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From Sovietology to Postcoloniality: Poland and Ukraine from a Postcolonial Perspective

Sally Boss

Edited by Janusz Korek. Stockholm: Södertörn Academic Studies 32, 2007. 272 pages. Bibliography. ISBN: 978-91-89315-72-3. Paper.

The book’s title signals a proposal of the Central/Eastern European scholars to call a spade a spade, i.e., to call the Russian/Soviet occupation of Central and Eastern Europe a colonial venture rather than a choice that these countries have made. In American scholarship and journalism, it has been routinely suggested that Central and Eastern Europe somehow “chose” to be allied with Soviet Russia. Expressions such as “the Soviet satellites” or “communist countries,” used millions of times in scholarship and journalism, in schools and social conversations, contain a suggestion that these “communist countries” were in fact hostile to the United States, and therefore the ethnic groups that trace their roots to them were, and are, untrustworthy as well. At least a fraction of the discriminatory attitudes Poles in America often encounter can be traced back to these assumptions built, again, on the incorrect naming of historical events and the resulting “standard usage.”

The fifteen papers in this volume were given at an academic conference in Stockholm. The editor’s introductory essay sketches out the problems that Central and Eastern European scholars have faced in trying to overcome false generalizations about the region supplied by their Western European and American colleagues. Professor Korek points out that Soviet colonialism in Central Europe has had broader implications than commonly recognized. Being colonized had negative psychological effects on the culture and economic potential of the region. Since the colonizer was the quintessential Other, the cultures assaulted by colonization were obliged to look inward rather than outward for sustenance. But this turn inward had many undesirable consequences. Furthermore, the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized in Europe has been made more complex by the fact that some of the colonized countries were colonizers as well.

Leonard Neuger’s paper discusses the unspoken premise of German writings on Germany’s eastern neighbors. Neuger points out that the concept of Mitteleuropa (introduced in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century) was related to German colonial expansion. Mitteleuropa was a territory “receptive to civilizing experiments,” as opposed to the territory farther east that was “savage and impossible to civilize” (25). It was a borderland, a mix of German and Polish, a civilizationally undetermined area. As usual in colonial discourse, the subject of women was part of the concept of Mitteleuropa: the women in that area were said to have a strong sex drive and a wild streak in their personalities. The presentation of the colonized as children was also part of this discourse (28). What did the colonizer gain by so presenting the weaker? “Like Hegel’s Master, a powerful identity, precisely because of his position in the discourse” (25).

Aleksander Fiut agrees that imperial presence negatively influenced Central and Eastern Europe, but then speedily slips into political correctness and says virtually nothing. In contrast, Bogusław Bakuła’s “Colonial and Postcolonial Aspects of Polish Discourse on the Eastern ‘Borderlands’” is rich in substance. Bakuła discusses the concept of Kresy, or the eastern borderlands of Poland. One should note that Kresy played a similar role for Poles as Mitteleuropa for Germans. However, in contrast to the Germans who have not abandoned their hopes for Mitteleuropa (as exemplified by Preussische Treuhand), for the Poles the Borderlands are mainly a site of nostalgia, perfect in their mythological essence and also as a place of suffering. Bakuła is right in noting that this mythology excludes the Other (except as a savage to be tolerated or civilized). Certainly the Borderlands discourse in Poland is a colonial discourse, and it incorporates the ego-building notion of superiority. It also includes the motif of an “inferior” Ruthenian woman (49). Bakuła rightly quotes those Ukrainian writers who wrote sarcastically about the Polish ways of asserting the primacy of Polish discourse in ethnically Ukrainian lands.

All this is aptly said, but the number of specific cases considered is too small to allow for the large generalizations that Bakuła offers. I would also question his suggestion that “[t]he fundamental task of postcolonial theory in Poland would be to reveal those forms of language, image and text used in public life . . . which . . . store and accept convictions that disable, differentiate, exclude Others” (50). In his zeal to introduce postcolonial theory to Poland, Bakuła forgets the other side of the coin, namely, the dialectic of colonizing and being colonized at the same time that is characteristic of Poland. While Polish discourse incorporated colonizing habits with regard to the Borderlands, it has also internalized the habits of the colonized. Poles have been an object of colonization for both Germans and Russians. The two aspects of Polish identity have to be studied together to produce a truthful image of Polish cultural discourse. While Bakuła is right to question the alleged harmonious multiculturalism of the Borderlands and the demonizing of Others when they departed from that alleged harmony (not to speak of the very notion of the Borderlands that happen to be the Mainland to other nations), he is oblivious of the issue of the Polish reaction to German and Russian colonization.

Ukraine as the victim of double colonization is the topic of George Grabowicz’s essay. The author suggests that Polish enthusiasm for the “Orange Revolution” might be both compensatory and proprietory (on the one hand, the Polish “colonial guilt” regarding the Ukrainians; on the other, the Polish sense of accomplishment-however misplaced- in assisting Ukraine along the path that Poland itself has taken: saying yes to Western civilization and aligning itself with Europe rather than Russia. Grabowicz consents to the view that Poland’s relation to Ukraine contained an element of colonialism, especially in the Romantic period; however, he points out that a much stronger colonial dependence existed between Ukraine and Russia. This relationship was present in the nineteenth century in the newly emerging Ukrainian literature. The Russian response to it was to delegitimize Ukrainian identity. Only in the twentieth century did the Imperial Academy of Sciences concede that Ukrainian was not a dialect of Russian but a separate language. With regard to the early nineteenth-century Ukrainian literature, the colonial model of dependence/subordination/inferiority was related to the “provincial model” present in all empires, privileging the discourse of the metropolis (St. Petersburg-Moscow axis) at the expense of the “‘crude’, earthy, nativist and subversive” (63) discourse of Ukraine. Critics like Vissarion Belinskii (and, one might add, many Polish writers and intellectuals) failed to see that beneath this earthiness “a powerful sense of identity was being forged” (65). However, owing to the restrictions the colonial power put on the development of Ukrainian identity, academic self-reflection was not present in Ukraine at that time.

Grabowicz contends that the 1920s marked a renaissance of Ukrainian culture. For the first time in history, Ukrainization of historical scholarship took place and academic institutions were created that focused on Ukraine. Both scholarship and culture profited. This aspect of Ukrainian development remains unappreciated in Poland; Polish scholars tend to downplay the achievements of this period and point out that the roots of Stalinism lay in Leninism. The 1930s marked a radical change: Stalinism physically destroyed individuals responsible for the Ukrainian renaissance, although Party dignitaries like Mykola Skrypnyk tried to keep Ukrainization alive. The next step was Russification: the imperative of total control that Stalin favored required that large entities like Ukraine did not veer away from the cultural habits of the center. For instance, the granting of university degrees became the privilege of Moscow, and Ukrainian-language periodicals were curtailed. Discourse and behavior of Ukrainians were affected. In the USSR it was impossible to resist the ideology if one wanted to survive as a ranking member of society. Ukrainian culture was once again downgraded to ethnicity and folklore, and the best of Ukraine was “harvested” for Moscow and made into Russian writers and scholars. On the other hand, academic professionalism suffered from a proliferation of publitsistika, or unscholarly essays published in the Ukrainian scholarly journals. One might add that “informality of presentation, broad complacency about incompetence . . . derivative thinking and . . . parochialism of intellectual horizons” (74) also plagued Polish scholarship in Soviet-occupied Poland.

Grabowicz is no postmodernist, and in his conclusions he returns to the topic of continuity. Preserving the legacy of the past is crucial for Ukrainian literature because of its youth and relatively modest content. Grabowicz points out that institutional continuity is important for Ukraine, from the Union of Writers to the National Academy of Sciences. However, within this continuity there arise pseudohistories and mystifications where the elites overemphasize themselves at the expense of the Other. Another danger comes from “reflexive Russocentrism” especially in southern and eastern Ukraine, that blends easily with parochialism and isolationism. On the other end of the spectrum, there is nativism and xenophobia. Grabowicz warns against these products of Soviet restrictions. The legacy of Russian colonialism in Ukraine (Grabowicz deals mostly with Russian rather than Polish colonialism) also consists of corruption and academic dishonesty at universities, and the general passivity once encouraged by Moscow because it facilitated colonial governance. Although the situation in Poland is different, Grabowicz’s paper is not irrelevant to Poles, especially regarding what he calls the “hybridization of the humanities establishment” (73).

While Grabowicz is a “traditional” scholar, Myroslav Shkandrij is inclined to reach for the resources of postcolonial theory. He begins with examples of a deeply seated prejudice against Ukrainians in the English-speaking world. It is even deeper than prejudice against the Poles, although it is less visible at first sight. He is profoundly right in pointing out that one good weapon against prejudice is postcolonial terminology that deconstructs the stereotypes of colonialist observers. Russia in particular, with its “Ukrainian school” of writers, could become an object of postcolonial deconstruction, suggests Professor Shkandrij. He points out that there is much resistance to this approach. For some Ukrainian scholars, the invocation of colonialism suggests an admission that Ukraine has been “a culturally and politically inferior place” (84). There is also the association of postcolonial studies with the largely discredited Marxism, and fear of assuming a “reactive posture” that empires tend to encourage. Finally and most importantly, the postcolonial approach seems to dissolve all nationalisms, and a country like Ukraine cannot afford interruptions in the process of building its national identity. For that reason, a large group of Ukrainian writers aligned themselves with “populism and tradition” (87), and for them the rubbing-in of the memory of Ukraine‘s colonial past is not acceptable. Here Shkandrij summarizes the work of the Zhytomyr school of writers, who denounce “excessive intellectualism” and the passion for freedom that, in their view, stems from the French Revolution [how wrong they are! SB]. For such writers the very word “postcolonialism” is an anathema. They yearn for continuity with the past and for the Ukrainian village. Shkandrij sees such attitudes as reactions to both Russification and Westernization “that threaten to submerge the national culture” (90) in a stream of universal democracy. He points out that there is a difference between an imposed hybridity and a freely assumed one. He probably underestimates the danger of such traditionalist attitudes. They can be a prelude to an eventual absorption by Russia and an unwitting call to war against all those in Ukraine who do not accept the Ukrainian identity.

Per-Arne Bodin of Stockholm University writes about Iurii Andrukhovych’s Moskoviada [1992]. This burlesque novel chronicles the narrator’s student years in Moscow. The novel owes much of its charm to the technique of magic realism: it starts in the realistic mode and then slips into fantasy, somewhat like Viktor Pelevin’s novels or, earlier, Witold Gombrowicz’s. Like Pelevin, Andrukhovych records the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Polish writers Gombrowicz and Tadeusz Konwicki are also invoked by Bodin as prototypes. An attempt to distance his hero from the empire by naming him Otto (a most unlikely name in the Ukrainian context) shows that the problem of the substitute hegemon is very real in Ukraine. Bodin rightly asserts that Moscow has seldom been presented in any of the languages of the empire except Russian; to see it disintegrate in Ukrainian marginalizes Russian language and culture in a striking way. But Ukrainian also gets an ironic beating in the passage declaring that the Ukrainian language has won second place for melodiousness in a Swiss competition; in the same competition Russian shared thirty-fourth place with Mongolian and Swahili (96). Everybody drinks in Andrukhovych’s novel, including the principleless hero, and it is suggested that the empire will drown in the vodka its citizens imbibe. The sexual prowess of the “colonial” subject is shown literally and figuratively (the latter through his travel to Moscow, an unusual direction for the colonial subject to take-it is more customary for the colonialist to travel to the periphery). The hero wanders through the horrors and degradation of Moscow as if through hell, and returns to Ukraine at the end. However, there is no prettification of Ukraine either: Andrukhovych is rightly called a postmodernist writer. He is also a writer leaning toward Europe, as his 2004 speech to the European Parliament (quoted by Bodin) indicates.

Tamara Hundorova of Kyiv’s Academy of Science writes on postcolonial resentment. She invokes Nietzsche and states that resentment is a predictable product of the feeling of marginality that Ukrainians experienced in the empire. She compares Andrzej Stasiuk and Yurii Andrukhovych, and argues that the first is postcolonial (free of resentment), whereas the second is anticolonial (resentment is part of the anticolonial syndrome). But then she seems to contradict herself by calling Andrukhovych postcolonial as well. The Hapsburg-generated Ukrainian identity is also mentioned. Perhaps my reading of her paper is faulty, but she seems to invoke too many topics without exploring them sufficiently. Anna Kaluża writes of “the experience of Otherness in Polish poetry after 1990,” and argues that it is part of the postcolonial consciousness and is generated by a situation in which “the balance between difference and identity has been disturbed” (126).

Stefan Szymutko of the University of Silesia writes on “appearance and essence in history,” using Teodor Parnicki’s novel as an example. While Szymutko has read his Hegel and Foucault, the categorical tone in which he asserts that power is the creator of knowledge and discourse smells of provincialism, and so does his “summary” of certain philosophical problems from Plato to Derrida. Surely discourse and its sources are still a matter of debate, and hopefully always will be-the alternative is the kind of determinism that, one hopes, Szymutko does not espouse. But the cocktail he blends over a few pages has too many ingredients. His argument suffers from too many generalizations, and it does not come to a perceivable conclusion, breaking in midair as it were.

The paper by Olia Hnatiuk of the Polish Academy of Science takes on the negative autostereotype of ghettoization invoked by Ukrainians. She is interested in “nationalism as a discourse” (140), and has in mind the discourse of the “imagined community.” She posits that this imagined community does not exist outside national culture, which in essence is a discourse in which “various identity projects are being reformulated.” She then invokes Michel Foucault’s view that discourse is an act of instituting power and perpetuating dominance.What, then, is the role of a negative stereotype perpetuated by participants in such a discourse? Hnatiuk invokes the problem of language in Ukraine. While statisitics show that in Ukraine Ukrainians are a majority and Russians a minority, a sizable percentage of Ukrainians speak Russian rather than Ukrainian. Hnatiuk contends that it would be wrong to draw the conclusion that Ukrainians are a “minority faith” (142) in the country. She also declares herself in favor of affirmative action with regard to Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians. Most importantly, she points out that it is wrong of the Ukrainian intelligentsia to consent to the notion that they form an isolated group in a sea of Russian-speaking citizens. Divisions among Ukrainians should be avoided; there should not be a division between the “patriotic ” and “unpatriotic,” i.e., Russian-speaking, intelligentsia. Hnatiuk does not propose any remedies, however; her paper merely points out that the tactic of division is counterproductive to the Ukrainian national interests.

Mykola Riabchuk of Kyiv addresses a similar topic: the prevalence of Russian culture in Ukraine, and its desctructive role with regard to Ukrainian identity. He states that the most urgent task is to prevent the Russian language and culture from becoming mediators between world culture and Ukraine. He minces no words, stating that culturally speaking Ukraine was considered by Russia as a cultural colony, inferior in every way: linguistic, cultural, and political. Russian symbols and myths were imposed on Ukraine wholesale, and were largely internalized by the Ukrainian masses. Riabchuk agrees with Hnatiuk concerning affirmative action for those Ukrainians who visibly (and linguistically) identify with Ukraine. The two also agree in disagreeing with Andrew Wilson’s work on Ukrainian nationalism (like most Western scholars, Wilson is emphatically pro-Russian in his sympathies and perceptions, a classic illustration of Foucault’s opinion that [Russian] discourse, spread wide in the West, builds dominance and power). Riabchuk recounts the processes once recorded by Franz Fanon and Michael Hechter, of the elites dissociating themselves from the “aboriginal” native culture and adopting the “superior” culture of the conqueror. He states that in eastern Ukraine, the “aborigines are ashamed of their autochthonous background. . . and are even less inclined than ethnic Russians to show any interest in Ukrainian culture, which they consider inferior” (163). To dislodge the image of a superior empire from the consciousness of these natives a different model is necessary, and here the West has to play a role. The more Ukrainians associate themselves with the West, the better for their national consciousness. That is why it is advantageous for them to ally themselves with the Poles (and vice versa) because no country can leapfrog its neighbors and go in a certain direction without taking into account its immediate neighbors. Riabchuk understands this. He also understands that with the appearance of wild capitalism, Ukraine became a provincial market for Russian entertainment goods, from films and songs to pulp literature. Riabchuk concludes on an optimistic note, stating that the boundaries between various groups in Ukrainian society are fluid and therefore apt to change in the future-hopefully, to accommodate a clearer national consciousness.

Liudmyla Pavlyuk returns to the divide between eastern and western Ukraine, and what it means for the anticolonial processes currently taking place in Ukraine. Niklas Bernsand details the mock trial of surzhyk, or the Russian-Ukrainian linguistic concoction often spoken in Ukraine. For some shurzhyk is a linguistic mongrel; for others it is a legitimate construct. Finally, Janusz Korek of Södertörn University College in Stockholm takes on the weighty subject of the formation of identity of the Polish intelligentsia after the Second World War (229-67). Professor Korek points out that the Yalta agreements allowed “the myths and stereotypes. . . about Eastern Europe to be written into contemporary Western discourse” (233). The West has long regarded Eastern Europe as a separate continent that was culturally different from “Europe.” The “renting out” of these lands to the Soviet hegemon confirmed the prejudices and allowed the West to function “normally” within its own cultural, political, and military spheres, unburdened by a vague obligation toward the East or a sense of a cultural connection with it. Korek notes that some Polish intellectuals, such as Jerzy Stempowski, understood this and therefore opted out of Europe in the belief that the continent would eventually decline owing to its rejection of the European East (Stempowski settled in Latin America). But Jerzy Giedroyć and his Kultura stayed. Giedroyć believed that the West was going through a profound crisis. It was losing its ontological bearings and its power to radiate culture. It “chose death,” in Seneca’s famous phrase. Giedroyć opposed the Spenglerian vision of Europe’s future (as well as Marxism and dispensationalist eschatology). He stayed in Europe in order to fight. His struggle was based on a belief in the individual and his freedom. In Giedroyć’s view (as recounted by Korek), only the freely acting individuals could save European civilization. Kultura’s credo rejected all absolutes of old European culture, however. After these rejections, what was left? Giedroyć did not speak about it. He skirted around the problem. For him, politics was a part of culture (true enough), and culture was the field in which Giedroyć and his team wished to play. Thus Kultura was not an organ of political propaganda but an attempt to save a civilization. If Professor Korek is right, then Kultura may be perceived as a late progeny of the messianic mission that Adam Mickiewicz assigned to Poland in his romantic and romanticizing works. However, Korek is remote from such associations (as was Giedroyć). Korek points out that Giedroyć and Kultura supported the view that is still valid today: that Central and Eastern Europe are the key to European peace. Unless these territories are at peace, there is no peace in Europe. True enough-but not always remembered by the European diplomats. To preserve that peace, Giedroyć worked incessantly for the cause of reconciliation between the nations of Central and Eastern Europe. He also held dear the idea of an Eastern European federation-a project that seems utopian now, as one observes nations emerging from the Soviet ice and bent on building and strengthening their national identities (as many of the chapters of this book testify). However, when one looks at federalism from the perspective of the European Union, a different picture emerges. The mix of Eastern and Western Europe has proven to be attractive to the post-Soviet states, and in this sense Kultura can be considered one of the pioneers of a united Europe. However, as Korek rightly notes, Giedroyć and Kultura spoke rather of a federation of Europe’s eastern part; barring that, they hoped that the USSR would allow the creation of a neutral zone between itself and Western Europe. Try as he may, Professor Korek cannot avoid showing Giedroyć’s erroneous vision. It should have become clear to Giedroyć that no one east of Poland wanted a federation; they wanted independence. His dream of a multicultural Poland might ring a pleasant note, but it was a pipe dream. Those who cling to it today are advocating a cultural disaster. The situation in countries such as Lithuania and Ukraine is skewed toward a single ethnicity to the point of denying any ties to Polish culture whatsoever. One has to wait for several generations to see whether multiethnicity and multilingualism have a chance in Eastern Europe. As the Ukrainian intellectuals featured in this book say almost unanimously, the struggle of the suppressed nations takes precendence before any such dreams of multiculturalism. Korek calls such multiculturalism “the myth of the Dnister valley,” thus echoing Edward Keenan’s “the myth of Dnieprovia.”

Altogether, a challenging book. It raises more questions than it answers, but with regard to the post-Soviet sphere answers are not easy to find. Certain general patterns emerge. The Polish and Ukrainian scholars deal with different problems of postcoloniality. Whereas in Poland the issue of the continuing submission to the hegemon is not a problem (unless one thinks of the substitute hegemons such as the Western Europeans), in Ukraine the subservience to and closeness of Russia are still major problems. The vulgarity of the Soviet empire and its destructive pointlessness hurt the Ukrainians more than the Poles. While Poles debate the relationship between Poland and the remainder of the Western world (Poles have no doubt that they belong to it), in Ukraine the relationship with Russia and how to get rid of it still prevail in discourse. But virtually all the papers imply that the interests of Poland and Ukraine run parallel, and that both countries would do well to forget past quarrels and cooperate as much as possible.

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