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7 March, 2011  ▪  Serhiy Hrabovsky

Battle Over The Black Raven: Leon Trotsky vs. Oleksandr Feldman

Oleksandr Feldman, a dyed-in-the-wool fighter against Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism and the sponsor of a bill he introduced while still a BYuT member and which reflects this crusade, has reached new political heights

Battle over The Black Raven: Leon Trotsky vs. Oleksandr Feldman

He has reached the all-European and even worldwide level and is now exposing vicious “Tiahnybok-style literature” in the form of the novel Chornyi Voron (Zalyshenets) (The Black Raven, or Stay-Behinder) penned by the Shevchenko Prize laureate Vasyl Shkliar for all to see. No mistake here: he is indeed a laureate. The Shevchenko Prize committee awarded him the prize and the fact that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign it into law is as much of a historical misunderstanding as is Yanukovych himself in the presidential seat.

So what has Mr. Shkliar done that is so outrageous? Did he say anything against Mr. Feldman, who owns the wholesale Barabashovka market in Kharkiv? Or did he accuse MP Feldman of double treason: initially elected to the parliament as a Party of Regions member in 2002, he later supported the “orange” forces and then was elected with BYuT only to hastily desert the opposition and join the old-new ruling coalition, thus keeping access to the government’s trough open for himself? Or was it perhaps that the writer characterized in quiet, kind terms those Ukrainian oligarchs who cannot get around to learning Ukrainian and, moreover, emphasize in every possible way that they are not Ukrainian and ostentatiously disregard Ukrainian culture?

No, not at all. Mr. Shkliar’s novel is about a different period, one much stormier than ours — the  1917–21 Ukrainian revolution. Moreover, he is speaking from the viewpoint of an insurgent peasant, Black Raven. In the novel, the protagonist uses some politically incorrect terms which were current at the time. He refuses to bow down before those who come to villages to take away grain, kill people, establish communes, and, on top of that, ridicule the native language of the locals, i.e., ruin the Ukrainian world that has just started to turn from an ethnic into a national one. Instead of keeping silent or grovelling before the enemy, this insurgent has the guts to speak disrespectfully about the invaders and their nationality.

He is especially outspoken about Russians, Jews, and the Chinese.

I am not going to repeat here the various names that the characters in The Black Raven call them — just to be on the safe side and avoid the possible label “Tiahnybok-style writer.” Instead I will ask a very simple question: Why in the world does a Ukrainian peasant who is fighting for the freedom of his country have so little respect not only for certain representatives of certain ethnic groups but also for these ethnic groups as such?

Strangely, it has not occurred to Mr. Feldman to ask himself this elementary question, even though he is not a fool if you base your judgment on how rich he is.

I can phrase the question in a more pointed and precise way: Why does a Ukrainian peasant who is fighting for the freedom of his country have so little respect not only for certain representatives of certain ethnic groups from whose ranks the enemies of his country’s freedom are recruited en masse but also for these ethnic groups as such?

What if we modify this question and simplify it? It will sound like this: Why, in 1942, did Red Army soldiers contemptuously refer to Germans as hanses and fritzes (no caps) rather than call them representatives of a great cultured people? (And they did not have much mercy for the German POWs.)

The case of the Chinese is the simplest one. “If a Cossack catches a Chinese during the civil war, he will definitely kill him and humiliate him to boot.” This is not about the Ukrainian Cossacks. Rather, the writer is referring to the Don Cossacks, and this is no uncertain author — Iona Yakir, an outstanding Red Army military leader who had, among other units, a Chinese battalion under his command.

So why were the Chinese treated so badly on the territory of the former Russian Empire? The answer to this question can be found in the writing of the contemporary Belarusian scholar Vladimir Beshanov: “The Chinese were widely used in punitive operations and shootings and as specialists in torture.” There were over 40,000 of these mercenaries in the Red Army — a stable number, because whose who were killed were constantly replaced by volunteers who did their job of professional butchers in a calm and detached manner.

Clearly, it is incorrect to identify China with these Chinese soldiers. But this is a rational understanding characteristic of educated intelligentsia and does not hold true on the level of insurgent peasants whose judgments are based on their real-life experiences.

The question is almost as easy to answer regarding Russians. Russian democrats have ultimately failed to give a meaningful answer to the question formulated by the famed sociologist Max Weber back in 1906 — the question of the Russian attitude to Ukrainian freedom. At best, it is still on the level of “on the one hand … but  on the other hand …” Russians concede that Ukrainians are, “in general and as a whole,” a nation, but insist they should know their place. In other words, even if they are a nation, it is a second-rate nation, a point of view which leads them to believe “Ukraine’s future must be determined by Russia’s interests.” This is what a participant in the events of the time said in a sarcastic reference to the ideology of the “democratic serf owners.” Now how would a peasant treat serf owners and their henchmen? Exactly like the characters in The Black Raven do.

Incidentally, why not cross out from school curricula all literary works in which soldiers tag their enemies hanses and fritzes and call for stripping their authors of the Shevchenko Prize for good measure? What about Nikolai Gogol with his liakhy (a derogatory name for Poles. — Transl.) and a description of a pogrom carried out by valiant champions of an “Orthodox tsar” (according to the last version of Taras Bulba)? Should this work then be banned from libraries?

Or can literary characters be allowed to despise “liakhy” and “fritzy”?

But the most important question here is one about anti-Semitism or, at least, certain anti-Semitic attitudes held by the protagonist in The Black Raven. To some people in Ukraine and abroad, anti-Semitism is clearly tantamount to Nazism and Fascism. But to the political figure whose thoughts on “democratic serf owners” I have quoted above, the issue is not so unequivocal. In his perception, anti-Semitism is non-separable from both bureaucratic centralism and European Ukrainophobia. He pins the blame for stirring up anti-Semitic sentiments among Ukrainian peasants on, above all, the Bolsheviks: “Everyone knows that it was not Denikin who forced us to leave Ukraine but the well-fed Ukrainian peasantry that rose up in a great insurgence. The Ukrainian peasant came to deeply hate the commune, the extraordinary anti-sabotage commissions, the food procurement detachments, and the commissars with Jewish background. A spirit of fear was provoked in the Ukrainian people — seething and whirling like the mighty Dnieper's rapids, it leads Ukrainians to feats of valor. This is the same spirit of freedom which gave Ukrainians superhuman strength throughout the centuries to fight against their oppressors — the Poles, Russians, Tatars, and Turks — and win resounding victories over them.”

Yes, these are the words of Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronshtein. He is a highly controversial figure in world history, but beyond any shadow of doubt, he was not a persecutor of all things Ukrainian like his chief opponent Stalin. Moreover, Mr. Trotsky knew Ukraine well and loved it in his own way, wishing to make it a showcase of worldwide communism. This desire was not unique to him: Mykola Skrypnyk, Vasyl Ellan-Blakytny, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Yurii Kotsiubynsky, Vitalii Prymakov, Mykola Khvylovy, and others wanted to do the same. The list of ethnic Ukrainians who similarly, in the name of their love for Ukraine, were engaged in the destruction of its freedom and independence (because their opponents were, you see, “wrong,” “incorrect,” and “antipopular”) can be extended to include present-day figures. In contrast to them, close to the end of his life Mr. Trotsky spoke in favor of Ukraine’s withdrawal from the USSR and becoming an independent country. His reason was that the Soviet Union had turned into a totalitarian centralized great-power empire.

Incidentally, some people believe that the writing cited above is a forgery, but an analysis of his entire corpus of articles on Ukraine proves that this piece not only is written in his characteristic style but also contains his thoughts. What we see there is an excellent socio-psychological description of Mr. Shkliar’s protagonist.

Trotsky believed that with its intolerant treatment of Ukrainian culture and language the Communist Party nomenklatura of Jewish background was getting what it deserved: negative attitudes among Ukrainians. Trotsky wrote: “In 1923, at a conference of the Bolshevik Party of Ukraine, I announced a demand: an official must be able to speak and write in the language of the local population. How many ironic comments have been expressed, coming largely from the Jewish intelligentsia that spoke and wrote in Russian and did not want to learn Ukrainian!” And this in 1923 when the policy of “indigenization” had already been proclaimed! What was going on several years earlier when this policy, forced as it was, did not exist?

Speaking about the Soviet Union in the “progressive” Stalinist era, Trotsky wrote: “The ethnic composition of bureaucracy has changed little [i.e., it consisted mainly of Jews and Russians. — S.H.] and what is immeasurably more important, the antagonism between the population and bureaucracy has been grossly aggravated in the past 10–12 years. The presence of anti-Semitism, both in its old and new ‘Soviet’ variety, is reported in fact by all serious and honest observers, particularly those who happened to live among the working masses for an extended period.”

Trotsky also lists the typical attributes of the epoch: “a despotic regime, persecution of all criticism, suppression of free thought, and, finally, judicial falsifications.” Doesn’t this remind you of something much closer to us in time? Nevertheless, I am speaking here about a different era – about events that took place 90 years ago.

This era and later the anti-Semitic sentiments among Ukrainian peasants, as Trotsky aptly noted, were psychologically rooted in the reaction to the activities of the disproportionately large party nomenklatura recruited from among Russified Jews who were characteristically contemptuous of all things Ukrainian.

Therefore, it is not Mr. Shkliar or his protagonist that Mr. Feldman should accuse but altogether different figures, both historical and modern. That includes himself, because he has not been noted having much respect for Ukrainian language, culture or knowledge. The latest example along this line is his designation of the Shevchenko Prize committee (despite all the past reshuffles there are still a number of outstanding Ukrainian cultural figures on it) as a “bureaucratic organization” which suffered from “elementary bureaucratic negligence: no one managed to carefully read this book.” Who are these negligent bureaucrats? Bohdan Stupka, Ivan Drach, Borys Oliinyk, Vadym Pysariev, Vasyl Herasymiuk, Myroslav Skoryk, Serhii Yakutovych, Roman Balaian, Dmytro Stus, Oleh Verheles, Yevhen Stankovych, Maria Stefiuk, and others. Of course they cannot even compete with Mr. Feldman and his associates in the skill of reading.

So, isn’t Feldman continuing the line pursued by the figures that Trotsky chastised?

As far as Feldman’s expression “Tiahnybok-style literature”, it is clearly unoriginal. In Soviet times, we heard of “literary Vlasovites” — first Boris Pasternak and then Alexandr Solzhenitsyn were painted with this label. Now here is a curious fact: General Vlasov broke his oath only once, while MP Feldman has cheated his voters twice.

 


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