Rory Finnin is University Senior Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies, Director of the Ukrainian Studies programme, and Chair of the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Cambridge. The first programme of its kind in Europe, Cambridge Ukrainian Studies was launched in 2008 by the Firtash Foundation to enhance and raise public awareness of the people, culture and history of Ukraine. Finnin is deeply interested in Ukrainian culture and conveys this passion to students at Cambridge. He has helped organize the literary evening “From Shevchenko to Zabuzhko”, which will feature readings of classic and modern Ukrainian poetry during the Days of Ukraine in the UK event.
What got you excited about the subject of Ukraine?
The field of Ukrainian Studies has limitless potential. This is no exaggeration. For any student or scholar interested in developing new ideas and methodologies, Ukraine offers no shortage of exciting research opportunities. A literary scholar, for instance, can study the banned polemical pamphlets of Mykola Khvyl’ovyi in Ukrainian, the early prose of Ol’ha Kobylians’ka in German, the samizdat poetry of Boris Chichibabin in Russian, the late prose of Shamil Aliadin in Crimean Tatar, and the philosophical tracts of Hryhorii Skovoroda in his vernacular-inflected Church Slavonic – and never leave the Ukrainian context at all. I was made aware of these exciting possibilities as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine (1995-98), but I began to see them more clearly while working at Columbia University. Ukraine’s historical position at the intersection of different empires, languages, and religions demands new comparative intellectual approaches, while its national culture – some of it still emerging from the underground and the desk drawer, where it was consigned in the past – calls out for our attention today.
You spent some time in the countryside in the 1990s. What are your brightest impressions?
My brightest impressions of Ukraine have also been the most profound and lasting: my friends. In nearly three years teaching in the village of Chapaivka, just south of Kyiv, I encountered wonderful people who changed my life. I consider them my family.
Would you say that perception of Ukraine in Europe is stereotypical?
The perception of Ukraine in Europe is dogged by stereotypes, but no country is exempt from them. What concerns me is something else: a lack of awareness and knowledge of Ukraine in the United Kingdom and Europe. Knowledge defuses stereotypes; ignorance activates them. A Briton may have a stereotype of the Irish, for example, but they will know of Yeats and Joyce as well. By contrast, in Great Britain there has tended to be little awareness of Ukraine’s unique history and rich culture, which has meant that stereotypes and inaccurate preconceptions about the country often resound in a vacuum. Fortunately, this situation is changing rapidly. I am proud that the University of Cambridge has been a force for this change – both by educating future generations of Europe’s leaders about Ukraine and by inviting the British public to participate in our vibrant programme of public lectures, festivals, and exhibitions.
Your area of expertise includes Ukrainian literature. Whom do you see as its brightest representatives?
Ukrainian literature is full of so many fresh and vigorous voices that I hardly know where to begin. I suppose an obvious starting point is Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), who deserves his own Hollywood blockbuster: a serf who became a painter, a painter who became a poet, and a poet who endured imprisonment and exile to become the voice of a people. His poetry intrigues, captivates, and confounds me with every reading and rereading. Not only did he pen some of the world’s most fierce and stirring poetic indictments of colonial oppression, but he also composed one of the most delicate, sublime, and vivid evocations of a rural idyll in any language while languishing in a Saint Petersburg prison cell (“Sadok vyshnevyi kolo khaty”). He is a giant. Many poets in the twentieth century too touch greatness: Pavlo Tychyna (1891-1967), whose early verse is alive with the play of the sun and of clarinets; Bohdan Ihor Antonych (1909-1937), who gives Walt Whitman a run for his money; and Vasyl’ Stus (1938-1985), whose deep, tortured introspection is a kind of mysticism. This spring I reread Oksana Zabuzhko’s (1960) collection Druha sproba (Second Try) and could not put it down. She is a force of nature.
As for prose, I am a huge fan of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), who is very widely known, and of Mykhailo Kotsiubyns’kyi (1864-1913), whose impressionistic short stories are of such colour, power, and sensitivity that they deserve performative reading aloud. Mykola Khvyl’ovyi (1893-1933) is a different breed of prose stylist: he invites the reader into intensely-drawn and disorienting narrative worlds whose narrators cannot be trusted. Volodymyr Dibrova (1951 -) takes the reader on unforgettable journeys through the everyday and the absurd. Serhii Zhadan (1974 -), whose Anarchy in the UKR (2004) I am reading at the moment (finally), has somehow managed to be a startlingly fresh and uncompromising voice in both prose and poetry. Texts by all of these writers can be found in English translation, by the way.
What do you try to convey to your students at Cambridge?
I simply try to convey to them the same excitement, passion and curiosity that the field elicits in me. Above all, I encourage them both to delve deeply into Ukrainian material in the original language and to consider what it can teach them about the world well beyond Eastern Europe. The reach of Ukrainian Studies is ultimately global. It is a field that can offer us compelling insights into the ways diverse nations can evolve directly from an idea powerfully expressed in culture or into the ways they work through trauma wrought by totalitarian regimes. Our students, nearly all of whom are British with no Slavic heritage, quickly understand just how fascinating this area of academic enquiry can be. A number of them – from both our undergraduate and postgraduate communities – have had articles on Ukrainian literature accepted for publication in peer-reviewed academic journals.
What would you like to achieve through lecturing about the Ukrainian Studies?
My goal is to help make Ukrainian Studies one of the liveliest areas of advanced study in Europe through research, teaching and activism. This is a goal I share with all of my colleagues at Cambridge, particularly Marta Jenkala, Olesya Khromeychuk, Emma Widdis and Simon Franklin. And it is a goal we know that we cannot achieve without the continued support of our partners here in Great Britain and in Ukraine and around the world.