Archaic Ark of Great Russian Culture

·8 min read
Books (illustrative photo)
Books (illustrative photo)

Kurbas died in 1937 from a Russian bullet in Sandarmokh, Karelia together with more than a thousand prisoners killed on the occasion of the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. A well-known Russian author laments in his recent text for The Atlantic seeking for the Ukrainian author, who would «speak up for Pushkin».

I am sure there isn’t any Russian author who speaks for Kurbas — today or 100 years ago. It will be perversive to compare a Ukrainian director imprisoned under false accusation and then killed for being a Ukrainian director and any Russian writer whose name is taken down from the Ukrainian streets today.

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No culture can prevent a war or stop it. But every culture explains society and how it functions. Culture also reflects the regime of the state in which it is created. Culture is a complex of ideas that are important for a specific society. Culture cannot exist separately from the society in which it is created, culture reflects it as a mirror.

There is no singular novel or film which explains why Russian culture calls itself «big Russian culture» or how the phrase «am I a trembling creature or do I have a right» defined the moral and ethical foundations of the existence of Russian society. It is Russian culture as contextually interpreted and commented on complex ideas and cultural artifacts which form the pull of narratives explaining — what is Russia and why it is like that.

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Reconsidering one’s culture means reconsidering one’s identity, and rethinking it. Ukrainian society obtained a possibility to reconsider its identity after Gorbachev announced «glasnost» and the country declared independence in 1991. The brightest voices of Ukrainian culture were banned for decades and fully excluded from public discourse, even mentioning the names of those artists could cause a criminal verdict.

At that time those artists returned to libraries and universities. For decades Russians convinced Ukrainians that their culture is «rural», uninteresting and second-rate. Ukrainians found out that the most interesting artists and writers were deliberately hidden from them. Together, the details of the Great terror: shootings and murders — became public. This complicated history has been interpreted by Ukrainian society till today. Though, this history is a productive source of creativity because it gave the independent state and its artists the unambiguous feeling of completeness.

The situation in Russia was the opposite: the number of names and stories which Russians could consider theirs decreased. The superpower with the center in Moscow which blocked the presence of powerful voices from Ukraine and other countries from the socialist block — disappeared. Many artists whom Russia used to call Russians appeared to be not only Russian or just not Russian.

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Russia faced the loss of power with dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction explodes today for instance when in the state of the Russia-Ukraine war it gets much more difficult to express offense due to lost powers and the connection between the colony and metropole falls apart.

How do the contemporary Russian intellectuals who don’t support the official politics of their state react to these conditions? They appear with the statement «No war». I can understand them in the broadest sense — this war destroys their comfortably ordered state of existence in the imperial culture.

Most of the geopolitical statements of the contemporary cultural actors from Russia can be combined under the motto: «It’s not that unequivocal». It appears in an interview with Liudmila Ulitskaya when speaking about the Russian occupation of Crimea. It comes out in an essay by Mikhail Shishkin when the necessity to scan Russian culture with a postcolonial optic appears. It is clearly stated in the comments of Dmitry Bykov who says that Ukrainian Odesa without a Russian context will be miserable.

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I would like to bring attention to what interests me most of all in Russian artists: their desire to create the arch of Russian culture which will save the worthy names and artifacts of Russian culture untouchable. A Russian writer co-founded a fund «True Russia» which was intended to help Ukrainian refugees and then — Russians who fled their country.

The aid for Ukrainians is hygienically directed to the British Disasters Emergency Committee which in its turn also helps the refugees. Swiftly, the fund consolidated famous persons who started sharing their reflections on the future of Russia and Russian culture. Here it is — True Russia! The one which tortures, rapes, murders, and looting.

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The one that establishes concentration camps in the occupied territories of Ukraine, and puts on fire the barracks with Ukrainian POWs — this Russia is just not true. In this way, Russian intellectuals solve the discomfort problem of the self-association with the war started by their country and propose an alternative to those foreigners who don’t want to admit the actions performed by representatives of the Russian culture.

The format of such a fund foresees a community of people who publicly declared themselves as the supporters of the organization and became the face of the fund. Altogether it’s a comfortable scheme: face-control lets the organization decide, who and what may come aboard the arch. One can omit the genocide of Crimean Tatars, Holodomor, Katyn massacre, tanks in Prague, bypass the social realism and Stalin terror as well as repressions from Brezhnev times... Also one can cleanly not invite a writer who went to murder Ukrainians in Donbas after 2014.

«True Russia» is an ideal Russia that has experience in international events of the highest rank, speaks foreign languages, sounds in the best halls of best opera houses, and is represented by the most beautiful special editions of the most prestigious publishings. This is Russia depicted in Woody Allen’s movies, this is Russia Sally Rooney mentions. And so on. This carefully chosen facade of Russia is a partial truth, but not all true. Today it’s much more difficult to hide the truth than a hundred years ago.

Russian intellectuals who oppose this war are not ready to seek mechanisms to transform Russia into a national state through a rethinking of Russian imperial culture as national culture.

The idea of an arch provides the possibility to hide behind the facade, resettle and wait for a moment when it will be possible to come back to the streets of Saint Petersburg. Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Brodsky, and Solzhenitsyn are not guilty of the war Russia again started against Ukraine. But these people and their successors explain vividly why this war started. How should we deal with them?

There are several possible variants of future events. It is obvious that Russian culture bears the power of influence and domination. Actors of this culture enjoy it and want to keep it without any explanations. Postcolonial optic demands to admit a history as it was with its crimes, so there is a fear of inability to like oneself after the real history is released and acknowledged. Anyway, contemporary figures of the Russian culture field will be made to do this, because classics are already in the history of culture. That cannot be said about their contemporaries.

The contemporaries cannot handle the spirit of the time and see themselves as they are: the representatives of imperial culture which for centuries deprived of language dozens of nations. Do not worry for Dostoevsky, he won’t disappear. But his future depends on how his successors work with Russian culture here and now.


«The roots must be sought in the persecutors, not in the victims who are murdered under the paltriest of pretenses», — Adorno wrote. The explanation of Russia’s war can be found in Russia’s culture and history, not in the insane desire to encourage dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian artists.

Despite the illusion of the existence «above politics», Russian culture has a very concrete slaughterous context. It explains the roots of Russia’s behavior in the global dimension today.

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Better take the list of the socialistic countries and explore those cultures which will not be invited to be saved in the arch of Russian culture under any circumstances because Russia erased them consistently. Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, Romanian… You will discover bright and powerful cultures whose voices were silenced — and in this way, you will advance the defeat of Russia.

Bohdana Neborak — journalist, podcast host, manager of cultural projects from Kyiv, Ukraine. Editor at «The Ukrainians» media. Having a MA in law, Bohdana has a 10 year experience in creative industries, working as a journalist, culture manager and curator in Ukrainian and international projects.

Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine