Until recently, I have belonged to an invisible nation. The world saw Ukraine as part of Russia, and there was nothing to be done about it. But now, things start to change.
In the early 1990s, immediately after the collapse of what was known to the world as the Soviet Union, I happened to spend a year in Kansas as an exchange student. People there asked me if I had been to the capital city, Moscow; yes, I answered, on my way to Kansas, and they stared at me, aghast. It was no use trying to explain to them that Moscow was not my capital city any more; that, technically, we never accepted it as such; that geographically, Western Ukraine, where I am from, is closer to Frankfurt than to Moscow; and that being able to speak Russian does not, in fact, make me Russian.
In 1993, for a fresh post-Soviet, going to Kansas was like going to Mars. We knew nothing real about the United States – except, of course, Hemingway, if he ever was real, and a few movies, Superman included. We knew New York and we knew Bruce Springsteen. We knew America was all about glamor and evil – just as the propaganda told us. But the mundane, common details of everyday life were by far the biggest mystery; anything, from navigating the simplest aspects of the banking system to shopping at a supermarket, was a strange, alienating, incomprehensible experience. I believe the feeling was totally mutual: I still carry some remnants of guilt towards all kinds of host families and casual friends who had a good fortune to deal with me or other kids from the Eastern European block. No, we did not set their houses on fire and did not kill their pets; it is just that we were, no doubt, their biggest culture shock ever.
I am very far from ever feeling offended that somebody doesn’t (or didn’t) know where my country is. I myself am not sure, for instance, what countries Ghana borders. I would have to look at the map, and, in my own turn, I do not expect the whole world to be preoccupied with me and only me. The world is a big place. The invisibility I am talking about has less to do with those perceiving it than with those who set it up. I bring up Kansas because it was the first lens through which I saw that I was invisible. It was where I learned that Ukraine was “in Russia” and it was not even Ukraine, but THE Ukraine – with the article commonly used with names of territories, geographical units rather than political entities. Our new acquaintances, ranging from professors to cafeteria workers, kept asking us the same questions – how often we go to St. Petersburg (never; it is as far from us as Kansas is from the Arctic) and whether winters in Russia are cold (I have no idea; Transcarpathia, the region I come from, is quite warm, so it was like asking a Florida resident about the weather in Montreal). Darryl, a former gangster of about fifty who worked at the pizza stand, unsuccessfully tried to ask each of us out, referring to us collectively as the Russian chicks.
To be fair, some of the group were the real “Russian chicks,” girls from Moscow Linguistics Institute, and it was with them that I had some of the most heated political discussions of my life. According to them, Ukraine was wrong to ever want to be independent from Russia, because, apparently, we were – and will always remain – brotherly nations. I was trying to give them a short and historically grounded account of some very basic facts: Russians banning our language, annexing our territory and labeling us “the Little Russians” who were expected, in the near future, to merge with the (supposedly beloved) “Big Russians” were acts hardly conceivable as “brotherly.” “A separate Ukrainian language never existed, does not exist, and will not exist, and what they call “the Ukrainian language,” a dialect, used by common people, is really the Russian language spoiled by the influence of the Polish tongue,” stated the Valuyev circular of 1863 that banned Ukrainian publications and theatrical performances in the Ukrainian language. My opponents vehemently disagreed, and we ended up not talking for the rest of the academic year.
One could be tempted to dismiss such vehemence as a personal stand, but, unfortunately, it is not merely that. As Ewa Thompson demonstrates in her study about colonialism in Russian literature (Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism), the Russia we know today is the product of many decades of self-deception and discursive constructions. If it were not for this legacy, built by its most talented writers (who never questioned the myth – think about Mikhail Lermontov’s heroes, leisurely chasing the malicious Chechens in the Caucasian mountains, or Dostoyevsky’s characters dismissing “the lowly Poles,” with the underlying assumption that the Russian nation is superior by all means), Vladimir Putin would have had a much harder time activating the complex of entitlement in the minds of Russia’s citizens.
Visibility began in November of 2004, when after a rigged election the Ukrainian people took to the streets for the fist time. Thus began the Orange Revolution. It took nine more years for the nation, awakened by it, to learn to stand up for itself: after Viktor Yushchenko’s uneventful presidency and the return of Viktor Yanukovych, a.k.a. the thug, after the impoverishment of the entire country and the rule of the mafia, after new persecutions of the Ukrainian language. In 2013 the new revolution began, called the Revolution of Dignity. And this is, finally, when the Russian Empire finally collapsed, because from then on it could not claim us as its territory and – most importantly – part of its myth, in the structure of which we were to be the eternally doomed “little brother” in need of being saved. For we have already saved ourselves, and from now on no one will ever confuse us with our inefficient savior. And Russia now has a chance to be seen for what it really is, and not as the embodiment of mysterious spirituality or a certain cultural alternative that the West keeps hoping for.
…Yesterday, June 26th, was the 60th anniversary of the Kengir Uprising, the most significant uprising in the history of Gulag. In 1954, in a Gulag camp in central Kazakhstan, after the guards illegally shot, killed, and wounded a number of people, the political prisoners revolted and ousted the administration and guards, locking themselves in the camp like in a fortress. The leaders of the uprising were Ukrainians, sent to Gulag for “nationalism” (that is, for refusal to become “the Little Russians” and for believing in independent Ukraine). The authorities suppressed the uprising by guns and tanks. Yet the forty days of freedom that the rebels had obtained set an unprecedented example of true brotherhood of all the nations trapped in the camp, and true care for one another, in the very heart of one of the cruelest empires that completely dismissed the value of human life (the same spirit of care will later reign during the Revolution of Dignity). Also, the prisoners made attempts to communicate with the local population outside the camp. The population was, of course, brainwashed by the authorities (not unlike the Russians are now by the Putin TV). They constructed kites and tied leaflets with the true information to them, and flew the kites over the town. Later, some pessimistic historians said that the Kengir Uprising achieved nothing; that it was drowned in blood; that no lasting effect remained.
But I cannot stop thinking about the kites. Because, truly, they were the beginning of our visibility.