The Formation of Ukrainian Literary Canon on the Donbass War: Emotional Matrices of Non-Combatants

Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameEtnograficheskoe obozrenie

The article examines the representation of non-combatants in Ukrainian literature in the context of formation of a literary canon on the Donbass war. The research focuses on the literary practices in-strumental in reconstructing the experience both of the displaced persons and of the civilians trapped in war zones, and aims to show how this experience is reflected in emotional matrices. We draw on the data collected during the 2016-2018 fieldwork in Ukraine, and attempt to analyze it conceptually in the perspective of the interdisciplinary field of studying history of emotions, associated with the work of William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and others. By employing both anthropological and literary approaches, we explore the key texts of the contemporary Ukrainian literature on the subject of war in the East of Ukraine. We argue that the theme of experience of the civilians and the displaced persons, running through the emergent narrative canon, may come to constitute its dominant part.

KeywordsUkraine, Ukrainian literature, war in Donbass, emotions, non-combatants, refugees
AcknowledgmentThis article is a translation of: Плеханов А.А., Герасимов В.К. Формирование украинского литературного канона о войне в Донбассе: эмоциональные матрицы нонкомбатантов // Etnograficheskoe Obozrenie. 2021. No 4. P. 175–190. DOI: 10.31857/S086954150016708-8
Publication date28.09.2021
Number of characters46134
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1 Cultural sphere of modern Ukraine appears as an area of information confrontation and comprehension of tragic events of the war in the east of the country. The most important role of a mentalist for these events and a force that was called upon to redefine friends and foes, to establish a normative framework for feeling and separate the right emotions from the wrong ones by artistic means was played by modern Ukrainian literature.
2 The importance of national literature and the novel as its fundamental form for nation-building can hardly be overestimated. It is this literary form (along with the newspaper one) that provides technical means for “representing” the kind of imaginary community that a nation is (Anderson 2016: 73). The history of Ukrainian political nation and the history of Ukrainian literature are largely identical; it is often impossible to relate the history of a nation apart from its literature history. Today we can observe the process of formation of a literary canon about the war in the east of Ukraine. As it is mentioned by A. Assman and Ya. Assman in the analysis of relations between state censorship and the literary canon, the essence of the canon is due to the structuring and narrowing of an existing tradition, from which a certain area is withdrawn, the border of which corresponds to the division into canonical and apocryphal (Assmann, Assmann 2001: 133). Therefore, the function of the canon is always social integration, consolidation of norms and meanings, as well as removal from a certain part of the tradition, which will be designated as deviation in future. Herewith, the truth fixed in the canon, embodied in the structure and semantics of the narrative, always concerns the “truth-for-some-group”. This correct observation is represented in the best way possible with the material of Ukrainian literature about war.
3 On the one hand, the authors claim to tell an absolute truth in their stories about the war for the entire Ukrainian society. On the other hand, a contradiction related to the actual need to build personal relationships within the framework of works within the groups, whose destinies were impacted by this conflict arises as well. Thus, the emerging literary canon is based on experience and “truth-for-some-group”, which in our case are all sorts of experience and “truth” of combatants and non-combatants involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine by the will of fate.
4 Having the tools for maintaining and reproducing of the canon, state cultural institutions form a social order in the same way as the solidarity of a group, which will serve as a kind of master copy of how Ukrainian society should be treated and what emotions its members should experience with regard to this conflict (Ibid: 149).
5 The authors proceed from the fact that literature within culture as a regulator of social life, appears as a pluralistic, multipolar space of comprehension and development of corresponding emotional matrices by representatives of emotional communities. When provided outside, these matrices can both pretend to further fixation as a national canon of patriotic feeling, and to deconstruct the co-existing auto-glorifying matrices of both foreign and native communities. In this article, we propose to consider literature (understood in a broad sense) as a field for production of emotional matrices, that further, having become part of a national literature canon about war, will de facto turn into a peculiar obligatory model of the nationwide feeling of war for future generations of Ukrainian citizens.
6 The authors turn their focus towards demonstration that the understanding of war in Donbass in the field of Ukrainian fiction and non-fiction literature is not internally unified and uniform. In the previous article dedicated to this topic, U.K. Herasimau has analyzed emotional matrices of Ukrainian combatants - fighters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (hereinafter - Armed Forces of Ukraine) and members of paramilitary formations (volunteer battalions) in fiction and non-fiction literature dedicated to the war (Herasimau 2020). In this paper, we continue to study the emotional matrices of the conflict participants and shift our focus from the combatants positions to representations of the emotional world of civilians and displaced residents who had been staying in the conflict zone.
7 In this paper, the term “displaced residents” will mean “internally displaced people”. According to current Ukrainian legislation, this term refers to persons staying in the territory of Ukraine on a legal basis and entitled to permanently reside in the country, but forced to leave or abandon their place of residence due to or in order to avoid the negative consequences of the armed conflict (Law of Ukraine 2014). In this text terms “displaced residents”, “refugees” and “internally displaced persons” are used as synonyms. With regard to this definition, we do not talk about the image of refugees who left Ukraine for the Russian Federation and other countries. At the same time, it must be admitted that we did not find examples of such a description of refugees in the analyzed literary works dataset. Most likely, to examine this issue, it is necessary to study the corpus of Russian literature devoted to Donbass war, which, however, is a topic for a separate study.

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