Describing Ukrainian Reality

Ukraine in Focus

Andrii Portnov sees decreased resistance among the international academic community to the “search for new ways of describing Ukrainian reality,” which he outlines in an essay for TRAFO (in German here): “This search, among other things, includes a critical analysis of the discursive processes occurring in contemporary Ukraine, including the increasing influence of post-colonial approaches in viewing one’s own history. As opposed to the mythology of the ‘brotherly peoples’, the post-colonial perspective allows for a powerful comparative analysis, which does not contradict critical empathy with Ukraine – a society and country at war.”

While calls for a post-colonial approach to Ukraine have received greater attention since February 24, they date back decades. One of the longstanding advocates of viewing the Russian-Ukrainian relationship through the post-colonial prism is Mykola Riabchuk. In a conversation with Serhy Yekelchyk, published by Eurozine, Riabchuk reflects on the closely-related imperial paradigm: “In 1991, we regained our independence relatively easily. The empire, however, was weakened, but not defeated. It accepted the loss of colonies but has not reconciled with this loss. What is happening now is the second, and hopefully final part of our national liberation struggle.”

Russian imperialism has been observed in many guises, but one of the most urgent is its environmental impact. In an essay for Environment and Society, Darya Tsymbalyuk considers what is at stake in studying the environment in Ukraine now. “Studying the environments of Donbas means constantly untangling the logic of Russian imperialism, which operates through military-geologic extractivism. Russia’s war on Ukraine is a form of military-geologic extractivism too, where global petrocapitalism sponsors the war machine, and where the longer history of the region reflects the temporal depth of this violence.”

Reflection is one of the essential roles culture can serve for Ukrainian society today. As Vasyl Cherepanyn tells Der Standard (in German) in an interview: “Culture can’t serve as therapy; it can reflect, pose questions, document. Concerts in metro stations or theaters reopening are precisely the opposite of escapism: it’s not about getting away from reality, it’s about moments of solidarity.”

In The Oxonian Review, Igor Pomerantsev shares his reflections on language and belonging prompted by his conversations with Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion. “All my conscious life before emigrating to the West was spent in Ukraine. I spent it there, and left it there. Nevertheless, Russian was always my mother tongue. War is a limit situation not only for the carriers of a language, but also for the language itself. The killing of a nation is at the same time the killing of a language. I am a writer and I love my mother tongue. Today my love is still valid, but it has become difficult, dramatic. Evil is polyglot. It speaks hundreds of different languages. It has its favorites, though. One might even say mother tongues. The German poet Paul Celan—he and I both lived in the same Ukrainian city, Chernivtsi (Czernowitz)—wrote a classic poem about evil. It is called Death Fugue. A key line in it is ‘Death is a master from Germany.’ Today, death has a new uniform and ID patches. Now death is a master from Russia, and I am bound to it by language. In my barn, there is a heap of rakes to step on, but no white flags. Nor will there be.”

The question of how atrocities change people’s relationship to the fundamental components of their identity, including their understanding of the past, is at stake in an essay Foreign Policy by Marci Shore, in which she raises the notion of responsibility regardless of guilt.

“[B]y implying that responsibility in the present is dependent on guilt in the past, memory politics have obstructed, rather than bolstered, the taking of responsibility. [...] [N]ot being guilty does not absolve us of responsibility. The source of this responsibility is not guilt; the source of responsibility is that we are human beings sharing a world. We are responsible not for atoning on behalf of those who lived in this world before us but for seeing the unbearable crimes of the past—slavery, lynchings, gas chambers, gulags, death by starvation, collaboration, and terror—with our eyes wide open. Moreover, as the German case teaches us, that is not all: we are also responsible for confronting the present. Today, in Ukraine, Russian soldiers are raping women, blowing apart children with artillery shells, and tearing off the skin of men they have taken captive. Ukrainians need more weapons. Hesitation is irresponsible—and morally unsustainable.”

Kateryna Mishchenko also addresses German attitudes towards Ukraine and Russia and their relationship to the Second World War, guilt, and responsibility in a podcast interview with Die Zeit (in German). “German politicians are lacking the ambition to be great, great in the sense of helping others, of standing by them out of their own convictions.

And for Der Spiegel (in German), Kyrylo Tkachenko asks why many outside observers, Germans first and foremost, believe Ukrainians cannot win the war. “It would really be helpful if the desire to bring peace to Ukraine, undoubtedly well-intentioned, took other forms than demands for our surrender. One place to start could be listening to us and considering our country not as a helpless victim but as an equal subject of universally-valid international law.”

After all, the notion of Ukraine as a helpless victim is not borne out by the real stories of people across the country, who have found ways to take action and assert their individual and collective agency in light of Russian aggression. Journalists in Ukraine have been working (for many years, but even more so since February 24) to tell those stories. For Die Zeit (in German), Angelina Kariakina talks to the family of one of the defenders of Azovstal who was killed in Olenivka on 29 July. Nataliya Gumenyuk writes for Rolling Stone about what we know about the experience of Russian occupation in the south and east of Ukraine. And Paweł Pieniążek describes life in Kharkiv for those who remained or have returned, for Tygodnik Powszechny (in Polish): the ongoing danger from Russian shelling, the physical and economic devastation, but above all the commitment to their city and country.