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1 February, 2011  ▪  Serhiy Hrabovsky

Will the Cities of Ukraine Become Ukrainian Cities?

Whether cities of Ukraine become more Ukrainian has a direct impact on what Ukraine itself will be like

We could talk at length about the heritage of the colonial period in Ukraine. This heritage is very complex and ambiguous, including its sociocultural dimension. However, I am not talking now about Rastrelli, Kuindzi or Vrubel. I’m talking about more general, conceptual problems.

One of the most nagging problems in the culture of Ukrainian cities over the past centuries has been the problem of presence or absence of purely Ukrainian urban culture. I mean Ukrainian not so much in linguistic terms as in other key aspects. For example, take a look at typical multistoried buildings. Do those of them that were built under Stalin and Khrushchev fit in Ukrainian culture? Do more modern, but no less stock and architecturally bland, residential and administrative buildings do? The most recently built quarters for nouveau riches: what national culture are they part of? Luzhkov-style Moscow? Shouldn’t we be talking about the culture of the 21st century, rather than the onslaught of modern-time barbaric hordes that are quickly destroying historical centers in many cities, including Kyiv?

A historical sketch

The problem is not with the purely ethnic composition of the population. The cities in Ukraine were not monoethnic at the time of ancient Rus’, which the Normans called “the land of cities,” or the Hetman state. But the cities were not natural centers of ethnic national culture in their respective regions. Until the 17th century or the first half of the 18th century, cities in the Dnieper area (Naddniprianshchyna) and in Sloboda Ukraine were organically linked to the countryside and Cossack hamlets in the role of trade, crafts, education, church, and administrative hubs. They were the natural centers of social and cultural infrastructure. Cities were self-governed — Magdeburg Rights were first granted to a city in Ukraine back in the 14th century. Moreover, most of them had the status of military centers, so these were self-governed military-administrative units. Therefore, in the 17th century, 20% of Ukrainian population lived in cities, while in the early 18th century Ukrainians dominated the intellectual elite of the Russian Empire.

The independent Ukrainian church was later dissolved; borders were closed, preventing trade with Europe; the education system was destroyed; the autonomy of first Sloboda Ukraine and then the Hetman state was annulled. A combination of these developments stripped the cities in Russia-controlled Ukraine of nearly all their inherent functions, which led to their decline in both functional and quantitative terms. Cities began to turn into urban centers where foreign troops were stationed and the administration of the absolutist empire ruled. Priests in cities were turned into ordinary government officials. The role of cities in trade and crafts suffered greatly, and the loss of, above all, foreign trade made them deeply provincial. The Russian government tried to make cities in Ukraine ethnically distinct from the surrounding territories. Tsar Nicholas I even established percentage quotas for different nationalities in gubernia and district cities in “southern Russian territories.” Starting from the 18th century, Ukraine represented a combination of two traditions: one founded in the leading cultural role of cities in the European civilization (to which the Ukrainian state belonged at different times — from Kyivan Rus’ to the Hetman state) and the other one in which villages and manors were prominent and which was part of the Eurasian-Russian civilization.

De-Ukrainization of cities continued, especially in Russia-controlled territories. Orest Subtelny wrote: “Among the most experienced heavy-industry workers in southern Ukraine, a mere 25% of all coal miners and 30% of metallurgists were Ukrainian… In 1897, a mere 16% of lawyers, 25% of teachers, and nearly 10% of writers and artists in Ukraine were Ukrainian. Ukrainians made up a third of 127,000 intellectuals. In 1917, a mere 11% of Kyiv University students were ethnic Ukrainian. The absence of Ukrainians in cities was stunning. At the turn of the century, they comprised less than a third of the total urban population, Russians and Jews being the other two large groups… Educated Jews who usually were Russian-speaking made the Russian nature of cities in Ukraine even more pronounced.”

Similar processes were taking place also in Western Ukraine and Transcarpathia. Thus, at as a result of historical events cities in both Russia-controlled Ukraine and Western and Transcarpathian Ukraine in the 18th and 19th centuries were turning into administrative-cultural centers of colonial rule and assimilation of the Ukrainian population. Furthermore, Russian, Hungarian and Polish administrations purposefully pursued this policy by issuing special instructions, setting up the necessary buddies, etc.

Nobility-owned manors — another unit in the territorial stratification of culture — were less distanced from ordinary people. Nikolai Gogol masterfully described “old-time” landlords, i.e., landlords who did not have a lot of land in their possession, lived in Naddniprianshchyna, were descendents of senior Cossack officers, and were not too different in their customs and traditions from the “simple people.” Thus, nobility-owned manors in Naddniprianshchyna and Sloboda Ukraine turned into centers of national literature, art, folklore studies, and historiography. These estates were in sharp contrast to the rapidly growing cities which embodied both the absolutist-bureaucratic coercion and emergent capitalism.

Ukrainians in non-Ukrainian cities

Ukrainian capital fosters the development of elements of professional Ukrainian culture that are mentally close to those who own this capital: the ethnographic theater, historiography of people, and romantic and critical-realistic literature. Ukrainian classical literature depicts cities as an alien, hostile world in which a peasant finds himself. This is true of both poor and rich peasants; if a rich peasant suddenly adopts some “urban fantasies,” he is yielding to the spirit of the city. Mykola Dzeria by Ivan Nechui-Levytsky or Poviia (Prostitute) by Panas Myrny worth being mentioned in this context. Alongside the artistically perfect criticism of urban life, these authors depict a kind of utopia in the life of the “right” countryside. This literature is, with few exceptions, completely anti-urban, anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist. Thus, it essentially led to the failure of the Ukrainian liberation struggle in 1917-21 by shaping the special worldview of the educated strata who made up the core of the senior army officers and the administrative  apparatus of the UNR. A reflection of such mental orientations can be seen even in a totally different social cultural situation, which was present in interwar Galicia: Ukrainian literature traditionally treated cities as “hotbeds of contempt and abject misery,” noted Yevhen Malaniuk. Even Bohdan-Ihor Antonych, a modernist poet par excellence by all European canons, viewed cities as the negation of nature and elements, even though his oeuvre may not be completely unambiguous.

Nearly all ethnic Ukrainians who lived in cities were concentrated in slobodas, settlements with a mixed urban-rural mode of life whose inhabitants worked for richer city dwellers residing in the city itself. Therefore, as modern nations were forming, Ukrainian culture retreated from city centers to outskirts and suburbs. During the liberation struggle in the 1917–21, these settlements were hubs of resistance against the city “lords,” but they failed, for lack of time, to become the foundation for the Ukrainization of Naddniprianshchyna. Remember Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard:  Ukrainian suburbs with their hostile attitude to nearly completely Russified downtown Kyiv and all types of “officers” led to the almost sacrificial destruction of the latter in December 1918. (Not everything was so unambiguous here: for example, Bulgakov’s sister sang in the Ukrainian Prosvita choir, but I will return to this topic later.)

It was as late as in 1905 that the majority of bans on Ukrainian-language cultural and education activities were lifted. At the time, a network of Prosvita societies was launched in eastern Ukraine — and again, nearly exclusively in villages, suburbs and small towns. The core of the movement activists consisted of district doctors, agronomists, statisticians, village teachers, “cultured” landlords, and only episodically of large agricultural producers with primarily rural or Cossack background. All of this gave rise the conception that Ukrainians are inherently a non-bourgeois nation, even though it was the biggest problem in our progress and remains that virtually until our day. Another consequence was a special perception of the world peculiar to the Ukrainian elite in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

In this regard, the following statement by Mykhailo Hrushevsky is highly symptomatic: “During a long stretch of our early existence we kept talking that the future of the Ukrainian revival and Ukraine itself depended on the peasantry and no one else. For an entire century the word was synonymous with nearly all things Ukrainian. Since then, as all other strata betrayed their nationality, every piece of construction material needed for national building was sought in the peasantry… It is my deep conviction that the only elements that will have a future, impact and standing in Ukrainian life are those that have close and sincere contact with the masses of peasants and are focused on and guided by their interests.”

But what about the well-to-do strata, industrialists, bankers, and traitors? “We did not and still do not have creative, healthy and hard-working bourgeoisie. What they call bourgeoisie is largely comprised of parasitic elements who rose to prominence thanks to the protection of the old regime and are unfit for creative work. The majority of them are wasters of our land’s economic resources rather than creators. The Ukrainian proletariat is still extremely weak.”

Hrushevsky believed that as the working class, intelligentsia, administration, etc. grew, the peasantry would still continue to define national guidelines for a long time, if not forever.

Because cities were alien elements, Hrushevsky, who was a theorist and advocate of political-cultural, but not ethnic, conception of the Ukrainian nation, set a remarkable task regarding these cities: “Even though they are not Ukrainian in terms of the population and often are, even now, hotbeds of all types of anti-Ukrainian sentiments, propaganda, appeals, etc. … which annoys the Ukrainian community, we should all the more think about ways to accommodating these heterogeneous, alien bodies in all aspects and tie them to our life, ways to smoothen and neutralize their aloofness, heterogeneity and alien nature in our life.”  Thus, as a historian and politician, Hrushevky recognized the practical need for Ukraine to create industry and an industrial environment and hence urban culture. He perceived it as an inevitable evil of modern development rather than something necessarily “ours,” “real” or “national.”

Viacheslav Lypynsky, an opponent to Hrushevsky, expressed similar views on cities and urbanized population groups as he constructed his conception of nation building. Lypynsky also stands in opposition to the values of urban culture and urbanized environment, but he does it differently from Hrushevsky and other representatives of the socialistic and popular trends. To him, the foundation of Ukrainian culture and nation is the strata of farmers and aristocracy (rural and manor culture, both of which were united by proximity to ordinary people).

A search for identity

Hrushevsky was right when, in 1917, he spoke about the non-Ukrainian character of cities in Ukraine and the need for their cultural conquest. But this was just part of the whole picture. The political leaders of the time failed to notice the extremely rapid Ukrainization of cities which began since the early 20th century in Galicia and before and during the first world war in Naddniprianshchyna. Here is an interesting fact: in 1904, a Ukrainian theatrical circle was launched in Sevastopol whose participants included not only almost all the leaders and activists of sailors’ insurgencies (which took place in the subsequent years) with purely Ukrainian last names but also, for example, Lieutenant Pyotr Schmidt.

Cities in general, at least in Naddniprianshyna and Podillia, not to mention Eastern Galicia, provided serious support to Ukrainian forces at the time of the National Revolution. Extremely interesting cultural processes were taking place in these cities. Ukrainian gymnasia, theaters and publishing houses were being set up. The UNR’s army and the Ukrainian Galician Army drew largely on these cities for their officers (the same ones as mentioned above). Curiously, a number of them had clearly not-Ukrainian last names. Moreover, after getting a good taste of what Bolshevik terror is, Russified cities in Right-Bank Ukraine, including Kyiv, welcomed the Ukrainian army in 1919–20. In a word, the vortex of revolution made cities in Ukraine only partly non-Ukrainian, and thus they had good potential for Ukrainization. This is what, in fact, took place in the 1920s and even in the early 1930s. Educated Ukrainians emerged primarily from among people who had clearly non-Ukrainian last names. Maik Yohansen and Yurii George Shevelov are prime examples here.

The inertia of these processes lasted for quite a while. Volodymyr Lytovchenko, a renowned Ukrainian physicist, wrote in his memoirs, which were never published by Suchasnist (this magazine collapsed shortly before its 50th anniversary), remembers: Ukrainian dominated in the public sphere in pre-war Kyiv, and even those who used Russian or some other language at home tried to speak Ukrainian as soon as they stepped outdoors. The situation made a roundabout turn immediately after the war, and cities became centers of imperial chauvinism, Russification and denationalization of Ukrainians. The communist government became strong enough to afford to ignore the national factors. More precisely, it barely paid attention, offering some gestures from time to time aimed primarily at boosting its image abroad.

Therefore, it was not accidental that in the late 1980s, Ivan Dziuba spoke about the lack of integral Ukrainian national culture. Now Ukrainian culture seems to be “hung”: not satisfied with the ethnographic-rural tradition, it has failed to conquer the urban cultural environment in terms of not only literature but also action, at least in a larger part of Ukraine. In order to achieve this goal, we need, in particular, to get rid of the fear of cities and rationalization and industrialization of Ukrainian life. This is what noted philosopher Mykola Shlemkevych wrote about in the 1960s while in emigration: “So the cause of addressing our cities is the cause of focusing our thought and will and creating our vital center. This is the cause of transforming peoples’ plasma into an organized body.” He added: “We still have an internal enemy of all our normal development. This is fear of rational organization which always demands strict discipline and order and puts every person in his place. This enemy of our growth is the rebellious turns from the road that would like to lead us all to the primordial chaos rather than to a lucid and rational form… As we look for our intellect and go to cities, we must learn to value precisely intellect, which is the creator and organizer of contemporary cities. And we must learn to make use of it and its fruit.”

I should add to this that today the purely Ukrainian, especially linguistic, dimension of urban culture in Ukraine is perceived as a political manifestation to an extent. At the very least, its foundation is a conscious choice of a part of urban citizens. Meanwhile, a culture that dominates cities in southern and eastern Ukraine is the so-called “creole” (in the words of Mykola Riabchuk) and usually Russian-speaking culture. It is a mixture of Soviet vestiges and the culture of the imperial Lumpenproletariat. Clearly, this situation cannot be considered normal in a politically independent country, if only because cities are a kind of “neural centers” of modern nations and the key guidelines that are leading these nations into the future. Therefore, whether cities of Ukraine become more Ukrainian has a direct impact on what Ukraine itself will be like.


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