It is time for the West to change its image of Eastern Europe: Seeing Russia as the cradle of culture does not do justice to the country’s centuries-long colonial attacks. A young generation of Ukrainians, including Yulia Tymoshenko, condemns naivety: ‘I am amazed at your lack of knowledge.’
‘Many Western ideas about Eastern Europe that I encountered during my education abroad were influenced by Russia. This is the result of many years of ‘soft’ propaganda from the Soviet Union and Russia. But few of you seem to be aware of that. ‘
23-year-old Yulia Tymoshenko (no relation to the former Ukrainian Prime Minister of the same name) utters the words calmly but firmly. Also in flawless English.
Tymoshenko is one of the young, internationally-oriented Ukrainians who has launched social media in recent months. They are interpreters of a sharp, new sound from the country at war. A sound of young people who are both cosmopolitan and very proud Ukrainians, who are increasingly annoyed by how Americans and Western Europeans view their country.
Tymoshenko is a typical example of this young generation: she grew up in a small village east of the capital Kiev, received a scholarship and studied sociology abroad (in Abu Dhabi, New York and Madrid), she says in a collaboration space in Lviv with his laptop on the table. When Russia stationed troops at the border, she posted a series of slides on her Instagram account, rejecting Putin’s historic claims and calling for solidarity with the Ukrainians. After the Russian invasion forced Tymoshenko to flee to western Ukraine, she continued to write about the war: about life in the bomb shelter, about the need to donate money to local initiatives, and about Ukrainian books you should read.
After four weeks of occupation, her hometown was liberated, and Tymoshenko visited her family there. She wrote the caption for a picture of a broken wall: “This is not news, this is my life.” She had noticed that people ‘abroad’ saw the war in Ukraine as something abstract. It can be explained historically, says Tymoshenko.
What do you mean by that?
‘The fact that Russia is known to you as the cradle of culture is the result of centuries of cultural appropriation policies, including culture from neighboring countries. Numerous writers, poets and artists are called Russians in Russia because they were born in Soviet times, where they were actually born and raised in other countries. This applies to Ukrainian writers, such as Gogol, but also writers from Belarus, the Baltic states and Uzbekistan.
“Everyone in the West can name Russian writers, but this is mainly due to the fact that in recent centuries the Russians have systematically trampled on other peoples’ cultures: they persecuted writers, banned education in their own language and deported and massacred entire peoples.
‘In Ukraine there is even an expression, performed renaissance, to all Ukrainian writers and artists who were assassinated by the Soviets in the 1920s and 1930s (a term invented in a Polish anti-communist magazine in Paris in the 1960s, and which has become more and more common in Ukraine since independence, red.† But it does not stand alone. My ancestors had to submit to the tsar. My great-grandmother had to walk 40 kilometers every day in the 1930s to buy bread to prevent her children from starving because Stalin wanted to punish the Ukrainian peasants. My parents were obliged to learn Russian. ‘
The academic term for what Tymoshenko describes is Russification: The policy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for centuries to promote the Russian language and culture at the expense of the language and culture of non-Russian societies. This started in the 18th century under Czarina Catherine the Great and became more structural in the 19th century as her successors sought to dampen the growing nationalism of Poles and Ukrainians by banning education and publishing in their own language.
After the founding of the Soviet Union, Lenin briefly abandoned Russification, but under Stalin it returned. He introduced the Cyrillic alphabet for all languages and made Russian the official language of administration, communication and education. This language policy was reinforced with forced migrations and the persecution and imprisonment of nationalists and writers. According to historians, Holodomor, the famine caused by Stalin who killed three million Ukrainians, can be seen as an attempt to bring the rebellious Ukrainians in line.
But it was not just about coercion. Speaking other languages was not forbidden, their own culture was allowed to remain, and many Soviet citizens were free to choose their own ethnicity in their passports. But because it was so much easier to make a career if one chose Russian, many people – from scientists to writers – decided to move on to Russian from now on and raise their children in Russian.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many former Soviet republics have embarked on a process of de-Russification. More and more, the past is viewed in imperialist terms, a process that has accelerated further since the wars in Georgia and Ukraine. Russia was not a brother state, but a colonizer, is the increasingly common belief in Ukraine.
Tymoshenko: ‘When I went to study in the West, I was surprised at the lack of knowledge about this. It happened to me so many times that I mentioned that I was from Ukraine and that people immediately started saying that they had been to Russia. And that they had eaten Russian soup, borsj, when in fact it is Ukrainian soup. That, of course, is understandable, but sometimes I also got the idea that people are too lazy to look beyond what they know about Russia.
‘My jaw dropped as I saw how many educational institutions there are in the West that offer Russian and Slavic studies. And that while these are mainly about Russia and are hardly aware of other countries’ rich cultures. When I tell about this in Ukraine, to relatives who have never been to the West, it shocks them. So they have whole institutes dealing with the Russian language and culture, they ask me. And what do they learn about us there? ‘
She shakes her head. ‘I read a twitter thread from a professor who was twenty years old Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History had analyzed, which is an academic publication. And he had not found a single leaf in all the volumes dealing with Russian colonialism. It was all about colonialism from countries like America, England and Spain. Shocking that no one has thought about this until now. And tells.’
Do you also see this reflected in reports on the war in Ukraine?
‘Yes of course. You can see it in the use of certain terms taken from Russia. The term brother state e.g. Or how to write about ‘Russians in Ukraine.’ Then I think: yes there are many people with a mixed ethnicity, with a Russian grandmother for example. But they do not see themselves as Russians. And if you call this group, or the Ukrainians who speak Russian, ‘ethnic Russians’, you are entering Putin’s frame that he started this war to protect Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine. ”
Term is coming on social media lately westsplaining more and more often. A variation on mansplaining, where people from the West – the countries that have never experienced communism – lecture people from countries like Ukraine about their history and current events. Can you recognize this?
laughs. ‘It’s such a good expression. I have had many experiences with Westerners – often men – who occasionally told me about the situation in my country. You see it a lot on Western television, but also in the academic world. Take an average event about the war. Panelists are often all white men born in the West who have all their knowledge of Ukraine from a study or a trip to Russia. Sometimes they have not even set foot in my country. Let someone from Eastern Europe speak. ‘
Besides the fact that what they say is often wrong, Tymoshenko finds it insensitive to present to Ukrainians at the moment. Especially in a private conversation: “I’m so tired of some random foreign guy telling me what’s going on in my country and sitting down and predicting how the war will develop. Save me and all Ukrainians for your even if you consider yourself a military expert, talk to your friends about it in the cafe and let’s be at peace. ‘
What’s going well?
‘It has improved a bit since the invasion this year. You can feel in everything that the weight is slowly falling from the eyes, that the discussion is underway and that the Eastern Europeans are being listened to better. That is one of the positive consequences of this war. Sometimes I’m optimistic.
“But there is still a long way to go. For I still see so many articles on ‘solutions to the war in Ukraine’ that allow us to give up half of our territory. It’s so insulting. How can you believe that we can accept a peace without it being a Ukrainian victory? And without demanding compensation from Russia when Russia has done so much damage for centuries? Buildings can be rebuilt, but life cannot be taken back. The trauma of the people who have been raped cannot be easily repaired.
‘Calling for reunification is, in fact, a form of victim blaming. We have been violated and yet we must give up our land. In the West, they do not seem to understand how naive and hurtful this so-called pacifism is. Take the example of the pope who made Russian and Ukrainian women carry a cross together during the Easter Mass. We were not at all happy about that in Ukraine. Eastern European countries have for years asked for the recognition of all the crimes committed against us, but we never got it. And now we must be reconciled while the Russians destroy our villages? ‘