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22 June, 2012

Upbringing by Humiliation

Most nations are extremely sensitive about how their neighbours and foreigners portray them in their books, films, newspapers and magazines. This is natural, since the attitude of others is determined by how they perceive you and by the characteristics they use to portray you.

Diplomatic declarations or passionate assurances of eternal “historical friendship” are not convincing when neighbouring states portrays Ukrainians as fools, fraudsters, traitors and rogues. They do not look convincing because they are official, while the negative attitude is sincere, true and natural.

20 years of Ukraine’s independence have proved that Moscow’s attitude towards Ukrainians fully meet the image of Ukrainians that dominates the Russian art and entertainment industry today, including books, media, TV, films, theaters, etc. By contrast, what politicians and diplomats say officially is a sort of virtual reality, reminiscent of diplomatic soviet declarations, such as “the hardworking people of Angola” or “the freedom-loving people of Mozambique”.  There is no grain of truth in this, unlike recent Russian films, such as “Brother-2”, “We are from the Future-2”, “The Match”, “White Guard” and so on, portraying Ukrainians as second-rate people that are more dumb, foul and treacherous, as compared to the “supreme race”. In the best-case scenario, Ukrainians in Russian movies are kind, extremely primitive and limited creatures – a sort of supplement to normal people. To fulfill this ideological mission, artists use falsifications, fiction and the distortion of classical texts. Mikhail Bulgakov, for instance, is hardly an icon of love for Ukraine as Ukraine rather than the “beautiful South of Russia”, but his books are not as highly Ukrainophobic as the White Guard film by St. Petersburg-based director Sergei Snezhkin.  Brother-2, directed by Aleksei Balabanov mentions the “Ukrainian mafia” in the US, despite the fact that nobody there has ever heard of such. In all countries with a Ukrainian diaspora, Ukrainians have the reputation of law-abiding citizens.

Actually, Ukrainians never had success with the mafia, wherever they lived. Yet, Russian directors don’t care about this. The surge of Ukrainophobia in Russia has not sprung out of nowhere. It is a well-known strategy to demoralize Ukrainians with humiliation. Its key purpose is to impose the colonizer’s views on the nation colonized by it in the past (if only?), and make it look upon itself as a superior power. It works to knock down self-esteem and make the colonized nation feel less important and disgusted with itself, as “trash with no identity or name”.  Humiliation is being turned into a standard that Ukrainians should get used to. A nation with such a habit is a super-easy target. The effort reaches far beyond silver screen arts.

Earlier this year, the Sevastopol City Council passed a decision to close down secondary boarding school No 7 Ukrainian language school. Its students were transferred to boarding school 4 for mentally handiapped children. Really, who else could study in Ukrainian? Clearly, they would have to be mentally handicapped. The implication is self-explanatory. A Ukrainian grammar school promised by ex-presidents Kuchma and Yushchenko, was never built in Sevastopol, unlike the great Russian-language one opened by Yuri Luzhkov.  That should show khokhols[1] who is who and decide who is first-rate and who isn’t.

The strategy to humiliate Ukrainians did not begin in 1991. It has a long history. In the early 20th century, a magazine called Ukrainian Life was published in Moscow edited by Symon Petliura. Ukrainians used this publication to come to terms with the educated and intellectual part of Russian society, but without much success. Issue 10 published in 1913 featured an article entitled “An Open Letter to Russian Writers” by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. “Fed up” would be its key message in today’s slang. Mr. Vynnychenko lamented the extensive campaign to discredit Ukrainians in Russian literature at the beginning of the 20th century.  “Other than a few exceptions, most Russian writers find all these jokes about khokhols* very amusing,” he wrote. “The trend has grown pandemic over the past few years. You will certainly find a khokhol in every book. Russian writers portray khokhols as being a little dull, cheaters, always lazy, melancholic, and sometimes kind-hearted.  Other sides of the Ukrainian mindset are rarely mentioned in their writing. Is it possible that over 30 million Ukrainians are this sluggish and limited, with every person being either a clumsy dummy or a stupid lazybones, or a lazy cheater? A rare Russian writer, such as Maksim Gorki, describes Ukrainians as a primitive, sentimental and harmless simpleton.” One character in “We Are From the Future-2” is identical to the one portrayed in Vynnychenko’s article, as if nothing has changed in how Russians view Ukrainians over the past 100 years. The hybrid of a clown and hopeless dummy runs around the screen wearing a hat with a trident and sporting pathological cowardice on a background of heroic Russian guys. If an African American was presented in a Hollywood movie in such light, a huge scandal would ensue.

The surge of Ukrainophobia that Vynnychenko wrote about was caused by the fact that duting the indicated period of history, the Ukrainian national-cultural movement announced itself ever more perceptibly. As if by a signal, the imperialistic fear of the collapsing superpower described by Marx as “a combination of stolen gubernias” fueled the mockery and scorning of Ukrainians in books, the press and theaters. As the movement unfolded and the issue of Ukrainian statehood crystallized, it scared even the few Russian supporters of Ukrainians, such as Aleksei Shakhmatov, the author of several studies on the history of the Ukrainian language and culture, who lamented “Non possumos! We won’t let it happen” – after the Declaration of the 1st Universal of the Central Council, that demanded autonomy for Ukraine.

Compared to the previous century, modern Russian Ukrainophobes have yet to come up with something new. They keep repeating classical Ukraine hating mantras, showing their ideological futility and total inability to fill the ranks of the great Ukrainophobes of the past, including Piotr Srtuve, Andrei Storozhenko, Pavel Shchegolev, Sergei Volkonskiy and others. Their modern peers mention many erroneous facts and routine details. Moreover, they mockingly distort the Ukrainian language when trying to quote something originally written in Ukrainian to the point that it is unintelligible. This is another element of the humiliation strategy. The educated and intellectual part of modern Russian society does not see see it as a sin to be ignorant about Ukraine, just like before. “After years of living next to the little Russians or Ukrainians, all that the great Russians managed to learn from this co-existence was jokes,” said another article in the issue of the Ukrainian Life published in 1916. “Yet, they failed to accurately understand what matters for Ukrainians, how they live and what language they speak. They never bothered to take a closer look at Ukrainians or explore them. Apparently, they didn’t think they needed to.” The only problem is that the Ukrainophobic propaganda, even this primitive, will be consumed by small villages, as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg, because unfortunately it fits into the attitude of most Russians, including educated ones.

What should Ukrainians do? The Russian government bans everything it considers to be inappropriate for the national worldview of its nation. The Prayer for Hetman Mazepa, a historical film directed by Yuriy Illenko, was banned in Russia by Mikhail Shvydkyi, a democrat and liberal responsible for Russian culture at that time. Before 9 May 2012, Russian TV channels rejected 4 Days in May, a Russian-German-Ukrainian co-production highlighting some dark spots in the actions of Russian soldiers in Germany in 1945. Keeping some things away from a nation’s cultural environment may be reasonable. Yet, the true solution is to have one’s own cultural policy. Today, Ukraine has none as a result of Mr. Kulyniak’s service as Minister of Culture. However, culture is a powerful political force that often defines the national identity of millions of people and changes national borders based on their citizens’ cultural preferences, even if the Ukrainian business elite involved in politics fails to realize it. Put simply, the revival of book publishing and television with some Ukrainians shows, albeit few, Ukrainians should revive Ukrainian cinematography as an extremely important element of national security if they want to stop the humiliation of their country. Without relying on the current government, they should still keep reminding it about their need for Ukrainian culture. Otherwise, Ukrainians will eventually be taught to hate and despise themselves along with their state.

 



[1] Russians and Poles commonly use the word khokhol (chochoł, chachoł) as an ethnic slur for Ukrainians, as it was a common haircut of Cossacks.


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