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Breaking free from the toxic relationship with Russian culture

A few weeks ago, as I sipped my Sunday morning coffee and perused the FT weekend issue, I came across a wine advertisement featuring a quote from Leo Tolstoy: "All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow." It should be easily recognizable for Western readers, particularly those with an interest in Russian literature. A few days earlier, I had a brief encounter with an elderly British lady. I complimented her on the lovely fur-collar coat she wore, and she said, "Oh, thanks! Anna Karenina must have had a similar one." I paused, thinking how to respond with both dignity and tact, but she broke the silence, seemingly trying to ease what she perceived as an embarrassment caused by my ignorance, saying, "Oh, it's okay. You might not know who that is because you probably haven't had the chance to read it." 

Regrettably, I have. Or rather, I had to, as it was a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Russian literature held the status of a compulsory subject, just like mathematics or biology. Years passed, I've moved more times than I can count, and yet, regardless of my location – be it any country or continent – "Russian world" will intrude upon my breakfast without the courtesy of asking for permission. The greats of the Russian literature – they are just there. No one questions them, not even FT. Not knowing Anna Karenina equals ignorance – some unseen authority has decided on that. 

For over fifty years, Tolstoy's wife, Sofya, chronicled her married life, detailing the extensive abuse – physical, sexual, and psychological – she endured due to her husband. However, even today, Tolstoy's wrongdoings do not undermine his standing. He has immunity granted exclusively to those in the club called "The Great Russian Classics" – one must know their names, read their works and, above all, revere their invariable "greatness."

It's not just Tolstoy, who, following a successful career of an abuser, embraced asceticism and is now lauded on Wikipedia to be "one of the greatest and most influential authors of all time." Consider Lermontov, for instance. His name is just as widely known and esteemed – Harvard online bookshop offers fifteen pages list with the works of Lermontov in various formats, some of which were published as recently as 2023. Hardly can one encounter an English-speaking literary website not featuring Lermontov's biography or his works. With such an outstanding popularity over the centuries, it's surprising that I couldn't find an English translation of "Uhlansha", one of his renowned poems. 

Never could I have envisioned translating any piece of Russian literature into English, especially given the nightmarish circumstances Russia has inflicted upon Ukraine. However, I do believe it's a good idea for English-speaking readers to fully appreciate all aspects of Russian literary tradition.


Here comes the noisy drunken herd

Of our motley squadron;

The rakes are weary, nodding off;

It's late; – the light is gone,

Consumed by inky shade... the day elapsed;

"Goddamn it!" grumble the rakes,

"The bugger might well chase us

Right up to Europe's edge!"

"Are we to see Izhora at all?"

"You, brother, trampled on my toes;

Now, take the right!" – But what a stir! –

"Pass me the pipe." – Oh, damn it, hold your tongues,

But there's Izhora, thank God,

It's time to leave the horse.

With twisted badge out to the road

There came Uhlan, of course.

In grand and noble style

He showed them to the rooms,

Although the breath of wine

Betrayed his formal looks.

But with no wine, what life is there for Uhlan?

His soul submerged into the glass,

To be Uhlan it takes, alas,

To be intoxicated daily twice.

I'll tell you now the landlord's name:

Lafa it was, a rowdy lad,

Whose vigorous and reckless head

Both Doppelt Kummel and Madeira,

Even the frizziest champagne

Tried to befriend, but all in vain;

His brown skin covered in pimples

Was all disgustingly aglow,

His every bit: the gait, the grimace

Implanted fear in one's soul.

The hat pulled low over the nape,

He strides ahead... a rumble spreads,

As though a dozen bottles clash

Inside an empty crate.

Storming the shack with hellish blast,

The coat slides off his shoulders,

He deems his eyes, shifting askance,

To see a hundred candles:

There is a single beam!

In front of him it creaks;

But what a stunning scene

The light of it reveals!

Amidst tobacco haze, enchanting haze

Cadets' faces ablaze;

The drunken speech, the fierce gaze!

Some geared up, some bottomless,

They feast – in their foggy party

Stands oak table with a ladle,

And also punch in wooden bucket

Igniting with a festive dazzle. –

'Folks!' – uttered Lafa amidst a belch, –

Why linger here! follow my lead –

I'll guide you through to heaven's gates !..

Dashing beauty, there she is!

A cunt to slurp – a juicy treat!

There's room for all... however, friends,

We must take turns!..

For all are equal before God... 

But one must fathom when to stop...

Let us not brawl and keep it quiet!

The little ones are first in line;

Just let the youngsters poke...

But fuckers like our own

Will take our share anytime!' 

– 'Let's go!..' in a flash

The raging creatures stormed,

Rushed forth, so that an iron latch

Unfastened from the door.

Brace yourself, courageous beauty!

When robust itching hits

My boys are terrible in duty

To scratch their restless dicks!..

In the midst of burning craving

Neither tears, nor faint praying,

Nor heavy groans will avail;

They will swarm in,

Tear the cunt away

Up to the ass, with deadly semen

Drench tender thighs of their prey!..

Alas, in scarlet sarafan,

White apron loosely tied,

Into an empty barn you've come

Beneath the gloomy night...

Your hand is trembling, hesitant,

You make the mortal bed!

Farewell, the days of cheer...

Voices, clatter, clamour – they are here...

Oh, Lord!.. The earth trembles in dread...

But soon she overcame the fright,

Her bosom swayed and seared...

Heavens almighty, veil your sight!

Folks, cover your ears!..

When at last the crack of dawn

Set dreary sky ablaze,

Revealed the coastal waves

And gilt the poor roofs of homes

With lively rays,

A shout echoed... "rise!"

And with the beat of drums

The heavy-eyed Uhlans

Prepared for the ride.

Brave Razin no longer spurs Mirza,

Prince Nos sprawled on the saddle,

Not anybody's numbing grasp

Catches him by the trigger...

They stroll and see... out of the barn

A woman makes her way:

As wrath of god, repulsive, vile

Fucked out, worn out, pale;

Hollow and dimmed her blurry stare,

Bosom and face all blotched in red,

The ass is dangling – what a dread!

Is it Tanyusha or a nightmare?

Lafa alone perceived her guise

And, daring the quietness,

He said, hand to the skies:

"Tanyusha, bless your remains!.."

Despite the lapse of many days,

There is a righteous tale,

Forever after, it proclaims,

Uhlansha be her name!

– In a cheerful, lively manner, devoid of empathy, Lermontov presents the story of a young woman, once happy and beautiful, until violently raped by a group of soldiers. Needless to say, Lermontov used to be a soldier himself. 

"Uhlansha" is a stark illustration of Russia's politics: scoffing at basic human rights, deriving satisfaction from the pain and sufferings it inflicts, driven by the primitive urge to possess, it storms ahead and brings about the ruin. The Western audience's admiration of Lermontov reveals the trap it has fallen into, chasing the illusion of Russian moral purity and honor. The mysterious Russian soul, with its ennui and constant longing, is a deep fake, rolling through centuries like a snowball down the hill made of human bones. This fictional facade doesn't portray Russian society as it truly is but rather as it wishes to be perceived. However, it contributes to the widespread belief that ordinary Russians are mere victims of Putin's regime or even feeds the hope for their resistance against it.

"Uhlansha" is not an isolated case of glorification and romanization of sexual violence when it comes to Russia – referring to Ukraine as an object of rape, Putin once quoted a popular Russian ditty, "Like it or not, it's your duty, my beauty." The victim-abuser dynamic forms the core of Russia's political strategy, while its politics and culture are inextricably intertwined, mutually reinforcing one another, both rooted in the notion of imperialism. Overlooking this reality requires a deliberate reluctance, or worse yet, indifference. On the other hand, seeing this reality means admitting to have been fooled – and nobody wants to be a fool. 

Without a doubt, the immunity of Russian literature has withstood the test of time – to openly question it is akin to questioning god in the eyes of his most fervent believers. It would be unfair to deny that I, too, have been fooled into hallucinatory trips to the great Russian enigma, giving myself up to Dostoyevsky's existential dilemmas with a perfect abandon, and even pleasure. Painful as it was, my affair with Russian literature has finished when I started to recognize the signs of gaslighting and, not without an effort, saw it for what it was – a medium for channelling the ideas of Russia's supremacy and a compilation of justifications for the numerous genocides it has committed, continues to commit, and plans to carry out.

Having made some progress in terms of accountability for sexual crimes, we threw many famous figures into the sin bin of history, never to be recovered. Harvey Weinstein is labeled a "former film producer and convicted sex offender," according to Wikipedia, while Lermontov is hailed as a "Romantic writer, poet, and painter," and "the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism." Roman Polanski, Jimmy Saville, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby and many others, who helped shape the contemporary culture the way we know it, are subjects of documentaries detailing their sexual crimes. The media has exerted its influence to ensure that whenever these names are mentioned, they are primarily associated with predatory actions rather than accomplishments. Yet, I struggle to understand: why are these men expelled to the outskirts of the world's cultural stage, while Leo Tolstoy, an alleged sexual perpetrator who abused his wife into several suicide attempts, remains a standard-bearer for outstanding literary achievement? 

Literature, as is the case with all art, is not just about text but also about the context. The context of mysterious Russian ennui has been and continues to be the systematic extermination of Ukrainian life in all its forms. From the birth of Pushkin until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has banned Ukrainian language over a hundred times, all the while perpetrating atrocities against the Ukrainian people. Shockingly, during the span of 2022-2023 alone, Russia was responsible for the deaths of over fifty Ukrainian writers. In light of this context, it becomes evident that every public acclaim for Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, and the like is a persistent affirmation of the oppressor at the expense of its victims-thousands of Ukrainian writers who were silenced, repressed and murdered. Their voices are continually suppressed, and the world literary heritage is repeatedly robbed of their contributions – all because we can't deny ourselves the illusion of Russian mystery totally detached from reality.

Russian literature has consistently served as a potent instrument to propagate its imperial ideology across the world for centuries. Wherever Russia's political interests extend – there go its literary greats. In the past year alone, employing absurd reasoning, like the claim that the Russian language is gaining popularity in Africa, Russia has opened cultural centers in Burkina Faso, Chad, Angola, Kenya and Mali. Furthermore, in recent months, it initiated negotiations with Algeria, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia to open more cultural centers. Meanwhile, scarcely any major city in Europe or America lacks an established Russian cultural center, serving as a hub for disseminating Pushkin's anti-Western pamphlets and propagating an assertive Russian imperialism wrapped in the ecstatic image of greatness. It is a difficult thought to grasp: even as Pyotr Tolstoy, the great-grandson of Leo Tolstoy and a current Russian politician, issues threats of colonizing Alaska, the theatrical stages of America continue to feature performances of "Anna Karenina." 

We cancel Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and whatnot, but we can't cancel Tolstoy, Pushkin or Lermontov. We are even ever so close to cancelling Russian oil, but we just can't cancel Russian culture. It is untouchable, almost canonized. In the face of the most substantial threat to global peace since WWII, we find ourselves struggling to disengage from the perpetrator. However, as advocates for Russian culture assert that our fight should be against Putin, not Pushkin, a valid question arises: why, really? Why shouldn't we fight Pushkin as well? 


Author INNA KOCAMIS, Freelance journalist, writer, interpreter. Article first time published on the Ukrainska Pravda web page. Prepared for publication by volunteers from the Res Publica - The Center for Civil Resistance.


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