Policymakers have a whole vernacular for talking about how place informs conflict, but no one actually lives on a balance sheet of ‘socio-cultural factors.’ For all its ‘undeniable beauty,’ even Stanley McChrystal’s ‘Afghanistan Stability’ PowerPoint couldn’t ‘link ideas or facts in any kind of human narrative.’ Of course, this doesn’t stop the veritable cottage industry of policy analysts and military strategists from talking about ‘controlling the narrative’ in ‘gray-zone conflicts’ and ‘Great Power competition.’ It’s become an idée fixe in policy circles. Western responses to the unfolding Ukraine crisis, for example, tend to treat almost all politically-inflected narratives as tactic or agitprop, pure rhetorical widgets for producing the expedient and untrue. However, Ukraine’s place in the Russian literary imagination ought to remind us that narrative interpretations of the present often have such great political force because their modes of storytelling long precede us – and because their storytellers believe them.
Old maps call Ukraine ‘the Wild Fields.’ In a geographical sense, this moniker describes a vast steppe adjoining the Black Sea, bisected by the Dnieper. In a cultural sense, the name simultaneously identifies a ‘contact zone,’ a ‘cultural space where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other.’ To borrow the Kremlin’s phrase, several historical ‘spheres of influence’ overlapped at various points on the Wild Fields, including Russian Tsardom, the Ottoman Empire, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A Tatar khanate, heir to the Golden Horde’s claims, ruled Crimea until 1783. The Cossack Hetmanate, split between Russia and Poland along the Dnieper in 1667, remained semi-autonomous until Catherine the Great’s reign.
Part of why the double valence of cultural identities in Ukraine – particularly East Ukraine – can be so hard for Westerners to parse is because this line between historical and environmental situations is so burred. We see its problem of focus exerted in speech. The Ukrainian Embassy, for example, was quick to remind the BBC in 2012 that calling the nation ‘the Ukraine,’ as the Daily Mirror was wont to do, is ‘incorrect both grammatically and politically.’ To be sure, this is true in some senses. The Russian language has no definite articles and the post-Soviet republic, Ukraine, refers to itself as such. But competing etymologies for ukraina, which define the word as either ‘territory’ or ‘borderland,’ do so with reference to characteristic physical space, no less than ‘the Philippines’ or ‘the Arctic,’ and this descriptive problem of ‘(The) Ukraine’ echoes throughout the region’s pre-Soviet political evolution. ‘Cossack,’ for example, comes from a Turkic word that can mean ‘free man’ or ‘freebooter.’ Similarly, ‘Little Russia’ – a term that once referred to Tsar Paul I’s 1796 governorate in the region – carries two different valences, ‘distant’ as well as ‘peripheral,’ geographical and cultural.
These are the high stakes behind Ukrainian efforts to ban or limit the importation of Russian literature. Russia, of course, has a long history of banning ‘threatening’ literature, but it’s worth noting that Ukraine’s criteria for novels with ‘disinformation methods […] hate ideology, fascism, xenophobia and separatism’ has a particular focus on cultural identity. Restricted works include old Russian fairy tales, children’s stories about knight-errant bogatyrs, historical romances, and memoirs of the folksinger, Vladimir Vysotsky. A 2017 order banned two detective novels set in Tsarist Russia, Jade Rosaries and Diamond Chariot. The fact that their author, Boris Akunin, is a vocal critic of Crimean annexation did little to mitigate their perceived cultural threat.
So who’s afraid of Masha and the Bear? Masha ‘punches above her weight,’ the University of Buckingham’s Anthony Glees, reflects. ‘It’s not farfetched to see her as Putinesque.’ Somewhere, perhaps, a Pentagon briefer is googling plush toys. Propaganda-hunting amounts to a diffused fear of metaphor, though, when we are uncertain about the antagonist’s ‘socio-historical ensemble’ of experiences that first produced it – or what our own is. ‘I would like to remind you,’ Putin remarked in 2014, ‘that what was called Novorossiya (New Russia) back in the tsarist days – Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine.’ This isn’t a metaphorical claim that compares past to present. It’s a historiographical claim about what the present is.
In Ukraine’s case, literary restrictionism gestures toward precisely those cultural elements in fiction that György Lukács saw as depicting ‘the lives and fortunes of people whose whole psychology belongs to the same level of development.’ In the case of the ‘Wild Fields,’ the trouble is that the ‘longue durée’ of history’s ‘slow but perceptible rhythms,’ both geographical and social, admits such double-mindedness about what constitutes the psychological ‘same.’ But it would be disingenuous to suggest that claims about ‘Russian cultural borderlessness’ have no precedent in the Ukrainian-Russian space. As James Meek remarks, as ‘recently as 2011, [Ukrainian President] Zelensky was seen as sufficiently bankable […] to be cast as the male lead in one of the sacred treasures of Soviet popular cinema, Eldar Ryazanov’s Office Romance.’ Even if Kremlin ‘fables about one people’ are ‘refuted in Donbas battlefields,’ stories that inveigle Ukraine in a sense of Russian ‘cultural borderlessness’ are more entrenched.
‘Golden Age’ Russian writers used ‘borderland’ settings to force psychological confrontations between their protagonists and the multiplicity of selves performed in metropolitan social hierarchies. Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin , with its antiheroic ‘superfluous man,’ templates this. When Tatyana, a country girl who has fallen for Onegin, visits his St. Petersburg mansion, she reads the marginalia in his books and discovers that his whole personality is an amalgamation of literary models. Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 novel, A Hero of Our Time, transports its ‘Onegin,’ Pechorin, to the Caucasus frontier. Whereas Onegin’s relationship with Tatyana spurs his growth into a coherent self (albeit a tragical one), Pechorin’s encounter with the tsarist ‘okraina’ setting drives him to address what he calls ‘the two men within’ – the ‘one who lives in the full sense of the world’ and the one who ‘reflects and judges him.’ In Lermontov, the tsarist imagination depicts Russianness as a tragic love affair between the metropole and its provinces, fraught with moments of mutual critique and self-recognition.
There are reciprocities to this imagined ‘borderlessness.’ Lermontov’s aborted novel, Vadim, for example, recounted the life of Yemelyan Pugachev, a Yaik Cossack atman who impersonated Tsar Peter III while revolting against Catherine the Great’s rule. Tolstoy’s masterpiece, The Cossacks, is about a young Muscovite, Olenin, who lives as a Don Cossack during the Caucasian War. Pugachev assumes a metropolitan persona, Olenin slips into a provincial one. Neither is a ‘full’ psychological character in their initial state. The revision history of Gogol’s epic novella, Taras Bulba, mirrors this dynamic through its authorial revisions. The 1835 edition is a more distively ‘Wild Fields’ tale, depicting Taras, the old Zaporozhian Cossack, and his Kiev-educated sons against a tableau of Polish influence on the Dnieper. The revised 1842 edition recasts Taras as Russian martyr. He dies nailed to a tree, a sort of mythic bogatyr forecasting the coming of a ‘borderless’ tsar. In 2022, one might be forgiven for suspecting that trees roots were words.
In a strictly literary sense, what distinguishes such ‘Golden Age’ figures from their Byronic models is their ability to mature. A ‘Pechorin’ becomes tragic because he ultimately does reconcile the ‘two men within,’ but too late for the plot to change. The historical analogue to this is perhaps twofold. On the one hand, a distinct vein in Soviet literature risked a backward glance at the tsarist problem of geographical double-mindedness because it no longer permitted narrative solutions to it. In The Don Flows Home to the Sea, Shulokhov’s Cossack, Grigory Melekhov, watches the last White émigrés sail to Crimea. Bulgakov’s White Guard despairs of a ‘magical Ukraine,’ a war-torn ‘mirage’ that ‘hated Moscow, be it Bolshevik, tsarist, or anything else.’ The 1,080 novels produced by White émigrés by 1968 mustered little else than a more deliberate tragic historical consciousness. On the other hand, the post-Soviet rhetoric of ‘Ancient Rus,’ with its tsarist political theatrics, is more than period-piece Anastasia chic. It makes an imaginative leap in presupposing that it can give second chances to Pugachevs and Olenins and Pechorins through the exertion of real political force.
Indeed, Lermontov, himself, has become a skirmish in the ‘cultural borderlessness’ staged by Pechorin’s problem of having ‘two men within.’ In 2017, the Ukrainian president celebrated travel-free EU visas by repudiating the ‘Russian Empire’ with a line from Lermontov: ‘Farewell, unwashed Russia!’ Putin, however, reminded Poroshenko that when Lermontov, then fighting a tsarist war in the Caucasus, wrote that line, Ukraine was still ‘Little Russia.’ ‘Perhaps Poroshenko is trying to send a signal that he also is not going anywhere,’ Putin quipped.
Five years later, more than 14,000 persons have died from fighting in Eastern Ukraine. The US estimates that 169,000-190,000 Russian troops are positioned on the Ukrainian border. The OSCE reports more than 1,500 ceasefire violations involving in Luhansk and Donetsk in a single day. An explosion struck the Druzhba pipeline. The heads of separatist proto-states in Luhansk and Donetsk are organizing mass evacuations. In Stanytsia Luhansk, children survived a mortar strike at a kindergarten. Lermontov’s patriotism, Putin reflected in 2017, was an admittedly ‘strange love.’ Isn’t it always.