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16 May, 2011  ▪  Valeriy Shevchuk

Dark age

“As in every cultured state, we see lights blinking here and there…”

These are the words of the great Ukrainian poet Yevhen Pluzhnyk. If we polled Ukrainian officials today, I am certain very few of them would tell us who Pluzhnyk was. “He was no Pushkin!” a third of them would say, and I am sure, again, that they did not read even Pushkin as they should have because this also requires using your brain. So how can these miserable creatures have any interest in something so unnecessary and incomprehensible that you can't even put in your pocket? As I brooded over this phenomenon, I wondered: Does the state need culture?

In my previous piece in The Ukrainian Week I defined a dilemma of the artist and the ruler and tried to briefly survey how this problem was solved at different times. Today I would like to continue where I left off. In general, countries are divided into culturally developed, those with mid-level development and backward ones. Can we say that when a country takes care of its own culture (not that of a neighboring country or international one), develops it, provides for artists (or lets them provide for themselves) and stimulates their work, it is an element of development? Certainly! Conversely, isn't a lack of this care a marker of its backwardness? Certainly, even though the state has countless other things to attend to, not just culture. The Bible says: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Culture is the spirit of the nation, and it has to be created for the nation itself rather than for the outside world, and when neighboring or remote peoples make use of its fruit, it will only do it more credit. But it has to be rooted in the nation’s own foundation. This is a law of nature.

What should the state do for culture? Should it give orders, as did communists, fascists and Nazis? They were unanimous in this and set up censorship agencies to monitor artists and make sure they remained in the Procrustean beds reserved for them. They exploited artists just like any other workers. In this case, a surrogate culture begins to take shape, because to put artists in barracks is to take their creative spirit away from them. After all, this is what is done mostly by backward countries.

So where is our state in terms of spiritual growth? It exists not in a modern system of wise ambitions builders but in the system of anomalies which have taken a bizarre shape and a unprecedentedly uncultured form.


In the foundation of culture lies the system of education which the state should cultivate with special care, because anomalies in the education system are a stab in the back of the country’s future. Thus, the ministry of education has to be headed not by a careerist but by a statesman who is highly educated and wise and is an undeniable patriot of his land and people. This seems to be axiomatic, but what did we get after the last election? The worst of the worst – a person, who came not to develop the Ukrainian system of education but to destroy it, level it with the ground and with special contempt at that.

Another foundation of a nation’s cultural development is fostering historical memory, cultural traditions and the study of history, literature and other arts. Add to this the publication of outstanding literary and artistic specimens and the systematic restoration of cultural heritage which was cast into oblivion or rejected by regimes that were hostile to culture. (The tsarist Russian empire issue edicts to ban this culture, and communists physically destroyed thousands of artists and turned the surviving ones into their puppet yes-men.) So what do we have? Another system of anomalies - Dmytro Tabachnyk, a joke of a minister, is revising Ukrainian national historiography, and the history of our country is not being written from the viewpoint of the Ukrainian historical science but in a way that meets the demands and serves the interests of Russia. The Institute of National Memory is now headed by a person who is not even capable of recognizing the 1932-33 Holodomor. Evidently, he attributes millions upon millions of Ukrainian victims to the correct course of the CPSU. Is there any other country in the world that has something similar on record? This is another proof that Ukrainians themselves, rather than a “German” (as Taras Shevchenko put it referring to the largely German ethnic origin of Russians tsars) has to write our history for otherwise we would have no reason to consider ourselves free.

The Ukrainian cinema is defunct; publishing houses, theaters and other arts are barely making ends meet. The mass media are largely Russian-owned and for the most part intolerant or even hostile to the Ukrainian national idea, even though it should be a strong link in the cultural processes.

Meanwhile, it turns out that not only the public at large, but also high ranking government officials do not have the slightest idea of what the national idea really is despite the fact that it has to be the link between the state and a cultured people. The greatest paradox and, thus, an anomaly of a special kind is that this understanding is something that even the presidents of Ukraine lack. In his time, Leonid Kuchma failed to grasp this and made a public statement to this effect. The current president said that his national idea is economic development, and by now we know well enough what it means: pumping out the last resources of the population through higher utilities rates and many other payments; essentially destroying small and medium producers through inordinate taxes; salaries are lagging behind the galloping prices; the government apparatus has become incredibly bureaucratized; rampant corruption, etc. So it appears that in Ukraine, “as in every cultured state, we see lights blinking here and there,” but “cultured” should used in quotes here.

So what does the national idea mean after all, dear presidents and their lieutenants? The national idea is the union of the state with the people in spirit, with the people, rather than the state, being the supreme source of power, which is, in fact, fixed in our Constitution. But in all these “economic actions” the will of the people is totally disregarded. The national idea demands also something else: the people must become educated, cultured and free and grow into a state-building force, which would most likely also lead to economic growth. You cannot build a “bright future” with ignorant people. Therefore, it all comes down, again, to culture which would have to be cultivated by the state. But in order for this to happen, we need to have educated, cultured and nationally conscious people who will get top government offices, because the fish begins to stink at the head, as the saying goes.


Communists used to say that the state can be ruled even by a female cook (in Russian fairytales, also by Ivanushka the fool). However, in their states cooks were only employed in kitchens that served government officials. In our realities, there is no minimum education standard for officials. Take the stunning example of the current prime minister who has failed to learn the state language of the country whose government he heads. Moreover, he is incapable of reading a text written for him in Ukrainian. Why? Because he simply does not know the Ukrainian alphabet, and therefore; reads these texts in Russian, producing a horrible mixture which is enough to make a cat laugh. Now, how can this totally illiterate man be in charge of culture and its development? Culture is not something he understands, and so he will do everything to surround himself with people who are like him or a little worse. His level of education cannot even be a topic of serious discussion – it is the butt of numerous jokes. That is the reason why the state and everyone in it are becoming increasingly ignorant. In these circumstances, culture can only be promoted by our own efforts, while cultural activities are not even viewed as work by the state.

The state has to take utmost care to educate people and plant the national idea in their consciousness so that citizens can become co-creators of their country. To this end, I believe it is necessary to revive book distributing centers that would fill all libraries, big and small, with Ukrainian books. I have received numerous letters from villages and towns in which people complain about a spiritual void: recently published literature and the press simply do not reach them, so they have to be content with the vomit our un-Ukrainian television feeds them. Book distributing centers would be a real support for Ukraine’s book publishing industry, and the print runs of our books would be at least 10 times higher than the current 500–2,000 copies.

A state that cares about its authority has to be interested in popularizing its literature and art in the world, participate in cultural international events, promote its works and secure international publicity for them. For example, I know that France is partly financing translations of French authors in Ukraine. Poland is doing the same. Some small countries hold promotion events across the world, advertise, translate their books into widely spoken languages, etc. They want the world to know them as cultured states, so they publish their best literary works in foreign languages and sell them abroad.

I would love to see all of that in Ukraine. Unfortunately, as long as persecutors of Ukrainian culture are appointed ministers, it is in vain to hope for something good. “There is less of Ukraine with each passing day,” wrote with sadness Yuriy Mushketyk, one of the oldest Ukrainian writers.

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