Ukrainian and Russian literature were always taught in opposition. And the opposition was structured in such a way as to bring students to the (quote) voluntary (unquote) decision to side with Russian literature, Russian civilisation and the Russian language – and to reject the Ukrainians.
– Yuri I Shevchuk, professor at Columbia University in the United States, remembering his education in Soviet Ukraine.
When 17-year-old Yuri I Shevchuk arrived at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv in 1978, like generations of Ukrainian students before him who enrolled in literature and language courses, he was primed to embrace the classics of Russian literature and eschew Ukrainian writers. Not only had he grown up in Volodymyrets, a small town in the heavily Russified Rivne Province in northwest Ukraine, but his teachers had done their job well.
“My generation of Ukrainians grew up to hate Ukrainian literature. It was something that provoked a fog in our minds. We felt that our culture is not interesting,” says Shevchuk, now a professor who teaches in Columbia University’s Harriman Institute of Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies.
A generation younger than Shevchuk, Mykhailo Nazarenko, assistant professor of philology at Taras Shevchenko National University, echoes Shevchuk’s description of how Russian literature was taught to him in the years leading up to Ukraine gaining its independence in August 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Just as Ukrainians were presented as lesser brothers of the great big brother, the great Russian nation, so their [Russian] texts were held over them. Many of the best texts of Ukrainian literature were not ever taught in the Soviet period,” Nazarenko told University World News while speaking from a small town outside of Kyiv, two weeks after the Russian troops, which had invaded Ukraine on 24 February, had retreated from their positions outside Ukraine’s capital.