By Andrey Ukrainskiy and Anatoliy Slobodyanyuk, May 29, 2015. First published in the monthly German magazine Melodie und Rhytmus ( April 2015). Translation by New Cold War.org. The translation is also published on Counterpunch, May 29, 2015.
Creative intelligentsia has always been a social stratum which effectively serves the ruling class but tries to preserve a semblance of independence. So in the current situation in Ukraine, it is no surprise to see the proliferation of pro-war art exhibitions, hundreds of patriotic videos, dozens of bands singing vulgar songs about the leader of the neighbor state of Russia, and performers who see the main problem of the country being Lenin monuments and who stage “performances” by burning his works. In this article, we look at small part of this insanity.
Huge numbers of Ukrainian so-called “creative middle classes” were jumping up and down on Maidan Square chanting “Whoever is not jumping is a ‘moskal’ [derogatory term for a Russian] in the company of ultra-right militants. But playing at revolution and counterculture very quickly turned into backing the most reactionary tendencies of the new authorities. The transition from quantity to quality became obvious after the exhibition ‘Beware of Russians’ was presented in April 2014 at the Modern Art Center M17 in Kyiv. “Russians” sporting St. George ribbons were placed in zoo cages with signs attached to the cages saying “Do not feed”. The “Russians” were drinking vodka, playing balalaikas, honoring Putin and threatening visitors.
It is possible to find in any country such idiots as those who staged this exhibition. The most important thing to note is whether such conduct is supported by the state and what is the reaction of the society to such actions. Ukrainian media provided good feedback from the exhibition. A significant number of the ‘denizens of culture’ who attended it supported the exhibition. This was quite a telling fact.
Half a year later, the exhibition ‘Top 100 of the best patriotic posters’* [opened on Dec. 4, 2014] became a direct continuation of this dehumanizing tendency. The vulgar posters on display were often just adaptations of posters from bygone eras, with slogans adapted to the present day. So we saw, ‘Don’t pass it by, kill a ‘colorad!’  and ‘Vata has no right to speak’. . Other themes present were sexism (in adapted pin-up pictures), anticommunism, clericalism, and pro-war propaganda.
The exposition ‘Goddess of War’ in Kharkiv presented panel images titled ‘Dogs of the DPR’, portraying dead bodies of members of the defense forces of Donetsk and Donbas.
Openly fascist cartoons about ‘vatniks’ (see footnote 2) by Irena Karpa (Ukrainian writer and musician) portrayed the Donbas population as subhumans. The xenophobic message of the cartoons was clear, even without translation. Not to speak of the utterly failed and banal artistic content of the effort. But all that didn’t stop the cartoons from being shown on the Ukrainian central television channel Inter and being welcomed by the chauvinist part of society.
During the last year, Ukrainian ‘art workers’ have actively dehumanized any opponent to the current political authorities. The derogatory terms ‘vatniks’ and ‘colorads’ resemble the die Untermenschen (‘sub-humans’) of the Third Reich or the ‘cockroaches’ label given to the Tutsi people massacred in Rwanda. (In March 1945, the magazine of the U.S. Marine Corps called the Japanese people “Japanese lice” (louseous japanicas). In the same month, 67 Japanese cities were bombed with fire-bombs. Later, Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered nuclear bombs.)
After such ‘art’ exhibitions in the months following the triumph of Euromaidan, it’s not surprising to recall that just one week after ‘Beware of Russians’ exhibition, on May 2, the Ukrainian ultra-right burned alive some oppositionists in the Odessa Trade-Union House.
Neither the artists involved in these macabre displays nor the consumers of their products seem to understand clearly what they have gotten themselves drawn into. Such radical metamorphosis in the behavior of the seemingly “creative and, intelligent” class of people could be predicted, but the threat of cultural nationalism was underestimated by many people on the anti-fascist side. The cultural nationalism appeared primarily ‘nationalist’ and not ‘cultural’, rather expansive than protective.
A few words should be said about Serhiy Zhadan – a writer and poet, famous in both Ukraine and Russia. Despite his support to Maidan, his glorification of the so called Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), and his participation in attempts to demolish Lenin’s monument in Kharkiv (and this is not a complete list of his activity), some people who still call themselves the “Ukrainian left”, like the small, liberal sect Left Opposition or the national-anarchists of the Autonomous Workers’ Union, tolerate Zhadan or consider him an ally because they would like to be ‘trendy’ and be “liked” by some circles of Kiev elitist closed groups.
We can talk for a long time about the metastasis and regress of Ukrainian culture. Putrefaction is a colorful process, accompanied by multiple miasmas. But the general judgment remains the same – putrefaction is an immediate consequence of death.
The oft-criticized thesis of ‘CULTURE’ (as the sum of cultural products and the process of their production) and ‘MATERIAL PRODUCTION’ (as a basis for cultural life of the society) has received a stunning confirmation in Ukraine. Our country has actually stopped the process of producing both. Last year was a time of endless carving up and selling for cheap the cultural and industrial legacy of the Soviet era. Profits from transportation of Russian gas to Europe and rents paid by Russia for stationing its naval forces in Crimea have been squandered. All the normal ways of conducting business were ignored because of their lesser potential profit, compared to an illegal takeover and selling of enterprises. Donbas (as well as Crimea) was ousted from the public discourse, including art discourse, during the past several decades and de facto excluded from the decision making in the Ukrainian economic context.
The art that found itself in a fruitless and sterile environment, acquired its own specific character. Some successful artists left the country. The producers of cultural product of early 1990’s (whose activity was aimed mostly at addressing the dissolution of the USSR and its legacy) were far from untalented, but now they occupy high positions and push modern Ukrainian culture to a self-destructive path. (Along that road, they do not overlook creating their private villas in elite neighborhoods, and not only in Ukraine.)
This was actually the cultural background of Maidan. A creative minority at the time of Maidan’s beginning has effectively isolated itself inside its own, closed pseudo-underground environment of exhibitions-concerts-performances which were interesting only to the inner circle. Meanwhile, the masses continued to be satisfied with mass culture. On both sides we find crowds of lonesome people – crowds consisting of ‘unique personalities’ but who suffer because nobody listens to them. That’s because they actually have nothing to say.
Maidan was like a final gasp of breath. Through bloody sacrifice, the economic health of Ukraine (relatively speaking) was destroyed and only some meaningless catchwords remain – like “dignity” [Maidan was called a “revolution of dignity”] and fancy symbols of the supposed freedom in the European Union.
We were witness to an emotional activisation of half-educated and half-witted persons causing outbursts of cultural mythology. Issues of style and taste didn’t bother anyone at that time – anything of ‘pro-Maidan’ style was seen by Maidan participants as needed, appropriate and ‘trendy’’.
This charge of the quasi-idea (which was supposed to raise the cultural level of the masses) has stuck in the minds of the ‘creative layers’. That’s why we witness an apotheosis of aesthetic squalor, cannibalistic immorality and populist orientation among the creators of ‘culture’ in ‘modern’, post-Maidan Ukraine. Those who pretended to had something to say suddenly discovered that a portion of society supporting Maidan could only hear, or were only interested in, a set of incantations—”Glory to Ukraine – Glory to heroes” (Nation über alles).
It is no wonder that some artists, looking for popularity, were charmed by it all and assumed that it would endure. But their hopes are groundless because nationalist hysteria is temporal. The upsurge of nationalist hysteria and its inevitable fall are each the results of the objective processes in society and culture, not a product of the actions of the ‘creative layers’. Soon they will be held to account for their participation in absolutely monstrous (both ethical and moral) ‘art’ events. Or try to erase it from their biographies, though this will be quite a difficult task for them.
Andrey Ukrainskiy is a doctor, left-wing activist and journalist from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. He lives in exile from Ukraine due to the conditions of government and vigilante repression.
Anatoliy Slobodyanyuk was a lecturer in the Faculty of Sociology of Kharkiv National University. In November 2014, he was fired along with the dean of the faculty and numbers of other lecturers and academics. They were fired for their criticism of new regime and alleged support for “separatism” as widely accused in social media networks. Soon after, he received numerous threats from far-right, pro-Maidan nationalists. He also lives in exile.
Notes: ‘Colorad’ is an offensive slur against ethnic Russians, in general, and , more recently, against anyone who backed resistance to the Maidan movement and now to the current Ukrainian authorities. The word is drawn from the orange and black colors of the Colorado potato beetle, similar colors to the St. George Ribbon worn in the former republics of the Soviet Union to commemorate the sacrifices in fighting fascism during World War Two.  ‘Vatnik’ and ‘vata’ are also offensive names for the same category of people as in footnote one, with an added meaning of social-chauvinism. A ‘vatnik’ is a quilted, winter jacket, typically worn by workers in past eras. It was also standard winter wear of the ordinary soldiers of the Soviet army during WW2.  In the WW2 narrative of the former Soviet Union, the nuclear bombings of Japanese cities are harshly criticized as unnecessary brutality against civilians.
* Here are four of the ‘Top 100 posters’: