Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian thinker, essayist, and editor in chief of Ukraine World, which payments itself as an English-language multimedia venture about Ukraine. He usually writes about Ukrainian id. His 2022 article in Overseas Coverage, From Pushkin To Putin: Russian Literature’s Imperial Ideology, provoked a lot debate.
In an interview with Vazha Tavberidze from RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, Yermolenko says Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has not woke up Ukrainians’ sense of nationwide id however merely sped it up. He additionally stated that tearing down statues of people linked to Russia’s imperial previous helps Ukraine to revive its personal heritage.
RFE/RL: The primary query I might prefer to pose is about Ukrainian id. What defines it?
Volodymyr Yermolenko: The banal response can be that it is the spirit of freedom, individually after which the liberty of the nation, of neighborhood. If I needed to clarify it to a 6-year-old baby, I might say that we Ukrainians determine every thing by ourselves. We’re liable for our actions; we don’t look forward to orders from above. Neither orders, nor punishments, nor incitement to behave, and that is what differentiates us from tyrannies wherein persons are slaves, the place folks don’t really feel the capability to behave, to suppose with their very own minds or their very own lives.
RFE/RL: What in regards to the Ukrainian nation and statehood as such? Commentators, principally within the West, have argued the Russian invasion marks the true delivery of the fashionable Ukrainian state and that, to a level, Russian President Vladimir Putin has fostered this sense of id to a nation that he denies even exists. For instance, the famous British historian Margaret MacMillan has lately gone as far to say that “Putin is the founding father of Ukrainian independence.” What’s your response to that?
Yermolenko: I feel it’s improper to say that as a result of it simply offers an excessive amount of credit score to Putin. I feel in case you take a look at Ukrainian society 100 years in the past, you will notice the identical processes. In the event you take a look at Ukrainian Cossacks within the seventeenth century, additionally, you will see related issues.
I feel we have to say that Ukrainians as a nation is kind of previous — the issue is that it was not likely acknowledged, it was not likely seen from exterior [as such] for various causes. And the massive distinction of our struggle right this moment with our struggle 100 years in the past is that no person cared about Ukraine 100 years in the past. And due to this fact, the disappearance of this impartial state was met with absolute indifference in Europe, in America, in every single place else.
RFERL: I can relate as a Georgian as a result of we had related points, once we had the primary Georgian Republic (1918-1921), which lasted solely three years.
Yermolenko: Proper, precisely. [There are] a number of parallels between Georgia and Ukraine. So, we would have liked to attend for 100 years. So, I feel it’s improper to provide credit score to Putin, as a result of Putin was reacting to some processes that had been going down. He understood that these processes for him [were] going too far, [and] he tried many different instruments to cease it. First, with propaganda, then with a community of spies and brokers, then he tried to place a puppet authorities in with [former President Viktor] Yanukovych, and so on….
[Macbeth] is a traditional of literature a few level in historical past the place each step the tyrant makes will get him nearer to the abyss and that is what Putin is doing. So, violence and battle are devices of final resort. And it solely accelerates Ukrainian id; it strengthens it, nevertheless it would not create it.
RFE/RL: One side of that id, to me at the least, appears to be Ukraine releasing itself of Russian affect, even rejecting it. For instance, within the Black Sea port metropolis of Odesa, we have seen the removing of two distinguished statues, considered one of 18th century Russian empress, Catherine II, and Russian 18th century normal and army commander, Aleksandr Suvorov. Is that additionally an act of rejection? Is that the shaping of Ukrainian id?
Yermolenko: After all, as a result of Catherine is one other aspect of the coin for us. So, these are two sides of the identical coin of Russian imperialism. And, in fact, Russian imperialism tried to place the symbols of the empire in every single place it reached and due to this fact we now have the statues of [founder and first communist leader of the Soviet Union Vladimir] Lenin in each city, we had streets [named after Russian poet Aleksandr] Pushkin in each city, in each village.
[Ukrainians] ought to ask themselves: Why do we now have a number of monuments of Pushkin in Kyiv however no monuments to writers from Kyiv, or somebody like [historian and archivist] Volodymyr Antonovych, or individuals who created, in some unspecified time in the future, Kyiv’s id? That is the imperial strategy to erase the native historical past, to interchange it with the imperial one. After all, we must always eliminate it. We should always carry again the names, the histories, the artworks, the concepts, that had been taken from us.
RFE/RL: There was some criticism of the statue removals, arguing in a manner that Ukraine is rejecting its personal historical past, pointing to claims that, for instance, Catherine II is taken into account by some to be the founding father of town of Odesa.
Yermolenko: Individuals who know the historical past of Odesa know that earlier than Odesa, the settlement was known as Khadjibey — to today, we now have eating places within the metropolis known as Khadjibey. So, in fact there was a settlement earlier than, as in lots of different cities, the place Russia was creating settlements on high of current ones, together with some Ukrainian Cossack settlements.
Catherine for Japanese Europe performed a really adverse position as a result of she destroyed, on this a part of the world, three nationwide statehoods, which are literally now resisting to the final towards Russian enlargement. That is Poland, Ukraine, and Crimea, Crimean Tatars. She began the primary Russian annexation of Crimea, she destroyed Ukrainian Cossack autonomy, and he or she participated within the first partition of Poland.
I feel we must always think about her as an imperialist expansionist who shouldn’t be solely erasing our nationwide identities but in addition increasing the concept of [one] centralist empire within the area, which was fairly merciless [throughout] historical past.
Now we’re witnessing the return of those anti-imperial statehoods. First, there was the independence of Poland within the twentieth century, and now we now have the regeneration, the rebirth, of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar identities. And I feel lets say the identical in regards to the Caucasus.
RFE/RL: Sure, her reign wasn’t variety to Georgia both, as a result of that marked the start of the top for Georgian kingdoms, if the Treaty of Georgievsk (an settlement relationship from the rule of Catherine II that prolonged Russian energy into a lot of present-day Georgia) is something to go by.
RFE/RL: It is a dilemma confronted by different post-Soviet international locations as properly: What historical past stays and what ought to go? It is simple within the case of Lenin, for instance, proper? However in Gori, the place Stalin was born, it is barely harder for folks there to take away statues of the Soviet dictator or to take down the statue of Common Pyotr Bagration (a Georgian who served the Russian Empire.) What standards ought to be used to make such selections?
Yermolenko: Now we have an analogous story in Ukraine. Now we have Prince Bezborodko, who was the grand chancellor of the Russian Empire and one of many creators of the Russian training system within the early nineteenth century. Now we have folks like [cleric and theologian] Teofan Prokopovych, who helped Peter the First (or Nice) to create the Russian Empire. Now we have [Nikolai] Gogol, who created Russian prose. I feel positively we won’t take away Gogol; he’ll keep, though I’ve personally a variety of questions for him — nevertheless it’s OK to have questions for historic figures, to debate, to level at some ambivalence.
I feel possibly there is identical story with Bagration, though I do not know Georgian historical past intimately. I solely bear in mind this paradox once I was considering, why is it that the important thing commanders through the Napoleonic Wars did not have Russian names, aside from [Mikhail] Kutuzov and a few others? There have been Germans, there have been Georgians, and so forth. And it reveals that Russia doesn’t exist as a nation [state], that Russia is a combination of every thing, as a form of vinegret (a combined Russian salad), as an empire that sucks all the most effective issues from the colonies.
With figures like Pushkin, I feel we must always positively diminish considerably the presence of them in our streets. Due to this fact, in Kyiv, we renamed Pushkin Road into the road of [19th-20th century Ukrainian social activist Yevhen] Chykalenko as a result of Chykalenko was a giant [patron] who funded Ukrainian writers and who had an actual relation to Kyiv, not like Pushkin who has no relationship with Kyiv.
Why Pushkin and never [19th century English poet] Byron, for instance? Byron created a a lot better picture of Ukrainian Hetsman Mazepa (in his narrative poem), so it is higher to have Byron Road within the heart of Kyiv than Pushkin [Street]. It is not like we must always erase them. However I feel we must always positively diminish their presence. They had been omnipresent and may lose this standing of omnipresence.
RFE/RL: Let me ask you what is the saving grace for Gogol. That he was born in Ukraine? Or that he’s genuinely a world-class author?
Yermolenko: Properly, I feel Gogol is a part of our tradition. We could be vital of him, however he is positively a part of our tradition. And I imply, we think about him as ours, our author, though we now have huge questions for him [about] the best way he interprets it.
RFE/RL: Your article in Overseas Coverage in 2022, Russian Literature’s Imperial Ideology, provoked a lot debate. Some critics faulted the article for what they noticed as “provincial considering.” That Pushkin, [Russian writer Mikhail] Lermontov et al had been the merchandise of their time and shouldn’t be judged by way of a contemporary lens however on their literary benefit. I’d love to listen to your counterargument to that.
Yermolenko: Properly, I feel these arguments are exactly provincial and blind, as a result of we ought to be studying literary texts very intently, as a result of fairly often they present the signs of sure energy discourses in politics, and I quote, these issues present in Pushkin, in Lermontov, positively present this.
For instance, let’s take Lermontov’s textual content Mtsyri (The Novice) in regards to the Caucasus. For a Russian literary critic, who criticized me, it is a textual content about how a Russian poet tries to establish himself with a Caucasian monk. For me, it is completely totally different. It is the best way how a Russian poet tells Caucasian nations — Georgians and a few others — look, you might be up to now, you will have solely the previous, you do not have the current and also you positively do not have a future. The one factor you have bought is having nostalgia in regards to the previous.
This truly corresponds to what’s taking place right this moment, saying to Ukrainians, OK, guys, you most likely had [a] previous totally different from ours, however we’re the identical nation, we now have the identical folks, and in case you do not agree with that, we’ll punish you.
I feel it’s extremely improper to say that literature is a few ephemeral, idealistic factor, the place you simply must benefit from the type and so forth. I do not suppose that Pushkin is liable for Putin’s crimes — this isn’t what I’m saying. I’m saying that it’s improper to say, “That is Putin; sure, he’s evil, however past him, look, there may be nice Russian tradition,” which serves as a form of indulgence for these crimes.
[Regarding] all this discuss of the “various Russia,” I might say there isn’t any various Russia at present. Sadly, we can not discover it within the huge texts of Russian literature. Russians ought to be in search of this various, and so they have a really huge activity to do.
Their downside is that they do not actually have of their tradition — with some exceptions, in fact — a transparent political program which might function a substitute for Russian imperialism. They do not change. They didn’t produce visions of society which have been produced in lots of European nations, together with in Ukraine — this concept that society ought to be primarily based on free people with rights for these people, rights for teams, and so on.
As an alternative, in Russian tradition there’s a leitmotif of this so-called pan-[Slavic] unity, as Vladimir Solovyov, the Russian thinker stated, which signifies that [all] particular person variations ought to be dissolved in some increased entity. So, this totalitarian development in Russian tradition has been current in Russian Slavophiles within the nineteenth century, actually in [Russian novelist Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, actually in Russian non secular philosophers like Ivan Ilyin and others who pose as a foundation for Putinist and Eurasianist ideologies.
I feel Ukrainians, Poles, Georgians do have the best to say to the Russians, “Look, you simply are blind to sure points of [Russian] tradition and we could be your psychoanalysts, we will truly put a light-weight on some unconscious issues that you just’re not conscious of,” and I feel they need to take heed to us. The issue is, they have not began to take heed to us usually.
This interview has been edited for size and readability.
For the reason that starting of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze has been interviewing diplomats, army specialists, and lecturers in regards to the battle’s course, causes, and results. All of his interviews could be learn right here.