Disorientation on the Ground and the Search for the Horizon


SONIAKH digest publishes articles in translation that provide key insight into the creative and intellectual discussions going on in Ukraine. This article was originally published in Ukrainian on Korydor, 12 June 2022.

With the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, the “Ukrainian question” has become a stress test for Western intellectuals. Particularly for so-called “public intellectuals”—those who are used to voicing their opinion on any topic in an endless attempt to hold on to their audience in an era of such dynamic flows of information. Some Western researchers have proven to be simply professionally inept. All of a sudden, many Ukrainians have realized that the statements concerning the war in Ukraine by people formerly cast as ‘Western intellectuals’ invoke all but an emphatic face-palm: already in 2014 Henry Kissinger was ‘putting himself in their shoes’ and to some extent agreeing with the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, and today he is proposing that Ukraine cede its territories for the sake of peace[1]; Francis Fukuyama has been on the verge of canceling the ‘end of history'[2]; Judith Butler was extremely cautious about delivering weapons to Ukraine[3]; As recently as 2019, Yuval Noah Harari, who now concedes that Ukraine is in fact not Russia, had no qualms with the removal of the section on Crimea and Donbas from the Russian translation of his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.[4]

To avoid excessive generalizations I would like to outline a framework for the observations I will cover in this text. It seems that the most appropriate thing would be to write about the strategies of production and the function of knowledge about Ukraine, both internationally and inside the country.

In early March, museums in Western Europe and the US rushed to present art from Ukraine en masse. These “discoveries” were accompanied by some changes in attribution: ‘Russian Artist’ was replaced by ‘Ukrainian Artist’ or, at least, ‘born in present-day Ukraine’. Libraries started to create exhibitions ‘on Ukraine’, searching for the limited number of books; professors of Slavic studies suddenly realized that Ukraine has been in their field of interest, however, they have not only failed to teach about it, but they also have nothing to teach about it altogether. Only if we assume that Ukrainians themselves ought to be the ones to write, translate, and put together study programs for Western universities, could I agree that the absence of Ukraine in the research of Russian, Soviet, post-Soviet spaces is solely Ukraine’s problem. Thus, we are dealing with what Jacques Derrida called “infrastructural causality”,[5] which continues to reproduce knowledge about Ukraine as it was prior to February 2022 (the escalation), and prior to February 2014 (the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the invasion of Donbas). 

This infrastructural causality should be seen as a rigid, carefully installed mechanism, often in the form of social frameworks that produce what we perceive as a result of our own perfectly independent act of cognition. It is important to note that the infrastructure of causality is also algorithmic, (depending on complications) and it can simulate critical thinking in an extremely successful manner. However, in the same way that regulated, or ‘authorized’ freedom ceases to be freedom, thinking produced by infrastructural causality never becomes the will of the one who thinks it. 

Let us consider a couple of examples illustrating this. The first one was proposed by a photography researcher Hennadii Kazakevich in his text dedicated to Robert Capa.[6] Capa is a photographer who visited Ukraine in 1946–47 during the second Ukrainian Holodomor [the Ukrainian word meaning “death by hunger” is used for the famines directed by the Soviet State in 1932–33 and 1946–47] to record the ‘reality’ of the situation through photography. He describes drinking Georgian sparkling wine and vodka, eating borscht and “mountains of fried meat and fish”. However, despite some experimentation with composition and lighting, “looking at these photographs today, one can’t help but notice their similarity in plot and idea to the works of socialist realism”.[7] Capa’s narrative memoirs are the result of representation that had been carefully constructed by the state (the abundance and wealth of the peasantry), whereas his visuals are the product of the tenacity of this representation.

Another example is part of a separate genre of texts that Derrida calls “returning from the USSR”. He himself also ‘returns’ from the Soviet Union after visiting Moscow (26 November–6 March 1990) at the invitation of the Institute of Philology at the Academy of Science. But Derrida doesn’t venture writing his own memoirs, most probably because he (potentially) cannot handle the very same infrastructural causality. In his text Back from Moscow, in the USSR Derrida deconstructs the Moscow diaries of Walter Benjamin[8], André Gide, and René Étiemble. To those I would add Diego Rivera who visited the USSR on the tenth anniversary of the revolution: “He felt he already knew the snowy cold and the old wooden houses that Ehrenburg and his Russian friends had described to him in Paris, and the new workers’ clubs, the children’s kindergartens, and the innovative architecture he felt were representative of the many accomplishments carried out under the Bolshevik government”.[9]

All four of those mentioned above traveled to Russia as if to Utopia, a country of the dictate of the proletariat, absolute freedom, resolved national questions and defeated consumerism. Reading the diaries/memoirs of Benjamin and Rivera, I can’t help but feel a growing disappointment: an elevated solemn tone is replaced by melancholy, seen in a gradual sinking into state structures that stand beyond representation, semblance and projective imagination. This kind of a tone in the diaries marks a divide between several ‘Russias’. The first one, as I’ve already mentioned, is utopian, opposed to the imaginary ‘West’: it is a search for the ‘universal’ sense, “the same as searching for the Holy Grail”, “the human race”, or “absolute culture”.[10] This Russia is simply ‘the other’, ‘the good other’, ‘the third Jerusalem’, with Lenin’s body even replacing that of Jesus. To believe in the existence of this Other is not only pleasant, but also necessary. Leading to it is the world itself, where a life ‘without hope’ ends up transforming into Hell.[11]

This sort of a post factum admiration is followed by the appearance of news leading to a somewhat paradoxical divide for the modern human, between imaginary unseen information (virtual) and ‘eye-witness’ evidence. It was during modern times that eyesight as a sensorial system was brought to the foreground. The senses ceased to be equally important for human beings, and as a result, as Marshall McLuhan asserts, the light stopped penetrating objects, and started falling on them.[12] Modern perceptiveness, which is accustomed to being guided by what “I witnessed”, what “I saw with my own eyes”, appears to be false in such an infrastructural causality. “On rereading the 1934 notes, I feel the deepest sadness about not bringing up the gorgeous banquet at the collective farm: food of an impressive taste and quantity. And it is only recently that I am learning that a year prior, in 1933, Stalin[13] brought death on millions of Ukrainians, accused of disobedience: only because they simply wanted to remain Ukrainians and not be diluted in a wave of Russification and extreme stalinism. That’s how you travel a country under the rule of tyranny: seeing nothing and understanding nothing. Imprisoned and impressed with it to top it off!”[14]

On the mental map of the world for many Ukrainians, Europe used to occupy a place typologically similar to the one Russia occupied for Benjamin or Rivera, before their visits to Moscow. Othering is normally seen as an uncomplicated binary opposition. A mechanical about-face took place: those who just yesterday had been reading Russian literature, following Russian scientists, focusing on Russian markets, now turned their heads to the West uncritically. No structural changes in their attitude to knowledge occurred—we mostly continue consuming it as some sort of a reproduced reality that holds a monopoly on truth.

Our disappointment in those who we “have been looking up to”, who we have been “focusing on”, attests to this.[15] The statements by Henry Kissinger or Judith Butler prove that there are common sources for both civilizations, that of Europe and that of Russia—specifically, civilizations, whose imperialism or neo-imperialism has been the culmination of their own development.

To a certain extent, Kissinger looks at the early 21st century as if it was the ending of an entire era. The common currency has created a unity not unlike the one characteristic of the Holy Roman Empire.[16] The creation of the EU has resulted in a hybrid of state and confederation. By discarding the possibility of a unipolar world, Kissinger diagnoses a multi-polarity where America is to take its place as  first among equals (we are speaking about pluralistic uni-polarity here). Russia occupies a similar place in the unions created for the sake of informal control over other states (the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO] and the Eurasian Customs Union). 

The attitude towards foreign realities and world politics articulated by Kissinger is not much different from the one circulating within the Russian Federation today.[17] Despite a nominal recognition that every state possesses its own subjectivity, ‘balance of power’ continues to be one of the key terms. Balance of power is a notion that goes beyond one state, and that defines the spheres of influence when one of the states is placed at the top of the hierarchy influencing (controlling) the rest. Such a model of regulating international relations continues the tradition of, say, 1945, with the division of the world into regions controlled by certain concrete states. It differs from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact only in visibility—while the latter was secret, the former is public. The states that find themselves under ‘the spheres of influence’ aren’t being objectified because they have never been seen as self-sufficient in the first place. World security and regional peace has been linked to the presence of the big states (great powers), capable of suppressing any conflicts for the sake of deeper globalization (free circulation of money, workforce, information, etc.). 

With the complete disorientation in epistemological space comes an awareness that knowledge about Ukraine, produced in the ‘West’ or the ‘East’, does not conform to the state of things we are living through at the moment. The temporary vacuum, coming from the shock of such a realization, is simply unbearable, it gives rise to inertia and a desire to replenish the desolation.

How will this replenishing proceed? So far it looks like we are returning thirty years into the past. The Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine, having moved to a competency-based educational approach just several years back, is now creating committees to look for ‘the historical truth’, in accordance with which its curriculum will be built.[18] Everything that survives this process will exist and serve a single national idea, since ‘historical truth’ is something that is invented and constructed, rather than reconstructed. The result would be that knowledge in Ukraine would continue to be taken as an absolute, historical policies would be taken as a norm, and the fullness and belonging to a ‘great state’ (for instance, the Kyivan Rus) would be taken as an emancipating factor. Our own infrastructural causality, which might appear in the near future, would become disproportionately weak in comparison to those that have been formulated for centuries. When Judith Butler asks to speak “about Ukraine, only without nationalism”[19], this is exactly a reaction to the constructive mechanisms to which nationalism, with its construction of the nation and corresponding causality, belongs. The lifestyle of a ‘contemporary’ intellectual after 1968 presupposes a permanent struggle against established structures (history, empire, state, traditional institute of marriage, etc.,) that always become a repressive mechanism. However, I have considerable doubts as to the success of a society that recognizes pluralism in its fight with a classic empire that recognizes only its own right (in this case, Russia).

Today we need, first and foremost, to consider our language and analyze our positionality as speakers, and the positionality of those who speak about us and to us. This is part of the rejection of the idea that knowledge is an absolute truth that can be drawn from reconstituted stone tablets. Meanwhile, instead of our daily search for a shifting horizon, a horizon is being painted for us on a windowsill from which we look at the world. 

Illia Levchenko is an art historian, M.A. in Art History, Ph.D. student at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. He is the executive editor of an international peer-reviewed biannual electronic journal “Text and Image: Essential Problems in Art History”; methodologist of The innovative content of education laboratory, Junior Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (Kyiv, Ukraine) and curator of the educational program, NGO "Museum of Contemporary Art" (Kyiv, Ukraine). He was visiting scholar at the Bibliotheca Hertziana–Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome, Italy (2023). His spheres of interest are image theory, political iconography, early modern visual culture and theories of contemporary art.
Published 3 April 2023
  1. Henry Kissinger: “To settle the Ukraine crisis, start at the end” Washington Post, 5 March 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/henry-kissinger-to-settle-the-ukraine-crisis-start-at-the-end/2014/03/05/46dad868-a496-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html.
  2. Francis Fukuyama. “A Country of Their Own: Liberalism Needs the Nation.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2022 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2022-04-01/francis-fukuyama-liberalism-country
  3. Judith Butler, “About the war in Ukraine”, Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, April 2022 http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article62606
  4. Відомий письменник пояснив, чому “приєднав Крим до Росії” у своїй книзі. 2019. https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2019/09/13/7226231/.
  5. Жак Деррида в Москве. Пер. с фр. и англ. Предисл. М. К. Рыклина. Москва: РИК „Культура”, 1993. С. 24-25.
  6. Геннадій Казакевич. Міф про добробут радянської людини від фотографа Роберта Капи, 2021. https://localhistory.org.ua/texts/reportazhi/mif-pro-dobrobut-radianskoyi-liudini-vid-fotografa-roberta-kapi/
  7. ibid.
  8. Беньямин, В. (2018). Московский дневник. Litres.
  9. Richardson, W. (1987). “The dilemmas of a communist artist: Diego Rivera in Moscow, 1927-1928”. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 49-69.
  10. Жак Деррида в Москве. Пер. с фр. и англ. Предисл. М. К. Рыклина. Москва: РИК „Культура”, 1993. С. 36.
  11. The entrance to Hell in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy says: “1) THROUGH me you pass into the city of woe: 2) Through me you pass into eternal pain: 3) Through me among the people lost for aye. 4) Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d: 5) To rear me was the task of power divine, 6) Supremest wisdom, and primeval love. 7) Before me things create were none, save things 8) Eternal, and eternal I endure. 9) “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” (transl. Henry Francis Cary, 1892).
  12. McLuhan, Marshall (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy : the making of typographic man. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  13. Derrida himself doesn’t share the idea of blaming Stalin and criticizes the term “stalinism”, since “one day we will need to analyze also the procedure that allowed for the whole responsibility to be now concentrated over the figure of “papasha”, i.e. stained, cursed, objectivized, held in the distance and thus neutralized, if not entirely destroyed within the body of the despot.” (see 5, p. 38-39).
  14. Жак Деррида в Москве. Пер. с фр. и англ. Предисл. М. К. Рыклина. Москва: РИК „Культура”, 1993. С. 40-41
  15. Кіссінджер Г. Світовий порядок. Роздуми про характер націй в історичному контексті. Пер. з англ. Надії Коваль. Київ : Наш формат, 2017. С.77
  16. ibid
  17. Медяков А. История международных отношений в Новое время. Учебник для ВУЗов. 2007. Москва: Просвещение.
  18. МОН змінить методологію викладання історії в школі. https://osvita.ua/school/86586/?fbclid=IwAR2tCegTU86iPLYaLlkyNHajB1aQyAHFozkheaHJ0uaVbd8fyeYPbZsUgPo.
  19. Dovhopol А. (2022). “On nationalism”, Gender in Detail (Facebook page), https://www.facebook.com/genderindetail/posts/2296670667178280.