In his essay in foreign policy, titled: “from Pushkin to Putin” Ukrainian philosopher, essayist and editor of Ukraine World, Vlodymyr Yermolenko, took a swipe at Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and Dostoyevsky, amongst others, labeling them as “imperial writers.” Their view was that it is provincial thinking, a nationalistic resentment, not to have art or literature transcend nationalistic boundaries. Some say Pushkin, Lermontov, etc. were all the sons of their epoch, and they shouldn’t be judged through a modern lens, but on their literary merit. Radio Free Europe’s Georgian Service addressed the author to hear his counter argument, as well as his outlook on the current happenings in Ukraine.
“I think these arguments are precisely provincial and blind, because we should be reading literary texts very closely, as very often they show the symptoms of certain power discourses in politics, and those things found in Pushkin, in Lermontov, definitely show this,” he tells us. “For example, let’s take Lermontov’s text “Mtsiri” about the Caucasus – for one Russian literary critic, who criticized me, this was a text about how a Russian poet tries to identify himself with a Caucasian Monk. For me, it’s absolutely different: It’s the way a Russian poet tells Caucasian nations, Georgians and others, “look, you are in the past, you have only the past, you don’t have the present and you definitely don’t have a future; the only thing you’ve got is nostalgia for the past.” And this actually corresponds to what is happening today, with Russia saying to Ukrainians, “okay, guys, you probably had a different past to ours, but we are the same nation, we have the same people and if you don’t agree with that, we will punish you.”
What defines the Ukrainian identity?
The banal response would be that it’s the spirit of freedom, individually and the freedom of the nation, of community. If I had to explain it to a six-year-old, I’d say that we Ukrainians decide everything by ourselves; we are responsible for our actions; we do not wait for orders from above. Neither orders, nor punishments, nor incitement to act, and this is what differentiates us from tyrannies in which people are slaves, where people do not feel the capacity to act, to think with their own minds or their own lives.
Every now and then, a Western scholar will argue that this war is the true birth of the modern Ukrainian statehood, that Putin shaped the national myth of the country he himself didn’t believe existed. British historian Margaret McMillan said “Putin is the founding father of the Ukrainian independence”. What do you say to that?
I think it is wrong to say that because it just gives too much credit to Putin. If you look at Ukrainian society of 100 years ago, you will see the same processes. If you look at Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century, you will see similar things. Ukraine as a nation is quite old. The problem is that it was not really recognized, not really seen from outside, for different reasons. The big difference of our fight today with our fight 100 years ago is that nobody cared about Ukraine 100 years ago. And, therefore, the disappearance of this independent state was met with absolute indifference in Europe, in America, elsewhere.
I can relate as a Georgian because we had similar issues when we had the first Georgian Republic (1918-1921) which lasted only three years.
Right, exactly. There are lots of parallels between Georgia and Ukraine. We needed to wait for 100 years. I think it is wrong to give credit to Putin, because Putin was reacting to ongoing processes. He understood that these processes for him were going too far; he tried many other ways to stop it, first with propaganda, then with a network of spies and agents, then he tried to put a puppet government with Yanukovitch, etc.
Putin is like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is classic literature about a point in history where every step the tyrant makes brings him closer to the abyss, and that’s what Putin is doing. Violence and war is an instrument of the last resort. And it only accelerates the Ukrainian identity. It strengthens it, but it doesn’t create it.
One of the facets of the Ukrainian identity is Ukraine freeing itself from Russian influence, a struggle that is not restricted solely to battlefield victories: two quite prominent monuments of Empress Catherine the Great and General Suvorov were removed from Odessa. Is that also an act of rejection? Is that a shaping of the Ukrainian identity?
Of course, because Catherine is another side of the same coin of Russian imperialism for us. Russian imperialism tried to put the symbols of the empire everywhere it reached, which is why we have statues of Lenin in every town, had streets named after Pushkin in every town. The Ukrainians should ask themselves: Why do we have monuments of Pushkin in Kyiv, but no monuments to writers from Kyiv, or someone like historian and archivist Volodymyr Antonovych, or people who created, at some point, Kyiv’s identity. This is the imperial approach to erasing the local history, to replacing it with the imperial one. And, of course, we should get rid of it. We should bring back the names, the histories, the works of art, the ideas, that were taken from us.
There were some critics of that move, arguing that Ukraine is rejecting its own history, considering the Empress Catherine is believed to be the founder of the city of Odessa.
People who know the history of Odessa know that before Odessa, the settlement was called Khajibey. To this day we have restaurants in the city called Khajibey. This was a settlement, like many other, which Russia created on top of an existing one. Catherine played a very negative role for Eastern Europe because she destroyed three national statehoods, which are now resisting to the last the Russian expansion: Poland, Ukraine and Crimea. She started the first Russian annexation of Crimea, she destroyed Ukrainian Cossack autonomy, and she participated in the first partition of Poland. I think we should consider her as an imperialist expansionist who not only sought to erase our national identities, but also to expand the idea of one centralist empire in the region. And now we are witnessing the return of this anti-Imperial statehood. First was the independence of Poland in the 20th century, and now we have the rebirth of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar identities. And I think we could say the same about the Caucasus.
Should Ukraine’s erasing of such monuments to imperialism guide other post-Soviet countries? How do we determine what stays and what goes? Lenin might be easy to cast away, but it will be difficult to ask the inhabitants of Gori to do away with their statues of Stalin, or for us to take down the statue of General Bagrationi in Tbilisi.
In Ukraine, we had a Prince Bezborodko, the Grand Chancellor of the Russian Empire and one of the creators of the Russian education system in the early 19th century. We had people like [cleric and theologian] Teofan Prokopovych, who helped Peter I to create the Russian Empire. We have Gogol, who created Russian prose. I think Gogol will stay. I personally have a lot of questions about him, but it’s okay to have questions about historical figures, to discuss, to point out any ambivalence. I think it’s the same with Bagrationi. I don’t know Georgian history in detail, I only remember this paradox, where I was thinking, why is it that the key commanders during the Napoleonic wars didn’t have Russian names, except for Kutuzov and some others? There were Germans, there were Georgians, and it shows that Russia does not exist as a nation [state], that Russia is a mixture of everything, a kind of vinaigrette; an empire that sucks all the best things from the colonies. The presence of figures like Pushkin should definitely be diminished in our streets. Why Pushkin and not Byron, for example? Byron created a much better image of Ukrainian Hetsman Mazepa, so it’s better to have “Byron Street” in the center of Kyiv than Pushkin. We shouldn’t erase those Russian figures, but I think we should definitely diminish their status of omnipresence.
What’s the saving grace for Gogol? That he was born in Ukraine? Or that he is genuinely a world-class writer?
Well, Gogol is part of our culture. We can be critical of him, but he’s definitely part of our culture. People consider him as ours, our writer, but we have big questions as to the way he interprets the Russian Imperial narrative.
“Fighting monuments is the last fight,” – said one prominent Russian thinker, the reasoning being that they cannot fight back. What do you say to that?
It’s not a fight with the monument, it’s a fight with their presence. When we remove or rename Pushkin Street, we can argue that what Pushkin was saying in the 19th century, be it in “Poltava” or in “Slanderers of Russia,” is now being repeated by Russian propaganda. It’s a certain continuity, and we are against this imperial continuity. Just to give you one example, when Russians occupied Kherson and used the local theater, they made it stage Russian plays instead of the original repertoire, and the play they opted for was Mikhail Bulgakov’s “White Guard”. They still use such names, plays, texts, to erase local culture and replace it with their own.
Russian liberals really lag behind in many ways. I follow some of them quite closely and they are two steps behind; still in this privileged stage of Russian culture. They are incapable of thinking in the way Ukrainians and Georgians and other nations think, because we think from the position of nations which were oppressed for centuries, and they just can’t ubderstand this position. And so instead of starting to understand it, make efforts to understand it, they just show the traditional feeling of Russian superiority towards any other nation.
Putin is evil, but beyond him there is great Russian culture which serves as sort of indulgence for the crimes they commit. To this talk of an “alternative Russia,” I’d say there is no alternative Russia. We certainly can’t find it in the texts of Russian literature. Russians should be looking for this alternative, and they have a very big task to complete. Their problem is that they don’t really have in their culture, with some exceptions, of course; they don’t have a clear political program which could serve as an alternative to that Russian Imperialism. They don’t change. They do not produce visions of society like those produced in many European nations, including in Ukraine; this idea that society should be based on free individuals with rights. Instead, in the Russian culture, there is a leitmotif of this so-called Pan-unity, as Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov said, which means that every individual difference should be dissolved in some higher entity. This totalitarian trend in Russian culture was present in Russian slavophiles in the 19th century, certainly in Doskoyevsky, certainly in Russian religious philosophers like Ivan Ilyn and others who pose a basis for Putinist and Eurasianist ideologies. I think Ukrainians, Poles, Georgians do have the right to say to the Russians, “you just are blind to certain aspects of the [Russian] culture, and we can be your psychoanalysts, we can actually shine light on some unconscious things that you’re not aware of,” and I think they should listen to us. The problem is, they haven’t started to listen to us yet.
Putin seems to be banking on making this winter as unbearable for Ukraine as possible – just how long might this winter be for them?
I don’t think he’ll succeed. We’ve been very accustomed to living without electricity and water for some time now. Ukraine is resilient. If Putin was thinking that missile strikes on Ukrainian civilians and cities would push Ukrainian back, and stop them shooting, that’s not the case. It just makes Ukrainians angrier, more resistant, and more willing to help the army. Putin is making a mistake after mistake, and crime after crime. I compare him to Shakespeare’s Macbeth because this is a classic tragedy, a classic piece of art about what happens to a tyrant when he sets upon the path of crime. And the problem for the tyrant is that with every step he makes, things get worse for him.
Interview by Vazha Tavberidze for RFE