by Christi Anne Hofland
This article is based on a paper presented at the Nineteenth Annual Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies Northwest Conference in April 2013.
Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has struggled with uncertainty as it attempts to solidify a national identity and forge a path for its future. One of its greatest challenges has been defining its relationship to Russia and the European Union. It is in this process of transition that the work of artists, writers and philosophers reflects the reassessment process of national, cultural and sociopolitical identity. Ukrainian writers are currently striving to establish themselves in a European context, while at the same recovering from their Soviet past in which their language and culture was stigmatized as uncultured and provincial (Chernetsky, “Displacement and Identity” 216). At the forefront is Yuri Andrukhovych, one of Ukraine’s most widely read contemporary authors. Credited with having radically renewed Ukrainian poetry in the mid-1980s, Yuri Andrukhovych writes in Ukrainian and is known for his pro-Ukrainian and pro-European views. The work that made him most popular, albeit most controversial, is his quasi-trilogy of novels, Recreations (Рекреації, 1992), The Moscoviad (Московіада, 1993), and Perverzion (Перверзія, 1996) in which he explores the issue of Ukraine’s post-Soviet national identity.
Recreations examines Ukraine’s internal transition to an independent state, its attempt to do away with political repression and to move past provincialism (Stech 233). It is also a critique of Ukrainian intellectuals and society on the verge of independence (Chernetsky, “Mapping” 217). It takes place at a festival called “The Holiday of the Resurrecting Spirit” in Chortopil (in English: Devilville), a town in Western Ukraine. Despite a seemingly gloomy outlook, the book also manages to characterize Ukraine as having a passion for change while trying to deal with what remains from its past corrupt society. As a result, the book has become a defining piece of literature that has been used to characterize the role of new literature for Western Ukraine. (Chernetsky, “Rev. of Recreations” 543).
While Recreations considered the situation in Ukraine, The Moscoviad examines Ukraine’s relationship with its empirical neighbor, Russia. The story takes place during the collapse of the Soviet Union and follows one day in the life of Otto Von F., a literary student at the famous Moscow Gorki Institute. Otto Von F. finds himself out of place in a hostile impersonal Moscow and unable to write anything creative. To his relief, he escapes back to his motherland — Ukraine. Andrukhovych uses the story’s conclusion to illustrate his view of what the Soviet Union ultimately did to its citizens — it forced them to retreat to their homelands (“The Complete Review”).
Andrukhovych’s third novel, Perverzion, explores the place of the Ukrainian post-Soviet intellectual in the West. The book tells the story of Stanislav Perfetsky, a Ukrainian poet who is invited to Venice for a conference entitled “The Post-Carnival Absurdity of the World: What is on the Horizon?” The story follows the events of the conference in Venice and ends with the mysterious disappearance of Perfetsky in which he supposedly jumps out of the window of his hotel and into the canal where he meets his end. The reader is never certain, however, whether Perfetsky died or just escaped and disappeared into Europe with a new identity.
Perverzion illustrates Andrukhovych’s opinion of Ukrainian national identity in relation to the West. On one side, he is sarcastic towards a West that he portrays as disinterested and ignorant of Ukraine. On the other side, it appears that Europe is Andrukovych’s ideal — as a saint aspires for perfection, Ukraine aspires to become part of Europe (Naydan 456). Furthermore, in the story, Perfetsky realizes that his current life must come to a complete end before his new life can begin. This is why he staged his suicide to escape. Perhaps this is Andrukhovych’s recommendation for the manner in which Ukraine should transition to independence — the old ways of Ukraine should completely die before it can embrace a new identity (Stech 239).
Andrukhovych makes his ideas of Ukrainian national identity clear through his quasi-trilogy. His work strives to make up for the loss of artistic expression Ukraine experienced under the oppressive Soviet rule (Ivashkiv 38). He also sees it as his responsibility to inform Ukraine about the West and inform the world about his desires for Ukraine.
The debate about identity and nationalism is centuries old for Ukraine. In fact, it appears that the current debate around nationalism is just a continuation of the same issues debated in Ukraine over a century ago. Andrukhovych, for example, has given many interviews in which he quotes what Ivan Franko famously said over a hundred years ago, “We, too, are in Europe” (Andrukhovych, “Europe—My Neurosis”). Regardless of what happens politically in Ukraine in the next year, the long-lasting weight of the question of national identity will continue. The issues of national identity have a destiny of their own made up of complex constructions of an interrelation of ethnic, cultural, territorial, economic and political components (Smith 15).
Christi-Anne Hofland is a 2015 REECAS and Evans School of Public Policy master’s student.
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