The author is a Russian journalist who worked as a columnist for the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she left the country. She now lives in Berlin and is taking part in a journalist project run by the Tagesspiegel.
Two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops took the city of Kherson. Almost first, they put up a huge billboard with a portrait of Alexander Pushkin, the “most important” Russian poet credited with inventing the modern Russian language.
Already at the end of the 19th century (Pushkin died in a duel in 1837) it was said about Pushkin that he was “our be-all and end-all” – the ideal embodiment of Russian culture and the “Russian soul”. Now this “soul” marks the conquered territories.
They could have just shown Putin on billboards
If the Russian state and its PR people were more direct, they could have just featured Putin on these billboards. That would be a simple political statement. Pushkin, however, does not stand for politics, but for culture, for the very “Russian world” (as Putin’s ideologues call the zone of influence of Russian civilization) for which the war in Ukraine is being waged.
The Ukrainian perception of the events largely agrees with this idea, of course, under the opposite sign. Ukraine is fighting not only against the capture of territories, but also against Russian influence and the expansion of Russian cultural identity. Since the conquest of Cherson, the Russian occupiers, who are otherwise called “racists” in Ukraine, have been given a new nickname: “Pushkinists”.
That the choice fell on Pushkin of all people is not surprising. Within Russian culture, the literary canon is the most important – firstly, because it is linked to the language, and secondly, because it reaches almost the entire population of the country. In the Soviet Union and later in Russia, literature was not a hobby but a duty, and until recently it was a compulsory examination subject in schools.
The hierarchy of Russian literature was officially enshrined in the curriculum. This curriculum hasn’t changed much not only since my childhood (I graduated from high school just before the collapse of the Soviet Union), but since my mother’s childhood (she finished school the year Stalin died).
My children experienced about the same in class as they did. Of course, in the 90s some Soviet writers were removed from the curriculum and previously banned ones like Solzhenitsyn were added. But by and large, the literary canon in Russia—a multinational country—remained a list of men who wrote in the Russian language.
In the Soviet Union, where the equality and brotherhood of peoples, and consequently of their cultures, was part of the official ideology, the canon was similarly Russocentric. The national authors of the republics appeared as garish but insignificant figures, settling on the pedestals of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.
Russia has never abandoned imperial practices
In fact, neither the USSR nor its successor, Russia, ever abandoned imperial practices. Statements about the equality of all peoples, languages and cultures in the Soviet Union were mostly hypocrisy – material for the report of the CPSU Party Congress. The only way to succeed was to go along with the “grand” narrative of Russian culture, which was a little embellished with some obligatory communist slogans during the Soviet era.
Putin’s Russia has continued and amplified this, even without the hypocritical talk of universal equality. That was easily possible, since the priority of the Russian canon was never critically questioned. Even more – this canon united and still unites ideological opponents in Russia.
In the Soviet Union, classical Russian culture was, on the one hand, a haven for dissidents, a rare territory in which there was almost nothing “Soviet.” She was almost the only thing to be proud of. On the other hand, it served as official proof of the supremacy of “our Soviet culture”, which appeared as a continuation of the “great Russian culture”.
This ambiguity is repeated in Putin’s Russia. For dissenters, the “great Russian culture” is a common outlet and even a kind of excuse. Lack of freedom, murder, violence like on an assembly line, poverty – but at least we have “Tolstoyevsky”.
Putin, one could say, is parasitically exploiting this approach. The “great Russian culture” is a patriotic product that has essentially never been disputed and as such can be used to one’s advantage.
Incidentally, the billboards with Pushkin not only advertised the capture of Cherson by Russian occupying forces, but also for a vote on constitutional amendments. For the very changes that secured Putin unlimited power.
When I first saw this ad I thought it reminded me of something. I quickly remembered why. On the day when children in the Soviet Union were admitted to the “pioneers” (the communist youth organization), a bust of Putin with a red pioneer scarf could be seen in many schoolyards. Back then, as a girl, it seemed ridiculous to me. Now I think that was scary.
(Translated from Russian by Claudia von Salzen)
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