Maria Zubrytska

Between Scylla and Charybdis: prospects and challenges
for Ukrainian culture in the current global context

Australian Slavonic and East European Studies Vol. 20, Nos. 1–2 (2006): 114.

Keynote speakers are generally invited to speak on central problems that can be elaborated upon in further papers, and followed up by workshop-style discussions. My aim as а keynote speaker is to put the Ukrainian cultural predicament into а broader European as well as global perspective and to launch a discussion of different aspects of this theme. Without attempting to construct too rigid а thematic framework for my paper, І have tried to survey the prospects and challenges which Ukrainian culture faces in the current global context. І shall present my own vision of the main threats, as well as the benefits, that seem to lie in wait for Ukrainian culture as it travels its remarkable Odyssey through the contemporary world, seeking to break free from the age of ‘world alienation’, to understand the meaningfulness of the world, to see Otherness and to be seen by it, and to hear the Others and to be heard by them. For global interconnectedness means that culture flows not only from West to East, but also from East to West, between South and North, and everywhere in between.

To start our encounter with this Odyssey we need to comprehend the Ukrainian dream of meeting the challenges of the increasingly globalizing world of the twenty-first century. We know that there are different kinds of collective dreams. The American Dream puts emphasis on economic growth, personal wealth and independence. The new European Dream focuses more on sustainable development, quality of life and interdependence. The American Dream pays homage to the work ethic and religious heritage. The European Dream, more attuned to leisure, is secular to the core. The American Dream depends on assimilation. The European Dream, by contrast, involves preserving one’s cultural identity in а multicultural world. Our Ukrainian Odyssey through the contemporary world should provide us with а clear vision of the world as it is, as well as identifying Ukrainians’ unique place among the nations in this world. That is why the Ukrainian Odyssey should be а celebration of plurality, of unity in diversity, of the fact that we live among others who, like us, are unique.

Why an Odyssey? First of all, because for Ukrainians an Odyssey – a journey that involves the building of self-confidence, teamwork, communication, awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, respect for otherness, and skills for coping with threats and challenges – is timely and much needed. Second, because an Odyssey is а magical voyage through time and space, a voyage during which we encounter opportunities for growth, for transcending our limitations, and for experiencing the world as cross-cultural and interdependent. It should be remarked that this need not be especially challenging for Ukrainians, as risk-taking is part of Ukraine’s history and culture. An Odyssey is not an ordinary journey; it is, rather, а symbolic pilgrimage whose participants experience а deep sense of potential and value at every encounter. Every such pilgrimage takes us inward as well as outward; it can make us strangers to ourselves, but can also introduce us to the possibilities of а new self in the world. So an Odyssey is а good model for the cultural project of the universal human being who lives in а global village and is at home in the world. In a global context the Odyssey is one of the best metaphors of what James Clifford means when he speaks of travel as ‘a figure for different modes of dwelling and displacement, for trajectories and identities, for storytelling and theorizing in a postcolonial world of global contacts, ‘а range of practices for situating the self in а space or spaces grown too large’.2

The Odyssey helps us to understand that it is still possible at once to belong, and to feel as if at home, in quite different cultural worlds and landscapes, and that it is still easy to bridge any gap and overcome any division, political, religious or intellectual. But to do so easily we should possess the memory of Ithaca, or be able to memorize and understand who we are and where we come from. In short, we should be able to think historically. We cannot throw away history – our history. If we try to rid ourselves of our history, we shall be disoriented in any place in the world, because we shall lack the knowledge that will enable us to answer the questions, what kind of civilization are we negotiating, what kind of culture? If we throw history away, we at once deprive ourselves of communicative potential. But this does not mean that we should exclusively be oriented towards the past. In 1989 Mykola Riabchuk in his article ‘We’ll Not Die in Paris’ tried to explain the historical reasons for the provincialization of Ukraine and the preoccupation of its writers with questions of national and individual identity: No poetry in the world, it seems, is as oriented towards the past as the poetry of Ukraine; no other poetry looks as intently to the past for justification and confirmation of its own and its people’s right to exist.3

We need to change our way of thinking and our vision. First of all, we should change the retrospectiveness of our vision into currentness by enriching it with prospectiveness. We have recently experienced, at least on the rhetorical level, a shift in our state of mind regarding the past and the future. The President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko stated in his inaugural address to the Ukrainian people on Independence Square, ‘We have made our choice, because we remember who we are, whose children and grandchildren we are. We should not look to the past for answers to the challenge of the future. Yet we shall always cherish our sources. Only then shall we remain who we are. Only then shall we always be victorious!’4

І would like our Odyssey to begin with the brightest moment in recent Ukrainian history, the Orange Revolution, which has proved our capacity to begin something anew. The Orange Revolution has become а powerful source for the construction and deconstruction of а new national self-image. It has also played a crucial role in the process of shaping the image of Ukraine, its history and culture, in foreign countries. The international image of a country often plays a role in shaping its self-image. At last, we have been seen, we have been heard and we have been recognized. This is crucial for breaking the ice in the current identification of Ukraine. In general, until this moment Ukraine was terra incognita for the world, a fact reflected in the title of Andrew Wilson’s book The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation.5 As the Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhkо put it, Ukraine was ‘a lost, “forgotten” country, with a historical memory that’s been deliberately erased, subjected for so long to all kinds of humiliation’.6 The Orange Revolution constitutes а new beginning: it is the essence of the kind of action in which individuals co-operate to create а common world. Contradicting ordinary understanding, which associates revolution with violence, lawlessness, and war, Ukrainians managed to demonstrate that revolution, correctly understood, may be the paradigmatic expression of the political good. The political good that was the purpose of the Orange Revolution was the establishment of freedom.

The shining light of the Orange Revolution will be like а beacon during our wanderings around the world, and will support our belief that Ukrainian culture, like Ukrainian society during the revolution of our spirit, is able to break through the commonplace and reach into the extraordinary. If we have been able to achieve what may be the fullest and finest freedom of which human beings are capable, we should also be capable of starting afresh, of undertaking the unexpected and of performing the unprecedented, in the sphere of culture as elsewhere. It is difficult to explain the Orange Revolution merely as the result of the human dynamics that resulted from the epoch-making changes of the last two decades, but, whatever interpretation is given, it is certain that from the experience of the Revolution new hope has been born for the majority of Ukrainians. It is important not to disappoint the expectations which now fill the hearts of so many, particularly among the young. We should constructively use the new spirit of Ukrainian culture, its desire to escape from the traditional cultural ghetto and its craving for world recognition.

But before contemplating the Ukrainian pilgrimage through the world and divining its meaning for ourselves, we should pose some questions. Is the world united or divided by culture? Does cultural co-operation change anything? For example, is it particularly efficient for dismantling prejudices and negative stereotypes? How common is ‘common’ European culture, Asian culture, world culture? Is there anything resembling real dialogue between Japanese and Ukrainian culture, for example, or between Arab and American culture? Can such dialogue be anything more than a limited set of artistic, literary or philosophical influences and exchanges? In October 2005, UNESCO adopted a convention on cultural diversity. In its Principle of Openness and Balance, the convention stipulates that when states adopt measures in favour of cultural diversity, ‘they should seek to promote, in an appropriate manner, openness to other cultures of the world’.7 The Convention takes a stand against the cultural domination that poses а totalitarian threat to diversity, but the technologically, communicatively and financially globalized world appears more inclined to value fast music, fast computers and fast food than the diversity of its cultural heritage. There is the risk, too, that media concentration will accelerate the loss of cultural diversity.

This situation raises some important questions. How well prepared are we to understand other cultures? How have American or European media presented Ukrainian culture? In which countries, if any, is space regularly devoted to presenting other cultures in newspapers or on screens? Can we speak of dialogue between cultures if there is insufficient mutual knowledge? The big powers spend more and more on promoting their ‘images’. Is it not time, then, for the media to become a space for genuine intercultural exchange? In his article ‘On the Press’ Umberto Eсо worries about а rising disproportion between ‘an elite of extremely well-informed users, who know where and when to look for news, and a mass of information subproletarians, content with knowing that a calf with two heads has been born in their district, and ignoring the rest of the world’.8 Cultural diversity requires а diversity of mass media which increases the number of choices as well as creating a balance between entertainment and the facilitation of inter-cultural communication. What is at stake in cultural pluralism is our ability to live together while respecting our differences. This is а basic challenge to civilization and to managed globalization.

Globalization promotes integration of the world and calls for the removal of cultural barriers. Although globalization is а vital process for transferring knowledge and disseminating education across the world, it may well have negative consequences for most cultures and civilizations. Nobody knows whether local cultures will inevitably fall victim to global consumer culture. Will consumer values overwhelm people’s sense of community and social solidarity? Or, on the contrary, will а common culture nurture shared values and promote political harmony? Studies of globalization fall into two groups. The first places culture at the centre of futurological forecasts by substituting it for ideology as the source of imminent cataclysms. The second attempts to predict, or rather, design the best possible configuration of the local and the global. One of the optimistic perspectives on globalization is based on the belief that levelling out cultural differences will bring about better mutual understanding and reduce the possibility of social and political conflicts. The Ukrainian Russian-speaking writer Andrei Kurkov shares this optimistic perspective: People will realise we have shrugged off our Soviet and post-Soviet mindset, that we have escaped from heroic Soviet romanticism, where heroes are there to be imitated and serve as role-models for the young – and have finally been taken over by the romance of capitalism, in which heroic status is accorded to consumer goods, the football shirt and the baseball cap, and mass culture is the product, not of the work of communist youth organisations, but proof of the skill of marketing and advertising professionals.9 І could share Kurkov’s views, were it clear to me that fast food, Disney, or rock’n’roll will benefit humankind as Homer or Plato did, regardless of the fact that Disney is known worldwide now, and Plato is less and less known, even in Greece.

The Orange Revolution is over. As а result Ukraine has proved that it is а European country, not only in terms of geography but, more importantly, because its people have shown that they uphold key European values. This has been recognized by EU member states. І think we have а unique chance of entering into a new kind of relationship with the West. But we don’t want to be beggars. We don’t want to be treated by the EU or by the United States as inferiors; that is something we will not accept. There has been no significant change in the EU position on Ukraine’s prospects for membership of the EU. In an enlarged European Union the limits of understanding of what being European means should be re-examined. At its borders the EU has new neighbours, once seemingly distant, and now brought into close proximity. In the past two years clear differences, if not outright rifts, between Europeans have come to light as to how they perceive the world relative to their hierarchy of values. These questions are open for discussion and nobody has а certain answer to any of them. But we should participate in such discussions as we seek prospects for Ukraine inspired by a vision of interconnectedness accommodating the global, the national and the local.

We are and should be ‘Ukrainian’, while being open to the mainstream of the world and other cultural traditions. Young people often wish to identify with mainstream world culture. The question is, ‘how?’ The ‘how’ is the challenge of the future for us. It is a result of the deep chasm between ‘how things really are’ and ‘how things ought to be’. Allow me to consider ‘how things are’. It is hardly possible, and hardly desirable, to block the process of globalization. So we should maintain the capacity to think globally and to act locally, without committing ourselves exclusively to either. As Zygmunt Bauman put it: Immobility is not а realistic option in а world of permanent change. Some of us became fully and truly ‘global’, some are fixed in their ‘locality’ – а predicament neither pleasurable nor endurable in the world in which ‘the globals’ set the tone and compose the rules of the life-game.10

But at this moment І would like to mention the Ukrainian price of historical (in)justice. Unlike many European societies, Ukraine did not pass through a nation-state building stage in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For much of its history its territory was divided among various powerful neighbours. In modern times, except for а brief period between 1918 and 1921, Ukraine was not independent as a state prior to 1991. Oppressed by totalitarian Communist and Nazi regimes, the people risked losing their national, cultural and religious identity; the nation experienced the destruction of the intellectual elite, the custodians of its civil and religious heritage. More recently, the nuclear accident at Chornobyl wreaked tragic consequences upon the environment and the lives of many human beings. Many Western intellectuals agree that the Chornobyl accident was the turning-point in the awakening of а sense of common responsibility for the world in which we live. As а result of Ukraine’s traumatic history, two seemingly antithetical, but in fact interrelated tendencies characterize today’s Ukrainian society: an urge towards building а nation-state with a mainstream culture and ethos as а foundation of national identity and the recognition of cultural diversity in the broadest sense as а way of combining common civic citizenship while providing for the preservation and development of the cultural heritage and the tradition of different ethnic groups.

One of the most controversial issues in the intellectual and political debate in Ukraine is the Ukrainian/Russian linguistic, cultural and political dichotomy. In quite а paradoxical way, this dichotomy presents both а major challenge to, and an opportunity for, cultural development. No-one doubts that there should be a pragmatic way of addressing this issue. But it should be recognized that Ukraine is still а postcolonial country where the Ukrainian language and culture have been harshly oppressed and have not yet recovered. The situation is not as dramatic as in Belarus, where the national language has been brought to the edge of extinction by the neo-Soviet regime. But Ukrainian culture still needs protectionism on the part of the Ukrainian government and special awareness of its fragile situation on the part of the people.

Multiculturalism and multilingualism are defining characteristics of the cities of the contemporary globalized world. It is precisely the global context in which they exist that gives rise there to the tensions that present challenges to citizens and policy-makers, but at the same time the global context gives unique opportunities for interaction between different cultures. Many researchers have tried to interpret the link between ethnic identity and language in the new changing world. Much of the debate surrounding this issue has focused on а dilemma of the architecture of identity: is language a salient marker of ethnic identity? Late in the nineteenth century Ernst Renan argued that language has little significance for questions of national identity.11 Others have held the opposite: that language is an intrinsic, determining feature of ethnic identity, and а ‘core cultural value’.12 There are many other positions between these two extremes.

The global ethnic identity revival has had а definite impact on the current ethno-linguistic situation in Ukraine. The assimilation strategy that had wide currency and was de facto applied to minorities in the Soviet Union is being replaced in many instances by an integration strategy or combinations of strategies. For example, economic assimilation is pursued alongside linguistic integration. In the Ukrainian case, language is to be identified as a significant cultural marker of a particular ethnic group, but there has been no slowing of the trend, started during the Soviet period, to abandon language as an irrelevant ethno-cultural identity marker. The trend is so strong that claims can be made today that language for Ukrainians has primarily a symbolic, unifying value, and its abandonment does not affect ethnic identity itself.

Language and communication, and their place in our society, are rapidly changing. The Ukrainian case shows that the language has been sacrificed to all the historical challenges and pressures put on Ukrainians throughout the last two centuries. Nowadays in Ukraine, in the fifteenth year of its independence, the level of mother tongue proficiency varies from the absence of any proficiency, to passive proficiency (understanding, but not speaking) to bilingualism and diglossia. The last phenomena are particularly evident in the eastern and southern cities of Ukraine. At the same time, the majority of the population has competence in Russian to а greater or lesser extent. Russian continues to be the lingua franca for a vast region of modern Ukraine.

The language situation in Ukraine reveals a clear trend toward diglossia, which, in my opinion, is less desirable than bilingualism or multilingualism, as the latter involve equal levels of language proficiency in two or more languages. Among Ukrainians there are many, especially among the young, who do not know the Ukrainian language and are unfamiliar with native customs, traditions or other cultural markers, yet they identify themselves as Ukrainian. This suggests that, of many components of culture (religion, habits, mentality, traditions), only a small set need to survive for ethno-cultural identity to remain. Language can be included in this list, or be excluded from it. The Ukrainian example demonstrates that many Ukrainians in fact have excluded the native language from this list of markers. This is а paradox, but among them are such celebrities as the boxers Vitalii and Volodymyr Klychkо, writers such as Andrei Kurkov, Marina and Sergei Dyachenkо, the ballet star Vadym Pysariev, and the football star Andriy Shevchenko. Such people with bicultural identities are quite typical of the post-Soviet and global context. If language is not included in the set of markers that necessarily define national identity, the phenomenon of people who identify themselves as Ukrainian without knowing the Ukrainian language can scarcely cause surprise.

Is this, then, a situation of language conflict? Yes and no. Yes, because language definitely has been, and continues to be, an object of struggle. Yevhen Sverstiuk commented on this situation in an interview for the BBC: ‘The Ukrainian nation has been fighting for its native language for centuries. People have even died in the struggle to use the Ukrainian language’.13 Many of those who voted for President Yushchenko speak Ukrainian. They now hope for а new chapter in the country’s history, where there is less influence of Russian and more pride in the native language. On the other hand, there can also be said to be no such conflict, because deep down much more is involved, including cultural and economic issues. Language choice is not only a matter of social psychology; it is also driven by economic and social motivations. In today’s Ukraine, if one wishes to enjoy such benefits as а good education, job prospects and integration into the socio-economic space of Ukraine, one has to master Ukrainian. Hence, proficiency in Ukrainian is а vital necessity, whereas proficiency in Russian is only an optional ethnic identity marker.

There arises the question of why the situation of the Ukrainian language has not improved at a time of global ethnic revivals. The situation is particularly remarkable when compared to the situation of some ‘small’ languages in other parts of the world. Fishman points out the possibility of a mismatch between the social functioning of a language and attitudes to it: while English is the world’s super-language, more small languages are being read and written today than ever before. In Europe alone, there were no more than thirty-one standardized languages of literacy at the beginning of the century, whereas there are more than а hundred such today.14 In the case of the Ukrainian language, diglossia is а part of a vicious circle: on the one hand, the functional limitations of the indigenous language, and especially of its lexicon, force language users to switch to a language that can more effectively serve the communication needs of modern society. On the other hand, regular code switching hinders the development of the indigenous language, whereas each language can develop its polyfunctional potential only if members of the language community constantly do creative work in and on the language concerned.

But there have been encouraging precedents for a situation where the identity of а place can achieve worldwide visibility through the use of its language. Barcelona during its Olympic Games was a case in point. During the Games, Catalan was used alongside other languages that enjoy widespread use in the world. Since then, Catalan culture has expanded its sphere of influence and asserted its identity. Theatre performances in Catalan have been held as far afield as in Istanbul and books which speakers of Catalan would previously have had to read in Spanish translation are now more and more often translated into Catalan. The Catalan experience is а good lesson for the Ukrainian elite on how to bring Ukrainian culture into dialogue with the world’s cultures. At the moment it is not easy for non-Ukrainians to access Ukrainian culture, because of the numerous barriers that intervene. Why, one might ask, does Ukraine still not foster the process of building bridges between its culture and the world in the widest possible range of cultural forms, from music to media, from film to food, from language to literature and sport? In general, Ukrainian literature, music, arts and movies are not present to the world, even though during the Christmas period Муkоlа Leonotovych’s ‘Shchedryk’, known in English as ‘Carol of the Bells’, is ubiquitous in shopping malls, on the radio and television, and even in displays of ice ballet. If ever there was а Ukrainian melody that has entered the popular repertoire of American culture, this is it. It is also true that during the last two years а few sparkling Ukrainian stars have appeared on the international cultural firmament, such as Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana, filmmakers Ihor Strembitsky (winner of the 2005 Palme d’Or award) and Valentyn Vasyanovich (winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Clermont-Ferrand international short film festival in the same year), theatre director Andriy Zholdak, the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Prize for the Promotion of the Arts, or Kateryna Titova, the winner of several international piano competitions. We could share the enthusiasm of the Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych, who wrote in his Berlin diary, ‘We’re here, and we’re entering, with poise and panache, into the cultural consciousness of the world. At last! Hallelujah!’15 However, these few exceptions we should regard as a prelude to the possible future success of Ukrainian culture in а highly competitive world. They should inspire Ukrainian policy-makers to revise the national cultural policy in order to help Ukrainian culture survive in а world of increasing competition. Bridging cultural gaps, functioning as а home to diverse peoples, surpassing the cultural hindrances to adopting foreign cultures requires a specially adapted ideology, social structure and economic system.

Finally, І would like to raise the question of whether contemporary Ukrainian literature is able today to be as powerful and effective a means for the consolidation of collective identities as it has been for а long time. Individual works of literature are seldom directly or consciously concerned with collective identities. More often, at least in Western literature of the modern period, they are concerned with the construction and rendering of identity on an individual basis. The way in which literature itself becomes institutionalized has, however, also the effect of moulding the identity of individual literary texts within the overarching community of the literary canon. Each year, fewer and fewer of my students read books. І don’t mean that they don’t read. They do, though they might not admit it. They read magazines, they go to spoken word events; they buy CDs in which rock stars and poets perform. More and more, my students, my friends, and I myself are using the Internet as a location for our work. The Ukrainian poet Vasyl Makhno has his own answer to the question, ‘What is the place of Ukrainian literature in а global context?’: ‘The present situation is pregnant with possibilities, if one takes into account the processes of the Ukrainian texts’ emergence in the global and, above all, European cultural consciousness.’16

Translation as the channel of exchange between Ukrainian and world literature is strategically important. But in important ways, it seems, translation marks а cultural and political landscape where resources and the control over what is translated (and how) is unequally distributed. Translations are always situated in а field in which access to power is vital and in which hierarchies between different languages and cultural formations are the norm rather than the exception. Translations have the power to change perceptions; they can also fail to do so, when they never in fact go beyond а narrow circle of literary people eager to play the role of, shall we say, ‘well-informed persons’.

The lack of a Ukrainian presence on the world stage does not mean that the culture does not measure up. But it does reflect the grim political realities that confronted the Ukrainian people throughout most of the twentieth century. In а globalized world, we Ukrainians find ourselves between Scylla and Charybdis, but the Odyssey is only for the brave of heart, who possess strong principles, courage and vision. We have already experienced our own radical re-awakening and life-changing moment, as well as a fundamental shift in how we perceive ourselves. І think that, appropriately designed and built, the ‘evidence map’ that should be the outcome of this self-examination will allow us to navigate safely between Scylla and Charybdis. It will take all Ukrainians, working together, using adaptive optics, to navigate this challenging place. There can be no rest until we reach the goal: the meaning and the future we want.