Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 180-184
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Russia and Ukraine: Literature and the Discourse of Empire from Napoleonic to Postcolonial Times By Myroslav Shkandrij. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-7735-2234-4. $75 Canadian.
This volume comprises a broad and quite intelligent historical discussion of the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian literature through the perspective of political and cultural imperialism versus a colonized other. Besides the field of literature, it crosses into the realms of history, politics, culture studies, ethnography, and sociology. It is not so much a purely political or purely literary exegesis, but rather a hybrid discussion of the way political thought and notions of nationhood and ethnicity have been mirrored in literature over the span of the last two centuries between competing discourses. As the author summarizes in the introduction to the volume: "This book examines how a discourse of empire appeared in nineteenth-century Russian literature and gave rise to a counterdiscourse in Ukrainian literature" (xi).
The book consists of eight chapters that span a discussion of the image of Ukraine in Russian literature from Ukraine's assimilation as an untamed borderland in the eighteenth century, through the establishment of an anti-imperialist counter discourse via a small cultural elite in the nineteenth century, to the contemporary postcolonial period, during which time Ukrainian writers have the opportunity to shape their own discourse in an independent country. The book is thoroughly documented and contains over forty pages of endnotes, an extensive bibliography, as well as an index. It is well-written and well-edited with very few typographical errors. The author exhibits an extraordinarily broad knowledge of both the primary and critical literature on the topic.
The copious documentation of Russian imperialist statements and notions about Ukraine comprises one of the author's major contributions [End Page 180] in the book. Some readers may be startled by the all-pervasive nature of support for Russia's imperialist policies, among even the most liberal of the Russian intelligentsia (from Belinsky to Brodsky). One notable exception in the nineteenth century was Alexander Hertzen, who, as Shkandrij notes, called for a free and independent Ukraine while in exile in England in 1859. Another in the twentieth century was the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who, in a poem "A Debt to Ukraine" (1926), chastised his countrymen for their chauvinistic lack of a deeper understanding of Ukrainian literary culture.
Chapter I chronicles how for both Russian and Polish literature Ukraine represented a "'wild land,' a violent and often degenerate place that constitutes the limits of civilization and the boundary with Asia . . . " (6). Shkandrij observes consistent justification in the nineteenth century for Russian expansionism among Russian literati, whether they belonged to the Slavophile or Westernizer camps. The second chapter, "Imperial Borderlands in Russian Literature," focuses on the Russian literary representation of the Caucasus and Siberia as analogous in many ways to the Ukrainian situation.
In Chapter III the author surveys the image of Ukraine in Russian imperial discourse, from travel literature that "both exoticized and domesticated" (66) it to historical writings and literary works on historical themes, which focused on justification of political and cultural expansion to tame the hinterlands and impose order. To the stereotypical, imperialist accounts of Karamzin and others, Shkandrij notes the growth of a subtle subversive alterity in the works of Gogol as well as of others writing both in Russian and Ukrainian.
In the fourth chapter, the author engages the issue of nascent counternarratives in the first half of the nineteenth century, concentrating on Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovianenko's Russian language, "Holovaty: Materials for a History of Little Russia," and his Ukrainian language "The Witch of Konotop," which both convey to readers indigenous Ukrainian identity and, in Shkandrij's words, allow "an implicit social critique to arise from within Ukrainian society" (133). The bulk of the rest of the chapter focuses on Taras Shevchenko's virulently anticolonial poems, "The Caucasus" and "The Great Vault," for which the bard suffered the tsar's wrath with imprisonment and...