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Volodymyr Yermolenko: Russian Culture Has No Alternative To Imperialism

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Yermolenko says Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has not awakened Ukrainians' sense of national identity but merely sped it up.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Yermolenko says Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine has not awakened Ukrainians' sense of national identity but merely sped it up.

Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher, essayist, and editor in chief of Ukraine World, which bills itself as an English-language multimedia project about Ukraine. He often writes about Ukrainian identity. His 2022 article in Foreign Policy, From Pushkin To Putin: Russian Literature's Imperial Ideology, provoked much 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 awakened Ukrainians' sense of national identity but merely sped it up. He also said that tearing down statues of individuals linked to Russia's imperial past helps Ukraine to revive its own heritage.

RFE/RL: The first question I'd like to pose is about Ukrainian identity. What defines it?

Volodymyr Yermolenko: The banal response would be that it's the spirit of freedom, individually and then the freedom of the nation, of community. If I had to explain it to a 6-year-old child, I'd say that we Ukrainians decide everything by ourselves. We are responsible for our actions; we do not wait for orders from above. Neither orders, nor punishments, nor incitement to act, and this is what differentiates us from tyrannies in which people are slaves, where people do not feel the capacity to act, to think with their own minds or their own lives.

The Tavberidize Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

RFE/RL: What about the Ukrainian nation and statehood as such? Commentators, mostly in the West, have argued the Russian invasion marks the true birth of the modern Ukrainian state and that, to a degree, Russian President Vladimir Putin has fostered this sense of identity to a nation that he denies even exists. For example, the noted Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has recently gone as far to say that "Putin is the founding father of Ukrainian independence." What's your reaction to that?

Yermolenko: I think it is wrong to say that because it just gives too much credit to Putin. I think if you look at Ukrainian society 100 years ago, you will see the same processes. If you look at Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century, you will also see similar things.

I think we need to say that Ukrainians as a nation is quite old -- the problem is that it was not really recognized, it was not really seen from outside [as such] for different reasons. And the big difference of our fight today with our fight 100 years ago is that nobody cared about Ukraine 100 years ago. And therefore, the disappearance of this independent state was met with absolute indifference in Europe, in America, everywhere else.

RFERL: I can relate as a Georgian because we had similar issues, when we had the first Georgian Republic (1918-1921), which lasted only three years.

Yermolenko: Right, exactly. [There are] lots of parallels between Georgia and Ukraine. So, we needed to wait for 100 years. So, I think it is wrong to give credit to Putin, because Putin was reacting to some processes that were taking place. He understood that these processes for him [were] going too far, [and] he tried many other tools to stop it. First, with propaganda, then with a network of spies and agents, then he tried to put a puppet government in with [former President Viktor] Yanukovych, etc….

[Macbeth] is a classic of literature about a point in history where every step the tyrant makes gets him closer to the abyss and that's what Putin is doing. So, violence and war are instruments of last resort. And it only accelerates Ukrainian identity; it strengthens it, but it doesn't create it.

RFE/RL: One facet of that identity, to me at least, seems to be Ukraine freeing itself of Russian influence, even rejecting it. For example, in the Black Sea port city of Odesa, we've seen the removal of two prominent statues, one of 18th century Russian empress, Catherine II, and Russian 18th century general and military commander, Aleksandr Suvorov. Is that also an act of rejection? Is that the shaping of Ukrainian identity?

Yermolenko: Of course, because Catherine is another side of the coin for us. So, these are two sides of the same coin of Russian imperialism. And, of course, Russian imperialism tried to put the symbols of the empire everywhere it reached and therefore we have the statues of [founder and first communist leader of the Soviet Union Vladimir] Lenin in every town, we had streets [named after Russian poet Aleksandr] Pushkin in every town, in every village.

[Ukrainians] should ask themselves: Why do we have several monuments of Pushkin in Kyiv but no monuments to writers from Kyiv, or someone like [historian and archivist] Volodymyr Antonovych, or people who created, at some point, Kyiv's identity? This is the imperial approach to erase the local history, to replace it with the imperial one. Of course, we should get rid of it. We should bring back the names, the histories, the works of art, the ideas, that were taken from us.

RFE/RL: There has been some criticism of the statue removals, arguing in a way that Ukraine is rejecting its own history, pointing to claims that, for example, Catherine II is considered by some to be the founder of the city of Odesa.

Yermolenko: People who know the history of Odesa know that before Odesa, the settlement was called Khadjibey -- to this day, we have restaurants in the city called Khadjibey. So, of course there was a settlement before, as in many other cities, where Russia was creating settlements on top of existing ones, including some Ukrainian Cossack settlements.

Catherine for Eastern Europe played a very negative role because she destroyed, in this part of the world, three national statehoods, which are actually now resisting to the last against Russian expansion. This is Poland, Ukraine, and Crimea, Crimean Tatars. She started the first Russian annexation of Crimea, she destroyed Ukrainian Cossack autonomy, and she participated in the first partition of Poland.

Workers begin dismantling the monument to the Russian Empress Catherine II in Odesa, Ukraine, on December 28, 2022.
Workers begin dismantling the monument to the Russian Empress Catherine II in Odesa, Ukraine, on December 28, 2022.

I think we should consider her as an imperialist expansionist who is not only erasing our national identities but also expanding the idea of [one] centralist empire in the region, which was quite cruel [throughout] history.

Now we are witnessing the return of these anti-imperial statehoods. First, there was the independence of Poland in the 20th century, and now we have the regeneration, the rebirth, of the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar identities. And I think we could say the same about the Caucasus.

RFE/RL: Yes, her reign wasn't kind to Georgia either, because that marked the beginning of the end for Georgian kingdoms, if the Treaty of Georgievsk (an agreement dating from the rule of Catherine II that extended Russian power into much of present-day Georgia) is anything to go by.

Yermolenko: Exactly.

RFE/RL: It's a dilemma faced by other post-Soviet countries as well: What history stays and what should go? It's easy in the case of Lenin, for example, right? But in Gori, where Stalin was born, it's slightly more difficult for people there to remove statues of the Soviet dictator or to take down the statue of General Pyotr Bagration (a Georgian who served the Russian Empire.) What criteria should be used to make such decisions?

Yermolenko: We have a similar story in Ukraine. We have Prince Bezborodko, who was the grand chancellor of the Russian Empire and one of the creators of the Russian education system in the early 19th century. We have people like [cleric and theologian] Teofan Prokopovych, who helped Peter the First (or Great) to create the Russian Empire. We have [Nikolai] Gogol, who created Russian prose. I think definitely we will not remove Gogol; he will stay, although I have personally a lot of questions for him -- but it's OK to have questions for historical figures, to discuss, to point at some ambivalence.

I think maybe there is the same story with Bagration, although I don't know Georgian history in detail. I only remember this paradox when I was thinking, why is it that the key commanders during the Napoleonic Wars didn't have Russian names, except for [Mikhail] Kutuzov and some others? There were Germans, there were Georgians, and so on. And it shows that Russia does not exist as a nation [state], that Russia is a mixture of everything, as a kind of vinegret (a mixed Russian salad), as an empire that sucks all the best things from the colonies.

A statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin is dismantled in the city of Dnipro, Ukraine, on December 16, 2022.
A statue of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin is dismantled in the city of Dnipro, Ukraine, on December 16, 2022.

With figures like Pushkin, I think we should definitely diminish substantially the presence of them in our streets. Therefore, in Kyiv, we renamed Pushkin Street into the street of [19th-20th century Ukrainian social activist Yevhen] Chykalenko because Chykalenko was a big [patron] who funded Ukrainian writers and who had an exact relation to Kyiv, unlike Pushkin who has no relationship with Kyiv.

Why Pushkin and not [19th century English poet] Byron, for example? Byron created a much better image of Ukrainian Hetsman Mazepa (in his narrative poem), so it's better to have Byron Street in the center of Kyiv than Pushkin [Street]. It's not like we should erase them. But I think we should definitely diminish their presence. They were omnipresent and should lose this status of omnipresence.

RFE/RL: Let me ask you what's the saving grace for Gogol. That he was born in Ukraine? Or that he is genuinely a world-class writer?

Yermolenko: Well, I think Gogol is part of our culture. We can be critical of him, but he's definitely part of our culture. And I mean, we consider him as ours, our writer, although we have big questions for him [about] the way he interprets it.

RFE/RL: Your article in Foreign Policy in 2022, Russian Literature's Imperial Ideology, provoked much debate. Some critics faulted the article for what they saw as "provincial thinking." That Pushkin, [Russian writer Mikhail] Lermontov et al were the products of their time and should not be judged through a modern lens but on their literary merit. I would love to hear your counterargument to that.

Yermolenko: Well, I think these arguments are precisely provincial and blind, because we should be reading literary texts very closely, because very often they show the symptoms of certain power discourses in politics, and I quote, those things found in Pushkin, in Lermontov, definitely show this.

For example, let's take Lermontov's text Mtsyri (The Novice) about the Caucasus. For a Russian literary critic, who criticized me, this is a text about how a Russian poet tries to identify himself with a Caucasian monk. For me, it's absolutely different. It's the way how a Russian poet tells Caucasian nations -- Georgians and some others -- look, you are in the past, you have only the past, you don't have the present and you definitely don't have a future. The only thing you've got is having nostalgia about the past.

This actually corresponds to what is happening today, saying to Ukrainians, OK, guys, you probably had [a] past different from ours, but we are the same nation, we have the same people, and if you don't agree with that, we will punish you.

Activists placed an executioner's hood and a noose on the Odesa's statue of Catherine II on November 2, 2022.
Activists placed an executioner's hood and a noose on the Odesa's statue of Catherine II on November 2, 2022.

I think it's very wrong to say that literature is some ephemeral, idealistic thing, where you just have to enjoy the style and so on. I don't think that Pushkin is responsible for Putin's crimes -- this is not what I am saying. I am saying that it is wrong to say, "This is Putin; yes, he is evil, but beyond him, look, there is great Russian culture," which serves as a sort of indulgence for these crimes.

[Regarding] all this talk of the "alternative Russia," I'd say there is no alternative Russia currently. Unfortunately, we cannot find it in the big texts of Russian literature. Russians should be looking for this alternative, and they have a very big task to do.

Their problem is that they don't really have in their culture -- with some exceptions, of course -- a clear political program which would serve as an alternative to Russian imperialism. They don't change. They did not produce visions of society which have been produced in many European nations, including in Ukraine -- this idea that society should be based on free individuals with rights for these individuals, rights for groups, etc.

Instead, in Russian culture there is a leitmotif of this so-called pan-[Slavic] unity, as Vladimir Solovyov, the Russian philosopher said, which means that [all] individual differences should be dissolved in some higher entity. So, this totalitarian trend in Russian culture has been present in Russian Slavophiles in the 19th century, certainly in [Russian novelist Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, certainly in Russian religious philosophers like Ivan Ilyin and others who pose as a basis for Putinist and Eurasianist ideologies.

I think Ukrainians, Poles, Georgians do have the right to say to the Russians, "Look, you just are blind to certain aspects of [Russian] culture and we can be your psychoanalysts, we can actually put a light on some unconscious things that you're not aware of," and I think they should listen to us. The problem is, they haven't started to listen to us in most cases.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.