Ukraine’s formal independence declared in 1991 didn’t end its actual dependence on Russia.
For centuries, Ukrainian national revival was halted by different reincarnations of imperial Russia. Even after independence, Ukraine kept close ties with the northern neighbor, following Russian footsteps politically, economically and culturally.
Ukraine’s heavy industry depended on Russian consumers, Ukrainian concerts were headlined by Russian pop stars while the 1999 presidential elections in Ukraine mirrored the Russian presidential election campaign of 1996.
Still, Ukraine broke out of the loop.
It took two revolutions and a war for Ukraine to finally set itself free and speed the evolution from archaic Soviet republic to modern European nation. The transformation sparked Ukraine’s modern cultural revival.
“We can say that Ukraine is experiencing a cultural revival and it began after the EuroMaidan Revolution,” says prominent Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak.
Before gaining independence, Ukrainian culture was muted, the Ukrainian language was banned and Ukrainian poets, playwrights and activists were imprisoned or executed by Russian authorities.
Ukrainian culture was systematically erased since the late 17th century, when parts of modern Ukraine came under Russian influence.
“Culture is always tied to politics,“ Hrytsak says. “Russia couldn’t exist (as an empire) without Ukraine, that’s why they tried to erase culture that is the primary basis for a country’s independence.”
Ukrainian culture wasn’t wiped out but it cost many lives.
The 1845 Brotherhood of Saints Kyrylo and Methodius was a short-lived Kyiv-based society focusing on Ukrainian national revival.
Famous Ukrainian author Panteleimon Kulish and historian Mykola Kostomatrov were both members of the secret society, while poet Taras Shevchenko was arrested for being a crucial figure in the 19th-century Ukrainian national movement.
The group’s main goal wasn’t Ukrainian independence, rather the revival of the Ukrainian language and autonomy from Saint Petersburg.
The society was shut down, and its members were deported from Kyiv.
To oppress the emerging spirit, in the late 19th century, Russian imperial authorities issued two documents — the Valuev Circular (letter) and Ems Ukaz (decree) — effectively banning the Ukrainian language from public life.
Ukraine’s second attempt to break free from Russian influence came in the late 1910s.
During the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917–1921), the Ukrainian language was permitted in education and in print, while Ukrainian playwright Les Kurbas gathered his first critically acclaimed theatrical troupe.
In 1922, Kurbas found Berezil, a dramatic theater staging plays in Ukrainian.
“The 1920s were vibrant, Ukraine never prior witnessed such a cultural upheaval,” says Hrytsak.
Yet as Russia regained control over Ukraine, a generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia was lost. Most famous Ukrainian cultural figures were either corrupted into working for the state or executed by the Soviet authorities.
They became known as the Executed Renaissance.
Communist poet Mykola Khvylovy committed suicide in 1933 after being interrogated by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Kurbas, painters Mykhailo Boychuk and Ivan Padalka, writers Hnat Khotkevych, Mykola Kulish and Valerian Pidmohylny were executed in 1937 during the Great Purge.
Soviet authorities have tailored Ukrainian culture to serve their own needs. The Ukrainian language was modified to resemble Russian, poets were to applaud Soviet rule, while Ukrainian history was altered to fit the narrative of Ukrainians being part of the Russian culture.
Up until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainian intellectuals, who didn’t accept Soviet dictate, were muted, some spent years in prisons. Prominent Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus died in detention in 1985.
“Everything was done to deprive Ukraine of being a cultural, political, science hub,” Hrytsak says. “Ukraine was left with a rural culture.”
Centuries of systematic eradication of Ukrainian cultural identity left a mark.
Ukrainian language newspapers, TV programs and artists were losing the battle to their Russian counterparts in the newly independent Ukraine. Pro-Ukrainian politicians have also had a hard time drawing support.
For 14 years since independence, Ukraine was ruled by former Soviet officials. In December 1991, Ukraine’s first independent elections crowned ex-Soviet Ukraine Head Leonid Kravchuk as Ukraine’s first president.
In 1994, Kravchuk lost to Leonid Kuchma, ex-prime minister and long-time head of the Soviet Yuzhmash defense plant. Kuchma was re-elected in 1999.
Despite Ukrainian being the sole state language, Ukrainian television was Russian-speaking, Ukraine’s largest newspapers were published in Russian, while only one Ukrainian language band, Okean Elzy, was able to sell out a soccer stadium.
Russian pop stars, news channels and political talk shows overweighed Ukrainian content.
For 23 years, Ukrainian streets bore the names of Soviet generals, politicians, writers.
Until 2014, Kyiv had a street named after the Red Army, yet didn’t have a street named after many notable Ukrainian writers including Kulish and Khotkevych.
“It’s odd,” says Oleksiy Haran, professor at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
In the 21st century, clinging to its imperialistic views, Russia has tried to subjugate Ukraine, continuing to deprive the country of 42 million people of its culture and political independence.
Yet ongoing Russian attacks sparked a backlash from both Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
In 2004, Kuchma’s pro-Russian protégé Viktor Yanukovych was set to become president by falsifying elections. Ukrainians had none of it.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Russianspeaking Kyiv to back pro-Western Ukrainian-speaking candidate Viktor Yushchenko.
After Yushchenko’s victory, Ukrainian historiography witnessed a revival and for the first time — government support.
Under Yushchenko, many Ukrainians have found out about Holodomor, a Soviet manmade famine that took the lives of 3–5 million Ukrainians in 1932–1933.
In 2008, the National Museum of Holodomor was opened in downtown Kyiv. Before the pandemic, 180,000 people visited the museum yearly.
Yet, Yushchenko’s political shortcomings have led to Yanukovych’s comeback. Under pro-Russian Yanukovych state officials had a hard time communicating in Ukrainian, while the Russian language was made de facto official in 10 regions.
Yanukovych’s close ties to Russia sparked public upheaval that sparked the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Over 100 people died on the streets of Kyiv demanding democracy and closer ties with the European Union. After toppling Yanukovych’s kleptocratic regime in February 2014, Ukraine found itself under attack.
The Russian invasion in March 2014 has led to many tragedies. Russia occupied Crimea, the eastern part of Donbas, killed over 13,000 people and forced more than a million people to flee their homes.
Ukrainians began cherishing Ukrainian culture more than ever before. “The Russian invasion boosted Ukrainian cultural revival,” Hrytsak says.
Haran says that the revival actually began in the late 1980s with the creation of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group led by Levko Lukianenko and the Ukrainian People’s Movement Rukh under Viacheslav Chornovil.
“The cultural revival began back then,” Haran says. “It was a gradual process.”
Yet, Haran adds, that after the EuroMaidan Revolution, Ukrainian cultural revival has accelerated.
Today, Ukraine has some elements of a modern democracy with a thriving cultural scene. Ukrainian films collect awards at top international festivals, Ukrainian nightclubs, featuring Ukrainian artists, rank high among profiled media, Ukrainian-language bands enter European music charts, while recently a Ukrainian language book about Ukrainian dissident Stus sold out in several days.
“Now we have an abundance of Ukrainian language literature, we have good Ukrainian music, Ukrainian-language jazz and rock, good Ukrainian films,” Haran says.
However, Hrytsak believes it’s just the beginning, anticipating a more vibrant beat to come. “There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he says.
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