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Shaping Post-Colonial Identity: Cossacks and Ukrainian Comics

By Svitlana Stupak

. . . remember the times . . . when there was a question in the air, “What should Ukrainian comics look like? About Cossacks? About Cossacks in space? About Cyber Cossacks?” (my trans.)[1]

—Tetiana Kalytenko

With these questions asked, reviewer Tetiana Kalytenko starts her analysis of the 2020 work Miata (Mint) by mapping out the Ukrainian comics industry of the recent past, echoing the widespread anxieties about a certain one-dimensionality of the ethnocentric focus in Ukrainian comics, “entrapped” within the imagery of Cossackdom. Indeed, the reviewed graphic story breaks away from the tradition of historical fiction, which defined what may be called the first formative stage in the history of Ukrainian post-independence comics. Although the reviewer further proceeds by suggesting that “the Cossack Era” seems to have subsided, recent works about Cossacks like Kurgan (“Курган” 2021) and Taras Bulba (“Тарас Бульба” 2022) prove otherwise. Moreover, works like Victory: Savur Mohyla (“Звитяга. Савур-Могила” 2015) represent the still-persistent national tradition of linking later historical periods—in this case the modern realities of Russo-Ukrainian war—to the period of Cossackdom, framing Ukrainian soldiers as Cossacks’ successors in their fight for independence (Pivtorak; Hudoshnyk). In light of the full-scale Russian invasion in 2022, this trope seems to retain its cultural relevance.

So, who are Cossacks? Why is Kalytenko ironic about the ostensibly limited variety of topics, as well as the ceaseless re-contextualization and re-interpretation of Cossacks? With these questions in mind, I will analyze Cossackdom in Ukrainian graphic narratives as it has been mobilized to shape national identity within the context of the country’s post-colonial struggle. In doing so, I will look at the comics on Cossackdom that mark different aspects of the Cossack as a postcolonial character: as a frontier warrior, as a maverick, and as a citizen. Thus, my analysis focuses on three comics from different periods: the sword and sorcery comic, Konstiantyn Sulyma’s Buiviter (1995), written shortly after Ukraine gained independence; the graphic novel Maksym Osa (2008) by Ihor Baranko; and The Nobel Love (2014), the second book of series of three, published shortly after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and Russian invasion.

A drawing of two men sitting on the ground with a meal spread on a cloth between them.
Fig. 1. A panel from Buiviter (1995) by Sulyma, featuring two Cossacks. Buiviter is on the right.

In most Ukrainian comics to date, Cossacks as a cultural symbol have been exploited in narrating national histories, shaping mythologies, and creating points of entry into international cultural space. In general, the history of associating Cossacks with Ukrainian statehood is long, being first conceptualized in national folklore and the Cossack Chronicles of the sixteenth century through the late eighteenth to nineteenth centuries in the works of Ukrainian authors like Ivan Kotliarevsky and Taras Shevchenko. The Cossacks themselves appeared in the international arena as early as Christopher Columbus reached the coasts of the Caribbean in 1492 (Plokhy 76). Initially nomads and bandits in the frontier steppes, later recruited military troops, and eventually creators of the short-lived Ukrainian independent state, Cossacks operated in the territory of contemporary Ukraine from the late fifteenth until the second half of the eighteenth centuries, when they were completely subjugated to the Russian Empire. While ceasing to exist as a political entity, Cossackdom remained a cultural symbol of the nation’s political struggle for independence. Thus, the historiсal image of the Cossack turns into a conceptual metaphor, a denominator of affiliation to Ukrainian nationhood. A year after the Declaration of Ukrainian Independence in 1991 and the publication of Oles Ilchenko and Kost Lavro’s short graphic story Adventures of Zaporozhian Cossacks on Land and at Sea, Ukraine officially adopted its national anthem, which dates back to 1862 and whose lyrics read: “. . . we are of the Cossack nation!”

Often taken out of historical context and highly fictionalized, the figure of the Cossack signifies a masculinized national hero as a fighter for independence. It comes as no surprise that this imagery rose to prominence in Ukrainian comics at the turn of the twenty-first century as part of controversies about the Ukrainian post-colonial status. The manifestations of the postcolonial national identity in Cossack narratives that I will analyze function as cultural codes, indicating the challenges of nation building as conceptualizing an integral nation state, policing its borders, and endorsing its civil society. In his chapter “State, Nation, and Elites in Independent Ukraine,” Alexander Motyl frames the Soviet political system as imperialist and totalitarian, compared to the reformist tasks of post-Soviet states as introducing democracy, the rule of law, and civil society, the institutions of which are “absent from the imperial-totalitarian state” (4). This national need for re-invention and re-interpretation of social institutions and cultural practices accelerated after Ukraine gained independence in 1991 and throughout the following two revolutions, but it was hindered by the crippling process of Russian cultural re-colonization, and later substantially shaped by Russian invasion in 2014 and 2022. Yet, this national need is evident in the development of the Ukrainian comics industry. Therefore, to pave the way for the further analysis of my case studies, it is necessary to start by addressing the state of the local comics industry and the reasons behind my focus on the post-colonial framework of its analysis.

According to Timothy Snyder, when the war in Ukraine started in 2014, “Europeans and Americans wasted time by asking whether an invasion had taken place, whether Ukraine was a country, and whether it had somehow deserved to be invaded.” This observation is indicative of the still persistent Russocentric perspective on the histories and statehood of the former Soviet republics. Having been largely limited and distorted,[3] the cultural and academic discourse on Ukraine still relies on many pre-existing misconceptions. Until quite recently, Ukraine used to be absent from the international academic discourse,[4] treated as a historically objectified border space (Chernetsky 37), and publicly construed through the prism of Russian imperialistic narratives as a “corrupt state . . . shored up by a politically divided civil society” (Vorbrugg and Bluwstein). It is not accidental, then, that in his analysis of Ukrainian comics, José Alaniz (2020) talks about the lack of Ukrainian state/national continuity, since “Ukrainian historians have failed to definitely substantiate a Ukrainian identity” (216). This comment showcases not the actual state of historical writing in Ukraine, but a rather selective approach to the sources, as well as an overreliance on the Russophone discourse. In his article “Western Histories of Russia and Ukraine,” Taras Kuzio observes the enduring perspective of Russian scholars on the territory of Ukraine “as ‘Russian lands’ populated by mysterious ‘squatters’ with unknown origins for the last thousand years. It is impossible for these historians to ascertain who these Ukrainians are or why they do not want to be part of the Russian World” (“Western Histories” 11).

Therefore, in the analysis of local narratives, and especially of graphic narratives, one must not overlook the texts’ socio-cultural dimensions. For this reason, I frame Ukrainian works as “inter-national comics,” a term coined by Juan Meneses, who emphasizes the role of domestic comics in shaping national identities (59), as well as the political significance of studying the “locality and foreignness” of comics (66). The double code of the latter can manifest itself differently, depending on the nature and (in-)accessibility to the in-group’s social knowledge. In order to locate this interpretative ambivalence within the Ukrainian context, it is worth introducing another useful term, “postcolonial nationalism,”[5] coined by the Afro-Caribbean writer Frantz Fanon. In their article on memory politics in contemporary Ukraine, Barbara Törnquist-Plewa and Yuliya Yurchuk use the concept to reflect on the different understandings of nationalism that provoked a strong clash between international and Ukrainian reactions to the Revolution of Dignity (2014)[6] in Ukraine. Thus, “many external observers interpreted the whole protest as an outburst of radical ‘nationalism,’” while the Ukrainians “saw the protest rather as a liberation movement” (700). Eventually, within the context of a former colonial state, nationalism serves as an important transitional stage from the colonial towards more hybrid forms of collective identity (702). The culture- and history-specific approach is also essential for introducing a constructive frame of interpretation for future research on graphic narratives related to the Russo-Ukrainian war (2014-), which, according to Maria Mälksoo, has revealed the inadequacy of Europocentric international policy, as it has failed to consider and validate the Eastern European postcolonial realities.

Ukrainian Malopys: Post-Colonial Perspective

Before moving to the analysis of particular works, it is worth taking a short overview of the state of the Ukrainian comics industry within the framework of the country’s postcolonial cultural struggle, as the medium’s advancement directly depends on the conditions of its production and reception, especially in academic circles. Until now, I have referred to Ukrainian graphic narratives as comics, but this terminology has some national specifics. There is a local term for comics in Ukraine, namely, malopys (mal’opys), a composite of two words, to draw (maluvaty) and to write (pysaty). While the more usual term comics (or komiks) is used elsewhere in the neighboring countries, the Ukrainian community seems to prioritize its indigenous term, which gained currency in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity (2014), when the question about the status of the Ukrainian language and the issue of national self-identification gained rapid importance. Thus, “The Inker,” a project in comics journalism, calls itself “the journal of social malopys,” using the local term for the same reason that “the Belgians and the French call comics bande dessinée, Italians – fumetti, and the Japanese – manga” (my trans.) [7] (Inker). The translator of comics Mykyta Yaniuk is convinced that it is essential to cement the usage of the term to create the distinctive image of Ukrainian comics abroad, although the specific features that will underlie the term are still in the making (Babii).

In the national academia, the research on Ukrainian malopys is still relatively new, which is evident from the lack of a consistent scientific discourse on its aesthetic value and cultural significance. Olena Kolesnyk, while seeking to contribute to the discourse of the medium’s legitimation in Ukraine, claims that the marginal status of comics in the Ukrainian cultural domain can be explained by their association with “the outright low-quality production of dubious origin” (my trans.)[8] (303), emphasizing that the medium’s potential is much bigger than what we have seen in Ukraine so far. Although completely reasonable, this approach to legitimization seeks to shift the focus from the ostensible “low quality” of extant works, neglecting their potential analysis, to the formal affordances of the medium, the focus on which is believed to pave way to a more rewarding analysis of prospective “high quality” works. Given the limited scope of the research, Ukrainian scholars who provide analysis of case studies tend to offer a rather cursory overview of the medium’s national history, concentrating on a small number of the currently most popular works instead. At the same time, some commentators tend to equate the comics industry as a socio-economic practice with the actual body of text. If the former was indeed undeveloped in Ukraine until recently, the created works still constitute cultural asset, notwithstanding their lack of popularity and institutional recognition. In this fashion, Borys Filonenko among others states that “comics itself does not exist in Ukraine” (my trans.)[9] (Pukhariev “Borys Filonenko”). Downplaying the local achievements in the field by contrasting the Ukrainian market to already established foreign comics industries seems to be another marker of “postcolonial syndrome” in Ukrainian culture, with its pervasive sense of national inferiority (Svyrydenko and Możgin).

In her article on Ukrainian comics, Yuliya Pivtorak claims that “a genre of comics doesn’t have a developed or pronounced history in Ukraine” (2). If we approach history in Mark von Hagen’s terms as “a written record of experienced past that commands some widespread acceptance and authority in the international scholarly and political communities” (658), this statement is undoubtedly true. The history of Ukrainian malopys is quite limited and fragmented as a theoretical construct but not as a real course of events, since in case of the latter, it is not the question of whether this history is there or not, it is that it is yet to be uncovered and examined. What we know so far is that there are multiple works that were left unpublished, lost, or almost inaccessible to the public (Skorbatiuk; Rynk). Sulyma also mentions that in the 1990s some authors shared their works exclusively among fellow artists. At the same time, the number of original Ukrainian comic books and anthologies on the online forum “Chronology of Ukrainian Comics” amounts to several dozen works (SerJoe), although this repository is by no means representative of the actual number of Ukrainian malopys. The fan status, lack of publishing information, and absence of proper categorization make it hard to come up with any definitive numbers. Journals such as K9,[10] Svit Dytyny (1919-1939), and Barvinok (1928-2019), as well as magazines like Veselka (from 1954) and Krylati (from 1963) published by the Ukrainian diaspora have only one entry for all their issues[11]. Categorizing typical and experimental graphic narratives like some works featured in the FIRA journal also constitutes a challenge. At the same time, such a repository is indicative of two main aspects of the Ukrainian comics industry: its hidden scale and the massive neglect of the medium.

In light of the above-discussed national anxieties about language, terminology, cultural imagery and historiography, Ukrainian malopys is indicative of the nation’s existent longing for creating its own symbolic order (verbal and visual) and recognizing oneself in it. For this reason, even while actively appropriating foreign, predominately US-American, conventions in the domain of visual storytelling, Ukrainian authors tend to thematically domesticate it. Although Ukrainian malopys constitute a wide range of genres and formats, on the plane of content they more often than not allude to local, often historically and politically specific realities. In their article on the classification of modern Ukrainian comics, Nazariy Baran and Oksana Hnatkovych suggest that the works should be allocated to specific categories not based on generic conventions but with regard to their ideological and stylistic specifics. However, they further suggest differentiating between works that imitate the tendencies of the international popular culture, adaptations from Ukrainian literature, and works that interpret Ukrainian history (41). All these categories are rather unproductive, since they, especially the first and last, easily overlap.

When it comes to the works that either thematically or stylistically take over popular US-American or Japanese conventions, we often observe their re-interpretation and domestication. The Uptown Chronicles (2016), for instance, is a Ukrainian malopys featuring vigilantes who fight against corruption in a very Gotham-like city. At first glance, the work looks like little more than a good imitation of the DC superhero comics, but when it comes to the stories, it turns out that they allude to the real corruption scandals taking place in modern Ukraine. Its creator, Mykhailo Pimenov claims that when reading the comics, one can recognize the stories about the corrupt politicians and the allegations associated with them that people regularly read in popular Ukrainian newspapers (Kravchenko). The graphic dystopia Sered Ovets (Among the Sheep), published 2016-2019, unambiguously refers to George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and, by doing so, alludes to Ukrainian’s socialist and intrinsically colonial past, while still being an action-packed thriller. That said, all the three case studies I present here bear a strong link to foreign aesthetics and cultural practices. Thus, Buiviter (1995) by Sulyma was created in the genre of sword and sorcery, emulating US-American titles like Conan the Barbarian. Maksym Osa by Ukrainian author Baranko was initially released by the Belgian publishing house Éditions Joker in 2008, before being translated into other languages, including Ukrainian, whereas the authors of Daohopak conceptualize Ukrainian spirituality via the East Asian principle of natural order Dao. Against such foreign stylizations, the national idiosyncrasies become even more striking. I will now take a closer look at how they are manifested in the first malopys I address, Buiviter.

Cossacks as Frontier Warriors in Buiviter

While some full-fledged graphic stories started appearing in the periodicals published by the Ukrainian diaspora in the 1950s at the latest, the comic-book period in Ukraine only starts with the country gaining independence in 1991. The 1990s were marked with the efforts of the nationalist intelligentsia to consolidate Ukrainians around the idea of national self-identification. Both Ukrainian presidents in the 1990s, Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, despite their inability to implement crucial economic reforms, consistently engaged in the building of Ukrainian state (Motyl 5-7). This period turns out to be rich with enthusiastic authors but lacking any stable platform for their creative self-fulfillment due to the deepening economic crisis. Sulyma, the author of Buiviter, mentions that back in the 1990s, he considered his work rather as an experiment, since the bookstores were not interested in the distribution of comics. Eventually, the publication of Buiviter in the newspaper Robitnycha Hazeta two years after its creation in 1993 was “merely a fortunate coincidence” (my trans.)[12] (Sulyma). Buiviter belongs to the category of early post-independence malopys, which were usually published in periodicals and borrowed their plots from national histories, legends, and famous literary works, with The Siege of Kyiv by Pechenegs (1991), Oleksa Dovbush (1992), and Vii (1993), among others. The aim of these works was mostly to graphically retranslate the core body of cultural texts using the affordances of the medium in order to integrate literary works into visual popular culture and make them publicly accessible. The works of this period were thematically very versatile, but Buiviter reintroduces the basic elements of the national post-colonial myth: the Cossack as a defender of a vulnerable community, entrapped within a diachronic equilibrium of victory and defeat. The hero overpowers the evil Other, but the latter perseveres only to attack later. This pattern is seen in other malopys that feature Cossacks in different historical settings, thus establishing ontological continuity between the national past and present.

The malopys tells the story of a young Cossack, Buiviter, who protected the southern frontier from the slave-seeking raids of the Noghays and the Crimean Tatars. These raids were commonplace in the territory of contemporary Ukraine since the fifteenth century (Plokhy 73-75). Tatars turned non-Muslims into slaves, using men as labor force, whereas male children became janissary (the sultan’s household troops). One day, Buiviter eliminates the whole squad of the antagonist, Khiz-Hirei, who led another slave-seeking raid. Buiviter rescues his countrymen, which prompts Khiz-Hirei to seek revenge. To this end, Khiz-Hirei enlists the support of Dzhahud, a mystical creature living in the hidden dungeon of his palace. Obtaining such a great force, Khiz-Hirei sends his troops back to Ukraine, where he causes havoc, burns down Buiviter’s village, kills his wife, and enslaves his son to turn him into a janissar.

A comics page with three rows of panels. In the first two rows, a purple-robed man moves to place his hands above a boy's head, emanating purple light. In the final row, men work moving stones.
Fig. 2. Khiz-Hirei enslaving Buiviter’s son into labor for the Ottoman Empire.

In the last panel of fig. 2, we see the typical scene of enslaved Cossacks, working as laborers for the Ottoman Empire. In the upper panels, Khiz-Hirei is casting a spell on Buiviter’s son, forcing him to forget about his family. The janissary trope is common in duma, the epic poems of the Cossack period. There, the fate of janissary is mourned because, in the aftermath of their re-education, young people forgot their family roots and cultural background. As part of imperial troops, the children of Ukrainian villagers had to fight against the empire’s northern enemies, Cossacks themselves.

After the protagonist learns about the atrocities committed by Khiz-Hirei and the fate of his family, Buiviter tries to follow him, only to be defeated and mortally wounded in the end. His friends bring him to a shaman, who helps him survive. In the meantime, not only has Buiviter’s family suffered from the assault, but the whole land has also turned to ruin for the next seven years. Finally, after all these years, anonymous sorcerers once again visit Buiviter, treating him with pagan and Christian symbolic items, such as “sacred native soil” and the cross. This treatment marks the eclectic link between local paganism and the Orthodox Church in the Ukrainian belief system. Having acquired magical powers, Buiviter mobilizes Cossacks and leads the successful counter-offensive against Khiz-Hirei, saving his son and defeating the evil monster Dzhahud. Unfortunately, Dzhahud succeeds in taking Buiviter with him into the abyss, leaving his son pondering whether his father is still alive. The malopys ends similarly to how it starts. The narrative begins with the scene in which a grandfather, Buiviter’s son, is telling a fairytale to his grandchildren. His story is interrupted by yet another raid on the village, so that the children decide to set out on the journey to find his ancestor. Thus, Buiviter is for his family what the Cossack is for Ukraine—a hero, revived from the national past to secure its present.

The plot of the story, shaped in accordance with the rules of Cossack folk epics, incorporates generic conventions of the sword-and-sorcery genre. On the visual plane, those who are familiar with Ukrainian iconography will recognize multiple national artifacts, such as elements of traditional garment, musical instruments, household items, Cuman statues, etc. Ukrainian politics of memory are illuminated by this interest in the story’s historiographic component and the commitment to meticulously recreating the most famous attributes of national culture. Having a long and turbulent history, the politics of memory rises to prominence after the Declaration of Independence (1991) and, later, the Revolution of Dignity (2014), correlating with the developmental stages of Ukrainian malopys. After both 1991 and 2014, the number of the published works grew significantly, and the genre of historical malopys constituted the majority of these titles. These socio-political upheavals per se played an important role, but they also resulted in the declassifying of archives, whose contents became available for public scrutiny. When asked why he chose Cossackdom as a topic for his comic Buiviter, Sulyma states that, “After the declaration of independence, even shortly before, there was a ‘tsunami’ of data on Ukrainian history. The glorious past, which used to be buried and repressed, got extricated from archives and became actively spread through open research. . . . So, it is not surprising that the heroics of the Cossacks period captured the interest of many artists.” (my trans.)[13] In general, the first five years of independence turned out to be significantly productive, with at least a dozen works—usually short in length, approximately thirty pages long—featuring the historical events and legends about Kyivan Rus[14] and Cossackdom.

A comics page divided into two halves. In the top half, a man speaks to a group of men in a landscape of greens and blues. In the bottom half, a man sits thinking to himself in a landscape of fiery reds and blacks.
Fig. 3. Buiviter rallies troops while Khiz-Hirei plots his expanding conquest.

In fig. 3, Buiviter turns to his brothers-in-arms, saying, “Rise up, people! No more waiting for them to wipe us all out! Those, who can carry weapons—join the march against Khiz-Hirei! Let us liberate our families from captivity!” (my trans.)[15] The existential nature of the upcoming battle is further articulated by Buiviter’s internal monologue, “If we fail to defeat busurmany[16] it will be the end of Ukraine!” (my trans.)[17] Whereas Khiz-Hirei reveals his imperialist aspirations: “I will break up those bastards, which will pave me the way to the rich western lands. I will rule the whole world!” (my trans.)[18] This scene is prototypical as it represents the trope, often used in historical malopys, of the Ukrainian army as defenders/liberators of their integral land, whereas miscellaneous Others—such as Tatars, Muscovites, and later the Red Army and Russians—are depicted as invaders and occupants. Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak claims that Cossacks, as the symbol of Ukrainian identity, embraced their Ukrainianness due to the intensified east-west conflicts, which involved Ukrainian territories (735). Thus, the phenomenon of war as a confrontation with the Other, as violent as it is, seems to have contributed to the growing awareness of the national Otherness among Ukrainians.

Seen as an “impetus for the transformation of national identity” (Kuzio, qtd. in Averianova and Voropaieva 59-60), the wars in Ukraine also function as a set of milestones in the national historical continuity. It comes as no surprise, then, that Cossacks make their appearance in works published after the Revolution of Dignity and Russian invasion and that these works feature later historical periods, such as the War of Independence (1917-1921) and the war in Donbas. In the 2019 graphic novel Protystoiannia: Chervonyi Teror (Stand-Off. Red Terror), a history teacher in contemporary Ukraine gives a lesson on the communist occupation of Ukraine at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the lesson, the protagonist turns out to be Sirko, a famous Cossack leader, who with the help of his magical powers surpasses the average human lifespan and finds himself in the midst of the War of Independence (1917-1921). At the end of the class, it turns out that the teacher himself was Sirko in disguise. Here, the symbolic imagery of Cossacks as frontier warriors and liberators creates different temporal blends, actualizing it in the conceptualization of subsequent wars and conflicts. However, this egalitarian, patriotism-laden standpoint, common to the post-independence 1990s and turbulent post-Maidan times (2014 onwards), is not universal. The decade in between is marked by different sensibilities, which can be traced in the works of perhaps the most internationally known Ukrainian comics artist, Baranko.

Not That Patriotic: Maskym Osa and National Precarity

Baranko—the author of the graphic novel Maksym Osa, which was first published in French in 2008—started his carrier in the 1990s by creating comics about Cossacks and Kyivan Rus, very much like Sulyma. However, his career turned out to be far more successful. Baranko has worked for American, French, and Belgian publishing houses and actively engaged with the Russian comics community. If in Buiviter the period of ruin is temporary and ends with the return of the Cossack leader who defeats evil, for Baranko the ruin constitutes the basic timeline. In this case, the recurring historical period is not the Ukrainian wars of independence nor the revolutions that typically preceded it, but instead the second half of the seventeenth century, called “The Ruin” since it marked the general decline of the Cossacks’ independence due to foreign interventions and internal conflicts. In one of his interviews, Baranko explains his vision:

There is a closed-circle theory in history. Certain events tend to durably shape the psychology of the nation, its self-perception and role in history, to which it always returns over and over again, and only the complete transformation of the country itself can change that. It was [Ivan] Grozny for Russia. And unfortunately, it seems that for Ukraine, it was the period of the Ruin. (Kuznietsov) (my trans.)[19]

Baranko exploits ambiguities of the national myth, introducing an individualist perspective, embodied by Maksym Osa, a maverick and trickster who uses his natural wit and education to question and disentangle the preexisting hierarchies and conventions.

The graphic novel Maksym Osa (2008-2009) narrates a detective story about a Cossack named Maksym Osa against a historical backdrop that alludes to the national tradition of Ukrainian historical malopys. Still, Baranko would rather keep his distance from “patriotic” works, stating that “Maksym Osa is by no means a patriotic comic. . . . I generally cannot stand any patriotic literature, comics, books, and films” (Havryshova). (my trans.)[20]  The historical setting of the graphic novel is not the Ruin per se, but the period that precedes the rise of the Cossack state. The precise date is mentioned on the very first page—September 1636. This was the period of sporadic and usually unsuccessful Cossack uprisings of the 1630s. Recruited by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Ukrainian nobles or living on pirate attacks and robbing Tatars in the frontier, Cossacks in the times that preceded the uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648 were not precisely loyal to any regime. In the following two panels (fig. 4), Maksym Osa narrates his past naval adventures, namely, one of the expeditions to the Crimean coast. As Serhii Plokhy laconically puts it, Cossacks of this period “came [to the Ottoman Empire] to rob, take revenge, and, as Ukrainian folk songs related, liberate long-suffering slaves” (81). Instead of emphasizing the latter two tasks, which are central in Buiviter and Daohopak, Baranko concentrates on the first, less honorable objective of these attacks. Maksym Osa explains, “Although his Royal Highness Władysław IV granted Cossacks special privileges, he assigned no payment. That is why we had to get it on our own.” (my trans.)[21] Moreover, in contrast to the common-folk trope of glorifying the mastery and wit of Cossacks in their naval expeditions, Maksym Osa’s story is rather dull—the Cossack fleet was destroyed almost immediately.

A black and white comics page in two panels. The shorter top panel depicts a closeup of a man's face. The bottom panel, covering most of the page, depicts a chaotic scene of boats at sea and explosions.
Fig. 4. Maksym Osa narrates an expedition to the Crimean coast.

After the Cossacks are defeated, Maksym Osa finds himself in a monastery on the lands of a Ukrainian noble, Zenon Krychevsky. He does not return to any Sich[22] or respective community of other Cossacks, who, if mentioned, mostly stay behind the scenes. Maksym returns home only to discover that his fiancée has betrayed him. He is later hired by Krychevsky to solve the mystery of Matvii Khvist, a Cossack officer who wanted to hand all his money over to Krychevsky but suddenly disappeared and was found dead. Maksym Osa is depicted as a quick-witted, well-educated intellectual, talented swordsman, and charming womanizer. Here, the image of the Cossack as a defender of his community shifts toward a more individualist and relativist perspective.

The graphic novel is rich with picaresque aesthetics. Characters wear masks—allies turn into enemies and vice versa. In contrast to the classic formula of many comics featuring Cossacks as masculine protectors of women and children, female characters here do not lack agency. Far from it, the main antagonist turns out to be the wife of Krychevsky Helena, a powerful and clever opponent. Compared to other works by Baranko, where magic is intrinsic to the narrative world, in Maksym Osa, what appears to be mystical turns out to be mundane and explainable. The author pokes fun at folk superstitions, which reveal a rather naïve disposition of the characters, who often fail to see the plain, less exciting truth behind the hoax. The story starts with Maksym drinking and lamenting at his own grave, only to meet a stranger who looks like Death. Maksym is obviously not dead, and the Grim Reaper turns out to be Krychevsky’s servant. This servant also believes that his two dogs are his sisters, victims of their own botched curse. Matvii Khvist, a deceased Cossack officer who owned the treasure, believed that he was cursed by a witch, failing to see that he was instead tricked by Helena. Helena also killed the sisters and substituted them with dogs. In the national folklore, Cossacks are typically represented as inventive and cunning, but Baranko takes a step further; instead of vigorously rushing into battle, Cossack Maksym Osa starts by identifying his true enemy. Furthermore, while using the same archetype of an evil sorcerer as antagonist—the mysterious witch in Maksym Osa corresponds to Khiz-Hirei in Buiviter — Baranko locates his antagonist not in foreign lands outside the domestic space, but within it. Krichevsky’s wife seems to be a very pious and benevolent woman, whereas Maksym Osa, according to the generic rules of the detective story, suspects everybody in the mansion.

By opposing the rationale and individualist pragmatism of Maksym Osa to gullibility, irrational folk beliefs, and convictions of other characters, Baranko further problematizes the standardized image of the Cossack, institutionally framed in the first years of independence, not only by introducing a more nuanced representation, but also by implicitly questioning its origin. Clearly enough, by gaining independence, Ukraine turned over a new page in its history, but the book was not new. The Ukrainian community of intellectuals and policymakers faced a controversial legacy of Soviet Union ideology. During Soviet times, such categories as nationality, citizenship, and ethnicity were ideologically specific and centralized. Thus, the Soviet nation as a concept never really existed; instead, notions such as sovetskyi narod (Soviet folk) or grazhdanstwo (Soviet citizenship) were more familiar, both of which denoted “a supranational ‘new historical community’” (Wanner 12) in which nationality stood for “ethnic origin or ancestry, and not [for] residence” (11). Within this framework, ethnicity used to be de-politicized and eventually fetishized, with Joseph Stalin conceptualizing Soviet cultures as “socialist in content and national in form.”

This tendency can be characterized by the phenomenon of sharovarshchyna (from Ukrainian sharovary, a part of Cossacks’ garment), which originated in the nineteenth century and gained its ideological aspect during Soviet times as “pseudofolk,” whose main function is believed to “provincialize” the image of Ukrainian culture (Yermolaieva and Nikishenko 29) by depicting it as essentially simplistic and backward. Probably for this very reason, Maksym Prasolov, a co-author of Daohopak, says in an often-quoted passage that “Ukrainian culture is colonized by and filled with images imposed from the outside” (Pivtorak). This way, mass culture that mobilized ethnic imagery was often associated with a one-dimensional pseudofolk aesthetics, which may partially explain earlier words by Baranko about his dislike for “patriotic works.” Baranko, instead, abandons the “patriotic” focus on folk culture, conceptualizing Ukraine as high culture instead. Indeed, the work refers to the aesthetics of Cossack Baroque, introduces Ukrainian aristocracy, and even covers national higher education, like Ostroh Academy (founded in 1576), where Maksym Osa studied Latin and Old Greek. Although not very high in the hierarchy, Maksym Osa has a military rank, which reminds the reader that the Cossack army constituted a developed military structure and was not merely an improvised crowd of former peasants.

Yet these important elaborations come at a certain cost. In his analysis of other Baranko works, Alaniz describes them as “disrupt[ing] smooth historical continuity and cast[ing] doubt on the nation’s very ontology” (221). Indeed, in Baranko’s Ukraine, Cossacks do not constitute any stable national community, as the author chooses a historical period that precedes the Cossack Hetmanate, and the figure of the antagonist does not consolidate the local community in the face of danger but instead disturbs its very stability. Disguised as departing from a “patriotic-laden” perspective, Baranko’s works can also be read as politically controversial in light of re-colonization processes in modern Ukraine (Svydyrenko and Możgin 48). However, Baranko does something important here—he conceptualizes the life of Ukrainians outside the framework of national upheaval and a constant fight for independence and survival. Alexander Vorbrugg and Jevgeniy Bluwstein point out that theorizing Ukraine solely “through the lens of war and conflict” only generates “monochromatic views” of the country. Although he framed Ukraine as “a rift between the worlds” in his earlier work The Horde (2004), in Maksym Osa, Baranko presents a more congruous perspective on Ukraine. Here, the lives of Ukrainians are shown not as an incessant series of wars that keep their very existence under constant threat, but as a multidimensional realm that gives space for all mysterious adventures to find their way into daily life. At the end of the story, Maksym Osa, who has failed to succeed in a military campaign and has lost his home, receives an invitation from Krychevsky to work for him. Maksym is expected to give Marynka, Krychevsky’s daughter, fencing lessons, as a substitute for her former Polish teacher. In the last panel, where this dialogue is taking place, Maksym, Krychevsky, and Marynka are walking down the road toward Krychevsky’s village, thus symbolically marking the return to a stabilized communal space into which Maksym Osa has a chance to integrate. On that note, I want to take a closer look at the evolving vision of Ukrainian statehood as an embedded container metaphor—a place in space and time, a “home” to which Cossacks return.

Daohopak and the Myth of the Zaporozhian Sich

In this section, I will examine how Daohopak introduces the myth of the stable communal space, creating visual topographies and reshaping the image of the Cossack as a citizen. Maksym Prasolov, one of the three authors of Daohopak, came up with the idea to create the malopys after the events of the Orange Revolution[23] (2004) (Pukhariev “Maksym Prasolov”). It took him some time to bring it to life, with the first part of the trilogy Daohopak. The Antalya Tour (“Анатолійська гастроль”) released in 2012, two years before the Revolution of Dignity. Delayed by the events of 2013-2014, the release of the second part, Daohopak: Noble Love (“Шляхетна любов”), took place later in 2014. In the foreword, the authors Maksym Prasolov, Oleksii Chebykin, and Oleh Kolov emphasize the parallels between the fictional heroes of their books and the new heroes, determined by historical circumstances.[24] In her article “Contemporary Ukrainian Comics: Dimensions of a Hero,” Pivtorak offers a valuable overview of the text (4-9), analyzing the key aspects of the “Ukrainian myth,” which underlie the work. Cossacks are introduced through the image of kharakternyk, a warrior-sorcerer, as a local analogue to foreign national symbols like Vikings, knights, samurais, and cowboys. As in Buiviter, the figure of a Cossack-Kharakternyk in Daohopak is exempted from the limitations of its historical context, thus construed as timeless and universal. This imagery turns out to be more suitable for historical re-contextualization and less vulnerable to the actual historical cataclysms. As Pivtorak rightly states, the adventures of the characters are connected by the chronotope of Zaporizhian Sich, a fortification with Cossack settlements on the Dnipro River. This chronotope is fictionalized as a liminal space (5), functioning beyond the reach of hostile outer forces. This mythological image stands in contrast to its less enduring historical prototype featured in the earlier work Cossacks’ Bells (“Козацькі дзвони”) by Yur Lohvyn (1994). This graphic story narrates the fall of the Sich in 1775, as Catherine II liquidated the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Army and the rest of the Cossacks’ political autonomy.

In contrast, Daohopak introduces a stable chronotope of Zaporizhian Sich, mitigating anxieties about its historical precarity. This re-conceptualization is significant, since the name of Zaporizhian Sich informally functions as a denominator of the Dnipro Host and as a metonymy for the whole proto-state of Cossacks. In Buiviter and Maksym Osa, the main characters leave their homes to find them literally or metaphorically destroyed by the enemy. Just as Buiviter’s house is burned down and his family ruined, Maksym Osa returns to his house—which no longer belongs to him—to find that his fiancé was bribed to betray him and was eventually killed. Both works bear eponymous titles and introduce the trope of the lost home as the establisher for the further adventures of the main heroes. It is the loss of private space—a topos of hata, a Ukrainian traditional dwelling—that drives Maksym Osa to accept Krychevsky’s offer to investigate the case, and Buiviter to save his child and avenge his family. Thus, the symbol of hata as a vulnerable private space, which metonymically refers to Ukraine in Buiviter, is substituted in Daohopak by the image of Zaporizhian Sich, a communal, public space, more stable in its reliance on the collective. Whereas the covers of Buiviter and Maksym Osa depict single figures of the main protagonists, in the second graphic novel of Daohopak, the cover (fig. 5) shows a crowd of people including women and Cossacks of the past, non-Ukrainian characters, as well as the authors themselves, dressed in modern clothes (on the left). This way, the main character in the center is shown as a part of the collective, which he seeks to defend, as represented by his saber-holding fighting pose.

A comics cover depicting a man in a protective fighting stance with a crowd behind him.
Fig. 5. Daohopak: Noble Love. Cover page

Here, I want to touch upon the role of Cossacks-Kharakternyks not as warriors, as emphasized in the comments of the authors and covered in Pivtorak’s analysis, but on their status as citizens, integrated into the network of state governance. In the first graphic novel from the series, the main protagonist is Oles Skovoroda. He is accompanied by his friends and sets off on a mission to liberate the enslaved Cossacks in the Ottoman Empire, a trope that we saw in the previously discussed works. In contrast to the personal interest that undergirds Buiviter’s and Maksym Osa’s basic motivation (a family matter and monetary gain), Skovoroda carries out an order of a Kish otaman,[25] a democratically elected chief officer who historically held military, administrative, and judicial powers in Sich. After the events in the first book, Skovoroda and his friends, together with the liberated Cossacks and other characters, head back to the Zaporizhian Sich to report on the accomplished mission. It turns out that the journey was a final test, which Skovoroda, as a young Cossack, had to pass to gain the right to carry a Cossack saber and join the ranks of Zaporizhian Cossacks. Zaporizhian Sich and the surrounding area are also extensively visualized in bird’s-eye panels and maps. In fig. 6 we can see the traditional architecture of the period—the wooden Pokrova Church, which was located on the territory of the Sich, traditional hata (houses with thatched roofs), as well as other buildings in Cossack Baroque style. Later that day, the characters visit a tavern in a small town called Bar, located near an old windmill. Bar looks even more eclectic, combining the traditional aesthetics of a Ukrainian tavern with rollercoasters, circus tents, and Greek statues.[26] Here, the diversified architectural ensemble points to the plurality of social institutions, framing the Sich as not simply a military base, but also as a cultural, religious, educational, and entertainment center.

A sepia-toned overhead view of a group of buildings interspersed with gears and other mechanisms.
Fig. 6. Architecture of Sich in Daohopak (2014) p. 31

This scene is part of a longer episode in which Zaporizhian Cossacks greet foreign guests from Poland, Scotland, Germany, and France by carrying out a tour around the Sich. The Cossacks go on explaining the principles of military training, administrative apparatus, and technical development of the Sich. Thus, the authors shape the communal space as stable and resilient, which enables a non-violent interaction with the Other. Here, maybe for the first time in Ukrainian historical malopys, the foreigners are depicted not as invaders or intruders in respect to a local private space, but as agents who function on the terms established by the receiving party. In a later scene, Skovoroda engages in a duel with Kazymyr Zheromskyi, a Polish noble and royal envoy visiting the Sich, which alludes to the historical confrontation between Poland and Ukraine. Although evidently impulsive, the duel is not intended to be mortal, and it is monitored by the audience. Consequently, due to its durable borders and stable integral structure, the Zaporizhian Sich functions as a platform for interaction and exchange, moderated and enabled by the set of principles and regulations. In fact, a Cossack in Daohopak influences the life of his own and the others not as much as he himself is influenced by the formative provisions of the Cossack martial art hopak and the communal rules.

After the duel, Oles Skovoroda experiences a spiritual vision that exposes his missteps in the earlier mission to the Ottoman Empire that have led to military escalation, jeopardizing the safety of the whole community. Indeed, at the same moment, the Sultan’s navy is approaching the southern shores of Ukraine. Skovoroda gains consciousness, exclaiming, “What have I done?” to which the kharakternyk[27]  answers: “You have seen it all. You failed to restrain yourself, you broke your path . . . the war is your fault. It is not allowed to return to the Sich in such a state” (60). [28] (my trans.)[29] Skovoroda admits responsibility and sets off to the Carpathians, where molfars, the Hutsul sorcerers, will help him rediscover his spiritual path. This journey constitutes the plot of the third and final book.

Conclusion: Graphic Narratives and National Identity

Within the scope of this article, I have examined the transformation of the image of the Cossack as a manifestation of Ukrainian post-colonial identity during the first two decades of independence. Buiviter by Sulyma, like most titles in the 1990s, borrows the basic plotline from folk epic poems and legends. The story alludes to the tradition of sentimental folktales and songs that glorified the heroism of Cossack leaders while mourning the hardships and sorrows caused by Polish serfdom, Tatar raids, and later Russian colonization. By visualizing the trope of Tatar slave-seeking raids, and augmenting them with ethnic iconography, Sulyma re-creates the national myth of the Cossack as a frontier warrior and defender of the nation. More than a decade later, Baranko introduces a picaresque hero, Maksym Osa, who operates not on the frontier but within the net of societal relations and their peripeteia, collusions, and preconceptions. The playful mode of the graphic novel disrupts and problematizes the pre-existing imagery of the Cossack in popular culture, giving way to new meanings and controversies. Finally, Daohopak. Noble Love, influenced by the Orange Revolution (2004) and released in the same year as the Revolution of Dignity (2014), frames the Cossack as a community member and as a citizen of a nation state.

This seemingly obsessive re-contextualization and re-conceptualization of the Cossack image in Ukrainian popular visual culture is part of the “war of narratives” between the Ukrainian post-colonial state seeking to establish and defend its ontology and Russian imperialist historiography that serve to create theoretical and ideological ground for waging war against a sovereign state. Igor Torbakov, among others, shows how the “Kremlin deploys historical myths, such as the myths of perennial ‘Russo-Ukrainian unity’ and of the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood, geopolitical imagination grounded in the notion of the Russkii Mir (Russian World)” (89-90). The figure of a Cossack is thus mobilized in popular culture to reinforce the historical coherence of the Ukrainian nation state. As the latter develops its national identity and democratic social institutions, so is the former constantly broadened and augmented. In this respect, there is another important aspect that cannot escape the reader, namely the gender imbalance in the examined works. While talking about Ukrainian post-colonial identity, I draw on works featuring highly masculinized heroes written by men. At the same time, this dynamic has dramatically changed in the time surrounding the full-scale invasion by Russia. Indeed, in the aftermath of 2014, the genres of comics journalism and confessional writing have risen to prominence. Nowadays, many internationally known Ukrainian creators are female authors, who write short- to medium-length works. Thus, Mykola Yabchenko’s 2022 Short History of Ukrainian Feminism (“Коротка історія українського фемінізму”) owes its distinct visual style to Julia Vus, who also creates webcomics about her daily experiences during the Russo-Ukrainian war. Together with Ivan Kypibida in 2023, Vus illustrated a graphic novel about the current war, On the Edge (“На межі”), as well as Short History of the Long War (“Коротка історія довгої війни”). In fact, among the thirteen Ukrainian artists who contributed to Number 148 of the Swiss comic-art magazine Strapazin in April 2023, eleven are women, among them Anna Ivanenko und Jenya Polosina, who also created their documentary malopys Blackout (2023). That said, in a short while Ukrainian post-colonial myth is likely to become more inclusive and representative, with more female artists entering the medium.

As seen so far, my analysis is mostly concept-based. However, these works are largely shaped by the affordances of the medium development in relation to the local history of Ukrainian malopys. In this regard, the size of the works is indicative of the industry development. As Sulyma mentions in his interview, work on the thirty-five-page comic went at a slow pace, with few prospects for publication, and consequently without any clear idea about the potential audience and reception. Such working conditions defined the limited scale of the work and, as a result, its thematic and conceptual complexity. Similarly, it is important to keep in mind the context of the creation and publication of Maksym Osa (2008), which was initially released in French for a foreign audience. Finally, the recent advancement of the local comics industry enabled the publication of three full-color graphic novels of Daohopak (2012-2016) by the Kyiv-based project Nebeskey. The following years proved to be even more productive: in 2017, more titles were released in just one year than in the five preceding years combined. In 2019, the annual increase of titles constituted 135% and amounted to 162 titles (Mishenov). When it comes to the question of what niche Cossacks are likely to occupy in this rapidly developing industry—in the war context or irrespective of it—a remark by Baranko in a recent interview can serve as an answer. Baranko claims that “Ukraine became Ukraine precisely during the Cossack epoch; that is why we will keep returning to it from time to time, until we get fed up with it, just like Americans constantly return to cowboys” (Nestelieiev). (my trans.)[30]

 

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Footnotes

[1]‘…часи, коли … в повітрі зависало питання: “Яким має бути український комікс? Про козаків? Про козаків у космосі? Про кіберкозаків?”’

[2] In spelling proper names and titles, I follow Ukrainian transliteration rules according to which the sound [ɦ] is transliterated with the letter ‘h’ as in ‘Ihor’ (Ігор) and ‘Daohopak’ (Даогопак).

[3] Non-Ukrainian researchers writing on Ukraine more often than not do not speak Ukrainian and originally come from Russian studies. Thus, they inadvertently approach Ukrainian studies through the prism of a Russian cultural background, misspelling Ukrainian proper names (e.g., using Russian spelling of geographical names such as “Kiev” instead of “Kyiv;” accessing only or mostly Russian-speaking local content, etc.). While Ukraine is actively undergoing the process of de-colonization, the Western methodological and paradigmatic approach to Ukraine is yet to be de-colonized (see more in Khromeychuk).

[4] Vorbrugg and Bluwstein mention that Ukraine used to be left out of the scientific discourse on Eastern Europe (2), while Olesya Khromeychuk observes that even after the full-scale invasion, “many panels went ahead with no in-house Ukraine experts or no Ukraine experts at all” (28). Within this context, we should strive for a culture-specific and context-based approach to Ukrainian graphic narratives (and the Russian works featuring Ukraine), which would incorporate Ukrainian voices.

[5] In the Ukrainian context, this term is consistent with what Kuzio implies by post-independence civil nationalism in “Kravchuk to the Orange Revolution.”

[6] The Revolution of Dignity (also known as Euromaidan and Maidan Revolution) started in November 2013, as then president V. Yanukovych backed out of the political association with the EU. In the aftermath of the protests, Yanukovych was removed from office and the country returned to the 2004 Constitution. Shortly after, Russia invaded the country.

[7] ‘Тому ж, чому і бельгійці з французами називають комікси bande-dessinee, італійці – fumetti, а японці – манга. Це підкреслює незалежність і автентичність української коміксової традиції, яка знаходиться в процесі формування.’

[8] ‘…відверто низькопробною продукцією сумнівного походження.’

[9] ‘Коміксу в Україні як такого немає.’

[10] K9 (2003 – 2009) started as a comics anthology and was later transformed into a magazine.

[11] Since the majority of works were published in periodicals, mapping out the works and assigning them to their respective authors also requires additional archival work.

[12] ‘… видання коміксу “Робітничою газетою” було лише щасливим збігом обставин.’

[13] ‘З проголошенням незалежності, навіть ще й до того, з’явилось “цунамі” інформації з історії України. Славна минувщина, яку ховали і приглушували потужно звільнялась з архівів, поширювалась у відкритих дослідженнях. … Тож не дивно, що героїка козаччини захопила багатьох митців.’

[14] Kyivan Rus is the state in Eastern and Northern Europe that existed from the ninth to the thirteenth century on the territories of modern Ukraine, Belarus, and western parts of Russia.

[15] ‘Вставайте, люди добрі! Годі чекати, доки всіх нас винищать! Хто може тримати зброю – в похід на Хіз-Гірея! Визволимо рідних з неволі!’

[16] The colloquial moniker for the Muslims, used in this historical period.

[17] ‘Як не здолаємо завтра бусурманів – пропала Україна!’

[18] ‘Розжену цих недобитків і дорога на багатющий захід буде мені відкрита. Стану господарем усього світу!’

[19] ‘Є така теорія замкнутого кола історії. Якісь події надовго формують психологію нації, її сприйняття самих себе і своєї ролі в історії, до якого країна завжди повертається раз за разом, і змінити це може тільки повне переформування самої країни. От у Росії це був Грозний. А в України, здається, на жаль, період Руїни.’

[20] ‘«Максим Оса» – совершенно не патриотический комикс, как многие считают. Это – приключенческая история на украинскую тематику. Я вообще терпеть не могу любую патриотическую литературу, комиксы, книги, фильмы.’

[21] ‘Хоча його королівська милість Владислав IV дарував козацькому стану особливі привілеї, жодної платні не виділив. Тому ми змушені добувати її самотужки ’

[22] The Cossacks’ administrative and military center. There were numerous Siches during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

[23] The Orange Revolution (November 2004 – January 2005) was a series of protests triggered by the results of the presidential elections, which were claimed to be falsified by corruption and electoral fraud. The protests led to the annulation of the election results showing the victory of a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, and the second run-off brought Viktor Yushchenko to power.

[24] In one of his interviews, Prasolov proudly states that among those who read Daohopak were the members of self-defense unit, who formed resistance groups during the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv (Pukhariev “Maksym Prasolov”).

[25] In an ironic instance of ontological metalepsis, the Kish otaman turns out to be Oleksii Chebykin, the illustrator of Daohopak, wearing a black t-shirt with “Daohopak” printed on it.

[26] More on the eclectic iconography in Daohopak in its relation to kotlyarevshchyna, see Pivtorak (8-9)

[27] According to folk believes, kharakternyks were Cossacks, who possessed magical powers

[28] Here, the kharakternyk implies dao, the spiritual path.

[29] ‘Що я накоїв? – Ти все бачив. Себе не втримав, шлях зламав…Війна – твоя провина. На Січ таким не можна повертатися.’

[30] ‘…Україна стала Україною саме в козацьку добу, тому ми будемо час від часу до неї повертатися, доки вона не осточортіє, як от в Америці постійно повертаються до ковбоїв.’

 

 

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