Teaching Ukrainian Culture as if it were Russian

A former public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine explained to me a few years ago how they were trying to help Ukrainian institutions to train Ukrainians to tell Ukraine’s story to the world, “because,” he said, “at this point wherever you look, Russia is telling Ukraine’s story.” I thought of this comment when reading the opening pages of Karl Schlögel’s 2015 Ukraine: A Nation on the Borderland (in Gerrit Jackson’s 2018 translation), where he writes:

For me, and I think for everyone who has studied it, Russia is more than a subject of research; it is deeply woven into our personal lives. And so, the so-called Ukrainian crisis was a moment of truth, challenging us to reconsider deeply held convictions and how we had arrived at them. It called for more than a review of the scholarship of the past and the evolution of the cultural, diplomatic or business relations between the countries. It struck to the core of our dedication to dialogue, and more was at stake than merely a position that might be revised or amended. What was cast in doubt was an undertaking to which we had devoted ourselves with heart and soul, an engagement that could not have remained without consequences, that might almost be called an enchantment or entanglement. In short, this was about Russia as an integral part of our biographies; the events in Ukraine called a major part of our life’s work into question.

(Schlögel 2018: 24)

Schlögel’s sentiment resonates deeply for me and I suspect for other Russian specialists as well. Perhaps that deep personal commitment has made it hard sometimes to change the way we approach our subject, I don’t know. But it is clear to me, as I think about his call for a re-assessment of our professional commitments and “entanglements” that I have tended to teach those aspects of history and culture that Russia and Ukraine share as if they were Russian in an uncomplicated way, without having much to say about the fact that they are also Ukrainian. In effect, I have told Ukraine’s story through a Russian lens.

I suppose it might be easy for some to dismiss the idea of teaching Kievan Rus’ as national in any sense, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or Belorusian. This, after all, would be a rather wooly anachronism since national consciousness in the modern sense is a much later phenomenon. That’s fine and true, of course, but does not explain the much more interesting modern historical phenomena associated with anchoring the identity and overall contours of a country in significant events, places, and personages from the past, especially when it is where one lives. In this context, it is not at all helpful to designate the literature, art, architecture, and cultural figures of Kievan Rus’ as “Old Russian” let alone “Medieval Russian” without specifying that these are all also “Old Ukrainian” and “Old Belorusian” too. And not just specifying but exploring what this means today and has meant historically, in practice for real people every day.

I’m thinking about this now because I’ll be teaching an intro-level Russian culture course again in the coming year after a five-year hiatus. Re-reading the materials I have used many times before is not making me cringe (at least not most of the time) so much as clarifying how much the present influences our views and interpretations of the past and also reenforcing the conviction that one must constantly revisit what one thinks one knows and how one thinks one knows it.

Teaching Ilya Repin

I have used Ilya Repin’s 1883 Procession of the Cross in the Kursk District in class many times over the years, especially as a part of teaching aspects of social activism in the art of nineteenth-century Russia. The painting’s contrast of abject poverty among the people to the lavish richness of the Church is easy for students to see, and closer scrutiny quickly enables them to decipher the complicity and cruelty of the military apparatus that appears to be keeping the people in line.

Jane Costlow’s excellent reading of the painting in her 2013 Heart-Pine Russia has opened up an entirely new dimension for me, which I’m looking forward to sharing with students the next time I teach it. Basically, she adds to the social commentary of the painting by paying special attention to landscape. My students and I have of course noticed many times that the landscape of the painting is dry and dusty, which lends a starkness to the scene and makes the social commentary harsher and rather unforgiving. But that was usually as far as we would take this line of thought.

We were missing something that, once pointed out, becomes as clear as the other aspects of the painting. Beyond the implied cruelty of people in positions of power toward other people, which one can see if one looks carefully, there is the implied rapaciousness of people toward nature in the background, which one can see if one looks still more carefully.

The great diversity of Repin’s rendering of the earthbound crowd draws the viewer’s eye, but so do the figures who stand out above them. Rising above the crowd are eight or so figures on horseback, and if our gaze moves beyond them into the background, we are confronted with a bare and dusty hillside with stumps of recently cut timber and brush, a hillside where a forest used to be.

(Costlow 2013: 96)

The surprising thing is that I never noticed the stumps that are now so conspicuous to me. Of course it would be different if they were walking through a forest! Repin in fact has other paintings of processions, some of which were sketches in preparation for this larger work, where the people make their way through wooded areas, rendering the depictions lush and even bucolic in tone. The absence of forest here and the conspicuous markers that there used to be forest here are central to the expression and social commentary of the painting, which Costlow’s research on “the forest question” makes exceptionally clear.

Definitely one of my favorite parts of this fine book.

Bringhurst on Translation

I just read Robert Bringhurst’s “The Polyhistorical Mind” lecture, which is the first chapter in his 2006 book The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, and was struck by this observation: “Few people earn a degree in European Studies or Asian Studies without acquiring some rudimentary knowledge of a European or Asian language. Students of African Studies are also routinely expected to learn an African language. But how many universities ask even their doctoral students in American Studies or in Canadian Studies [Bringhurst is Canadian–RSV] to learn an indigenous North American language? Not one.” Reading this in 2020, I am pretty sure he is still correct.

The essay has a number of moments like this, with direct, clear observations that amount to institutional interventions, and is unusual and refreshing from this standpoint. For instance, while he lauds the practice of including writers with Native American ancestry in the curriculum, he also notes, “When we teach Greek literature, we do not limit the offerings to novels conveniently written in English by Greeks.”

As he delves into why such things matter, moreover, he touches on the declining number of living languages in the world and the resulting impoverishment for what he calls the “intellectual biomass” of the earth, especially in its “word hoard and grammar hoard and story hoard.” I am with him throughout this section, but then, just as he is describing the accumulation of wisdom in the stories of the earth, his thought takes a strange turn in this paragraph:

Translation, of course, is a hurdle. But it can be crossed, unlike the painted wall of paraphrase or the blank wall of silence and denial. The labor and pleasure of crossing it should be shared, I think, as widely as possible. But it shouldn’t be thrust on the storytellers themselves.

(Bringhurst, p. 31)

I suppose I can agree with a lot of this, but the point of departure, namely, the “hurdle” of translation, strikes me as too easily leaped over in this cursory manner. And while there is a tiny gesture towards something that might actually not be a hurdle in the process, namely, the “pleasure of crossing it” (which also goes by extremely fast), the overall sense and mood here is of a labor that needs to be shared in order to be manageable.

The paragraph feels almost like an afterthought or perhaps a response to a question, anticipated or real, for just after this, we are back to the organic nature of the story within the language and the moment in which it is told:

Mythtellers tell their stories to those who are listening. They also tell their stories to themselves. That is hard to do in a foreign language. When you ask a mythteller to tell you a story in your language rather than hers, the mythteller must talk only to you, not to herself. And then something is missing.

Ibid.

I certainly see that this carries on the “sharing of the labor” idea from the previous paragraph, but it is still all negatively coded. I cannot help but think that by hurdling across the necessity of translation — rather than, what, wading into it to rest in its midst and contemplate things from that perspective, mid-hurdle, as it were — we miss so much that we might learn, not just about the stories themselves, the storytellers, and the cultures from which they hail, but also about ourselves and our relationships with one another.

Teaching Russian Culture

I’ve taught a version of Introduction to Russian Culture many times over the past several decades. I learned the basic material from Michael Flier at UCLA, then adapted quite a bit over the years, using music, religion, language, literature, geography, architecture, art, and a lot of history. The history has always seemed essential since many of the students who take the class (often to fulfill a requirement) don’t know much beyond the current headlines and a few key events.

So I’ve tended to start the first few weeks of class with an overview and a single volume history that goes pretty much from the origins of recorded history to the present. Generally, in such a book there are two hundred pages or so devoted to the time from about the 9th century to about the beginning of the 20th century, then another two hundred pages or so from the 20th century to the present. But we’ve generally had a second class that covers more contemporary material, more or less from World War II to the present, which means we really only need the first two hundred or so pages of the book. I have gone back and forth over the years between having students read the whole thing, even though we won’t really do much beyond WWII in this particular class, or reading only up to the point where we’re going to be digging in. I’m still not sure which is better.

I thought of this today when a friend sent me a funny meme with a painting of Jesus just after his birth, being held by one of the wise men, and in the background is a tiny crucifix hanging on a wall in the nearby stables. In the meme, someone has circled the crucifix with a marker and written “spoiler alert!”

It is a funny meme, but it also made me think of teaching the simultaneity of icon time in this class, where a figure like Mary might appear in a characteristic pose, her hands outstretched, her palms facing forward (which art historians call the “Virgin orans”) and then, pictured in her midsection, almost as if inside her womb, is Jesus. But Jesus is not shown as a baby typically. Instead, he is often shown as a young man, fully robed, one hand extended.

I once asked a specialist at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg about this, and she suggested I try not to look at such depictions through a secular perspective. The things depicted might look like they should happen at different times (being inside or outside of a womb, for instance, or being an adult or a child), but that is only from a human perspective. The world depicted does not have time like that. Everything in the world of the icon is, in effect, simultaneous. This is the time perspective of the icon. This kind of challenge to our usual ways of thinking and interacting with the world is also one of the reasons why I love teaching this material to students.

Meaner Than That

It’s nice to see the hundreds of listens to Ba Ren Chi compositions on Jamendo since I released Cool 7 earlier this month. I was a little surprised to notice the piece “Meaner Than That” move up slowly as people sampled different ones. Not displeased (I personally like all of them), just surprised. One listener, LebKamp Radio RNB, even added it to a playlist (I need to figure out why this one sounds a lot quieter than most of the others on LebKam Radio RNB’s playlist–if anyone knows, please send word!).

Still, I couldn’t keep my hands off it and felt there was something of a missed opportunity in the B section, which was feeling a bit like it ended too abruptly. So I made a longer version. The A section is the same as before, but for B I added punchier accents in the brass and percussion, beefed up the counter melody that emerges in brass section No. 2 towards the end, and opened up the middle for more drums. The end is bigger, too. Here it is as an “extended version,” released yesterday as a “single” on Jamendo, a nice feature I will probably make use of as I develop album No. 2.

Ba Ren Chi

I just released an album on Jamendo: Cool 7.

The seven pieces were written over a dozen years or so, newly edited and optimized, all instrumentals. They are Rok Ni Yon, Tango Sorpresa, Para Margarida, Meaner Than That, ZAPP, Cool 6, and Lalo Si.

Jazz-ish, which means some fusion, some R&B, some latin, some rock. I seem to like writing for flute, vibraphone, acoustic bass, percussion, guitar. I prefer the sound and feel of real instruments, even if I can’t be in the same room with people now.

Every day’s a gift. Sharing.