Tearing Down Civilization: Pushkinopad
In 2014, when the Maidan overthrow of the Ukrainian government in Kiev was complete, the veterans of the insurrection, most of them Pravy Sektor paramilitaries, traveled across Ukraine toppling Vladimir Lenin monuments. The movement, immediately christened Leninopad (literally, “Lenin fall”), was celebrated in the West.
At the time, Leninopad was hailed as the beginning of belated decommunization. But it’s possible that Ukrainian nationalists hate Lenin not so much because he was a communist as because he spoke Russian. Dismantling Lenin monuments should be more properly viewed as a part of the de-Russification, or, as some like to say, decolonization of Ukraine.
De-Russification started immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, with Ukrainian schools switching their language of instruction from Russian to Ukrainian. Then, after the Maidan, private companies in the country were legally required to adopt Ukrainian as the business language. In the last several weeks, nationalists have begun removing monuments to Russian poet and founder of modern Russian language and literature Alexander Pushkin, to cleanse the country of Russian presence.
Not much is said about this Pushkinopad in the West. Some Russian liberals justify this barbarism as an outpouring of righteous anger after the Bucha massacre, now under investigation by the Ukrainian authorities. However, the “cancellation” of Pushkin is not an act of spontaneous rage, but a continuation of de-Russification. Literature cannot be reduced to the politics of ethnic hate.
An April 18 Twitter thread from researcher and journalist Kamil Galeev, former Galina Starovoitova Fellow at D.C.’s Wilson Center, illustrates a struggle over national identity in language playing out in the Pushkinopad. Galeev’s thread, which must have been germinating for months, if not years, focuses on nationalism, and is based on Galeev’s investigation of the linguistic processes that created national identity as laid out by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities.
Galeev faults Pushkin for having created, from spoken vernacular and French, the gold standard of Russian, which then became the language of the empire:
That explains [the] significance of Pushkin for the modern Russia. Since Russia incorporated what is now Ukraine and Belarus under Catherine II, Russian government always fought for homogenising all East Slavic territories after the Russian standard, politics, culture and language-wise Russia strived to impose the same language all over Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. And yet, the question was – what should we impose as the standard? Pushkin is so prominent because he created this standard.
Galeev contrasts Pushkin to Taras Shevchenko, the Ukrainian national poet, or kobzar, meaning “the bard,” as he is often called. Shevchenko, Galeev suggests, offers an alternative to Pushkin in his elevation of Ukrainian from a dialect to a language.
Never mind that Ukraine is a large country with an enduring diversity of regional speech patterns, which remain a source of conflict. Politically ascendant West-Ukrainian Galicians are hell-bent on teaching their own idiom to their compatriots, while Transcarpatia is virtually inaudible to outsiders. Too many of the Ukrainian people still communicate in Surzhyk, a mix of Russian and Ukrainian. And that’s without getting into the prevalence of the dreaded Russian.
Kobzar himself spoke the Northern Poltava vernacular. Nevertheless, Galeev endorses Shevchenko on political grounds: “This alternative wasn’t simply linguistic or cultural. It was also political. Pushkin endorsed Russian imperial tradition. Shevchenko rejected it.”
This skips right over Pushkin’s liberalism and uneasy relationship with power, jumping to his glorification of the Russian martial tradition and retroactively dubbing the 19th-century writer “super hawkish.”
Curiously, Galeev omits the content of Shevchenko’s poems. Perhaps that’s understandable. If Pushkin saluted the imperial glory, his Ukrainian counterpart went full-on genocidal:
Whip down a Kike’s back
“That’s how, pig! That’s how, Yid!
That’s how, devil’s son!”
So wrote Shevchenko in 1841 in his historical epic Haydamaks, which conjured up a 1768 Cossack uprising. My translation is not doing any disservice to the text, by the way.
The anti-Jewish violence of the poem, not unlike its Jewish characters, serve almost as comic relief. Shevchenko’s main target are the Poles, and he dedicates multiple pages to vicious anti-Catholic pogroms. As an aside, Haydamaks‘s description of a market square drenched in the “sea of blood” belongs to the same unironic slasher tradition in Ukrainian arts as the recent propaganda video of a woman in a peasant dress beheading a comical Russian soldier.
Haydamaks describes a Cossack singing “No Yid, no Polak” in the Ukrainian steppes. The epic is considered notable because it was the first ever sympathetic portrayal of popular fury in literary history. Indeed. In Shevchenko’s defense, being a nationalist of the Romantic era, he channeled what he saw as the authentic sentiments of his people. While Ukraine a century later realized its “No Yid, no Polak” aspiration with some help from Hitler and Stalin (the later exiled ethnic Poles from Eastern Galicia), Haydamaks itself was not a call to action. It is just a poem.
Galeev frames his argument by stating that, in Russia, poetry is inherently political, which in turn allows him to reduce Russia’s founding poet to one aspect of his politics. That maneuver sadly is familiar woke cringe. Here is how Pushkin assessed his own legacy a few months before the duel that took his life:
A word about me will spread across the great Rus.
Every existing tongue will call my name,
The proud grandson of Slavs, the Finn, the now wild Tungus, the friend of steppes Kalmyk.
For a long while I will be dear to the people
Because I awoke kind feelings with my lyre,
Celebrated freedom in my brutal age
And called for mercy towards the fallen.
Yes, Pushkin created the modern Russian language for elegance and clarity of thought. Whereas the kobzar was a solid Romantic wedded to the particularities of his Eastern Slavic origin, Pushkin was a polyglot cosmopolitan writer, versed in European as well as Russian thought. Pushkin’s heritage is greater in scope, has more depth, and is more refined.
One can explain to English speakers that Pushkin and Shevchenko are the national poets of Russia and Ukraine, respectively, but for those of us who are fluent in these languages, Pushkin is Pushkin. Shevchenko is the guy who had the bright idea to pen some poems in Ukrainian. Pushkin laid the foundation of the discourse in which ethnic Ukrainians and most of the best Ukraine-born writers chose to participate. Gogol, Akhmatova, Babel, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky—I can continue—wrote in Russian. Great artists and musicians with connections to the region, like Repin and Tchaikovsky, conversed in the tongue. Even the bulk of Shevchenko’s work, including his diary, was in Pushkin’s Russian.
Ukrainian cities had been Russian-speaking since before the Bolshevik Revolution, with the largest minority language being Yiddish. The only exception was Lwow, where the majority language was Polish. Prior to 1991, most of Ukrainian intelligentsia was culturally Russian. Throughout Soviet history, Russian was the language of resistance and Pushkin our bedrock. In Kharkov, an ethnically mixed Russian-speaking city in the Ukrainian SSR where I grew up, our parents read samizdat and later, during Perestroika, thick journals in Russian.
The school curriculum for post-revolutionary Russian literature consisted, for the most part, not of the great Russian contemporaries but communist drivel. However, the best teachers found creative ways to sneak in important authors into the classroom. Often, Pushkin was that way. My sister’s Russian literature teacher asked students to find verses about the poet by a 20th-century writer. That’s how he introduced under-appreciated and dissident authors like Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva.
My sister selected one of Tsvetaeva’s many poems dedicated to Pushkin. Tsvetaeva was a part-Polish White Russian reactionary who spoke in the single breath of the hated imperial policies of Tzar Nicolas I and his censorship of Pushkin:
Of the Polish land
Scolded the author,
Cut down the manuscript
These sentences weren’t inspired by Shevchenko because, contrary to Galeev’s wishful thinking, the first Ukrainian was just not that impactful. On the other hand, Pushkin’s linguistic universe allows for critique of the empire, and it was Pushkin who emerged as the self-perpetuating mechanism by which liberty continued to manifest itself in the Russian-speaking world on a great scale.
Why should any of us care if Ukraine wants to destroy its own cultural heritage within its borders? Because Pushkinopad will reverberate throughout the West for decades. We already experienced the cancellation of a Dostoevsky class and an anti-war Russian pianist. The Metropolitan Opera replaced the Russian diva Anna Netrebko with a Ukrainian singer wrapped in the blue and yellow banner. Those are just a few high-profile examples of this anti-Russian spirit spreading.
Russophobia is poised to be institutionalized in the academy. The Slavic Review, for example, announced a year-long series called “De-colonizing Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in Undergraduate Teaching and Graduate Training,” which asks
how do we go about the process, particularly in terms of undergraduate teaching and graduate training? What concrete curricular changes can we make to amplify a wider variety of voices and perspectives, paying particular attention to those that have been historically subordinated to, or silenced by, Russian voices and perspectives?
In other words, goodbye, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The few academic departments that still taught the enduring works of beauty and meaning are bending to the Eastern European version of wokeness.
There is nothing liberating about the rabid hatred of everything Russian. Ukraine’s Pushkinopad is not a minor excess of a war-ravaged nation but a sign of a failed society, an anti-civilization, one that mirrors the West’s own statue-destroying upheavals.
Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick.