The New Yorker, a prominent liberal weekly, hosted a freewheeling debate in its pages about how the war aggression has transformed Ukrainians’ relationship with Russians. Among other things, it raised the question of how to deal with the literary legacy of Russian imperialism in the works of respected 18th and 19th century Russian classics.
The framework for the debate was created by last year’s 29th Book Forum, which (in partnership with the Hay Literary Festival in Hay, England) took place in impromptu conditions in Lviv.
The magazine recalled that since the beginning of the war, dozens of monuments and statues of prominent cultural figures celebrated during the Soviet era have been removed in Ukraine. Poet Alexander Pushkin has virtually disappeared from public spaces – in his poem Poltava, he once mocked Ukrainians’ claim to their identity and statehood. The names of Gogol, Chekhov and Lermontov have disappeared from Ukrainian streets.
“The original renaming of streets was only one of the means by which the imperial power defined and controlled its colonial space. The names of prominent Russians made Ukrainian names forgotten and erased local memory,” judges Volodymyr Yermolenko, a Ukrainian philosopher and editor of the English-language magazine Ukrainian World.
The treachery of “collective” feelings
Activist Diana Berg, who was forced by the Russian invasion to leave her native Donetsk and then Mariupol, commented that Russia is still culturally strong. “The world needs a lot more Russophobia if we want to survive as a free world. And to win in this war against humanity.”
Not every participant in the conference and subsequent debate was comfortable with the calls for the growth of Russophobia. The English journalist Emma Graham-Harrison warned against the principle of “collective resistance to any group of people”.
“I completely understand the anger of Ukrainians at the lack of more dissenting voices and protests against the invasion from Russia itself,” Graham-Harrison stated. “But we should not forget that the aggression itself is to some extent a product of collective hatred of Ukrainians.”
Russia beyond the human community
Ukrainians themselves have begun to refer to Russians simply as “non-humans.” The essayist and translator Ostap Slyvynsky says he would not use such a word, but he understands Ukrainians reaching for it – after the atrocities in occupied Buche, the dozens of civilians raped, tortured and shot. By their actions, Slyvynsky says, the Russians have “set themselves apart from the human community. That is why Ukraine refuses any talks. There is nothing to communicate with representatives of their elites and their regime. What should we talk to them about?”
Peter Pomerantsev, an expert on Russian propaganda at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, tried to explain the call for Russophobia in the pages of the New Yorker. “The debate in Lviv was also about how Russian culture is being used to camouflage Russian imperialism. And that’s a complex issue.”
Pomerentsev said it is correct and important to see the connection between the era of German Romanticism and Nazism. Or between Kipling and the famine in Bengal. “It doesn’t mean that one can’t read Pushkin now. But one cannot discover the roots of this war without recognizing how imperialism permeates all Russian culture.”
“This is not just ‘Putin’s war’. It reflects centuries of Russian culture and social attitudes. Russian culture and society is completely absorbed by this war. So yes, to some extent everything that is Russian is behind this war,” Pomerantsev says.
I hate, I mean, I am
Literary critic and psychoanalyst Yurko Prochasko also contributed to the debate in the pages of the New Yorker. According to him, the feeling of deep (Ukrainian) hatred towards Russians is justified and “existentially important”. “Hatred serves as a guide to distinguish between good and evil. As a support in the tangle of experiences and as a means to identify with the one who is being harmed,” Prochasko judges.
Ukrainians, he says, are aware that endless or boundless hatred can destroy even its bearers. But he has no answer to how to prevent it from poisoning Ukrainians’ own lives and their future. “Is it possible to turn hatred into contempt?” he asks rhetorically.
The author of the essay also gives space to a young writer, Victoria Amelina, who has traded her writing for work documenting Russian war crimes on Ukrainian territory. “Of course, we should also talk about reconciliation and forgiveness. But before we do that, we should let the Russians know that they must first clean up their own act and that there is a lot of work to be done,” the writer says.
“It’s not that I myself hate (ordinary) Russians. I’m so exhausted by the war they’re waging against us that I don’t feel anything at all. I’m completely numb,” Amelina admits, then quotes the lyrics of a song by the Ukrainian band Kozka System. A war song full of vulgarities, but not hate. It starts like this: “Our national idea – go f*ck yourself.”
This article was translated from the Czech original published in the online revue Přítomnost.
published: 13. 3. 2023