The war for cultural decolonization
I’ve been asking myself the same question for over half a year now: What are the reasons for Russia’s war in Ukraine, and what does it all mean?
This war did not begin with the full-scale invasion, nor did it begin in 2014. So when did it start?
To answer this question, let’s recall the year of the proclamation of the Russian Empire in 1721. The Russian empire had existed at that point for 300 years. It is known that the Russian Empire differed from classical Western empires in that it had no overseas colonies nor colonized conquered peoples on a racial basis. Instead, it subjugated its neighbors, considering them uncivilized. They called it “liberation.”
What about Ukraine during this time? First and foremost, Ukraine was open to the influence of Western culture. As early as the 17th century, Ukraine reformed the church and the education system and created its own governance system. Later, Ukrainian church figures, writers, and philosophers went to Moscovia, where they taught to the royal family, founded a theater, influenced literature, and managed the church. After Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s unsuccessful attempt to break away from Moscow (Muscovy), the empire took harsh measures: printing books or using the Ukrainian language in education was forbidden. What’s more, serfdom was introduced.
According to the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, Russia has been isolated from the West for a long time. As a result, the ideas and theories that reached Russia became dogmatic in nature. Russian Orthodoxy, not Greek Christianity, was considered the correct faith. Later, Marxism turned into the ideological doctrine of Marxism-Leninism. Power in Russia has always belonged to one person, be it the tsar or party leader. Russians still perceive that figure as sacred, bestowed by God. Since all subjects had to obey the ruler, they did little to participate in the development of the public sphere. Perhaps, because of this, they began to perceive themselves as people destined to suffer. At the same time, they were God’s chosen people, in the words of Dostoevsky. I am not surprised by the atrocities they’re now committing in Ukrainian cities and towns like Irpin, Bucha, Izium, and Balaklia.
Without Ukraine, Russia is just a country–with Ukraine, it is an empire. The American-Ukrainian Slavologist Yuriy Shevelyov has written about three great dangers faced by Ukraine: the Russian Empire, the Kochubey Complex (the desire of the Ukrainian elite to support the empire), and provincialism (viewing the world through the prism of empire). This war has been going on for a long time, and we are living through its most violent phase.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is also taking place at the cultural level. For years, the Russian empire appropriated the achievements of Ukrainian artists and thinkers. The Ukrainian philosopher Hryhoriy Skovoroda is one such example. In 1912, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Ern wrote a book about him. He called Skovoroda a Russian philosopher, explaining that Ukraine was an uncivilized country, and Russia endowed Skovoroda with the opportunity to develop his unique talent. In his text, Ern does not mention the Ukrainian baroque literary tradition or how the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy was modeled after Western educational institutions. According to him, Ukraine is home to uncultivated and uncultured people. Interestingly, later in the Soviet Union, researchers at the Institute of Philosophy in Kyiv were forbidden to study the legacy of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, reducing it to religious obscurantism.
It is time to assess the role of the Russian empire and how it persists today. Decolonization is often mentioned in this context. The 20th-century Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvylovy once voiced the slogan „Move away from Moscow!“ which was intended to answer the question: Where is the center of our culture, and where is the periphery? For a long time, Ukrainians had to serve the empire, which was allegedly culturally superior. Meanwhile, Ukrainian culture was labeled as rustic and inferior.
In the last few years, I have been engaged in translating classic works of world philosophy. Back in the USSR, publications of humanitarian studies were translated primarily into Russian. This sphere was under the control of ideology. When Marx’s work was finally permitted to be translated into Ukrainian, it was even done from Russian, not the original German. We still lack many vital works of foreign intellectual thought in the Ukrainian canon, which is why we sometimes still have to rely on Russian ones. This is why translation can play a vital role in the process of decolonization.
This raises a fundamental question: Why do Ukrainians reject the notion of empire? For the past thirty years, Ukrainians have lived in an independent country. We received a “vaccine” of sorts against the Russian empire following three iconic events: the Revolution on Granite, the Orange Revolution, and the Revolution of Dignity (otherwise known as the EuroMaidan). The Revolution on Granite was against the Soviet system, which was a quasi-empire in itself. The Orange Revolution was against the oligarchic system. The Revolution of Dignity was based on the principle „for“ rather than “against”, with calls for an association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union. Over the years, Ukrainians have learned to appreciate their choices: European values, the rule of law, an open civil society, initiatives from below, etc. We are trying to correct our past mistakes and fully appreciate allied countries‘ support. But we also have something archetypal. Even during times when Ukrainian statehood was threatened, the public did not lack solidarity. Previously, it regrouped in churches and religious communities. Since 2014, it has manifested in volunteer movements.
2022 is a symbolic year for the war. On 3 December, we celebrated the anniversary of Hryhoriy Skovoroda, the famous 18th century philosopher. But Skovoroda was not inspired by the widespread Enlightenment philosophy during his time. His points of reference were ancient Greek and Latin traditions and medieval patristics. Although Skovoroda witnessed the destruction of Ukraine’s autonomy, he did not become a revolutionary. The philosopher developed a doctrine of self-knowledge. According to the work of Skovoroda, each person should recognize their God-given abilities and talents. The main task is to engage in meaningful work to live your most authentic life. The Russian empire needed servants, not free citizens. The pathos of Skovoroda’s work is the opposite: it advocates finding one’s place in the world, realizing their full potential, and achieving happiness. This philosophy is more relevant than ever in Ukraine’s fight against the Russian empire.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan