(Yuriy Goodnichenko’s and Ilona Sologoub’s article appeared in the Kyiv Independent, 6/7; Photo: Famous Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko is seen in front of a destroyed building in the Ukrainian city of Derhachí, Kharkiv Oblast, on Sept. 20, 2022. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images.)
BERKELEY/KYIV – When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, few expected resistance to last longer than a few days. In both Russia and the West, Russian troops were expected to sweep into Kyiv, parade uniforms in hand, install a proxy government, and effectively end Ukrainian statehood.
But whereas Western leaders believed that Ukraine was no match for Russia militarily, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confidence in a swift victory rested on a more fundamental assumption: Ukrainians would have little will to resist, because they had never actually existed. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine’s history and identity were so bound up with Russia that its people would have no reason to risk their lives and property for the sake of sovereignty.
The war is rooted in this imperial miscalculation. The strength of Ukraine’s resistance has depended less on the military assistance provided by NATO members than on the Ukrainian people’s insistence on their own agency and destiny. Ukrainians understand that the fight is for their national survival, and that cultural decolonization is essential to it.
This has caused much handwringing in the West, where Ukrainians’ unwillingness to share the stage with Russians is still raising eyebrows. In May, for example, the Russian-American writer Masha Gessen resigned from the board of PEN America in response to the cancellation of a panel they were chairing with two Russian writers at the organization’s World Voices Festival. Two Ukrainian writers – both active soldiers – had refused to participate in an event with Russians, so the Russians were sent packing. (A similar episode occurred in Estonia earlier the same month.)
While some decried “the impulse to censor anyone Russian,” Gessen’s response to the episode was sympathetic to the Ukrainians and nuanced in justifying their resignation (Gessen uses they/them pronouns). While recognizing that “Ukrainians are constantly confronted with Russian dominance in cultural spheres and in academia,” their concern was for the “human victims” – the curators, musicians, and writers whose work was in danger of being “erased.”
The issue for Western cultural fora is not just that scores of writers, actors, singers, producers, and others signed letters supporting the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion in 2022 (with some even braggingabout their active role in killing Ukrainians). The issue is the role of Russian kulturträgers of all stripes in advancing Russian soft power. (Ironically, the Kremlin commemorated the United Nations’ Russian Language Day with a savage display of hard power, apparently blowing up the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro river.) Seen from this perspective, deplatforming Russian culture would benefit Ukraine – and perhaps even Russians themselves.