What is Ukrainian Culture?

February 24, 2023
In his column for Die Zeit, UkraineWorld’s chief editor Volodymyr Yermolenko explains the key themes of the Ukrainian culture, including its anti-tyrannical nature.

Ukrainian culture didn't appear yesterday, or on February 24th, or even in 2014 on the Maidan. Russia's brutality against Ukraine, its imperial cult of sadism and humiliation, have also been here for a long time, indeed for centuries. Russia behaves in Eastern Europe like a brazen slave owner, viewing freedom as an aberration and leaving behind only scorched earth, transforming life to death, freedom to slavery, vitality to indifference. Erasing, destroying and devouring any and all resistance.

The converse is also true: Ukraine's stubborn and fearless resistance to this aggression also has deep roots. It has survived here for centuries, manifesting from time to time in uprisings and resistance. These roots extend deep into Ukraine's black earth, to the very heart of this land. Through the memories of those who died but did not break. This resistance lives on through their breath, which we feel today in Ukraine's songs of resistance.

Today people ask: Who are you? Where did you come from? Why do you resist? And we are finally beginning to tell our stories. To make ourselves known. The world is finally ready (or so we believe) to hear us.

Let me tell you about us. About Ukrainian culture. Let's call it the first strokes toward a portrait.

1. Ukrainian political culture is anti-tyrannical.

Any tyrant, autocrat or tsar is our greatest enemy. In the eternal dispute between the idea of the Empire and the idea of the Republic, Ukraine chooses the Republic.

Ukraine's democratic ideals can be seen in the political organization of the Cossacks, free warriors who are being reborn now as warriors in the 21st century. You can see these democratic ideals in the Pacta et Constitutiones of Hetman Pylyp Orlyk in the early 18th century; in the Ukrainian interpretation of the 17th century Cossack pact with Muscovy as a contract with mutual obligations, not as slavish subordination as the Muscovite tsar believed.

We can see the democratic idea in the opposition to "autocratic domination" expressed by Ukrainian intellectuals in the first half of the 19th century; in the idea of the community as the basic organism of political life as expressed by the foremost Ukrainian philosopher of the time, Mykhailo Drahomanov.

This opposition to tyranny unites all of Ukraine's uprisings and our liberation movements -- right up to the Ukrainian Maidans of the 21st century.

You can draw a straight line from Ukrainian political culture to the Rzeczpospolita republic of the nobility and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to the decentralized system of medieval Rus described by 19th century historian Mykola Kostomarov, to the "Germanic law," that ruled in the autonomous cities of Eastern Europe, which in turn was rooted in ideas of the autonomy of German and Italian city-states.

This line extends back deep into the centuries, all the way back to the ancient Greek idea of the polis and the interpretation of the state as a "politeia" -- an association of free and responsible citizens.

When Drahomanov wrote about the Ukrainian community as the foundation of politics, he, a professor of ancient history, described it in much the same way as Aristotle described the origin of the polis.

Ukrainian political culture understands politics as a "bottom up" process, a process of people uniting into communities, communities into governments, and governments into international associations -- not as an imperial process of "top down" politics, where everything is decided at the top of the pyramid and politics becomes a vertical structure of dictates and punishments. Ukraine's location in Eastern Europe has placed it at the collision point for empires, many with tyrannical models of governance, yet remarkably it has maintained this European idea of the republic and the ancient polity for centuries.

2. Ukrainian culture has a unique relationship to time.

There is no great conflict between the past and the future, between tradition and modernity. Past and future are intertwined in our culture like the patterned botanical motifs painted on Ukrainian homes.

Since Ukrainian culture often developed under circumstances in which external invaders waged war against its tradition, the epochs of cultural emancipation and cultural revival were characterized by a double leap: into deep tradition and the unknown future. The main schism of the last few centuries in Europe, at least from the French Revolution to the present day, is the gap between tradition and modernity. This schism is far less characteristic of Ukrainian culture.

Taras Shevchenko, the founding father of Ukrainian literature, reanimated the Ukrainian tradition, but for his time he was a modernist and revolutionary. In fact, Dmytro Horbachov, a prominent specialist on the Ukrainian avant-garde, compared Shevchenko's texts to the early 20th century texts of the Futurists.

Key "modernists" of the fin de siècle, Lesya Ukrainka, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Olha Kobylianska, Vasyl Stefanyk, modernized the language and the stylistics of Ukrainian literature, while simultaneously leaping deep into the past and Ukraine's rural traditions. The Ukrainian avant-garde, from the Futurists to Malevich, found in Ukraine's verbal and visual traditions the basis for a revolutionary leap.

Even today, the main trend in Ukrainian music is to combine ethnic traditions and modern rhythms. Simply listen to the music of DakhaBrakha, Onuka, Go-A, Kalush Orchestra or Maryana Sadovska to feel the truth of this statement.

3. Land and the earth are key archetypes and leitmotifs of Ukrainian culture.

The culture is permeated with the botanical, vegetal, organic. Words and sounds in this culture emerge from the earth and return to the earth.

As far back as Skovoroda, the key Ukrainian baroque philosopher, you will find the identification of thought with seed. This ancient Christian (and agrarian) metaphor finds fertile soil in Ukraine.

The founding fathers of their modern literatures in the 19th century, the Ukrainian Shevchenko and the Russian Pushkin, are radically different: Pushkin created the literary Russian language, adopting the cult of lightness of the French belles lettres of the Rococo, weaving words in the air -- pleasing and decorative, undemanding and politically flexible. Shevchenko pulls his words from the earth, they grow in him and through him, like the forests of Polissya. They have roots in this land and aren't going anywhere -- so they are politically unbreakable.

When the Russian writer-nobleman Turgenev wrote to his Russian friends describing the "Folk Tales" of the young writer Maria Markovych (Marko Vovchok), he said that "they grow from the earth, like a tree." Ukrainian literature is forged from earth and fire, rather than air, which is why it was always unyielding and firm in relation to empire. It burned and did not give up the land.

4. Despite these organic metaphors, Ukrainian literature is very often a choice, a conscious decision.

It is quite inclusive, freely accepting those who choose to be Ukrainian.

Olha Kobylianska could have been a German language writer, but she chose to write in Ukrainian. Yurii Shevelyov, one of the major Ukrainian intellectuals of the 20th century, was of German heritage. Mike Johansen, one of the most interesting writers of the "Executed Renaissance", also had German roots. Wilhelm von Habsburg, a third cousin of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, chose a Ukrainian identity, called himself Vasyl Vyshyvany, and became a colonel in the Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, with the aspiration of becoming the "King of Ukraine."

One archetypal Ukrainian character is Aeneas, the Trojan hero, whom Kotliarevsky transforms into a Ukrainian Cossack, building another bridge from the Dnipro to the Mediterranean.

A number of Poles chose Ukrainian identities: Volodymyr Antonovych, Vyacheslav Lypynsky, Michał Czajkowski, Mikhał Grabowski and many others.

Today's Ukrainians include ethnic Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Jews, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Greeks and many others.

The Crimean Tatar singer Jamala is one of the most interesting Ukrainian musicians. The Crimean Tatar directors Akhtem Seitablaev and Nariman Aliev are among the most interesting film directors.

5. Ukrainian culture has a remarkable capacity for regeneration.

The metaphor of palingenesis or rebirth through death was a key metaphor of European Romanticism in the 19th century, including in Ukraine. And its greatest test of strength may have been here.

Our renaissances and rebirths were destroyed, incinerated, wiped off the face of the earth - only to rise again and again from the ashes. Ukraine-Rus nearly disappeared from the European map after the Mongol conquests of the 13th century - but it was reborn during the early modern era, during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Russian Empire wiped it from the face of the earth and from its own memory in the 18th century -- so thoroughly that at the start of the 19th century Ukraine seemed to be a void, but unexpectedly, as if from the ground itself, Shevchenko appeared, "as if a new head had grown from the decapitated body of the people," as the 20th century Ukrainian intellectual Yevhen Malaniuk wrote.

For entire generations of Ukrainians, Shevchenko became the Ukrainian hetman, president, high priest and commander. The Ukrainian language was banned in the Russian Empire for almost half a century -- but then the explosion of the Ukrainian cultural renaissance of the 1910s and 1920s was even stronger.

This Renaissance was again executed and destroyed in the 1930s, only to explode with renewed vigor in the 1960s, and again after Ukrainian independence in the 1990s. The Russians are trying to destroy it once again. But Ukrainians have proven that they are able to conquer death. Able to regenerate themselves from seeds. Able to be a collective phoenix. They are made of earth and fire -- these elements do not destroy them, but only make them stronger.

6. Women play a unique role in Ukrainian culture.

I think the greatest writer in the Ukrainian canon is a woman: Lesya Ukrainka. No one compares to her in regards to the sharpness of her texts or the scale of her thought.

In the 19th century, when feminism was just emerging in Europe, when women writers had to hide behind male names, there were several prominent women writers: Marko Vovchok, Hanna Barvinok, Olena Pchilka, Olha Kobylianska, and Lesya Ukrainka herself. The Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who was born in Lviv and had a great fondness for Galicia, said that for the Ukrainian woman, "the ideas of freedom and equality are in her blood. She is a true democrat."

In contemporary Ukrainian culture, women's voices very often offer an incredibly truthful, personal, humane connection to reality.

7. Ukrainian culture has always seen itself as a part of European culture.

Our debates about nationalism and liberalism, tradition and modernity, community and individualism generally involved a common denominator: unity with the European context. This is in sharp contrast to Russia, where the main consensus has always been the opposition between Russia and Europe. Even when "Western ideas" have entered Russia -- during the epochs of Peter I and Catherine II, under Alexander I, during the Bolshevik coup, during the "capitalist" revolution of the 1990s -- they were used to create a new anti-Western Empire. Each more horrendous than the last.

In Ukraine, it's the opposite. Our Slavophilism was European (tied more closely to the Western Slavs than to the Russians), our Marxism was European, our conservatism was European, and, of course, our liberalism, as well.

In recent decades, Ukraine has been striving to return to its European home, its European family. But today it offers Europe as much as it receives. It is becoming a home for Europe. It is Ukraine who offers Europe the opportunity to feel like a family again. Crossing through suffering and death, with a remarkable capacity for rebirth and new births, Ukraine today offers Europe the opportunity to be born anew.

Translated from Ukrainian by Dominique Hoffman

Original was published in German and Ukrainian in the German newspaper Die Zeit: https://www.zeit.de/kultur/2022-10/ukraine-kultur-russland-krieg-geschichte-ukrainisch

  • Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher, newspaper columnist, author and college professor. He has written several books of essays and is the current President of PEN Ukraine and chief editor of UkraineWorld.org.
  • Translator Dominique Hoffman holds a doctorate in Slavic Languages and Literature. She translates Ukrainian literature from both Ukrainian and Russian. Her forthcoming translations include Olena Stiazhkina's Cecil the Lion Had to Die and Alexei Nikitin's In the Face of Fire with Catherine O'Neil.