The 1920s were culturally vibrant times in Ukraine. After years of ferocious conflict over Ukrainian statehood, the Bolsheviks succeeded in forging the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922. At that point, some politically active Ukrainians gave up hopes for a sovereign state and fled. Others, however, saw an opportunity for cultural renewal, even if full political independence wasn’t on the cards.
In this, they were aided by Soviet “nativization” policies, which aimed to reverse decades of Russian cultural dominance and to promote the languages and cultures of non-Russian peoples. It was in this context that the Ukrainian Renaissance of 1920 and ’30s arose. The motto of this era was: “Get Away From Moscow!” The phrase is usually attributed to the modernist writer Mykola Khvylovy, a major figure of the Ukrainian Renaissance who was both a devoted Communist and an avid patriot.
When Russia launched a full-scale war against Ukraine in February 2022, Khvylovy’s century-old maxim resonated once again with Ukrainians, who viscerally rejected Russian cultural influence in order to underline their loyalty to their homeland. But this time around, “getting away from Moscow” has made antagonism toward Russia more central to defining Ukrainian cultural identity than almost anything else.
Paradoxically, it may well result in Ukraine getting too close to Moscow.
We can quantify Ukrainians’ turn away from Moscow in a way that wasn’t possible a century ago. Streaming services like Apple Music show that after the invasion, Ukrainians abruptly began to listen to much less music of Russian origin than before. For a long time, probably up to February 2022, the top-10 tracks on major platforms were usually Russian. Not anymore. Although occasional comebacks of Russian artists happen, prompting heated debates within Ukraine, for the most part Russian music has sharply receded in popularity.
Comparable developments played out in other cultural domains. Importing Russian books was banned. Across the nation, activists and authorities dismantled monuments to Russian political and cultural notables, including the monument to Catherine the Great in Odesa and more than 30 monuments to the poet Alexander Pushkin, the central figure in the Russian literary canon. In different cities, Russia-related streets are being renamed, and recently, the Ukrainian Parliament prohibited naming places after anyone or anything associated with the aggressor.
There is also a strident refusal to use the Russian language, a perennial bone of contention in Ukraine. During a recent news conference, for example, a journalist tried to ask President Volodymyr Zelensky a question in Russian. Before taking the question, Zelensky made a point of sticking a translation device into his ear. This might seem like an ordinary occurrence, except for the fact that Zelensky is well-known to be a fluent Russian speaker.
I could enumerate more examples, but the picture is clear. Even one-time fans of Russian culture tend to put on hold their former affinity, and many who would have once indifferently consumed both Russian and Ukrainian culture now face a stark choice.
In The Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt traced the roots of politics to the friend-enemy distinction. Political division arises in a moment when one decides that an adversary “must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.” Russia made itself Ukraine’s enemy by invading us, and rejecting an enemy’s culture is to be expected.
But relations between enemies are far from simple negativity or hate. They are simultaneously relations of intense unity and separation, association and dissociation. The true opposite of a friend isn’t an enemy, just as the negation of love isn’t hate—it is indifference.
This is why “getting away from Moscow” seems to be bringing Ukrainians closer to it. I have never seen so much content about modern-day Russia and content from contemporary Russians, as since the beginning of the war—not because people are tuning into Russian information channels, but because they are avidly consuming Ukrainian ones.
Take the current Ukrainian YouTube resurgence. For a long time, Ukrainian vloggers operated in the shadow of Russian content creators. Now, the local scene has blossomed, both with respect to the diversity of material and the excellence of production values. But whatever the topic—gaming, comedy, literature, cinema, music, or simple reaction videos—critical engagement with Russian products and ideas is ubiquitous.
Of course, this content is invariably devoted to explaining why Ukrainians should eliminate Russian influence in yet another sphere, at last and forever. But this forever never arrives. After a video explaining “what’s wrong with Dostoevsky,” you get “what’s wrong with Tolstoy.” After yet another segment of Vladimir Putin’s top-tier propagandist Vladimir Solovyov being mockingly commented upon by a funny YouTuber, you bump into a reaction to a pantomime of Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan’s threats of World War III. After a critical analysis of a popular Russian blogger’s political stance, you have a bunch of other Russian bloggers being taken down. And on and on it goes.
The end result is inevitably a further convergence of information spaces. Today, Ukrainians and Russians see, read, comment on, and react to the same things, more and more. There is no big difference, other than the plus or minus sign attached to the underlying content. The artifact this sign is added to is still the same. Two branches, one tree. Isn’t that precisely what Putin was trying to sell?
To be fair, when the Russian offensive began, articulating a coherent cultural politics wasn’t a top priority for Ukrainians, myself included. We had more immediate things to worry about. But ultimately, cultural war is war. You win, or you lose. As simple as that. And if the Ukrainian and Russian cultural spaces merge, it doesn’t bode well for the culture-war front. Especially when the merger isn’t even perceived as such, but as its opposite: a final and conclusive separation.
Breaking free means thinking and acting independently of the thing you break free from. Cultural bans, restrictions, and histrionic rejections don’t help Ukraine in breaking free from Russia. On the contrary, such actions perpetuate an obsession with Russia, acting only and specifically in relation to it. If one wants a definition of dependence, here it is.
Is Ukrainian culture doomed to be a Russian satellite? No longer as a little brother or a pupil, but as an ardent critic unconsciously captivated by its object of critique? For Ukraine to maintain political and cultural sovereignty, our cultural politics should shift strategies. How?
To begin with, the idea of a monolithic, continuous imperialistic Russian culture must be dropped. Like any culture, Russia’s has its cracks and fissures. Sure, today’s Kremlin may weaponize patriotic quotations found in authors like Dostoevsky and Chekhov. But the overall sympathies of Putin are known: He would prefer judo or swimming to reading a book. To take his appeals to Russian cultural giants at face value is to buy into his propaganda. Serious engagement with the great works of Russian literature and culture reveals a great deal that might be turned against Putin’s regime. Wasn’t Tolstoy, for instance, a radical anarchist and anti-imperialist thinker?
As for Russian popular culture, much of it mimics Western examples and has lost any originality, copying popular TikTok dances and rap music. To lay much emphasis on avoiding such material is to mistake the nature of globalized culture we live in. But there exists an independent economic argument for boycotting such content. Since many Russian artists are Russia’s tax residents, part of their revenue fuels Putin’s war machine. Raising awareness of this fact may incentivize more people to give up on consuming Russian popular culture, at least temporarily. As we mentioned above, though, letting citizens choose to voluntarily give up this content is already working, and is enough.
At the same time, the proximity of Russian and Ukrainian cultures should be acknowledged. This proximity, being an enemy’s closeness, is dangerous. As in martial arts, fighting parties reduce distance to the ultimate limit, sometimes reaching the point of indistinction. So, maintaining distance, even while recognizing proximity, must be a conscious act. Only then can meaningful policies and actions follow. Otherwise, we will remain trapped in affective reaction loops.
A key aspect of this is to attempt to understand the enemy’s culture in its complexity—not the strawman substitutes of propaganda—and recognize places of convergence and separation. Here, candid study of Russia becomes a security matter, as it was for the most sophisticated Cold War-era scholars of the Soviet Union.
For all their popularity among Western academe, “emancipatory” methodologies of cultural analysis, such as postcolonial readings of Ukrainian history, are of little help to us. These lenses may lead to some interesting conclusions, but they are too focused on an all-powerful colonizer and, in the end, are too simplistic to offer insight on the long intertwined histories of Russia and Ukraine.
My last point verges upon being banal. But trite truisms can become hard-to-swallow truths in times of war. There is a universal dimension to every culture. This is what allows Virginia Woolf to carry away a Portuguese reader, Herman Melville to captivate a Russian, Fyodor Dostoevsky to intrigue an American, and Mykola Khvylovy to bewitch a Frenchman.
By attacking Ukraine’s sovereignty and openly attempting to wipe out Ukrainian culture, Russia attacked this universal aspect of culture. Putin has consciously taken a particularist, exclusivist point of view. His rhetoric repeatedly invokes a dichotomy of “Russian” and “Western” values as the basis of the “multipolarity” he advocates.
The best answer to this exclusivist and anti-universal outlook is not claiming another form of particularity, but embracing and re-establishing universality as such. The truth is, a Ukrainian culture devoid of its universal dimension, reduced to its Soviet-style folkish rural aspect, a little brother in a shadow of the great Russian culture, would satisfy Putin and his officials.
And this is the point where we should return to Khvylovy, the intellectual who coined the “Get Away From Moscow!” motto. Khvylovy envisioned this strategy not as a self-enclosure of Ukrainian culture. On the contrary, he thought of it as Ukrainian literature reaching the level of what he called “psychological Europe,” meaning not only European literature, but any literature in its universal aspect. According to Khvylovy, Ukraine could reach this level by setting and maintaining the distance between Ukrainian and Russian culture. This step, for him, meant knowing and understanding what you break yourself free from and where.
Did Khvylovy himself succeed with his aspirations? Culturally, yes. No one familiar with his work would deny the originality of his style, his artistic contributions, his generational influence, and his legacy, rediscovered after years of Soviet suppression.
Politically, though, his life happened to be a fiasco. The Ukrainian Renaissance of 1920s and ’30s has another name: the Executed Renaissance. This is because the key figures of the movement, after a short period of flourishing, were executed or imprisoned during Stalin’s Great Terror.
Khvylovy also would have been executed. He knew Soviet Communism well enough to understand this. He was also becoming more and more disappointed in what he saw as Russification of the Soviet political leadership, their becoming “gatherers of Russian lands.” His fate was sealed after the arrest of his friend, the poet Mykola Yaloviy.
Khvylovy shot himself in his study. A suicide note was found by his friends. It included two interesting phrases. One was about the Ukrainian Renaissance and condemned the coming “execution of a whole generation.” In a twisted inversion, the other phrase read: “Let Communism live.”
A century after the Ukrainian Renaissance began, as the Russo-Ukrainian war drags on, we face a different (yet related) set of challenges than did Khvylovy and his generation. Political and military victory may seem now more probable than cultural renewal. Nevertheless, we have one advantage. We know the stories of our predecessors in the struggle for cultural independence.