The War’s Destruction of Ukrainian Culture

Art and culture are defenseless in the face of war. I am not speaking just of valuable material artifacts—the content of galleries, museums, and archives, the fragile heritage of previous generations. Tank tracks are grinding down the surface of the top layer of civilization and scattering its ashes to the wind, leaving behind dead earth. Cultural productivity will return one day, but until then, the landscape will be altered unrecognizably; what has been destroyed cannot be brought back.

“In all circumstances—and particularly in time of war—works of art, the patrimony of humanity at large, should be left untouched by national or political passion.” This premise, formulated by the British writer John Galsworthy after World War I, is one of the foundations of the Charter of PEN International. The premise seems to state the obvious, but wars like those that have swept over Europe during the last century show just how far we are from living up to the ideal of protecting our highest expressions of culture.

The history of Ukrainian culture is the history of the four major cultures that existed in Ukraine at the beginning of the last century: Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Russian. We can only imagine how they might have developed had they been left to complement, strengthen, and mutually enrich each other. In addition to complementarity, the interrelation of national cultures also involves reciprocal influence in multiple ways: the exchange of ideas, quotations, translations, and so on. Almost none of this had the chance to take place in Ukraine.

The first of these four cultures to be destroyed and disappear was Ukraine’s Polish culture. This was a result of the Soviet-Polish War of 1919–21. The Soviet papers in Ukraine during those years were filled from one issue to the next with aggressive anti-Polish propaganda calling for the annihilation of Poles. And for many years after 1921, being Polish in the Soviet Union meant that one’s loyalty was considered unreliable. Poles were often victims of Soviet repressions, including executions, during the Stalinist terror.

The scope and depth of this loss to Ukraine can be evaluated now by simply recalling the names of those who were able to escape to Poland and save themselves: Jarosław Iwaszkewicz, who with time became recognized as the 20th century’s last classical Polish poet; the composer Karol Szymanowski, the reigning star of Polish music in the interwar period; the composer Witold Maliszewski, the founder and first rector of the Odesa Conservatory; the architect Władysław Gorodecki, whose House with Chimeras remains the iconic “visiting card” of Kyiv to this day.

In 1918, during the brief period of Ukraine’s independence, the Kultur Lige was established in Kyiv—a league of European culture, uniting Jewish writers, artists, directors, and publishers. In a matter of a few months, more than a hundred chapters of the league were opened: from Riga, Warsaw, and St. Petersburg in the north to Crimea in the south. Among its founders and participants, we find the names of artists and writers who defined the development of 20th-century art: Marc Chagall, El Lissitzky, Issachar Ber Ryback, Abraham Manievich, Perets Markish.

In the USSR, however, the existence of non-Communist cultural organizations was forbidden, so by 1920 the Bolsheviks had completely overtaken the leadership of the Kultur Lige. In 1924, it was disbanded altogether, and many of its members left the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, Jewish cultural life in Ukraine remained active until the beginning of World War II. In Kharkiv, and later in Kyiv, there were prominent state-run Jewish theaters, and Jewish-Ukrainian literature written in Yiddish was some of the richest and most admired in Europe in those years. This incredible array of artistic variety was completely stifled during World War II and finally destroyed by Stalin at the end of the 1940s. Kyiv culturologist Miron Petrovsky explained the disappearance of Ukraine’s Jewish literature with somber brevity: “Hitler killed the readers and Stalin killed the writers.”

In the first half of the 1930s, a monstrous blow was dealt to Ukrainian-language culture as well. In Imperial Russia, the publication of books in Ukrainian had been forbidden; Ukrainian theater was relegated to the periphery, since it cost a huge amount of money to gain permission to stage plays in the larger cities. But for the 15 years following the fall of the Russian Empire, a young, dynamic literature—oriented more toward contemporary European culture than toward Russian culture—was formed in Ukraine. There was avant-garde theater, cinema, and schools for the arts.

All of this was liquidated in the 1930s. An enormous number of writers, actors, directors, and artists were repressed and later executed. Control over speech and thought will always and everywhere inevitably overflow into the cultural realm, independent of language, and Ukrainian culture was no exception, subjected as it was to severe control that did not weaken until the final years of the USSR.

Severe censorship dried out Ukrainian-Russophone culture as well, depriving those writers, poets, directors, and actors of the oxygen of freedom. Lacking any means of self-realization, the most talented authors left Ukraine.

Of the four major urban cultures that existed in Ukraine from 1918 to 1920, only two—Ukrainian and Russian—were preserved to the moment of independence, but even that preservation was palpably distorted by Communist ideology, censorship, and endless interference of the state in the creative process. The fall of the Communist regime freed Ukraine’s culture from censorship and the dictates of ideology, but the cultural renewal occurred slowly and could be fully accomplished only with a generational change in the arts. Throughout this time, discussions about the place of Russophone culture, particularly Russophone-Ukrainian literature, were taking place in all levels of society.

It may seem strange, but it was during these years of Ukraine’s independence that Russophone-Ukrainian literature appeared in scope and quality never before seen either in the Soviet Union or in the Russian Empire. These works also differed both thematically and stylistically from Russian literature: the linguistic differences between Ukrainian and Russian variants of the Russian language, which had always been a key feature of Ukrainian Russian, were codified in these texts. This phenomenon of Russophone literature in Ukraine was studied by Professor Marco Puleri, of the University of Bologna, and chronicled in his book: Ukrainian, Russophone, (Other) Russian: Hybrid Identities and Narratives in Post-Soviet Culture and Politics (2020).

As happened with the Polish and Jewish cultures of Ukraine, the decisive blow to both remaining cultures was struck by way of war—the current one. After the demagogic announcements of Russian politicians and propagandists in 2013–14 about the need to defend Ukraine’s Russophone citizens, hundreds and thousands of Ukrainians, for whom Russian had been their native language, began refusing to speak it in public and in everyday life, as if to say: “I am no longer a Russian speaker, and there is no need for you to ‘defend’ me.” This movement intensified after the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, but Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine in 2022 has given it a new impetus.

The Russian-language culture will disappear amid the destruction.

I believe that the goal of Russia’s war with Ukraine is the annihilation of the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian civilization. The actions of Moscow’s leaders betray their rhetoric about waging a defensive war: in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, the Russian army is destroying museums, archives, monuments, libraries—everything that preserves Ukrainian history and is fundamental to Ukrainian identity. It is obvious to me that Ukrainian culture is one of the targets of Russian aggression, and if Russia were to realize its military goals and capture Ukraine, then there is no doubt whatsoever that Ukrainian culture will be destroyed as well.

What may be less obvious is that the Russian-language culture of Ukraine will disappear amid the destruction. That culture will be substituted with a propagandistic surrogate, as often happens in these cases and as has already happened in the Ukrainian territories Russia has annexed.

As I write this text, I am distracted by the news from the east, where the Ukrainian army attempting to counter the Russian attack on Severodonetsk. [Editor’s note: Russian forces succeeded in gaining complete control of the city on June 25.] I don’t know how and when this war will end, but my certainty that Ukraine will prevail, and preserve both its sovereignty and culture, has never faltered once, even in the days when the Russian army stood outside the Kyiv city limits. Ukraine has waged an armed defense of its right to develop as an autonomous civilization, its right to its own language and culture, to its place in the circle of European cultures.

But to predict even the near future for Russophone-Ukrainian culture is more complicated. One has the sense that yet another culture has fallen victim to this latest war. No one will forbid Ukrainian writers to write in Russian, of course, but who will they write for? In a peaceful, flourishing Ukraine, other literatures, other languages could develop alongside Ukrainian. Now such development seems impossible. Who will ever read books in Russian in a country where that language is firmly and for the foreseeable future associated with this unprovoked and cruel aggression from Russia?

Image: Ruined Kyiv in World War II (Aleksandr Anisimov / via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

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