Vladimir Putin’s justification for occupying Crimea was the perceived need to protect the rights of Russians in Ukraine. In Ukraine, this came as a surprise: no one could quite figure out who exactly needed protecting, or from what.

Putin’s narrative claims that Ukraine’s east and south are full of Russian-speakers, who are thus essentially Russians, and therefore the legitimate concern of the Russian state. This assumption is based on a profound (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the relationships between language, identity and culture in Ukraine. It ignores the fact that, for Ukrainians, speaking Russian doesn’t make you Russian, any more than speaking English makes Canadians English; it also ignores the fact that it’s far from easy to divide Ukraine’s population according to language: most people speak both Ukrainian and Russian fluently, and many find it hard to say which language is their “native” tongue. This misunderstanding is also shared by many in the west, where the idea of Ukraine’s east-west, Russian-Ukrainian split has become commonplace.

"Ukraine is a society not of sharp divisions, but of complexity, diversity and blurred lines"

In reality, Ukraine is a society not of sharp divisions, but of complexity, diversity and blurred lines. In this, it is not unusual among modern states, especially those whose territories that have witnessed war, conquest and imperial domination. While parts of contemporary Ukraine have fallen under Austrian, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian and Tatar influence in the past, not to mention the trauma of the Nazi occupation, Russia has exerted the greatest geopolitical influence. Most of today’s Ukraine was under Russian imperial control from the late 17th to the early 20th centuries, when it became part of the Soviet Union. Aside from some periods of measured tolerance, the general policy in both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union towards Ukrainian culture and language was one of denigration, if not outright oppression.

Yet the Russian Empire did not simply swallow up the language and culture its most significant colonial possession. To use a cliche from postcolonial studies, the empire began to write back. This was manifest most powerfully in the growth of Ukrainian literature in the 19th century, but also in the subversion of the imperial culture from within, in the Russian language. Referring to Kafka, a Czech Jew writing in German, the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari would later call this a “minor literature”: by making small adjustments within the major chord of the dominant literature, the writer of “minor literature” introduces a melancholy, disturbing note.

"Most people speak both Ukrainian and Russian fluently, and many find it hard to say which language is their 'native' tongue"

But Ukrainian literature was no “minor” phenomenon in the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Nikolai Gogol (or Mykola Hohol, to Ukrainians), whose short story The Overcoat (1842) was seen by Dostoevsky as the founding text of Russian literature, was Ukrainian. He came from a bilingual family and was obsessed with Ukrainian culture. His earlier works are often dismissed as less serious, in part because they deal with provincial Ukraine, and not the seat of imperial power, as in his Petersburg tales, or with the wider expanses of Russia, as in Dead Souls (1841). To most Russians, Gogol’s Ukrainian origins remain unknown or merely incidental. Yet these stories, tagged as “Little Russian” in reference to the contemporary name of Ukraine as “Little Russia”, which are inflected with Ukrainian speech, humour and cultural detail, contain some of his most vivid writing, and are mischievously subversive in their parody of the stuffy, artificial culture of the metropolis, as opposed to the authentic, distinctive vigour of Ukraine. A particular target for Gogol’s satire was Ukrainians who left their homeland and adopted the foreign affectations of the empire: the tension of this in-between status was something that the writer felt acutely on his own skin.

  • writers in ukraine

    Ukrainian stamps featuring Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol) (2009)

  • writers in ukraine

    Russian stamps featuring Nikolai Gogol (2009)

  • writers in ukraine

    Portrait of Nikolai Gogol by Fyodor Moller (1841)

  • writers in ukraine

    Self-portrait by Taras Shevchenko (1847)

For a long time, Gogol was not fully accepted into the Ukrainian cultural canon. He had sold out to the empire, in contrast to the great Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, who not only founded a Ukrainian literary language, just as Pushkin did for Russian, but also suffered for it: he spent ten years in military exile for his impassioned protests against imperial repression written in an outlawed language.

In the popular imagination, both writers’ reputations were coloured by imperial and anti-imperial politics: Gogol became a villain for some in Ukraine for embracing Russia, while Shevchenko was a hero for rejecting it. Generations of Ukrainians failed to fully appreciate the vivid expressions of Ukrainianness in Gogol, while their understanding of Shevchenko’s complex poetic genius was reduced to his status as icon and martyr.

"There are dozens of writers, from sci-fi novelists to prize-winning poets, who operate across the two languages"

But things change: Gogol is accepted by many today as a figure who spans two cultures, and who should not be the object of what the Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych has sardonically called the “Battle of Gogol”. Kiev now holds a major festival in honour of the writer every year, which has become a showcase for Ukraine’s vibrant bilingual culture. By the same token, Ukrainian scholars have recently begun to explore the complexities of Shevchenko’s work, going beyond nationalist hagiography to explore the ambiguities of his position as a Ukrainian writing against, but also within, the Russian Imperial cultural process. This involves attention to his often overlooked Russian-language poetry and prose.

Despite their nationalised, politicised images, both Gogol and Shevchenko span the Russian-Ukrainian linguistic and cultural divide. This tradition continues today: across contemporary Ukraine, there are dozens of writers, from sci-fi novelists to prize-winning poets, who operate across the two languages. Andrei Kurkov, a Russian-language writer from Kiev, has probably sold more books in translation than any other contemporary Russian-language author. He writes his fiction in Russian, but often includes un-translated Ukrainian dialogue, while some of his children’s books and media articles come out only in Ukrainian. There are bilingual literary journals, like the Kiev-based Sho (its title means “what”, not in Ukrainian or Russian, but in surzhyk, the hybrid dialect spoken by many across the country), and one can buy anthologies of new and classic literature on Kiev or Kharkiv with texts in both languages (all of them original works: translation is not needed).

  • contemp writers in ukraine

    Anastasia Afanasyeva. Photograph: Stanislav Lvovsky under a CC licence

  • contemp writers in ukraine

    Andrei Kurkov. Photograph: Jürg Vollmer under a CC licence

  • contemp writers in ukraine

    Serhiy Zhadan. Photograph: Maciek Król under a CC licence

Kharkiv, a largely Russophone city near the border with Russia, has long been a centre for bilingual and hybrid culture. The 18th-century religious philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda, who wrote in a hybrid of Ukrainian, Russian and Church Slavonic, came from nearby, while the city was at the heart of the Ukrainian cultural movement of the 19th century, and was later the epicentre of the Ukrainian avant-garde renaissance of the 1920s. Both movements contained writers who wrote in Ukrainian and Russian. Two of the best young writers in Ukraine today, the prize-winning Russian poet Anastasia Afanasyeva and the prominent Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan both live in the city.

"Russophone writers can act as an excellent guide to Ukraine's beguiling cultural landscape"

Today, Kharkiv is geographically and politically at the frontline of Ukraine’s struggle for cultural and political self-determination: given its large Russophone population and borderline situation, it is widely seen as a potential target for further “protection” from Putin. When Russia invaded Crimea, and activists from Russia flocked to Kharkiv and raised the Russian flag above the city’s town hall, the city’s Russian and Ukrainian literary and theatre communities protested vocally; some wrote open letters to Putin that could jeopardise their future career prospects in Russia. Rather than breeding separatism and division among Kharkiv’s bilingual cultural elite, the city’s frontline position seems to reinforce their commitment to Ukraine’s cultural unity and its diversity.

Russian-language culture is not confined to Russian speaking places like Kharkiv, however, but has its representatives throughout Ukraine, including in the west. Some of the finest essayistic and travel writing on Ukraine in the last twenty years has been written by Igor Klekh, a Russian-speaking native of southern Ukraine who lived for many years in Lviv, while the Saratov-born writer and journalist Igor Pomerantsev has written captivatingly about Chernivtsi, the western Ukrainian city where he grew up.  

  • ukraine writers 3

    Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew who wrote in German, was born in Chernivtsi in western Ukraine

  • ukraine writers 3

    Self-portrait by Bruno Schulz. Schulz, a Jewish writer who wrote in Polish, was from Drohobych in western Ukraine

  • ukraine writers 3

    Igor Klekh, a Russian-language writer from southern Ukraine

  • ukraine writers 3

    Igor Pomerantsev was born in Saratov but grew up in Chernivtsi

Both Pomerantsev and Klekh write evocatively about the lost cultural richness of western Ukrainian cities like Lviv and Chernivtsi, both of which, as part of eastern Poland and Romania respectively, were home to diverse populations before the Second World War. Both writers look to local literary predecessors for inspiration: Pomarantsev is fascinated by Paul Celan, the great German-language Jewish poet and native of Chernivtsi, while Klekh is a tireless promoter of Bruno Schulz, the Polish-Jewish writer from Drohobych, western Ukraine. Klekh calls Schulz the “Polish Kafka”, for the mischievous and subversive ambiguities that he introduces into Polish literature: his “minor” note.

It is no surprise that figures like Celan and Schulz fascinate Russian writers from Ukraine. They can no doubt identify with strange, in-between linguistic and cultural space inhabited by these writers. The vantage point of this space affords a perspective on culture and literature as phenomena that are never easy to define, since they are the product of complex histories, linguistic hybrids and entangled identities. These are things that are not always embraced in Ukraine or in Russia; they are rarely perceived by casual outside observers of Ukraine. Yet they are there, and they are part of the everyday lives of millions in the country. Ukraine’s Russophone writers can act as an excellent guide to this beguiling cultural landscape, a cultural space in which they and their readers feel at home, and, barring military intervention from abroad, perfectly safe.

Share on LinkedIn Share via Email