Cultural amnesia in war-torn Ukraine
The great divide after the modern world will be between historical and ahistorical regimes.
Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sophie in Gaspra, Crimea, where they lived in 1901-1902. Found in the collection of the State Museum of Leo Tolstoy, Moscow. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Who is the Ukrainian Tolstoy? Don’t you dare say Tolstoy.
Lest anyone think that America’s racial radicals have a monopoly on historical erasure, Ukraine’s liberal elite has launched its own posthumous cancellation campaign. Leo Tolstoy, the great writer of the 19th century, tops the list.
Born into a family of old nobility in Western Russia in 1828, Tolstoy is known worldwide for his monumental works such as War and peace and Anna Karenina. It is also the namesake of a city square and a metro station in Kyiv, Ukraine, but maybe not for long. The capital’s city council is considering renaming the monuments after Vasyl Stus, a dissident Soviet-era Ukrainian poet whose stature is a tiny fraction of that of the Russian.
The move is part of a larger effort to “decolonize” Ukraine’s public culture, removing all potential ties to the young Slavic country’s much larger neighbor. Seemingly a rejection of Russian imperialism, the push is both senseless and doomed to fail. The choice of Tolstoy as a target illustrates a major reason.
In his early twenties, Tolstoy served as an artillery officer in the Imperial Russian Army during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, in which Ukraine was merely a battleground between Russia and an alliance of Western powers (and the Ottomans). During his relatively brief service, Tolstoy endured the long siege of Sevastopol and took part in some of the campaign’s bloodiest battles. The bloodshed he experienced in the Crimea made Tolstoy a staunch enemy of violence, inspiring Christian anarchist thought which earned him the mistrust of the spiritual and temporal authorities of Moscow. In his later years, Tolstoy spent time peacefully on the Black Sea in Gaspra, a town in Crimean territory now claimed by Ukraine. If this is truly outrage at the wartime brutality against the people of this region, then few better figureheads could be found for the cause than the pacifist Leo Tolstoy.
Other targets suggest more mundane issues with the “de-Russification” of Ukraine. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the great patriotic Russian composer, was born in Votkinsk on the Russian side of the modern Ukrainian border. But his great-grandfather was a Cossack warrior who distinguished himself in battle against the Swedes in the Battle of Poltava in 1709, and his family’s roots in present-day Ukraine were deep and remarkable. The kyiv Conservatory is named in his honor, although this, along with a number of streets and other honorary titles, is being reconsidered. Leading figures from the Ukrainian music scene even insist that works by Tchaikovsky and other Russian artists should not be performed in the country in the future.
Mikhail Bulgakov may not have been quite Tolstoy, but The Master and Margarita is one of the great works of 20th century literature. Bulgakov was born in kyiv in 1891 into a family full of Orthodox clerics. He was educated there until medical school, his first long-term departure from the city being a front-line deployment as a medic during World War I. He crossed today’s borders a bit to finally settle in Moscow at the age of thirty. Having previously worked as a journalist, Bulgakov became a renowned writer and satirist, and a number of his works were banned by Joseph Stalin.
Was Tchaikovsky Ukrainian? Was Bulgakov Russian? I would answer yes to both, even if I would say the same in reverse just as quickly. History is not black and white, and a black line cannot be drawn between two nations whose ties are so close and so ancient.
Vladimir Putin certainly knows this. But his interpretation of the fact is tinged with fanatical nationalism and panic at the encroachment of hostile foreign powers. Yes, Ukraine is a fake country. There are perhaps half a dozen on the surface of the planet that are not. But the complexities of history, civilization and empire cannot be treated as absolutes in the face of modern nationalism, nation states and war.
Ukrainian and Western authorities are doing a huge disservice when they respond to Putin’s twisted truth with outright fabrication. At the start of the current conflict, the US Embassy in Kyiv tweeted an embarrassing meme that someone must have thought undermined Putin’s imperial claims:
— US Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) February 22, 2022
This feeds directly into Putin’s view, of course. kyiv’s history goes back more than a millennium is the history of Russia, just as much as the history of Ukraine. The actual political conclusions to be drawn from this can be debated, but the fact itself cannot simply be denied. By trying to separate one culture and history from the other, these people only show that it cannot and should not be done.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the great divide after the modern world will be between historical and ahistorical regimes: those who recognize the power of history and the reality of embodied order, and those who only admit detached abstractions. men and centuries who laid their foundations.
Ukraine, as it attempts to merge hypernationalism with a new liberal identity, finds itself torn between the two. It’s a familiar dilemma for many in the West, as existential for the Ukrainian people as it is for each of us.