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29 June, 2012

From Ukraine to Europe: Mainstream Trash

Naked butts and traditional Ukrainian flower wreaths on their heads – these strange girls could be ignored if information about Ukraine was not so skewed

“I came, I undressed, I won.” This is the motto on Femen’s site. Girls with their breasts painted blue and yellow who call themselves “new world feminism” had come to Italy where their presence extended from Saint Peter’s Square to Italian television on which they had a lively discussion with playboy Rocco Siffredi.

Femen themselves said in Ukraine that they had appeared in “Italy’s most popular Sunday show” as leading Ukrainian feminists.

This is the cursed point at which the Brownian motion of trash takes place – from east to west and then back to east. Trash is light and is easily carried by the wind.

Ukrainian female “writers” operate on a similar level. Maryna Sorina, an émigré from Kharkiv, appeared on Italian television to present her novel I Want an Italian Husband. From the East for Love?. The cover showed the legs of a woman in a mini-skirt and high-heeled boots and Saint Basil’s Cathedral could be seen in the background.

Meanwhile, translations of Ukrainian poetry – from Taras Shevchenko and Pavlo Tychyna to Bohdan-Ihor Antonych and more contemporary poets – are only found in Italy on the website of the Italian Association of Ukrainian Studies. The scale of information on real Ukrainian culture compared to the trash that assumes its name is 1:100. Institutions, finances and scenarios to promote Ukraine’s European character and culture are almost non-existent.

It is enough to mention the idiotic Harniunia and Sprytko mascots that cost the nation $100,000. Or a look at the State Agency for Investment and National Projects of Ukraine whose measurement scale is based on units of embezzlement.


But this article is not about Italy. There is enough garbage in the world. After all, it is hard to shock a country that had Cicciolina in its parliament with trash. This is, again, a question of proportions: trash in Europe is like smog over the Colosseum. It's different with Ukraine: no outline of its culture can be seen through the smog of degradation and aberration.

Europeis a unique synthesis of time whose pulse can very clearly be felt in museums as brick-and-mortar encyclopedias of culture. Vienna has about a hundred museums, and its MuseumsQuartier alone has five, including a corner in which Baroque and Modern architecture co-exists. The Leopold Museum, which shows high modern art, is located here next to the MUMOK, the Museum of Modern Art. The former displays Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, René Magritte and Alexander Archipenko, while the latter offers recent art.

The “younger Europe” with its Russian-Soviet ruins, pathologies, bans and complexes abuts the consolidated space of European culture. Western Europe had its own ruins at one point but overcame them and moved on, while Eastern Europe is still catching up with the shadows cast by its own ruins. But this is not true of every country. Take Poland, for example. Rome is home to the Polish Academy and the Institute of Polish Culture. Polish exhibitions, concerts, film festivals and book launches are constantly taking place across Italy. One year it is Chopin Year and the next it is the Year of Mickiewicz. The name of the country and its image are being impregnated with prestigious, elite pictures and an energy that communicates the same.

If there were Polish Femen activists and they were to appear against this background with wreaths on their heads, their naked butts would not outweigh the vast expanse of cultural achievement that has become an indispensable part of Poland-Europe relations. In contrast, Ukraine-Europe relations are riddled with holes, and so exposed bottoms acquire a pathogenic effect, entrenching in the imagination of Europeans an image of a humiliated, wild country that has left the path of democracy, exports millions of migrant workers, puts vulgar and mendacious politicians on display and replaces cultural dialogue with cheap acts evidently backed by serious money. When it comes to dictionaries, conferences and translations, there is no funding available, but there is money to pay for this nudist puppet theatre in which every little detail has been considered. It is hard to believe that anyone, dressed or naked, can get to Gazprom’s checkpoint just like that.


So who is responsible for this image of our country? Presenting national culture abroad is a gigantic project and a top priority among civilised states. A state implements such projects as an institution and its intellectuals fill it with meaning. Meanwhile, Ukraine does not represent its citizens. Ukrainian culture is alien to the government. So it is in vain to pin any hope on the state: it has done virtually nothing in the 20 years of Ukraine’s independence to export our culture in a worthy manner.

Alienated from the state, Ukrainian intellectuals have not offered their project to the world, either. They only represent themselves abroad.

A chorus of resentful voices may retort: What about the translations of post-modernist Ukrainian writers? What about their participation in festivals and forums? What about their creative work in villas supported by grants? Isn’t that evidence of being in the mainstream of Western culture?

Not in the least. The triumphant stories about local presentations and awards are offset by such facts as books gathering dust in publishers’ warehouses, unpublished (though paid-for) translations and discounts on books with glaring titles like Ukrainian Sex: A Manual (which still failed to drum up sales) and bookstores removing Ukrainian books from shelves due to lack of interest. I know their names but will not call them out for ethical reasons.

This image of a humiliated country has dictated a low-level of interest in it. That is why contemporary Ukrainian literature that reaches the West is neither a cultural nor philological resource. It is merely a sociological resource that records problems in the country, a country which is “the EU's main headache”.

It is even less equipped to present Ukraine’s linguistic and cultural originality or historical continuity. Can Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky and Mykola Khvylovy, printed by a marginal Italian publisher, compete with primitive plots? Writers of the calibre of Hryhir Tiutiunnyk and Serhiy Shevchuk are almost non-existent in foreign-language translations. Garzanti, a major Milan-based publishing house which put out several books by Andrey Kurkov, tells its thankful readers that Kyiv emerges as a “post-communist Russia” in the works of “Ukraine’s most successful writer”.

The West’s now complete lack of trust in a democratic Ukraine is mirrored by Ukraine’s own inability to form (and formulate) both a European code of its own history and a European canon of its literature and culture in general. For 20 years now politicians of all stripes have imitated reforms and progress, while new generations of writers and critics have waged a surreal fight against their predecessors, thus imitating the creation of new cultural senses. Elite culture remains beyond the threshold of perception and adequate comprehension, while whirlpools of trash create their own powerful “mainstreams”. An average recipient is much better aware of streams of expletive-laden unconsciousness released by hack writers of fictitious Ukrainian post-modernism than such classics as, again, Kotsiubynsky, Khvylovy, Pidmohylny or Shevchuk and Tiutiunnyk. In fact, that’s where the image of the country is distorted. After all, were not contemporary Ukrainian writers the ones who first claimed that Ukrainian literature does not exist and that it is completely kitsch and deeply un-modern? If literature is not understood and interpreted even in its home country, how can knowledge of it be exported?

The same thing is happening in other areas of culture. Ivan Marchuk, named among the 100 living geniuses by the British, does not have any permanent exposition, to say nothing of a museum. In contrast, the PinchukArtCentre, which has hosted a great many cow heads immersed in formalin and showcased a myriad of paranoid paintings, has turned into “one of the best known brands of the Ukrainian capital”. And it does not occur to anyone to ask about the origin of the billions of dollars in the pockets of its owner, a close relative to a Ukrainian president who forced millions of his citizens to earn a living outside a looted Ukraine – the same Ukrainians who later became prototypes for the humiliated female characters portrayed by such “writers” as Sorina.

There is a vicious circle here which generates, once again, an internal and external image of Ukraine in which vulgar pseudo-politics matches the pseudo-culture. The dominating semantics of culture is base. The pop dimension of culture inside the country is broadcast to the outside. That is why contemporary Ukraine is a distorting mirror of Europe, warping all reflections. In Europe, vulgarity is marginal in both culture and politics, while it is ubiquitous and central across post-Soviet territory.

That is why we hear obscene language – the real language of this space. And its real sense is trash. “We came. We undressed.” And so far, indeed, “We won” – it is for now a victory of trash over human reason and dignity.

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