Art needs to be preserved and studied because it is our cultural heritage, and it is as follows: ideologized, tragic, and socially realistic. Once, there was a discussion on the decommunization of Kyiv mosaics, where there was Oleksii Zaretskyi, a son of Alla Horska and Viktor Zaretskyi. He said that before condemning Ukrainian artists for the "Sovietism” of their art, we need to understand what they risked by abandoning this Sovietism. This was said by a man whose mother was brutally hacked to death by KGB officials with an axe in 1970.”

A sketch of the mosaics "Victory Flag" for the museum in Krasnodon, Luhansk region – done by Alla Horska, Viktor Zaretskyi and Volodymyr Smyrnov
A sketch of the mosaics "Victory Flag" for the museum in Krasnodon, Luhansk region – done by Alla Horska, Viktor Zaretskyi and Volodymyr Smyrnov. https://antikvar.ua/vistavka-alli-gorskoyi/

Now in the western regions of Ukraine, they are talking about the need for de-Russification. "Pushkinopad" has begun. Monuments and memorial plaques to Oleksandr Pushkin have already started to be dismantled in Ternopil, Uzhhorod, and Mukachevo. They plan to do the same in other areas when the fighting ends there.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine has designated a working group to assess the "need for the presence of works by Russian authors" in the "Foreign Literature" discipline of school curriculum.

And if everything is clear with Pushkin, he is called "a singer of the [Russian] empire.” He visited Ukraine and lived in Crimea. He was fond of landscapes but did nothing for Ukrainian culture. So, what about other cultural figures, Ukrainian, whom Russia arrogated to itself?

For example, Mykola HoholMaybe Gogol is more familiar, but it is right transliteration from Ukrainian – Editor`s Note is a Russian author of Ukrainian origin. Both Russian and Ukrainian writers recognize his influence. But is it necessary to destroy monuments to Hohol, who put Ukrainian demonism in Russian St. Petersburg?

Ukrainian writer Yevhen Malaniuk compares Hohol with the Trojan horse and the genius of parasitism, which destroys someone else's spiritual culture from the inside, forcing Russians to lose faith in their spirituality. How tricky it is! After all, Hohol indeed went to Russia and then to Europe searching for fame and successfully found it. Only here, the Russians did not know that by arrogating Hohol to themselves, they captured all his Ukrainian devils and witches.

As to the artist Kazymyr Malevych, who was born in Kyiv, studying, drawing and teaching in Ukraine, miraculously became a Russian artist. He did live in Russia for 23 years, but even under threat of execution, he still called himself a Ukrainian. Moreover, he returned to Ukraine in 1927, but due to the same repressions of Ukrainian artists, he returned to Leningrad, from where he wanted to move to Europe. And again, either execution or Russia.

"Reapers" by Kazymyr Malevych
"Reapers" by Kazymyr Malevych.

The problem is that it is often impossible to clearly distinguish between “purely Russian” and “purely Ukrainian” when talking about cultural figures of the twentieth century. Quoting the contemporary Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko, Slavenka Drakulić writes: “There has not yet been a “purge” in Ukraine for a simple reason that is there is no clear understanding of what exactly needs to be “purged.”

Some expressed their identity in words, like Malevych, while others were afraid. Relying on works is also not easy because many authors could have written works “about the good glory of the party,” but this was just an attempt to buy time. Some succeeded, and others...well, you know.

Moreover, the Soviet Union clearly defined the boundaries of the style in which the creators could work, socialist realism. Speaking about it, Zhenia Moliar recalls: "Maksym Gorkyi Russian, Soviet writer – Editor`s Notein 1934, at the First All-Union Congress of writers, proclaimed its main postulates: nationality, ideology, and concreteness. This style virtually conquered All-Soviet art until the end of the USSR's existence. However, if you look at social realism in detail, it was not homogeneous. Within the framework of social realism, there were such vivid phenomena as a strict style and the art of thawing.

Artists were forced to adhere to a single style. Everything that went beyond social realism was condemned. The sphere of art in the format of a closed totalitarian country was subordinated to the dominant ideology and strictly controlled by the state. That is why there was an unofficial art, the so-called “work left in the tableTo create works, knowing that they will not pass censorship and be published – Editor`s Note”. These are the unrestrained creative searches that took place outside the artistic process, visible to the public — apartment exhibitions, samvydav, etc. Often artists managed to combine the official and unofficial. For example, Valerii Lamakh was a muralist who fulfilled state orders, creating ideological mosaic panels, and at the same time, he worked on the “Book of schemes” – an outstanding philosophical work. Or Mykhailo Hrytsiuk, the author of a series of outstanding sculptural portraits of cultural figures. He was also the author of the monument to Lenin. Halyna Skliarenko, in her book “Ukrainian artists: from thaw to independence,” analyzes this phenomenon in detail and weighs down attempts to divide art into official and unofficial ones."

Self-portrait by Valerii Lamakh
Self-portrait by Valerii Lamakh. https://supportyourart.com/stories/lamah/

Those who were lucky enough not to suffer reprisals were enrolled in the ranks of Russians. Director Dzyga Vertov worked at the Kyiv Film Factory “UkrainfilmNow – National Film Studio of feature films named after Oleksandr Dovzhenko – Editor`s Note", where he made one of the first in the world and the first Ukrainian sound film “Symphony of Donbas.”

With another Ukrainian director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, everything is also not clear. Trying to protect himself from repression and realize his dream of making a film about Taras BulbaTaras Bulba is a romanticized historical novella by Mykola Hohol. It describes the life of an old Zaporizzia Cossack, Taras Bulba – Editor`s Note, the director made propaganda films to order, and they tell you that he even had some night walks with Stalin.

There are many similar stories to these. Shootings murdered some. Some were arrogated to themselves. Others were tried to cover up with propaganda so that they would be wiped out by their own people.

But the Ukrainian cultural and scientific industry has acted wiser in this regard. Along with the decommunization policy, several works and initiatives explain these complex contexts. Symbols are explained at exhibitions in museums, discussions about the identity of artists are arranged during international fairs and festivals, and classics are updated in cinemas. Now it is left to explain these narratives abroad, massively and clearly. Ukraine teaches a course on history and culture, and the whole world listens to it.

Zhenia Moliar adds: "It is important to analyze the art of the Soviet period critically and not demonize it. And remember that this is Ukrainian Soviet art. I always insist on this formulation and sequence of words. Since both Ukrainism and Sovietism are its vital essence, this is its uniqueness and value.”

Russian culture will no longer be associated with the "mysterious soul” and romanticization of the deficit of the USSR or the brutality of the nineties. The culture of Russia is the culture of its military, who torture, rape, and kill civilians. Now, when removing the remnants of Russian imperialism, it is important not to remove your own accidentally. It is where we differ.

Ukraine has the opportunity to communicate its diversity. We can explain how Ukrainian folklore affected Hohol; why the Ukrainian artist Mykola Pymonenko taught another artist, Malevych. We can tell that the artist of Armenian origin Aivazovskyi grew up in the Ukrainian Crimea, spent most of his life here, and left Feodosiia his paintings, sculptures, house, and workshop. Furthermore, we need not just to remove everything Russian at the root but to dig deep and show that the origins of what is called Russian are often in Ukraine or other countries and cultures. Perhaps we just need to change some inscriptions on the monuments to “Russian” cultural figures.

Further reading

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