Dancing to Moscow’s tune

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If we’re going to understand Russian perceptions of Ukraine, we need to examine its cultural imagination. Русский


Andrei Arkhangelsky
30 March 2016

Back in the Soviet Union, a typical Soviet television programme on Ukrainian culture would feature a performance by a Ukrainian choir or dance troupe, the performers in national dress moving and/or opening their mouths in unison. 

In the “people’s empire”, the cultures of different nationalities played an ornamental, ideological role. They were used to demonstrate the concept of “the friendship of peoples”, as opposed to actual culture, and thus, the mainstream image of national cultures was predominantly ethnographical. 

Twenty five years after the union fell apart, many former Soviet citizens still carry with them this particular image of Ukraine: an obedient nation, dancing and singing to Moscow’s rhythm. Many others carry it still.

Opposite directions

In 1991, the sphere of cultural exchange between Russia and Ukraine went in two directions — the official and the unofficial.

 Due to inertia, the official mechanisms of “people’s friendship” continued to operate. As the 1990s came to a close, “friendship trains” still ran between Moscow and Kyiv. Cultural programmes were the same as they had been on TV years ago: dancing, singing, toasting. The only difference was that, instead of the old flag of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic on the Kremlin palace stage, there hung the flag of independent Ukraine. In the beginning, this was considered a sign of “tradition”, that “nothing had changed” between the two countries. 

Yet the format of cultural events, which took the form of showing off each other’s “cultural talents” to the metropolis, eventually started to fade. Such events were criticised in Ukraine, too, for continuing an image of Ukraine as a folkloristic, ethnographical “little sister” to Russia, an image particularly popular on various 1990s TV shows in Russia.

At the same time, a different, unofficial cultural exchange emerged. Its symbol? Crimea’s Kazantip festival, probably the most famous electronic music festival on the territory of the former USSR. Launched in 1992, Kazantip was a territory of great freedom, where a teenager could behave like nowhere else.

Music built bridges, taught people to live on equal footing — separately but harmoniously


Another symbol of this unofficial exchange between Russia and Ukraine was rock and pop music, as represented by Vopli Vidoplyasova and Okean Elzy. The fact that Ukrainian pop music became fashionable in the end of the 1990s made everything else Ukrainian fashionable as well. Ukrainian pop artists were an indelible part of everything from festivals to radio programmes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (It’s hard to imagine this today, but just five years ago, the huge Olimpiisky stadium in Moscow was singing the chorus along with Svyatoslav Vakarchuk (lead singer of Okean Elzy) in Ukrainian.) For a new generation of Russians, Ukrainian culture was no longer seen as playing second fiddle.  Eurovision 2007: Verka Serdyuchka performing "Dancing lasha tumbai". Photo (c) Johannes Simon / Getty Images. All rights reserved.Thus, Ruslana Lyzhichko (winner of Eurovision in 2004) showed a modern image of Ukraine, while Verka Serdyuchka (a character created by performer Andrii Danilko) was a deliberately kitschy act. Some considered Serdyuchka postmodern, others thought her sincere. Serdyuchka performed in surzhik, a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian, which made her accessible. In spite of her songs’ seeming primitiveness, they were part of a carnival culture that could be interpreted in various ways.

Habermas’ theory of communicative action worked organically here: pop culture was the ideal means of getting someone to understand the Other. The fashion for Ukrainian culture worked to rid people of their “empire syndrome”, and it did so without making people uncomfortable. More effective than politicians or government programmes, music built bridges, taught people to live on equal footing — separately but harmoniously.

Yet this kitschy image of Ukraine, as embodied by Serdyuchka, was convenient for Russians with an imperial mindset. They took it as an image of the folkloristic Ukraine, familiar to them from the Soviet culture industry. 

Totalitarian trauma and feminism: the modern literary Ukraine 

It was in the 1990s that books by Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov appeared in Russia. After his novel The Milkman in the Night was long-listed for the Russian National Bestseller literary prize, Kurkov, a Ukrainian writer who writes in Russian, took on the function of a symbolic bridge between post-Soviet Russia and Ukraine. Note that in this instance, culture itself took a “soft approach” — teaching people to get used to a new cultural and social reality. 

By the beginning of the 2000s, there was demand in Russia for new Ukrainian literature 

By the beginning of the 2000s, there was demand in Russia for new Ukrainian literature. First of all, this applied to writers from the Stanislav School (a group of postmodern artists and writers from Ivan-Frankivsk, which was called Stanislav until 1962), who presented an unusual image of Ukraine to the Russian reader. When writers as Yury Andrukhovych, Yury Izdryk, Taras Prokhasko were translated in Russia it meant not only the acceptance of the Ukrainian language, but an acceptance of the distinctiveness of the Ukrainian viewpoint. In many ways, these authors are concerned with reflecting on the post-Soviet age, the eradication of the experience of totalitarianism.

And so, a veritable wave of translation took place. The first Russian translation of Andrukhovych, his novel Recreations, was published in the Druzhba Narodov journal in 2000. Later, the novels The Moscoviad and Perverzion were translated. The works of Prokhasko and Izdryk were published in the Galician Stonehendge anthology, and were also published as separate volumes throughout the 2000s, as well as in the Novy Mir, Vestnik Evropy, and Druzhba Narodov journals. 

In 2000s, Russians became interested in the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan, with his novels Depeche Mode (2005), Anarchy in the UKR (2008), Red Elvis (a 2009 play) and Voroshilovgrad (2012). 


Simferopol, Crimea, 2015. (с) Alexander Aksakov / Getty Images. All rights reserved.Oksana Zabuzhko’s Field Work in Ukrainian Sex became a sensation in Russia when it was first translated in the Druzhba Narodov journal in 1998. It was then published and re-published as a standalone volume starting in 2001. A feminist text, it also went against Ukraine’s traditional image. In 2007, Sweet Darusia, a novel, and Nation, a collection of short stories, both by Maria Matios, were published in Russia. All of this shows how important Ukrainian writers were being published, albeit with slight delays, in Russia.

Yelena Marinicheva, one of the prominent translators of Ukrainian texts into Russian (she worked on Zhadan, Zabuzhko, Matios) says, “Until 2004, Ukrainian literature was being actively published in Russia. But after the first Maidan [i.e. the Orange Revolution of 2004], it became harder and harder.” 

Russian writers were attempting to reconcile the totalitarian experience with modernity — trauma itself became a taboo 

In the mid 2000s, the Russian publishing house Vostok-Zapad (literally: East-West) planned to publish an entire series of Ukrainian literature. Works by Zabuzhko, and Ukrainian writers Yury Vinnichyuk and Oleksander Irvanets were published as the result. 

“Two or three books will come, and then the situation will change again,” Marinicheva says in reference to politics. This is why the majority of these Ukrainian books were being published by small presses.

All of these Ukrainian writers deal with the trauma of totalitarianism in their works. We should also note that the Russian reading public was particularly interested in “another Ukraine”. Russian literature itself did not head in this direction: at this time, Russian writers were mostly attempting to reconcile the totalitarian experience with modernity — the theme of trauma itself became a taboo. This is the crucial difference between modern Ukrainian and Russian literature.

A cultural “dual citizenship”

There are those cultural figures who existed “between” Russia and Ukraine, and embodied a dual culture. Traditional Ukrainian pop acts that sang in Russian, such as Taisiya Povaliy, Ani Lorak, and the Kroliki duet, organically integrated into the Russian pop scene.

Another unique example are the Meladze brothers, a singer and composer. Born in Georgia, Konstantin and Valery then set up a life in Ukraine. Valery nded up moving to Russia, Konstantin remained in Ukraine, though he continued to work on all of his brother’s songs. In 2000, Konstantin founded the VIA Gra pop group, equally popular in Ukraine and Russia. Konstantin also worked as a television producer in both countries.

In 2014, not a single Ukrainian book was published in Russia

We must also note a theatre borne of two cultures. Ukrainian playwright Natalia Vorozhbyt was born in Kyiv, graduated from the Moscow Institute of Literature in 2000, and spent a decade in Russia, were she was one of the original members of the New Drama movement and the community that created Moscow’s Teatr.doc. Another playwright from Kyiv, Maksym Kurochkin, was a success on the Moscow stage in the 1990s and 2000s.

Ukrainian director Andriy Zholdak, the great-grandson of Ukrainian playwright Ivan Karpenko-Kary, studied at the Taras Shevchenko State Artistic School in Kyiv, then graduated from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts in Moscow, and, starting in 1991, put on many productions in Russia, including The Seagull and Eugene Onegin. He worked everywhere, from Kyiv to Kharkiv, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, as well as Romania, Finland, and Germany, producing both Russian and Ukrainian authors. A Ukrainian director became a world citizen, a “bridge of understanding,” a genuine “kulturträger”.

Meanwhile, in 2013, Oksana Zabuzhko’s new novel, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets was published in a translation by Yelena Marinicheva, but it was barely noticed by the critics. Euromaidan and the armed conflict in east Ukraine made it so.

In 2014, not a single Ukrainian book was published in Russia.

A post-Euromaidan world

In 2015, a collection of Ukrainian writers’ works on war and peace, This Summer’s Sky, was published in Moscow. It included stories by Serhiy Zhadan, Yury Vinnichyuk, Tania Malyarchyuk, Andriy Bondar, Vladimir Rafeenko, Taras Prokhasko, Yury Izdryk, Yevgeniya Kononenko, and others. The collection was published at the Tri Kvadrata publishing house, on the initiative of Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Colta.ru meanwhile published a new short story by Zhadan, while the Novy Mir journal dedicated its September 2015 issue to Ukrainian literature.

In 2016, Astrel, a St. Petersburg publishing house, published the first Russian edition of stories and essays by Tania Malyarchyuk (as translated by Yelena Marinicheva).

In 2014, Moscow’s Teatr.doc put on a reading of Maidan Diaries, a documentary play by Natalia Vorozhbyt. The play was also meant to be read at the Moscow Book Festival – but the reading was cancelled, just as a reading of Maksym Kurochkin’s new play, The Herbivores.

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In 2015, Andriy Zholdak staged his “Zholdak Dreams: Kidnappers of Emotion”, inspired by Carlo Goldoni’s “A Servant of Two Masters”, at St. Petersburg’s Tovstonogov drama theatre. Photo courtesy of http://svobodazholdaktheatre.com.In September 2015, director Victor Ryzhakov put on Vorozhbyt’s new play, Sasha, Take Out the Garbage, in Moscow’s Meyerhold Center. The hero of the play, a Ukrainian army colonel, has died from heart failure and now watches his widow and stepdaughter prepare food for his wake. Then Sasha will try to resurrect himself – news of war will reach even the dead – but his relatives don’t want to let him, they want others to fight.

In October 2014, a new production, In the Beginning and the End of Time, premiered at Moscow’s Mossovet Theatre. The author, Pavel Alexeyev, who writes under the pseudonym Pavlo Ariye, is a former Lviv resident who lives in Germany. The play takes place in a village close to the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Fear and survival are the main themes of the play.

In 2015, Andriy Zholdak put on Zholdak Dreams: Kidnappers of Emotion, based on Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, at the Tovstonogov Theatre in St. Petersburg. In February 2016, Zholdak followed that up with a production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Alexandrinsky Theatre (also in St. Petersburg).

Valery Fokin, the artistic director of Alexandrinsky, which is Russia’s oldest theatre, invited Zholdak, a Ukrainian director, to put on a production on the main stage, in the year the theatre celebrates its 260th anniversary. Considering the time we live in, this seems to be a strong cultural, even political, gesture.

Anti-war themes, themes of humanism – this is the only cultural field where Ukrainian and Russian authors can collaborate together today. As paradoxical as it seems, this topic is one that unites the two cultures.

One of the few examples of this anti-war rhetoric is a 2015 project called Greetings from Here to There, a project where 36 Ukrainian and Russian artists made videos saying Happy New Year and wished for one thing – peace. The project was created by poet Yan Shenkman, Novaya Gazeta, the Kushnir Production agency, the Cultprostir website, and internet TV channel BeTV Ukraina.

An open wound and its future 

Between 1991 to 2014, Russia’s perception of Ukrainian culture gradually changed. Its new image was being communicated via private means — publishers, promoters, theatres, festivals. This process was largely an organic one. It was unofficial cultural ties that allowed for the possibility of healing “imperial trauma” and teach people to live peacefully as equals. 

At the same time, official, state-based cultural exchanges continued to trade in a traditional, ethnographical, and, therefore, subordinate image of Ukraine — whether willingly or unwillingly. These exchanges made people get used to the idea that Ukraine “had not changed.” 

This was the thesis, as well as the Soviet thesis of people’s friendship, that formed the basis for official cultural exchange. This was the general rhetoric you heard from Russian, and, in some cases, Ukrainian cultural personalities. And this notion of the two cultures being indistinct created a sense of disregard for Ukrainian sovereign statehood. 

And it cannot be said that an alternative viewpoint was not presented in Russia – whether via the books of Zabuzhko or, say, a Vorozhbyt play about Holodomor. Such works were being printed and produced in Russia.


What should be noted is that the alternative viewpoint was marginalised in relation to official cultural policy. For instance, Russian theatre critic Alyona Karas wrote this about Vorozhbyt’s last play, Sasha, Take Out the Garbage: “We must understand what Natalia Vorozhbyt is doing: she is bearing witness, when bearing witness is impossible. In a situation where historical trauma is almost completely ignored by Russian and Ukrainian theatre, she is trying to speak via documentary.” Reproduction of "The Pereyaslavl Rada", a painting by Mikhail Deregus and Sergei Repin (1954). Photo (c): Visual RIAN. All rights reserved.This is the key. The historical trauma that has existed between Ukraine and Russia for centuries has gone unremarked upon in both cultures. At the same time, such figures and events as Ivan Mazepa, Holodomor, the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) are perceived differently in Ukraine and in Russia. Post-Soviet Russian culture ignored these themes, and individual authors such as Zabuzhko could not change this overall trend.

The cultures of both countries (except for the authors I listed in this article), decide they wanted to “forget the bad,” and talk about the good when it came to relations between the two cultures. This led to tragic results.

Instead of a frank dialogue that dealt with shared problems – a dialogue that could have led to healing – both cultures ignored or talked over the issues.

This led to serious consequences when a real-life drama took place between Russia and Ukraine.

We suddenly found out that in 23 years, a Ukrainian-Russian dialogue, a culture of equality, a culture of mutual respect, did not, in fact, develop. 

Today the relationship between the two countries has been ruined for decades to come – but sooner or later, we will still have to look for ways to connect, to make peace with one another.

Culture always takes centre stage at moments like that. And this is where we must begin a new chapter in our relationship — in talking through past, and, sadly, present traumas, traumas whose list, in the last two years alone, has grown many times over.

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