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.

The South, Russia, and Other Places of Occupation

A friend of mine said the other day that he never really felt he understood the deep-seated tensions of the American South until, during a year he spent as a Fulbright Scholar in Belgrade, a local man commented on his attempts to grasp that country’s deep-seated tensions by noting, “It’s hard to understand when your country has never been occupied.” There is something in this, I suppose. It is not something I have ever experienced myself, only seen from outside, and it makes me wonder about the motivations of those who continue to espouse views of the world that we find at best anachronistic, at worst barbaric and conducive to the sorts of horrendous acts of violence that make it into the news, it seems, on a terribly regular basis.

The American Civil War had a number of different causes, and reducing it to one is not very good history. A major one—for some historians the major one—was the question of states rights over the powers of a central government, a sort of proto-libertarian argument about the need for small government. It is not inconceivable that someone flying a flag over a government building today, or the guy flying one off the tailgate of his pickup I saw in the Menard’s parking lot yesterday—might have that idea in mind primarily. Unfortunately for those who might want to make this argument, the flag in question has also come to be a powerful symbol of racism and bigotry of the most basic variety, the kind of racism and bigotry that leads to murder. In combination with the flag flying over a state institution, such acts are indeed equivalent to a form of state sponsored terrorism. They should see that it is doing them no good to continue to fly it, and in fact it is counter productive to their cause. They should take it down.

But I suspect, too, that the little insight my friend gained in Serbia about occupation might be applied to the intransigence of those who would refuse to do so, or try and pretend that it and racism had not become coterminous in the thinking of any but a fringe of extremists. I am trying to imagine it, and I wonder if a history of occupation (or perceived occupation, for this amounts to much the same thing) might be able to do that to one’s head.

Not two hours before on the same day that my friend mentioned his experience in Belgrade to me, another acquaintance, a Russian who has lived in the U.S. for many years, lamented that she could no longer speak with her Russian friends. “They have all been brain-washed,” she said, “by Putin’s nationalism. They won’t admit that his Ukrainian policy is barbaric, based on an Old-World model of imperial domination. They think that he will re-create the Russian Empire.” Now this sounds crazy, and maybe unrelated, too, but the two situations share in a heritage of occupation (or perceived occupation) that may help to explain the deep-seated tensions of the two places, particularly where outside criticisms are concerned.

For example, almost exactly one hundred years ago, Russia did not exist as a country. It had been carved up into pieces by factions from inside and out. Hundreds of thousands of foreign troops—Japanese, American, Czech, British, German—occupied portions of the Russian Far East, Siberia, the Caucasus, Crimea, along with formerly Russian Imperial, present-day areas of Ukraine, Byelorus, and Estonia. This is not very long ago. Nor is the fact of occupation itself an isolated occurrence in Russia’s history. Even without claiming, as some historians have, the existence of a deep scar on the Russian psyche from the many instances of invasion it has experienced—from the Mongols to the French under Napoleon to Hitler, along with what appears by comparison a rather minor “allied intervention” during the Russian Civil War—it is not difficult to glimpse a geo-political strategy consistent with Stalin’s creation of buffer areas around the USSR in Putin’s latest maneuverings, namely in the annexation of Crimea, his attempts to forge closer ties with Kazakhstan and, at least commercially, China, and the on-ongoing war in Ukraine. These actions might be completely out of touch with our reality, but from another perspective, one that takes into account something more of Russia’s historical struggles and experiences, even in relatively recent times, they do not seem completely crazy. Desperate maybe, but not crazy.

These are probably not very original reflections that might apply to other places that have cultivated a prolonged self image of being occupied and mistreated by outsiders (e.g., let us expel the infidel from our lands). A clearer connection between Russia and the problems of institutional racism in the U.S. is provided Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights, DudziakCoverwhich posits the following (from the book description at Princeton University Press’s website):

“In 1958, an African-American handyman named Jimmy Wilson was sentenced to die in Alabama for stealing two dollars. Shocking as this sentence was, it was overturned only after intense international attention and the interference of an embarrassed John Foster Dulles. Soon after the United States’ segregated military defeated a racist regime in World War II, American racism was a major concern of U.S. allies, a chief Soviet propaganda theme, and an obstacle to American Cold War goals throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Each lynching harmed foreign relations, and “the Negro problem” became a central issue in every administration from Truman to Johnson. In what may be the best analysis of how international relations affected any domestic issue, Mary Dudziak interprets postwar civil rights as a Cold War feature. She argues that the Cold War helped facilitate key social reforms, including desegregation. Civil rights activists gained tremendous advantage as the government sought to polish its international image.”

Now Dudziak’s thesis is more nuanced than this, and her argument deeper: the supposed improvements did not have to be substantial, they only had to look good. In effect, since the motivation was largely cosmetic, the PR needed to be effective, but the problems did not really have to be fixed in any fundamental manner. They had to be glossed over. This was a book published initially in 2001, less than a decade after the fall of the USSR, and its analysis was about the Cold War, not the aftermath. But if Dudziak’s thesis is correct, what would one expect to happen in a post-Cold War U.S. with regard to race relations?

Take a look around, I suggest.