This came to me as I was getting off my flight from Madrid to Kyiv. I stood in the aisle behind a man who was quite staggering in his size and manner of behavior, but what caught my eye was not his attitude, it was his suspenders. They were tricolored like the Russian flag, and the little divider at the back, where one strip turns into two to later go over his shoulder, was leather with the double-headed eagle painted on it in already faded golden ink.
This got me thinking. When did branding become an essential ingredient of patriotism? As far as I can recall, even a year ago the majority of the Ukrainian population had a very vague idea of what a vyshyvanka felt like against their skin. I’m pretty sure that the blue-and-yellow ribbon business was slowly going bankrupt. Tourists were the only ones who halfheartedly bought matryoshka dolls with Yanukovych’s mug on it, and I’m pretty sure that about one half of my peers had a faint memory of the national anthem. So what happened?
From a purely Marxist point of view, I can go into a detailed description of the failings of us, the beehive workers, to realize the grasp of capitalism’s steel hand. However, as we are living in new, post-Euromaidan Ukraine, capitalism is perhaps our only option – and our only salvation. I recall the absolutely ridiculous annual celebrations my university has for Thanksgiving and Halloween – not just because it’s an American university in Spain which accepts study-abroad students from the States, but because they are proud of everything that makes them Americans. And a big part of being not only a citizen of the US but the entire Western world in general is the commodification of their culture. Think about the amount of hype Oktoberfest tends to accumulate when September rolls around. Or Eiffel Tower-shaped candy and key chains sold in Paris. The West has managed something we have been unable to do for the lack of proper understanding of how the free market works. They took their culture, their heritage and turned it into a brand.
There are professional teams working for the brands of Malta, France, Cyprus, even Georgia now. Why have we not seen the brand of Ukraine take its rightful place among its neighbors? Because we have never been able to grasp the concept of commodification. Like in all post-Soviet states, the notion of the commodity as part of the economy and ideological staple is still elusive in Ukraine. In Ukraine it is a mirage that threatens to disappear. My grandmother huffs every time I get a new pair of shoes because it’s unnecessary. But that’s not the point of buying shoes anymore, is it?
Which is why the uprise in vyshyvanka culture and blue-and-yellow ribbons is a good thing. It may be a very small step compared to the extensive advertising campaigns our Western neighbors design and publicize at every opportunity, but it is a step forward. The difference between hurrah-patriotism that reigns free in certain countries, and brand-patriotism, that has found its allocated niche in the West, is the fact that it’s a free market, which means that nobody forces the people to like what they have. Instead, a certain myth is created around a commodified shard of culture, which then further develops into a souvenir, a token, a part of the country brand, which powers the development of state support. The line is very delicate in our case, therefore, we must treat carefully not to turn ribbons into blood and firing squads (although we have already gone through this stage).
On a personal level, it would do us good, as Ukrainians, to embrace our historical heritage. Being proud of being Ukrainian is something we were never particularly used to – due to what my Ukrainian language teacher in high school called an “inferiority complex,”. The imperial nature of our foreign relations, with us ending up on the side of serfdom, tended to impose its culture on us, and what is more crucial, to downplay the rich collection of facts, figures and essence of what it meant to be Ukrainian. The very fact that we spent so much time living under the label of “little Russians” drives it home: we have always been alienated from our culture. It was as if a barrier had been placed between our essential Ukrainian-ness and our everyday lives. This sort of detachment is unnatural. Think back on what I said about US Americans: the abundance of American paraphernalia in workplaces, in homes, in the streets, however small of a role it may play for one person, in a collective perspective pushes forth the ideology of a single, united country. We never really had that. The occasional Ukrainian flag on Independence Day may instill pride but does little to support it.
That is why now they cost much more at the street market in Khreshchatyk. That is why people are now lining up to get custom-made vyshyvankas embroidered by masters who learned the art of Ukrainian embroidery from their predecessors. By purchasing such things, we are reappropriating our own culture. And therein lies the difference between mundane consumption and consumption for a purpose, subjective as it may be. Marx is probably turning in his grave at this point, but the fact that consumerism and commodification make it possible for us to consolidate ourselves into a society – not necessarily a state, by any means, as that would mark the oppressive nature of our relations, – and to close some of the gap between ourselves and our cultural and ethnical identity.
This is why national symbols are important. When used as a reminder of being human, having dignity, being part of something bigger than ourselves; and not as an oppressive message to those who disobey the grand master behind the scenes, these commodities can help us get in touch with our humanity, part of which takes its roots in national values.
My point being, is that the commodification of national ideologies is a natural process wherein Ukraine should finally mould its own slot. It may not be easy, given the lack of expertise and frankly horrible conceptions of advertising (see every electoral propaganda poster ever), but it is something that must be done to popularize Ukraine as not only “that country in a state of war with an angry bear” but as a country of blue-and-yellow, the country of azure sky and golden wheat, of beautiful songs and poetry, artful embroidery and talented people.