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Vira Aheieva: "Great Russian culture" is a myth with big money behind it

Sunday, 12 November 2023, 05:30

"The war between Russia and Ukraine started in 2014, not 2022." These are words that many Ukrainians have grown familiar with following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Though seemingly obvious, this statement is also deeply flawed, its flaw born of the kindness of a Ukrainian heart and the shortness of a Ukrainian memory. In truth, Russia’s current war against Ukraine is but the latest phase of a struggle that dates back to the 17th century, when Moscow set out to capture and occupy Ukraine after the death of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi.

Only with this key analytical lens can the present-day war be properly understood: as Europe’s latest anti-colonial war.


The many attempts previously made by Ukrainians to secure a full separation from Russia – during the rules of Ivan Vyhovskyi (1657-59), Ivan Mazepa (1687-1708), Symon Petliura (1919-26) and Pavlo Skorodapskyi (1918) – unfortunately ended in failure. Each failure not only cost Ukraine its statehood, but resulted in wave after wave of massacres, terror, and genocide.

It is impossible to understand the nature of Ukrainians’ resistance during the present-day war without taking into account the history of this struggle and the horrific wounds it left in its wake.

The tragedies in Bucha and Mariupol made it clear that Russia and its imperial essence remain unchanged, and that horrors such as exile, repression, and even Holodomor [the man-made famine in Ukraine engineered by Soviet leaders in 1932-33 to suppress Ukrainian peasants – ed.] might easily find their way from the history textbooks into news headlines.

Ukrainska Pravda spoke to literary critic Vira Aheieva to try to grasp the nature of Russian imperialism, the role Ukraine plays in it, how generations of Ukrainians grappled with it in the 19th and 20th centuries – and how we can avoid the mistakes they made.

Aheieva is a prominent public intellectual who has spent the last few years researching Russian imperialism and its tragic role in shaping the history of Ukraine. She is the author of Martians on Khreshchatyk: Literary Kyiv of the 20th Century (published in 2023), a journey through literary Kyiv in the early 20th century.


Nothing that Putin is doing is really that new

In your latest books, you describe two generations of Ukrainian intellectuals who lived under Russian imperialism: first under the Russian Empire, and then under the Bolshevik empire. Is today’s Putinism – or Ruscism – really that new? Or is it the same old imperialism that Ukrainian intellectuals have already tragically grappled with?

I’m really surprised when our contemporaries express disbelief and say, seemingly sincerely: "No, Russians couldn’t do this." They say it’s the Buryats, it’s non-Russians of some kind.

This always reminds me of the fairy tale [The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen - ed.] in which a group of trolls break a mirror, and a splinter of the mirror ends up in Kay’s eye, altering his vision, making him see everything from the trolls’ perspective. As Ukrainians, for a long time we’ve been looking through this mirror, learning to see the world from the vantage point of Russian literature, the culture of the Great Era. Now we can’t get those splinters of the trolls’ mirror out of our eyes. Nothing that Russia is doing is really that new.

Peter the Great banned books that had been printed in Kyiv, setting off an assault on book-printing at the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra (Monastery of the Caves). That was the first thing.

Then – let’s not dwell on the 18th century, but move on to the 19th – there were two edicts banning the Ukrainian language. This wasn’t just a ban on language, but also on book-printing and on translations into Ukrainian, which was a separate point in the Ems Ukaz. [The Ems Ukaz was a secret decree (ukaz in Russian) issued by Emperor Alexander II of Russia in 1876 which banned the use of the Ukrainian language in print, the import of Ukrainian publications, and the staging of plays or lectures in Ukrainian – ed.] The goal was to shut off Ukraine’s access to the West, to destroy every mirror – with only Russia remaining.

Today Putin is often compared to Hitler, but I think that’s only because few people make an effort to look into what happened in Kyiv in 1918-20. That period has strong parallels with today.

The first thing Muravyov and his troops did when they came to Ukraine was to destroy Mykhailo Hrushevskyi’s house on Pankivska Street in central Kyiv. [Mikhail Muravyov (1880-1918) was a Russian officer who led Bolshevik Red Guard units against the Central Rada of Ukraine and, after the tragic Battle of Kruty in 1918, took Kyiv, where his forces carried out mass terror against pro-Ukrainian individuals. Mykhailo Hrushevskyi (1866-1934) was a distinguished Ukrainian historian, politician and statesman – ed.] What was the first thing the contemporary Russians did? They deployed a missile specifically to target the Skovoroda Museum. [Hryhorii Skovoroda (1722-94) was an outstanding and much-loved Ukrainian philosopher, poet, teacher and composer – ed.]

Similarly, what did the invaders do in 1919, after the Soviet government had to some extent established itself in Ukraine, securing a military victory but meeting cultural resistance in Kyiv? They renamed all the streets: in 1919, Mykolaivska Street became Karl Marx Street [now Horodetskyi Street – ed.], Prorizna Street became Yakov Sverdlov Street, Khreshchatyk was given the now-forgotten name of Vorovsky Street. All empires, and the Russian Empire in particular, try to strip the occupied [lands and people] of their historical memory. They are doing the same thing now in the occupied territories.

Renowned public intellectual Vira Aheieva.
Photo: Aheieva’s personal archive

Did Ukraine have a special place in the centuries of Russia’s imperial narratives that originated during Bohdan Khmelnytskyi’s time? Or were Ukrainians on a par with the other peoples Russia had under its heel?

I don’t think they did originate in Khmelnytskyi’s time. I think the Russians didn’t have the wherewithal during Mazepa’s time, in the 18th century. But the classic empire did have certain peculiarities when it came to Ukraine. Just recently I came across Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska’s description of the last years of the hetmans’ rule, the time of Danylo Apostol or thereabouts. [Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska is a Ukrainian cultural figure from the late 19th-early 20th century. Danylo Apostol was the Hetman (Cossack military leader) of the Zaporizhzhian Host from 1727 to 1734 – ed.]

It turns out that Moscow issued an edict – though I’m not sure how public it was – that encouraged mixed marriages, and all these [Russian] boyars were sent to Kyiv to marry hetmans’ daughters and other noblewomen. Writings from those times suggest that for the Ukrainian women, this was worse than death – these dirty, uneducated men with matted hair and those horrible beards.

In the Soviet 20th century, the state-controlled allocation of jobs to university graduates played a similar role: graduates from Lviv (in western Ukraine) were sent to Kaluga (in Russia), and graduates from Kaluga to Lviv. That’s how the fabled "one people" was created.

I love the scenes in Yurii Vynnychuk’s Tango of Death and Oksana Zabuzhko’s The Museum of Abandoned Secrets when some Russian officers find themselves in interwar Lviv, which they see as a totally European city, and their wives turn up at the theatre in nightgowns, thinking they are dresses. There was a real cultural gap [between Russia and Ukraine].


In light of this, is it possible to say that Ukraine was a colony, given that it’s always been involved in building the [Russian] empire one way or another?

Look, there are different opinions, but… if you admit that Russia is an empire, which it is, then we were its colony. We were conquered by force, so we became a colony.

But to our credit, we were a colony that never lost its identity – at least not our cultural identity. In 2014 I realised that Ukraine’s cultural resistance had never ended.

We have to read the classics. I really love this one very short story by Oleksa Storozhenko [1806-74], "The Moustache".

Storozhenko was a Ukrainian nobleman who had a stellar career in the Russian Empire – as did many others like him. He wrote this short story, "The Moustache". The narrator is a nobleman from Poltava who’s been elected to represent the nobility. He and other elected representatives from Poltava come to a reception hosted by a St Petersburg governor who’s been sent to Poltava. From the story’s very beginning, it’s clear who is "us" and who is "them": the governor is depicted as alien and "other". He enters the room and starts screaming wildly. It turns out that a local nobleman has violated an order: he has a moustache. Moustaches were banned by the emperor’s highest decree!

The nobleman has to make a living and wants to keep his position, so he shaves his moustache off. This plunges him into a deep depression, he’s in tears, and his return home is a disaster: his wife is wailing, his mistress refuses to look at him, even his dogs bark at him. He falls sick.

But the Ukrainians know how to handle this sort of thing. They find a clause in the edict saying that you can have a moustache if you retire with the rank of a military officer and have the right to wear a uniform. Still, the end of Storozhenko’s story has a sad ring to it: the only thing you’ve earned after years of faithful service is the right to have a moustache.

But here’s some food for thought. Take the local nobility who lived here – the Kvitka, Storozhenko, Hrebinka families – what did they need those Muscovites for? They had everything they needed, but they suffered a military defeat and were conquered…

Why is there still resistance to the idea that Russia is an empire? Because empires were often seen to conquer peoples that are, to put it mildly, culturally inferior. In this case, however, the Russians conquered a culturally superior people. Barbarians came to civilisation.

Their empire is now convulsing in agony. We shouldn’t be surprised, saying "They’re different, they couldn’t have done this." We should showcase our own ways of being.

I see nothing new in Russia. Take, for example, [the writer] Volodymyr Vakulenko, who was killed during the Russian occupation of Izium. How many Ukrainian writers like him were killed during the Soviet occupation of Ukraine?

"The [Russian] empire is now convulsing in agony. We shouldn’t be surprised, saying ‘They’re different, they couldn’t have done this.’ We should showcase our own ways of being."
Photo: Aheieva’s personal archive

Being a historian in the 1930s could easily get you executed

What struck me when I read Martians on Khreshchatyk is that there have been several generations of [Ukrainian] cultural elites whose names are as unfamiliar to us as if they were from Mars. And not just because they were annihilated physically…

Physical annihilation is not the most important thing. It’s just a phase, so to speak. First [Mykhailo] Hrushevskyi’s house was destroyed, then he was exiled and killed. [Hrushevskyi was caught up in the Stalinist purge of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. In 1931, after a long campaign against him in the Soviet press, Hrushevskyi was exiled to Moscow, where his health deteriorated. In 1934, while staying at an Academy of Sciences resort in Kislovodsk in the Caucasus, he died soon after undergoing minor routine surgery at the age of 68. At the time of his death, he was being shadowed by the Soviet secret police – ed.]

Rewriting history is always the first step. Being a historian in the 1930s could easily get you executed; no one chose to study history at university. Empires always ban their subjects from narrating their own history. The Russians were particularly brutal in this regard. Just think about it: we’ve been branded for generations as "bloody Mazepans", then "bloody Petliurites", and finally "bloody Banderites". 

Obviously some people in Moscow – and here too, given recent events – are still obsessed with "Banderites". They still have that splinter of mirror stuck in their eyes. 

How can we combat this?

We just have to tell our truth. We need to work tirelessly to educate people. There is no other way. But I think we’ve achieved something in the last 30 years. Those 600,000 Ukrainian citizens who came back to Ukraine during the first few days of the war knew what was happening.


Going back to the 1920s and 30s, though, how is it that the elite of an entire country failed to realise that their own annihilation was approaching? After the first wave of migration, no one was leaving, there were no mass protests or national uprisings. Is this our perpetual blindness – the expectation that we’ll be "hosting barbecues by May" [an optimistic refrain commonly heard at the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion – ed.]? Or is it something else?

First of all, Ukraine was shaken by peasant uprisings: [Ukrainians] kept fighting in Kholodnyi Yar for a long time. [In 1919-1922, the Kholodnyi Yar Republic (located in present-day Cherkasy Oblast) strove for Ukrainian independence in the face of the Bolshevik revolution, making it the last territory held by armed supporters of an independent Ukrainian state before Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – ed.] And there were lots of other rebellions in the 20s. Then collectivisation sparked off another series of peasant uprisings. Stalin’s Holodomor in 1933 was the only way he could put an end to these uprisings.

As for people’s blindness: in the first half of the 1920s, power in Kharkiv was held by the Borotbysts. They were members of the Ukrainian elite: Vasyl Ellan-Blakytnyi, Oleksandr Shumskyi, Mykola Skrypnyk. Nowadays we tend to think that having far-left political views is by definition bad, that no Ukrainian would maintain them. But the Central Rada was very left-leaning – part of the reason it lost was that it took a leftist approach to land issues, which wasn’t to everyone’s liking.

[The Borotbysts, Ukrainian for "fighters", were a left-nationalist political party that formed in 1918 after the Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionary Party split on the issue of whether to support the Soviet regime in Ukraine. After the party’s dissolution in 1920, many Borotbysts joined the Ukrainian Communist Party, rather than the Bolshevik party, which was more closely tied to Moscow. Many prominent ex-Borotbysts were associated with the policy of Ukrainisation – efforts to assert autonomy and counter ascendant Stalinism – ed.]

But one way or another, there was a Ukrainian government in Kharkiv when it was the capital [1917-34]. That generation of Ukrainians had two slogans: "Even if it’s red, it’s what we want" – meaning we want Ukraine, even if it means a red [Communist] Ukraine. The other one was the famous "Your government but our land".

There’s a very poignant line by Yevhen Pluzhnyk [a Ukrainian writer (1898-1936) who died in a Soviet prison camp – ed.]: "...There are several provinces – which are called districts now – that make up Ukraine, the Ukrainian SSR."

They had a Ukrainian state. It’s only partially true that the Ukrainian People’s Republic lost: it did manage to preserve Ukrainian culture. It didn’t even entirely lose Ukraine’s sovereignty. Whatever you think, in 1991 [when Ukraine gained independence from the USSR – ed.] we had borders, we had a government, we had several state institutions. All this is the result of the struggle of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

I’m absolutely certain that if the Ukrainisation policies of the 1920s hadn’t given rise to the Ukrainian-language education system, you and I would be speaking Russian now. Back then, kids in Ukrainian villages went to Ukrainian-language schools. Later, Ukrainian-language education was almost entirely eradicated in the cities, but [Ukrainian-language] schools remained in villages and towns.

That’s what Yaroslav Hrytsak describes so well in his book, The Global History of Ukraine: the way that even though the Ukrainian People’s Republic lost, the resistance it had put up forced Lenin to pay attention to Ukrainians.

Since we’re talking about politics – when Stalin, in his role as Commissar of Nationality Affairs, wanted Ukraine to become part of the Russian Federation as an autonomous republic, our [political leaders] made sure that we joined [the USSR] as a separate union state.

"I’m absolutely certain that if the Ukrainisation policies of the 1920s hadn’t given rise to the Ukrainian-language education system, you and I would be speaking Russian now."
Photo: Danylo Pavlov, The Ukrainians

I know where the volunteers come from, but how come our generals are like this?

Some people think that Putin’s blitzkrieg failed because Ukraine had 30 years to write and at least somehow get to grips with its history. People close to the government in Kharkiv told me that the city was saved by the fact that Ukraine had managed to bring up tens of thousands of men who had a strong sense of being Ukrainian. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. There’s another thing that I find very surprising on an emotional level: How come our generals are like this? I know where the volunteers come from: I know my students, some of whom have been killed. But how come our generals are like this? The Russians were really exacting and deliberate in their efforts to get rid of Ukrainian elites. Yet they didn’t eradicate them. And maybe that guy who was told to shave his moustache off raised his children well.

As for Kharkiv, I don’t fully agree. Here’s why. My book, Martians on Khreshchatyk, ends with a section about the two capitals. It’s quite interesting what happened: the Civil War, the Russian-Ukrainian War, Kyiv in ruins after Muravyov, hardship, communism, famine… What did the Soviet regime that took hold eventually do? They moved the capital to Kharkiv – an expensive operation, and to what end?

First, "Petliurite" Kyiv never surrendered and never recognised [the Soviet government’s legitimacy]. We talk a lot about 1933, as we should, but in 1921 Kyiv was encircled by "barricading detachments" that didn’t let any food into the city. The Bolsheviks wanted to starve the city. This, by the way, is the plot of Viktor Domontovych’s Girl with a Teddy Bear. This was also the reason why the Neoclassicist writers were sent to Baryshivka on Kyiv’s outskirts and why things like that were happening.

But it didn’t really help [the Russians]. That’s why the Soviet government later decided to demote Kyiv to the status of a regular provincial city and to move the capital. It was also easier for them to keep an eye on Kharkiv and shell it if needed: it’s right by the border, and they could easily deploy their forces to shell it…

But what ended up happening was a momentous renaissance in Kharkiv: they got Mykola Khvylovyi [a writer and political activist (1893-1933)], VAPLITE [the Free Academy of Proletarian Literature, a literary union that existed in 1926-28 – ed.], literary debates. These things didn’t spring out of nowhere: Kharkiv already had Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko [one of the earliest proponents of Ukrainian as a literary language (1778-1843)], Kharkiv University, Mykhailo Kosach [a Ukrainian writer and translator (1869-1903)]. It is a big fat propaganda lie that Kharkiv is a "Russian city". It was massively Russified after World War II. But Kharkiv is far from being Russian.


In Martians, you describe a moving moment when [the poet] Maksym Rylskyi [1895-1964] is consulting his friend about whether to write [the lyrics to] the "Song about Stalin". Do you think if the Russians had captured Kyiv [in 2022], we would now be having to make the same choice between survival and national identity?

If Kyiv had been captured, what’s now happening in Mariupol would be happening here. It would be far worse than having to write songs about Stalin. Of course there are always people who choose to serve the regime, but we would have had another Mariupol here.

I’m glad you mentioned Rylskyi. Reforms that aim to eradicate all memory of the Soviet period really irk me. They stem from a lack of understanding. Kyiv City Council recently put forward a list of street and place names to be decommunised, and it included streets named after [Ukrainian poets Mykola] Bazhan and [Pavlo] Tychyna.

The logic is that we need to eradicate everything [associated with the USSR] because "true Ukrainians were killed and only henchmen and villains survived". I think only Russia stands to benefit from this. We need to know that those who didn’t serve the [Soviet] regime were killed, and those who did were killed as well. Terror was state policy.

Rylskyi’s story is a good example of that. He didn’t volunteer to write songs about Stalin. Andrii Khvylia, then the head of Bolshevik propaganda efforts in Ukraine, had good taste, and so he decided to ask the best poet of the time, Maksym Rylskyi, and the best composer, Levko Revutskyi, [to write the song]. This hadn’t been done before. Ukrainians were the first to write a "Song about Stalin".

Neither Rylskyi nor Revutskyi wanted to write it. They asked Dmytro Revutskyi – Levko Revutskyi’s older brother and Rylskyi’s school teacher – for advice, and he told them they shouldn’t die for something like that. He told them to write the song Khvylia wanted them to write and continue doing their work for the benefit of Ukrainian culture.

Is it fair to condemn Rylskyi, considering all the work he did after writing the "Song about Stalin"? We shouldn’t brand people like him as traitors for agreeing to do things like that. They all did everything they could to benefit Ukrainian culture.

I think calls to cancel two brilliant poets, Bazhan and Rylskyi, because they wrote about Stalin betray a lack of self-respect, a lack of national dignity, if you like.

Vira Aheieva: "Europe ends with us: we are in Europe, and Russia is outside it."
Photo: Oksana Tysovska

We’ve had "great Russian culture" drummed into our heads

Let’s touch on another type of person that appeared in Kyiv around the same time. In Martians you talk about a group of people who would now be referred to as "good Russians". They came to Kyiv during the revolution [the 2013-14 Revolution of Dignity – ed.] and founded the Kh.L.A.M. art-café. [Khlam is Russian and Ukrainian for trash or junk – ed.] Are today’s "good Russians" different from the "good Russians" back then? Or do they share the same attitude towards Ukraine and its people?

Nothing’s changed. History repeats itself – of course it does. They are the bearers of the "great Russian culture", and we’re just a province. They’ve always depicted Ukrainians as lazy southerners, feminised men, losers. Ukraine is all about hopak [a traditional Ukrainian dance – ed.], while Russians are the bearers of high culture.

Nothing’s changed. Russians have always come here to "educate" us. This time, too, they were hoping that they’d take Kyiv in three days and teach us how we should live our lives.


Finally, I’d like to talk about the idea of the "great Russian culture". It seems to distort people’s perception of reality, particularly in the West, as though it wasn’t the bearers of this "great Russian culture" who were behind the Holodomor or who committed the atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol. Why has the "great Russian culture" failed to prevent genocide, aggression and the like?

Can I ask you a question? Have you ever heard of the "great Polish culture"? Probably not. Or the "great French culture"? And yet we’ve had the "great Russian culture" drummed into our heads. The myth of this "great Russian culture" is an imperial myth backed by big money.

We now have a unique opportunity to destroy this myth and show the world that it rests on two or three writers who wrote three or four great novels in the entire history of great Russian literature. This is something we need to stress.

It has also recently become clear that the so-called Russian avant-garde art that they were so proud to display in museums the world over largely originated in Kyiv and Kharkiv. We have to have our [artists] represented and to showcase our culture.

Baroque architecture is the hallmark of European cities, right? But there is no true Baroque architecture in Russia, except for Starodubshchina [in the northwest of Russia’s Bryansk Oblast], which used to be part of the Ukrainian Hetmanate [a historical term for the Ukrainian Cossack state – ed.].

Europe ends with us: we are in Europe, and Russia is outside it.

A hundred years ago, [the poet] Mykola Zerov [1890-1937] urged us to study our own [literary] tradition, because the time we spent reading Russian literature was time we had stolen from reading our own. And we too have a great culture. Believe me.

Roman Romaniuk, Ukrainska Pravda

Translation: Olya Loza

Editing: Teresa Pearce