From borscht to Lesya Ukrainka: on the imperial appropriation of the Ukrainian culture

Russian appropriation of the Ukrainian culture has been happening for hundreds of years, so much so that one could write a monograph about it. Unfortunately, post-Soviet fighters for everything good bring little attention to this issue, choosing to parrot the western discourse of the appropriation of the black culture by the whites. When Slavs steal from Slavs, moreso the close neighbors, it’s hardly noticeable, and not even the so-called “first world” has brought attention to this issue until recently. And someone brings attention to the shameless appropriation of foreign cultures only after the appropriated culture ends up showered by the imperial bombs. Before that some English-speaking social justice warriors did not even bother to know where Ukraine or Russia is – and that Macedonia thing is also some Slavs, maybe, heaven help them.

There was some hope that Russian liberals would have their minds shaken by the sounds of explosions and finally start understanding their neighbors’ issues. Some had it, but definitely not the right libertarian Yulia Latynina, who’s known for cheap Ayn Rand impressions and failed rebuttals of the leftists and anarchists. She writes:

“We are witnessing the revival of the Kievan Rus. From now on, everything democratic, market-oriented, and western in the Russian-speaking world will be consolidated in Kiev. Kiev will once again become the capital of Ruthenia. Moscow will become the capital of the Horde.”

Under the guise of praise, Latynina chooses herself a new, correct (and particularly market-oriented) Russia, and “places” it in Ukraine, which is currently neither Ruthenia nor Russia. She also implies that Asian migrants, who are very common in Moscow, make the “second Russia” incorrect, Hordeian. Of course, she also means Russian politicians and oligarchs, most of whom aren’t Asians, but it is hard to not read racism between the lines.

How does one translate these Russian revelations? “We are not the same as Putin, we are good and want good, so your good, dear Ukrainians, we will call Russian and attach ourselves to it”. Interesting manipulation, but the other side of the border has been catching this bluff for a very long time now.

Let’s remember what cultural appropriation really is, outside the fantasies of the not very well-educated teenagers from Tumblr. One of the main goals of appropriation is to make capital gains, be it material or, in particular cases, social, on the appropriation of foreign cultures. By positioning Ukraine as the new “good” Russia, ignoring the opinions of the non-Russian speaking Ukrainians, Russian liberals earn applause not only of their local crowd, but also western liberals, who, as noted earlier, are not all that well-versed in the post-Soviet cultures.

Some entitled intellectuals from St. Petersburg symbolically appropriate Ukraine merely for the inspiration’s sake. Like, say, Andrey Polonsky, a right-wing generally-liberal. According to his words, Kyiv has a special atmosphere, that opens the portals to the new worlds. South-Russian. Will it really not come back? “But generally I am for peace, I even went out to protest”.

“I remember a balcony somewhere in the residential area on the other side of Dniepr” – laments Polonsky, who, by the way, also has a flat in the occupied Crimea. “Early morning. Behind my back are the music, friends, very special South-Russian manners, South-Russian friendly embrace, South-Russian laughter, South-Russian intellectualism, South-Russian sadness. This won’t ever come back. Right?”

Such a shame. Of course, half of the appropriators are for peace. So Kyiv peacefully capitulates and keeps feeding the neighbors for free.

In unison with him are the right-conservative writers entrenched in the “Literarurnaya gazeta”, a newspaper that’s long become home for the Putinist propaganda and boomer ramblings. In their statement “Who wants victims?” Ukrainians are portrayed as kind of different people, but really part of the Russian family, like yaroslavtsy. This group of writers also likes calling the Ukrainian language a dialect of Russian. And stating that the thoughts of Russians and Ukrainians are alike. These accidental blurbs shine light on the insanity of the Russian propagandists making claims about the Ukrainians supposedly bombing their own cities. After all, our thoughts are alike. Russians decided to tear Kharkiv to shreds, so right away Ukrainians also decided to tear Kharkiv to shreds.

“We love the Ukrainian people, sing the Ukrainian songs, watch the Ukrainian cinema, pray in the same churches. Our thoughts are alike, and so is the burning desire to finally breathe in the air of the now-inevitable spring, common for both of us. We got great writer with shared spiritual love of happiness, freedom, peace, humanity. Lev Tolstoy and Nikolay Gogol, Taras Shevchenko and Alexander Pushkin, Lesya Ukrainka and Anna Akhmatova. We’ve got many shared victories and achievements that won’t be crossed out by anyone.”

And the only ones who want casualties in this case are the “Ukrainian Nazis”. Perhaps the ones who chose the Jewish president Zelensky. True Russians do not want casualties. They just want to appropriate Shevchenko to themselves, right after Gogol. You won’t mind after all, won’t you?

They aren’t trying to put the “ukroface” caricature onto themselves. Worse, they are trying to make the Ukrainians wear Russian faces. Such is this twisted appropriation.

More direct appropriation does not even meet their eyes, even though sometimes the thievery is so well-executed that the bloggers have now spent decades arguing who borscht belongs to. Outside the post-USSR it is considered Russian, many make money off of it, but, unfortunately, its Russian counterpart is called “shchi”.

Our readers have agreed to answer the question of what bothers them in the Russian attempts of the appropriation of the Ukrainian culture. Predictably, some readers from Russia did not understand the problem or what they meant.

But, for example, Kuban Cossack Choir, popular in the USSR and still present to this day, is the Ukrainian musical culture spiced up with the Soviet and later Russian patriotic ideology. Ukrainian opinions on this collective are very predictable. “In the summer of 2021,” – told me the Ukrainian programmer, “I paid visit to my relatives in Bulgaria. For some reason they thought that because I am from Ukraine, I would be happy to listen to some Cossack songs, and they put on some crap from the Kuban Cossack Choir. It made me feel quite uncomfortable.”

Part of the appropriation is the understatement of the accomplishments of the previously or currently colonized people, and the attribution of said accomplishments to the metropolis. Gamers report on how the Ministry of Sport congratulated the “Russian esports pros” for winning the Dota tournament, despite most of the team being comprised of Ukrainians. Also, Ukrainians took note of the appropriation of the space program:

“What a shame. Ukrainians went all out there, Korolev, Kondratyuk, Popovych and the others, but all the fame was brought to Russia.”

Our editor Borys Ohlavenko mentioned yet another film adaptation of Gogol:

“Anyone remembers [Vladimir Bortko’s] imperial dreck hiding under the guise of “Taras Bulba”?

Turns out Rusyn-Ukrainian cossacks see dreams of the “Russian orthodox faith”, think every second and talk like they are from Moscow and fight “For the Motherland! For Stalin!” or “For Ruthenia! For the Tsar!” (crossed out) “for the Russian soil”, “eternally loved by Christ” and so on, by the canons of the Great Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy.”

Kyiv citizen remembered the story of the vlogger BadComedian about the Russian blockbuster “Chernobyl” [distributed in the West as “Chernobyl: Abyss”,- translator], billed as the tragedy of the Russian people; the screenplay also hinted at the Russian nationality of the characters. Nothing in the movie suggests to the unsuspecting viewer that the movie takes place in Ukraine.

Blogger and game designer Oleksandr Volodarskyy responded:

“From something recent. Menu in the Berlin restaurant Chagall: “BORSCHTSCH “UKRAINA”, Russian soup of beetroot and six different vegetables, with a dash of crem”. To hell with borscht, but they call it “Ukraina” while at the same time defining it as “Russian”.”

To steal what doesn’t sit right, Russians can not just from close neighbors. For example, the matryosha souvenir actually has the Japanese origin: kokeshi dolls are the wooden figures that have been widespread ever since the times of Shinto. Wife of the patron of the arts Savva Mamontov brought some of these from Honshu island and showed to the familiar artists. And thus the new business was born. Having matryoshka appropriated, the Russians successfully sell them to the Japanese tourists.

What else to say, Russians stole other people’s history. Famous scientist Vasily Klyuchevsky assumed that particularly the Russian history starts from Andrey Bogolyubsky, and not Kyivan Rus, but the patriots of the empire have decided that this wasn’t grandiose enough. At the same time, the imperials really don’t like hearing about decolonisation, as for them this is something that pertains to some hateful “agenda”. So that thing about women’s and LGBT rights, domestic violence lars, antiracism and other petty things that “Russian world” does not need.

Not to worry, this is temporary. Without any Tumblrs or dreaded SJWs the imperials are getting all the bile not just for appropriation, but also direct thievery and looting.

Translation: Marko Karpo

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