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Cultural Amnesia in War-Torn Ukraine

The great division after the modern world will be between historical and ahistorical regimes.

Monument,Of,Leo,Tolstoy,In,Moscow,Near,Metro,Lenin,Library
(kostin77/Shutterstock)

Who is the Tolstoy of the Ukrainians? Don't you dare say Tolstoy.

Lest anyone think that America's race radicals have a monopoly on historical erasure, the liberal elite of Ukraine have taken up their own campaign of posthumous cancellation. Leo Tolstoy, the great 19th-century writer, tops the list.

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Born to a family of old nobility in Western Russia in 1828, Tolstoy is universally renowned for monumental works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He is also the namesake of a city square and subway station in Kiev, Ukraine---though maybe not for long. The capital's city council is mulling the idea of renaming the landmarks after Vasyl Stus, a dissident Ukrainian poet of the Soviet era whose stature is a tiny fraction of the Russian's.

The move is part of a broader effort to "decolonize" Ukrainian public culture, purging all potential links to the young Slavic country's much larger neighbor. Professedly a rejection of Russian imperialism, the push is both foolish and doomed to fail. The choice of Tolstoy as a target illustrates one major reason why.

In his early twenties, Tolstoy served as an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian Army during the Crimean War of 1853-56, in which Ukraine was merely a battleground between Russia and an alliance of Western powers (and the Ottomans). In his relatively brief service, Tolstoy endured the long siege of Sevastopol and took part in some of the campaign's bloodiest battles. The bloodshed he experienced in Crimea made Tolstoy a devoted enemy of violence, inspiring the Christian anarchist thought that earned him suspicion from spiritual and temporal authorities in Moscow. In his later years, Tolstoy spent time peacefully on the Black Sea in Gaspra, a town in Crimean territory now claimed by Ukraine. If this is really about outrage at wartime brutality against the people of that region, then few better figureheads could be found for the cause than the pacifist Leo Tolstoy.

Other targets suggest more mundane problems with Ukraine's "de-Russification." Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the great patriotic Russian composer, was born in Votkinsk on the Russian side of the modern Ukrainian border. But his great-grandfather was a Cossack warrior who distinguished himself in combat against the Swedes at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, and his family's roots in present-day Ukraine were deep and noteworthy. Kiev's conservatory is named in his honor---though that, along with a number of streets and other honorifics, is being reconsidered. Leading figures in the Ukrainian musical scene are even insistent that the works of Tchaikovsky and other Russian artists must not be performed in the country going forward.

Mikhail Bulgakov may not have quite been Tolstoy, but The Master and Margarita is one of the great works of 20th century literature. Bulgakov was born in Kiev in 1891 to a family teeming with Orthodox clergymen. He was educated there all the way through medical school, his first long-term departure from the city being a front-line deployment as a medic in the First World War. He crossed back and forth over present-day borders a bit, eventually settling in Moscow at the age of thirty. Having done some work as a journalist already, Bulgakov became a writer and satirist of some note, and a number of his works were banned by Joseph Stalin.

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Was Tchaikovsky Ukrainian? Was Bulgakov Russian? I'd answer yes to both, though I'd say the same to the inverse just as quickly. History is not black and white, and a dark line cannot be drawn between two nations whose connections are so close and so longstanding.

Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. But his interpretation of the fact is colored by a fanatical nationalism and panic at the encroachment of hostile foreign powers. Yes, Ukraine is a fake country. There are maybe half a dozen on the face of the planet that aren't. But the complexities of history, civilization, and empire cannot be treated as absolutes in the face of modern nationalism, nation-states, and warfare.

Ukrainian and Western authorities do a great disservice when they answer Putin's twisted truth with out-and-out fabrication. Early on in the present conflict, the American embassy in Kiev tweeted an embarrassing meme that somebody must have thought undermined Putin's imperial claims:

This feeds directly into Putin's point, of course. The history of Kiev going back more than a millennium is the history of Russia, just as much as it is the history of Ukraine. The actual political conclusions to be drawn from that can be debated, but the fact itself cannot simply be denied. In attempting to cleave the one culture and history from the other, these people only manage to illustrate that it cannot and should not be done.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the great division after the modern world will be between historical and ahistorical regimes: those that recognize the power of history and the reality of the incarnate order, and those that admit only to abstractions detached from the men and centuries that laid down their foundations.

Ukraine, as it attempts to blend hypernationalism with a new liberal identity, finds itself torn between the two. It is a familiar dilemma for many in the West---as existential for the people of Ukraine as it is for each of us.

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