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Writers in exile
18 min read

Russian Culture in Light of Refugees from Mariupol

In this nuanced literary essay, Putin opponent Dmitry Kuzmin tries to answer the question of whether all Russian culture is evil. He is a Ukrainian-to-Russian translator and editor-in-chief of the journal Vozduch, which was for a long time the leading forum for contemporary Russian poetry.

As a poet and essayist Kuzmin spoke for years for pro-Ukraine, anti-war, pro-LGBT causes finding himself in collision with the authorities.

He has been living in exile in neighboring Latvia since 2014, where he works with the volunteer network Rubikus, which assists deported Ukrainians to get out of Russia

Credits Text: Dmitry Kuzmin Translation from Russian by Kevin M. F Platt Photo: Dmitry Beliakov January 17 2023

This was the second wave of refugees, with far more terrible stories than those of the first. The first were fleeing impending bombs and occupation. The second escaped from actual bombing and occupation. The first crossed the border into Poland and fell into the helping hands of volunteer aid workers. The second passed through Russian filtration camps and harsh and degrading interrogation by Russian security services. Afterwards, those who have the strength to move on are picked up and somehow transported by a network of Russian aid workers that must stay more or less underground—otherwise, they, too, are subjected to similarly degrading interrogations and “Nazi Collaborator” gets scrawled on their doors. At the Latvian or Estonian border (currently the main path of exit from the Russian Federation by ground transportation) the refugees are passed on to local and international volunteers, who find lodging for them and then work to plan their next steps, taking into account that capacity in the nearest countries is generally exhausted at this point. The majority wind up on a ferry that takes them from the Latvian city of Liepaja to Germany. Most get to Liepaja by bus, but for some, even travel by bus is challenging. In these cases, the volunteer network Rubikus calls on me and my car.

They all speak Russian.

An elderly couple from a Kharkiv suburb with a grown son in a wheelchair, as a result of a brain trauma.

A lady with a determined expression from Berdiansk, accompanied by her quite elderly mother and a seventeen-year-old boy, a former classmate of her daughter who fled via a different route because she got into a university in Poltava.

A young mother from Bucha with two pre-school daughters, a year apart, the younger of the two with down syndrome.

A boisterous guy from Sievierodonetsk with a lame, aged mother.

From Mariupol, a woman with her arm in a sling with her teenaged son on crutches.

One of my areas of literary expertise is translation from Ukrainian. For twenty years, I have been bringing contemporary Ukrainian poetry to Russian readers—from the works of the still active 89-year-old Yuriy Tarnawsky, a founding figure of émigré Ukrainian modernism of the 1960s, to those of the chief star of contemporary Ukrainian writing Serhiy Zhadan, who was recently nominated by his Polish colleagues for the Nobel Prize, right up to the work of completely fresh young voices. Ukrainian music, from Artem Vedel to Valentyn Silvestrov; the castles of Galicia and the churches of Sumshchyna; the tragic fate of the Ukrainian independence movement of the twentieth century, ground up between the millstones of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism—there are many topics on which I can sustain a conversation, even in my rather weak conversational Ukrainian. (One time, when I allowed myself to say a few words in Ukrainian before a poetry reading at a festival in Ternopil, the participants in the event joked that I somehow speak Ukrainian in Belarusian.) Of course, people fleeing from bombed out, looted, and violated cities are not often oriented towards such elevated topics. Yet actually, whatever the topic of conversation happens to be, they talk about it in Russian.

Possibly, this is because their ancestors were victims of forced russification at the hands of the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century, or because their ancestors originated in the Urals and found their way to Ukraine in the course of Soviet industrialization, which moved enormous masses of people from one place to another (and keep in mind that eastern Ukraine was significantly depopulated by Stalin’s Holodomor). Nevertheless, it is a fact that the majority of victims of this armed aggression, unleashed in order to eradicate the national identity of the Ukrainian people, have been culturally Russian—people who speak Russian, not Ukrainian, and who were raised on Pushkin, not Shevchenko.

A political nation is not always defined by language or ethnic belonging. In the trenches of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Russian is heard no less frequently than Ukrainian. A few days back, Marina Kozlova, a writer from Kyiv, posted a photo from the front on her Facebook page: it shows a friend of hers, resting between battles, reading a work by the Strugatsky brothers. The Strugatskys were leading science-fiction authors of the Soviet era whose dark dystopia The Inhabited Island perfectly describes Putin’s Russia. Yet what will happen when the war ends is another story. When these soldiers return home with victory, they will raise their children not in Russian, but in Ukrainian. This can be predicted even now, just as one can already observe that the autonomous Russian literature of Ukraine, which once seemed to hold such promise for complex intercultural relations, is coming to an end. Since 2014, one after another, the most prominent authors of that literature, beginning with Vladimir Rafeenko, a major prose author of the Donetsk region, have switched from their native Russian to an acquired Ukrainian. Of course, there’s nothing new in this: the Czech and Latvian varieties of German culture died out long ago. Note also that Putin’s invading army includes a good number of Buryats and Chechens, many of whom have only a tangential relationship to anything Russian. Remember: national culture is not the same as ethnic culture. There’s nothing new in this, either: when Austria battled Prussia over the leading role in unifying the German lands in the mid-nineteenth century, language distinctions between the warring parties were often negligible, while the cultural models presented by the two sides were distinct.

All of which brings us to the question: if, after decades of negative selection, Russia has developed within its borders a national culture based on the earthshattering combination of delusions of grandeur and inferiority complex, in equal portions, what in this situation is particularly Russian, and why should Russians in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, or Israel bear responsibility for it? Can the reason be simply that the distinction between the term “russkii” (relating to language and ethnicity) and the term “rossiiskii” (relating to state and citizenship) simply does not exist in any other language? That is to say, people who speak Russian comprehend two completely distinct entities in these terms, whereas for everyone else a Russian is a Russian is a Russian?

I am writing this essay on May 24, Joseph Brodsky’s birthday (but not only that, as I will explain below). Brodsky is a great poet who has been transformed in an instant from a symbol of resistance to Soviet anti-culture into a symbol of Great Russian imperialism and chauvinism—and all on account of a single, ill-fated poem “On Ukrainian Independence” (1991). A clumsy and ugly work, which Brodsky never published and read aloud only on two occasions, overlooking the existence of portable cassette recorders. Nevertheless, despite what has already become a commonly held opinion, one simply cannot read this poem as a profession of imperialist faith. For at the center of the poem one may read these lines about the impossibility of restraining a neighboring people by force:

Don’t think badly of us. For your sky, your wheat
We have — let us just choke on oilcake and the ceiling — no need.
There’s no point in bad blood, in tearing the clothes on your breast.
So love has come to an end, if there ever was such between us.

Brodsky’s regard for empire is an indisputable fact. Yet almost any empire could serve as the object of his admiration, from ancient Rome to the USA — just not Russia or the Soviet Union (recall that his line “I love a foreign homeland” was quoted in the judicial and press campaign against him as early as in 1964). He concedes that the Ukrainians have both sky and wheat (corresponding to the colors of the Ukrainian flag), and Russians have only the ceiling and oilcake. What offends him is that although the two nations shared a terrible history, they resolved to escape from this history by different paths (“So you’d climb into a noose in company, choosing a bough in the thickets/ But it’s sweeter to chew on a chicken bone out of the borscht all alone?”). Yet how can one link that sense of offense with Putin’s revanchism, which demands a return to a mythic past greatness? Brodsky’s use of the ethnic slur “khokhol” to name Ukrainians in this text is ugly, indeed, yet he also uses the ethnic slur “katsap” in an adjacent line to name Russians. Finally, it is in the conclusion that Brodsky offers his most potent insult:

And when the time comes for you to die, you meatheads,
You will wheeze out, scrabbling at the edge of your mattress,
Lines by Pushkin, not Shevchenko’s bullshit.

Of course, this is a gesture that devalues Ukrainian culture: our founding poet Pushkin beats your Shevchenko. For relatively young national traditions, such as both the Russian and the Ukrainian, literary founding fathers seldom command much interest outside of their own cultures: Pushkin doesn’t evoke intense emotion beyond the bounds of Russia, just as Shevchenko doesn’t beyond the bounds of Ukraine. However, beginning with the Stalinist campaign of 1937 in celebration of the centenary of Pushkin’s death, the representatives of Soviet power propagated the cult of the Russian poet everywhere they could (and Putin’s era has brought a program for monuments across the world to Pushkin—identical ones, actually). A similar program, yet on a smaller scale, was undertaken for each republic of the Soviet Union. That is, there was an analogous mini-cult of Shevchenko. Both of these cults, like all Soviet myths, were top-to-bottom shams. Yet naturally, the representatives of each national culture clearly perceived the falsity of all cults except their own—for the simple reason that for Russians, Pushkin was not the central figure of some imposed, alien culture, but rather of their very own, as Shevchenko was for Ukrainians.

Disdain for the cultural values of others is never an attractive stance, yet people of Brodsky’s generation had few opportunities to learn that those values were real, and not the usual Soviet sham. That’s how it sometimes happens: the values are real, but the cult is false. Observe, too, that the very same thing has happened with Brodsky himself. This one poet from among tens of other excellent poets of the second half of the twentieth century, thanks first to American and then to Swedish recognition, became a singular figure—something like a new Pushkin, wholly representative of a large and complex situation for outside observers. Now, along with Pushkin, he is made to answer for the entirety of Russian culture, and in the first place for an armed rabble that most likely has no idea he ever existed.

However, the fact is that May 24 is a double birthday for modern Russian poetry. Fourteen years after Brodsky’s birth, Aleksey Parshchikov was born on the same day. Parshchikov’s grandfather was shot at Babyn Yar with the rest of Kyiv’s Jewish population. The poet grew up in Donetsk and Poltava. In his poems—poems that laid the foundations of Metarealism‚ one of the most influential movements in Russian poetry of the late twentieth century—the psychogeography of Ukraine (to use Guy Debord’s term, which deserves much broader application) is an object of continual attention, a central focal point. “Let’s gather herbs in order to feed the soul,/ wandering among the fertile farms in the vicinity of warm Poltava,” writes Parshchikov in the poem “ I Lived On the Battlefield of Poltava.” And further: “To me that field seemed like the center of the planet, suddenly emerging on the surface/ a silvery fist, clutching a point from which weapons issued.” Or take another poem, this one about Kyiv, where it is necessary “to see at once the palace and the church,/ the flight up the Andriyivskyy Descent, and, one by one/ each and all,” or another text about the city of Volnovakha (now destroyed by Russian troops), which lies “between coal and the sky,” or yet another about Slovianohirsk (now Sviatohirsk—battles are raging there at present), that includes an unexpected knot of major eschatological shifts, where:

Twice the highway was repeated and time repeated twice.
Like chain bridges, suspended one after the other,
the columns of soldiers passed, clattering mirage weaponry.

—How did the poet know in 1984 that another war would break out here, like a mirage reflecting WWII?

The figure of Parshchikov pulls in its wake yet another leader of Metarealist poetry: Arkady Dragomoshchenko, whose name is now attached to the most significant Russian prize for young poets (awarded in 2019 to Daniil Zadorozhnyi, a poet from Lviv, for his bilingual Russian-Ukrainian texts; the prize has recently been placed on hold until the end of the war). Dragomoshchenko is recognized as a symbol of uncensored Leningrad poetry of the 1970s and 1980s, and also as chief Russian promoter of complex poetic thought. Yet his poetics are founded not on Russian adaptation of American postmodernism, as is often proposed, but rather on the experience of Ukrainian Baroque, which the poet absorbed during his youth spent in Vinnytsia. The poet himself, undoubtedly, remembered this experience. It was the source for texts such as “The Return of Hryhorii Skovoroda,” dedicated to the most significant Ukrainian Baroque figure, an eighteenth-century poet and philosopher whose house-museum was recently reduced to rubble by a Russian bomb.

Greeting Parshchikov and Dragomoshchenko from the other end of the spectrum of Russian poetry of the past century is yet another great poet, Yan Satunovsky, the founder of Russian objectivism, who was born and raised in the city now called Dnipro, and who turned again and again in poetry throughout his life to his own situation between three ethnic identities—Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish (“I love/ Shevchenko/ and Gogol./ Too bad/ they were both/ Judeophobes”—the situation with Shevchenko’s antisemitism is not so unequivocal, just as with Brodsky’s anti-ukrainianism, but importantly, this doesn’t get in the way of Satunovsky’s love for him). In the circle of Satunovsky’s close associates we also find Gennady Aigi, who constructed his unique post-futurist aesthetics on the fusion of the inheritance of Western modernists, from René Char to Paul Celan, with the myth of his own people, the Chuvash. The Chuvash are a tiny Volga Region ethnicity that Aigi inscribed on the cultural map of the world, although he wrote in Russian. In the following generation, by means of the same creative strategy—using the Russian language as a platform for dialogue between innovative European poetics and a particular ethnic chronotope—Shamshad Abdullaev, an ethnic Uzbek who writes in Russian, achieved fame across the Russian cultural landscape. Now, excuse me, but: from the above, it is hard to construct an image of Russian culture as chauvinistic and colonial.

Of course, culture is far from constituted only or primarily of poetry and performances (although cancelling poetry and performances right off the bat is easiest of all). Culture is how people dress and eat, how they greet acquaintances and strangers, how they relate to work and leisure, what they think about their close ones and neighbors. How people comprehend war turns out to be an organic element of this complex of convictions and behavioral habits. The people who have fired rockets at hospitals and bomb shelters, as well as the people who have plundered the apartments left behind by refugees, defecating on the beds as a parting shot, are bearers of a specific culture. But why should this be seen as Russian culture? Why not see Russian culture in the Ukrainian soldier, reading the Strugatsky brothers at his encampment, or in the culture of refugees from Berdiansk, who brought two dogs they adopted from the streets of the bombed city with them through the Russian filtration camps and across hundreds of kilometers, or in the culture of the volunteer network “Rubikus,” through which Russian émigrés from across the world arrange transportation and lodging for Ukrainians making the torturous journey out of occupation into Europe? Isn’t a culture defined by the best things it includes in its scope?

One can also pose these questions in a different way. Ultimately, shouldn’t the culture of poetry and performances, in its own progress and development, eventually contribute to the progress and development of the culture of work and leisure, of everyday life and conflict resolution? In the same way we might ask: shouldn’t literary translation ultimately help to achieve the level of intercultural mutual understanding necessary for peace among nations? It’s clear enough that no one today, in the twenty-first century, still defends the idea of culture as a glass bead game or an ivory tower. Yet the opposed utopian idea—that of culture for the masses, the intelligentsia “going to the people,” and various other recipes for a simple and nutritious soup out of nightingales—has also failed to deliver. The transfer of energy from one level of culture to another requires quite complex mechanisms. Why is it that some nations manage to construct the necessary machinery, while for others it never gets up and running? For decades, Russian poets have been summoning readers to an understanding of Others and solidarity with them. For decades, Russian prose authors have been dissecting the malignant tumor of dominant public discourse. What did they get wrong? Is it really their fault if, at the moment of truth, the 10% of the population that were their readers have fled the country in a panic, while the rest joyously raises pro-war “Z” banners or passively submits to fate, purchasing uniforms at their own expense in order to take part in a criminal war? It’s tough to answer, and any answer will clearly take some time. But, having posed question A, let’s not hesitate to pose question B: What did Kafka and Brecht get wrong, since they were unable to avert Auschwitz? Just please let’s not drag out Thomas Mann again, with his condemnation of Germany as a whole. That condemnation appears in a rather different light when one recalls that same author’s own works of the previous decades, his support for the Great War (the preceding one), his apology for a powerful state, his call for “popular conservatism”—all of the things that demanded his personal repentance, instead of an effort to deck out all Germans and the whole of Germany in his own guilt.

I understand those Ukrainian colleagues who say that it’s time for Russian culture to shift— that its imperial past grants it groundless advantages in comparison with the culture of those people who have suffered under Russian colonialism. But those same advantages can be placed in the service of those who have suffered. A robust culture can serve as a loudspeaker. In April, I translated brilliant anti-war poetry by Iryna Shuvalova into Russian. In May it appeared in a Korean translation—a retranslation of my Russian rendering. This is because there is, unfortunately, still no one who translates poetry from Ukrainian into Korean. I understand the Ukrainians who wish that everyone in Russia, the good and the bad, would disappear from the face of the earth. But then who would be able to extract Ukrainian deportees from the camps near Penza and Vladivostok? I understand how rage, despair and hatred can push you along and how they can help to hold out in the short run. Yet no one gets far on fuel like that. The road to victory, sadly, promises to be a long one. And every day there are more refugees in need of transportation.

To contribute to the volunteer network “Rubikus,” organizing transportation out of Russia for Ukrainian deportees:

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