The Ukrainification of the World
Something has gone awry when American institutions embrace the myths of other countries’ revanchist nationalisms.
On the very day my piece about derussifying Russian art in Western museums was posted on this site, American writer Elizabeth Gilbert voluntarily withdrew her upcoming novel Snow Forest. This was the first time I had heard Gilbert’s name, but I was aware of her novel Eat, Pray, Love— probably because I saw the title embroidered on pillows at TJ Maxx.
Gilbert’s decision, which she explained in a short video posted on Twitter, was motivated by an appeal from pro-Ukraine activists angered because the novel is set in Russia. Gilbert acknowledged being insensitive, but retained hope to eventually publish her work: “I am making a course correction and I’m removing the book from its publication schedule. It is not the time for this book to be published.”
Although they appeal to compassion—“think what’s it like to have your country invaded” — I find Ukrainian nationalists hard to relate to. When were Jews trying to erase every mention of Germany—or Ukraine, for that matter? The great Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem, who in 1905 fled the pogroms in what is now Ukraine, once compared Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko to the Song of Songs—even as some of Shevchenko’s verses praised pogroms. Aleichem rested on his own secure sense of nationhood, which stemmed ultimately from divine revelations like the Ten Commandments. Ukrainians, on the other hand, are not done with their forty years in the desert. They are involved in a battle with a nation that’s universally acknowledged to have a great culture, their ancestors enthusiastically participated in that culture, and their compatriots find it difficult to separate themselves from it.
Ukrainians have a point when they complain of Putin wanting to erase the Ukrainian nationhood, but they attempt to do exactly that to Russia. Apart from the recent fashion of writing the words “Russia” and “Putin” with lower case letters, Ukrainian advocates in the West call to stop productions of Russian music—even if some composers, like Tchaikovsky, have Ukrainian roots—and to relabel Russian artwork as Ukrainian and generally erase every reference to Russia.
Strange historical narratives have been coming out of Ukraine after the Soviet breakup. While all nations have an element of make-believe in their founding mythologies—I’m pretty sure George Washington told a lie a few times—the post-Soviet version of the Ukrainian story reads as both fantastic and jealous.
Ukraine is said to have existed in perpetuity, long before Slavs settled the lands it now occupies and the word Ukraine was in use. Versions of that updated narrative have poured into the English language media. For instance, the Ukrainian Magazine of Chicago confidently asserts that “Ukrainian civilizations date back to 4800 BC” and “Ukraine’s ties to Western Europe span back more than 1,000 years.” But the ancient Scythians and Trypillians who dwelled in what is now Ukraine weren’t Slavs. Moreover, the principality that, prior to Mongol yoke, had extensive ties to Western Europe was called Kievan Rus. It was ruled by the Scandinavian Rurik dynasty from Novgorod. The land was settled by ancestors of both Russians and Ukrainians.
“The Ukraine”—translated from Slavic languages as “Borderland”—was the eastern edge of the 16th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A singular Ukrainian cultural and political entity emerged with the 17th-century Cossack uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, but the Cossacks asked Russia for protection. Ukrainian nationalism dates back only to the 19th century.
Equally dubious are the Kyiv Independent’s claims that Russia did not found Odessa and Kharkov because over the centuries other peoples established settlements in the areas around those cites. This proposition is analogous to contemporary land acknowledgments forced on American public and private sectors; surely Ohlone Indians resided on the territory of what is now San Francisco, but they didn’t build the city. Similarly, many tribes had settlements in the south and east of Ukraine, but its most important urban centers were founded by the Russian Empire.
Now that Ukraine is fighting Russia on its territory, Ukrainians get our sympathy. Feelings of goodwill should not translate into allowing odd ideas to permeate Western academia, but unfortunately the talk of “decolonizing” Russian history has become a trend. It amounts to substituting the word “Russia” or “Russian” that was used during the period of time in question with “Ukraine” or “Ukrainian.” For instance, the ethnic Pole and Russian Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich can be renamed Kazymyr Malevych and declared Ukrainian.
This kind of cultural exchange is like glasnost in reverse—in the 1980’s Soviet people looked toward Western scholars to learn honest history, as it was practiced in the free world. But today ideologically-driven Western academia is fed the narratives of the failed states of the former USSR.
These narratives might be new to us, but Russians and Ukrainians have been exposed to them for decades. I can’t tell you how many Ukrainians believe themselves to be Scythians—I don’t think most of them know very much about the ancient tribe in the first place—or think that Russia “stole” Ukrainian artists. In Russia, the post-Soviet Ukrainian narrative has been greeted with derision. No wonder: Some Ukrainians dare not say the word “Russia,” preferring “Moscovia” instead, and argue that famous Russians were actually Ukrainians, even if they obviously spoke Russian to each other.
For the record, this kind of erasure is not limited to Russia. For instance, Ukraine claims the Kiev- and Odessa-born Jews Golda Meir and Vladimir Jabotinsky as its own, even as pro-Ukraine American academics at Harvard write pogroms by Ukrainian nationalists out of history.
Those in the West following the events in Ukraine know about the issues frequently raised by both sides—the Neo-Nazi resurgence, Holodomor, the historical status of Crimea and Donbas, and maybe the language question. The relations between Russians and Ukrainians have been going south for decades and mutual distrust abounds. Ukraine has very real historical grievances against Russia—Catherine the Great’s dissolution of the Cossack self-governance, for instance. But then the nationalists turn around and drown these issues in a choir of nonsense. The end result is thirty years of independence wasted on dubious ideological projects and ruining relations with neighbors.
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In recent weeks Ukraine sponsored incursions into the Belgorod region of Russia. Some nationalists dream of not just retaking Crimea but marching on Moscow. Those are boasts and desperate attempts at relevance. Russia is the largest nuclear power and borders Ukraine. Ukrainian nationalists can’t will Russia out of existence.
Nevertheless, the sheer force of their will goes a long way in the West. Gilbert might think that she can hunker down until the war passes and then publish her work, but the war might be lengthy, and so far Ukrainian nationalists have been fairly successful at imposing their agenda on American institutions.
I can’t say I’m interested in reading Snow Forest, but the precedent Gilbert is setting is unsettling. This episode of self-censorship can’t be viewed outside of the larger context of Ukrainian self-invention. But I, an American reader, should be able to read any book with Russian content any time I want. Dubious scholarship shouldn’t pollute our educational and cultural institutions—although it must be granted, we’ve done plenty of damage ourselves.