Article was commissioned by and published by Brooklyn Rail, New York in November issue, 2022
Special Report Railing Opinion
Erasure of local cultures as a viable tool of imperialism has been systematically used by hegemonic powers since the dawn of time. The othering of subjugated natives as barbarian and in need of cultivation through a metropolis has proven successful for rallying domestic support and for advancing colonialism internationally. Today though, as we see active erasure of Ukrainian culture by the revamped Russian empire, we are able to see this mechanism brought up-to-date and in real time. Although this as a practice has certainly taken absurd and grotesque forms since February 24, 2022, it has been consistently practiced by Russia for centuries. This piece looks at three different Russian imperial tools of erasure: language, education, and art, focusing on two countries to which this writer is connected: Ukraine and Georgia.
Colonial Legacy of Erasing National Identities
In his July 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” Vladimir Putin wrote:
The word “Ukrainian,” judging by archival documents, originally referred to frontier guards who protected the external borders. […] The incorporation of the western Russian lands into the single state … was underlain by the common faith, shared cultural traditions, and—I would like to emphasize it once again—language similarity.1
What follows is a carefully constructed, manipulated collection of facts in an attempt to whitewash imperial ambitions and create a seemingly solid conceptual foundation for an invasion about six months later. It should not be surprising to anyone familiar with the region that the use of regional language is one of the main signifiers of national resistance, an active agent of cultural identity. Culture as a survival strategy in post-Soviet countries has been a mechanism to solidify nations amidst invaders long before the Soviet invasions by the Bolsheviks. Local language, local heroes, endemic languages, along with art and architecture, were the distinguishing marks of the countries surrounded by the vast Ottoman and Russian empires when, during the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the downfall of Napoleon, Europe was more or less settling into borders still recognizable today.
The centralization of the Russian empire by the end of the eighteenth century under Catherine the Great led to mixed results in the region.2 On the one hand it expanded the new empire’s lebensraum and on the other, it facilitated activation of nationalist movements in the newly occupied territories. For example, Russian colonization of the Caucasus since the 1760s has precipitated the creation of a Georgian national identity and a new generation of writers, poets, thinkers, and artists who were fervent in their patriotism. Similar processes have taken place in various countries that Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union have incorporated.
Indeed, Dr. Ksenia Nouril, Jensen Bryan Curator at The Print Center, Philadelphia, notes that:
This is not the first time something like this has happened. Earlier in the 20th century, during the Soviet Union, Ukrainian culture, inclusive of its language and artistic production, was at risk and even erased in certain instances. History is unfortunately repeating itself. This is very dangerous because Ukrainian culture and language have been, generally, lesser known globally. (I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me if Ukrainian and Russian are different languages!) While it’s a generalization, the general public is not always so acutely aware of the differences—both subtle and substantial—between Ukraine’s culture and language and that of other countries in the region, like Russia. This makes Ukrainian culture and language particularly vulnerable. For years, people have been conflating Ukrainian culture with Russian culture. I’m heartened that, in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this is being rectified by honing in on the nuances of history and re-contextualizing major practitioners—like Kazimir Malevich—and events—like the Holodomor.
One universal tool that the Russian empire employed within Georgia and Ukraine was the suppression of local languages. Most effective in this regard is the considerable limitation of school instruction in Georgian and Ukrainian, respectively, where local enthusiasts were advocating for the preservation of language.3 In 1848 the educational system of the Caucasus Educational District was consolidated and unified with the inland Russian educational system, and these schools included compulsory instruction in Russian with very few exceptions.4 Establishment of a museum that would include art created by Georgian artists was intentionally delayed until 1913, although the civil society was actively advocating for such a museum since 1880s.5
Deliberate targeting of schools and cultural institutions continues today in Ukraine. At time of writing, since the start of the war, the country has lost over 154 cultural sites including 7 libraries, 16 monuments, 30 historic buildings, 12 museums, 70 religious sites, 19 buildings dedicated to cultural activities.6
Ukrainian, Not Russian Art
Another important tactic of culture erasure across Russian imperialism, especially in Ukraine, is the attempt to portray Ukrainian artists, such as Kazimir Malevich (born 1879 in Kyiv), not only as “Russian,” but also as representative of Russian art. Malevich was born to Polish parents and spent his childhood in Kyiv until moving to Kursk, and then Moscow in 1904, returning to Kyiv Art Institute in 1929 when he was subsequently banned from exhibiting in Russia.7 He is best known as the creator of the Black Square, a Supremacist masterpiece celebrating a new, proto-conceptual approach to color, while his lesser-known scenes reflect his Ukrainian heritage. Nonetheless, Russian propaganda clearly mandates that Malevich was a Russian artist, proudly displaying him on its Culture.ru portal as part of the Russian legacy. This has even seeped into the West, where he was included in the 2022 Russian Pictures sales at Sotheby’s.8 Adrienne Kochman, curator of Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, Chicago elucidates on this point.
One might want to check out Sotheby’s Russian art website and past auctions—it illustrates deliberate attempts to confuse buyers as a Russian cultural label brings in a lot more money than a Ukrainian one. [Alexander] Bogomazov, is a[nother] example.9 Sotheby’s is doing the same thing the Soviets did, in practice. Why doesn’t Sotheby’s entitle their “Russian” section Eastern Europe and then subcategory each culture under that larger heading, for example? Their current structure perpetuates the notion that the smaller countries/cultures of that region are subsets of Russia, not autonomous.
Georgian artists have also been presented as Russian in the auction houses. Primitivist Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918) is an iconic Georgian artist who has been repeatedly presented through the auction houses under the umbrella of Russian sales.10 Colonial imperative continues here as though Ukraine, Georgia and Russia are still the same country. A group of Ukrainian students titled Shadows Project is currently fighting this injustice and Russian propaganda by consistently posting about Ukrainian artists and their ties to the country. By taking a proactive stand, the Ukrainian community worldwide has achieved concrete results, like changing title of Edgar Degas’s Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers in the National Gallery in London.Hopefully Malevich or David Burliuk (1882–1967) or Alexander Bogomazov (1880–1930) will be next.
New East as Neo Soviet?
The question of cultural identity is an extremely complex one when it comes to Eastern Europe due to its fragmentized history. Yet, as I visited Georgia over the years, the same exact furniture, plates, sets of cups, mirrors, and couches could be found in family homes: vestiges of the shared Soviet past that are still very much present alongside a gentrified and fashionable modernity of so-called “New East” aesthetics.11 What was left by the Soviet vacuum conceptually and ideologically has been filled with a mixture of old and new.
The New East concept coming from some Western media outlets is not far better than the Soviet propaganda of a single, glorious nation. What is problematic with this false unification is its attempt to equate the contexts of the region into one visually recognizable mix of brutalist Soviet architecture and old posters, brash colors, and exoticized fascination with the faraway lands that bring together folk legends and numerous picturesque ruins. Romanization of a “New East” is its own erasure—that of post-Soviet specifics in favor of one understandable staple, a western gaze. Down the line, and if Russian imperialism is not checked in time, New East could indeed turn into Neo-Soviet aesthetics.
- Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Last accessed June 30, 2022
- Stephen F. Jones, Language and Decline of Democracy in Georgia. Last accessed June 30, 2022 https://eurasianet.org/perspectives-language-and-the-decline-of-democracy-in-georgia?fbclid=IwAR31weenePsNXYkYSHLXZbMvtmy2FMr7_CJmPGBcLxg838vhmSHtWQnNs0c
- History of Ukraine, Second Half of XIX Century. Last accessed June 30, 2022 https://geomap.com.ua/ru-uh9/1055.html
- Timur A. Magsumov, Svetlana F. Artemova, Oksana V. Ustinova, Evgeniya V. Vidishcheva
- Maia Tsitsishvili, Nino Chogoshvili, Georgian Art – History of Development XVIII-XX Centuries, Tbilisi, 2013. (Georgian).
- UNESCO, Damaged Cultural Sites Verified by UNESCO. Last accessed June 30, 2022 https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/damaged-cultural-sites-ukraine-verified-unesco
- Maks Karpovets, Kazimir Malevich: the Ukraine roots and of his avant-garde art https://m.day.kyiv.ua/en/article/time-out/kazimir-malevich-ukrainian-roots-his-avant-garde-art
- Казимир Малевич. Last accessed June 30, 2022 https://www.culture.ru/persons/8795/kazimir-malevich
- Sotheby’s. Last accessed July 27,2022 https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/alexander-bogomazov-the-ukrainian-futurist?locale=en.
- Sotheby’s. Last accessed June 30, 2022 https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2016/russian-pictures-l16112/lot.82.html?locale=enl
- “New East” is a relatively new term denoting countries of the post-Soviet space, including Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Georgia, among others. See: https://www.neweasteurope.com/about-us; https://neweasterneurope.eu; https://www.calvertjournal.com/about