The Postcolonial Moment in Ukrainian Writing

Myroslav Shkandrij 29 April 2009
My own experiences growing up in England and attending university were probably decisive in steering me in the direction of postcolonial studies. Upon entering Cambridge University I was questioned about my background. Learning that I was Ukrainian, one tutor, a Russian émigré, told me that the only difference between Russian and Ukrainian was the letter "h". A Russian, he informed, would say "Glavnyi gorod Galitsiii, eto - Lvov." A Ukrainian, on the other hand, would say "Hlavnyi horod Halitsii, eto - Lvov." When I countered that the correct Ukrainian was: "Holovne misto Halychyny, tse - Lviv," his answer was: "A, net, eto vy po-polski!" (Oh, no, now you're speaking Polish!) A second tutor, an Englishman, immediately began explaining to me that the Cossacks were simply bandits. My response was to cite the evidence of folklore and history showing that they were seen as defenders of a national movement and identity. I should add that these "introductions" to the subject on the part of my tutors in Russian literature were entirely unprovoked, and were given in all seriousness, without any trace of irony. Besides leaving me with a healthy skepticism concerning anything these professors might have to tell me in the future, the experience made me think about the reasons for such strongly held views, and the insistence with which they were presented. The two issues raised, after all - the non-existence of a Ukrainian language and identity, and the criminal nature of any independent Ukrainian military - are key elements in the imperial/colonial discourse, and have figured prominently in the modelling of Ukraine within the Russian, and also the Western mind over two centuries. This kind of experience prodded me into writing a book on imperial discourse and national counter-discourse.
It appears obvious to me that postcolonial studies, allied as they are to feminist and subaltern studies, is a field that Ukrainian scholars should examine. The methodologies, the concepts, the insights and examples that have been provided by postcolonial studies can provide stimulus for the analysis of the Ukrainian cultural experience, and, in particular, for the reinterpretation of many literary texts. And, conversely, this now influential school has much to learn from listening to the Ukrainian voice. My own approach has been to look at the colonial and anti-colonial discourses as locked in a long "debate", and to suggest that there are two large "archives" here that scholars have only begun to explore, that await future researchers, with, one hopes, increasingly sophisticated tools and insights.
Almost everywhere one turns, supporting evidence and rich material can be found for such an approach: personal stories, historical literature, memoirs, fiction. The imagined Ukraine, particularly as imagined by non-Ukrainian writers, is riddled with topoi that cry out for the deconstruction of their narrative paradigms, their methods of characterization, their metaphoric and metonymic structures. It is surprising, for example, that the 19th-century travel writings by British, French, German as well as Russian writers, with the enormous epistemological claims they carry, have not been subjected to a more rigorous analysis. The formulas they produced played a role in the codification of a colonialist "canon" or stereotypical images in the early 19th century, and have since often been unconsciously adopted by contemporary writers and commentators. An entire "Ukrainian school" in 19th-century Russian literature could profitably be examined from this point of view. Views of empire and nation have been sustained by imaginary constructs, that often reach back to these travel writings and fictional accounts. Even an image such as the "place a stick in the earth and it will grow, because the land is so rich" can be traced from work to work going back to the first travel accounts of the early 19th century. Initially a part of the colonial discourse (a justification for imperial incorporation and exploitation of the land), it gradually became a part of an anti-colonial opposition (the argument that "they have always coveted and stolen our riches"). This image can be related to a widespread contemporary myth about German trains shipping Ukrainian black earth back to Berlin during the Second World War. One can learn a great deal about how long-standing stereotypes are created, operate, and are regenerated from commentary on analogous situations in works such as Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), Culture and Imperialism (1993), or Homi K. Bhabha's The Location of Culture (1994).
So ingrained are many aspects of the colonial discourse that most Ukrainian critics would no doubt sympathized have until very recently with Said's sense of being "outnumbered and outorganized" by a prevailing consensus that has come to regard Ukraine, like the Third World, "as an atrocious nuisance, a culturally and politically inferior place." [Said, 1993, p. 28]. This consensus has often been formed by imperial Russian historians, critics and writers, and is so strong that dissenters feel they are swimming against a strong tide. Independence (1991) and the Orange Revolution (2004) have done much to turn this tide, to usher in the postcolonial moment. Since the appearance of Iurii Andrukhovych's Rekreatsii (Recreations, 1991), individual writers and critics have used elements of the postcolonial critique to analyze Ukrainian phenomena. However, a strong school of postcolonial criticism has not developed, and there has been strong resistance to some aspects of postcolonial writing. Why?
One can readily understand the resistance in the Russian camp. The new writing breaks down paradigms that have sustained the entire sense of Russian identity over the centuries. However, there is also resistance among Ukrainian writers and critics, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, in some quarters the term itself is considered demeaning. Colonialism suggests a subjection and oppression that is total and abject. It projects, to some, the image of a nation that has never been allowed to rise above a slave society. This elicits an embarrassment at being associated with what used to be called the "Third World," and adds to a sense of national humiliation. It is the same feeling that has prevented many until recently from examining the great famine of 1932-33, or the holocaust. Accordingly, even mention of a term containing the root word "colony" is offensive to some observers. Although they see themselves as oppressed by empire, they are not interested in exploring analogies with colonial situations in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. The admittance of backwardness is not comforting, while autonomy is held to be a mark of dignity, of adequacy.
Secondly, there is the association of much of this criticism with Marxist, or leftist positions, which are now widely seen as discredited. Thirdly, there is the reluctance to assume a defensive posture, which the reactive nature of discussions of empire tends to encourage. Perhaps in the wake of the Orange Revolution a new self-confidence will emerge and the result will be less sensitivity on these counts. Ukrainians, after all, can bring a unique and rich insight to postcolonial studies, and in fact dominate aspects of this debate, while simultaneously finding allies and explaining their situation to others. The fact that a strong school of postcolonial criticism has not developed within the country might be seen in retrospect as a missed opportunity to engage with the broad international scholarly community, with, if you like, "cutting edge" research being accomplished in the "First World."
A fourth, and, I would argue, most germane reason is the reassertion of the "our-versus-their nationalism" paradigm. The postcolonial critique begins to dissolve all nationalisms by deconstructing their genesis, aim and methods of operation. In Marko Pavlyshyn's definition of postcolonialism, the very concept is seen as an outgrowing of the colonial and anti-colonial, a way of transcending the claims of both imperial and national myths. He sees it as a rejection of both colonial and anti-colonial narratives, "in politics through the license to practice a pragmatism liberated from ideology, in the work of art through the possibility of exploring the consequences of the historical availability of colonial myth without any obligation to confirm or deny it, and with every right to play with it" [Pavlyshyn, 1992, p. 45]. Hence elements of hybridity, marginality such as "surzhyk" (a macaronic mixture of Ukrainian and Russian spoken by many) or the maloros complex (an identity that sees "Little Russian" as merely a colourful variant of "Russian"), which have often been defined in Ukrainian literature as scourges, are frequently seen in postcolonial writings as almost a "natural" and inevitable condition of cultural evolution. Postcolonial criticism has willingly focused on border literatures, migrant communities, and in-between identities. Even though it is clear to all that there is a vast difference between a forced or imposed hybridity and a freely-assumed one, the imperial-Soviet experience has made this issue a painful one for Ukrainian intellectuals. It is therefore no accident that Andrukhovych and other exponents of this kind of playful postcolonial writing have not been well received by "anti-colonialists" who see their work as insulting to their sense of identity and values. To the "anti-colonialists" hybridity damages the idea of a core tradition. And yet the definition proposed by Pavlyshyn is an apt one for describing much of contemporary Ukrainian writing. The new postcolonial literature is indeed often unconcerned with building a continuum with the past: it is born out of a rejection of both the imperial and anti-imperial, it completely refigures elements of the past and present, it values the triumph of innovation and creative construction over faithfulness to tradition, it is not an act of nostalgia but a performance in the present.
How Andrukhovych and the "Stanislaviv" school will evolve is difficult to predict. Will they merely criticize metanarratives, or will they construct a new metanarrative of pluralism? If the latter, then what kind of pluralism: a cosmopolitan awareness of many cultures within a dominant Ukrainian matrix, or an acceptance of coexistence among fundamental and irreducible differences? Is their literary Ukraine to be inspired by the vision of greater homogeneity or heterogeneity? If it is to be a rather heterogeneous mosaic, then what kind? I like to see Andrukhovych's work as presenting narrative voices in conversation with one another, an implied acceptance of different traditions mixing and mingling, confronting and clashing. This inclusiveness, to my mind, is a good sign, which does not efface stories and histories, voices and memories. This kind of writing is allied to the refusal of a narrow national paradigm by contemporary historians, like Iaroslav Hrytsak, who has argued that such a paradigm is incapable of explaining many phenomena [Hrytsak, 2005, p. 28]. It is also allied to the writing of a Ukrainian history that includes other cultural and ethnic groups, a project that Paul Magocsi set himself in his History of Ukraine (1996).
There are, of course, other complaints against both the term postcolonialism and the way it is used in cultural criticism. Some historians have suggested that the term does not fit Ukrainian reality [Velychenko, 2002]. A great deal of heated argument has been occasioned by attempts among postcolonial critics to expand their reach beyond literary criticism and into the political field, and particularly by the inclusion within their purview of privileged, "First World" societies such as Canada, the United States and Australia [Jacoby, 1995]. Many of these complaints have to do with terminology as it is used in the social sciences. Critics have argued that including the literatures of the United States, Canada, and Australia among those defined and analyzed as postcolonial, or mingling postcolonialism with multiculturalism, or applying postcolonial theory to "migrant" writings, merely confuses issues. The literatures of these societies, it is argued, when they are written in English and constructed out of an Anglo-Celtic immigration, or written in French and constructed out of a French immigration, are mainstream literatures within their societies. Their relationship to the literatures of non-English and non-French communities, or to native life, is a dominant one. In such cases, the common tropes of colonial and anti-colonial discourse (centre and margin, mainstream and periphery, dominant and minority) are, it has been argued with justification, inappropriate.
However, the strongest resistance in Ukrainian writing has come from another quarter - the drive for national consolidation. It has been stimulated by the ongoing reality of dependance and the perceived need to resist such dependance. If the "Stanislaviv school" can be seen as postcolonial and playful in its attitudes to the deconstruction of colonial and anti-colonial myths, the "Zhytomyr school" might be seen as refusing to let go of the anti-colonial narrative, of the nativist stance. It has often been overtly hostile toward the postcolonial, appearing to reject not only cosmopolitanism, but pluralism, tolerance, and in fact many aspects of Western civilization. Whereas better known, mainstream writers such as Iurii Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, Taras Prokhasko, Iurii Vynnychuk, Volodymyr Dibrova, Iurii Izdryk, and Konstantyn Moskalets have signaled their break with the colonial myths (including Soviet adaptations of these myths) and with anti-colonial myths (including their contemporary reworkings from 19th-century populism), the "Zhytomyr school," which includes Viacheslav Medvid, Ievhen Pashkovsky, and Volodymyr Danylenko, has, on the other hand, demonstratively aligned itself with populism and tradition, even though many of its stylistic devices are innovative.
Andrukhovych's books playfully juxtapose various views. He places Ukrainian characters in Western circles, or Westerners in Ukrainian circles, and then exposes misguided attitudes on all sides. In his recent Dvanadtsiat obruchiv (Twelve Rings, 2003) he presents, for instance, the following sardonic picture of a contemporary nationalist, as seen through the eyes of a visiting Austrian:
The other day ... a former prisoner of conscience and author of samvydav poetry ironically thrown into a tempting position by the high authorities and local, court intrigues, tried to convince me that his nation was some ten thousand years old, that Ukrainians have direct contact with cosmic forces for good, that the forms of their skulls and eyebrows are very close to the Aryan standard, as a result of which there is a certain world conspiracy against them, the immediate executors of which are their closest geographical neighbours and several internally destructive ethnic forces - "you understand whom I have in mind, Mr. Zumbrunnen." Then he spent a great deal of effort demonstrating the complete uselessness of Russian culture, not leaving stone upon stone, as it seemed to him, of Mussorgsky, Dostoevsky, Semiradsky and Brodsky (and the surnames alone reveal so much, he shouted, falling into ecstacy and spattering me with his blue and yellow foam: Rubinstein! Eisenstein! Mandelshtam! Mindelblat! Rostropovich! Rabinovich!). Most amusingly, he had to formulate all this in Russian, because this true proto-European knew no European language, not having taken the trouble to learn one [Andrukhovych, 2003, pp. 23-4].
Fanatically nationalist and antisemitic views are subtly but firmly deflated here, as in other works by the writer, for whom Ukraine is part of a larger, multicultural European environment, and who appears anxious that his countrymen should embrace this environment, with its promise of easy and respectful interaction between groups.
At the same time Andrukhovych undermines naive populist views of Ukrainian literary myths. One of the best examples here is his invented portrait of the poet Bohdan Ihor Antonych, whose carousing life, passionate love affair, and attempted suicide are calculated to shock pious attitudes concerning homespun poetic genius.
This kind of writing appears to be on a direct collision course with the traditionalists. In fact, the collision has been described by Volodymyr Danylenko in his "Dzenky-brenky: tosho" (Tinkle, Tinkle, etc.), which spoofs the kind of "avant-garde" writing for which the "Stanislaviv school" is known. In his conclusion the author semi-seriously gives the story's theme as "A tale of past and contemporary Ukrainian literature, the struggle of progressive Ukrainian writers and activists with external enemies and counterrevolution for the building of a radiant future," and presents the story's guiding idea as "Love of native land, its history, literature and culture, ethics and aesthetics, morality and so on" [Danylenko, 2001, p. 204].
Danylenko's story brings into conversation all Ukrainian writers from the days of Kyivan Rus to the present. It describes the conflict between "westerners" and "traditionalists" humorously.
There is, however, no mirth in Viacheslav Medvid's attacks on contemporary "westerners" in Ukrainian writing. He complains of their formal complexity, and of the fact that they are producing an artificial writing, the product of an interaction "with foreign intellectual orphans in laboratory conditions" [Medvid, 2000, p. 167]. Medvid suggests that this kind of writing is nihilistic and harbours an asocial attitude. It cannot in the end ignore some ugly and painful realities: "the most foul-smelling and horrible garbage heaps, that are left by all empires." [Medvid, 2000, p. 167].  He urges a turn to the language as spoken by common people. He, like other members of the "Zhytomyr school", displays a Faulkerian love of dialect and saturation in the lore of place.
The work of Ievhen Pashkovsky, another leading member of the "Zhytomyr school" is even more vituperative. It has been seen as aimed at denouncing, among other things, the "excessive intellectualism" in Ukrainian letters, and the limitless passion for freedom that has led since the French Revolution to "degradation, degeneracy, the idealization of sexual perversions," and the "feminization" of contemporary society [Kvit, 1999, pp. 6-9]. The antidotes to this state of affairs, according to this critic, are religion and the "simple natural forms of understanding reality" [Kvit, 1999, p. 8]. In Pashkovsky's Shchodennyi zhezl (Daily Wand, 1999) the Chernobyl disaster becomes a metaphor for the Last Judgement.  The text reads like a long tirade against a sinful, degenerate world. Vitriolic attacks are directed against both the evils of Western civilization and the destructive legacy of Russian imperialism. The following is typical of many passages in a book that reads like a monologue of sustained invective. The narrator laments the fact that all "living thought," that used to be "life and had the ability to warn" has been devalued [Pashkovsky, 1999, p. 51]. The old literature, which
from the beginning of civilization had been sincere, myth-creating, has been reduced to the level of information, of problems of the day, and is, in my view, a deadening of those parts of the brain that were able to make human beings out of the low-browed and jaw-protruding, the avaricious, disorientated, the beaten down by the domination of instincts, rather pleased with the large cave fire, and has helped survive in conditions of mild cannibalism to the present, to the anti-time; the jester, actor, politician, made-up tele-monkey, tongueless rich-man, the cult-developed female, all of them charming, delicate, simple, all have become complete animals, heroes of this kitchen-maid anti-time; tastes and preferences have become degenerate, laws and customs have reached the level of Sodom, so-called sexual minorities successfully conquer the majority, for the first time since antiquity with its paganism women have been allowed to serve mass in developed democracies, the heart of the common man is against violence, but his ancient, revived taste, surfeited with the ability to live, with civilization, has rejected the false attractions of flowering, and yearns precisely for this violence, black-salty blood from cadres and pages, the bestialization, persecution, passionate thirst ... [Pashkovsky, 1999, pp. 51-2].
In these passages one comes across a specific rejection of postcolonialism:
Contemporary literature has become an immodest caprice, like ambrosia on the table of the morgue ... The night is rapidly becoming a desert, the people are finishing digging their beets, while our enemies ... knowing all the large-pawed nature of the postcolonial world, easily find themselves behind the secret doors and cheerfully dry their socks on the trunks [Pashkovsky, 1999, p. 56].
Pashkovsky's prose yearns for a return to a simple morality, where right and wrong are clear to all, and espouses ancient wisdom: "our ancestors differed from us, the sickly, by their excellent senses and invented more than quantum theory ..." [Pashkovsky, 1999, p. 28].  His favourite device is parataxis, the arrangement of phrases and clauses with no subordination and often with no coordinating conjunctions. This kind of juxtaposition is often confusing, and teaches the reader to accept irrationality, since the form lists in rapid-fire elements that are not explained or weighed. The only connection between these elements is a raging anger. The passages whip up emotion, and displace the listener's attention from trying to understand the rational content of the message to admiring the charismatic personality of the writer. It might be argued that this "irrationality" is related to the author's view of the audience. Their nature, he seems to suggest, is not equipped to process complexity and rationality, and best responds to arguments that stress strong emotions and prejudice.
This kind of writing demonstrates that the postcolonial moment, if it has arrived for some, is being violently resisted by others. The works of Medvid and Pashkovsky suggest a flight from the postcolonial metropolis, the place where one can be or become anything one wants to be, to the village, where one is shaped by regionalism, realism, and the traditional landscape. From this position of bucolic isolationism, in nostalgic communion with past certainties, these writers challenge the ambiguities and amorphousness of postcolonial writing.
A more generous interpretation might see this writing as the recording of a collective experience that has been insufficiently documented, the surfacing in literature of explosive histories that require public airing. Their kind of affective writing can be seen as the exposure of a deep vein in Ukrainian culture, that has been built around loss and trauma. Even the use of rough-edged, often ungrammatical prose mimics the suppressed oral histories that are its inspiration.
One can understand this writing as a reaction to both the Russification and Westernization that threaten to submerge the national culture. It is the same instinctive recoiling that has urged the "nationalizing" of culture and the incorporation of heterogeneity into a single Ukrainian cultural stream. The tone of much of this work, however, is angry and violent, and there is a danger that the "message" of the new traditionalists will be interpreted as the rejection of pluralism and multiculturalism - precisely the vision that has inspired much of the best in postcolonial writing.  These terms can of course have more than one meaning. The word multiculturalism, for example, describes the official cultural identity of Canada, and Ukrainians in fact played an important role in gaining official recognition for this policy. Proclaimed in 1971 and written into the Multicultural Act in 1988, it has often been considered one of the great achievements of Ukrainians and other minority communities in that country. Whatever the realities of Canadian life, the policy at least aims at the respectful treatment of all cultural communities, and at their successful integration into Canadian society without insistence upon their total assimilation into a homogeneous entity. Acceptance of the policy at the state level has opened up space for a discourse of tolerance and coexistence. The overt rejection of pluralism, multiculturalism, and their simultaneous linking to democracy (as frequently occurs in Pashkovsky's Shchodennyi zhezl), threatens to close this space. The subtext in contemporary Ukrainian literature - pluralism and multiculturalism - is therefore a familiar one for Canadians and for most developed Western societies. It resonates with their own experiences and concerns. This is one reason, it seems to me, why the Orange Revolution captured the Western mind: it was seen as a drama in which liberal, democratic values, and the related ideals of tolerance, pluralism and multiculturalism were key players. Western viewers could therefore identify themselves with participants in this drama, and are still anxiously awaiting to see whether "their" master narrative will prevail. The same drama of competing values appears to be playing itself out in contemporary literature as writers explore the possibilities available for the creation of a modern Ukrainian identity.


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