Ukrainian-Polish and Polish-Ukrainian Skirmishes with Postcolonialism and Visions of the Future
Warsaw, March 2017
Konrad Schiller: In the context of research into transformations in Central-Eastern Europe and the post-communist rebirth of identity, I would like to ask you: are postcolonial studies marginalised and often considered controversial? What is the origin of such controversy?
Mykola Riabczuk: There are numerous reasons that account for this attitude. First of all, the origin of postcolonial studies is specific – they arose in the course of traditional humanities in imperialist countries and they are associated with traditional colonialism and racial issues as their basis. In our case and from the postcolonial perspective, this is usually not the case. Hence, the controversy, because one may ask: what sort of colonialism was this, if you could easily be assimilated and there was no race barrier to hamper you? It is well known that both Poles and Ukrainians rose high in the Russian, and then Soviet, Empire, and they...
KS: ...functioned very well within the system.
MR: That gives rise to difficult questions, which I can in fact answer. Of course, assimilation was linked to abandoning one’s identity. They changed their identity and took on the dominant one. You had to pass for a Russian, albeit of a different kind. You had to adopt the imperialist identity. There is also another factor that greatly impedes the development of postcolonial studies in our countries – the fundamentally left-wing standpoint of such studies. Right from the start, this was the slant of such studies, which in our countries has not always been popular, since the intelligentsia has always built its identity on the rejection or only partial acceptance of such a left-wing slant. And there is another reason, quite peculiar, but important: both Poles and Ukrainians are reluctant to see themselves as having been colonised, as this immediately makes them feel inferior and excluded from the ‘real’ Europe.
KS: In the context of our conversation about postcolonial critique, isn’t this a complex of identity? Let’s bear in mind that both Polish and Ukrainian culture are basically stable cultures. And yet, the time of transformation – which was well suited to the introduction of a postcolonial critique in order to facilitate an understanding of the situation that prevailed during the decades of Russian domination – was not, to my mind, made full use of in this respect.
MR: This did take place, although the first publications and the first attempts to look at Ukrainian culture and literature from a postcolonial point of view were already taking place in the 1990s. It was also significant that the first researchers to address postcolonialism were Ukrainian members of the diaspora, to name Marko Pavlyshyn from the Monash University in Melbourne or Oxana Grabowicz from Harvard. Their research has been accepted by Ukrainian academics. Some of them have been more effective than others, who have merely played about with the term ‘postcolonialism’ just as they have with the concept of ‘discourse’, both terms sometimes put to less than appropriate use. I also see the increasing limitations that the [postcolonial] approach has as applied to the situation in Ukraine, not so much with regard to the theoretical slant, since the method has been used and certainly in interesting ways, but nevertheless there are serious difficulties in its literary and cultural application. The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war is in fact a war of national liberation, and it has a significant ideological aspect. The full and coherent decolonisation has not yet been completed in Ukraine, which means that it is difficult to fully apply a postcolonial approach. This can be seen very clearly in the problems that our writers and painters take on board, whenever they try to exercise such postcolonial freedom, which presupposes taking up a position above the infighting rather than taking sides, or finding some validity in each point of view. This has caused great problems; it is enough to recall how difficult the reception was of the novels of Yuri Andrukhovych or Yuri Vynnychuk. I am afraid that the reasons are objective. I don’t think that in a country that has not yet solved its colonial problems it is possible and easy to introduce a postcolonial perspective; this does not mean that one shouldn’t try. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that these limitations obtain – and the reaction of the majority of society may be negative.
KS: It seems to me that Poland is, to an extent, in a similar situation. The political changes in recent years have led to the return of the narrative of threat.
MR: This is more a form of self-colonisation. I think that Poland has already achieved real freedom that permits a normal postcolonial approach, because the country is no longer threatened from any direction. Unless some political factions want to turn the tables and manipulate the situation, creating the feeling that ‘Germany threatens us, and Russia has always done so’, but I would see this precisely as a strategy of manipulation.
KS: Reading your texts in the book Ukraine: The Postcolonial Syndrome , I can see an analogy between the opening text, Ambivalent Borderlands, and the last, which talks about the Maidan [Maidan: Third Attempt]. In those texts, an important issue surfaces that we are forced to touch on: the relationship between Ukraine and Poland. I have the impression that the Polish political approach, as well as artistic and cultural relations, is often based on a degree of paternalism. This is why I would like to ask whether postcolonial studies could act as a kind of bridge, free of such paternalism? In the context of the topic that we are discussing here –postcolonial studies, even the very fact that we are conducting this conversation in Polish is weird. I don’t speak Ukrainian...
MR: True. But we can switch to English [laughing], then we’ll have an even more colonial situation.
KS: We are colonising ourselves. I would like to go back to my question about postcolonial studies as an opportunity to move onto a different level of building-up our mutual relations. Because these relations are often difficult and for this reason they themselves provide the best research material. From your point of view, how could postcolonial studies affect any changes in the shape that our relations take?
MR: I think they could have a twofold effect. In analytical and critical research, this is yet another method of deconstruction. The method of postcolonial analysis provides the opportunity to deconstruct both the paternalism that you mentioned, and also the situation of domination, both often hidden out of sight, discursive and often even banal (‘banal colonialism’ – to paraphrase the title of Michael Billig’s famous book). On the other hand, a postcolonial approach can be practised in art, which provides huge potential. There, deconstruction is carried out in a very suggestive way, non-verbal but rather symbolic. This applies to painting, literature, and also the theatre. I saw a number of incredible productions in Kiev, that were done like this. Let me give you a simple example: Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard directed by Valeri Bilchenko as staged in the early 1990s in Kiev, in the Drama Theatre on Podol. Let’s just recap the plot: the owner, Mrs Ranevskaya and her family are awaiting with great suspense the result of an auction conducted by the court. Lopakhin arrives running: he has made the winning bid at the auction, even though his ancestors were feudal peasants, serfs of Ranevskaya’s family. And now he makes his triumphalist monologue in Ukrainian, even though the entire play is performed in Russian. The shift is shocking – the audience does not know how to react or how to interpret it. We can all feel an ambiguity that compels one to reconsider some fundamentals of Russian-Ukrainian relations. This was excellent psychotherapy. Another example is the production of Švejk, played just by two very popular actors, the comedy actor Bogdan Beniuk as Švejk, and Anatoli Chostikoiev as Lieutenant Lukasz. In this play there is a wonderfully satisfactory scene, where Lukasz asks Švejk, ‘Why do you speak in Czech all the time?’ – even though the actors themselves are in fact talking in Ukrainian (Švejk) and Russian (Lieutenant Lukasz). Švejk k replies, ‘Because I am Czech, sir’. Surprised, the Lieutenant asks, in Russian, ‘In this case, what am I?’ and Švejk, as is his wont, replies, ‘I’ve no idea, sir’. After a brief silence, the audience, erupted into explosive applause, although the audience was predominantly Russian-speaking. These two examples show that certain messages penetrate people’s consciousness; here, that the basis of the functioning of this society had been put into question. For this reason I think that art has tremendous potential, because it offers opportunities for certain shifts of meaning.
KS: We are talking about significant censorship – at the time of the transformation, when the Soviet Union was falling apart, to put it concisely. In a sense, this was also about embarking on modernisation and the so-called return to the West. An interesting question arises here, which relates to taking a critical look at the notion of ‘national’. Postcolonial studies have a strong emancipatory aspect; a time of de-colonisation is also a time of rebirth or a return to a country’s own national identity, regardless of whether this is South-East Asia or Africa. It seems to me that in Poland and Ukraine, references to national issues are often treated as a form of constraint, as something non-inclusive. In the context of postcolonial studies, should a return to the shaping of one’s own identity and the finding anew of one’s own voice be treated as something positive? In the case of Poland and Ukraine, is postmodernity not somewhat premature?
MR: We are talking about two different cases. Poland can be perceived, as well as see itself, as post-modern. As regards Ukraine, the matter is more complex. Ukraine has not yet reached the post-modern stage, which is to say that it is still facing the challenge of modernisation; it is too early for the question of post-nationality, because we still have not become fully free. Ukrainians are threatened not only in a military sense but also in the cultural and linguistic sense. We cannot be sure that Ukraine is not going to be transformed into some Russian appendage. This is a feature of our instability. There is no certainty which cultural programme will prevail – will Ukraine become a sort of Ireland, another Belarus, or a nation-state with its own culture and language. In Ukraine, this is a difficult problem, and it remains unresolved. There are internal tensions. Of course they have now been sidelined, due to the external threat and the need to fight the common enemy. These tensions cannot, however, be resolved automatically.
In the future, the situation of a Russian-Ukrainian war could, to an extent, help to solve the internal problems, because the fight against the common enemy enhances the mutual trust between the Ukrainophones and the Russophones and therefore increases the social capital. We understand that we are all citizens of the same country and nobody any longer questions the patriotism of someone who is ethnically a Russian or a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. That matter has been more or less sorted out.
There is another important step to take: that the other side should acknowledge the colonial legacy and acknowledge that this was not a voluntary predicament but that there had existed an entire system of structural factors and oppression that made such a predicament possible. It is important that this legacy of oppression should be recognised and some protectionist measures applied to revitalise Ukrainian language and culture. This is a sensitive issue, because the Russian-speaking community is quite positive towards the Ukrainian language on a symbolic level but on the practical level it remains rather ambivalent. This looks like a liberal stance, a kind of cultural laissez-faire, but there is no free competition in culture. The colonial legacy privileges the stronger player, one that has a much stronger position to start with. These are difficult issues to negotiate and elucidate. In my opinion, for as long as we continue to have an unresolved ‘colonial’ situation – since we are still coming out of a kind of premodern Soviet feudalism – it is difficult to talk about post-nationalism and post-modernism. After all, we have not yet completed the national and modernist phase.
KS: Another issue that frequently arises in the context of the 1990s and the transformations in Poland and Ukraine in their relations with the West concerns the categories of orientalisation and exoticisation. It is no accident that the time when the West opened to Eastern Europe was a time of a return to writing about the East from the perspective of it being exotic and oriental. Is it not the case that these dual categories keep haunting the relationship between the West and our region?
MR: I don’t think we can avoid this state of affairs; it has been predictable and difficult to get rid of. We will continue to struggle against this, both Poles and Ukrainians. For the West, this will be difficult to shake off. Recently, I saw a Canadian film Bitter Harvest –  about the Holodomor.1 On one hand, we should be pleased that a film had been made about this topic, and in fact without any significant distortions, but the way that the topic is approached in the film is an example of orientalisation. This is impossible to avoid, because that slant is deeply ingrained in the entire Western culture. And this is why we have postcolonial studies – so as to deconstruct this slant and to counteract it creatively. Let me say again that, for this reason, works of art and literature can use the tools of postcolonialism to manage the deconstruction of this approach. If you take Andruchovych, in his works there often appear foreigners who perceive things from an ambivalent point of view.
KS: For me, his Moscoviad  was a very significant book. This was the first time that I had come across the works of Juri Andrychovych, but I often go back to his Perversion , in which the author plays with orientalisation and exotic myths, deconstructing them in interesting ways. But there is another thing that I am interested in. I would like to talk about the issue of the Borderlands, by which I mean the lands that were joined to Poland after World War II, which Poles also call the ‘Recovered Territories’. They were populated by the deported Ukrainians and Lemkos...
KS: That’s right. Often, in the north-western part of these lands the ‘borderland’ myth is kept alive, although at the same time there is talk of having to revise the past. Hence, my question: what is your take on the history of the Borderlands from the postcolonial perspective? How can we write this history today? In your research, have you dealt with this subject in the context of Polish and Ukrainian relations?
MR: No, I haven’t, although I watch this space. I have read a few short texts on this topic. I can see that the issue has had thorough coverage in Poland, by which I mean dealing with the Eastern Borderlands as a colonial text. This is a rather delicate subject, and I note that Polish researchers have taken a very good, productive approach to its deconstruction. What I would find useful in the Ukrainian context would be to trace and analyse the attitude of the Ukrainians towards the minorities. One could reflect on how the national discourse today reacts to attempts to build a Ruthenian national identity. It transpires that it largely replicates the imperial Russian arguments, previously employed against Ukrainians. The difference is that there are many Ukrainians but few Ruthenians and they have little on which to build a strong identity.
KS: I would like to go back to the Borderlands and its analysis of relations in this Polish-Ukrainian territory. You mentioned that Polish researchers have carried out productive research into this issue, but perhaps, if they were confronted with Ukrainian findings, it would introduce a new cognitive paradigm to the Polish perspective?
In the Ambivalent Borderlands, the opening text of your book Ukraine: Postcolonial Syndrome , you write that the Polish First Republic introduced a certain element of modernisation into the central part of Ukraine. On the other hand, Jan Sowa, in his book The King's Phantom Body: A Peripheral Struggle with Modern Form , throws doubt on the modernising achievements of the First Republic, emphasising instead the feudalism.
MR: This is true and I quite agree; however, the modernising process or the westernisation of central Ukraine that I discuss in my text that you’ve mentioned can of course provide an expansion of the field of research for Polish analysts.
KS: In reference to what you have said so far about Ukraine and its path towards postmodernity, I would like to posit the rather risky hypothesis that, paradoxically, postcolonial studies may block the path to postmodernity.
MR: I reaffirm that Ukraine is facing the postcolonial challenge and the matter of shaping its national identity but we cannot pretend today that there is no other path to follow, such as postmodernism or postcolonialism. That’s why I think that it’s necessary to accept the two-track strategy, one that of decolonialisation and modernisation, and the other directed towards postmodernity. It is vital to balance both skilfully at all times. It seems to me that today, our writers such as Andruchovych and our researchers such as Tamara Hundorova manage this balancing act quite well. The writings of Andruchovych are in the main postmodern, but at the same time he has also taken on certain modernist goals such as the building of a national identity. In his books you can see the struggle against different stereotypes such as orientalisation or self-colonisation but – parallel to those – there also appear national values which are not negated. He of course rejects xenophobia and all negative attitudes, constructing instead a healthy framework for the national identity. Nevertheless, in a situation of a war going on, it is difficult to avoid xenophobic threads entirely, at least in reference to Russia.
KS: I would also like to look briefly at 1989 in Poland and 1991 in Ukraine, because it is assumed that these were the watershed years. Was 1991 the year of entry into the new domination and radical modernisation?
MR: You could interpret it like that, because there are different levels of repression and freedom. This reminds me of a sarcastic comment made by the American professor Alexander Motyl during a lecture that he gave in Kiev during the last years of perestroika. A similar discussion was taking place in the lecture hall. In answer to a question, Motyl replied, ‘Colleagues, you don’t have very much choice. You can be either a colony of the West or a colony of Russia, but to become a colony of the West, you have to earn it first.’ Of course, he was joking, but in this, as in every joke, there is a grain of truth: the centre of this world is in the West – that is the financial centre, and consequently – also the political centre, which does imply a certain hegemony, although the level of freedom at the centre is much higher. Poland finds itself perhaps on a semi-periphery in relation to this centre, but decidedly closer to the core, whereas Ukraine is somewhere at the periphery, and there is a danger that it will remain there. If you are in the centre, you can build various strategies for fighting the domination. They will never, of course, be ideal, as some tension or other will always appear, but you do certainly have more options. In the main, I do agree, however, that post-1991 a new form of domination took place, which was of course not at all on the same scale as the previous forms.
KS: If so, in what way does one research and analyse the processes of transformation in Ukraine, from your perspective? How do you perceive the first decade of transformation?
MR: First of all, I would like to emphasise that there is nothing wrong with questioning certain processes following the fall of the Soviet Union, the resultant transformation included. The criticism is due to the fact that no process of change is ideal, mistakes have been made and extreme situations have taken place. But the question always arises: what alternative was there? What alternative could there be? And what I find worrying here is that there are various utopian proposals. Such as a return to the ‘national tradition’, the so-called ‘third way’. Today’s conservative visions, referred to as ‘traditionalist’, are utopian, because they only hark back to the past. I understand the need for critique of globalist modernity and I concord with it – but the problem is what suggested solutions are being put forward.
KS: For some, the solution may be a religious renaissance and a return to the Church as a guiding force.
MR: I do see the danger of aggressive capitalism but aggressive Catholicism ishardly a panacea. Such a regression would be a return to pre-eighteenth-century times, and this would generate a lot of tension and conflicts.
KS: Since we are on the topics of returns, both in Europe and beyond – to point to the USA for one – one can see a clear going back to conservative and traditionalist values. Has this been caused by a crisis in liberal politics?
MR: This is one of the possible interpretations, but as I have already said, such a conservative lurch back is not constructive. To me, the situation does not look like a crisis of liberalism but is rather a consequence of inconsistent liberalism, whose principles have not been followed rigorously. This is more or less possible in internal policies. In international politics, however, this is certainly impossible. Where is the proverbial free trade and free flow of goods, services and capital, not to mention people, that liberals used to claim we had? Where is the much lauded free trade, without tariffs and restrictions, which have been imposed on the Third World by the First? Where is free competition on the labour markets? After centuries of colonialism we have inherited huge structural imbalances which persist and indeed are getting worse. We must seek solutions on a global scale, although I appreciate that this may be a challenge for next generations.
KS: Could I tempt you to indicate where alternatives might be found?
MR: The global problems cannot be solved without a global government or at least a consensus of national governments, which is hard to imagine at present. Still, such consensus would be indispensable to force through the three factors vital for our future: firstly, the gradual abolition of all trade tariffs, which exist mainly for the benefit of the First World, and in due course also restrictions in the labour market. Secondly, what is necessary is a decisive restriction of consumption in the whole world and especially in the rich countries, through differentiation of taxes on consumption and especially on hyper-consumption and various luxuries. Thirdly, we need zero tolerance for corruption and fight it with increased vigour, because for as long as thieves and Third World dictators can operate at large in the First World with their stolen wealth, any aid to poor countries remains pure hypocrisy.
KS: It is clear that your vision is postmodern. Is it now, however, just another fantasy – a utopia?
MR: As I have pointed out, this is not a blueprint that has any chance of being implemented in the near future. However, I expect that, sooner or later, global reality will force us to think these matters through and finally take on board the changes that at the moment appear very difficult and unimaginable. Let us hope that this does not happen too late.
Mykola Riabchuk is a Ukrainian poet and essayist, the president of Ukrainian PEN-center and co-founder and co-editor of the Krytyka monthly. Born in 1953 in the city of Lutsk, he spent his adolescent years in Lviv, where he graduated from the Polytechnic Institute in 1977, and eventually from the Gorky literary institute in Moscow in1988. Of his many books, four were translated into Polish – “Od Malorosji do Ukrainy” (2002), “Dwie Ukrainy” (2004), “Ogrod Matternicha” (2010), and “Ukraina. Syndrom postkolonialny” (2015). Mykola Riabchuk was distinguished with the POLCUL award in 1998, and the Bene merito medal of the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs for his contribution into Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. Since 2014, he heads the jury of the Angelus literary award endowed by the city Wroclaw for the best book by a Central East European writer published in Poland, and the Yuri Sheveliov national award for the best essays, endowed by the Ukrainian PEN-center.
Konrad Schiller (1982) – PhD Candidate at Institute of Arts at Polish Academy of Science in Warsaw; MA in Postcolonial Culture and Global Policy at the Goldsmiths Collage in London and MA in Art History at The Warsaw University in Poland. In academic research he is focused on the trans-contextual connections between visual arts, cultural movements, politics and social changes. He is interested in postcolonial condition of cultural movement across nations, countries and social groups. He is an author of monography about art symposiums and open-air artists submits between 1963 – 1981 called “Exhibition and Symposium of "Golden Grape" in Zielona Gora on the west side of Poland. Konrad Schiller connected his academic interest with art criticism (he collaborated with major Polish art magazines: Obieg and Szum) and curator practice. He curated over 20 exhibitions in total in Poland and London. Currently he is a curator of discursive program at CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw.