Mykhailo Nazarenko, literary critic, Shevchenko Prize winner
The West has only just begun to discover Ukrainian literature
22.08.2023 14:24

We met Nazarenko in 2009 at the Gogol Festival in Odesa. I remember that his lecture on the relationship between the Ukrainian and Russian languages in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made a great impression on the audience. It is also noteworthy that the supporters of the "Russian world," who were numerous in this Ukrainian city at the time, did not dare to start a dispute. Nazarenko, a lecturer at the Institute of Philology at Kyiv National University, has a great deal of knowledge and a logical construction of the material. In addition, he is a good prose writer himself, so even in the scientific field he speaks and writes easily, as easy as a scientific text can be.

Therefore, it was pleasant news for me that Nazarenko received the Shevchenko Prize in 2023 in the Literature and Art History nomination. His two-volume book "Apart from Kobzar". Anthology of Ukrainian Literature. 1792-1883". It is not only a set of texts, but also interesting introductory articles dedicated to each author. I have read "Apart from Kobzar" and can recommend it to everyone: the book shows the Ukrainian literary process as something turbulent and full of life, and expands our understanding of it far beyond the school or even university curriculum. We started by talking about the anthology, but then we moved on to more general topics. After all, the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war is, first and foremost, a war to destroy Ukrainian identity, and thus culture and literature.


- Could you please tell us how your two-volume anthology, for which you received the Shevchenko Prize in 2013, began?

- This work began with an interest: what did we have in the nineteenth century that I personally did not know, and many philologists, non-core specialists, did not know either. So, the point of this book is to show what we already have, what we have already achieved, what has been overlooked. And not only from the time of the "Executed Renaissance" (names and works that were banned for decades), but also from what seems to be quite well-known from school and university curricula in the nineteenth century. The book ends with the words of Mykola Zerov, from his speech during a 1925 debate on the paths of Ukrainian literature. He says: "It is imperative to know what we already have, to use Kulish's [Panteleimon’s] words, to sift through it all very carefully. And when we know well what we have that is interesting, diverse, and fruitful, then we will be able to better build our cultural future...

- And what did you find out when you were collecting texts?

- That the literature of the century before last is much larger and, to a certain extent, much more interesting than is usually believed. Many texts, even by textbook authors such as Yuri Fedkovych, remain out of the reach of Ukrainian readers because they read something else at school and at universities. And then not everyone will start looking for something else.

- What discoveries, small and large, made during the compilation of this anthology are most memorable?

- Well, the aforementioned Fedkovych turned out to be a rather strong proto-modernist. After all, in the field of public attention, it is mainly his texts about the army, about opryshky, and so on that are in the public eye. And his lyrics based on European culture, his historical and mythological poems are little known, many of them have not been reprinted for over a century. But they are worthy of attention. Speaking of lesser-known names, Tymko Padura was a discovery for me. He has been reprinted, even in the Library of Ukrainian Literature. Still, Padura is not very well known. And this is, in fact, the first Ukrainian romantic, back in the early 1820s. Or the almost forgotten Kornylo Ustyianovych. He is remembered as a painter, but his poetry has not been reprinted for a century and a half-since the 1870s. With the exception of one song that is now sung by the band "Komu Vnyz", "Songs of the Varangians" [performed by the band - "The March of the Normans"].  These are very interesting historical and mythological works about the times of Kyivan Rus. I have given just a few examples. There were many "small discoveries" for me while working on the Anthology.


- What are your generalized impressions of the work on this two-volume set?

- The general scheme of this book is quite traditional: we see how Ukrainian literature moved from classicism through romanticism to realism and early modernism. This is obvious. But at each stage, it is interesting to consider how each writer had to find his or her place in the national-imperial coordinate system. Whether it was the Russian Empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each of them had to answer a number of questions. In what language do I write, why do I do it, what do I write about, and again, why about this particular subject? And finally, for whom do I write, what prospects do I see for the Ukrainian language, culture, and literature in the future, whether near or far? There were many unexpected twists and turns. Precisely because for most of the authors represented, this choice was not at all obvious. And the way they tried to find their way, lost it, found it again... This is something that is not always written about in the history of literature and is not discussed much at the level of school and university programs. And it is necessary! Because the history of nineteenth-century Ukrainian literature (and, in fact, any history) is a constant choice of what we will do. What exactly is happening to us, how are we building Ukraine, and what exactly do we mean by the word "Ukraine"?

- And how has this great war that began on February 24 affected you and the institution where you work?

- Well, first of all, our department is now called the "Department of East Slavic Philology and Information and Applied Studies". Before that, it was the Department of Russian Philology. At the same time, there has been no radical change in what we do, because in recent years and until 2022, the department has been actively involved in information resistance, even in direct contact with the government agencies working on this. We trained specialists of the relevant profile.

- What is the range of issues being studied here?

- The study of Russian literature in the context of how it was formed, what it is, why, in fact, Russian culture has become what it has become. And most importantly, how we can resist at different levels. Of course, this will be even more emphasized now. This year, we have already started enrolling students in our new educational program, "Applied Linguistics", in this particular aspect. In this regard, we have a lot of new courses... I have already said a lot about this and I want to emphasize once again that such studies are especially necessary during the war. Because we have to know the culture of the enemy, we have to understand how the brains of those who create anti-Ukrainian propaganda and those who are exposed to it are organized. How what has been happening in Russia over the past 23 years is connected to what happened before. And what we, Ukrainians, should do about it... I know that many of our graduates are dealing with these issues in one way or another. Each in their own way: from the writer Oleksandr Mykhed to the analyst of the "Come Back Alive" foundation Maria Kucherenko.


- How did this war, and especially the numerous Russian war crimes, change the attitude to Russian culture and Russian literature in the world, especially in the democratic world, and in Ukraine?

- There are several aspects to this. So, let's go through them in order. First, with regard to the West. In fact, it has only now begun to discover Ukraine. For example, Parajanov's "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" was screened at international festivals. But now, for the first time in the history of our cinema, a Ukrainian film classic will be shown in the official retrospective program of the Class A film festival in Venice [the festival will take place on August 30-September 9]. Similarly, Kotsiubynsky's novel "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors", Lesia Ukrainka's "Forest Song", Shevchenko's "Kobzar", and many other works of our literature have been translated into English before. But it cannot be said that they had a significant public resonance. If you look at the list of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon (1994), you will find such frankly tertiary texts as Sergei Aksakov's Family Chronicle, and not a single Ukrainian work. Because Ukraine was simply absent from the Western canon a la Bloom, from the canon of the university establishment. Now we need to use the rhetoric and methodology of postcolonial studies to declare that we were not allowed to speak in full voice.

Our culture was not only physically destroyed, but also prevented from entering the international arena, the international market, if you will. That is why there is a situation where the poetry or prose of Russian modernism is known in the world, while Ukrainian modernism is almost unknown. This is an abnormal situation.

When Slavic or East Slavic studies were replaced by studies of Russian and only Russian literature, this was also abnormal. Now we have a situation where we can and should take advantage of the attention to Ukraine. To show what we have. And thank God, we do, and a lot of it. For example, only now are key texts by our writers of the first half of the twentieth century being translated. I know that a bilingual anthology of Ukrainian modernist poetry is being prepared in America. I hope that this will have a certain resonance, at least in circles that read poetry and are interested in Eastern European literature.

- Now let's move on to Ukraine, shall we?

- Of course, here, in Ukraine, the perception of Russian culture is traumatic in every sense. In particular, because there were and still are people for whom Russian culture is primary. They grew up with it. Unfortunately, in the historical conditions that existed until recently, this is natural. Actually, I grew up on Russian culture myself. But there are people who, unlike me and many in my generation, do not want to know Ukrainian culture or Ukrainian literature at all. For them, there is only Russian culture, which is in the foreground, even on the geographical territory of Ukraine.

Suffice it to recall the illegally erected monument to Akhmatova in Mariinsky Park, where one word is written: "Forever." The hint is clear: "We will preserve you, Russian language, / Great Russian word" [lines from Anna Akhmatova's poem, which ends with the word "Forever" ] In the cultural space of a Ukrainian city, there is a monument to Akhmatova, or Vertinsky, or... the list goes on... there is an unerected monument to Pidmohylnyi, or Domontovych, or Zerov, or Nechuy-Levytskyi... the list goes on, too, who simply do not exist. Russian and Russian-language writers are present in the city's space as a matter of course. Ukrainian writers are almost absent.


- How do you feel about the "culture of abolition" in relation to Russia's achievements?

- Of course, in the current situation of a full-scale invasion, the complete negation of Russian culture could not but happen. And it did. At the same time, my attitude to this is ambiguous. On the one hand, I fully agree that at least for the next few years or decades there can be no Russian literature in school curricula. But it should be in university programs to the extent that it is necessary for understanding the world context and the contexts of Ukrainian literature. That is, we will not be able to read Khvylovy correctly if we do not know Dostoevsky. In particular, "The Woodcocks" [Khvylovy’s 1927 novel] with the hero Dmytro Karamazov. And this is what Ukrainian philologists actually need...

So, I am concerned not so much with the cancellation of Russian culture in the Ukrainian space as with the arguments that accompany it. I fully understand and accept such theses: "These are writers who represent imperial culture. For centuries, the imperial culture has been displacing and destroying ours. Now it is waging a war to destroy the Ukrainian nation. We reject it.

- What theses do you not understand and do not accept?

- For example, "Who in the world needs Tolstoyevsky?!" is not an argument. Just as the statement: "Chekhov was actually a Ukrainian writer." Because he was not. We should not build our cultural identity on the basis of obviously false statements. And such false statements can be in a very wide range, from "The Ukrainian language gave rise to Sanskrit" to "Dostoevsky is irrelevant; I read him at school and didn't like him." We have to distinguish between political, cultural, and emotional arguments. I understand emotions as a specialist philologist, historian of literature and culture. However, I cannot share them in this case...

Sooner or later, Russian culture will become for Ukrainian culture what it began to become in the 2000s and what it actually began to become in the 1920s. Namely, just one of the many cultures of the world. When Yuriy Yanovsky was told that he must have been influenced by Aseyev or Mayakovsky, he said: "Of course, I appreciate them, but Kipling and Whitman are more important to me." A normal situation would be when we know that there were Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, etc.-a list. But they are not more important to us than... the list of world writers that follows. And we do not deny them only because they are Russian, but simply perceive them as part of the world literary process. One of the parts, and not the most important one. This is what our culture will eventually come to, because it is the only possible way.


- What are your plans? You once said that you were planning to continue the anthology "Apart from Kobzar".

- Yes. And it was supposed to cover the period of time before 1917. But this work slowed down after the beginning of the Covid, when it was simply not possible to work in libraries. However, a significant part of the materials has already been collected.

- Meanwhile, are other books "on the way"?

- Just yesterday, I received a letter that the "Krytyka" Publishing House has published the first volume of the planned three-volume Shevchenko in Memoirs, which we are preparing with my colleague Oleksandr Boron, head of the Shevchenko Studies Department at the Institute of Literature. The first volume is in two books. There will be three volumes in total, seven books. And this will be the largest, most complete, commented edition of Shevchenko's memoirs in history. The second volume is already in the publishing house, so we are starting to work on the third...

Next, the "Vivat" Publishing House in Kharkiv is publishing a series of Ukrainian classics. Now there are many such series, but this is the only publishing house that has decided to invite specialists who will check everything against the original print or manuscript, comment on it, and not just take the text on the Internet and print it. I prepared for them a collection of Kvitka-Osnovyanenko's works. I have just sent the latest version of the layout to the publishing house. And I hope to work with this publishing house again.

- I read that you received a grant from the Ukrainian PEN Center for a topical work on the Russian empire.

- This is a book with the working title "On the Tablets of Empire," which will deal with how Russian literature, consciously or unconsciously, transmitted imperial ideology. And how, however, some, very few authors, such as Saltykov-Shchedrin, found the intellectual capacity to resist this. This is not an academic work, but a series of essays. But I think that it will be useful precisely because we need to understand how this Russian imperial culture is actually organized, and not to feed on very approximate ideas about it...

Both when I was making the anthology "Apart from Kobzar" and now, when I am working on "Tablets of Empire", I want to show that culture is complex. Both Ukrainian and any other culture. It is a multidimensional process, and it is impossible to reduce everything to some simple ideologemes. That is, when we look at modern Russia today, we see what a terrible dead end it has driven itself into. Not least because it has failed, with the exception of very, very few intellectuals, to comprehend itself as an imperial state. This is what it led to. It is important to show how this works on different levels, in particular in the particular head of one cultural figure... This is the task I have set for myself.

Oleh Kudrin

Photo from the archives of Mykhailo Nazarenko and Valentyn Kuzan, "Local History"

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