After 30 years of Ukrainian independence, both Russian media and politicians are still agonizing with discrediting campaigns, humiliation, and dubious jokes about Ukraine. Why is the depreciation of the Ukrainian image still an idée fixe for the Kremlin? The Russian Federation is known for its imperialistic traditions, such as cultural appropriation, mocking and marginalizing other nations, and imposition of inferiority complex.
Both in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, Ukrainian language, culture, history, and identity have been given a marginal status as “vulgar” and “profane”. As a matter of fact, Ukraine is still dealing with the traumatic consequences of both the imperialistic and Soviet past.
The very existence of the Ukrainian language, separate from Russian, was frequently undermined by Russian linguists and politicians. As it was documented in Valuev Circular (1863) and Ems Ukaz (1876), in Tsarist Russia, the publication of educational, religious, and literary texts in Ukrainian faced numerous prohibitions. According to the authorities of the Russian Empire, a separate Little Russian (Ukrainian) language “has never existed, does not exist and cannot exist”.
That approach illustrates how the separate language was relegated to the status of “dialect, used by commoners”, which is nothing more than “just the Russian Language, corrupted by the influence of Poland”. The advantage in the opposition of “Great Russian” and “Little Russian” paradigms was predictably on the side of the metropolis. Therefore, the XIX century became the cradle of the myth about “common Russian language, intelligible to both Little Russians and Great Russians” which is now transformed by the Kremlin propaganda to the myth about “one great language” which is spoken in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and “unites three fraternal nations”.
However, for more than 150 years, the relations between the metropole and the colony were far from fraternal. Eventually, Ukrainian was banned in the public sphere which meant that singing national songs in the theatres, printing and importing literature and sheet music, and staging the performances in Ukrainian was impossible. However, if it was just a “dialect” that was no danger for Russian greatness, why was it so necessary to ban it?
As a historical heir of Tsarist Russia and its imperialistic strategies, the Soviet Union also inherited cultural colonialism so after a short period of “Ukrainization” the politics of linguicide continued: the whole layer of Ukrainian words was either deleted from the vocabularies or marked as “dialectal”. These actions were aimed to assimilate the Ukrainian language to Russian, being a logical part of Soviet globalization strategy: to turn Russian into another universal language.
As a result, Ukrainian was portrayed as “unprestigious” and “provincial” while Russian was glorified as “the urban language” as well as the language of power. Now, these historical conditions are fertile ground for the Kremlin narratives about Ukraine as a “bilingual nation” or about “aggressive Ukrainization politics” when it comes to the restoration of historical justice.
Myths about Ukraine
Another absurd but powerful Russia’s weapon of devaluation is modern mythology. Ironically, even in 2021 the Kremlin still uses the same old-fashioned Tsarist legends about the Ukrainian language being a mixture of Russian and Polish as well as the myths about Ukraine as a “project of the Austro-Hungarian empire” which was “invented” to undermine Russian greatness. Many of such myths are described in Vladimir Putin’s article “On the historic unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (which we briefly analyzed here) and actively promoted in Ukraine. Despite all the irrationality of the “facts” and “theories”, these constructs are actively used in Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine to promote hatred and intolerance.
The continuation of the common Russian narrative about one nation is always predictable: Ukraine is unable to reach any economic or political success beyond the Soviet Union or the “fraternal relationships” with Russia. After years of political pressure and aggression, Russia got a renommé of a Big Brother, whose shadow always reminds both Ukraine and Belarus of the traumatic Soviet past.
Another depreciation practice used by Russia was cultural appropriation. For many years, Russia reassures the world that Mykola Hohol (who published his texts in Russian but identified himself as a Ukrainian) and Taras Shevchenko (who created the vast majority of his poetry in Ukrainian and some prosaic works in Russian) are Russian authors also. As a result, even Wikipedia mentions Mykola Hohol as the “Russian writer”.
Such blurring of the borders between Ukrainian and Russian is an integral weapon on the Russian cultural front and is therefore used by the Kremlin to promote the ideological construct of Russia as a glorious state which proved its greatness in all spheres: from politics to literature. The effectiveness of that strategy can be proved, for instance, by the charts of Apple Music or Spotify that often mention Ukrainian songs as “Russian hits”, also symbolically making them a part of Russian heritage.
Another “soft” instrument of colonization that nevertheless can’t be underestimated is humor.
Unlike the bloody repressions against the Ukrainian intelligentsia, the destructive power of humor was not so evident but still very effective. During the Soviet era, in jokes and stand-up comedy shows, Ukrainians were systematically described as simple-minded, naive and sentimental. Russians (or Russian-speaking people), on the other hand, were always wise and rational, omnipotent and well-educated. This paradigm was aimed to strengthen the national stereotypes and create the inferiority complex, encouraging Ukrainians to abandon their roots and identity for the sake of “prestige” and reputation. One of the most representative examples is a duet of stand-up comedians, Shtepsel and Tarapunka, that was extremely popular in the Soviet Union. In this case, the roles were traditionally divided: while intelligent and sensible Shtepsel was speaking Russian, his simple-minded companion, Tarapunka, was speaking rather a macaronic language — surzhyk, which is a chaotic mix of Ukrainian and Russian. With all its simplicity and sincerity, the show managed to create some traumas which independent Ukraine is still struggling with.
Despite the fact that Shtepsel and Tarapunka duet no longer exists, the destructive influence of Soviet cultural codes are still present in Ukrainian reality: urban spaces of eastern and southern parts of Ukraine still have the traumas of Russification politics, and pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians still use this fact to promote the status of Russian as a second state language and blame the authorities for “oppressing the rights of Russian-speaking people”, which amazingly corresponds with the Kremlin rhetorics.
The tradition of racist, sexist, or other discriminative jokes is also rather long and even gave birth to the specific Soviet “folklore”. Later, it was inherited by Russia that continued the practice of dividing people into “normal” (aka Russians) and “other”, often portrayed as “bizarre” and “ridiculous”. Russian stand-up comedians still use Soviet jokes about “cunning” Jews, “slow” Estonians, “stupid” Americans, and “naive” Ukrainians eating salo, and lamenting their miserable luck. This is nothing else than another colonial tactic that puts thousands of people under a permanent risk of being mocked just for being different.
Russian cultural diplomacy is inter alia supported by millions of dollars invested in promoting the idea of “great Russian language and literature” both in the Western universities and in the media, boosting the image of Russia as a global Kulturträger. However, the positive narrativization strategy is also connected to the strategy of demonization of Russia’s opponents. Thus, Ukrainian culture is portrayed as marginal and profane, Ukrainian presidents are described as “far-right radicals glorifying Nazism and Russophobia”, and the mocking of Ukrainian sovereignty itself intensified in the light of the approaching Independence Day.
Despite the occupation and ongoing war, the Russian operations on devaluation of Ukraine are not very visible but still destructive enough. Cultural appropriation, manipulations with history and collective memory, attacks against the Ukrainian language — it all proves that Russia still lives in the paradigm of the great empire doing everything to humiliate and marginalize Ukrainian achievements in politics, economy, and sports, and Ukrainian identity itself, while humor and media remain its main instruments in this cultural war.