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The Slavic Battle of the Books

The Slavic Battle of the Books

Russia wants to “re-educate” Ukrainians. Ukrainians see de-Russification as de-toxification.

John G. Rodden

The 2022–23 school year in war-torn Ukraine began this fall under conditions that Americans—and even Europeans old enough to remember World War II—can barely fathom. Three-quarters of the schools have been unable to open at all because they lack bomb shelters, air raid sirens nearby, or underground classrooms and lavatories. Russian bombing campaigns can last for several hours; all classes are therefore held remotely, insofar as children have access to computers and Wi-Fi.

Understandably, the attention of the world, including that of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his advisors in Kyiv, is focused on battlefield advances and reversals. And yet a parallel war is under way, one that has received only spotty attention in the English-language media, though the German and French presses have covered it more extensively. It is a culture war, a Slavic “Battle of the Books” that goes far beyond the imaginary world in Jonathan Swift’s 1704 book. In  Swift’s Battle of the Books, he imagined an epic battle in a library—a so-called “quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns”—where books come alive, with authors both classical (e.g., Homer, Pindar, Plato, Aristotle, Vergil) and contemporary (e.g., Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Dryden, Aphra Benn) duking it out.

The twenty-first century Eurasian counterpart is no mere entry in a game of literary fisticuffs conducted with courtly fellow men of letters. It is a deadly serious affair that Ukrainian officials regard as a retaliatory counteroffensive. For the Ukrainians this isn’t just a Battle of Books–this is a deep, visceral, and emotional reaction to their country being eviscerated and destroyed by Russian forces.

In their view, they have been forced into it by the ruthless “reeducation” policy that Russia has undertaken in occupied Ukraine. The Slavic Battle of the Books is about which authors Ukrainians will read and study. It is a war to “win the minds of men,” as the old Stalinist slogan phrased it. Wherever it leads, it has already validated one venerable contention about which both the Ancients and the Moderns were in full agreement: Ideas have consequences.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

One of the key features of this new culture war is the decision by the Ukrainian Education Ministry to abolish the heretofore Russocentric literary curriculum, which it has come to regard as part of Russia’s enduring view of Ukraine as “Little Russia,” just a junior sibling of what Russian President Vladimir Putin calls “the Russian world.” (The phrase “Little Russia” was widely used to refer to Ukraine throughout the czarist era—and even in the early twentieth century, the Ukrainian language was frequently patronized as “the Little Russian dialect,” as none other than another Vladimir snidely termed it—Vladimir Nabokov.)

As the school year proceeds, therefore, Ukrainian educators are moving ahead aggressively with a planned escalation of the decolonization campaign on the cultural front. The long-term goal is to remove virtually all Russian (and non-Ukrainian Soviet-era) literary works, even the greatest classics, from the curriculum. New curricular materials, new teacher instruction manuals, and new textbooks are being designed and written. Some materials have already been made available for classroom use.

The curricular campaign has its counterpart in a national cultural policy under way whereby more than one hundred million so-called “propaganda books,” including Russian classics, are being removed from Ukrainian public libraries under the direction of the Ukrainian Book Institute. The policy officially applies to all books that “reinforce imperial narratives and promote violence, pro-Russian, and/or chauvinistic policies,” along with all Russian-authored books published after 1991, not excepting children’s books, romance novels, and detective stories. The library policy is staggering and utterly unprecedented for any nation; the one hundred million scheduled for removal represent no less than half of Ukraine’s total book holdings.

These policies are partly in response to an aggressive escalation of the Kremlin’s own Russification curricular agenda in Russian-occupied Ukraine, which in mid-October covered approximately 1,200 schools, a tenth of the national total. Half of these schools have already implemented in full Moscow’s explicit reeducation initiative, which is based on the conviction that the Ukrainian emphases on Ukrainian history and literature were “aimed at turning you into an idiot” ignorant of Russian literary immortals and historical achievements, according to Kyrylo Stremousov, the former deputy governor of Kherson, the port city on the Baltic Sea recently recaptured by Ukrainian forces.

The Kremlin agenda for Ukrainians’ “reeducation” has included the adoption of Russian textbooks “full of Russian imperialism,” charges Sergii Gorbachov, Ukraine’s educational ombudsman. It has even extended to shipping at least two hundred teachers of history, geography, and literature—the trio of ideologically sensitive subjects—from Russia, who will be paid a phenomenal seven times their normal salary for “their patriotic service.” More ominously, reeducation has also embraced darker policies. According to Ukrainian news outlets such as Ukraine Alert, these measures include Nazi-type book burnings of Ukrainian authors, torture of uncooperative teachers, and the transfer of legal authority for Ukrainian children from parents convicted of crimes against the Russian state to “ideologically correct” parents or institutions.

De-Russification = Detoxification?

So both library and educational officials in Ukraine are unapologetic about moving ahead with curricular de-Russification—which a colleague of mine terms Ukraine’s “detoxification”—both as a short-run retaliatory measure and as a long-term nation-building strategy. Scheduled for the Orwellian memory hole are the entire works, including numerous world classics, of Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Mikhail Lermontov. Gone from all Ukrainian textbooks will be traditional staples of Ukrainian literature classes such as the poetry of Nikolai Nekrasov, the fables of Ivan Krylov, the short stories of Vladimir Korolenko, and science fiction favorites by Alexander Belyaev and Alexander Grin.

Even Tolstoy’s oeuvre—including War and Peace —will be eliminated on the rationale that it “glorifies” the Russian army and is susceptible to Putin puppets spreading “Russian propaganda,” according to Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Education and Science Andrii Vitrenko. “Heavy works” that exhibit “the sufferings of the Russian soul” have no place in Ukrainian classes, he adds. War and Peace is grouped with World War II poems against Nazi Germany as “nationalistic Russian literature.” Among the latter are textbook mainstays by the poets Bulat Okudzhava and Konstantin Simonov. “Throwing out [everything that] somehow connects us with the Russian Empire” is necessary, maintains Vitrenko. That is essentially also the position of the Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko, whose blunt article this summer in Foreign Policy (“From Pushkin to Putin: Russia’s Imperial Ambitions”) concludes:

So if you’re looking for the roots of Russia’s violence against its neighbors, its desires to erase their history, and its rejection of the ideas of liberal democracy, you will find some of the answers on the pages of Pushkin, Lermontov and Dostoevsky.

Do the perils of literary larceny justify the curricular ouster even of the likes of War and Peace? One could argue that extreme measures are justified under extreme situations, desperate wartime conditions in which more than eight thousand schools are unusable (as they lack adequate bomb shelter protection) and in light of a Russification campaign going back to czarist times that has steadily intensified throughout Putin’s rule. But I wonder: Could not Tolstoy’s depiction in War and Peace of Russian resistance of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812 be read against the grain, not as novelized history that “glorifies” the Russian army but rather as a work of heroic resistance that sustains Ukraine’s struggle against the Napoleonic Putin and his army of aggressors?

Does Andrii Vitrenko’s throw-out-everything position have any validity? It is worth noting that Dostoevsky’s Spanish translator in Argentina, Alejandro Gonzalez—who has no stake in the Slavic “Battle of the Books”—is on record as believing that “if Dostoevsky were alive today,” he “would be closer to Putin’s position” on international affairs than “that of the European Union.” Indeed one could argue that his magnificent novel The Devils (1871) depicts hapless Russians “possessed” by “demonic” revolutionary chimeras of the godless West. At least in one respect I am inclined to agree, for Putin’s endlessly reiterated idea of Russkiy mir (the “Russian world”) echoes the conviction of Dostoevsky (and Nikolai Gogol, too, shortly before his death) that Russia has a special, exalted role on the planet. Whereas Dostoevsky and Gogol conceived Russia’s specialness in terms of a divinely ordained spiritual vocation, however, Putin’s notion is grounded in his expansionist ideology and is thus closer to Hitler’s Pan-Germanic Weltanschauung that justified Greater Germany’s imperative for more Lebensraum.

Not surprisingly, Russian officials have reacted with rage and withering mockery to Ukraine’s announced plans to “cancel” Russian literature in schools. Kremlin spokesmen were quick to announce that the Nazis also targeted Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, among other Russian writers. Sergey Kravtsov, Russia’s minister of education, told the official Russian news agency TASS, “This is yet another confirmation of the stupidity of the Kiev regime. [Our shared] cultural heritage cannot be erased from history.”

Or can it? Not only erased, but also … razed? For the Ukrainian “curricular counteroffensive,” as a Ukrainian acquaintance of mine has phrased it approvingly, is just one part of a broader de-Russification campaign to dismantle, decimate, and demolish the one-sided “shared heritage,” which more and more Ukrainians are coming to view as merely Putin-speak for Room 101 brainwashing in a Kremlin-designed Ministry of Love. De-Russification, therefore, is a deliberate and conscious effort of Ukrainians to stop “loving” their abusive Slavic “Big Brother” and to refuse Russia’s brutal, crazy-making history of arithmetic tutorials in which 2 + 2 = 5.

The decolonization campaign is not just literary but also linguistic. Ukrainians have long bristled at the long-standing “imperial” Kremlin attitude that the Ukrainian tongue is in fact not a separate language at all but rather merely a “southern dialect” of Russian—“the Little Russian dialect,” in Nabokov’s snide phrase. (That goes too far: the two languages differ as much as French and Portuguese, or perhaps German and Dutch.) Aiming to make “separate and equal” official policy, the city council in the southern Ukrainian city of Mikolaiv recently set foreign observers reeling with a still more stunning decision: This school year would proceed with a total ban of the Russian language. Will other cities and regions soon follow?

From the Schools to the Streets

Redrawing the literary map has its counterpart outside the classroom. New geography lessons, anyone? “Throwing out” the Russians will go beyond promoting a new literary canon in the classroom, as culture officials take their campaign to the streets. That is, decolonization extends to changing dozens of streets and buildings named after Russians, plus toppling or mothballing statues of Russians. The bronze Bulgakov statue will go. The Leo Tolstoy Square metro station in Kyiv will soon be renamed; likewise the Kyiv streets named after Pushkin and Dostoevsky, both of whom are viewed in many quarters as “Russian imperialists.” Hence the recent Ukrainian slogan, “Without Pushkin, no Putin,” which recalls the so-called “anti-Hun” historiography of the 1930s and 1940s captured in numerous headlines and even the title of a serious book, From Goethe to Hitler.

Amusing ironies also abound, however. One of them was the decision in Fontanka, a village near Odesa, to rename Vladimir Mayakovsky Street, which honors a once-famous Soviet-era revolutionary poet much esteemed by Stalin. The new name? Boris Johnson Street, adopted in gratitude for Westminster’s pledge this year of a £100-million weapons package for Ukraine. With Johnson’s ouster from power, one imagines that this newly renamed street will likely soon be renamed again.

Yet even some Kyiv residents wonder if effacing all Russians from streets as well as syllabi—“their ethnic cleansing of Russian culture,” as one indignant Russian acquaintance of mine expressed—might not be a bridge (and book) too far. “Their exclusion from our cultural field is a deliberate depletion of the national cultural space, a violation of the European principle of multiculturalism,” declared Kyiv resident Aleksey Kushch, echoing some official Russian statements about the renamings.

Most of the planned renamings and dismantlings, however, command the support of the vast majority of Ukrainians. Presiding this summer over the official leveling of a Soviet-era statue dedicated to “Eternal Druzba!” [friendship] between Russia and Ukraine, Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko–who also happens to be a former world heavyweight boxing champion–declared that the city would rid itself of all honorific vestiges of Russian identity. Why? Lambasting Putin’s hypocritical paeans to a neocolonial form of “brotherhood,” the mayor declaimed, “You don’t kill your brother. You don’t rape your sister. You don’t destroy your friend’s country. That’s why.” President Zelenskyy himself is not defensive about the de-Russification step-up on the cultural front. Addressing Putin directly in a nationally televised address in April, he declared passionately, “You are doing it—in one generation’s lifetime and forever! You are doing your best so that our people abandon the Russian language, because Russian will be associated with you . . . with you, with these explosions and killings.”

The most bizarre outcome of this newest round of cultural politics is that even Ukrainian-born authors are slated for expulsion.

Why? Apparently Kyiv’s working assumption is that only by extirpating all traditionally regarded Great Russian Writers—whether “Russian” or not—can Ukraine ever really get down to its own literary roots. That, of course, was the implication of the already quoted final sentence in Yermolenko’s Foreign Policy article, namely, that “the roots” of Russia’s will to violate and annihilate its neighbors—above all its “Little Brother” Ukraine—lie in the hallowed literary canon. For instance, most writings of two world-class writers whose heritage is part of the culture wars­ will be expatriated. Nikolai Bulgakov, author of Master and Margarita, has been dropped. So, too, Anton Chekhov, whose Ukrainian connection is thin yet insistently promoted by some Ukrainian culture warriors. In any case, no longer will students encounter Chekhov’s fiction, such as the novella Ward 6, a macabre portrait of czarist Russia as an insane asylum. (The novella, said Lenin, “turned me into a revolutionary!”) Such reforms will clear the way for Ukrainians such as Taras Shevchenko, who was never claimed as part of the Russian literary canon, to occupy a central place in the curriculum. He will be honored as the father of Ukrainian literature and placed alongside Great Western Writers ranging from Goethe and Balzac to Dickens and Twain.

And wonder of all wonders, the ban also includes standard selections such as Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. The Ukrainian-born Gogol emigrated to Russia at the age of twenty. Whereas Pushkin is regarded as the father of Russian poetry, Gogol is typically extolled as his counterpart in fiction, and has been a beloved figure for two centuries. The Inspector General, a hilarious satirical comedy of Russian life, is often regarded as the first outstanding Russian drama. Likewise, favorites such as his bizarre, outlandish tales “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” will go. Like Pushkin, Gogol has long been known as a “velikii russkii pisatel,” in the hallowed, traditional encomium to Russia’s literary immortals: a “Great Russian Writer.”

That is understandable—after all, Gogol’s mature work was written in Russia, in the Russian language, and about Russia—and that is ostensibly the problem.  He has too long been thought of in the world’s eyes as “Russian”—so he too must go, with one exception: Selections from the twenty-two-year-old Gogol’s whimsical Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, a volume of tales of Ukrainian folk life that marked his sensational literary debut and launched his fame, will remain curricular staples. Truth is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction. The absurdities, ironies, and paradoxes—or, rather, contradictions—are mind-boggling. Who could have imagined that even the oeuvre of that marvelous native Ukrainian—the native son whom former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko insisted in 2009 “belongs to us … because his roots go back to the Ukrainian Cossacks”—would be largely uprooted?

Yes, who but Nikolai Gogol himself could have given the entire saga such a grotesque and farcical twist?

John Rodden has written elsewhere on Gogol as well as other Russian writers such as Dostoevsky and Nikolai Bulgakov.

Image: Голубиная книга ("Book of Doves"), Nicholas Roerich, 1922. (WikiArt)