Rethinking the Russian Imperial Narrative with Myroslav Shkandrij

April 5, 2024
How can we trace the long-standing rivalry between the Ukrainian liberation narrative and the Russian imperial one?

UkraineWorld spoke to Myroslav Shkandrij, historian, author of “Russia and Ukraine: literature and the discourse of empire from Napoleonic to postcolonial times” book

Which Russian literature has most clearly absorbed and established Russia's imperial narrative?

The imperial discourse pervaded every aspect of Russian political and intellectual life.

It first manifested itself clearly in the work of historian Nikolai Karamzin, whose History of the Russian State was published between 1816 and 1826 and has since dominated the works of numerous subsequent historians.

Karamzin believed that Russia's size necessitated absolutist rule as well as the forced integration and colonization of subject peoples. He agreed with Tsar Aleksander I that weakening autocracy would result in the empire losing "its many and different parts."

According to this school of thought, democracy was dangerous, and any shift away from autocracy or dictatorship posed a threat to state survival.

Russian statesmen, historians, writers, and thinkers of various generations and ideologies shared similar views. They backed Russian imperial nationalism that was expansionist.

In 1969, Nikolai Riasanovsky wrote: "Russia expanded to become Slavdom, Russian destiny advanced to the Elbe, Vienna, and Constantinople."

The imperial discourse is embedded in Russian literary classics.

In the late eighteenth century, Gavrila Derzhavin's odes to tsars and generals were, as Vasilli Rozanov noted, "a support for the government," or, in the words of Georgii Fedotov, "a cult of empire, a genuine rapture in the presence of autocracy."

In 1830–31, Aleksandr Pushkin and Fedor Tiutchev wrote poems celebrating the defeat of the Polish revolution and the slaughter of Poles in Warsaw's suburbs.

Tiutchev claimed in his well-known poem "Russian Geography" in 1848 that Russia had no borders, whereas Aleksei Khomiakov's works from the 1830s to the 1850s glorified conquest and military might.

Imperial nationalism celebrated more than just expansion. Many writers voiced ideas about Russia's perceived cultural superiority and the empire's civilizational mission.

Nikolai Grech declared in 1855 that the Russian language was superior to all others, and Faddei Bulgarin claimed in 1830 that this superiority made it "the language of poetry and literature in all the countries of the globe."

In 1844, Vladimir Odoevsky stated that Russia would show mankind the direction it should follow. Vissarion Belinsky, a critic, used the concept of cultural superiority in the 1840s to justify the assimilation of Slavic and Asian nations.

For three centuries, the imperial discourse used the argument of cultural hegemony to glorify assimilationist tendencies.

Nikolai Danilevsky wrote in 1869 that smaller nations within the empire had to merge with the dominant Russian nationality.

They were simply "ethnographic material," with the sole purpose of serving the dominant nation.

Fedor Dostoevsky agreed with this sentiment. He saw Turks and Asians as culturally and racially inferior and advocated for the conquest of Constantinople and Central Asia.

He believed that the Russian Orthodox Church represented the pinnacle of human evolution.

These ideas were expressed in poetry, prose, drama, and art, often in subtle ways.

During the Romantic period, influential writers such as Aleksandr Bestushev-Marlinsky and Mikhail Lermontov described the war against the Caucasus peoples as a dangerous but thrillingly transgressive enterprise.

Ravishment was a popular theme in Lermontov's work, whether it was of females by males, non-Russians by Russians, or weaker natures by stronger.

All of the figures mentioned are well-known in Russian culture, and each contributed to a different aspect of imperial discourse.

However, many minor figures, including politicians, journalists, and creative artists, contributed to the veneration of imperial greatness and the call for state expansion.

They included reactionaries linked to the violent gangs known as the Black Hundreds, who attacked proponents of democracy and minority rights.

However, they also included most Russian liberals.

In 1910, one liberal publication decried the "terrible denationalization" to which people in the empire were subjected, while also accepting assimilation as inevitable and opposing any talk of separatism and all challenges to the state's unity.

A refusal to countenance the break-up of a single, indivisible state united Russian conservatives, liberals, and radicals at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the same way as it had united them throughout most of the previous two centuries.

How would you describe the variety of Russian images of Ukrainians, like Mazepists, Little Russians (Malorosy), and Khokhols?

The term “Mazepist” was used by the autocracy's spokespeople in the eighteenth century to designate a Ukrainian who acted as a political opponent of Muscovy or the Russian empire.

It was a derogatory term for any Ukrainian who favoured independent statehood.

In later decades, the terms "Petliurite," "nationalist," "Banderite," "fascist," and "Nazi" all served the same purpose.

This language designated any Ukrainian independentist, regardless of the political spectrum.

The terms were used against socialists and Bolsheviks during the 1917–1920 struggle for independence, supporters of the Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1920s, the anti-Soviet underground during and after WWII, members of the human rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and those who oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The intent behind these terms is to demean anyone who refuses to submit to imperial aggression.

They reveal the rage felt by Russian nationalists far more than the views of Ukrainians.

The term “Little Russian” (Maloros) was used by imperial rulers to designate a Ukrainian who acted as a loyal supporter of the empire, someone who exhibited regional cultural characteristics without attaching any political significance to them.

Because the terms "Ukraine" and "Ukrainian" were banned in the Russian empire, along with the Ukrainian language, "Little Russia" (Malorossia) was used instead to identify what imperial authorities considered a sub-ethnos of the Russian people.

In contemporary Ukrainian, the term refers to someone who lacks a strong sense of national identity and is unable to see Ukraine's history or cultural development as existing outside mainstream Russian narratives.

"Khokhol" was a term used by imperial rulers and landlords to refer to Ukrainian peasants.

It stems from the word "sheaf" and refers to the traditional peasant haircut with a tuft on top.

Today, it carries connotations of rural backwardness, ignorance, and ethnographic amorphousness.

In imperial discourse, it is occasionally used to refer to a harmless, unsophisticated, buffoonish Ukrainian.

Naturally, Ukrainians found the term offensive, as it denied them full humanity by depicting them as illiterate and slow-witted rural folk.

How are the key stages of the Ukrainian national liberation counter-narrative currently being manifested?

The counter-narrative was always present, as studies of the literary baroque or the works of the philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda show.

It surfaced overtly in the writings of Romantic nationalists, who studied the Ukrainian language, folklore, and history.

Taras Shevchenko wrote some of the most brilliant anticolonial writings. His poems "Kavkaz" (Caucasus) and "Velykyi liokh" (Great Vault), written in 1845, continue to resonate strongly today.

The Ukrainian movement gained widespread public support in the second half of the nineteenth century as it spread through publishing, reading clubs, theatre productions, and other educational initiatives.

Many prominent supporters of the movement published in Galicia, which had fewer restrictions during Austro-Hungarian rule.

Some prominent Ukrainian figures, such as Mykhailo Drahomarov, had to live abroad.

The transition from a cultural-educational movement to a political one occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, when Ukrainians began to form political parties demanding autonomy or independence.

This evolution culminated in the struggle for independence from 1917–19200, when the Central Rada declared autonomy in 1917 and the Ukrainian People's Republic declared independence in January 1918.

The literature of that period, written mainly by members of the Ukrainian Socialist Revolutionary Party or the Ukrainian Social-Democratic Workers Party, challenged Russian chauvinist attitudes.

Following the declaration of a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic at the end of 1922 and the implementation of a Ukrainianisation policy in 1923, many prominent political and cultural figures contributed to the Literary Discussion of 1925–1928 as well as the Cultural Renaissance of the 1920s.

A prominent motif in discussions during this decade was the need to combat Russian great-power chauvinism.

This remained the republic’s official position until 1933, and many publications outlined the colonial features of Russian rule, both past and present.

In the thirties, Ukrainization was curtailed, and an attack on the Ukrainian intelligentsia began.

All previous works that criticized Russian chauvinism were removed from libraries and destroyed.

They are now once again being studied, especially their demands for Ukraine’s political, economic, and psychological de-imperialization.

The Ammalat-Bek story mentions the close relationship of Russia to the West, embodied in the commitment to hard work, ingenuity, creativity, and change. At what point do you think Russia moved from viewing the West as an equal to seeing it as an alien?

Russia’s view of the West was always marked by ambiguity.

On the one hand, Russians envied the West's political, economic, and cultural achievements, and attempted to build their empire in the style of the British, French, and others.

On the other hand, they were aware of their country's vulnerability, which stemmed from the suppression of democratic movements and the inability to fully control national groups and minorities.

This resulted in a schizophrenic attitude toward the West: a hidden admiration clashed with a deep inferiority complex.

Russians sought to model themselves after European or Western behaviour, but would occasionally lash out contemptuously against Europe, America, or the "West" in a show of bravado.

That schizophrenia still exists today. Whenever the Russian state has been able to isolate its population from external influences, it has condemned the "West" as decadent, immoral, and exploitative.

However, whenever it has lost control of the information flow and been challenged by the larger global discourse, it has portrayed itself as a victim of outside interference and has invoked international norms and values, such as those embodied in human and civil rights legislation, or in a rules-based order that respects the inviolability of borders and treaties.

The Russian discourse on empire is thus fundamentally incongruous.

It claims civilizational superiority, the right to assault, conquer, and assimilate others (sometimes arguing that the "West" has always done so), but when criticized, it claims immunity as a victim and invokes international conventions and agreements.

How do Ukrainian postmodernism and postcolonialism go beyond the opposition of colonial and anticolonial discourses?

Yuliia Kravchenko and I have recently written an entry on "Anticolonial, Postcolonial and Decolonial" for the Ukrainian Decolonial Glossary (April 2024,, in which we argue that while the term "anticolonial" has represented a focus on opposition (periphery to centre or colony to empire), the term "postcolonial" has represented a desire to move beyond these binaries.

Postcolonialism is related to postmodernism in literature and art because it is often marked by irony, parody, and playfulness.

It uses these to undermine imperialist tropes while remaining distinct from the earnest and angry protests that frequently characterize anticolonialism.

Postcolonial writing often deconstructs imperial attitudes and forms of expression by placing them in a broader comparative context, making them appear unconvincing and ridiculous.

In this way, it avoids taking an overtly opposing stance in favour of establishing an independent centre of consciousness.

Many authors, including Marko Pavlyshyn, Vitalii Chernetsky, Mykola Riabchuk, Tamara Hundorova, and Yuri Andrukhovych, have exemplified this postcolonial attitude.

The third term, "decolonization," can be viewed as another step in a culture's evolution away from imperial bonds.

The empire's language, cultural norms, and history are no longer reference points, as an emancipated consciousness has emerged, preferring to focus on its own identity and cultural uniqueness.

The former empire's stylistic canons and idioms have lost their appeal, often because they are no longer recognized or are dismissed as amusing kitsch.

Decolonizing literature investigates the history of its people within broader international or global contexts, focuses on the dynamics of its own culture, and incorporates influences from new sources unavailable to the former empire.

Having liberated its imagination from the constraints imposed by imperial rule, it creates novel cultural codes that disorient and confuse the old imperial mindset.

Postmodernism and postcolonialism may be seen as emerging around 1991, the year Ukraine declared independence.

Yurko Andrukhovych's two novels, Rekreatsii (Recreations, 1991) and Moscoviada (1993), can be considered to encapsulate this moment.

The decolonizing turn could be viewed as occurring in 2022, as part of a powerful reaction to full-scale war by a generation that had lived in an independent Ukraine for three decades.

Today, this generation expresses contempt for the imperial syndrome and rejects the myopic and defective culture that produced it.

It is having a conversation about cultural identity with compatriots and the international community.

The conversation with Russian officialdom or their spokespeople has effectively ended.

Some writers, such as Volodymyr Rafeienko, have switched to writing only in Ukrainian, while the general public is increasingly reading Ukrainian.

Ukrainian texts are being translated into many languages around the globe - a testament to curiosity about all things Ukrainian and evidence of a tectonic shift away from viewing Ukraine within the imperial context and towards seeing it as a part of world culture.

The anticolonial, postcolonial, and decolonial stages can be viewed as sequential stages in the psychological liberation from empire, but they are also viewed as taking place simultaneously.

The literature and art of the "dissidents" of the 1960s, such as the works of Ivan Dziuba, Ivan Svitlychny, Alla Horska, and Vasyl Stus, provide pertinent examples for each of the three categories.

Myroslav Shkandrij, historian, author of “Russia and Ukraine: literature and the discourse of empire from Napoleonic to postcolonial times” book
INTERVIEWED BY Daria Synhaievska, analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld