May 26, 2023

Can the Oppressors Speak?

Irina Zherebkina

Entrance to the former Pushkin State Academic Russian Drama Theater, in Kharkiv, renamed Kharkiv Academic Drama Theater since December 24, 2022. Photograph Irina Zherebkina.

The oppressed are usually not mute; they are often quite talkative. Nevertheless, they cannot really speak, as Gayatri Spivak provocatively put it in her famous essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Instead of them, others speak, on their behalf, in their defense—oppressors who have access to the public space of representation and possess the skills of an experimental literary language. For the oppressed, according to Spivak, only body language is available, such as the Indian girl in her essay who hanged herself during her menstrual period to announce that her death was not the result of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, but a gesture of resistance to British colonial rule. Her suicide statement is an example of agitated and excitable speech (in Judith Butler’s terms)1 that tries to say something much more meaningful than what she literally says.

One of the main obstacles for the oppressed to develop their own language is the language of the oppressors, which replaces their speech and speaks instead of them; skillful and sophisticated, it prevents the language of the oppressed from establishing itself as independent and self-sufficient.

Therefore, when eras of the masses and revolutions begin in history and the oppressed rise in revolt, they rebel not only against the institutions of the oppressors, but also against their language and culture, choosing one of two main strategies: 1) reformist, oriented towards transforming and appropriating the language of the oppressors; or 2) radical, requiring the total abolition and cancellation of the language of the oppressors or “colonialists” (this is the so-called decolonial project).

After the collapse of the USSR, a reformist strategy was implemented in the decolonization process in Ukraine. But now, with the outbreak of war in Eastern Ukraine and the occupation of the Crimea, and especially after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, the process of decolonization is becoming more and more radical. This can be seen in the case of the poet and radio host Olena Husseinova, who refused to participate in a literary festival in Tartu with the Russian-speaking writer Linor Goralik, for the reason that any speech of the oppressors (Russians), even expressed in support of the oppressed (Ukrainians), “dilutes Ukrainian voices, making them vague and incomprehensible.” According to Husseinova, the most appropriate reaction of representatives of Russian-language literature would be a total rejection of language, i.e. silence: “I imagine myself as a Russian poet. I imagine what my life would be like this year, but I can’t imagine anything except silence.”2

In this context, the first question that arises is whether Ukrainian voices will be able to replace the silenced voices of representatives of Russian culture outside Ukraine. How successful will this decolonial project be for the global promotion of Ukrainian culture in the world after the war? If now, during the war, interest in Ukraine is quite high, will Ukrainian voices in the future turn out to be just one of many postcolonial peoples?

Another crucial question: How and to what extent will the implementation of the project of radical decolonization contribute to the defeat of Putin’s autocratic regime and the victory of Ukraine? Will this be a blow to Putin and his supporters?

Obviously, Putin personally does not care. Attacks on Dostoevsky or Tolstoy do not hurt him, because his favorite literary work is, by his own admission, the Russian folk tale Kolobok (depicting the unfortunate flight of a psychotic body without organs). He has not actually read Tolstoy, according to a former family friend, billionaire Sergey Pugachev.3

As is well known, one feature of Russian literature is that its classics are filled with existential motifs (guilt, conscience, anxiety, etc.), as well as explorations of the ethics of nonviolence (which was highly valued by Western existentialist philosophers, in particular Sartre). Therefore, the war-propaganda use of Russian literature is minimal. In contrast, the classics of Ukrainian literature, primarily Taras Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka, contain direct calls to the oppressed to commit violence against their oppressors, identified along ethnic lines.

Thus classical Russian literature, with its existential themes, only interferes with the propaganda of war and aggression in Ukraine, and its cancelling would only play into the hands of the Putin regime. Indeed, this would be a great relief for Putin’s ideology, which relies on the formation of a stable Russian identity (see, for example, the theme song of Putin’s Special Military Operation, “I Am Russian!”) and a liberation from conscience and guilt (the well-known Russian patriotic slogan “I am not ashamed”).

The process of subjectivization necessary for a regime of mass mobilization requires a cult of happiness, joy, and the enjoyment of life, not one of existential experiences. Here I disagree with Žižek in his assessment of modern Russian ideology as based on the cult of death, allegedly borrowed from the philosophy of Russian cosmism.4 In his book The Parallax View, Žižek develops a different perspective when he analyzes the role of comedy in the functioning of enjoyment under Stalinism, whose project and ideological traditions Putin continues today.5

Classical Russian literature does not fit well into the post-Stalinist Russian project of collective “jubilation” (the term of the philosopher Mikhail Ryklin, who studies Soviet totalitarianism), but rather contributes to the disruption of its cycle as a “killjoy” factor that inhibits the happiness and joy of mass subjectivity merged with the institution of the state.

Therefore, I will venture the following thesis: Russian literature today is an alien, hostile, and potentially more dangerous phenomenon for the Putin regime than the “Ukrainian voices” of the oppressed, which are considered in the Russian Federation simply as enemy propaganda that should not be taken seriously and which therefore cannot break through the shell of the narcissistic fantasy of Putin’s ideology of Russian national greatness.

The question is, does contemporary Russian literature and Russian culture fulfill the task of “killjoy” for the mass Russian subject, mobilized by Putin’s propaganda on the basis of the idea of a happy victorious end to the “Special Operation” i.e., the war? In my opinion, contemporary Russian literature (and Russian culture in general) does not perform this task and does not effectively implement killjoy strategies, unlike classical Russian literature (in particular, Tolstoy’s ethics of nonviolence).

The problem is not that there is too much Russian literature today, but that it does not pose a danger to the Putin regime. There is no Russian literature today that could continue the subversive and anti-totalitarian traditions of classical Russian and even Soviet literature.

A typical example is the story of Nina Khrushcheva (the granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who lives in the US and works as a professor of international affairs at the New School). In her article “How Russians Fight” she describes how opponents of the Putin regime, under the most severe censorship, still try to fight him by means of literature.6 Khrushcheva recounts her recent visit to Peredelkino, a well-known dacha village near Moscow, where famous Soviet writers lived and wrote, most of whom were opposed to the Soviet regime. Censorship in Putin’s Russia is, Khrushcheva notes, no less brutal than in the days of her grandfather, who smashed the literature of resistance. Despite this, the current inhabitants of Peredelkino, she believes, continue the heroic tradition of anti-totalitarian literary resistance.

How do they do this? As Khrushcheva writes, they leave the inscription “no war” on tree stumps in the Peredelkino forest!

But don’t these bizarre inscriptions on tree stumps around Peredelkino resemble more the desperate body language of the Indian girl who committed suicide in Spivak’s essay, rather than the virtuosic and striking literary language that can pose a threat to a dictatorial regime? It is unlikely that in this way it is possible to cause serious damage to the “jubilation” of the Putin regime.

A great experiment in the feminist deconstruction of the language of dominant culture is the killjoy project formulated by Sara Ahmed in her “A Killjoy Manifesto.”7 The language that functions as feminist killjoy language is one that “brings things down, enacts a collective frown” because it “exposes the happiness myths of neoliberalism and global capitalism.” As a result, according to Ahmed, the killjoy is understood as a life-killer. But in fact, killjoy language shows “how a life can be rewritten; how we can rewrite a life, letter by letter.” The concern of this happiness will not be holding on to “I” or an object, but “letting oneself go, giving oneself over to something that is not one’s own.”8

It’s clear that it’s not easy to break the joy and happiness of the institutions of a dictatorial regime. But simply keeping silent will not work (even if Ukrainian intellectuals offer this silence to Russian-speaking intellectuals). The killjoy can also speak in a silent mode, as Ahmed argues. But this silence must then be such that it is capable of interrupting the smooth flow of communication. Then communication becomes tense.9 The problem is not just the content of what is said. The killjoy does more than just say the wrong things: they interfere with someone’s achievement or accomplishment, including the achievement and accomplishment of the language of propaganda, which today is a priority for all participants in the war.

The feminist experience of the killjoy is the experience of being out of tune with others, using false notes to break the falsity of the tone. After all, it is necessary to destroy what destroys.

Can contemporary Russian literature be so silent today? If we want the Putin regime to lose, Russian literature must take part in this.


Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (Routledge, 1997).


See .


See (in Russian).


Slavoj Žižek, “Death or Glory in Russia,” Project Syndicate, February 1, 2023 .


Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View (Verso, 2006).


Nina Khrusheva, “How Russians Fight, Project Syndicate, April 26, 2023 .


Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, Duke University Press, 2017.


Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 254–56.


Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 126.

War & Conflict, Literature, Colonialism & Imperialism
Ukraine, Russia

Irina Zherebkina is a professor at the Center of Humanitarian Education, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and a founder of the Kharkiv Center for Gender Studies. She is currently a visiting senior fellow at the Department of Gender Studies, London School of Economics.


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