Of sanctions and silencings

Russia’s war as cultural suicide

Nov 13, 2022

Yesterday I was asked by Christiane Amanpour on live television how it felt to be sanctioned by Russia.  I hadn’t realized that I had been placed on another sanctions list.  I knew that I had been sanctioned earlier, but at the time of the interview hadn’t got wind of the second incident.  I didn’t say anything when I was sanctioned the first time, since I found the whole thing tedious and sad. 

This second sanctioning is a little different, since it seems to be a response to my open course in the history of Ukraine.  That’s been my main activity these last few months, and my most public engagement — there are millions of views.  And so the double sanctioning, which otherwise wouldn’t warrant attention, is a minor reminder of how Ukrainian culture has been treated by governments in Moscow and St. Petersburg for the past quarter millennium.  Ukraine has its own story, and that is what must be silenced.  I’d like to express my solidarity with those Ukrainians who have truly taken risks.

It is as though an attempt is being made to drown millions, and I, safe on the shore, get a speck of saltwater on my cheek.  This authorizes me only to gesture out to sea, at the real crime.  Putin announced this invasion on the premise that there was no Ukrainian nation, and the plan was to physically eliminate the Ukrainian elite.  Ukrainian resistance has put this goal out of reach, but the intention remains, articulated every day on Russian state television.  Meanwhile, Ukrainians writers and artists and journalists have found their voice.  (To support Ukrainians active in culture during this war, I helped establish a program called Documenting Ukraine; you can support them too.)

While I teach safely at Yale, Ukrainian historians are on the front.  People who represent Ukrainian culture are taking risks to try to protect it.  On the Ukrainian side, participation in the war is general: and it means that Ukrainian culture suffers personal losses.  Dozens of Ukrainian journalists have been killed in battle.  Historians, journalists, artists, athletesdancers, musicians and others are taking risks because they know that they have something to protect.  On the Russian side, this is all much less clear.  Russian cultural figures are mustered to support the war on media, but none of the supporters of the war actually wants to fight it.  Early in the war, Russian cultural activists protested in significant numbers.  As they likely understood, the mission of Russian “civilization,” as Putin defines it, is purely negative, a matter of destroying something else.

Ukrainians are acutely aware that the effort to destroy their culture is generational.  The most tragic example is the “executed renaissance,” the murder of Ukrainian writers amidst Soviet terror in the 1930s.  Like the famine that same decade, this event lies deep in the vernacular memory of Ukrainians.  Once, when I was wearing a vyshyvanka, a Ukrainian embroidered shirt, a Ukrainian woman said to me: “You look handsome.  Like our writers in the 1920s.”  Pause.  “Before they were all shot.” 

A culture is suffocated when it lacks sites of expression, such as newspapers, publishing houses, libraries, and schools.  Under the Russian Empire, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the public use of the Ukrainian language was highly circumscribed.  A notorious imperial circular of the 1860s proclaimed that the Ukrainian language “has not, does not, and cannot exist” — an odd position, since if it did not and could not exist, there would have been no reason to ban it.  The oxymoron captures something about Putin’s sensibility today: Ukrainian culture does not exist; what seems to be Ukrainian is actually Russian; and if that is not clear to the Ukrainians, then violence must be applied. 

When Putin was a young man, in the late Soviet Union, Soviet policy to Ukrainian culture was administrative decapitation.  Unlike the Stalinists of the 1930s, Soviet leaders of the 1970s did not resort to mass terror; unlike Putin today, they did not deny the existence of Ukraine.  The Soviet approach then was to relegate Ukrainian to a kind of folk idiom.  Ukrainian textbooks were printed in every smaller runs, and used ever less in schools.  Students finishing high school could take their university exams in Ukrainian, but if they did so they would not be accepted to university.  Russian was to be the overall language of the Soviet state, and therefore that anyone interesting would take it as their first language, and use it in public.  Ukrainians who resisted this idea openly were sent to the Gulag or to psychiatric prison. 

The notion was that it was not “normal” for anyone to care about anything aside from personal convenience and technical efficiency is visible in the official Russian attitude to Ukraine today.  Russian media elites present culture as a void: no facts, no values, just a play of power and money, in which cleverness only counts as an instrument of manipulation, and anyone who fails to realize this is not clever at all.  Once Russian culture was defined as post-modern self-destruction, the existence of Ukrainian culture became all the more troubling.  It was not just that Ukraine was different: it was that it served as a reminder that culture might be something beyond the pirouette of self-preservation.  When Russian propagandists refer to Russia as “normal” and Ukraine as “not normal,” this what they mean.

This, incidentally, is why it is hard for Russians in mass media to explain Ukrainian resistance.  They lack any concept of a self-aware people.  They see themselves as the clever winners and the Russian people as manipulable fools.  They cannot imagine defending the moral nation with their physical bodies, and so cannot attribute such a motive to the Ukrainians.  Hence Russian politicians and propagandists seek the power of Ukrainian resistance somewhere beyond Ukraine, or indeed beyond reality: in conspiracies of Nazis, Jews, gays, and Satanists.  In these fantasies, no one ever has to ask what Russia is or might be, what Russian culture might represent, since it is defined as opposition to a phantom. 

In this way, we can understand the various puzzling attributes that Putin and his propagandists assign to Ukrainians.  It might seem strange to refer to Ukrainians both as servants of Nazis and as part of a Jewish international conspiracy; in both cases, all that is meant is something like “not Russians” or “our chosen enemy.”  With its uncanny combination of fascism and frivolity, official Russia exhausts and impoverishes both secular and religious concepts that otherwise might serve as moral guideposts.  When “Nazi” just means “our chosen enemy,” it means nothing at all.  Or less.  The idea that politics begins from the arbitrary selection of an enemy is, precisely, a Nazi idea (from Carl Schmitt).

Official Moscow ceased long ago even to pretend that the war in Ukraine had something to do with NATO.  Even the Nazi trope has given way, in recent weeks, to the notion of a war against Satan and his infernal servants.  This is an even more basic, if possible, definition of the world in terms of us-and-them.  It represents a contemporary Russian form of Christian fascism.  Ukraine’s Jewish president is referred to as “the little devil,” part of a larger Satanic plot.  This not only asserts a fascist framework and denies Volodymyr Zelens’kyi’s own humanity and agency; it also portrays Russians as the innocent victims, destined to preserve divine providence.  If they are the Satanists, then we, no matter what we are doing, how many torture chambers we are using, how many death pits we are digging, must be on the side of holiness and absolute good.  This is what Moscow’s main propagandist, Vladimir Soloviev, says day after day to his millions of viewers. 

But being the anti-Ukraine is not enough to define Russia.  In a politics of us-and-themthere is not really an “us.”  By celebrating “us” as the opposite of “them,” Russian fascism dodges the question of who “we” really are.  And by rallying “us” to utterly destroy “them,” Russian fascism corrupts and obliterates the basic concepts on which a culture can be built. 

Russia’s main achievement in this war has been the kidnapping of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian women and children and dispersing them throughout the Russian Federation, with the express purpose of creating more Russians in the future.  In this genocidal act, culture is reduced to biology, the violent physical control of wombs and babies.  But what does it mean to be Russian, and why is it desirable?  No one seems to know: except, again, in the negative sense: that there are too many non-whites in the Russian Federation.  By no coincidence, it is Russia’s indigenous people who are sent to fight and die in Ukraine.

On the day that I was sanctioned a second time, I was preoccupied with the images of Ukrainians in Kherson greeting Ukrainian special forces as liberators.  A few Ukrainian troops had made their way to the city, essentially to scout, to see if the way was safe after the Russians had withdrawn; but their way was blocked by crowds of Ukrainianswho wanted to hug them and give them flowers.  And dance and sing.  The Ukrainian national anthem, I was reminded, is about the future rather than about the past: fate will yet smile upon us if we continue to struggle.  The other song I heard, the one about the chervona kalyna (I find this name nicer than “red vibernum”), is also about the future: about how, acting together, sorrow can be lifted and freedom can be restored.

Ukrainian soldiers greeted by locals outside Kherson, today

Russian culture was far more widespread and popular in Ukraine before the first invasion in 2014 and the current full-scale war of destruction.  As a result of the war, Ukrainians have changed their linguistic habits, and prominent writers have ceased to write in Russian and begun to write in Ukrainian.  Nothing has done as much to destroy what Putin calls “the Russian world” as his war.  The Russian world is now in retreat, and as it retreats it steals and burns.

This Scythian pectoral is safe in Kyiv.

As the Russians left Kherson city, they stole items of culture.  Ukrainian libraries, publishing houses, and archives have been looted or targeted for destruction throughout the war.  Ancient artifacts of Scythian gold were stolen from the museum at Melitopol. Some forty Ukrainian museums have been robbed by the Russians, including the art museum of Kherson.  Amidst the scenes of joy in Kherson, Ukrainian journalists took the time to report on files from regional archives that the Russians had looted from Kherson and taken back with them to Russia. 

That seemingly minor story touched me.  Ukraine is a good place to do historical research; people have been writing the history of the USSR from Kyiv rather than Moscow for decades now, because the conditions for work are far better.  Because I am sanctioned in Russia, those files are now out of reach to me.  Far more significantly, they are now out of reach of Ukrainian historians.  This is a loss, and it is a crime

Ukrainian soldiers removing Russian mines, today

In a profound sense, these documents, despite physical possession, are also inaccessible to Russians.  Anyone can kill, destroy, and loot.  But what for?  Russian schoolchildren and now offered schoolbooks that lack the words “Ukraine” and “Kyiv.”  What is gained by that?  How then can children understand anything about the past, and about themselves, if there is no outside world, not even any immediate neighbor?  On the basis of sheer negation no culture of Russia can be sustained. 

Sanctioning me for my class will not slow the spread of knowledge about Ukrainian history.  If anything, it will likely speed the process along.  I am at the margin of Ukrainian culture, learning from Ukrainians, teaching what I can.  The attempted drowning is horrible and violent, but it has failed.  Day by day, Ukrainian culture emerges, as Russian culture submerges.  The sooner and more decisively Russia loses this war, the better it will be for the Russian future.

12 November 2022

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