Ukrainian, Russophone, (Other) Russian

Hybrid Identities and Narratives in Post-Soviet Culture and Politics

by Marco Puleri (Author)
©2020 Monographs 294 Pages


What is the role and position of Russophone/Russian culture in Ukraine today? How can the dynamics of Ukrainian culture lend insight into the possibility of a global Russian culture, or multiple Russian cultures, in the contemporary world? The author responds to these questions by investi-gating the interplay between literature, politics, market, and identity in the contemporary Ukrainian cultural process (1991–2018). This book explores the contested encounters of the Russian language and culture with other languages, cultures, and traditions in the post-Soviet space, highlighting pressing contemporary issues related to—and affected by—political and social developments.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Transliteration
  • Contents
  • Introduction: From (Global) Russian to Ukrainian Culture—and Back Again
  • From Russianness to Russophonia
  • In-between (Literary) Russophonia
  • Recasting “Ukrainianness” through the Prism of “Russianness”
  • The Long Road to Post-Soviet Transition: A Russophone Perspective
  • Part I From Culture to Politics— Displaced Hybridity/ies (1991–2013)
  • Chapter 1 The Missing Hybridity: Framing the Ukrainian Cultural Space
  • Ukraine: A Laboratory of Political and Cultural Identity/ies
  • Shifting Social Dynamics in Post-Soviet Ukraine
  • New (Old?) Cultural Standards in the Post-Soviet Era
  • Post-Soviet Russophonia in Ukraine: An Intellectual (and Political) Debate
  • In Search of a New Self-Determination
  • Chapter 2 Post-Soviet (Russophone) Ukraine Speaks Back
  • Ukraïns’ka Rosiis’komovna literatura versus Rosiis’ka literatura Ukraïny
  • The Self-Identification in Post-Soviet Ukrainian Literature in Russian
  • At the Intersection of Two Cultural Models
  • From Marginality to Minority
  • Chapter 3 A Minor Perspective on National Narrative(s): Deterritorializing Post-Imperial Epistemology
  • Andrei Kurkov: The Displaced Transition in Mass Literature
  • Of Other Spaces (and Of Other Times): Aleksei Nikitin’s Literary Heterotopias
  • Vladimir Rafeenko: The Ukrainian “Magical Realism”
  • Part II From Politics to Culture— After Revolution of Hybridity (2014–2018)
  • Chapter 4 Hybridity Reconsidered: Ukrainian Border Crossing after the “Crisis”
  • Dialectic of Transition from Post-Soviet to Post-Maidan: Between Old and New Narratives
  • Moving Centripetally: Reconsidering Hybridity
  • The (Political) Acceleration of Cultural Change
  • Chapter 5 Values for the Sake of the (Post-Soviet) Nation
  • Towards Shifting Cultural Policies in the Post-Maidan Era
  • Envisioning Identity Markers after the Ukraine Crisis
  • At the Crossroads between Normative Measures and Blurred Cultural Boundaries in the Post-Soviet Space
  • Chapter 6 Towards a Postcolonial Ethics: Rewriting Ukraine in the “Enemy’s Language”
  • Demistifying Anticolonial Myths: The “Ukrainian Russians”
  • Transgressing the (National) Code: Recasting History and Language in Light of War
  • The End of the Transition?
  • In Place of a Conclusion: The Future of “Russianness” in Post-Maidan Ukraine
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

From (Global) Russian to Ukrainian Culture— and Back Again

In the contemporary context, diasporization and hybridity have become conditions for novel ways of “translating the world” […] The question of whether we should talk about one global Russian culture or many finds an answer only provisionally and, paradoxically, locally. (Rubins 2019: 46)

Following a 2017 report based on data on language use from national censuses and the United Nations, collated by Euromonitor International, we witness how significantly “Russian has lost more ground than any other language over the past 20 years as newly independent former Soviet states have attempted to assert their linguistic sovereignty” (Johnson 2017). In his commentary emblematically entitled Russian Beyond Russia, Alexander Morrison (2017) observed how “language is harmfully intertwined with politics these days in Eurasia.” On the one hand, this followed former president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev’s decision in 2017 to move the Kazakh language from the Cyrillic to the Latin script for the sake of national “modernization” (Nazarbaev 2017). On the other, the Kremlin elite is still implementing new policies for supporting “the Russian citizens and compatriots who live abroad, the defence of their rights, including the right to receive education in Russian,”1 within the framework of the 2015 Concept Russian School Abroad (Russkaia shkola za rubezhom; Prezident Rossii 2015).

In a wider perspective, these are only some of the measures undertaken in the realm of official policies affecting the public debate in the post-Soviet scene, where over the past decades we dealt mainly with categorical assumptions that rendered national languages and cultures as part of ←13 | 14→the new state ideologies. As highlighted by Sheila Fitzpatrick in her 2005 study Tear Off the Masks! Identity and Imposture in Twentieth-Century Russia, after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 we witnessed an intense process of resignification of the old cultural symbols and social practices in the “new Europe.” Nonetheless, the new national models emerging from this historical rift have been shaped in the absence of new “proper verbal signifiers” (Oushakine 2000: 994) that have the potential to reflect ongoing social processes in the post-Soviet scene. It was in a “state of post-Soviet aphasia,” borrowing Serguei Oushakine’s definition (2000), that the culture of (post-Soviet) crisis—“revising the past, depicting the present, and foretelling the future”—became “comprehensive and ubiquitous” (Etkind 2017: 2).

It is especially the contested revision of the role and position of Russian language and culture in the region that still represents the true bone of contention in reframing the configuration of the post-Soviet political, cultural and social landscape. Its definition influences not only the creation of a definite and territorially bounded Russian identity, but also affects the emergence of “novel ways of ‘translating the world’ ” (Rubins 2019: 46) in the so-called Near Abroad. As emphasized by Kevin M. F. Platt (2019a: 3) in the introduction to the pioneering volume Global Russian Cultures, this is the result of the “process of global dispersion”—of “millions of ethnic Russians and others who identify with Russian language and culture”—that “has produced novel and thorny questions concerning Russian culture and identity,” not only in the former Soviet space but even globally.

Nowadays these “Russian” subjectivities, together with their extremely diverse range of political and social positions, lie at the core of an intense process of external appropriation or, alternatively, internal rejection in the post-Soviet national discourses. As testified by the so-called Crimean euphoria—that is, the dynamics of the public debate in Russia following the contested annexation of Crimea and the war in East Ukraine in 2014—geopolitical clashes in the region served as a catalyst for new political projections of the Russian idea (and cultural space) beyond the borders of the Russian Federation. It is especially the theorization and contested ideological appropriation of the concept of the Russian World (Russkii mir), which was “once created as an alternative to nationalism and imperialism in any form” and is now “strongly identified with them” (Nemtsev ←14 | 15→2019), that contributes to an understanding of the fluidity of the narratives implemented by political actors in the post-Soviet arena.

As retraced by Mikhail Nemtsev (2019), the origin of the concept is deeply rooted in the late Soviet years, when the historian and philosopher Mikhail Gefter introduced the idea of Russkii mir in his analysis of “the Soviet Union’s future prospects through his philosophy of world history” as “a possibility for humanity to save itself from self-destruction.”2 Throughout the 1990s, the concept was then “suitable for conceptualizing a ‘new Russian-language self-consciousness’ [Russkoiazychnostmyshleniia] for post-Soviet people” in the work of “humanitarian technologists” in Eltsin’s times. It was only in the 2000s that we witnessed the political appropriation of this philosophical concept by the Kremlin, directly affecting its original “universal appeal” and tying it “to the geographical boundaries of the former Soviet Union” (Nemtsev 2019). The Russian world came thus eventually to be externalized beyond the borders of the Russian Federation, but within the blurred boundaries of the Russian cultural space.

In spite of the highly politicized narratives around Russkii mir, it is only through the lens of the dynamic changes occurring in post-Soviet societies that we can still understand where symbolic politics fails to represent a vivid picture of the Russian cultural space. When focusing on the local developments of Russian culture—and on its interrelation with local cultures, societies and traditions—we clearly witness how today “ ‘Russianness’ [Russkost’] is still deterritorialised,” or “largely ‘broken off’ from any geographic boundaries or ethnocultural traditions of the Russian ethnos” (Nemtsev 2019).

Interestingly enough, only in the 2010s did scholars in post-Soviet studies start to reconsider the role of the new Russian cultural phenomena emerging locally.3 In the aftermath of the dramatic political developments in the last ←15 | 16→decade, and following the specious misuse of cultural categories in the public debate, new research questions arose: “Could there ever be ‘another Russian World’?” (Nemtsev 2019); “Where is Russian culture properly located?” (Platt 2019a: 3), or “How can we even posit a single entity called ‘Russian culture as a whole’?” (Platt 2019a: 5). While “rethinking Russianness,” today, scholars and observers in post-Soviet studies wonder about “new ways of translating” the other Russian world in all of its diversity. This creates the ground for developing new analytical tools not only for an understanding of the new local places and shapes of Russian culture in the region, but also for better interpreting the heterogeneity of post-Soviet local scenes through the lens of the global—and transnational—location of culture.

From Russianness to Russophonia

Over the past 30 years much attention has been devoted, especially in the social and political sciences, to the role played by such “groups of people who are referred to variously (often interchangeably) as (ethnic) Russians, Russian speakers and Russophones” (Cheskin, Kachuyevski 2018: 3) in the post-Soviet scene (Brubaker 1996; Kolstø 1996; Laitin 1998; Zhurzhenko 2002b; Gorham 2011). Geopolitical developments related to the implementation of new nation-building policies and the formation of new national majorities and minorities in the former Soviet republics, the heritage of the Soviet policies of nationalities and ethno-federal structure, the emergence of new normative measures in the Russian Federation devoted to the protection of the alleged “Russian diaspora” and compatriots, and eventually the rise of migration flows within and beyond the former Soviet Union: all these factors have contributed to the methodological cul-de-sac affecting ←16 | 17→the creation of a solid research framework for the study of this complex mosaic of peoples, ideas and traditions as a whole.

Yet the problematic conceptualization and terminology adopted throughout the last years to define such a diverse and heterogeneous group of people—together with their political and social ideas, activities and behaviours—still deserves further discussion. A constructive point of departure has been proposed by the contributors to the previously mentioned volume Global Russian Cultures (2019). While retracing the background behind the title of the book, Platt highlights how the shared stance of the scholars who participated in the research venture is that Russians “have gone global” (or, better, “plural”): “Our use of the plural ‘cultures’ corresponds to our shared conviction that these formations must be seen as an interconnected web of distinct entities rather than a totality that can be captured in any definition or formula” (Platt 2019a: 4). Yet global Russian cultural life is “a highly complex area of study that varies across time, space, social environment, and the vagaries of individual cases” (Platt 2019a: 5). Focusing on the dialogical relations between cultural production and political forces—in post-Soviet Eurasia and globally—we witness how “ ‘being Russian’ or ‘performing Russian culture’ is everywhere subject to local constraints, but those constraints, and therefore the content of ‘Russianness’ as well, are distinct in each new context” (Platt 2019a: 6).

The kind of approach brilliantly described by the scholars who contributed to this research venture can help us deconstruct the multiplicity of labels and categories based on strictly exclusive territorial, linguistic and ethnic terms, especially whereas we understand that paradoxically, as in the case of Central Asia, the “Russophone cultural-linguistic space might continue to function here even without a larger presence of ‘Russians’ ” (Kosmarskaya, Kosmarski 2019: 90). Moving further to an understanding of the complexity of the “Russian-speaking” world, new insights emerge from the analysis undertaken by the Kazakhstani scholars who contributed to the thematic issue emblematically entitled When Global Becomes Local: Modern Mobilities and the Reinvention of Locality (2017) in the scholarly journal Ab Imperio. At the core of Akbota Alisharieva, Zhanar Ibrayeva and Ekaterina Protassova’s research proposal lies the opportunity to study Russian as a polycentric language, following the analogous case of the field of the so-called “World-Englishes,” which was first developed ←17 | 18→in the 1970s in the aftermath of the decolonization process (Kachru 1992; Bolton, Kachru 2006). Here again, “[i];n theoretical and pragmatical terms […] the use of the term ‘Englishes’ emphasizes the autonomy and plurality of the world varieties of the English language” (Kachru et al. 2006: 4). Similarly, nowadays the “Russian-speaking space” is influenced by the new demographic processes, national cultural standards and language practices which have followed the Soviet collapse since 1991:

As a result of the collapse of the USSR, the Russian-speaking area has reduced and changed its configuration. Russian speakers live in almost all countries of the world. Diaspora is growing, but it is not subordinate to a single center as before […] Russian philologists working outside the Russian Federation are faced with the question of how to describe new phenomena in Russian language, when this deviates from the previous standard and the interaction with local languages affects its vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation—even among those for whom it was the native language.4 (Alisharieva et al. 2017: 232)

Research provides preliminary evidence supporting the hypothesis that the Russian language in Kazakhstan, or “Kazakhstani Russian,” has acquired autonomy from the “global” Russian language.5 Such dynamics have been ←18 | 19→recognized even in other post-Soviet contexts where the cultural proximity of Russian with the state language, in spite of a “downgraded” official status, is more pronounced (see the Ukrainian case: e.g. Del Gaudio 2011). Yet these reassessments have implications well beyond the sphere of linguistics, as they redefine the terms in which social scientists—and even politicians—contemplate the issue of the “Russian speaking communities” in post-Soviet countries.6

The above-mentioned authors of the article “The Kazakhstani Russian: An Outsider’s Perspective” (“Kazakhstanskii Russkii: Vzgliad so storony”) further emphasize that whereby, on the one hand, “in Russian studies such analyses have just started,” today “the study of the variability of the Russian language is still tied to observe the exclusive normative model of Russian supported by the scientific and political resources of the Russian Federation” (Alisharieva et al. 2017: 234).7 Interestingly enough, on the other hand, here again the main factor affecting the actual and habitual use of the local varieties of Russian language “from below” is “the subjectivity of the speakers: how do people answer the question of who, strictly speaking, owns the language and who has the right to speak it?” (Alisharieva et al. 2017: 235).8


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Russian Language Identity Politics Slavic Studies Post-Soviet Studies Postcolonial Studies
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 294 pp.

Biographical notes

Marco Puleri (Author)

Marco Puleri is Research Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna. His research interests include contemporary Russian and Ukrainian sociocultural developments and nation-building in the post-Soviet area.


Title: Ukrainian, Russophone, (Other) Russian