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Cambridge Ukrainian Studies


Paper SL 10: Studies in Twentieth-Century Ukrainian Literature and Film

Why did an independent Ukraine emerge in 1991, and how does the study of culture shed light on this emergence? What was Soviet culture outside of Russia — or Soviet politics beyond Moscow? Paper SL 10 addresses these questions and more by way of close readings of literature and film — from blockbusters to banned, underground works — which accompanied the rise of Ukraine from imperial periphery to sovereign state in the 'short twentieth century’. Our chronological frame between the 1910s and 1990s, two periods marked by declarations of Ukrainian independence, offers you a unique synoptic cultural history of Soviet Ukraine.

Each of the paper’s sections considers the unique demands of literary and filmic texts on readers and spectators in an era when literature aspired to be cinematic and when film aspired to be poetic. It examines the intersection of aesthetic representation, signification, and political power from a broad theoretical perspective -- and with one eye on dramatic twenty-first century developments in Ukraine, especially the Maidan Revolution and the current armed conflict with Russia.

Paper SL 10 has an online course companion on Moodle. Download the full SL10 prospectus here.

Section 1 / MT Weeks 1-2
Raconteurs + Revolution

In this first section, we lay the paper’s historical and conceptual foundations and tackle nagging questions about language and identity in Ukraine by way of a Soviet comedy classic set in late imperial Kyiv, Za dvoma zaitsiamy (Chasing Two Hares). We then focus on the work of Volodymyr Vynnychenko – bestselling writer and head of the short-lived Dyrektoriia (Directory) of the Ukrains'ka Narodna Respublika (Ukrainian People's Republic).

Section 2 / MT Weeks 3-4
Humour and Hollywood on the Dnipro

As we will see in this section, ‘Ukrainization’ (ukrainizatsiia, as Ukraine's korenizatsiia effort was known) led to intense cultural flourishing. Pivoting from Za dvoma zaitsiamy, a comedy about cultural (in)authenticity, we first take in the humorous and often passionate feuilletons of Ostap Vyshnia, whose satires of and reflections about ukraïnizatsiia were quite literally the talk of Soviet Ukraine. We then behold the extraordinary rise and luminous creativity of VUFKU (the All- Ukrainian Film-Photo Administration), which created a ‘Hollywood on the banks of the Dnipro’ and produced some of the greatest cinematic works of the twentieth century. Our case study will be Alim (dir. Heorhii Tasin, 1926), an early VUFKU success that was subsequently pulled from circulation and nearly lost forever.

Section 3 / MT Weeks 5-6
Hybridity v. Metamorphosis

In this section, we focus on the brewing confrontation between two identity paradigms in the Soviet Union: hybridity and metamorphosis. Can a citizen or artist thrive as both Ukrainian and Soviet? Or must the former evolve into the latter? Two pairs of texts by Mykola Bazhan, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, and Mykola Kulish will guide us through this cultural and political minefield.

Section 4 / MT Weeks 7-8
Here Comes a Tractor

As Michaelmas Term comes to a close, we examine other fields of tension evident in Soviet Ukrainian culture before 1933: between tradition and technology, faith and science, emotion and reason. Our signposts are works by Valer’ian Pidmohyl'nyi, whose novelistic prose centred on the lives of a new urban intelligentsia; Dozvhenko, whose Zemlia (1930) is one of the greatest films of the twentieth century; and Mykhailo Boichuk and his school, whose monumentalist aesthetic was nearly completely eradicated by Soviet authorities.

Section 5 / LT Weeks 1-2
Ukraine in Flames

Here we confront the catastrophe of the Second World War in Ukraine: the human costs, the cultural drivers, and the haunting social and political consequences. Our guide is once again Oleksandr Dovzhenko, whose agitfil'my and kinopovisti (‘film-tales’) reveal an artist caught between advancing the agenda of the state and attending to the needs of its traumatised citizens. 

Section 6 / LT Weeks 3-4
An Awakened Muse

This section begins with two films of the mid-1960s by Sergei Paradzhanov and Yuri Illienko that reflect upon the aftermath of the Second World War in Soviet Ukraine. These works mark a new return to the ground-breaking aesthetic of Dovzhenko -- an aesthetic reborn, among many other places, in the most Gogolesque cinematic adaptation of Gogol’’s early prose. They signify a new period in which film and literature become forms of action in defence of individual and group rights, particularly in the uncompromising poetry of Vasyl' Symonenko.

Section 7 / LT Weeks 5-6
Memory Boom and the Rocket City

In 1969, Dnipropetrovs’k, today’s Dnipro — a key base of the Soviet defence industry — was consumed by a controversy borne of the publication of Oles’ Honchar’s Sobor (The Cathedral). In this section, we examine how Honchar’s inverted Socialist Realist novel was seen to defend national culture and memory against Russification in the guise of Soviet ‘internationalism’. National memory is also at the centre of Yuri Illienko’s Bilyi ptakh chornoiu oznakoiu (White Bird with Black Spot, 1971), which features one of Ukraine’s greatest film actors, Ivan Mykolaichuk, in one of the lead roles. Inspired by his celebrity, we dive into Soviet popular culture of the 1970s, which laid the groundwork for the genre-bending Ukrainian ethno-pop music of today.

Section 8 / LT Weeks 7-8
'A Bitter Taste of the Apocalyptic'

The Chornobyl’ (Chernobyl' in Russian) catastrophe ripped through space-time with mystical ferocity. Overnight, the air became saturated with what poet and prose stylist Yuri Andrukhovych called ‘the bitter taste of the apocalyptic’. In Soviet Ukrainian culture, Chornobyl’ was a blistering paradox: an epochal tragedy that forced a suspension of language as well as an eruption of speech against Soviet officialdom. In this section, we trace its effects in the prose of Volodymyr Yavorivsky, the poetry of Ivan Drach, and especially the documentary filmmaking of Volodymyr Shevchenko and Rollan Serhiienko.

Section 9 / ET Weeks 1-2
Women and Men on the Margins

Our final content section focuses on the event of Ukraine's independence and delves into the breakneck, introspective, inventive prose of two of today's most prominent Ukrainian writers, Oksana Zabuzhko and Serhiy Zhadan. It also looks ahead to the intersection between humour, identity, and revolt in the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, also known as the EuroMaidan or Maidan Revolution.

Prior to the beginning of the Michaelmas term, you are encouraged to read Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation by Serhy Yekelchyk (Oxford, 2007) and Chapters 4, 5, and 13 of An Introduction to Film Studies edited by Jill Nelmes (Routledge, 2003). These resources may be accessed at the MMLL library or purchased via the independent

Course Adviser: Dr Rory Finnin


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