Cancel culture has come to Ukraine with a vengeance.
It started in the far west, the least Russianized part of the country, and has steadily moved eastward.
In Mukachevo, about 30 kilometers from Slovakia and Hungary – and part of both between 1918 and 1945 – someone wrapped a Ukrainian flag around a bust of Alexander Pushkin, the great early-19th-century Russian poet, a month after the invasion began. The intention may have been to protest its presence or to protect it from protesters. In either case, Pushkin had become a problem. On April 7, Pushkin’s bust disappeared, for safekeeping or disposal.
In the bastion of Ukrainian nationalism, Russian culture and language is not welcome
The far west of the country is the bastion of Ukrainian nationalism. Yet it is thanks to Stalin, who in 1945 extended newly Sovietized western Ukraine farther west, that Mukachevo is even in Ukraine. And so non-Russian western Ukraine was joined to its other more Russian half in the east, which had been Soviet in 1920, and for centuries before that had been part of the tsarist Russian empire. It was a recipe for conflict between two different cultures and religions: Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox.
If the 1,300 statues of Lenin had not been removed since Ukrainian independence in 1991, the anonymous red paint dauber who struck in Ternopil, 300 km. northeast of Mukachevo, a few days later, would have bloodied Lenin. But his act focused on Pushkin, the most prominent Russian at hand.
Two days after Pushkin’s removal from Mukachevo, the Ternopil municipality removed its own Pushkin. Ternopil, like Mukachevo, was a city with a mixed history, a long one under Austria and Poland, and a short one under Soviet Russia.
Unlike Mukachevo, Ternopil’s Mayor Serhi Nadal spoke out and justified the demolition of Pushkin, saying: “Everything Russian must be dismantled.”
“Everything Russian must be dismantled.”Serhi Nadal
Since then, in dozens of cities, towns and villages across the country, even in central Ukraine, Pushkin statues and busts have been toppled from their pedestals, often smashed with sledgehammers. In far west Pushkino, local councilors have been debating what to rename their village.
What was Pushkin’s crime? The popular writer developed modern Russian literature and advanced the Russian language in Ukraine, where the tsars had banned the free use of Ukrainian.
But what about other Russian writers? While Pushkin has been dethroned, Nikolai Gogol has not. His first plus: Gogol was born and raised until he was 19 in rural Ukraine. When Pushkin died in 1837 in a duel defending his honor, after being cuckolded by a French cavalry officer, Gogol was 28. Pushkin was bitterly mourned as a Russian martyr, and his poetry was sanctified. If the Ukrainian Gogol wrote in Russian, that was Pushkin’s fault.
Another plus for Gogol: The tsarist authorities considered his satirical stories so subversive and unpatriotic that he exiled himself to Italy. In his later years, he wrote warmly in Russian about Ukrainian customs – proof that he was at heart a Ukrainian patriot. Thus Russian alone does not make a writer Russian.
The Russians dispute that and claim Gogol as their own. Buried in Moscow, his home there is a museum dedicated to his works. Both Russians and Ukrainians celebrated the bicentenary of his birth in 2009. So Gogol can be excused. For Pushkin, who had no Ukrainian connection, there are no extenuating circumstances.
THEN THERE is Mikhail Bulgakov, the famed Ukrainian author of The Master and Margarita and The White Guard, masterpieces of modern Russian literature, who lived all his life in Kyiv until his death of liver disease in 1940. He lived in Podil, a once-thriving Jewish area, on Andriivsky Street. A month before the current war, this writer saw a statue of Bulgakov sitting cross-legged in the front garden of his home, gazing haughtily at his passing world.
Today, Bulgakov is under attack. He had opposed Ukrainian nationalism in 1918 and publicly despised its leader, Symon Petliura. He also despised the Bolsheviks and glorified the Russian tsar, yet survived Stalin’s purges, a cause for suspicion.
Ever since 2014, there have been calls to rename Bulgakov’s rented house after its landlord Vasyl Listovnych, whom Bulgakov despised as well, a point in Listovnych’s favor. Another was that after the Red Army occupied Kiev (as it was called then) and Petliura fled to Paris, the Bolsheviks executed Bulgakov’s landlord, presumably because he was a landlord, but left Bulgakov alone.
Students at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, named after the proto-nationalist Ukrainian writer, already have removed a wall plaque at the university honoring Bulgakov. Since it had been placed there in 2017 – three years after the Euromaidan protests, the onset of the Donbas insurgency, and the seizure of Crimea – it is clear that subsequent events have placed the bar of acceptability higher.
But how high? Pacifist and humanist Leo Tolstoy is persona non grata, even in Ukrainian translation, and streets named after him are being changed. His crime: War and Peace extols the Russian army.
Last April, the Kyiv municipality understandably dismantled a huge monument to Ukrainian-Russian friendship erected in 1982 to represent the brotherhood of Ukraine and Russia. Next to it is a steel monument representing the Cossacks under Bohdan Khmelnitzky, the first national icon of Ukraine, and its most prominent pogromist, accepting the land’s subordination to the tsar in the 1654 Pereyaslav Agreement.
According to this treaty, Ukraine, as it was then, escaped subjugation to Poland, only to be subjugated to Russia, as tsar Alexis did not keep his promise to respect Ukrainian autonomy. Shevchenko called Khmelnitzky “a foolish son” whose mother should have smothered him at birth.
BUT WHAT of the ultimate mother – the motherland?
Kyiv’s best-known landmark, a soaring tower of stainless steel, was inaugurated by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1981 to the Soviet motherland. De-russification and de-communization both demand its destruction, but only a small minority, as yet, say it should be pulled down. But then the de-pushkinization campaign began with an even smaller minority.
Others say the monument can easily be transformed into a Ukrainian national symbol. Its final architect was, after all, Ukrainian, and a beautiful 102-meter woman wielding a 16-meter .long sword is a common patriotic symbol in war-torn lands. But the hammer and sickle on the shield have yet to go.
Surprisingly, this was not done under a 2015 law, passed by the administration of then-president Petro Poroschenko, which ordered the removal of all Soviet symbols, except World War II monuments. The motherland was definitely post-war but is dedicated to Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. However, an eon has passed between 2015 and 2023, when passions could have been contained by law. Now these laws have not kept pace with the hatred that Ukrainians have for Russia after a year of all-out war.
This can be seen in a recent case when Russian TV made a fuss about the removal of a statue of a Russian general whose only crime was that he liberated Kiev from Nazi Germany in 1943. For this “crime,” General Nikolai Vatutin, 44, paid with his life five months later when he was fatally wounded by members of Stepan Bandera’s notorious Ukraine Insurgent Army.
Bandera – the third and last major Ukrainian pre-independence national icon after Khmelnitzky and Petliura – had collaborated with Nazi Germany in the misguided hope of being rewarded with an independent Ukraine. Germany’s loss was his loss. He fled into exile, where Soviet agents tracked him down in 1959 and shot him in Munich. Petliura had a similar fate, shot dead in Paris in 1926 by a Ukrainian Jew avenging his army’s pogroms after World War I.
Vatutin was buried with full military honors in Marinsky Park, directly opposite Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, not only as a war hero but as a Soviet martyr to Banderista fascism. His grave was therefore sanctified territory.
The statue erected over his grave in 1948 was removed by order of Mayor Vitali Klitschko on February 9. Some opposed it as desecration; most thought it was about time it was removed from its prominent location, a matter that had been debated since 2015. The Russian invasion turned the debaters from talk to action, though by law it was certainly a World War II monument.
AND WHAT of the fate of the Russian language itself?
Ostensibly, Vladimir Putin claimed to invade Ukraine in the first place to protect Russian speakers – Russia’s brothers, who, he maintained, were under threat of cultural genocide by Banderistas.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who likened banning Russian in Ukraine to banning English in Ireland or French in Belgium, unconsciously admitted that Ukraine is as separate a country from Russia as Belgium is from France. Although Russian has not been banned, it is true that restrictions have steadily increased.
Russian is the mother tongue of just 2-3% of the population in the Carpathian region around Mukachevo in the Ternopil region, rising to 25% in Kyiv; 42% in Odesa; 65% in Donbas; and 77% in Crimea, according to the 2001 Ukrainian census.
It is also true that Russian is the mother tongue of many ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainians of mixed heritage who do not want Putin’s brotherly solicitude. In Odesa, although 42% claim to be primarily Russian speakers, 84% want Ukraine to be independent, while even in the Donbas 54% of the population wanted independence in what might be the closest Donbas will ever get to a fair referendum. [The poll was taken in April 2014 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, two months after the seizure of Crimea.]
In 2019, just before Volodymyr Zelensky assumed the presidency, Ukrainian was established as the country’s official language. Ukrainian-language TV programming had increased steadily since independence from 30% to 75%, and music on the radio had to be 35% Ukrainian. Interpersonal communication in public institutions could only be in Ukrainian.
In 2022, the law demanded that all Ukraine-registered media outlets published in any language (apart from English, French and German) also publish in Ukrainian. That includes Russian (if anything written first in Russian is still approved for publication). But the law does not ban Russian between private individuals. About 30% of Ukrainians speak Russian as their only tongue.
Nevertheless, the legal tolerance of Russian is not the point. The invasion has eliminated Russian far more effectively than any law could. While it is illegal to ask for stamps in the post office in Russian, the story of three Russian-speaking women friends in Kyiv who parted company a month after the invasion embodies a bitter truth.
One fled to Turkey, one to the US, and one remained in Kyiv. Like many Kyivans, they had always spoken Russian together, though they had learned some Ukrainian since the constitution in 1996 declared, “The state language of Ukraine is the Ukrainian language.” Now, corresponding from a distance by phone and mail, they speak and write only in Ukrainian because Russian just seems unpatriotic.
RUSSIA ITSELF is not above the cancel culture. It would like to cancel an entire country and not just its culture, much like its wartime ally, Iran. Russian shelling has demolished hundreds of Ukrainian cultural sites in the past year alone – some undoubtedly on purpose, but none with regret.
Ukraine’s cancel culture targets dead poets, Stalin’s targeted living poets, and Putin has physically canceled several journalists and opposition politicians. Also, Ukraine’s cancel culture advocates can point to a few examples of assaults on busts of their writer Taras Shevchenko in occupied towns.
The current war in Ukraine enters its second year with well-fueled armies but no imminent solution. Russian-controlled territory has increased from around 7% in 2014 to 20% today. More intense cultural de-russification can be expected from Ukraine, and more intense territorial re-russification can be expected from Russia.
Ukraine’s ability to claw back lost territory without holding Russian territory as a bargaining chip is not going to be easy, but its high moral standing in the West – and consequently the continued flow of arms to Ukraine and economic sanctions against Putin’s Russia – depend on Zelensky’s commitment to resist the temptation to de-russify parts of Russia itself with its sophisticated new weapons.
It seems Ukrainians and Russians no longer share a common language and no longer want to.