Essays On War

 Halyna Petrosanyak. Cultural Resistance

Cultural Resistance

Until recently, the mental map of most Western Europeans was significantly distorted. For many, Russia was situated just beyond Poland’s eastern borders. Previously, the terms „Soviet Union“ and „Russia“ were interchangeable, but Russia took its place in the Western consciousness after the USSR’s collapse. Ukraine was largely unknown to them, except for references to Chornobyl, the Klitschko brothers, Shevchenko (Andriy, not Taras), and the Orange Revolution. To be fair, it’s worth noting that the independent Ukrainian nation is younger than the majority of Western Europeans,

Even today, there remain very few people in Europe who understand the reasons for the formation of the Ukrainian state in 1991. They know little about Ukraine’s history, culture, and language, and what is known has often been seen through a Russian lens. While some Western readers are familiar with Ukrainian literature, they were only introduced to contemporary writers like Yuri Andrukhovych, Serhiy Zhadan, or Oksana Zabuzhko, not the more classical figures like Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, or Lesya Ukrainka. For most Europeans over the past thirty years, Ukraine has long been perceived as a nation irrevocably tied to Russia.

Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, its foreign missions were automatically assumed to represent Russia. For decades, these missions, along with the Slavic studies departments (primarily focused on Russian studies, with no dedicated to Ukrainian studies), heavily influenced Western countries‘ policies towards Ukraine. They also established robust economic ties, which remain too close even after the imposition of sanctions, particularly in Switzerland. Putin’s influence extends across Western Europe like an octopus, tightly gripping its economy and politics.

The Russian leadership’s decision to wage war against Ukraine was partly based on the assumption that Western Europeans would not show much solidarity towards the Ukrainian people. Fortunately, this turned out to be false, and support for Ukraine has been strong. However, the support could have been even stronger if Ukraine had not been perceived as a new nation that emerged out of nowhere over the past 30 years. If the world had known that at least nine million Ukrainians were among the „twenty million Russians“ who, according to Russian propaganda, died in the Second World War or that 2.4 million Ukrainians were among the forced laborers deported by the Nazis from Eastern Europe but classified as Russians or Poles, perhaps western support would have been even stronger.

For an entire year, Ukraine has displayed its unwavering determination to remain a sovereign state to the world, fighting against a brutal attacker, resisting terror, and enduring torture in a David vs. Goliath-like struggle. Much of the world was surprised that Ukrainians did not give up their independence due to a lack of consideration for the historical context.

This context is always essential. For instance, if a monster lurks at your borders waiting to devour you, achieving independence will require significantly more effort and resourcefulness than the independence of those who live amongst friendly neighbors. Such a notion suggests that it may be necessary to relinquish certain aspects of one’s language or cultural identity to live peacefully. Switzerland can afford to have four official languages because France, Germany, and Italy do not pose a threat to its sovereignty. In contrast, we must distance ourselves from everything that connects us with the aggressor.

Independence is a complex concept with many dimensions that are not always apparent at first glance. Achieving true independence means attaining spiritual independence as well. For us, this entails consciously and consistently distancing ourselves from our northern neighbor, which poses a threat to our very existence. Since physical separation is impossible, we must create a linguistic and cultural separation through non-violent, unwavering resistance to all things Russian. This is similar to Mahatma Gandhi’s approach to gradually freeing his country from colonialism.

Why is this so important? Because it is the most explicit declaration of our independence.

If Slavists worldwide could see that 80% of residents in major Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipro, and Donetsk communicate in Ukrainian, it would be much easier for them to introduce Ukrainian studies into their departments. Once the majority of residents in these cities are familiar with the works of notable Ukrainian writers like Valerian Pidmohylnyi, Ulas Samchuk, and Viktor Domontovych, these authors will begin to be studied in Western universities. Similarly, artists such as Kazimir Malevich, Oleksandr Arkhypenko, and David Burlyuk, who all came from Ukraine, will no longer be mistaken for Russian artists if their Ukrainian identity is more prominently displayed in their hometowns.

If our largest cities remain predominantly Russian-speaking, even the most pro-Ukrainian Western political scientists and experts will find Ukraine’s law on a single state language problematic. Additionally, this gives our northern neighbor an excuse to „liberate“ its people from „Ukrainian nationalists.“

An aggressor cannot easily subjugate someone who speaks a language they don’t understand. On the other hand, someone immersed in the aggressor’s culture, singing along with their music and sharing the same information space, is much more susceptible to control. Speaking an incomprehensible language can at least confuse and deter the attacker. While Ukrainian defenders fight with weapons in hand, it is our responsibility to create confusion and deter our enemies by highlighting our differences from them. We must do this not by being aggressive but by making it abundantly clear to them and the rest of the world that we are not „one nation“ and that we are fundamentally different. We are strangers to them, and it won’t be easy for them to dissolve us into their „Russian world.“

Excess in any form is often indicative of entropy. The only exception is love, as it helps guide the world towards harmony even in surplus. Thus, if love prevails, our resistance will be more effective. We must cultivate our gardens with love, sing our songs, write books, grow our economy, and learn native and foreign languages to understand the world better and share our stories. We are united by the blood of those who were persecuted and killed for daring to be Ukrainian, speak the Ukrainian language, and defend their homeland.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan