By Lesia Kuruts-Tkach, Atlantic Council
Until recently, Ukrainian culture was perceived internationally as a subset of Russian culture. Even now, after Ukraine has had almost twenty-seven years of independence and with hundreds of years of history behind it, Ukrainian history is often presented as Russian. Mykola Gogol, Volodymyr the Great, the Kyivan Rus, Anne of Kyiv—all of this is Ukrainian, but has long been skillfully and fraudulently presented as Russian. The history of Ukraine has been rewritten, changed, and interpreted for years to fit Russians’ own taste and order.
This even includes Ukrainians’ current achievements. Why, for example, on the posters in Prague advertising shows by Onuka, the Ukrainian electro-folk band, does the description refer to a “Russian artist”? During a tour to France, why is the word “Ukraine” not mentioned anywhere on posters for the National Opera and Ballet of Ukraine, which is described as the “Russian Ballet”?
The more important, bigger questions are, why does Russia use Ukraine’s achievements as material for promoting its own culture? And what should Ukraine do to finally detach itself from Russia, including on the cultural front?
The answer to these questions is obvious. With its military aggression in eastern Ukraine, Russia seeks to destroy everything Ukrainian, not only geographically but also morally and mentally. The creeping Russification, which has been ongoing for hundreds of years in Ukraine, has gone to a higher level: the depreciation of Ukrainians as a whole.
The imposition of such shortcuts about the common past makes Ukrainians today faceless. A Ukrainian artist may become a prize nominee from Russia, blurring the boundary between two different countries with different visions of the future. For example, in the fall of 2017, the popular Ukrainian singer Ivan Dorn was nominated for MTV Europe Music Awards as a representative of Russia. And the Ukrainian-born artist Kazimir Malevich has long been referred to as part of the Russian cohort—undoubtedly because Ukraine is likely to miss such “innocent slip-ups.”
Russian disinformation is not afraid to fill in spaces where information is missing. Moreover, they say, for a win anything goes. In the case of the Onuka band, however, the singer successfully pushed back: the singer refused to perform and asked that the posters be removed.
Russia also successfully uses the “transfer” technique, in which propaganda mixes things that people respect with what the government wants them to accept. For example, Prince Volodymyr the Great, who, according to Russian propaganda, was an “all-Russian prince” and “laid the foundation for the creation of a single Russian nation and in fact paved the way for the construction of a strong centralized Russian state.” In early 2015, Moscow even installed a 25-meter monument to Volodymyr the Great. The fact that the Kyiv prince had nothing to do with Moscow is immaterial. Grandeur, pathos, and tales about historical heritage are far more important.
This technique was used again more recently in the case of the National Opera and Ballet of Ukraine as it toured France in February 2018. But the attention of Ukrainians also worked here. Although the posters were not changed, the Ukrainian community wrote an open letter, that was published by Ukrainian Week to the theater management and the minister of culture to reiterate the point that Ukrainians should be presented as Ukrainian, not Russian, Belarussian, or Polish.
What can we conclude from these examples? Russia uses information flexibly. That is, its government and people will allow something Ukrainian to be viewed as Russian—but if someone claims that it belongs to Ukraine, Russia will not argue. After all, according to Russian propaganda, “We are fraternal peoples with a common past, present and future.” Obviously, such a generalized approach to information is aimed at confusing and distracting.
Consequently, Ukraine, which is constantly defending itself, refutes the lie, and as a result is perceived more negatively. The Dutch referendum on the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement in 2016 is a good example. Even though Ukraine truthfully talked about its pursuit of democratic change, the country was represented as a corrupt, failing country, and this propaganda triumphed and the referendum was defeated.
Why? Because propaganda cannot be overcome. Still, Ukrainians should try to protect their history and culture to create a new perspective and increase Ukraine’s visibility in foreign media outlets and high-profile events. A good example of this was Ukraine House at the annual Davos Forum in Switzerland.
Ukrainians must be well-informed about their history and know the achievements of their contemporaries so that they are not afraid to push back. Russia has sown seeds in the information field liberally. It’s time to check whether they are valid or not. If not, the answer is to communicate, advocate, and defend.
By Lesia Kuruts-Tkach, Atlantic Council
Lesia Kuruts-Tkach is a native of Ukraine and an associate fellow at STRATPOL, the Strategic Policy Institute, in Bratislava.