Identity war: Far from frontlines, Ukraine resists Russia’s cultural legacy

Many Ukrainians back official ‘decolonisation’ efforts but others say the campaign is misguided and defined by hostility.

The bronze portrait of novelist Mikhail Bulgakov doused with red paint for his alleged criticism of Ukraine-1714641701
The bronze portrait of novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, doused with red paint for his alleged criticism of Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Kyiv, Ukraine – Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite is an almost obligatory aural part of every Christmas season in the West.

Written in 1892, The Nutcracker’s danceable, hummable and harmonically advanced tunes have become part of countless cartoons and holiday movies, were reworked into Duke Ellington’s jazz suite and inspired Michael Jackson’s Thriller album.

But for the past two Christmas seasons, The Nutcracker has not been performed or broadcast in Ukraine because its creator is considered here a pillar of Moscow’s “cultural imperialism”.

The cancellation of Tchaikovsky is part of a wider campaign to decolonise Ukraine’s culture and mentality, even if it means the occasional culling of ethnic Ukrainians from today’s artistic canon.

Tchaikovsky’s father hailed from a distinguished clan of Cossacks, frontier warriors who elected their leaders and are seen in Ukraine as progenitors of democracy opposed to Russian authoritarianism.

Tchaikovsky often used Ukrainian folk tunes, but identified as “Russian to the core” and spent most of his life in St Petersburg, where the stagings of his operas and ballets were lavish and costly.

The Kremlin has for decades used his music to promote Russian culture – and hailed him in books and biopics that omitted his homosexuality.

A Soviet-era star removed from a monument in central Kyiv in November 2023-1714641669
A Soviet-era star is removed from a monument in central Kyiv, in November 2023 [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

In March, acclaimed Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv faced a squall of criticism and even accusations of “treason” for agreeing to perform a Tchaikovsky opera at New York’s iconic Metropolitan Opera – even despite her attempts to emphasise the composer’s ethnic background.

Many war-scarred Ukrainians think that Tchaikovsky’s music should be banned the way Israel unofficially prohibits Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler’s favourite composer.

“We don’t want to have anything common with Russians, including music. Is that understood? Or do they have to drop bombs on your child to make you understand?” Lesya Babenko, who teaches piano in Kyiv and whose four-year-old niece Olha was wounded by a Russian bomb in the eastern region of Kharkiv in 2022, told Al Jazeera.

The ongoing conflict is an identity war with Ukrainians reconsidering their own cultural background.

“Millions of Ukrainians realised that what they used to consider their own worldview, their own cultural baggage, is largely a Russian worldview and Russian cultural baggage,” said Svitlana Chunikhina,
vice president of the Association of Political Psychologists, a group in Kyiv.

The cancellation of Russian cultural figures is a “logical step in the emancipation of a nation that fights for its right to get out of an imperial project”, she told Al Jazeera.

Decolonisation defined by ‘perpetual hostilities’

Ukraine’s “decolonisation” campaign is more complicated than those in African, Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian nations, whose cultures and languages were innately different from those of their Western colonisers.

The word “Russian” dates back to Kyivan Rus, one of medieval Europe’s largest states that centred around Kyiv and converted to Orthodox Christianity a millennium ago.

It fragmented into feuding principalities that were subjugated by neighbouring Lithuania, Poland and the Golden Horde, the Mongol Empire’s westernmost part.

Frontier lands were controlled by Cossacks who switched allegiances until pleading fealty to Moscow, a once-peripheral outpost whose rulers adopted Mongol policies of strict centralisation and squashing dissent.

Cossacks, who combined nomadic cavalry tactics with the use of firearms, spearheaded Moscow’s conquest of Crimea, Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia – where their name is still associated with war crimes.

“I don’t want my students to form a negative image of Russia,” Yelena Alexandrovna, a literature teacher at a public school in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, told Al Jazeera while explaining why she doesn’t want her class to study an Uzbek poem whose heroine scares her child with the word “Cossack”.

Ukrainian natives became part of Russian governments and top brass, especially in the Soviet era, when leaders from Leon Trotsky to Leonid Brezhnev to Mikhail Gorbachev were born in Ukraine or had Ukrainian blood.

“I am dumbfounded when I hear someone call Ukraine a ‘colony’. This ‘colony’ was the main engine in building the empire,” Konstantin Kolesnichenko, who runs a tiny cafeteria in Kharkiv, told Al Jazeera.

The decolonisation campaign is somewhat similar to the decades-old mutual cancellation of cultural figures in Pakistan and India.

“In a political environment that seems to be defined by perpetual hostilities, cancelling cultural icons is a way of emboldening the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’,” Somdeep Sen of Roskilde University in Denmark told Al Jazeera.

“Too many cultural overlaps, common legacies and shared histories means that antagonistic wartime rhetoric and actions often meant to dehumanise the ‘other’ is difficult to justify. After all, the ‘other’ looks a lot like ‘us’,” he said.

In today’s division of cultural legacy, the most tantalising question is to decide whether an artist is “Ukrainian” or “Russian”.

Ukraine’s search for historical ‘truth’

Nikolai Gogol, another scion of a Cossack clan, spent most of his life in St Petersburg to pen grotesque-filled prose in Russian that predated modernism and paved the way for generations of Russian novelists.

But Gogol is still hailed as Ukraine’s key cultural figure, although his opus magnum, Dead Souls, a 1842 novel depicting a conman who “buys” dead serfs whose demise hasn’t been registered, has been excluded from school curriculum.

One of many statues of Gogol stands on Andriivsky Uzviz, a historic street in central Kyiv, just a stone’s throw away from the museum of novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, who was heavily influenced by Gogol.

Bulgakov grew up in Kyiv, deserted from the army that won Ukraine’s brief independence from Russia in 1917-21, and moved to Moscow to achieve acclaim and have his most important works banned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Bulgakov’s swan song, The Master and Margarita, described the Devil’s visit to Moscow, sold millions in a dozen languages – and inspired a “satanic” song by The Rolling Stones.

But a character from Bulgakov’s earlier novel who derided the Ukrainian language still enrages many Ukrainians – and experts from a government body created to “restore historical truth” about Ukraine’s culture.

“Bulgakov is closest to today’s ideologues of Putinism and the Kremlin’s justification of ethnocide in Ukraine,” the National Memory Institute concluded on April 3.

The institute accused Bulgakov of mutually excluding sympathy towards Russian communists and their sworn enemy, the monarchist White Army.

The institute’s decision only means the “removal” of Bulgakov’s name from “the public space” and his own museum – along with his statue outside the building.

His works will no longer be in school curriculum – but his books will not be banned and can be sold freely.

Many Ukrainians already threw away his books – along with other Russian-language volumes – while those protesting the Institute’s decision prefer to remain anonymous fearing a backlash.

“While Muscovites steal everything from us and try to appropriate other people’s cultural heritage, we diligently ‘cleanse’ and emasculate our own,” a Kyiv resident told Al Jazeera.

“We’re cutting off our own limb hoping that Russians will feel the pain,” another Kyivan who only identified himself as Oleksandr, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s like cancelling Shakespeare if you don’t like [former US President Donald] Trump because they both speak English.”

Source: Al Jazeera