How dead Russian culture kills Ukrainians


Photo by Katya Moskalyuk. Source: @kathryn_moskalyuk

Volodymyr Rafeyenko

We have no other option but Victory, for which and for the sake of which we are all living. This event, whenever it happens, will be the biggest event in everyone’s life.

Seeing is difficult. In recent months of this war, your eyes can no longer look. They don't want to look. Your brain refuses to transform what is seen into deeper meaning because everything has become too much. Every day innocent civilians are being killed. The sons and daughters of our country are giving up their lives for her freedom. There is probably not a single family left untouched by the war. All Ukrainians, no matter where we are or where we live, feel stress every day, and it's not letting up; it is only increasing, because all of us are in this as one. This unity is being born in the current terrible times, when each fighting day is of incredible importance.

We have no other option but Victory, for which and for the sake of which we are all living. This event, whenever it happens, will be the biggest event in everyone's life. This must be realized. This is the kind of historical moment that we were born in, called to fulfill our destinies. Our victory over Russia in this war will define both our individual lives and the existence of all of us together as a political nation.

No one thought that the early twenty-first century would turn out to be so difficult for Ukraine. Perhaps that is why few of us, say, twenty years ago, wanted to recognize what began happening in 2003 around Tuzla Island, let alone the so-called "Russian spring" of 2014. There was no unity among Ukrainians around what to do about this annexation, how to explain it to ourselves, how to react. It suffices to recall the proliferation of speculation and various quite elegant theories about the east of the country, which explained thoroughly and with facts why the "easterners" were not proper Ukrainians and why it would be better to give these territories to Russia. After all, some said, they speak Russian, so they themselves are to blame for what happened to them. Even today, after the full-scale invasion, such statements have been heard or read. But now is not the time to remember this speculation and these insults. They are not the issue here.

The war continues, and we must simultaneously protect our lives, our families, and our country, and elevate our culture, like a plow lifts up a layer of earth, so that the old will break, crumble, and become fertile; so that we can plant new seeds here. We are all working now so that new seedlings will sprout and our land and our nation will blossom.

We have entered this field, and we are plowing it. Sweat bathes our face, and sometimes our eyes flow with tears and blood. It is difficult to see, but what you see remains with you forever. That is precisely why you need not simply to see but to look intently, to understand, and to commit to memory everything that is happening.

Clarity, which is necessary in later life, is born out of understanding. Obviously, our people must finally awake from the oppressive post-Soviet sleep in which there was no place for a clear vision of reality. We need to understand which country and which people we are accustomed to calling fraternal.

What is Russia, ladies and gentlemen? How is one to comprehend the horror that it has brought into our lives? Who are these creatures who brought their "great culture" on tanks right up to Kyiv? Can they be thought of as human beings? What should Kyiv think about Moscow, the so-called elder brother, who, in fact, throughout the centuries of neighborly existence, behaved like a mad younger sister?

There are many questions, and they are very painful, but following the path of understanding is as important as following the path to victory.

The most complicated thing to understand about this situation is how Russia is at all feasible. On what principles does the universe contain an entire and rather large space where millions of people who want to kill, rape, and destroy their neighbors live? People for whom the secret not only of a different culture but of life itself is worth nothing. And even if some of them are not prepared to go and take up arms, they passionately delegate the right to this to their fellow countrymen, their "own lads," their "own boys." They support them in every possible way and grieve for them. And this is absolutely understandable because Russian state policies, particularly domestic ones, have totally lost even their tentative compliance with the law. Ordinary criminals behind bars are being recruited in the tens of thousands to units of the armed forces. Tens of thousands of citizens are being mobilized for the sake of genocide against Ukrainians on Ukrainian territory, so sacred to every Russian. In one way or another, all the citizens of this country have become participants in this war. There are no innocents there.

Can one understand this? They are just like us, at least on the outside. Their eyes are the same. And they speak a language that we understand. Moreover, many of them are ethnic Ukrainians. Among these millions of maniacs are countless scholars, writers, musicians, political scientists, and journalists; among them may be found sculptors, actors, physicists and mathematicians, art historians, philologists, and philosophers — at least that is what they call themselves. They supposedly studied languages and read Plato, Dante, Descartes, and Rilke, and no one hid the four Gospels from them, not to mention the Constitution.

An entire cultural community whose main feature is disrespect toward other cultures, the ultimate loss of a principled attitude toward themselves and the world, the destruction of a values-based dimension of thinking as such. These millions are the true descendants and representatives of the so-called "great Russian culture."

So, what is this "great Russian culture"? How is this culture, the main result of whose existence has been constant wars of aggression, all-out genocide, the destruction of entire peoples, as well as the emergence of an ideology that has been officially called Ruscism, even possible? I think that "schizofascism" is a more fitting term, because in it is the imminent need to be a fascist but at the same time to call the Other a fascist, thereby gaining the right to pass final judgment on the Other and, ultimately, his/her murder. The sense of themselves and their tribesmen as beings that have the right to physically destroy Others is a distinctive feature of the contemporary "great Russian culture."

Clearly, in order to understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to speak briefly about what culture is, why it is needed, and what functions it carries out. This task does not seem too complicated, if we do not create unnecessary difficulties for ourselves on this path. Culture is a special, artificial, human-created environment in which human society is able to form and reproduce itself precisely as a human phenomenon, while a concrete individual can acquire the features of a being capable of transcendence, i.e., surpassing his or her own physical, empirically established existential framework. It is precisely the ability to go beyond the physically given in one's actions that is the main marker of a human being.

When I act according to my conscience, I act based on something that is not physically there. There is no conscience, as, in fact, there is no God—like an object among objects. Instead, conscience is an unconditional fact of my existence, and, of course, God also exists, but both as powers whose action I cannot help but feel within me. That is how the values-based space works, the human space inside each one of us. And in its importance to us, it exceeds all data in the physical realm. That which is valuable is invisible and does not rely on the empirical. The empirical is unconditionally given to us in feelings but, in fact, it is changeable, and in it, like in any facts, there is no sense, as Aristotle once said. Sense emerges only when a person is able to bring order to the chaos of the objective world, relying on a network of values-based and absolutely invisible, non-objective constants.

It is no secret that a person is a being with two natures. After all, if we look at our corporeal component, we are not too far removed from our smaller brothers on this planet. The composition of blood in a human and any sentient Ukrainian piglet is practically identical. My desires to save myself, feed myself, and somehow continue my family line are not all that different from the instinct of a raven that flies over the Kyivan forest between Bucha and Borodianka.

But we also have a purely human nature, which is intrinsically valuable and does not correspond to the bodily constants of our existence. In this sense, people are absolutely artificial beings. We are not born in a natural manner. Something primal, small, and, in its essence, almost absolutely corporeal is born. Everyone has a long way to go in life, abiding by culture and the cultural institutions of humanity, in order to be born anew, finally, as a human being among other humans.

In fact, all that is human does not have foundations in our physiological and psychological makeup. Goodness does not arise naturally. And a moral act cannot have empirical causes. Good is because it is good. It is the cause of itself. But, as a rule, its implementation in the world demands hard work and the exertion of all our strength. Furthermore, in order to act according to our conscience, goodness, and mercy, we often must go against our own empirical needs and our instinct of self-preservation. There is always a risk to that, there's always solitude and personal responsibility for what is happening in the world — responsibility which is a marker of self-awareness, a marker of light that illuminates all my actions, all desires, and deeds from the perspective of eternity and beauty. And these, in turn, are the things we rediscover in culture and in our own souls, because it is precisely in the soul that something responds to cultural objects and items.

In this sense, any culture as a distinctive, artificial creation, as well as all cultural objects and things, are indeed mechanisms for recreating what is human and valuable within a person, that which is impossible to reduce to categories of the chaos of objects, in which all of us are forced to exist. In passing through the world of culture, becoming connected to artistic utterances enshrined in literature, music, art, and moving through ancient Greek philosophy and Roman law, a being that has two eyes and two legs gains the ability to become oriented in the things of the world, simultaneously building oneself up as a being that is abreast of the values-based foundations of existence.

Thus, culture as an artificial environment is simultaneously a product of humanity's efforts and a guarantor of its humaneness; a matrix in which both society and a particular individual mature. In light of these ruminations, so-called Russian culture, which gave birth to the consentient schizofascism of tens of millions of people, is perceived in a special way. Perhaps the only common feature of this human conglomerate is the absolute disregard of the values-based space. Freedom, law, individuality, respect for the Other, and the capacity for mercy and goodness are comical and irrelevant matters for these creatures. Even among the better representatives of this nation, particularly in relation to what Russia is doing in Ukraine, one can easily spot absolute narcissism, infantilism, a lack of empathy, and so on. The incapacity for value-based coordinates turns the representatives of Russian culture into sentimental monsters.

It suffices to recall the photographer Sergey Ponomarev's project entitled "RELOCATED." Chulpan Khamatova holds a portrait of her parents and a stuffed toy. Mikhail Fishman shows off a tennis racket. Ilya Krasilshchik pleases the eye with his frying pan. And so on and so on. This loud performance of nostalgia gave the opportunity to the last wave of prominent Russian émigrés to show the most precious things that they have brought with them from Russia. Ponomarev writes:

They publicly condemned the war, and their voices are of decisive importance. The new generation of Russian exiles has been scattered throughout Europe and the post-Soviet republics.

Here we have the characteristic grasping at post-Soviethood, and the subconscious non-recognition of countries that have been independent for thirty years. In connection with this project, the initiative undertaken by the writer and artist Katia Margolis is very apt. On her Facebook page, she has created diptychs, adding to the photographs of the most recent wave of Russian émigrés documentary photographs that depict the true victims of the ongoing war: Ukrainians dead and alive; Ukrainians who have been killed by the contemporary Russian culture, the culture of sentimental killers and rapists: the culture of a people with absolutely no accountability to, above all, themselves, as well as to their own people among which they were born and lived their entire lives. You are a Russian. This is your country. It is you who upheld the image of this government and worked for it. If you do not accept responsibility for what is happening, you as an individual simply do not exist because the main trait of an individual is responsibility for everything that is taking place within the space of your life.

Everything about the "RELOCATED" project is bizarre: its simplicity, its lightness, and its ostentation. It seems to have become a litmus test that has established very clearly that the best representatives of this culture lack a conscience, artistic taste, and ordinary human dignity to refuse to relish the aesthetics of their invented sufferings at a time when thousands of Ukrainians are dying. The Russians are killing and simultaneously depicting themselves as victims. They are truly incapable of seeing how their frying pans and private libraries brought out of Russia are perceived. The aesthetics of their tribulations are underscored by the magnificent apartments in which all this is photographed. Good Russians are suffering beautifully. In Ukraine, at this time, the civilians are being killed, hundreds of thousands of people have been left without a home and without hopes of returning home. Thousands of children have been kidnapped and hundreds have been killed, lives ruined, countless numbers of those who were raped and tortured to death, and maimed, forever traumatized. As a result of the Russian occupiers' shelling, hundreds of Ukrainian cultural heritage sites of national and local importance have been ruined or damaged. Hundreds of artworks have been destroyed or damaged, as well as cultural institutions, such as religious buildings, libraries, museums, and preserves.

This has been done by your fellow countrymen, dear Russians. And you, too, are guilty of this. You cannot be without blame. Because this is your country, and these are your people who are perpetrating all these atrocities. You have given tacit assent for such horrors to become possible, even if one supposes that you yourselves did not take an active part in the formation of the contemporary imperial narratives. After all, the so-called Russian intelligentsia always did everything so that the dragon's smile looked more attractive.

It is obvious to me that the Russian culture is a dead culture in the same way that we speak about dead languages. There are no living carriers. The millions of Russians who rejoice at the deaths of Ukrainian children, who easily dissociate themselves from what is happening, and who are incapable not only of empathy but also of basic feelings of responsibility, are living beings only on the outside, that is, in biological sense. Yet it is entirely possible that, in reality, they have spent their lives in the limbo of prebirth, thereby never having been born, in fact, as humans.

Dozens of wonderful writers, musicians, artists, and other geniuses of the Russian national spirit, both in earlier periods and current ones, have turned out to be incapable of forming mechanisms that would recreate humanism in Russians. The most that the representatives of this culture are capable of is a cheap variety of a brutal and cynical sentimentality. Sentimentality is generally uncomplicated and does not demand much: it is notable for the fact that you do not need to do anything for its sake. Sentimentality is a feeling without action — life in which there is no gleam of conscience and accountability for one's existence, only the beautifully soulful praise of existence given to them by the Creator. It is difficult to find bigger animals than sentimental people.

But in the conditions of war beautiful soulfulness can take on forms that turn this cheap Russian sentimentality into war crimes. Just today, I read a Facebook friend's post about the fact that the Ukrainian children who were deported to the Russian Federation were forced every day not only to sing the Russian state anthem but also the famous Russian song "How Great That We Are All Here Today" that was the unofficial anthem of the songwriters' movement in the late Soviet period. Any children who refused to sing were tortured.

In this fact resides the entirety of the great Russian culture: the songwriters' hymn that is sung by tear-stained and tormented Ukrainian children. That's this culture. In this song and act, Pushkin and Griboedov, and Tolstoy and Aleksandr Blok have finally embraced and found rest in one undivided spiritual cemetery. Indeed, it is so wonderful that they are finally gathered in this cemetery. "How great that we are all here," as the song goes. Finally, we can see them gathered together with their true essence revealed and made abundantly clear. We could rejoice that this is happening if anyone still has the energy for this.

The great Russian culture is, in fact, a stillborn set of occasionally truly distinguished works of art that proved to be incapable of transforming biological beings into humans. Outwardly, this phenomenon very much resembles what we are accustomed to calling culture, but it is something which is the absolute opposite. It is non-culture, and not even in the sense that it is a forgery, a falsification, but in the sense that this is a special object that is capable of carrying out its functions—and it then fulfills them to the maximum—only when it is almost entirely identical with the cultures of other peoples. So much so that it is very easy to be duped and surrender to this deception and to the sophistication of the forms that it is capable of acquiring: to spread your arms in welcome and to see, at the last minute before your capital city is bombarded, darkness and the undead who are walking in order to quench their thirst for killing, because they have never had any other real thirst.

I am convinced that there is a certain structural problem of a cognitive and ethical quality in this corpus of texts, including literary and, say, architectural or musical. In artistic works, it takes on aesthetic forms. This aesthetic inferiority, which is common to the entire Russian culture, is based precisely on mistakes on the cognitive and ethical plane. It is complex and simultaneously not sufficiently self-evident.

I think that the phenomenon of so-called imperial consciousness is only an external aspect. In my estimation, of much greater importance is the lack of understanding on the part of the better representatives of Russian culture that freedom of the individual is impossible in a society where there is no freedom and that, in its turn, a free and democratic society is impossible in conditions of the total non-freedom of an individual. As a rule, Russian artists have always been ready to surrender their personal, civic freedom to the Moloch of Russian statehood. It would be superfluous to analyze here the poetics of this or that writer, but I single out a rather sober analysis of the Pushkin myth, which Mikhail Epstein prepared in November 2022 for Radio Liberty. Analyzing the antithesis of internal, secret freedom and external freedom, which the poet is prepared to give up, Epstein poses the following question at the end of his article:

What are these minted lines — a defense of freedom or a formula for giving it up and, ultimately, oneself? A kind of freedom that a priori limits itself to the 'best' freedom and undermines trust in freedoms that are dubbed 'the worst'—societal freedom and civil rights… It is bitter to realize that the historical consequences of this self-seduction had to be borne not just by poets, but also their people.

I think that it was the very factor of the conscious abandoning of personal, civic freedom that did not allow the Russian national set of artistic statements and beautiful spiritual states, and of the perpetual chaos of half-born social civic structures, to turn into culture. The conscious forfeiting of freedom turned this entire artistic luxury first into a pile of junk, and then into an object called "non-culture." I am certain that this will be mulled over and written about by philosophers, art historians, linguists, historians, and other educated people. I think that it will be truly interesting to grasp how our northern neighbors, with their beautiful soulfulness and sentimentality, managed not to become humans with a civic consciousness but a slavish one; how they succeeded in giving up on person-centered view of the world and of themselves in it. Instead of weapons of civic resistance, they opted for frying pans; instead of thoughts—stuffed toys in their heads. This is late Soviet aesthetics with its quotidian and eternal infantilism, and the triumph of an animalistic and irresponsible existence.

Curses have fallen on your heads, ladies and gentlemen. With your songwriters' songs, your culture, and your sentimental love of any kind of power. With your cynicism and contempt for the Other. There is nowhere for you to hide from this damnation.

The unbelievably brutal war that the Russian state, along with millions of Russians, is waging against Ukraine and the Ukrainian people has finally revealed to the entire world Russia's otherworldly emptiness and darkness, the deliberate blackness and futility of all its efforts. Peter Yakovlevich Chaadaev, one of only a few genuine Russian philosophers, whom the Russian government in his time declared insane because of his work, writes the following in his Philosophical Letters.

Alone in the world, we have given nothing to the world, have taken nothing from the world, bestowed not even a single idea upon the fund of human ideas, contributed nothing to the progress of the human spirit, and we have distorted all progressivity which has come to us. Nothing from the first moment of our social existence has emanated from us for man's common good; not one useful idea has germinated in the sterile soil of our fatherland; we have launched no great truth; we have never bothered to conjecture anything ourselves, and we have adopted only deceiving appearances and useless luxury from all the things that others have thought out.

Since then, nothing has changed; perhaps, with one sole exception. Russia has finally managed to pull off a truly unprecedented thing. In front of the whole world, it has resolved, literally non-stop, to raze to the ground one of the biggest European states. Hundreds of thousands of Russians have come to Ukraine to kill, rape, destroy, and steal washing machines and toilets. This is the mightiest manifestation of the true essence of Russian culture. The Russians have succeeded in worthily implementing the non-life of their nation, the unborn nature of its society. This non-culture has indeed borne fruit that is worthy of itself. For a long time to come, humanity will taste it even after it descends from the global arena into darkness and oblivion, where it belongs.

In this, ultimately, lies the main difference between how a Russian and a sentient Ukrainian see and understand the problem of the existence of a state like Russia. Russians, both "good ones" and "bad ones," both so-called imperialists and liberals, do not see the further progress of world history without this state formation. Meanwhile, we, Ukrainians, absolutely know what Russia and the "great Russian culture" are, and we are certain that something fundamentally new must replace them. May this be not simply a vague locality with swamps and rivers in which the peaceful Chinese settler is fishing. May there arise some kind of state, or a number of national state entities with their own constitutions and order. Be it as it may, the way it is now Russia has no right to remain on the world map, because Russia means war and killings, darkness and collapse. For the "great Russian culture" is an utterly tried-and-tested method for selling one's soul to the devil — to give in to irresponsible sentimentality, behind which stands empirical chaos that refuses to submit to the light of existence.

About the Author

Volodymyr Rafeyenko

Writer, literary critic, critic

Award-winning Ukrainian writer, poet, translator, literary and film critic. Having graduated from the Donetsk University with a degree in Russian philology and culture studies, he wrote and published entirely in Russian. Following the outbreak of the Russian aggression in Ukraine's east, Rafeyenko left Donetsk and moved to a town near Kyiv where he wrote Mondegreen: Songs about Death and Love, his first novel in the Ukrainian language, which was shortlisted for the Taras Shevchenko National Prize, Ukraine's highest award in arts and culture. Among other recognitions, he is the winner of the Volodymyr Korolenko Prize for the novel Brief Farewell Book (1999) and the Visegrad Eastern Partnership Literary Award for the novel The Length of Days (2017).

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk

Originally appeared @Krytyka

The "War Is… Ukrainian Writers on Living Through Catastrophe" essay project is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.