Interview with Olga Bryukhovetska on Hedwig Saxenhuber’s research in Ukraine

Hedwig Saxenhuber invited Olga Bryukhovetska (Visual Culture Research Center, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) to respond to the interview questions about the Ukraine.

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?

The Soviet variant of gender imbalance was characterized by a double deprivation. Women were marginalized in the actual social practices in virtually all fields of culture as well as politics and everyday life. But they were also deprived of the idea of their deprivation, since official ideology had created an “optical illusion” of gender equality. Thus there was a kind of vicious “pre established harmony” between the naturalized ideology of a sexist and patriarchal society which manifested itself in its practices and denial of these discriminative practices on the declared level of the official ideology. A similar structure was in operation in every marginalized social group, preventing it from fully realizing its own marginality and effectively obstructing any resistant practices (the position and consciousness of the Soviet working class being probably the most striking example of the consequences of such perverted ideological twists).

This general setting was redoubled in the case of the Ukraine as well as the other so-called “national republics” from the standpoint of colonial hierarchy. The “national republics” was a symptomatic semi-official name that was used to refer to all Soviet republics except Russia, the latter reserved for itself a position beyond national limitations, that of universal humanity. The “national republics” were forced to define themselves as different in relation to this established “universal norm.” The so-called “national traditions” are not something inherent to the “national republics,” but rather the results of mobilization of folklore, itself a construct of romantic discourse, to provide an answer for the colonial discourse that forced subaltern nations to measure their identity against the “nationless” norm of the center. Of course, these “traditions” were not launched in the Soviet era but shaped and reinforced by its ideological perversion. That several representatives of the “national republics” were identifying with and engaged in the construction of these traditions is not unlike the contradictory position of woman who was forced by patriarchy to falsely choose between masculinity disguised as universality and the marginalized difference measured by that universality in which she could sometimes found her pride.

The structural similarities in the positions of women in the Soviet patriarchal system and the “nations” in the Soviet colonial system, and the circumstance that both were mystified on the level of representation, probably led to a somewhat reductive identification of Ukraine with a femininity that can be found in anti-colonial feminist discourse of late 1980s-1990s.

Was there a distinction between the official and the unofficial art scenes in the Ukraine during the Soviet period? What was the difference in gender representation in these scenes? Could you characterize the position of women artists in the Ukraine in the 1960s-1980s? Did they have an easy access to a professional infrastructure and art institutions?

In the comprehensive study Women in Ukrainian History of the Second Half of 20th Century (Donetsk, 2002) Ukrainian historian Olena Stiazhkina, basing her research on the various types of archival documents, exposed gender imbalance in the field of culture, concentrating mostly on the late Soviet and early post-Soviet era. Analyzing the consequences of this imbalance she revealed both an external and internal (or rather internalized) marginalization of women in a majority of fields of cultural and creative production. The main artistic institutions that mediated the relation between the powers that be and the artists were the so-called “Creative Unions” established in the main cultural and artistic fields (literature, art, architecture, music, theater, cinema, and journalism).

The national Creative Unions were just provincial reduplications of the central ones and were in turn reduplicated by their own provincial branches. However, the main function of the whole complex structure of submission and domination was to become an instrument of control over the artists and cultural workers (this was as simple and effective as carrot and stick). The professional activity beyond the Creative Union was made virtually impossible: remaining outside these semi-state institutions amounted to professional non-existence, since these controlled and monopolized all facilities in the cultural field.

The structure of these unions functioned as a peculiar example of an asymmetrical binary opposition of the norm and colonial other. Every “national republic” had its own Creative Unions except Russia that hosted the central Creative Unions of the USSR, which enjoyed the highest position in the hierarchy of power relations and prestige. This is one of the most palpable manifestations of the ideological operation in the Soviet colonial system that erased the so-called “title nation” as the nation and bestowed it with a universal status. The direct repercussions of such a system of colonial mystification are evident in the still prevalent identification of the Soviet with the Russian in the West, which has always regarded these two words as synonymous.


Hedwig Saxenhuber, Research Ukraine

Hedwig Saxenhuber is a freelance curator and co-editor of springerin: Hefte für Gegenwartskunst. She has lectured at the University of Arts in Linz, Austria, and the Summer Academy in Yerevan, Armenia (2006). From 1992 to 1996, she was a curator at the Kunstverein Munich, Germany, and since 2005, she has curated at Kunstraum Lakeside in Klagenfurt, Austria (with Christian Kravagna). She has published extensively on contemporary art and art theory and is the editor of Kunst + Politik / Art + Politics (2008), the monograph VALIE EXPORT (2007), Play Sofia (2005, together with Georg Schöllhammer), and Adieu Parajanov: Contemporary Art from Armenia (2003, together with Georg Schöllhammer), among others. Saxenhuber lives and works in Vienna.

Olga Bryukhovetska, Interview Ukraine

Olga Bryukhovetska holds a PhD in history and the theory of culture from Kyiv National Tares Shevchenko University. She wrote her dissertation on apparatus theory (the psychoanalytic concept of the subject in film theory) and is associate professor of Cultural Studies at National University of Kyiv- Mohyla Academy, Ukraine, specializing in cinema and visual culture with methodological grounding in psychoanalysis and Marxism, as well as a film critic and organizer of cinema screenings. She is the co-founder, together with Sean Snyder, of the Visual Culture Research Center, Kyiv, and coordinator of the project Art/Knowledge/Politics. Her current research focuses on Soviet and post-Soviet visual culture in regard to sexual, national and colonial identity issues.