Sunday, January 4, 2015

Postcolonialism and Ukrainian identity

Right now, in the midst of war and annexation in our country, I see a lot of confusion about the very definition of Ukraine. The video below addresses certain aspects of this confusion coming from Russia, which in turn prompts me to consider other ways in which I see outsiders completely misunderstanding  the identity of Ukraine. In this post, I not only want to share some sharp thinking coming from Ukraine, but also want to address some of the duller thoughts on Ukraine that I hear coming from the United States. I'd like to suggest that right now may be a good time for pro-Russian commentators (American, Russian, European) to think about postcolonialism in the Ukrainian context. They should consider their own colonial biases as they grapple with trying to understand the national awakening of a formerly colonized people.

In this video, Zoya Zvynyats'ivs'ka from the citizen's organization "Parental Control" talks about a couple of things that often get overlooked in the national conversation: childhood education and Ukrainian identity.

She takes on the myth of the vyshyvanka (a traditional embroidered shirt) wearing villager depicted in her children's school books and argues that modern children can't relate to the people depicted in these books because, basically, this is not the Ukraine they see in the world around them:

"What bothers me about the school book is the image of the world that it portrays to children. Ukraine is a paradise where there are white houses with cherry orchards. Ideal families live there. Father is in a vyshyvanka. Mother is in a vyshyvanka. The children are in vyshyvankas. Mother is always cooking food or washing the dishes. Modern notions about a woman's role in society are not there...It portrays a world that is not the world they know, and that is why it does not interest them."

From experience I can attest to the importance of children's books reflecting a student's personal reality. As an undergraduate doing field work at an inner city school in the city of Boston, I saw the dramatic difference that appropriate teaching material can make. Most of the time I watched and attempted to help as the teacher struggled to get her students to sit still and take standardized tests.

If you are unfamiliar with public schools in America, you may not know that teachers and schools are evaluated and allotted money according to how well they perform with regard to standardized tests. The schools in the most impoverished areas--like the school I was at--suffer the most from this system. The students are at a disadvantage to begin with (because of their race and poverty) and are punished with a lack of funding because they continue to do poorly on these standardized tests. The tests don't reflect their everyday lives, and, as a result, the students do not engage with the tests on any meaningful level.

On the other hand, when it came time to read, we had more freedom with what to do. The students would completely transform whenever I would read a book that dealt with the subject of being black in America. They would sit on the carpet in the reading area with rapt attention as I read to them. They were naturally eager learners with a strong, curious spirit! All they needed was something that related to their own reality.

This parallels Zvynyats'ivs'ka's point about school books not reflecting the modern Ukraine that children know. She argues that her child's school books not only portray a rural lifestyle to urban children, but that children are being taught as if they are living in the invented world of the Soviet imagination:

"This is an imperial image of an ideal Ukraine. This is how they understood Ukraine from Moscow. People who live in Ukraine knew the whole time that this was not so. But if you live in Moscow you know that there is a warm country known as Ukraine. Pumpkins grow on the trees there. The people are beautiful. They wear vyshyvankas. The women and girls are beautiful. Ruddy faced children live there. That's how Ukraine was portrayed in the imperial imagination."

She wants the school system to turn its focus to reflecting the post industrial information age that we currently live in. While the image of the idealized villager portrays a fictional Ukraine to students, so does romanticized industrialism. Zvynyats'ivs'ka contends that romanticized industrialism (which she also sees in school books) is just as foreign to most students. Math problems that ask students to count how many refrigerators a factory produces a day further depict a fictional and one dimensional Ukraine:

"The heroes of Soviet labor are no longer relevant. There are workers who work in production. I understand this. But they are no longer the norm in today's society."

Here is an example that she says better depicts today's reality for children:

"A laptop's battery lasts four and a half hours. How many children will be able to write a term paper on Taras Shevchenko's paintings, if, for each essay, a child needs one and a half hours?"

Simple enough. However, she says that when she proposes her thoughts to the Ministry of Education, they understand maybe 50%  of what she is saying. Furthermore, they come up with lame excuses that exemplify just how antiquated their thinking is:

"'What kind of example is this setting? Children cannot look at the screen of a laptop for more than twenty minutes because their eyes will start to hurt.' I respond, 'The cathode ray tube is long gone. Right now there is something called liquid crystals.' They just look at me and say, 'Huh??'"
Zvynyats'ivs'ka has some great thoughts on how to transform Ukraine starting with children's books. Children's books, after all, are written by adults and reflect the mindset of those adults. Sadly, they've internalized the biases of Russian colonialism. Many of the people in power in Ukraine have succumbed to the subaltern status of all things Ukrainian and continue to conceive of Ukrainian identity as trivial and inferior.

Unfortunately, the Russian imperial imagination is not the only distorted view of Ukraine that outsiders have. Since the crisis in Ukraine started, uninformed Americans have been coming out of the woodwork with their opinions on why the United States should not help Ukrainians.

They don't realize it, but they see the wider world from the point of view of a colonizer. They use terms such as sphere of influence (as in "Ukraine is within Russia's sphere of influence") and proclaim that Ukraine shall be a buffer zone. The latter is particularly troubling and illustrates the colonial mindset of those Americans. To say a country is a buffer zone is to say that it is an empty space of no consequence. To an octopus, for example, the American continent is a buffer zone between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. An octopus need not bother with all the facts and nuances of the terrestrial world in between. The same is true for these skeptics.They see the world as a collection of colonizers like themselves. On the radio last week, I heard a caller open his comment with the remark, "We need to look at this from Russia's point of view." Excuse me? This is all happening in Ukraine. What about trying to look at it through Ukraine's point of view? When it comes to understanding the world from the point of view of a colonized people, they are like fish out of water.

Ukraine is home to 44 million people. It is the largest country entirely in Europe. Dismissing the thoughts and opinions of all those people is insulting. I centered this blog post on Zvynyats'ivs'ka's interview to show that Ukrainians have (surprise!) their own thoughts on how they want to live. But even more interestingly, people like Zvynyats'ivs'ka are beginning to define an emerging academic discipline focused on postcolonialism in Ukraine. The idea that the conflict here is a struggle between the United States and Russia is misguided, antiquated, and--honestly--creepy in this day and age.

Fortunately, most journalists who write about Ukraine have actually been here and understand what is happening. They know Ukraine's history, and they know Ukraine's society. Unfortunately, since they report the same facts about what they see here, skeptical outsiders believe that their thoughts and opinions are part of some sort of media conspiracy controlled by the American government. It's difficult to deal with people so out of touch with reality, but we need to be honest with them and urge these people to deal with their bigotry, racism, and control issues before continuing to contribute to the larger conversation about Ukraine.

Post script:

Literally moments after I finished writing this post, I came across this article on Facebook. It is called "Orientalism reanimated: Colonial thinking in Western analysts' comments on Ukraine." While I approach the subject in a roundabout way, the author, Fabio Belafatti, makes an even more explicit argument about Ukraine and colonialism. It's worth a read.


  1. Here is another excellent piece that conveys the frustration Ukrainians are feeling with respect to Putin verstehers: It seems we are not the only ones who have had it!

  2. A very nice and informative article. We always enjoy reading your posts.

    Thank you