• Vlada Ralko, Demarcation line, 2018

On decolonisation narratives in context of Ukraine - an introduction by Svitlana Biedarieva

On March 24 we organised an online reading workshop on decolonisation narratives in context of Ukraine with art historian and curator Svitlana Biedarieva. In the wokshop we discussed three texts by Ukrainian artists and scholars – Daria Badior, Oleksiy Radynski and Yaroslav Hrytsak. Here we offer a brief introduction by Svitlana both introducing the texts and the following the discussion and giving a brief introduction in the problimatics of colonisation in Ukrainian context.

It is a pleasure for me to speak at this workshop today. I think that with the outbreak of the Russian war against Ukraine, questions of coloniality, anti-coloniality, post-coloniality and decoloniality have become especially urgent and have gained new importance, as they are becoming reconsidered in public discussion.

Today, I would like to address these notions by discussing three important texts. The first text, “Why we need a post-colonial lens to look at Ukraine and Russia,” is by Daria Badior and was published in the journal Hyperallergic, the second article, “The case against the Russian Federation,” is by Oleksiy Radynski and was published in e-Flux, and the third is an important academic text “The postcolonial is not enough” by Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, who discusses whether Ukraine, in general, needs a postcolonial paradigm, or if this paradigm is outdated, or whether it is applicable at all. He wrote this text for Slavic Review in 2015, shortly after the war in Ukraine started, and I think it is very representative of how the perspective on many theoretical concepts changed with the beginning of the war and the occupation of part of the Ukrainian territory by Russia. Hrytsak further developed some ideas from this article in his new book Overcoming the Past: A Global History of Ukraine, which, unfortunately, is not yet available in English.

The great text by Daria Badior addresses the important problem of Russia-oriented narratives in the global cultural sphere, which are supported by real actions that use the cause of the war to highlight the resistance of Russian culture while overshadowing Ukraine, and are therefore inverting reality. The focus on Russia is even more representative in the article’s cover image. I am not sure whether this was a conceptual response to the topic but the editor of Hyperallergic made this design after El Lissitsky’s Russian avant-garde painting Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, which gives a clear idea of the Russian enveloping and appropriation of Ukrainian narratives.

Badior speaks of the way the Cannes Film Festival highlighted the courage of Russian filmmakers in the fight with the regime while leaving significantly less space for Ukrainian filmmakers who are currently at the epicenter of the events and shelling. She points out that Ukrainian film professionals are now in the army and they will be not be able to finish their films before the war ends. This called to mind a personal example—recently I was contacted by a major international media outlet with a request to cover recent war-time art in Ukraine. After I provided them with examples, they asked me for less straightforward and more elaborate art; moreover, they wanted an account of which galleries are about to show these works, which shows perfectly how badly people from outside Ukraine imagine the conditions of making art under constant threat of shelling. I had to explain to them that while many artists are in the frontline or close to it, others regularly go to bomb shelters because of air raids. At the same time, this outlet covers protest works by Russian artists as examples of their courage. What they don’t understand, in my opinion, is that the notion of courage has another dimension now, during the war, and the value of art is defined by this courage.

Similarly, Badior points out that such a situation proceeds from a colonial condition where Soviet accomplishments were shown as Russian only, including Russia’s appropriation of the Soviet avant-garde. Those Ukrainian avant-garde artists who were not repressed as representatives of the Executed Renaissance, were claimed to be Russian. Another example I can think of is the link between Odesa and Moscow Conceptualisms, as shown by the confusion that often occurs in Western texts, which see these notions as, at least, of the same order. Now, we need decolonial optics to stop these processes.

But in the cases of Ukraine and Russia, we are dealing with different optics, and I see the colonial/decolonial notions as deeply rooted in questions of centralization and decentralization. Whereas in the case of Russia we are dealing with a non-decentralized entity, the post-2013 effort in Ukraine, through both governmental and non-governmental programs, was targeted at decentralization. Few things changed in Russia as a self-proclaimed heir to the USSR, while in Ukraine the vision changed dramatically. So in the case of Russia, we can speak of former colonial or, at best, anti-colonial optics, and as I proposed recently, self-colonization attempts, when the emotional attachment of one country (Russia) outweighs the rational understanding of this being a different country with a different culture (Ukraine), and Russia feels Ukraine’s indispensability for its own well-being. With this act of violence, Russia turns itself into a Ukrainian imaginary colony.

Timothy Snyder, in a text that Yaroslav Hrytsak refers to in his article (which I am going to speak about further), writes of the combination of anti-colonial and colonial models as a controversial desire to occupy and liberate at the same time, which we observe now in Russia, as characteristic of the Nazi regime in Germany. Ukraine, in turn, is in the fully fledged conclusion of a decolonial stage—visible through its institutions and popular solidarity. And in this senseless and cruel war, we witness the struggle between these two stages. Badior gives an example of an embroidery at the Hermitage and points out its colonizing context. But is it possible to decolonize Russian museums? My answer is no, because they haven’t even reached the paradigmatic postcolonial stage. They can indeed turn anti-colonial against their self-colonization through an obsession with Ukraine in an attempt to release from bitter resentment and affect towards Ukraine but the decolonial stage is unreachable for Russia, they need to be decentralized first.

What Ukraine can do at this stage—and I strongly believe it should—is to claim the restitution of valuables that were taken from it or looted throughout the Soviet period—from Ukrainian museums and churches. This must be done shortly. While Ukraine is forced by Russia to enter into its artificial colonial–anticolonial games, it is not a natural order of things for Ukraine, as it has gone much further in its decoloniality and independence.

The text by Yaroslav Hrytsak resonates heavily with this position. He points out that the postcolonial is not enough for Ukraine. He proposes that the Russian imperial and Soviet administrations saw Ukraine as belonging to the imperial core and not the periphery.

One example that comes from the field of art is the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. It was sponsored by Ukrainian arts patron Bohdan Khanenko, the founder of the Khanenko Museum in Kyiv. Can you imagine such an action from someone who was oppressed and colonized in conventional terms?

Hrytsak traces this idea in his texts and in his new book he fully declares that Ukraine was not a “normal” colony, and Russia was never a “normal” colonizer. He points out that the peripheral discourse developed in Ukraine as peasantry resistance to Stalinist repressions and the need to distance from the core’s oppressive policies, but that Ukrainian political elites always were at the core of state-building processes even in the Russian Empire and beyond. Ukraine, as the core of the Soviet project and at the same time of anti-Soviet resistance, largely relied on peasants because most of the Ukrainian intellectuals were repressed as part of the Executed Renaissance process. And now we see a flashback to these precise events with the destruction of the building of “Slovo” that was key for Ukrainian literature in Kharkiv but also formed some key elements for Russian literature.

Hrytsak calls Ukraine contested borderlands rather than a colony. He points out that the upheavals of the early 20th century destroyed traditional Ukrainian villages and Jewish shtetl and created a homogenized bilingual community as modern Ukrainian society was baptized by wars and revolutions. Here, we don’t see a focus on the center and periphery but social capital, values and cultural institutions; that is, horizontal history, if you will, which presents a clear divergence from either postcolonial or decolonial paradigms. We can compare the center-periphery model bringing more importance to language as an instrument of domination versus the Ukrainian case that takes language off the agenda as it places it at the core of both state-building and resistance processes.

This brings an intersection with the brilliant recent text by Kateryna Botanova for Tagesspiegel who, quoting one of the artists, says that the Russian language will be our war trophy because it is not the point of conflict inside Ukraine—it is the target of Russian colonial aspirations, its desire for cultural appropriation, and it has to do with its own colonial struggles and not with ours. It is Russia that suffers from colonial entanglement, and Ukraine only feels the results of this struggle.

Oleksiy Radynski points out that in these Russian colonial fights with themselves the ideology of marginalized groups of Russian society of hatred against varied groups, from Bolsheviks to Jews to Ukrainians, became mainstream and is used in Putin’s propaganda. I, however, would like to remark that it is not a pure invention of current Russian propaganda. It dates back at least to the 1990s. We can recall the fact that well-known performance artist Sergei Kuryokhin was supportive of fascist Alexander Dugin’s ideas. That was the time when the filtering of hatred spread from marginalized conspiracy theories to intellectual and pseudo-intellectual circles. Radynski points out the confusion of Russian myth, whereby they think they are dealing with Russia itself when dealing with Ukraine, and therefore they fear events like “Russian Maidan.”

Radynski provocatively discusses whether Ukrainians are a bit Russian and Russians are a bit Ukrainian, thereby blending two notions: that of a political nation and that of an ethnic nation. Of course, Ukraine and Russia are not only two different political nations but they built their structure over the last thirty years on mutual distancing. When Radinsky points out that emancipation in Russia and relative liberty might be a bit Ukrainian and the memory of serfdom in Ukraine is a bit Russian, this is not the same postcolonial hybridity as transcultural form, or even less the ambivalence of the colonizer and colonized, that, for example, Homi Bhabha speaks about. I would question this syncretism of good versus evil in Russian and Ukrainian cultures because it does not fit into known postcolonial/decolonial models on the post-Soviet space. And Radynski himself points this out brilliantly when he says that in Russian myth, events like the founding of Moscow after the Kyivan Rus are often likened to the discovery of the new world by Columbus. And this is the discourse that Putin’s propaganda attempted to artificially revive and invert in its war against Ukraine, even in more brutal forms, when even Lenin can assume the role of Columbus in his “discovery” of Ukraine.

I work extensively with Latin America, and I can say that this is a completely different postcolonial model than can be found in Ukraine. There, syncretism as a not-quite-peaceful merging of two opposite ideologies is possible, unlike Ukraine. This can occur when one land is too far from the colonizers and has a significant lack of resources in comparison with the mainland—as in the case of Mexico, where we can say that the narrative of the Conquista is a “bit Spanish,” while the visual culture in Spain, because of all the looted goods, is a “bit Mexican.” The case of Ukraine is different as it is not merging oppositional elements to that extent; it is blending cultures due to geographical proximity and exchange.

This is by no means to negate the important statements Radynski provided in his case against the Russian Federation but just to point out that the postcolonial conventions might not be applicable in Ukraine’s case, and that is why we have this wildly anachronic outbreak of war from the side of Russia. It is a situation when two countries have two radically different situations with colonialism in their territories. Radynski sees the solution to the Russian colonial situation through the anti-colonial movements of the indigenous people of Russia as allied with the antiwar movement. And I believe this scenario could take place, though not as fast as we would like to have it.

To conclude: Ukraine is in its last decolonial stage and the war will only foster this further. We have yet to invent the correct framework for interpreting and describing it. Russia is in its simultaneous colonial and anti-colonial stage—what I have called paradoxical self-colonization—through their affect to the former more liberal core (Ukraine) and in the need to fight against their own emotional colonial affection fueled by propaganda. This social and cultural divergence is enormous, and the outcomes for Ukraine are extremely painful, but for Russia, they will be fatal unless their resistance brings them to a more advanced postcolonial stage.

With the current processes, Russia’s cultural appropriation will not be an issue within a few years if the international community works to acknowledge Ukrainian contributions to global culture. Ukraine is again at the core of not only regional processes but global ones and will maintain this place for long after we win.

                                                            ~ Svitlana Biedarieva ~

Discussed texts for further reading:

Oleksiy Radynski, “The Case Against the Russian Federation.” E-flux Journal, March 2022.

Daria Badior, “Why We Need a Post-Colonial Lens to Look at Ukraine and Russia.” Hyperallergic, March 9, 2022.

Yaroslav Hrytsak, “The Postcolonial Is Not Enough.” Slavic Review, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Winter 2015), pp. 732–737.

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