Interview between Marko Pavlyshyn and Darya Tsymbalyuk on the past and present of postcolonial debates in Ukraine
Professor Marko Pavlyshyn is a trailblazer in looking at Ukraine through a postcolonial lens, and in this interview we ask him to reflect on his trajectory of engaging with postcolonial thought from the 1990s to today.
You are one of the first people to develop a postcolonial framework in relation to Ukrainian culture. How did you come to postcolonial theory in the first place, and how did you start thinking about looking at Ukraine through this lens? Who were the figures whose work inspired you, and were there any from Ukrainian cultural contexts?
I have always been interested in the relationship between literature and power. At the turn of the 1970s and 1980s my PhD supervisor at Monash University, the Germanist Walter Veit, introduced me to classical rhetoric and its model of the speech as an address by an orator representing certain interests who seeks to persuade an audience that has the power to resolve the issue at stake in the orator’s favour – or not. This seemed to me an eminently useful tool for thinking about the way in which works of literature position themselves, implicitly or even just potentially, in relation to systems of authority. Rhetoric helped me see how Ukrainian literary texts resisted, or accommodated themselves to, structures of power in the Russian Empire/USSR and in the Habsburg Empire.
As in other English-speaking countries, in Australia postcolonial studies became an important strand in the tapestry of approaches that captivated the humanities academe in the 1980s. Remember that The Empire Writes Back, surely one of postcolonial criticism’s most felicitously named and widely cited books, was co-authored by three Australians – Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. I too began reading the authors now canonised as the classics of postcolonial criticism, Spivak, Bhabha and Said foremost among them. The mechanisms of the West’s cultural dominion over its former colonies in the then so-called Third World which these texts described and deplored, I saw, were similar to those to which Ukraine had long been, and was still being, subjected. The monopolisation of cultural prestige by the imperial centre, the harvesting of colonial talent to magnify the glory of the metropolitan culture, the provincialisation and infantilisation of national culture – these insidious processes had long histories in Ukraine and were flourishing in the Soviet Union on the eve of its demise.
But the USSR and even its predecessor, the Russian Empire, were routinely overlooked in mainstream Western postcolonial studies as sites of the imposition of colonial subalternity. I thought that bringing the concepts, or even the terms, of postcolonial studies to bear on Ukrainian cultural realities, literature in particular, could help counteract the near-invisibility of Ukrainian subject matter in Western literary and cultural studies and its lamentable underrepresentation even in the Slavic Studies discipline in the West. As it turned out, I don’t believe that this hope was realised to any perceptible extent. But in Ukraine in the early years of independence the relevance of the postcolonial studies paradigm was soon recognised, especially as mainstream Soviet literary history and criticism had been egregiously complicit in the colonial project of demeaning the non-Russian national cultures of the USSR and aggrandising the imperial metropolis.
Of course, Ukrainian oppositional cultural commentary in the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s – the brilliant literary criticism of Ievhen Sverstiuk and Ivan Dziuba’s crucial treatise Internationalism or Russification, for example – anticipated the combative argumentation and pathos of postcolonial critique without needing the terminology of postcolonial studies. The same was true of some important inquiries in the West, mainly by scholars of Ukrainian background. George Luckyj’s 1971 contrastive study of Shevchenko and Hohol’ (whom, in the spirit of this discussion, I shall call Gogol only in parentheses) can today be read as an exercise in postcolonial criticism ante datum. The same can be said of the debate ignited by Dmytro Chyzhevs’kyi’s history of Ukrainian literature with its designation of that literature as ‘incomplete’ and the notable essay on Russian-Ukrainian literary relations in the 19th century by George Grabowicz.
In your work, you outline a distinction between anticolonial and postcolonial cultures, where the first one is a culture of rejection and is therefore monologic and striving for power, and the second one engages subversive laughter in dismantling authority. What kind of dynamics do you observe in Ukraine at the moment? Are they postcolonial, anticolonial, decolonial, all of them, or none?
As is the case with many concepts that we can’t easily do without – nationalism, liberalism, democracy and modernity, for example – ‘postcoloniality’ is used in so many ways that it requires definition each time a researcher invokes it. My first venture into the terrain of postcolonial studies was a 1992 essay in Australian Slavonic and East European Studies titled ‘Post-Colonial Features in Contemporary Ukrainian Culture’. There I tried to draw distinctions that would help me clarify the relationship of literary texts and other Ukrainian cultural phenomena to socio-political power. Agents, victims and mediators of colonialism being notoriously intertwined with one another, the distinctions were meant to be not between types of culture but rather between tendencies within a single culture and, indeed, even within a single cultural product. The anticolonial vector I saw as represented by those strategies of persuasion in a text or other cultural phenomenon that could be interpreted as challenging the prevailing colonial power gradient and advocating for its reversal. The implicit aim of the anticolonial dismantling of Russian colonial domination and its attendant values, narratives and symbols was the elevation of the values, narratives and symbols of the formerly oppressed to a new position of primacy and dominion.
The postcolonial, by contrast, I saw as an orientation, ideal and utopian in nature, toward a condition free of the domination of any culture over any other – for a postcolonial condition where colonial traumas suffered and inflicted are not forgotten, but are relegated to the past and cease to be a motivator of present action. Naturally, I imagined this ideal of postcoloniality by analogy to the notion of postmodernity, where the intellectual claims and stylistic gestures of modernity and modernism were not negated, but ironically, indeed deconstructively, suspended.
In the 1990s, observing the playful irreverence toward grand narratives, both Soviet and national, enacted by the Bu-Ba-Bu triad and other Ukrainian ‘neoavantgardists’, as they were sometimes labelled, I believed that the postcolonial particle within Ukrainian culture was gaining momentum. What has since become clear is that it is not enough to ‘build postcolonialism in one colony’, so to speak. There must a readiness in the formerly colonising culture to acknowledge its predations and the hurts it has inflicted on the objects of its colonialism. Otherwise the postcolonial cultural gestures in the former colony, provocative and delightful though they may be, will remain dangerously alienated from a reality that continues to be haunted by the spectre of colonialism – a spectre, as Ukrainians were agonisingly reminded from 2014 onward and with redoubled force on 24 February 2022, just waiting to be conjured forth.
Today, needless to say, the war has generated in Ukraine an unprecedented aversion to reminders of Russian domination in practically all cultural spheres – from everyday life and popular culture as reflected in social media, through the middle and high-brow utterances of public intellectuals, to the literary output of established writers and poets as well as literary amateurs (equivalents, perhaps, in the cultural sphere of the self-motivated volunteers of the war and relief effort). It would be hard to argue that the tenor of public discourse in contemporary Ukraine is other than anticolonial.
And yet, this was by no means unambiguously the case even in the eight years of lower-intensity warfare preceding the 24 February 2022. Several of the most distinguished literary offerings of that period involved thoughtful endeavours to avoid anticolonial monologism, to thematise the ambiguity and interpenetration of the roles of perpetrator and victim and to problematise heroic narratives of national history. Serhiy Zhadan’s novel Orphanage is painstakingly even-handed in its treatment of the war in Donbas. Among the many things narrated in Sofia Andrukhovych’s Amadoka are memories of Second World War atrocities committed by various sides, including ‘our own’. Has’ka Shyian’s novel Behind One’s Back, set in the wartime present, provocatively asks whether patriotic self-sacrifice must take precedence over the individual’s (in this case, a woman’s) quest for self-realisation.
Present circumstances scarcely encourage the composition of works as carefully non-committal in regard to the relative moral justifications of one’s own defensive violence and the aggressive violence of the adversary. And yet, the utopian orientation toward a postcolonial suspension of colonial and anticolonial pretensions and actions must not be abandoned, even if for the time being (indeed, for the foreseeable future) steps toward it must be deferred. This postcolonial orientation, after all, runs parallel to the ethics of charity in the Christian tradition and the values of liberty, equality and fraternity bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment.
Yet, Christian institutions and the project of Enlightenment have been complicit in many European colonial projects. I am often quite cautious with decolonisation sometimes being perceived as an ultimate salvation, a kind of end point which we can reach following a rather progressive trajectory, which I think mimics missionary colonial narratives? I wanted to ask you what do you think about that?
It is true that the imposition of colonial rule – at least, in European and Western instances of it – was accompanied by invocations of the Christian and secular missions civilisatrices. But principles are not invalidated by virtue of their having been misused to justify unconscionable actions. The imperatives of charity toward one’s neighbour and of relating to other human beings as ends, not means, were violated, not affirmed, in colonial seizures of control over land and people. When those of us who have been shaped in the Western mould undertake our self-critiques as, irreversibly, beneficiaries of historical colonialism and its contemporary echoes, we can do worse than take seriously the ideas of justice and freedom that are part of our tradition. After all, these ideas that have been domesticated – mimicked, if you like – in many an anticolonial struggle. In the realm of intellectual abstraction we often query their universality or even validity, but in the sphere of human action they remain a potent motivating force, as the example of contemporary Ukraine daily demonstrates.
In your work, you reflect on how diverse and rich the use of Ukrainian language in postcolonial literature can be. In recent years, and especially after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on the 24th of February 2022, more and more people have switched to Ukrainian. Yet, studies of places once colonised by Russia, including Ukraine, are dominated by the departments of Russian language and literature, where Ukrainian is rarely offered in university curriculums, and Ukraine is studied through the prism of the Russian language. Could you comment on the role of language in the study of Ukrainian culture, and if you observe any changes happening at the moment?
Academic disciplines are conservative institutions. While there has been a widely reported upsurge in demand for studying Ukraine and the Ukrainian language in Europe and North America, it will be no small task to rebalance research and teaching at universities so that they no longer treat the study of Ukraine and other non-Russian parts of the Russian/Soviet imperial space as supplements to the main business of ‘Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies’, which has forever been Russia. What is needed is an act of deconstruction where we entertain the notion that there could be cognitive advantages to be gained from mentally placing these ‘supplements’ in the role of the primary term.
There has been some research by Volodymyr Kulyk and others into the quite considerable extent to which Russocentric assumptions about the ‘Soviet and post-Soviet worlds’ have influenced Western social science disciplines, political science and international relations studies; a similar mind-set until very recently pervaded specialist media commentary and, one suspects, confidential advice to governments. The myth of Russian grandeur and might, and of the corresponding inconsequence of the ‘supplements’ to Russia prior to 24th February, was surely one of the reasons why the West so thoroughly misconstrued the salience of Ukrainian national identity and cohesion in the face of Russian attack.
Already in 1992, you were writing about the figure of Pushkin as a colonial signifier. Twenty years later, we are observing the removal of monuments to Pushkin all over Ukraine. Does it mean that the perception of ‘great Russian culture’ is finally changing in Ukraine? What necessary steps do you see in this process of re-thinking the colonial heritage?
The Pushkin monuments and other assertions of Russian cultural presence in Ukraine and the former USSR, such as street names and names of institutions, embodied two key colonial arguments: that Russia was the hegemon across the whole of the territory that it ruled, regardless of what local icons might incidentally also be venerated; and that, of the many cultures of the Soviet Union, only the Russian possessed the prestige of transnational presence – a seat at the table of the ‘great cultures’ of the world.
The removal of statues of Lenin and heroicised figures of Soviet history at various critical times in the history of post-1991 Ukraine signalled an intention, both popular and official, to reject Soviet ideology, values and narratives. The current wave of removals of monuments to Russian culture, the discontinuation of Russian-language teaching in numerous schools and calls in the public sphere for a thorough derussification of Ukrainian official and cultural life signal two things: recognition of the extent of Russian colonial penetration into Ukrainian life, a phenomenon previously so all-pervasive as to seem ‘natural’; and a new refusal, fuelled by the atrocities of the war, to countenance the continuation of this state of affairs.
The demonumentalisation of Pushkin is a spontaneous demonstration of popular anti-colonialism in action. A more fundamental rethinking of the colonial heritage is pre-eminently the task of scholars and public intellectuals, and there is a great deal to be done here. The task of rereading the canon of Russian literature through the lens of postcolonial critique, for example, has as yet scarcely been addressed.
The most fateful part of Russia’s colonial legacy in Ukraine had been the monopolisation of communication in the prestige-bearing spheres of life (official, professional, cultural and educational) by the Russian language and its habituation as the main medium of everyday speech in a large part of the country. Government initiatives in recent years have begun to redress this imbalance in the official and media spheres. Since the beginning of the war in 2014, and especially since its escalation, a new sociolinguistic situation has arisen. Research demonstrates a growing unwillingness of people throughout Ukraine, including in what have traditionally been labelled ‘Russian-speaking’ areas, to identify symbolically with the Russian language. Numbers of survey respondents reporting Russian as their native language are in steep decline, even though evidence shows actual use of Russian to be diminishing at a much slower pace. But at the same time it has become clearer than ever that there is no contradiction between being a Ukrainian patriot and speaking Russian. Contrary to putinesque mythology, speaking Russian does not signify attachment to the ‘Russian world’. Clearly, devising a fair and practicable model for linguistic decolonisation will be one of the more delicate tasks for the makers of Ukraine’s post-war cultural policy, but also for leaders of public opinion.
Re-reading your texts today, we are both amazed and saddened with how relevant they are 20 years after, amazed at their insights and saddened that so much still needs to be done to dismantle colonial legacies. How was your postcolonial critique perceived when it first came out? How have your texts travelled, to use Said’s term, over the years? Also, has the reception of them changed after Russia’s full-scale invasion?
It would be fair to say that the general idea that the Ukrainian cultural space can productively be viewed as one profoundly and deleteriously marked by colonialism has been more or less unanimously accepted in Ukrainian literary scholarship. On the other hand, there has not been much engagement with what for me was of key importance, namely, the idea that postcoloniality should be regarded as an ideal, a utopia of domination-free cultural (and, of course, political and socioeconomic) interaction among equal partners. While, obviously, such a paradisiac coexistence of the lion with the lamb is never destined to be fully realised, it seems to me ethically compelling as an objective. Such a view of postcoloniality would validate endeavours to understand others’ (but also one’s own) pasts and presents, including mutual injuries and affronts, in the interests of the construction of an enlightened and non-belligerent future.
That is not the meaning with which the term ‘postcolonial’ is invoked in Ukraine, whether in scholarly or journalistic usage. Generally it refers to the many distempers of contemporary Ukrainian reality that are consequences of Soviet and Russian rule, a complex predicament often labelled with the term ‘postcolonial syndrome’ that Mykola Riabchuk so effectively popularised. With this meaning the term functions well as a collective signifier for a wide, and widely felt, set of discontents.
You ask about changes in the reception of my 1990s texts about postcolonialism. I have to respond by saying that my own reception of these texts has changed. The problem with my utopian notion of the postcolonial as a condition and a set of discursive practices, as I said in answer to a previous question, is that it presupposes a symmetry of good will on the part of the (former) coloniser and the (former) colonised. The optimism of my early postcolonial critiques was grounded in the assumption, now emphatically falsified by events, that the disintegration of the USSR and the collapse of Soviet ideology and economics also meant the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of Russia’s colonial pretensions. But throughout the years since 1991 little evidence emerged in the Russian public or scholarly arenas of a desire for self-critical reappraisal of that country’s, or that culture’s, imperial past – or present. The current war has demonstrated that Russia’s colonial pretensions are not only alive and well – they have been fanned to blaze with new intensity. These are circumstances that sorely try any advocate of postcolonial rapprochement, and in my recent returns to the topic of postcolonialism (mostly prompted by invitations from colleagues in Ukrainian Studies who acutely apprehend the urgency of the issue) I have been at pains to argue that the tolerant and egalitarian pacifism implied in my vision of the postcolonial condition should remain as an ethical aspiration. While Ukraine fights its just war against the aggression of the Russian state and, on the cultural battleground, the complicity of Russian culture in Russian colonialism is made manifest, endeavours to achieve that aspirational goal must necessarily be deferred, perhaps for a long time.
The 2023 ASEEES convention theme is decolonisation. What are your thoughts on that?
At least three decades too late, but better late than never. ∎
The image used in this text is by Iryna Zamuruieva and is part of her ongoing ‘Adonis vernalis dreamings’ series. See more collages and read about the project here.
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About the contributors
Marko Pavlyshyn is Emeritus Professor in Ukrainian Studies in Monash University’s School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics. Professor Pavlyshyn’s contribution to the study of Ukrainian literature and culture is prolific, including research on national identity, the formation of the canon, Ukrainian modernism and postmodernism, the relationship of Ukraine to European imaginaries, and environmental discourse in Ukrainian literature. Moreover, Professor Pavlyshyn laid the foundations of postcolonial scholarship in Ukrainian studies, where several of his texts, such as ‘Post-Colonial Features in Contemporary Ukrainian Culture’, Australian Slavonic and East European Studies (1992), ‘Kozaky v Iamaitsi: poskolonialni rysy v suchasnii ukraїns’kii kul’turi’ (Cossacks in Jamaica: Post-Colonial Features in Contemporary Ukrainian Culture), Slovo i chas (1994), ‘Ukrainian Literature and the Erotics of Postcolonialism: Some Modest Propositions’, Harvard Ukrainian Studies (1993) broke new ground and opened up the field to further postcolonial, anticolonial and decolonial approaches in studying Ukrainian culture, society, and history.
Darya Tsymbalyuk writes, researches, and draws. She comes from the south of Ukraine and in her work engages contexts and stories of Ukraine. Darya was a Max Hayward Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford (2022–2023). She received her PhD from the University of St Andrews, Scotland.