Butsenko Oleksandr Director of Democracy Through Culture NGO; member of the European Cultural Parliament

Where We Are

Culture & Science
30 April 2013, 21:10

On reflecting upon the intellectual situation in Ukraine today, I found myself unintentionally recalling Catch 22, a brilliant absurdist novel by Joseph Heller. “Dunbar sat up like a shot. ‘That’s it,’ he cried excitedly. ‘There was something missing—all the time I knew there was something missing—and now I know what it is.’ He banged his fist down into his palm. ‘No patriotism…’ ‘You’re right,’ Yossarian shouted back. ‘You’re right, you’re right, you’re right… There’s no patriotism, that’s what it is. And no matriotism, either.”According to various sociological studies I have read recently, Ukrainians have become more patriotic but feel less happiness and have less freedom of expression. How is this connected – and why? Every day we find a number of strangely interrelated statements and messages.

It is a mess of opinions, concepts, ideas and discourses that contradict, overlap and exclude one another. That is really a daily dispute, or, in Ernest Renan’s words, “a daily referendum”, one would say. In his famous essay Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? (What Is a Nation?), the well-known French philosopher and writer presents nation as a community of shared memory and shared forgetting. The present Ukrainian reality is a combination of a lot of different memories – or is it better to say, a lot of different ownerships for the memory, contradictory and adversarial, which cannot ever be shared since it is used in a struggle for a short-term political victory, with all the attendant vocabulary repeated enthusiastically by politicians: “our fighting men/women”, “bayonets”, “field commanders”. The only option here is to have no memory at all. But “whereas one can live happily without memories (as all animals do), it’s well-nigh impossible to go on living without forgetting,” writes Zygmunt Bauman, a great modern philosopher. “Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote that ‘forgetting is not only an absence and lack, but, as shown by Nietzsche, an elementary condition of mental life. Only thanks to forgetting does the mind have the chance of full renewal”.

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This renewal means the ability or even the art of designing the future. Take South Africa with Nelson Mandela and the Czech Republic with Vaclav Havel – both succeeded in that. In one of his interviews, British historian, writer and journalist Timothy Carton Ash says that the project is defined by where we are and where we want to be. “And not at all where we were? – Polish journalist Michał Bardel asks him. – Correct. We have to make a new argument – from the future.”

Over the past few decades, we – not only Ukrainians – have in general accomplished what we longed for all second half of the past century. However, we continue to discuss the past challenges as if they still represent all our aspirations. Meanwhile, we have a new generation and they long for other things and are imagining their own prospects, and asking other questions. Oleksiy Tolkachov, lawyer and public figure, wrote a book about his vision of Ukraine’s future. In it, he also points at the necessity to answer the question of where we want to be. In this book Desired Ukraine he writes that we have a system without an objective in Ukraine. In my opinion, it is rather a non-system without an objective. The chaos of concepts and discourses results from the fragmentation of different fields and sectors even within one sphere. It’s really a non-system since the system is characterized, among other things, by the various components working jointly; the result of one component is a contribution to the work of another; one component in the system is not sufficient, all components are necessary.

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To integrate all components could be the task and role of culture – if it were not as fragmented, too. Experts on culture are unanimous in one thing: there is no comprehensive and long-term cultural policy in Ukraine – in culture and arts, or state strategy on the whole. When we first tried to introduce the term “cultural policy” at parliamentary hearings on culture in 2004, the then VR (Verkhvna Rada – the government, Ed.) speaker was frankly surprised, asking: “Could there be a non-cultural policy?” Now, after eight years, the term is widely used, but the cultural policy as the glue and a driving force for the system of state strategy is still missing.

A state strategy is based on main objectives and priorities – any textbook on strategic planning will tell you this much. What is the mission of the current authorities in Ukraine? Paradoxically, I think that the mission of Yanukovych's rule is to awaken Ukrainian civil society over his first five years – or later on. All government or Party of Regions’ acts are directed at one principal objective – to impart European values to Ukrainians, open their minds, sharpen their sensitivity in seeing a departure for the opposite.

“There is nothing more international than national identities,” modern French scholar Anne-Marie Thiesse says of public institutions (parliament, army, courts, government, schools). These allow countries to interact based on shared basic principles of social organization. However, without informed communities and civil society, all efforts and exercises to meet requirements for European identification in Ukraine could be (and would be) a mere imitation of quality changes.

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Perhaps the most difficult challenge for Ukraine today is to overcome general social distrust, distrust of all government entities, public institutions, parties, groups and opinions – including distrust for each other. Consequently, the main objective of a cultural policy should be a dialogue with the country to develop Ukraine's cultural integration. Only one major prerequisite can make this possible: a shared language or vocabulary where human rights, democracy, equality and dignity will have the only, single meaning, irrespective of status, wealth or position. The only, single meaning secured by the law and social agreement. Culture’s creativity and available infrastructure could provide such a prerequisite. And so the answer to the question “where do we want to be?” is in the cultural rather than geopolitical or geographical contexts. 


Oleksandr Butsenko, Director of Democracy Through Culture NGO; member of the European Cultural Parliament

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