Frontline Kyiv: Practicing the Culture of Encounter through Education and Publishing

By: Constantin Sigov

July 12, 2022

Constantin Sigov, Ukrainian philosopher and director of the European Center at the University of Kyiv, has decided to stay in Ukraine as a witness. In this article he discusses the crucial roles of universities and book publishers in creating a culture of encounter within an independent Ukraine.

Sigov is director of the European Center for Research in the Humanities at the National University Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and consultant on religious questions for the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Affairs and Freedom of Conscience.

"The culture of encounter and the philosophy inherent in this culture are extremely relevant for Ukraine and Europe.” 

St. John Paul II, during his visit to Kyiv in 2001, commanded us to nurture the culture of encounter in a “biblical” way, with books. We are working on it in anticipation of the visit of Pope Francis to Kyiv.

War tries to impose its interpretation of all things on us. Conflict is its inevitable interpretation. For many, this conflict is new. Those who have been used to arguing with themselves and their equals for years do not quickly understand how to argue exclusively with the enemy. And leave yourself and your circle out of criticism? For how long?

War Destroys the Temporal Framework of Culture

This year, for the first time in the history of our university, we did not present diplomas to our graduates. Undergraduates studied for four years, graduates for six years... and now what? Every year, all of us were joyful witnesses of a beautiful holiday in the heart of Kyiv - the presentation of diplomas to our students in robes by teachers and distinguished guests of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Younger students looked at the ceremony of awarding diplomas to their senior friends and said to themselves: my holiday will come in 2022. This year's graduates in Ukraine received a special diploma. The whole world will look with special eyes at the diplomas of 2022 issued in Ukraine.

The 2022 diplomas of higher and secondary education in all schools of free Ukraine will have a special symbolic meaning in our history. This spring, schoolchildren and students from the occupied zones took an active part in online classes together with their peers in the free territory. This year, teachers and students at the front continue Socrates' conversation with students. In our front-line Athens, Europe of the twenty-first century is developing its new philosophy of education.

Today’s translators of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle into the language of Ukrainian culture are writing a new page in the dramatic life of European culture for 2.5 millennia. Actually, it is they who today are doing the most to ensure that this story does not come to a sudden end in the near future before our eyes.

I do not use the metaphor "educational front" (although I understand why many people resort to it today). I am closer to the opinion expressed in Kharkiv near the front by the writer and poet Serhii Zhadan: "Culture should be therapy, not a weapon. Such a function of culture is more sympathetic and closer to me. Culture should not go beyond its limits: a writer should write, a singer should sing, a dancer should dance. And such a function is now even more important than in pre-war times. It is important for many of us now to hold on to things that were important before the war. The absence of these things means that some part of your space has been freed, it has become empty. And this emptiness will be filled by other things: mistrust, fear, hopelessness, despair, aggression."

This spring, the war prevented holding the most significant cultural forum in the life of the capital of Ukraine: the International Book Arsenal Festival. Participants in the Livre Paris literary event or the Frankfurter Buchmesse book fair told me about the uniqueness of the Kyiv analogue as a vivid manifestation of European culture. Our Book Arsenal Festival has deeply transformed the place of memory, where, for several centuries, weapons were stored in the huge halls of the former military arsenal, and neither books nor their writers and readers were allowed to enter.

The complete cultural metamorphosis of this "Ukrainian Louvre" of the last decade was a powerful promise of our new future. All of Kyiv celebrated large-scale meetings of tens of thousands of readers with the best authors and books released by hundreds of publishing houses from across Ukraine, Europe, and the world. During the book fair, TV channels and mass media, for which intellectual excellence is not always a priority, were shining with intelligence. The philosophy of a new Athens set the tone for the entire nation. This cannot remain only in the pre-war past.

We continue to love books and publish them regardless of the enemy. The new military experience and arsenal does not supplant the independent culture of the Book Arsenal Festival, but gives it a chance in the future.

The Role of the University Publishing House in an Independent Ukraine

After the French Revolution, two main institutions created the culture of the republic: universities and book publishers. The level of the press and the public debates of civil society and the political classes depended on their quality. Those forms of daily plebiscite that create a nation drew their meaning from these institutions.

After the disappearance of the Soviet Union in independent Ukraine, we paid special attention to the development of these key institutions—the university and the book publishing house. Soviet censorship excluded freedom of public opinion, tabooed the autonomy of universities, and gave prison terms for "self-publishing."

During the first 30 years of Ukraine's independence, the revived Kyiv-Mohyla Academy won the top prize in the rating of the 30 most important national cultural projects. It became the first national university free from institutional Soviet inertia and embodied the experience of international cooperation with the best world universities after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Since it is impossible to cover all the diversity of the cultural life of Ukraine in a short article, I will consider the refraction of this life through the prism of the university and the publishing house (in the creation and development of which I have been involved for more than 30 years).The history of the buildings in which the work of the university was resumed in 1991 dates back to the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, which was established at the beginning of the seventeenth century and was banned by the Bolsheviks. Our university is named after Metropolitan Petro Mohyla of Kyiv, who wrote a number of books that played a defining role in Ukrainian culture. "Kyiv new books" by Mohyla and a whole constellation of scholars of the Kyiv academy were condemned by the church authorities in Moscow in 1690. The letter of the Patriarch of Moscow in 1693 forbids the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra from printing books in the Ukrainian language.

Censorship and the banning of books in the Ukrainian language pervaded Russian politics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Imperial Russian Minister of Internal Affairs Pyotr Valuev’s 1863 circular banning the publication of textbooks, literature, and spiritual books in the Ukrainian language was the tip of the iceberg. In 1876, Emperor Alexander II issued the Emsk Decree prohibiting the importation of any books and pamphlets written in the Ukrainian language into the territory of the empire. The decree also prohibited printing original works and translations in the Ukrainian language, arranging stage performances, printing Ukrainian texts into sheet music, and performing Ukrainian-language musical works.

The Bolsheviks continued this imperial trend as soon as they succeeded in overthrowing the independent Ukrainian state in 1919.The Soviet repressions of the 1930s and the organization of an artificial famine led to the destruction of millions of Ukrainians and of the blossoming Ukrainian intelligentsia.

The memory of these events is an important element of the ethos of our university, which was revived by independent Ukraine after 1991. The Soviet ban on the right to print by universities inhibited the development of publishers in most post-Soviet universities, but not in ours. In 1992, we created the publishing house Spirit and Letter, which became a recognized leader in the humanities in Ukraine. Publishing projects between Kyiv and Paris significantly enriched the European vector of our educational and cultural projects. The two official languages of our university—Ukrainian and English—opened the door for numerous projects with the United States and Canada. The Spirit and Letter publishing house became the ambassador of European authors and schools.

Much more than repulsion from the Soviet mentality, what inspired our efforts was a taste for opening new horizons and introducing great Western authors into the Cyrillic universe. Based on my own personal experience, I will say a few words about the intellectual role of France in this creative process.

In the spring of 1991, I was invited to the Collège de France at the Claude Lévy-Strauss Laboratory for a nine-month internship. Being able to participate from Paris in the “New Wave” dynamic was a most creative experience. The next three years, I taught philosophical anthropology at the Graduate School of Social Sciences (EHESS) and there, in joint seminars, I proposed reading texts by a variety of world-renowned philosophers: from Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida to Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Pierre Vernand, and Francois Furet. Published translations of their work in Ukrainian prepared the groundwork for visiting invitations to Kyiv. For example, in September 1993, Paul Ricouer opened the academic year of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy with a brilliant lecture and later became an honorary professor of our university. Andre Glucksman, Marc Auger, Pierre Asner, and Philippe Reno held unforgettable seminars with colleagues in Kyiv and had meaningful encounters with those who form the creative circle of Spirit and Letter.

Leonid Finberg and his extensive contacts with Jewish international organizations significantly added to the catalog of authors published by Spirit and Letter since 1997. Dozens of books about the Holocaust in Ukraine and other European countries are published in Ukrainian translations and enrich the educational programs of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and other Ukrainian universities. The tragedy of Babyn Yar and other World War II memorials form a new fabric of narratives in the research of the best Western and Ukrainian scholars.

The Atlantis of Jewish art of the 1920s and 1930s fills three dozen excellent issues of the Yehupets almanac as well as numerous artists' albums and exhibition catalogs. The Spirit and Letter publishing house has produced an extensive and unprecedented corpus of texts in Ukrainian that highlight the widest spectrum of Jewish culture throughout the centuries-long intertwined histories of the Ukrainian and Jewish people.

Judeo-Christian dialogue in Ukraine and Eastern Europe finds new expression in the materials of international conferences organized and published by the journal Dukh i Litera. Hundreds of texts by leading ecumenical thinkers have discussed the contours of an open paradigm that offers an alternative to isolationism and confessional closure. It offers also an alternative to the militant manipulation of religious attributes, which in the form of the ideology of the "Russian world" serves aggression and crimes against humanity.

A photo of Hannah Arendt's disfigured book The Banality of Evil has spread around the world - it was torn up by a Russian soldier in Bucha’s public library. Spirit and Letter had published the second edition of the Ukrainian translation of the book in early 2022.

How does this book or Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism hinder the neo-totalitarian delusion of Putin's soldiers?

The last word should not be left to refer to those whom we resist.

We would go completely crazy and lose the human gift of speech if, in such difficult moments, we could not find true interlocutors—demanding, intelligent, insisting, who do not tire. Conversation with such interlocutors is of utmost human significance during wartime.

Therefore, today, more than ever, it is crucial for us to talk about what it is that we stand for.

This article was originally written in Ukrainian and translated by the Berkley Center.

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