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The postcolonial syndrome in Ukraine

Mykola Riabchuk, Foto: Clemens Fabry
The postcolonial syndrome in Ukraine
Article by: Karolina Słowik
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

Political scientist Karolina Słowik interviews Mykola Riabchuk, Ukrainian literary critic, essayist and journalist, on his new book Ukraine: The Postcolonial Syndrome. The interview was conducted during the conference “Past as Prelude: Polish-Ukrainian Relations for the Twenty-First Century,” held at the Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge, June 20 — July 1, 2015.

Why such a (negative) reaction ( after first being addressed in Russian — Ed.)?

I came to Cambridge for the Polish-Ukrainian conference. Everybody is speaking English, so I was somewhat surprised. But I’m not surprised in Kyiv when someone asks in Russian.

In what language do you answer?

Ukrainian. After all, everyone understands perfectly. They are taught in school. This language is present on television. In Ukraine there is no problem with understanding. However, there is a problem of status. To speak Ukrainian is similar to being black in a country where the majority is white. People do not want to stand out. Most are trying to be white (as Michael Jackson).

In your new book Ukraine. The Postcolonial Syndrome you write that Ukrainian was the language of the province and Russian of higher culture. Is this still true?

You underestimate the power of speech. And you also underestimate the structural problems that we have inherited after centuries of Russian colonization. Independent Ukraine emerged as the extension of the Ukrainian Socialist Republic: the same institutions, elites, practices — everything remained virtually unchanged.

The party elites spoke Russian since another language was useless for their careers. In fact, it was suspect. The Russian-speaking elites that ruled the country then are still ruling it now. I do not know a single Ukrainian-speaking oligarch. And they are the ones who impose the discourse and influence the media. Ukraine has had 15 prime ministers and only Arseniy Yatseniuk speaks Ukrainian. We have had 5 presidents and only Yushchenko speaks Ukrainian.

And Petro Poroshenko?

I’m talking about authentic language. The one we use at home with our wife and children.

And this does not touch only the elites. It is evident at all levels. Maybe only Western Ukraine avoided real Russification. It is the only region where the use of Ukrainian language is a city phenomenon as well as a village one. This happened because during many centuries of colonization, urbanization and Russification went together.

During Soviet times the cities grew, and from the beginning they were created as Russian-speaking entities. Village migrants were assimilated into the dominant language. And this assimilation was conducted using the carrot and stick method. The carrot was the open door to a career and the stick was prison and a psychiatric hospital for those who resisted this paradigm too much.

Now, after Maidan, are people ashamed to speak Russian in Kyiv?

I rode the elevator with a couple. They were speaking Ukrainian to each other. I asked them for the time (also in Ukrainian). They answered me in Russian.

This instinct is deeply ingrained. It is better not to speak Ukrainian in public because of the fear of being humiliated. This happened frequently in school. When you began to speak Ukrainian you were mocked as a redneck. This is hard to shake, even in a neutral environment.

Kyiv is changing in this respect. You can hear an answer in Ukrainian much more frequently now. Serhiy Zhadan (popular Ukrainian writer and poet from Kharkiv — Ed.) said that in Kharkiv there is no problem in principle — everybody understands, but if you ask for bread in Ukrainian in a store, the clerk will ask if you’re by chance from Western Ukraine. The Ukrainian language is viewed as something odd. Something on the order of wearing the national costume in the street.

In Belarus two years ago a member of the People’s Party said that Russian-speaking Belarusians are not Belarusians. Doesn’t the negative reaction of Ukrainian speakers toward the Russian speakers risk pushing them to the other side?

The war has redefined everything. There are probably more Russian than Ukrainian speakers on the side of Kyiv. People have been convinced that it is possible to be a patriot and not be Ukrainian-speaking. Language is not a determinant.

The war has demonstrated that the division into eastern and western Ukraine is not that clear-cut. You were inclined to accept the concept of two Ukraines. But perhaps there are 22, as the historian Yaroslav Hrytsak maintains?

I’m writing about this in the last chapter of my new book. I divide Ukraine into two, but not into east and west, Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking, but into two projects — communities divided by values. Into the Soviet (postcolonial) and the anti-Soviet (anti-colonial) communities. The determining factor is the answer to Vladimir Putin’s favorite thesis: “Are Ukrainians and Russians one people?”

The postcolonial group will respond. No, we are different. Not because we speak Ukrainian but because we have different values. We don’t like dictatorship, we don’t like the tsar (it doesn’t matter if he’s foreign or ours). We want to promote European values, to build a liberal democracy. We value freedom. We do not believe that the state is above everything, because the state is for the individual and not the reverse.

And what is the Soviet attitude?

Paternalistic, very conservative, hates change. It is guided by the so-called survival values, as outlined by sociologists. It has no initiative or civic spirit. These are not citizens but subjects. The government needs to take care of everything. Until the late 90s these people represented the majority. The passive majority.

They are hard to mobilize. This is why Maidan was successful. I agree with Igor “Strelkov” Girkin (Russian terrorist, key organizer of “Donetsk People’s Republic” — Ed.) who said, “If not for us there would be nothing.” Without external aggression there would not have been the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Still, at the beginning of the conflict I heard many Ukrainians say, “let’s give up the Donbas, this is non-Ukrainian land. Why die for it?”

To a large extent I agree with that. But it’s a question of procedures. On the one hand, as a consistent liberal, I believe that every entity has the right to autonomy: community, nationality, city, tribe, region. If they want and know how to be independent then let them vote, let them try to govern independently.

Kyiv’s proposal to carry out elections in the presence of international observers and peacekeeping forces and not fighters and Kalashnikov operatives was not bad. And then negotiate future relations with the legitimate representatives of the region and not local thugs and Russian mercenaries. This did not happen either in Crimea or the Donbas.

I cannot accept the idea that armed Ossetians or Bashkirs (ethnic groups in Russia — Ed.) appear suddenly and decide the fate of the region.

But in the Donbas there are people who believe in Moscow more than in Kyiv.

But Russia doesn’t want them. I think the best way out of this situation would be freezing the conflict.

We would have a second Transnistria.

So what? No piece of land is worth having people die for it. Ukraine has no chance to win this war. Putin has already made that obvious. Last year when Donetsk was surrounded, Ukraine was close to victory. Then Russia sent in its regular troops. That was a clear signal: “We will not give you any chance; if necessary we will send new divisions.” This means we need to defend what we have now.

What about the western part? Should it strive to join the European Union, which itself has increasingly serious problems?

There is no question. The movement is more important than the result. I don’t care what happens with the European Union. What is important is for Ukraine to adopt all the standards now.

Therefore it is most important to acquire the know-how?

It will help us adopt all the necessary reforms.

But does decommunization need to take place, as you propose in your book?

Not decommunization but decolonization. In the context of war it is very important to get rid not only of all the communist symbols but of the colonial symbols as well. Lenin is respected in Donetsk not because he was a communist but because he was a Russian imperialist.

It is not normal that we still have Dnipropetrovsk (named after Grigory Petrovsky, a Russian revolutionary and one of the organizers of the agricultural collectivization in Ukraine — Ed.) on a map, that every Ukrainian city has a street called Kutuzov or Suvorov (Russian field marshals — Ed.). We need to cut ourselves off from that past.

Note: The interview by Karolina Słowik was conducted during the conference “Past as Prelude: Polish-Ukrainian Relations for the Twenty-First Century,” organized by Cambridge Polish Studies and Cambridge Ukrainian Studies with the support of the Oxford Noble Foundation. 

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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