“Maloross lacks craftsmanship”, or Eternal truths of Russian writers

Of course, I do not call for burning Ukrainophobic books or arresting their authors; moreover, I stand against banning such books as Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, because as the ancient Roman saying goes, “know the language of your enemy”. This text encourages you to review the colonial background of Russian literature and examine the origins of its Ukrainophobia, often disguised as brotherly love.

In the context of the Russo-Ukrainian war, it makes sense to explore the phenomenon of mass denial of Russian writers’ Ukrainophobia. A somewhat reputable literary critic, Valery Shubinsky, writes on his Facebook that no Ukrainophobic passages by Akhmatova are known to him, and that her diaries do not contain a single line about Kyiv. False; the stars of the golden age of Russian literature expressed themselves very explicitly.

We will review a few examples of Ukrainophobia, researching multiple sources: ranging from letters, diaries and memoirs to poems and fantasy novels. Unfortunately, our trip into the russkiy mir will be very brief: if we start quoting everybody, we will end up collecting a two-volume handbook, like Viktor Afanasyev’s 2005 collection “Russian writers about Jews”.

As Olga Kryukova, a researcher, states in her 2017 book “Romantic image of Ukraine in Russian 19th century literature”, the interest of “Russian, and not only Russian, Romanticists in Ukraine was motivated by the specifics of the canonical romanticist artistic method, which requires exploring the grassroots folk culture, self-standing language and national character traits of a country”. This is, of course, the influence of German Romanticism, particularly the Jena Romantic school with their noble peasant myth inheriting the noble savage myth of the Sentimentalists.

The exoticization and romanticizing of Ukrainians, on the one hand, looked quite well-meaning, unlike the exoticization of Jews, whom the vanguard authors of Russian classics usually depicted with disgust, assigning them stereotypical “demonic” traits. On the other hand, the Russian authors denied the autonomy of the Ukrainian culture and language, calling “mova” a Russian dialect and only using “Malorossiya”* as the term for Ukraine. Specifically, this was done a lot by Pushkin, who used to also accuse Mazepa of violence and disregard for freedom (“Poltava”), seemingly forgetting about the much larger bloodthirstiness of the Russian czars, who supported serfdom and territorial invasions.

Curiously, the examples of Ukrainophobia in Russian culture are extensively studied by such historians and publicists as Andrei Marchukov, an advocate of the so-called “Novorossiya”. Reading his book “Ukraine in Russian consciousness. Nikolai Gogol and his era”, you understand that with such friends, the Russians do not even need enemies. Marchukov, believing the East of Ukraine to be a part of Russia, is nonetheless literally chronicling the anti-Ukrainian current in Russia.

As Marchukov notes, a Ukrainian poet and prose writer Yevhen Hrebinka (1812-1848), the author of the well-known romance “Ochi chyornye” (Black Eyes) and the translator of Pushkin’s “Poltava”, was very saddened at the contempt at the Ukrainian language often reproduced by educated Ukrainians: “his fellow countrymen only considered the Malorossiyan dialect a vulgar folk slang or a tool for comedy”.

By the way, the 19th century writers interested in the Ukrainian culture note in their essays or, so to say, speak through their characters that the Russians cannot understand the Ukrainian language and often recognize it as foreign. For example, the heroine of Antony Pogorelsky’s “Monastyrka” (Monastery Girl), a naive girl Anyuta, says: “This song seems to be Russian; but the Russian words are so weirdly pronounced here that you often cannot understand them. For example, guess what, velyt’ tebiia zabit’ means the same as velit tebya zabyt’“.

Pogorelsky, despite his tolerance of Ukrainians, seems to emphasize that real education and development are only possible to obtain in the Russian capital: the protagonists of “Monastyrka” studied in Petersburg, and the daughters of Anyuta’s caretaker look like “shynkarkas” near them, meaning the workers of a bar. Other Ukrainians are depicted as noble yet still savages, compared to whom Anyuta is the epitome of European grace. Nevertheless, despite its pulp use of deus-ex-machine and the lack of depth in the image of its antagonist, “Monastyrka” is much more thorough than Turgenev’s “Zhyd” (Jew), whose author (when still writing it) did not at all know or understand the national minorities, limiting himself to the reproduction of colonial cliches.

Conservative Slavophile writers of the following generations developed their disdain for Ukrainians much further. In his 1883 brochure “Jew in Russia”, Nikolai Leskov writes: “The mind of a Maloross is pleasant but dreamy, preferring poetic observation and tranquility; the slow character of these people lacks either movement or a business grip. At their best, it is expressed in sharp, critical humor and sedate decency. In live trading, a Maloross cannot strongly counter the energetic nature of a Jew in any way; in production, the Maloross lacks any craftsmanship. Do not even get me started about a Belorus or a Lithuanian. Thus, it is absolutely natural that among such people a Jew easily earns a bigger income and gets wealthier.” These colonial fantasies were joyously greeted by the conservative public.

Here is how Ivan Aksakov, another Slavophile, evaluated the possibilities of Ukrainian independence: “We here do not deny that a few young heads are infected with separatist delusions. These delusions are absolutely disgusting to us, but they are unsightly, awkward and ridiculous rather than dangerous. We are confident that they constitute no grave danger to Russian unity and wholeness. But they can be very dangerous for the separatists themselves, if the disgruntled Malorossiyan population bumps into them during yet another Polish uprising” (from the collection of works by Ivan Aksakov, volume 3, page 303).

In one of his articles, Aksakov claimed he had always argued “against those writers trying to create some distinguished Malorossiyan literary language, and proved the futility and uselessness of their attempts. We have actively argued with Mr Kulish, Mr Kostomarov and the magazine Osnova, which has unfortunately been untimely shut down. We will continue to dispute unrelentingly in the literary field with equal weaponry…” (same source, pages 305-306).

The Slavophile position has been reviewed in depth by Vyacheslav Kudryashev in his article “The Ukrainian question in the Russian public consciousness of the late 19th century”. One of the stunning quotes about Ukraine mentioned in this research: “This land is Russian, Russian, and Russian! There are no different nationalities or beliefs here. There is only one master here, the Russian people; one ruling nationality, the Russians of the Orthodox belief; other nationalities and beliefs, such as Polish, Jewish, Latin and Moses’ law, might be accepted and tolerated as foreign guests but cannot ever claim the master’s chair”.

Curiously, the Westernizers such as Vissarion Belinsky, the father of the Russian critique, also stood against the very concept of a Ukrainian language, and hated Ukrainian independence even more than some Slavophiles. Belinsky shouted slurs at Ukrainians extensively: “khokhol radical Shevchenko”, “he is a bitter drunk, addicted to khokhol horilka patriotism”, “Panteleimon Kulish is another one of the liberal khokhol livestock”; “these sheep… out-liberaling each other to earn more varenyks and halushkas with salo” (from the 13-volume collection of Belinsky works, particularly his 1841-1848 letters).

Here is a Belinsky review of Shevchenko’s “Dream”, the poem for which the Ukrainian poet was arrested: “I have not read those lampoons, and neither did any of my acquaintances (which by the way proves that they are not evil at all, just shallow and silly), but I am sure that this lampoon… must be hideously offensive for the same reason as I stated earlier” (same source).

Belinsky disregarded the Ukrainian language: “Since the Malorossiyan dialect was spoken mainly by peasants, simple and uneducated people, their speech was markedly primitive, necessarily limiting the literature in their language to the lowlife depictions.” He claimed that “Malorossiyan writers and poets always derive their novels from the simple life and thus introduce us only to Marusia, Odarka, Prokip, Kondziuba, Stenka and other such characters” (review for “Lastivka”, a 1841 compilation of works by Ukrainian authors). Belinsky emphasized that the content of “Malorossiyan” literature “is always drab, always the same, and its main focus is the primitive man’s naivete and the naive allure of the primitive conversation”.

Turgenev, also a liberal, eschewed that standpoint; eventually he rejected the imperial stereotypes he had supported as a youth. He conversed with Taras Shevchenko, commended Ukrainian writers, and his “Rudin” novel made fun of the conservative Ukrainophobes, which in the Russian literary groups were plenty:

“Talking about literature”, Pigasov continued. “If I had extra money, I would become a Malorossiyan poet.”

“Say what? A poet!” Daria countered. “Do you know the least bit of Malorossiyan?”

“None at all; but I don’t need to.”

“You don’t need to?”

“It’s just not necessary. Take a sheet of paper and write your title: ‘Duma’. Then begin: ‘Oh my fate! My poor, poor fate!’ or ‘Hey, there on the hill sits Cossack Nalyvaiko’, and continue: ‘Under the mountain, under the green mountain, there he plippity plays!’ or something like that. And that’s it. Print and distribute. The Maloross will read, rest his cheek on his hand and start crying; what a sensitive soul!”

“Bollocks!” Basistov exclaimed. “What on Earth are you talking about? It doesn’t make any sense. I lived in Malorossiya, I love it and know their language… No such word there as ‘plippity’.”

“So what? The khokhol will start crying anyway.”

Unlike inexperienced readers often come to believe, this scene is not an expression of Turgenev’s own thoughts.

Dostoevsky, “the great Christian humanist”, is notorious for his racism and hate towards pretty much every national minority he encountered. He especially despised “zhydizhek and polyachishek” (Jews and Poles), and here is what he wrote about Ukrainians and Belarusians (“Writer’s Diary”, November 1877):

“Nobody has ever had and will never again hate, envy, slander or outright confront Russia as much as all these Slavic tribes, as soon as Russia liberates them and Europe agrees to recognize them as liberated!.. After liberation, they will, I repeat, start their new life with nothing else but begging Europe, for example England and Germany, to vouch for their freedom and oversee it. The European alliance includes Russia, but they will do it precisely in defense against Russia. Of course, they will start by stating internally, maybe even loudly, and convincing themselves that they do not owe Russia even the smallest gratitude; that, contrarily, it is the Russian desire for power that the European allied intervention has rescued them from… It would be especially pleasant for the liberated Slavs to demonstrate ostentatiously to the entire world that they are educated tribes, capable of the highest European culture. Unlike the barbaric Russian country, the frowning Northern colossus; not even a pure-blooded Slav, but a persecutor and hater of the European civilization.”

What a shock: the people who have just escaped Russian control have the nerve to admit that they did not like dependency on the empire. “For many more years, Russia will have to dejectedly and laboriously pacify them, school them and maybe even pull out weapons for them if needed”, Dostoevsky continues. The option of leaving the neighbors alone is not even considered.

Anton Chekhov, having grown up in Taganrog, was clearly a Ukrainophobe as well. In his 1893 letter to Suvorin, he reviews a play by a Ukrainian dramatist, Potapenko: “There does happen to be something in this play, but this something is cluttered by miscellaneous absurdities of a purely external origin (for example, the medical council is ridiculously unrealistic) and Shakespearean utterances. Khokhols are stubborn people; they believe that everything they say is brilliant, and they estimate their great khokhol truths so highly that for these truths they sacrifice not just artistic integrity but also common sense.” Another infamous phrase: “This person, somewhat talented and intelligent, has got some khokhol pin in his head, which interferes with his business and prevents him from ever finishing it…”

As Mark Uralsky notes in his book “Chekhov and Jews: diaries, letters, and memoirs by contemporaries”, Chekhov also called himself a “khokhol” when self-criticising (“you see what a khokhol I am”, “excuse my khokhol writing”), and expressed his disgust at the “khokhol logic” and “khokhol laziness”. The writer’s origin, provincial and not aristocratic enough, likely fueled his complexes, and the Ukrainians became for him an acceptable scapegoat, on whom Chekhov projected the qualities he disliked in himself.

It would seem we should leave to the people of the past era their prejudices and refrain from demanding they match the ideals of anti-fascism, but too many people in Russia are deluded by the cult of Russian classics, supposedly always relevant and carrying eternal values. Here is what Zakhar Prilepin, a russkiy mir propagandist, said about Chekhov’s quotes about “khokhol pins” and “khokhol ideas”:

“This is about everything at the same time: about the ‘sovereign history of Ukraine’ (first we sacrifice artistic integrity, then common sense, then we start shooting people to defend our ‘great truths’), and about the nonsense spouted by them there and by their most loyal supporters here, and not even about their past as much as about their future, which will eternally remain in this state underlined by Chekhov, where everything is an incomplete stretch: is that a European or a who knows what, is that a democracy or a repression machine, and only the pin is both in their head and you know where else. And with such pins, no stigmata are possible, no matter how much hysteria you raise” (closely matching the writing style of the source). The Russian “patriotic” media reposted this note right away.

To sum up, here is a quote from a novel by Antony Pogorelsky, dedicated to a Ukrainian character but for some reason reminiscent of the imperial neighbor’s psychology:

“We know that he, by his nature, was strongly inclined to harm those close to him; but he used to only satisfy this inclination when it did not cost him much effort; many times in his life he refrained from evil actions only because he was too lazy and unwieldy. Whenever any additional danger appeared besides the effort, he was always eager to leave his nemesis alone. His laziness and fear discouraged him from doing evil, and he used to call it good-heartedness.

* – the term Malorossiya was introduced into Russian in the 17th century. In English the term is often translated Little Russia or Little Rus’, depending on context. Nowadays such usage is typically perceived as conveying an imperialist view that the Ukrainian territory and people (“Little Russians”) belong to “one, indivisible Russia.”

/Translation: K0tyk


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