The purpose of this essay is to analyze the root cause of current tensions between Russia and Ukraine through a postmodern lens. To achieve this, we will explore the role that intertextuality and anti-essentialism have played in shaping the regional socio-cultural narrative within Ukraine. Our analysis will explore how the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the subsequent redistribution of power, presented Ukraine with an opportunity to reexamine its history, rebuild its culture, and resolidify its national identity. This Ukrainian Renaissance led to an adoption of Western leaning policies that Russia deemed a direct threat to their sphere of influence which resulted in Russia initiating a military offensive, in Ukraine, during the winter of 2022.
Language, Memory, and Postmodernism
Language establishes the ethnicity of heritage bearers in any civilization. Since it represents ethical, emotional, and mythical concepts and memories, it is an essential aspect of nation-building and the bearer of each country’s invisible legacy. It is not easy to preserve, explore, and expand civilization without first understanding the country’s linguistic code, the function of speech as a mode of communication of civilization, and the methods of its genesis (Dzvinchuk & Ozminska, 2018). Language is a nonlinear entity, with pieces that are always in operation, changing, and evolving. Its development and enhancement is an ongoing process. At the very same time, it demonstrates reliability and integrity. Circumstances and cultural engagement could have a good impact on the language, enhancing it. This power is not always controlled. It is possible to do so to bring down nationhood.
Memory aids in the resetting of the language’s traditional concept map at the moment. Historical knowledge may help a society remember how to utilize language while interacting with another nation. The employment of memories by two countries may foster intimate connections without intimidating the other. The language is not just one of the tools for classification and contextualization, but rather as a technique of erudite understanding of reality in the broad sense (Dzvinchuk & Ozminska, 2018). Language should be eliminated under the strategy of forced integration because it is a fundamental foundation of culture, a tool of cognitive organizing the universe, a way of establishing an ethnic vision of the world, and enhancing intercultural contact.
Postmodernism originated as a political theory and literature focused on the qualities of written works, interpretation, and readership. It focuses on the importance of language. Concerns about language immediately pushed postmodernists to address human behavior, describing what makes us human. Postmodernism, as a concept, asserts that language is a home when referring to humans—language in addition to spoken discourse speech in this context. Language, as per postmodernism, is what distinguishes us as humans. Communication is the only thing that differentiates humans from beasts. Language contains all that makes us human. Cognition, thought and conduct is all predicated on speech but have no other basis.
Postmodernism emerged throughout Europe following World War II. Through the 1980s, it had established itself as one of the popular paradigms for academia in the arts and a significant effect in the human sciences. In American intellectual circles, it has superseded Marxism as a cultural genius. The physical sciences mainly dismiss it. Postmodernism is usually dismissed by scientists who pay close attention to it as an intellectual fake. After 1933, its primary origins are the publications and class teachings of Martin Heidegger. Postmodernism has emerged as the primary conceptual instrument for moral relativism in the West since World War II (Kien, 2021).
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Postmodernism was developed as a theory by philosophers familiar with and disagreed with the philosophical, psychological, and cultural lineages that came before them. Postmodernism is opposed to Christianity, science, and any ideologies that prioritize science as a knowledge base. According to Christianity, humanity and the human experience come before the gift of speech. According to natural science, human nature originates is biological, and it is the result of Darwinian evolutionary theory (Kien, 2021). According to positive ideologies, science is the sole viable investigative process for finding absolute reality. Postmodernism rejects the reality of facts in whatever meaning the previous phrase would apply to.
Language, Memory, and Postmodernism in Ukraine
In Ukrainian studies of recent years, the formula of “Two Ukraines”—a conceptualization of the country as a synthetic and flammable combination of two predetermined conflicting entities—has arguably become a universal explanatory mechanism. This proclaimed battle between the “pro-European West” and the “pro-Russian East” has provided a convenient binary interpretative framework, rendering a complex country temptingly simple: its internal dynamics could now be attributed to a skirmish between its good and bad halves. And despite pleas for mutual understanding, this alienating approach continues to seduce minds and secure loyalties on both sides of the chimerical frontier between the alleged two Ukraines. In the 1990s, Samuel Huntington explicitly identified Ukraine as a cleft country where East and West clash around an internal “civilizational fault line.” With time, this framework became enveloped in normative formulas that attribute a set of moral qualities to each side and, as a result, argue for the superiority of one over the other. This problematic delineation has been termed the Huntingtonization of the Ukrainian political discourse. The main beneficiaries of such Huntingtonization are political actors on both ends of the spectrum, who can use it to achieve their own goals. Electoral support, for instance, can be secured through the vague but persistent feeling of endangerment evoked by those represented as the Other.
Reducing the country to an antagonism of neatly defined aboriginals and settlers is, of course, not only inherently alienating, but also generally inaccurate—both nation-oriented and neighbor-oriented cultural currents have appeared in all parts of Ukraine over the past centuries. Referring to the provocative effects of such statements, historian Andreĭ Portnov warns: “The one-dimensional image of a Stalinist Zaporizhia and a fascist Lviv is as of yet far from reality.” In fact, the so-called identity crisis in Ukraine is a shortsighted (and politically profitable) label attached to the distinctive pluralism that mediates the situation in the bilingual country.
Other recent studies also contest simplistic conceptualizations of identity in Ukraine, particularly in terms of ethnicity or language. A survey carried out in 1998 among Ukrainian respondents showed that “there was little support for any fixed or exclusivist model of Ukrainian identity,” with only 3.9 percent defining identity by language. A close look at the election results in 2000 concluded that the split between those in favor and those against Ukrainian statehood in no way coincided with ethnic or linguistic divides. Such divides, for instance, fail to explain why large numbers of ethnic Russians voted for Ukrainian independence in December 1991. The 1998 public opinion surveys about the population’s support for independence. Results indicated: Unlike other former Soviet states but like many countries in the West, the real impediments to unity in Ukraine may be related to where in the country one lives and how one is doing economically rather than who one is ethnically or what language one speaks. To further topple the simplified Ukrainian-Russian ethno-linguistic paradigms that lie at the root of the Two Ukraines approach, scholars connect the prevalence of fluid identities in Ukraine to very low levels of support for Russian nationalist parties (with the exception of Crimea). In the 2002 parliamentary elections, only in Crimea did a party called Russian Bloc gain over 4 percent of the vote; its all Ukrainian percentage was but 0.73 percent. Ukraine’s Russians tend to vote for non-nationalist, left-wing candidates. In this context Pirie points out An unfortunate tendency to assume the national consciousness and homogeneity of the Russian minority and the Ukrainian majority, and to regard the Russians as something akin to the fifth column in Ukraine. . . . In reality, because of a large number of demographic and historical factors, the national orientation of individuals officially classified as Russians in different parts of the country is often only tenuously so. A Russophone writer from Donetsk, the largest city in Donbas, reiterated this point in April 2014 in Moscow, where she traveled to receive an award for her prose.
At the microphone, Elena (Olena) Stiazhkina said: “You cannot kill Ukraine in the south and the east, because killing Ukraine would mean murdering me, a Russian, and others, also Russians.” Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak, in fact, observes that the Russians in Ukraine have taken on certain local values and attitudes, which have created clear differences between them and the Russians in Russia. Moreover, millions of Russophone Ukrainians (often erroneously merged with ethnic Russians in public and academic debates) form another cohort of multifarious self-perceptions within the country. Addressing the difficulties some of them encounter, Telekrytyka, an online publication dedicated to covering the Ukrainian media, in 2011 ran a column that remarked: Russophone Ukrainian patriots do not feel all too comfortable in their own country, which they love above all. They are alien among those who try to usurp the title of Ukrainian patriots first and foremost on the grounds of national and linguistic characteristics. The openness and fluidity of such self-perceptions, indeed, has attracted a series of scholarly attacks. “Ukraine remains an amorphous society with a weak sense of national identity” is the start of one of Wilson’s abstracts.38 The application of the term “weak” to anything that is not rigid happens to be a common conceptual human error. Many of the world’s democratic leaders have felt it on their own skin as they competed with candidates who professed less nuanced (and therefore assumed to be stronger) viewpoints on issues such as national security. Recent presidential elections in the United States are a case in point. Scholars who espouse a dismissive approach to the diversity of Ukrainian national identity models include Taras Kuzio, who has argued that identity itself is “largely absent in eastern-southern Ukraine.” Denoting historical regional differences as undesirable, he maintains that they represent merely an incomplete identity in transition. Such points of view have been called into question by the ongoing armed conflict. In a recording of holiday greetings from Ukraine’s soldiers in the winter of 2014–15, for instance, many speak Russian as they affirm their commitment to serve and protect their country, straight from a warzone.
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A number of historians, both local and international, have criticized the dogmatic approach. Hrytsak argues that regional differences are normal in a country of this size, and that it is possible to delineate many more Ukraines if one wished to do so. Rodgers contends that the “simplistic over-generalizations” of binary schemes wrongly represent nation-building as a homogenizing and assimilatory process, underestimating the potential for the co-existence of multiple identities in modern societies. Portnov notes that the divergence of the eastern Ukrainian identity from the expected “norm” in no way makes it nonUkrainian. Likewise, Rory Finnin maintains: Ukrainians from Lviv in the west and Donetsk in the east may differ in view on the character and direction of their country, but so do Americans from Massachusetts and Mississippi. They still profess a belonging—and a desire to belong—to their country. Yet there remains something strangely tempting about depicting conflict as inherent to a country where, against all rules of grammar, national identity is a plural noun in a state of constant flux. Speculations contending that the ethnic and linguistic divides across Ukraine fully explain the population’s sociopolitical orientations fit well with alarmist scenarios of national conflict that will eventually split the country along unrealistically clear lines.
Some commentators have even stated that the nation’s disintegration is inevitable. But as Barrington observed in 2002, “Ukraine is a country in which ethnic tensions were thought to be a serious potential problem, yet where serious ethnic conflict did not develop.” This remained true even during the highly politicized language-based debates in 2012, when Russian was granted a regional language status in thirteen of the country’s twenty-seven regions (this law has since been repealed). The Maidan, too, attracted a wide spectrum of participants; about a quarter of them identified Russian as the main language they use at home. These demonstrations have been described as a coexistence of individuals from considerably dissimilar social circles. The rigid binary framework fails to account for this distinctive reality. The Russo-Ukrainian war is not language- or ethnicity-based, either. It involves troops, annexation of land and information warfare, and it did not commence until deliberate political maneuvering fired it up.
Language, Memory, Postmodernism, and Conflict
To understand the contemporary issues between these two nations, we must first analyze their long-interwoven history, clearly illustrated by the common Russian myth that “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities” (Hager, 2016, pg. 214). Although political discourse can be traced back to their founding, it has been the living memory of “Soviet legacy that weighs most heavily upon Ukraine today” (Liebich et al., 2019, pg. 71). The conclusion of the second World War resulted in two global superpowers, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s elevated status, which was backed by nuclear capabilities, empowered Stalin’s imperialist ambitions to reunify the motherland. Initially, Ukraine fought against the Soviet Union’s attempt to colonize but eventually they succumbed to Soviet hegemony and were absorbed back into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence (Hager, 2016, pg. 215). Over the course of the proceeding forty years, Ukraine’s identity was continually suppressed by their colonizers. The Soviet Union’s hegemony over Ukraine granted them ownership of the means for knowledge production, which the Soviet Union leveraged to re-write history in an audacious attempt to validate their post-war conquests and preserve their new-found power. The production of knowledge is the foundational building block for culture and identity. The very idea of an oppressor versus the oppressed is a matter of opinion. Opinions take shape through language and language is a construct of human origin. The Soviet Union weaponized the production of knowledge “to consolidate national memory and to build a stronger nation-state by defining national heroes and antiheroes, important historical events, dates and personalities, which are then affirmed in national legislation, history manuals, monuments, toponyms, public holidays, state awards, films, museum exhibitions and commemorations” (Liebich et al., 2019, pg. 80). In essence, by re-packaging and consolidating the knowledge available for public consumption, the Soviet Union gained dominion over language and, by extension, national consensus.
The fall of the Soviet Union was a pivotal moment for Ukrainian agency. Soviet political leaders as well as institutions retreated to Moscow (Kuzio, 2018, pg. 337), leading to a dramatic reduction of influence within the region. It was this moment in time that set these nations down a path toward inevitable confrontation. In an excerpt from Taras Kruzia’s paper, Russian and Ukrainian elites: A comparative study of different identities and alternative transitions, he claims the festering tensions in the region are due to the different directions Ukrainian and Russian elites took in rebuilding their respective nations. A natural consequence of Soviet era institutions and leaders consolidating in Moscow was the tight integration of Russian and Soviet identities. This resulted in the new Russian state being developed from the top down. Contrarily, Ukraine “did not inherit all of the institutions required for an independent state and therefore state building was mainly bottom up” (Kuzio, 2018, pg. 337). Consequently, the release from Soviet influence gave rise to a contemporary national identity of colonialism survivors. Ukrainian elites, who now owned production of knowledge for this new socio-cultural environment, used it to re-enforce the binarized nature of Ukrainian identity against the Russian “others”. They accomplished this by propagating information via media that “portrayed Russian and Soviet rule over Ukraine in negative terms” (Kuzio, 2018, pg. 337). The intertextuality and anti-essentialism displayed through Ukraine’s re-birth can be further analyzed by how these postmodern concepts were applied to national memory, language, & religion in order to craft an independent national culture and identity.
The Ukrainian language belongs to the “East Slavic branch of the Slavic language family”, where the Russian and Belarusian languages also belong. It is closely similar to Russian but has some Polish elements. Russian is the most significant minor language but there are also many who speak other eight languages. Russia was made dominant in the years of the Soviet Union but Ukrainian took over during the Soviet dissolution. Ukrainian remained as the national language but local officials were allowed to promote their minority languages in the conduct of business (Brittanica, n.d.).
Language is the means of expressing meanings in a culture that make it unique (Barker & Jane, 2016, p. 86). Ukraine was able to use its own language in three distinct phases of its history – before, during, and after its rule by the Soviet Union. It has memories of its unrestrained natural use as a free country before the Soviet Union. It remembers how it was forcibly subdued but not suppressed, during the Soviet era, and how proudly it lifted it again as the official national language.
It was in these changing political environments that meanings were created for words and expressions which reflect the people’s sentiments towards their political rulers. Throughout these three phases, language meanings evolve to deal with the political, social, and cultural nuances of the times.
During the Soviet era, some Ukrainian words or expressions may have been coded to avoid censure or ridicule the regime. They would have spoken differently when in the presence of Russian authorities, probably deftly combining Russian and Ukrainian as needed. They can then as easily switch to native code when they are back with the native company. They would also remember how the Russians would use both languages to send across their political agenda. Russian would have had more emphasis to constantly condition the minds of Ukrainians of who is ruling the country. Ukrainians would remember language than to be unstable of meaning and highly dynamic.
If language is the carrier of meanings, then culture is the map where meanings are posted, and language speakers can navigate through communication exchanges and settings. Because language is essential to culture, culture also moves in the direction of the language. Ukrainians had to live through at least two cultures or nodal points (Barker & Jane, 2016, p. 112) in modern times, the one in the Soviet era and the one as a free nation. Culture can be dictated at some level by political authorities like Russia but it can also be preserved underneath the diplomatic surface. When Ukrainians were talking to Russian officials, they would use and avoid some words that may offend. They may sound more formal. But the authentic Ukrainian culture emerges at home and in the neighborhood, away from Russian eyes.
Russia and Ukraine share historical memories in the three eras related to the Soviet Union. During these periods, different national identities were formed and the current conflict is also a battle on which memory of nationhood will be imposed in support of the political hegemony being fought for. Language had to be moderated into language-games (Barker & Jane, 2016, p. 229) to avoid social and political conflicts. Memory helps reset the cultural mind map of the language at the present. Historical memory can remind Ukrainians how to use language in dealing with a now separate Russian nation. In fact, the use of memory by both nations can engender close ties without the other being intimidated by the other.
Ukraine harbors historical memories of its nationhood before and after the Soviet Union. The painful memories of mass starvation during the reign of Stalin make those eras precious in the minds and hearts of Ukrainians. Memories of nationhood were rekindled in the post-Soviet era and Ukraine had the recent memory of being a free democratic nation much like of Western democratic-capitalist ideology. It was able to thrive and would no longer give up its nationhood under another banner.
Ukraine becoming a nation-state also opened it to more exposure in learning lingua francas like English and Spanish. This strengthened its affiliation in the ‘imagined community’ (Barker & Jane, 2016, p.210) of democratic-capitalist nations. Language is one of the pillars of culture and the sharing of a language also opens inter-cultural exchange, foreign trade, and political influences. The increasing commonality in the language is contributory to Ukraine being more familiar with Western ideology and economic systems. Students and researchers from Ukraine can study in English-speaking educational institutes and bring home knowledge of Western systems. The other way around can also happen. Such two-way exchange will cause more of Ukraine to be influenced by the West. The use of the Ukrainian and foreign languages to write history sets memories permanently in print as guideposts of future generations.
The languages of Russia and Ukraine are not exactly similar but they have enough similarities so the two peoples can understand each other at some basic level. Russia focuses on this fact in its claim and belief that the two countries should be united politically and even culturally. Russia is confident that it can rule Ukraine by the adroit use of both languages. Anyway, history has shown that Ukraine was able to exist under Soviet-Russian rule while exposed to the Russian language as its medium for political messaging. Russia believes this memory of language use can convince Ukraine that union between the two countries is again a workable proposition. The bond of language can even be made firmer if, after unification, the Russian language can find its way again into the Ukrainian education system. As more Ukrainians learn and speak Russian more, their sense of being Russian will become stronger.
Russia and Ukraine share a common religious affinity in the Eastern Orthodox Christian church. There was a split of churches on the Ukraine side but this was mostly politically driven. Even with a large commonality, both countries can still have a different perspective on how to maintain the practice of religion.
Ukraine prides itself in having religious freedom much like what most Western countries enjoy. This is a lingering and persistent memory since independence in the 1990s. Religious freedom is also a symbol that Ukraine is no longer under the influence of the atheistic Communist ideology. Ukraine has several religious denominations coexisting peacefully and this coincides with religious tolerance in most Western countries. The continued peaceful existence of religion and co-existence among different denominations is a reinforcement that Ukraine’s society is modeled along the lines of the West’s.
The Ukrainian religious services would use the Ukrainian and minority languages as a matter of convenience. Hearing these services in their local tongues would create memories of their citizenships and ethnicities. Hearing minority languages in services would evoke the memory that Ukraine is a polyglot nation that carries cultural divisions underneath.