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The Highest Flights of the Ukrainian Soul

A translation of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s prescient essay on the life-affirming desire for distinctiveness

Marat Grinberg
March 21, 2022
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia
Ze’ev JabotinskyTablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia
Ze’ev JabotinskyTablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia

Published 111 years ago, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky’s essay, “The Lesson of Shevchenko’s Jubilee,” has neither lost its prescience nor become any less insightful. Writing on the 50th anniversary of the death of Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko, Jabotinsky, at that time a brilliant Odessan journalist, points out with his signature sarcasm that many Russian readers of Shevchenko cannot understand why Shevchenko stubbornly clung to writing in Ukrainian when he knew Russian perfectly well. He believes that Shevchenko and his art are a powerful manifestation of the Ukrainians’ desire to be separate, which is not a whim, but an expression of centuries-old, rich, and life-affirming national spirit. Jabotinsky warns that until Russians and, especially, liberal Russian intelligentsia, to which he certainly belonged, understands this they will remain oblivious to and blindsided by reality. Now, as Putin’s troops besiege Mariupol and bombard Kharkiv and the protesters in Moscow and St. Petersburg are thrown in jail while so many Russians parrot official lies about the Ukrainian Nazis, Jabotinsky’s forewarnings feel as relevant as ever.

It is also incredible that this explanation of the Ukrainian national idea came from the pen of this seemingly militant Zionist thinker and politician. As I’ve argued in Tablet before, there was no contradiction between Jabotinsky’s cosmopolitanism and nationalism—both were rooted in his idea of the supreme value of the individual. Jabotinsky, who keenly understood the history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations and was sober about its prospects, does not deny and in fact draws readers’ attention to the fact that Shevchenko was “a poet-nationalist, even with all the defects of a nationalist, with the outbursts of wild animosity toward a Pole, a Jew, other neighbors …” As Jabotinsky explains, he does not agree that a national idea should invariably be tied to hostility toward others, but, at the same time, “where a national individuality cannot express itself in anything positive because of external oppression,” this hostility comes to the fore. Jabotinsky concludes that Ukrainians should first be given a chance to channel their national energy in positive channels while we should see in Shevchenko, first and foremost, “unshakable proof that the Ukrainian soul is capable of the highest flights of unique cultural creativity … which does not allow Ukrainians to divert from the path of their national renaissance.” Otherwise, history will continue to be bloody in Ukraine. I have no doubt that Jabotinsky would celebrate the democratic Ukraine of today and marvel at its valor. The creator of the Jewish Legion in the British Army during the First World War, he would celebrate the Jews fighting alongside the Ukrainians led by Ukraine’s Jewish president.

Odessa, March 9th, 2022
Odessa, March 9th, 2022Courtesy the author

In the Soviet Union, Jabotinsky was a persona non grata and his works were banned. There were a few references to him in the anti-Zionist, antisemitic literature, but some Jews, especially in Moscow and Leningrad, got hold of his essays which were published in Israel and smuggled into the USSR. With the advent of Perestroika, these collections of Jabotinsky traveled everywhere and became an indelible part of what I call “the Soviet Jewish bookshelf,” the basis of Soviet Jews’ Jewish knowledge and identity. I read Jabotinsky for the first time in 1989 or 1990 as a teenager, having found a collection of his writings in the cramped library of the just-opened shabby Jewish community center in my native city of Khmel’nytskyi, the former Proskuriv, in Ukraine. I was riveted by Jabotinsky’s voice and ideas, but the piece on Shevchenko stood out to me precisely because of the scars of antisemitism my family bore through generations in Ukraine. His close reading of Shevchenko, whose works I studied all through the years of secondary school, spoke to me too, since until then I couldn’t bypass the vile images of Jews in, for instance, his narrative poem “Haydamaky” about the Ukrainian folk uprising in the 18th century and at the same time appreciate the deep power of his verse. Now, to this day one of my favorite poems in any language is his “Days are passing, nights are passing …” which combines Ecclesiastes’ ennui with the thirst for life, even if it’s brutal.

Jabotinsky’s essay, which I have translated below, is a vital lesson in the rediscovery of long-forgotten Jewishness and, most importantly, the difficult capacity to respect the identity of another even in the face of an extraordinarily complicated shared history. To quote Jabotinsky, “not approve or disapprove of them …, but humbly learn from them a thing or two: to accept life as it is, as it exists in its very essence and to build on this essence our worldview.” This Jew from Odessa, whose city is now preparing to defend itself, offers to us the words of truth and wisdom. —Marat Grinberg

“The Lesson of Shevchenko’s Jubilee” (1911)

It’s incredible how illogical people can be. When we say A, we do not even think that we might also say B. We approach a social fact as if it were isolated, removed from life, and can have no consequences. And thus now we are honoring the memory of Shevchenko or, at least, echo the honoring, but at the same time make no conclusions about it. Not only the listeners and readers, but even those writing about it hardly understand what celebrating Shevchenko’s jubilee requires of them. Only one or the other is true: Either Shevchenko is a cultural nuisance, a philological curiosity and oddity and therefore there is no sense in celebrating him; or Shevchenko is a legitimate and representative phenomenon of today’s life and a symptom of something significant in the future. And if that’s the case, having said A every one of us must also say B; that is, having accepted this jubilee we should also define our attitude toward that enormous phenomenon whose inevitability is prophesized by this jubilee. But very few, it seems, give it any thought.

Perhaps this is because too many among us still silently believe that Shevchenko was just a philological curiosity. Let’s be honest—many indeed think that. They see it as a funny whim: This Shevchenko person knew Russian extremely well, could write the same exact poems in Russian—the lingua franca—but for some stubborn reason wrote them in Ukrainian. Others go even further and ask: Are the two languages really so different? Isn’t this mere obstinacy, a petty clinging to a few differences in letters? What a funny whim it is to insist on writing in Ukrainian: “Dumy moi, dumy moi, / lykho mini z vamy! / Chomu staly na paperi / sumnymy riadamy?”, when Shevchenko could easily write the very same lines in Russian: “Akh vy dumy moi, dumy, / akh, beda mne s vami! / Chto stoite na bumage / grustnymi riadami?” “Oh, thoughts, my thoughts, / I am burdened by you! / Why did you line up on paper / in sad rows?”

Recently one gentleman held up a collection of Olesya’s poems in front of me and started to argue that he could read these poems in his head in Russian and nothing would change: The meter won’t change and practically all the rhyme schemes will stay the same. Perhaps he was right: I stopped listening to him and while he recited one of the poems with his Muscovite accent, I started to think of something else. I recalled that Shevchenko did write some of his works in Russian. Some literary critics praise him for this and berate the current defenders of Ukrainian: See, he wasn’t like you, he didn’t shy away from using Russian! That may be true, yet in some strange manner Russian language shied away from the Ukrainian poet, making it impossible for him to write anything truly great in Russian. Shevchenko is not the only one in this regard. In 1840, there lived in Rome a great poet, Belli; Gogol, I believe, mentions him somewhere. He wrote mainly in the Roman dialect, which, unlike the other local dialects in Italy, is almost identical with Italian: I won’t bore the reader, but I could describe all the differences in just 15 lines. But Belli wrote splendid works in his dialect and utterly mediocre ones in Italian. His sonnets in Romanesco are marvelous while his Italian elegies are watery, highfalutin, and forgotten. He must have also been stubborn, so stubborn that God himself would forsake him as soon as he crossed that thin line from his dialect into Italian, making him a great poet by the divine grace on one side of the line and a petty scribbler on the other.

A native tongue! It takes all of our Russian naivete, the lack of experience and social understanding, all of our obtuse empirical practicality, which we preach toward many sacred questions of national spirit, to stand with our eyes wide open and astonished that a normal person in his sound mind and with good memory would invariably and stubbornly insist on saying “svit” (light) in Ukrainian rather than “svet” in Russian. What perversity, what a whim! For years Magyars have been fighting to have a Magyar unit in the Hungarian army while this unit’s entire language consists of only 70 words. Because of these 70 words ministries fall, the most important reforms are delayed, and the political map of Europe is torn in half along the river Leitha. In the Hungarian parliament, among the 400 Magyars there are 40 deputies from Croatia who consider it their sacred duty to speak from the podium in Croatian, that is, in a language which no one except them understands and whose use in the parliament is therefore not only seemingly useless, but also harmful to the very Croatian cause. The very same Croatians started an uproar when the Hungarian government tried to put up in some official headquarters in Zagreb postings in Magyar next to the Croatian ones: There were street protests, clashes with the troops, blood was spilled … “Stupidity, a whim!” we say from the heights of our political acumen and experience, we, the backwater residents of this backwater country. Wouldn’t it be much wiser to consider this situation from another angle and realize that fighting with the facts is pointless. Here in front of our eyes there is a whole row of clear facts, collective, representative, and particular. Entire nations go berserk because of 70 words or a dozen postings in a foreign language; the great poets immediately lose their God-given talent when they try to make a small, miniscule, and innocent compromise: to say “svet” instead of “svit,” “buona sera” instead of “böna sera.” All of these are facts and invariable parts of life which will not change whether we approve of them or not. One should not approve or disapprove of them, give A’s or D’s to the world order and its manifestations, but humbly learn from them a thing or two: to accept life as it is, as it exists in its very essence and to build on this essence our worldview.

We pass by the fact of Shevchenko’s jubilee with a reverential nod and do not even think for a second that it is a fact of incredible significance which should force us, should we indeed be wise, experienced and forward looking, to reconsider some of the fundamental elements of our worldview. What is Shevchenko? He is one or the other. Either we ought to see him as a curious freak of nature, someone akin to an armless painter or an acrobat with one leg, a rare prehistoric exhibit in an archaeological museum, or we ought to see him as a vivid symptom of the national and cultural viability of Ukrainians. And if we accept the latter, we need to open our eyes wider and study intently the conclusions this presents to us. Here, in the south, we tried to inculcate Russianness so thoroughly and naively, through theater, press or the spread of Russian books, that by the end we lost sight of the real, palpable, arithmetic reality and what it actually looks like outside of our narrow purview. Behind our cities there rises a sea of almost 30 million Ukrainians. Take a look one day not only at its center, but its outskirts on the very border where the Russian language begins and you will be amazed at how untouched and pure this Ukrainian sea has remained. On this border, there are villages where on one side of the river the Ukrainians live—khokhly—and on the other the Russians—katsapy. They live side by side since time immemorial and do not intermix. Each side speaks in its own way, dresses in its own way, keeps its special customs. Each side marries only its own; they keep apart from each other, do not understand each other, or seek mutual understanding. P.B. Struve, the author of the theory of “national repelling effect,” should travel there before speaking of a single transcendent “all-Russian” essence. There is no such vivid “repelling,” they say, even on the Polish-Lithuanian or Polish-Byelorussian ethnogeographic border. Shevchenko the Ukrainian bard knew his people well when he offered a lesson to its unwise maidens: “Love and be tender / but not with the Russians, / because Russians are a foreign people …”

I do not share in Struve’s theory and do not think that repelling others is part of the necessary and normal expressions of nationality: In any case, I think that legalizing (in a theoretical sense) this “repelling” could only be accomplished under some big and serious provisions. I do not consider the antagonism between Russians and Ukrainians, crystalized in the popular pejorative nicknames of “khokhol” and “katsap,” as either normal or perpetual. On the contrary, I’m convinced that with the improvement of external conditions, not only Ukrainians, but all other ethnicities within Russia would coexist splendidly with ethnic Russians on the basis of equality and mutual recognition. I even believe it is precisely the Russian democratic intelligentsia that is bound to play a big and positive role in this process. (In my recent lecture in Kyiv, I emphasized this belief so stridently that some Ukrainian listeners found it not to their liking.) But we should also not deny the fact that “repelling” a foreigner is one indication of the presence of a national instinct, especially where a national individuality cannot express itself in anything positive because of external oppression. In such cases, the “repelling,” visible in ethnographic borderlands, stands inevitably as the best proof that the oppressed ethnicity resists spontaneously the remaking of its nature and points the true paths of its normal development in another direction. Such is the spontaneous mood of any big and homogenous group of people; such is the spontaneous mood of 30 million simple Ukrainians, no matter the deceitful arguments to the contrary coming from the various expert national shape-shifters. Such experts are no more competent to evaluate the national feeling of their people, whom they’ve left behind, than a deserter to evaluate the patriotism and military spirit of the army he abandoned. The Ukrainian people have preserved untouched the main, undefeatable basis of the national soul: the village. The people, whose firm and thick roots are deep inside the vast expanses of their native ground, cannot fear for their tribal soul, no matter the damage done in the cities to its culture, language, and poets. The Ukrainian peasant will weather anything, outlive anything and outargue everyone. Slowly and victoriously will he encroach step by step into the cities and what is now considered the peasant speech will be in just a matter of two generations the language of the press, theater, storefronts, and much more.

This is what Shevchenko’s jubilee means for anyone who is capable of thinking logically and can glimpse into tomorrow. We, unfortunately, possess no store of such talent. The Ukrainian movement, which grows under our very nose, is viewed by us as some sort of sport: We ignore it, have been ignoring it since before Shevchenko’s jubilee, and will probably go on ignoring it after. The self-congratulatory blindness and narrowmindedness govern our actions, causing us to make a serious unforgivable mistake: Instead of making sure that the movement, whose consequences are enormous, should develop with the help of the most influential progressive circles and become their base and natural allies, we force this movement to rely solely on itself, slow down its progress with our silences and lack of attention, irritate it and push into opposition to the liberal and radical society. The growth of this movement cannot be stopped, but it wouldn’t be hard to damage it and point in the most unfavorable direction. This is what we should be afraid of. The most difficult consequences for the future of interethnic relations in the vast south of Russia can come out of such developments if we do not wake up and realize fast enough the enormity of that massive phenomenon represented by Shevchenko’s jubilee, do not align our positions and tactics with it both locally and universally.

I will make one proposition which I have long formed on the basis of Western European experience, to which the reader, however, might only shrug his shoulders. Our south has become a beloved arena for the antisemitic “black hundreds” who are successfully sprouting up in the cities both big and small. Until now we haven’t decided whether we can combat this phenomenon and if so with what weapon. This question should certainly occupy our attention since with the prevalent current moods we are in no position to establish true self-governance or even send our deputies to the state Duma. It has always been the case that the deputies from the south were the reactionary stronghold. How can we combat these moods of the southern urban class? The pure, detached liberalism of any kind will not be of any use to them: They will not follow the liberals unless the liberals are smart enough to promise them something in return. This urban class is also incapable of being moved by any socialist propaganda: The economic ideals of this group are always inevitably reactionary and revolve in the best of circumstances around the medieval ideals of the workshop economy and in the worst, as we see in Vienna and Warsaw, around the legalistic and economic removal of foreigners. The only ideal slogan, which can in these circumstances awaken the urban class, purify and ennoble its worldview, is the national one. If they now follow the right, it’s not because of its violent and punitive ideology, but only because the right has managed to touch their nationalist chord, and not the creative and positive nationalist chord, but the one of “repelling” the foreigner. Indeed, no bright banners can divert our southern urban class from the slogans of hate, except for one banner—that of their own national protest. I’m not competent enough to judge how ready this or that region is to accept the Ukrainian national consciousness. I can insist, however, that only the Ukrainian movement and no one else will be able to expel the reactionaries from the south. I repeat: This is so far removed from the current situation on the ground that the reader, I know, will only shrug his shoulders and call my ideas fantasies and guesswork. I believe, however, that only those who see what’s in front of their noses and consider neither the statistics, nor history, nor the experience of the wise West will provide guesswork and fantasies. The time will show who is right. And perhaps if our tactics won’t change, we’ll also feel it on our skin.

When we feel obligated to honor Shevchenko’s jubilee, we embarrassingly tell ourselves that the late poet was the folk poet, who sang about the miseries of the simple poor people and therein, you see, lies his value. Well, that’s not it. Shevchenko’s “folksiness” is hardly significant and if he were to write in Russian no one would ascribe any great significance to him, as they do now from all corners. Shevchenko is a national poet and therein lies his strength. He’s also a poet-nationalist in a subjective sense, that is a poet-nationalist even with all the defects of a nationalist, with the outbursts of wild animosity toward a Pole, a Jew, other neighbors … But what is more important is that he is a national poet in an objective sense. He gave his people and the whole world a bright, unshakable proof that the Ukrainian soul is capable of the highest flights of unique cultural creativity. Some love him for this and some fear him, and neither love nor fear would be any less had Shevchenko been not a poor people’s advocate, but an aristocrat in the style of Pushkin or Goethe. One can throw away all the democratic elements from his works (and the censors have been consistently doing that) and Shevchenko would remain as nature created him: a luminous precedent that does not allow Ukrainians to divert from the path of their national renaissance. The reactionaries have understood this well when they started an uproar on the eve of the jubilee about separatism, betrayal of the Russian state, and possibility of a mass uprising. We are far away from uprising and other horrors, but the truth remains: We cannot honor Shevchenko as simply a talented writer of some rank in the Russian Empire. To honor Shevchenko is to accept everything that is connected to his name. To celebrate Shevchenko is to understand and accept that there is no, and there cannot be, a unified culture in the country where more than 100 nations reside: to understand, accept, move aside and give a legitimate place to a mighty sibling, the second in strength in this empire.

Marat Grinberg teaches literature and film at Reed College. His forthcoming book is The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf: Culture and Identity Between the Lines (Brandeis University Press).