The Replaced Cultures

I used to have a friend in Poland who owned a small travel agency, offering original exotic (from the European point of view) trips to the East (of the EU), to Ukraine in particular. And first, I thought, “Wow, they are organizing some innovative, fascinating, and unique trips” to unexplored corners of my own country, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, Moldova and Georgia, and many others. All my life, I have always traveled westward and have never been farther east than Kharkiv. But those routes made me think of my father’s youth when he crossed all of the Soviet Union. I grew up with travel books on former republics at our home. These books were full of colorful photographs. I remember one of them, in particular, on Mongolia, depicting yurts, women in bright national clothing, the tradition of hawk hunting, and the authentic beauty of the Mongolian nomadic way of life and pristine nature. So at first, I thought it was such a brave and authentic project — this adventure of connecting with the colorful worlds from my father’s travel albums.

Yet once, the said former friend of mine decided to share the experience of the expeditions his company organized, and I asked for Mongolia anticipating the authenticity I saw in the albums from the previous century. He showed me the selection of the best photos from their numerous tours. I did see the country’s amazing nature in them. But almost nothing from the former glory of the rich and authentic cultural life. Instead, the eyes of the European tourists were entertained by whatever relics of the Soviet occupation they could find: a tiny Lenin bust on a dusty window sill, an old Soviet “bobik” jeep, a Tumen scale in a village shop, anything with the hammer and sickle on it. Et cetera. My friend presented those images to me with pride as the biggest trophies of their voyages. And suddenly, I realized they saw my own country likewise. Its trauma and biggest tragedy were mere objects of their interest. Soviet staff — it’s amusing, you know.

When the Russians created the Soviet Union, their only way to keep this colonial utopia together was by erasing the authenticity of the people who lived within its boundaries. In Mongolia, they started by destroying the ancient Buddhist monasteries scattered around the country. Because you cannot impose a new artificial identity without making a space for it, you know. Without terror and mass murders, without crimes against the world’s diversity and cultural heritage. And then, the language, of course: Cyrillic was imposed in the 1930s to make it closer to the Russian language, providing another excuse for the “brotherly nations” propaganda talk. Imagine the scale of the heritage loss for the generations to come violently caused by Russians in those times. Another example of their crimes was the execution of Mongolian Queen Genepil in 1938 as part of the Stalinist purges. And it was her figure that inspired the character of princess Leia in Star Wars. Just google her image, and you will see.

The same methodology, same persecutions and terror against the country’s identity, culture, language, and people were used in Ukraine and every other republic of the USSR. But unfortunately, we, the educated Europeans of the 20th century, couldn’t see the difference between those layers of reality. What is genuine and what is fake. What was erased and what was imposed. Many of us found the Soviet staff amusing. Making fun of the culprit of the hybrid post-colonial cultures. Admiring the aggressor and the destructor. Luckily (and it’s the only time that I’m using this word in this context), the full-scale war against Ukraine showed the world that Russia and the nations suffering from it are not “brotherly” and never have been. Hopefully, we learn to see beyond the surface and look at the wild, the original, the authentic.

Author: Iryna Vikyrchak, Ukrainian poetess, writer, translator and culture manager

Translator: Hanna Leliv

Illustrator: Victoria Boyko

Content Editor: Maryna Korchaka

Program Directors: Julia Ovcharenko and Demyan Om Dyakiv Slavitski