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Ukraine: Analysis From Washington -- Fighting Over Masochism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 2 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In addition to all the other issues dividing Russia and Ukraine, scholars in those two countries are now debating which country should have the right to claim to be the homeland of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the psychological condition of masochism is named.

Vitaliy Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic Languages at Columbia University in New York, argues that both countries have some reason to claim to be "the original masochists." But in a paper presented recently at an academic conference in Washington, D.C., Chernetsky said that, to an outsider, Ukrainians would appear to have a far better case.

Born in the city of Lviv then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but now in Ukraine, Sacher-Masoch "always considered himself a Galician Ukrainian, Chernetsky writes. And in all his writings, the 19th-century writer recalled with fondness the Ukrainian people among whom he grew up.

For that reason, Chernetsky writes, there is currently an effort in Sacher-Masoch's native city to name a street after the man whose name has come to be applied by psychoanalysts to those who enjoy being abused or otherwise humiliated.

But Russians are now staking a claim to Sacher-Masoch as well. Chernetsky notes that in 1995, a distinguished Russian psychoanalyst published "a historical sociology of Sacher-Masoch and his Russian readers." That book argues, Chernetsky reports, that "Sacher-Masoch may have learned the pleasures of flagellation from the Russian sect of khlysty," who beat themselves as part of their religious practice.

Moreover, the Russian book notes that the name of the main character in the 1869 Sacher-Masoch novel from which modern psychoanalysis developed the concept of masochism was Severin, a surname that the Moscow author insists is purely Russian and not Ukrainian at all. And the book notes that Ukrainians had been a part of the Russian Empire.

So far, there has been no resolution, and none appears in prospect. But what makes this debate interesting is not its titillating aspects or even the opportunity it may present to some to look down on both Russians and Ukrainians. Rather it is an example of the extreme lengths some nationalists will often go to try to find something that they can point to as theirs alone -- even if most others would not want to do so.

Across the United States, for example, some cities and towns have advertised themselves as the hometown of one or another notorious criminal gang leader. But these efforts seem more intended to cash in on the notoriety of the individual named, to attract tourists who will spend money, rather than as a means toward promoting or cultivating a particular identity.

In the case of many post-Soviet countries, however, such claims play an additional and typically far more important role: They are part of a broader effort to create a unique past, a national narrative in which people can place themselves and, equally important, one from which others are excluded, even if that story includes incidents and individuals many would find offensive.

That defining role is especially important in the case of Russia and Ukraine, two countries whose histories and cultures have been intertwined for so long. And consequently, nationally-minded scholars, just like publicists and politicians, have a deeply vested interest in trying to untie these knots.

Despite the debate over Sacher-Masoch that Chernetsky describes, it is unlikely that very many people in either Russia or Ukraine are aware of these competing claims or would ever be prepared to demonstrate in any way their claims on Sacher-Masoch and his ideas.

But the very fact of this debate does highlight that scholars are no more immune from nationalism than anyone else, that the objects of nationalist discourse can be extremely varied and that insisting on such claims as a way of denying them to others may often go a long way to explain why nationalist histories take the forms they do.

And when the claims go to the extreme as they have in the case over the nationality of the father of masochism, there is at least a chance that some people on both sides will recognize the limits, even absurdity of some aspects of nationalism and thus begin to think in broader categories that could make international cooperation possible.