Ukraine must make the world understand what it is so that it can never be made invisible again.
Dr Uilleam Blacker is Associate Professor in Comparative Russian and East European Culture, School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London. His research interests are literature and culture of east-central Europe, with a focus on problems of cultural memory. His main focus is Ukraine, but he also works on Poland and Russia. As well as literary and cultural representations, he has also researched memory politics and broader commemorative practices in the region. His two other current areas of research interest are the legacies of multicultural literary heritage on the territories of contemporary Ukraine, and cultural representations of the war in Donbas.
1. One of your recent research focus areas is cultural representations of the war in Donbas. Could you please touch upon your key findings?
The war in Donbas has been an extremely important topic for Ukrainian culture in recent years. Ukraine has produced a vibrant and dynamic war literature - something that nobody could have expected a decade ago. In my analysis, I argue that Ukrainian writers tend to focus on the 'outskirts' of armed conflict - representing war by not representing it directly. There are, of course, heroic, patriotic texts that focus on fighting. But these are probably a minority. The more indirect approach allows writers to focus on the experience of civilians, and also very often that of women, and to explore all the complicated problems that arise in relation to war - what are war's effects on communities, on families, on gender relations, on people's sense of identity and belonging? The new Ukrainian war literature, as represented by writers like Natalia Vorozhbyt, Olena Stiazhkina, Volodymyr Rafeienko, Serhii Zhadan, Artem Chekh, Liuba Yakimchuk and many others, is truly rich and complex in this regard.
2. What is your opinion on de-communization in Ukraine? Has it been a failure or success?
In a purely material sense, it has been a success - a lot of monuments were removed, a lot of names changed. Whether it has been a success in other senses - political, socially, culturally - I think it is too early to say. Removing monuments and changing names is important symbolically, but it cannot really change anything in wider society in any direct sense. In the end, we should remember that these are questions which few ordinary people are really worried about. Decommunization of some sort is necessary - a modern, European state should come to terms with its past and take ownership of its public spaces. A state that continues to tolerate monuments to dictators and murderers - even if only by inertia - is a state that is ignorant of its past and the legacy of that past in the present. These problems are complex, however, and there are many grey areas - how to deal with the history of Ukrainians serving in the Red Army? Or Soviet Ukrainian cultural heritage - all those great writers who were committed to Ukrainian language and literature and also to communism? These are questions that need careful and nuanced discussion. At times, the discourse around decommunization has been oversimplified and reduced to a kind of weapon against Russia. It should, rather, be a process about Ukraine and its complex past first and foremost. For me, the most problematic element of the decommunization process was its legal dimension. Prosecuting someone for making certain statements or displaying certain symbols is a dangerous path to go down. Yes, similar laws exist in some European countries, but having effective freedom of speech always means allowing things that we find distasteful, and we should take extreme care with any sort of prohibition. We have also seen a disturbing tendency in both Russia and Poland whereby the state pursues historians whose work contradicts official versions of the past. Russia and Poland are different - the former is much more repressive in this regard - but the principle is similar, and Ukraine should avoid going down this route.
3. What memory politics should Ukrainian government pursue?
The state, of course, has to have some sort of idea of what sort of history it wants to promote and celebrate, but, for me, it should delegate this process as much as possible to non-state and non-political professionals and communities. Historians and educators should formulate school syllabuses and textbooks. Heritage professionals should be entrusted with public memory projects, museum professionals with museums. Interventions in public space should always take local interests into account - a top-down approach can alienate people. There should also be maximal room for dialogue and plurality of perspective in commemoration and education about the past. I would like to see state support for projects that move away from traditional, militarised visions of the past, where the emphasis is on heroic sacrifice for the nation. There is room for this, but there should also be room for monuments to writers, artists, civic activists, religious leaders, for areas of life and history beyond ar and nation-building. Celebrating Lesya Ukrainka, Viacheslav Chornovil or Andrei Sheptyts'kyi will provide a more constructive vision of Ukraine's past that focusing on the likes of Bandera and Shukhevych, who may be heroes to some, but are complex and ambiguous figures who alienate many Ukrainians as well as potential allies of Ukraine. I would also like to see Ukraine lay claim to its very rich, multicultural past - some great writers, for example, were natives of Ukraine - Kazimir Malevich, Sholem Aleichem, Joseph Conrad, Paul Celan, Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz... there are many, and they are also Ukraine's heritage - this is a great soft-power resource with the potential to create international connections. Having said all that, however, the state does have to be vigilant about Russian manipulations of the past, which it uses as part of its hybrid war strategy. Sites like Babyn Iar, where oligarchs with Kremlin links have become involved with commemorative processes, have become matters of state security; the solution is not for the state to dictate the shape of such sites, but it should protect them from outside manipulation.
4. What lessons can Ukraine learn from its past to build a better future? What mistakes should it avoid?
Ukraine's biggest challenges right now are the war with Russia and corruption inside Ukraine, which is at the root of so many economic and social problems. In relation to corruption, the strength and health of state institutions is, of course, key. Ukraine never really had its own institutions throughout its history, which is perhaps why it is taking some time for these to form right now; there seems to have been modest progress in recent years, but it is slow. Probably, Ukraine should look at other states in Europe and beyond in the present for inspiration, rather than to the past. With the war, there are clearer historical precedents - Ukraine has been the object of Russian colonial aggression repeatedly. Ukraine could never resist Russian aggression as it was never able to establish itself as a long-term political entity. Now Ukraine is stronger than ever in that sense, and in that sense it can learn from its current strength and its past weakness: by strengthening the institutions of the state, law and democracy, but also things like free media and civil society, it can resist outside pressure. But Ukraine can also learn form its own past invisibility to outsiders: Ukraine has, historically, not been recognised as a political subject, but rather as an object of geopolitical speculation for great powers. Today, Ukraine has to resist this way of thinking, which is still not uncommon even in the West, and make sure that it is well represented at all international forums and in all international organisations. Diplomacy is key, relations with the EU and NATO are key. But, as a cultural historian, I would also say that cultural diplomacy is key: Ukraine must make the world understand what it is - its history, its culture, its people's achievements - so that it can never be made invisible again.