Reflections from Paris
It has been one whole year since Russia attempted a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign and independent nation.
A year ago, no one gave much credence to the idea that Ukraine would be able to hold off against the entire force of the Russian Army. Today, not only is Ukraine still holding, but Ukrainian armed forces have repelled the Russian Army to the Eastern provinces, in what could almost be described as a defensive posture for the invaders.
While Ukraine has benefitted from the help of its allies for intelligence and armaments, this could never have happened without the brave resolve of its people across all sectors of society, and despite massive hardships, untold tragic loss of life and property, the Ukrainian people stand proud, fearless, and confident in their just cause.
Since the start of the war, I have explored the origins of Ukrainian culture and music, to get a better grasp on a country I did not know enough about as a separate entity from the ex-Russian Empire and its successor, the U.S.S.R. I was stunned by the breadth and wealth of its culture and by the long list of people associated with Ukraine in the arts, many of whom I thought were, wrongly, “Russian” (see at the end a very partial list of classical musicians).
Let me add here that nation-states are not the same as cultures, although they do impact the notion of what a culture is. We understand that the concept of a nation-state as a political, economic and cultural entity, is a pretty recent phenomenon in history, principally one that was embodied in the democratic experiments that came in the wake of the American and French Revolutions. We also know that nationalism, which was an extreme evolution of the nation-state idea in the late 19th century, can lead to very destructive behaviors, as it did most notably with the advent of the world wars.
However, in the positive, a nation-state can be a unifying force that helps structure a group of people along with their culture(s), that guarantees protection for its people and organizes its economic activities. Since most of the Western World has gone through the process of nationalism generations ago, we forget how important it can be in building a strong democratic nation-state along with pride in culture.
When we belong to a nation, we share common denominators, such as a language and a shared history. We pretty much know today what it means to be American, or British, or French, and if we identify with one of these nation-states, we can even take pride in it, or have the legitimate freedom to criticize it from the inside. It seems hard to believe that being Ukrainian was not something many people were proud of, or could speak of with great clarity, until very recently on a large scale.
Indeed, Ukrainian nationalism has always been put down and nipped in the bud by Russia, in some form or another. In the 1930s, Stalin organized the Holodomor, an artificial mass starvation of the nation which killed millions of Ukrainians. And then, he purged the men on accounts of “treason”, sending tens of thousands to their deaths and to gulags.
On a less industrial level, the Russian Empire had imprisoned plenty of political prisoners during the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the late 19th century.
Of course, most Ukrainians learned caution and to steer clear of politics, especially if it went counter to official Russian positions. Those that did not heed this unspoken rule often got in big trouble. This makes the rise of Ukraine today even more surprising and heroic.
Even after the political independence of Ukraine was proclaimed, acquiesced to by Moscow in 1991, Ukrainian politics was dominated by Russian influence, which was far from innocent. In fact, up until the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 as punishment for the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukraine’s governments had consistently cut their military budgets and weakened their military defenses, in accordance with the Kremlin.
It cannot be understated that Russia never considered Ukraine to be a fully independent state separate from Russia, and when it became clear that a strong movement was rebelling against Russian influence in Ukraine (which became the Maidan movement), Russia began to move toward restricting that independence, first through a full invasion of Crimea, and then by support for separatist rebels in the Eastern provinces. Russia was also responsible for the downing of passenger flight MH17 from Amsterdam in July 2014 over Eastern Ukraine, a terrible crime that should never have happened.
As a reason for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Russia claimed, among other things, that this was done to protect Russian-speakers who were being discriminated against by Ukrainian nationalists.
Well, it is no secret that most Ukrainians were educated during Soviet times in Russian-speaking schools, and that most Ukrainians speak Russian as their main language. They did not have much choice! It is rather Ukrainian speakers who have been discriminated against in the past centuries.
In the last ten years, there has been a renewed effort by Ukrainian governments to encourage the use of Ukrainian, which makes sense, as this is the original language of the land.
Even President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke Russian most of his life and throughout his entire acting career. Believe it or not, he even ran the New Year’s Eve show on the biggest Russian television station, Rossiya 1, in 2012 with Russian comedian Maxim Galkin as co-presenter. Zelensky was actually very popular in Russia back then! (Click here to see this TV show)
The Euromaidan Revolution brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to Maidan Square in Kyiv at the end of 2013 to protest the government. It was provoked by the then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, a corrupt puppet of the Kremlin, who backed off from signing a new treaty with the European Union which had been agreed to by the Ukrainian Parliament, deciding instead, in an unwelcome surprise move, to sign a treaty of reinforced cooperation with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, as proposed by Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine’s youth and democracy-minded citizens understood that this would keep Ukraine under Russia’s watchful eye and pull it away from any future cooperation with Europe. As a result of the successful and massive protests, Yanukovich and his pro-Kremlin agenda was courageously defeated.
Immediately following his destitution by the Ukrainian parliament, and in the throes of his call for Russia’s military to come to the rescue in Ukraine, Russia annexed Crimea and launched hostilities in the Donbass. At that time, Ukraine’s army was unable to keep Russian forces out of Crimea and the conditions for the start of the full-scale invasion last year were set in motion.
This was also the beginning of renewed attention in Ukraine to the place of the Ukrainian language and other symbols of Ukrainian culture. Quotas were set for Ukrainian-language music on radios, and Ukrainians began to explore Ukrainian history and culture in ways they had not much done previously.
But nothing was as radical as the invasion of February 24th for Ukraine’s cultural renaissance and rise of a new national consciousness.
It may seem strange to speak today of a boon for culture during a time of intense war, with its destruction and misery. But never before have the Ukrainian people been so steadfastly united, never have they been so focused on differentiating themselves from Russians, by decoupling everything that ever bonded them to Russia.
This is the law of unintended consequences in full action! I very much doubt that Vladimir Putin thought this even possible, as he probably really believed that a majority of Ukrainians would welcome Russia.
No matter what happens on the battlefield now, the Ukrainian spirit is on fire, and never will Russian culture again be welcome. It is a shame that it has come to that. But this is the necessary reaction by Ukrainians desperate to free themselves from the Russian yoke and to assert their individuality and recover their sense of uniqueness.
Ukraine is now connecting the dots of their culture and of their history to recognize who they really are, after more than two centuries of Russian presence and influence in Ukraine. This moment is equivalent to a full decolonization, political and cultural.
Out of chaos will come a new order, the contours of which are already appearing.
A New Ukraine will be born of this moment, which will be a country speaking mostly Ukrainian, creating a new culture representative of this new national unity.
Art will flourish like never before in Ukraine and across its diaspora, inspired by the great uprising of this nation. Its history will be reassessed, its forgotten martyrs will be recognized across the centuries, its artists, writers, musicians, thinkers will be reappraised and brought into the spotlight, and not just by Ukrainians, but by all of us (like poet Taras Shevchenko and composer Mykola Lysenko, whom I wrote about in a previous post).
We will not take for granted the storyline fed to us by Russia, which has always, through its political power, taken ownership of the most famous subjects of its empire. It’s when we look carefully that we realize how many of their famous men and women were not wholly Russian…
The Russian narrative has always been powerful, attractive, and mostly successful. Let us begin to look more critically at what assumptions we have taken for granted.
And yes, critics will immediately say that the same should hold for Ukraine, and I agree. We should always be clear-eyed about history, about provenances, about the myriad details and subtleties of the stories we are told, especially when it is imposed by political powers, ours included!
Yet, we all live by narratives, and we should allow Ukraine to construct theirs, especially at this time, even if contradictions arise. Don’t they always?
Let us not be too critical at this moment, while remaining nonetheless vigilant.
America had its Revolution and its Civil War. Britain lost its empire. Only half of the French of 1800 spoke French. Italy and Germany didn’t even exist as nations until the end of the 19th century, and their growing pains led us into terrible world conflicts!
The best we can do now is support Ukraine’s fight for survival and to help it steer clear of the mistakes our Western nations made in the last two centuries as Ukraine becomes a fully independent nation state.
The New Ukraine will be a great country, and it will finally honor its cultural legacy, upon which it will build a new, unifying and rich culture.
And with some luck, Russia will also become a better country, a more self-aware nation, in need of its own reckoning, a country where its people will reclaim their power and own their responsibilities. I am not sure it is there yet, but the law of unintended consequences may yet surprise the Tsar, as others have found out before.
Here’s a short list of some famous musicians born or closely related to Ukraine, a subject I will come back to in future writings:
Shura Cherkassky, pianist born in Odessa in 1909 (d. 1995)
Misha Elman, violinist born near Kyiv in 1891 (d. 1967)
Vladimir Horowitz, pianist born in Kyiv in 1903 (d. 1989)
Sergei Tarnowsky, pianist born in Kharkov in 1883 (d. 1976) was Horowitz’s teacher
David Oistrakh, violinist born in Odessa in 1908 (d. 1974)
Leonid Kogan, violinist born in Dnipro in 1924 (d. 1982)
Nathan Milstein, violinist born in Odessa in 1903 (d. 1992)
Benno Moiseiwitsch, pianist born in Odessa in 1890 (d. 1963)
Gregor Piatigorsky, cellist born in Dnipro in 1903 (d. 1976)
Reinhold Glière, composer born in Kyiv in 1875 (d. 1956)
Nikolai Kapustin, composer born in Horlivka in 1937 (d. 2020)
Mykola Leontovych, composer born in Podolia Province in 1877 (d. 1921)
Mykola Lysenko, composer born in Hrynky in 1842 (d. 1912)
Valentyn Sylvestrov, composer born in Kyiv in 1937
Closely related to Ukraine:
Igor Stravinsky, composer born in Russia in 1882, whose mother was Ukrainian from Kyiv (d. 1971)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, born in 1840 in Russia, had a grandfather who was a Ukrainian Cossack