Ukrainians: A Colonized People

The battle for granting the Orthodox Church in Ukraine autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew, is shrouded by centuries of the Tsarist and Soviet regimes political suppression of Ukrainians and other ethnic groups. Granting autocephaly is not only a canonical act but at a psychological level a declaration of independence. Long overdue, granting the Ukrainian people the right to ecclesial self-government is liberating.

We have grown up with the reality of being invisible. All of us experienced the frustration of being identified as Russians. Through the years, colleagues, professors, co-workers, and others would confuse Ukraine with Russia. The dominant political and sociological narrative continually subverts the existential truth: we are a distinct people who speak a different language.

The fall of the Soviet Union, the Orange Revolution, and the Revolution of Dignity are historical moments which address the ravages of colonialism.  The request for autocephaly reinforces the need for Ukrainians to shed light on and fight against enslavement by the Russian master.

The Moscow Patriarchy claims that Ukraine is its territory, i.e. Russian territory. In regards to the existence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, Russian hierarchs have maintained a political stance that this church has no place in Ukraine and that the Vatican recognize their demand that the Ukrainian GGC surrender territory to the Russians. If the Pope wants to visit Russia, he must recognize that the UGCC is an obstacle that must be resolved before good relations can be established.

Let’s not forget that Putin has stated that Ukraine does not exist and its government was the result of political sabotage by the United States. The world knows that Putin wants to aggressively reclaim all former territory and rebuild the Soviet Union; the Russian Empire. He represses, murders, and eliminates all opponents.  Those who do not recognize this truth are blinded by propaganda and supportive of evil.

In order to understand this situation, it is important to revisit the philosophical works of Hegel. Hegel identified and wrote about the master/slave dialectic. He brilliantly pointed out the relation of power between master and slave. Freedom demands mutual recognition. My needs and desires can only be satisfied through mutual recognition in a world in which freedom exists. The master demands recognition from the slave who exists to work, to produce. Slaves are cogs in the wheels of industry.  The master does not recognize the slave as anything else. What follows is an excerpt from my dissertation that illustrates the master/slave dyad in the writings of Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol).

Nikolai Gogol and the colonized soul.

There were several figures of Ukrainian origin, such as Teofan Prokopovich, Victor Kochubei, and Oleksander Bezborodko, who moved to St. Petersburg and served the imperial court for the purposes of advising the Tsar on a variety of matters including the integration of the Church and the maintenance of tight control of colonialized Ukrainian lands (Saunders, 1985). However, in terms of bridging the cultural vacuum noted above it was Nikolai Gogol’s contribution to the literary imagination which warrants separate attention.  This contribution to Russian culture offered images of Ukrainian folklore and life in the countryside which were lacking in the imagination of the aristocratic elite. At the same time, Gogol’s works can be construed as a satirical critique of imperial hegemony.

An ethnic Ukrainian, Gogol moved to St. Petersburg in the 1830s. He described his new city of residence as something akin to a European colony in North America; its population composed primarily of foreigners and not native Russians (Etkind, 2011). Gogol’s keen eye to the colonialist social realities of the empire reflected his own sense of dual culture. He wrote to a colleague that he was unsure “whether his soul was Ukrainian or Russian” (Saunders, 1985, p. 166). This sense of dual identity offered his readers a plethora of images which captured the polarities of life in the Russian empire. For example, in his story of a Tsarist official who loses his nose, this body part becomes a metaphor for being an imperial functionary whose career dreams are thwarted. Without the nose, everything that is perceived as required by the whole in the relationship of empire and colony, i.e. power, title, women, and money, becomes unattainable. Gogol captures Homi Bhabha’s (1994) description of colonial discourse as “a splitting of hybridity that is less than one and double” (p. 166). The imperial subject is forced to deny indigenous culture, religiosity, language, and discourse (feelings less than whole), and becomes a mirror double of the Master.

One of Gogol’s most jarring literary insights into the relationship of the empire, its bureaucratic functionaries, and its vast population of indentured serfs is the metaphor of “dead souls.” Situated on the Ukrainian territory of Kherson, the satirical comedy Dead Souls (1842/2008) portrays the colonized as nothing more than taxable property. The protagonist, Chichikov, sets out to con the local authorities and landowners by purchasing their dead to relieve them of a tax burden which they were still obliged to pay. His true motive is to amass many serfs, albeit dead, with the intent of using them as collateral to take out a loan and retire as a rich man.

The economic speculation in “dead souls” is one of the most horrifying images of the imperial/colonialist project.  In the context of both Russian and Ukrainian linguistic signifiers, the word “soul,’’ (dusha), is a term which predates the notion of a citizen. Any census taken during this time would have counted persons as “souls;” understood as living persons living within the territory of a village, town, or city. The oxymoron “dead souls” not only presents the readers of Gogol’s novel with his keen ability to satirize the corrupt financial practices of his day but with the image of imperial subjects lacking human representation. The indentured serf, the enslaved soul, is just another commodity of economic trade. Whether it was oil, furs, timber, or land (Etkind, 2011), the well-being and efficiency of the Russian imperial economy may have included the sale and purchase of the dead.

Frantz Fanon (1963/2004) framed the moral and ethical disregard for the colonized as “Manichean” and “totalitarian.”  “Sometimes this Manichaeanism reached its logical conclusion and dehumanizes the colonized subject. In plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal” (p. 7). The Russian colonialist discourse was not exempt from disregarding the humanity of the peoples it colonized, whether they were animals without souls or “dead souls.”  Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Swede, Jew (arrested and exiled during expansionist battles and wars), Kalmyk, Aleut, Chuckchi, Koryak (some of a large number of colonized indigenous tribes), all were subject to ethnic, religious, and/or racial discrimination. All of them were, and still are, regarded as “Other.” Perhaps there is a spectrum in colonial narratives of ethnic, religious, and racial “Others,” in which persons regarded as “white” and “Christian” were more readily Russified and assimilated into the Russian Orthodox faith than those considered non-white and non-Christian. But, as notable in Western European colonialist histories, the Church colluded with the State in unleashing grave harm and trauma upon the indigenous soul (Gambini, 2000).

Ukrainians are a colonized people. The Russian Orthodox Church continues this heinous politics. Autocephaly opens the door to self-reflection, the rejection of our own psychic enslavement, and the ability to support other enslaved peoples.