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Ukraine’s message to the West: We are not Russia’s backyard

Neither breaking news nor military victories cement a nation in the global consciousness. Only through its culture may a nation’s voice truly be heard, says Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko
Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko speaking at the Lviv Media Forum, 2022. Source: Nakypilo
Ukraine’s message to the West: We are not Russia’s backyard

Article by: Oksana Zabuzhko 

Ukraine has become visible to the world—yet it’s still not heard, stressed prominent Ukrainian writer and cultural ambassador Oksana Zabuzhko during her speech that opened the 2023 Lviv Media Forum in Ukraine.

The narratives and common vocabulary about Ukraine need to be revised, she said, outraged by definitions of Ukraine, such as “a former Soviet republic” by media or abrotherly state to Russia” by intellectuals. Both fail to grasp key Ukrainian history.

While some translations of Ukrainian books have recently appeared in the world languages, the reviewers often portray authors as coming “out of nowhere” rather than as a new generation emerging after classical Ukrainian literature.

If authors weren’t translated, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist,” said Zabuzhko, urging a reconsideration of common stereotypes about Ukraine. She praised events like a recent presentation of the English translation of the old Ukrainian drama “Cassandra” by Lesya Ukrainka in London’s Omnibus Theatre, saying that a nation becomes heard only through its culture.

Here is an adapted version of Zabuzhko’s speech. 

Oksana Zabuzhko: The issue looming in the air—the shift in discourse covering the war, the shift in narratives about Ukraine, the shift in the Ukrainian story or, rather, how Ukraine is being heard, started being heard during this year – that’s exactly the issue on which I shall focus.

I will start with a quotation that appeared in Western media:

“Within the past few months, Ukraine, a nation unknown to the West, has come into the forefront of the world’s attention. Most people, I think, are prepared to say that they know little or nothing about it. For this deficiency in knowledge, they need not blame themselves. There are good reasons for it. The suppressors of Ukraine took care that she be unknown. They, indeed, denied that she even existed. It would be difficult to imagine anything more reprehensible than this silencing of a nation, which by ancient right belongs to the European family of nations. But uncontrollable events have now brought Ukraine into the international arena.”

These words belong to British journalist Lancelot Lawton, who, during the 1930w, with the smog of totalitarianism thickening over Europe, was trying to open the eyes of the British public. 

Lawton attempted to raise awareness of the importance of the Ukrainian question in the forthcoming battles in Eastern Europe. He delivered a special address on the subject in the House of Commons in 1935. The quotation comes from that address. But Lawton’s message went unheard. The West completely missed his Ukrainian lesson and crossed Ukraine off its list for many decades.

Nor did the reappearance of our country on the political map in 1991 help make it more recognizable.

There was simply no room for the Ukrainian story in the Western narrative as long as the Russian story went unrevised.

Ukraine existed in Western media but on the periphery of Western—i.e., world—imagination. Until February 24, 2022, it was perceived as a “black suburb of great Russia” or even “Russia’s legitimate backyard”—an expression half-jokingly used during a discussion held in January 2022 by a British media outlet.

I was invited to join this discussion of two British intellectuals on how to “groom the Ukrainian constitution” to please Putin, to pacify Putin. The editor of this respectful media organization was completely unaware of how arrogantly imperialistic this might sound to my ear.

Of course, I refused, but I remember this term, “Russia’s legitimate backyard.” The term was in usage back in the ’30s in another part of Europe directed at countries and territories. The fact that the term is still here proves that, as a civilization, we are having serious problems with history lessons from the 20th century.

Yet Ukraine and its army have ruined all the stereotypes about “great Russia” and its “invincible second army in the world.” No longer is small Ukraine Russia’s legitimate backyard. Military victories, unfortunately, continue playing a decisive role in a nation’s narrative. Were it not for the unexpected victories of the Ukrainian army in the battle for Kyiv and afterward, we would have remained unheard of until now.

Oksana Zabuzhko. Photo by Ukrinform

Why do all those illustrious professors imply they know better than the Ukrainians what Ukraine should do?

I recommend Neil Abrams’ column published last month: “Dear Illustrious Professors of International Relations: STOP. TALKING. ABOUT. UKRAINE.” It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of political journalism. He addresses those “illustrious” Western, primarily American, experts in international relations who suggest a “land for peace” treaty as an ideal solution to stop the war—without any expertise on Ukraine whatsoever. Without taking into consideration anything that Ukrainians might have to say on the subject. He does a brief and witty review of half a dozen such publications authored by big names like Mearsheimer, Lieven, and others and addresses them:

“Are you a venerated scholar in the field of international relations? Do you feel compelled to publish an article about Russia’s war on Ukraine?.. Close your laptop, go outside, and take a walk. Meditate. Adopt a dog. Volunteer at a food bank. In fact, almost anything that doesn’t involve typing words on a page about Ukraine would be preferable to typing words on a page about Ukraine.”

The question unanswered by Neil Abrams, though, is: Where do all those illustrious professors obtain the temerity to imply they know better than Ukrainians what solution would be ideal in these circumstances? The only answer you can have to this question is that for them, Ukraine still does not possess a voice of her own. Ukraine is still seen as, to use Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s phrase, “the subaltern who cannot speak.”

After 15 months of war, after 15 months of, at least partially, a victorious war that has proven the success of Ukraine’s 30 years of independence, of state building, building the army, and civil society… still, we remain in their eyes in the position of the silent subaltern who cannot speak for herself and for whom they know better. Why?

The reason is one that remains largely underestimated by media people, politicians, decision-makers, and even intellectuals. A country does not get known by becoming newsworthy. The only way for a country to really get heard on the basis of her own history is by getting known culturally.

The 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution sparked interest, but the focus again shifted to Moscow with anticipation of something similar occurring there

Not that Ukraine was lacking the attention of the world media before. In fact, Russia’s full-scale invasion in February of last year was the third time this century that Ukraine was atop the world media’s news cycle.

The first time was the Orange Revolution of 2004. The West, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, discovered that, to quote the title of President Kuchma’s book, “Ukraine is not Russia.” The West realized Ukraine possessed a civil society that was capable of fighting for democracy. Yes, we were fighting for a fair election, and we won, and it was a great story. Ukraine had been the darling of the world’s media for about half a year, touting our “Orange Woodstock.”

And then what? The discourse shifted. Maidan gradually transitioned to petty squabbles of local corrupt politicians. The audience lost interest.

But a significant shift in attention took place. Experts put forth an issue that sounds really important: “Hey, if Ukrainians could make it, then the Russians someday will be able to make it, too. Hey, Maidan in Russia is somewhere around the corner. There are no visible threats of Russia sliding into the dictatorship because in Kyiv there was Maidan and they have won.”

It appeared that with our victory, we served to cover this swelling Russian fascist dictatorship because we were viewed as cousin nations, as almost the same, as a younger brother, with no big difference between Ukraine and Russia. Some of the thinking went, Okay, there is a difference in political culture, but it just proves that Ukraine is just part of the former Soviet Union.

Until February 2022, we were considered a former Soviet Republic. I know this because I toured 21 countries and 93 cities presenting a book I’d published. The farther West I went, the more people used the term to describe Ukraine, “the former Soviet republic.” In Germany, I finally had had enough and said: “I’m sorry, but do you always say, ‘Germany, the former Third Reich?’ It is pretty much the same, it is part of your political history.” Yes, being the Soviet Republic is part of my country’s political history, but there were other episodes in this history before, no matter what President Putin tells you, and these episodes actually shaped our political culture no less than the 70 years of being the Soviet Republic.

Prior to 2004, it was in Moscow that all correspondents covering events in “the former Soviet Union” were located. The Orange Revolution was the first time they came to Kyiv to make a first-hand report. They discovered that we have electricity and running water and that Kyiv is actually a big European-looking city, which has nice restaurants, cafes, and lots of historical sites. But there was still no shift in the interest in Ukraine’s history. The only Ukrainian writer who hit the international stage after the Orange Revolution was Marina Lewycka, a British author who published, “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.” This book had been for over a year the only book on Ukraine available in English.

Oksana Zabuzhko speaking at the Lviv Media Forum 2023. Photo by Nakypilo

In the mind of the American critic, if you cannot find Ukrainian writers after some Googling, it is not because they are not translated into English, it is because they don’t exist

The situation was gradually changing, so by 2014, when the second act of this big drama came, and for the second time in this century, Ukraine became visible—I’m not saying “heard”—Ukraine already boasted a decent set of internationally representative contemporary writers. Every independent country has them. Even Albania has Ismail Kadare—it doesn’t matter that he lives in Paris, but anyone who wants to know something about Albania goes and reads him.

So, by 2014, there were Kurkov, Zhadan, Zabuzhko, Andrukhovych in Central and Eastern Europe. People knew whom to call when they needed a comment about anything Ukrainian. We had these writers, maybe not the top bestselling authors in the European book markets, but at least there were some voices.

It is an exasperating experience when the cultural contexts of your work remain invisible to the foreign public and are misinterpreted. I remember that it was like a hit in the face when I was reading a very complimentary review from an American critic for my novel, “The Museum of Abandoned Secrets,” when it appeared in English. The review was very enthusiastic. Then there was the punchline: “All this is especially impressive because, as far as my mind was concerned, it came out of nowhere.” So, Ukraine has its voices in literature, in music, but we are out of nowhere.

We were not perceived as representatives of a millennium-old cultural tradition. Our literary and cultural mothers and forefathers remained unknown. We came out of nowhere. Why? Because, in the mind of an American critic, if, after doing some Googling, no Ukrainian novels are found, it is not because they are not translated into English, it is because they don’t exist.

That’s how Ukraine is perceived: a country with no history, a country with no culture, a country with no tradition, a country with no past, no story, no history, no voice. It might have aspirations for the future. It might have a young and boisterous civil society. But it is still a subaltern learning about herself and cannot be taken seriously.

Putin’s voice will always be more resonant. If he comes to the international stage and shares his historical essays about Ukraine’s past, well, it’s taken as if he’s authorized to do that because he is a known figure. And all the departments of the Slavic studies, which have actually been until the past year, departments of Russian studies, and only now are getting decolonized, were selling to future politicians and decision makers the same story that Putin now sells to the world, generation after generation.

That’s why in 2014, after Maidan, the attention again shifted. Maidan was welcomed like any revolution of civil society, any proof that civil society can stand against the attempted dictatorship, but still…

Every time, it has been the same story. Even in February 2022, the day after Russia’s invasion, CNN hosted a conversation among Anne Applebaum and Timothy Snyder, two trustworthy Western scholars who really have expertise in Ukraine, and Yuval Noah Harari, who I think is more of a media figure.

The conversation’s headline was, “The War in Ukraine and the Future of the World.” The discourse was the same as I remember from 2004 and 2014: Finally, the world is going to discover Ukraine. Ukraine has a civil society. Ukraine is showing resistance to Russian aggression. And then Harari made the same point: Since Ukraine and Russia are cousin nations, it might mean that “Putin’s war” will be stopped with protests in Russia. Dear God, February 25th, the person who is regarded as a respectful historian in that part of the world…

Everyone, even those who went to war, bloomed that spring

What is changing now, since the full-scale invasion? What is the work in process that is going to change the narratives, and why do we have to work for all that? Finally, for the first time, there is a really serious revision of Russian-Ukrainian relations in a historical context.

My book, “The Longest Journey,” was actually ordered by my Italian publisher—the first book I wrote at a publisher’s request in my entire literary career.

The request was: Please explain to us what we have missed in the cultural and historical contexts of this war in 120,000 characters. I said: I’m sorry, I should start from the 17th century.

Yes, we have to start in the 17th century. This work is already being done. For the first time, during the past year, Ukrainian authors started appearing translated into major European languages. And this was commercially successful.

If you happen to be in London, don’t miss the presentation of “Cassandra” by Lesya Ukrainka in the Omnibus Theatre. I’m personally proud of that because, before, it took me 10 years of persuading all European directors to do “Cassandra”, the most topical drama for our times, the drama permeated with the premonition of the world war. But, it’s only now thanks to the victories of the Ukrainian army that Lesya Ukrainka finally made it to the London stage.

This is the way to get heard. This is the way to get understood. Because culture works on the personal level. If you identify yourself with the characters of this film or that book, if this music is part of your personal experience, you can really understand this country. Not as a troublesome subaltern from the news. Not as a place where something bad, or good, is happening. This is the real dialogue. This is a real exchange of opinions, messages, and ideas. This is democracy. This is the world in which we all want to live.

Adapted by Bohdan Ben, edited by Mike Cronin

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