Here is an interview with Oksana Kuzmenko, a researcher of Ukrainian folklore, in which she is discussing authentic folklore as opposed to fakelore in the context of emerging national imagination. Here, Kuzmenko touches upon various topics: authenticity and invention in traditional folklore, links between traditional culture and invented tradition, the coexistence of folklore and fakelore in the soviet era, literary hoaxes and the role of folklore and fakelore in contemporary culture. The interview aims to explore the links between folklore and fakelore in the context of generating cultural meanings, links which have become significantly more prominent as a result of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
The text was prepared for publication in cooperation with Nataliia Shuliakova.
Folklore As a Means to Recognising Fakelore
Armen Tonoian: Let’s begin with the terminology. Ostensibly, the term fakelore does not require any additional clarification and can be defined as “invented texts that are presented or perceived as folklore.” However, the line between an authentic text and an invented one is often blurred. Please, allow me to use a quote from one of your interviews: “Folklore is a system of codes used to decipher a nation.” With this definition in mind: fakelore is described as a modern attempt at modifying this system of codes. But how to spot it?
Oksana Kuzmenko: This is an interesting question; it has been on the top of the discussion list in the field of folklore for several decades now. But you need to look at both sides of the coin. So, I am going to discuss the authentic folklore tradition first and this will help us to better understand the invented practices.
Authentic folklore refers to a variety of folklore practice, like songs, narratives, legends, dance routines, games, nativity plays, and so on, including the way it’s recorded, e.g., written text, printed material and/or in digital form. Researchers of folklore pay special attention to authenticity claims, especially when trying to tie an oral folklore tradition to a particular place of origin and a local culture. All types of folklore can be geolocated. Making a record of the location, like a district, province, time frame and date is absolutely vital because location and regional differences make folklore. Authentic folklore tradition is representative of national history and most importantly representative of a specific geographic location.
The folklore research community, especially in the field of folk music and linguistic research, study in minute detail the specific differences in regional culture. For example, they focus on the differences in repertoire and style which are particular to a specific geographic location compared to other geographic areas where such characteristics are absent. For example, an expert is always able to point out the difference: “Aha, this folk song originates from central Ukraine—it’s a typical vesnyanka (spring folk song) but hayivky (spring folk songs for Easter holidays) are indigenous to the Halychyna region in the west.” The distinction is vital because it helps us differentiate between folklore and fakelore. Authentic folklore is always contextualised, it reflects regional characteristics, local preferences in style and taste and geographic differences as opposed to fakelore which is standardised and does not reflect the country’s geography. In fakelore, the ethnic, religious and material lines are always blurred. If a song is indigenous to a region with a developed hemp industry, it is not going to catch on in a region with pastoral songs like ladkanky, a type of a ceremonial wedding song. Naturally, a pastoral song is going to be popular exclusively within a community of animal herders; anything else is artificial.
True folklore is best preserved in areas with distinct geographic heritage where intangible culture goes beyond the local dialect and is widely supported by the functioning material culture. For example, a weaving industry produced a collection of songs about cultivating hemp, which was discussed by the academic community in the Osnova journal the 1862. In modern Ukraine, the so-called berry picking songs are broadly studied because the practice is widespread in the north of the country, namely in the Volyn and Rivne provinces.
The term fakelore was coined by the US academic community in the 1950s in the context of the US war of Independence. None of the Ukrainian academic journals, encyclopaedias and specialised literature on folklore reference the term.
Armen Tonoian: Is it true that the Ukrainian academia is more comfortable with the term pseudo folklore?
Oksana Kuzmenko: Indeed, we tend to use our own terminology, like pseudo folklore, para folklore, fake and remade folklore—all of which are different terms but they refer to a single entity.
Folklore As a Means of Forging Intergenerational Connections
Oksana Kuzmenko: Authentic folklore is multifaceted but its most important function is intergenerational transmission, which is passing down tradition from one generation to another.
Armen Tonoian: And a break in tradition means that the whole system has to readjust. For example, the Vistula operation, the forcible deportation by the Soviet-backed Polish government of Ukrainians from their ancestral lands in what is today eastern Poland, and Holodomor, which resulted in millions of casualties, also had a negative impact on the Ukrainian folklore tradition.
Oksana Kuzmenko: Indeed, today our traditional culture is also under threat. In my recent interview to the Local History magazine, I noted that huge numbers of IDPs (internally displaced people), migrants and refugees negatively affect the country’s ability to maintain its traditions because the connection between generations is now being lost.
Folklore exists in a natural setting which also results from intergenerational transmission. To a trained eye it’s always a dead giveaway when traditional spring songs or wedding songs are performed by male performers. Lay people also will find the situation intuitively suspicious because without the natural context authentic folklore fails to do its job.
Natural context is also used to distinguish between synthetic constructs and authentic ones. True folklore is a balanced combination of words, music, routines, geography and location of not only the performers but also the audience. On a stage, performance-communication goes only one-way, but in a natural setting, it’s a dialogue between the performer and their audience. In folklore, the spectator unwittingly becomes part of the performance. It’s exactly like performing standup comedy to an audience you feel a connection with. If you and your audience do not share the same experiences, the joke is not going to go down well and you are not going to get a reaction. Every genre of folklore exists in its own sub-system. In the 1950s, the idea of context was widely discussed amongst the US intellectuals of folklore. Dan Ben-Amos, researcher at the Pennsylvania University, first introduced the concept of “‘Context’ in Context” in his article for the Western Folklore journal.
To put it simply, folklore functions in a natural setting and is used to transmit knowledge and sets of values, behaviour patterns, standards and principles. For example, young boys are taught kolyadky, Christmas carols by the older boys to perform them during Christmas; this is the way it was passed down for generations. Similarly, hayivky, the traditional spring songs, are performed exclusively by the girls. Ukrainian folk ballads or dumas are also in a class of their own. It’s like being part of a trader’s guild because you need to develop a specific set of skills to be able to do it. Being a kobzar or a travelling folk minstrel and becoming an expert in the genre of folk minstrels meant changing your whole lifestyle.
Notably, true folklore is repeatable and variable. Folklore is powered by repetition. It does not have to happen at regular periods in time, but folklore just possesses this inherent ability. It produces variable folklore traditions and new meanings which oftentimes do not have to be formally reflected in text.
Some texts, even the ones recorded and printed in academic journals, are single variants. However, possessing the inherent ability to change is still important. Folklore texts are naturally prone to change. Each performer introduces their own interpretations, like placing a different emphasis or swapping words and phrases as they see fit, or if the original phrase escapes them. Authentic folklore is free-flowing and spontaneous, and this feature makes it different from fakelore, because fakelore is not as flexible.
The Ukrainian Sich Riflemen Folklore and the Invented Tradition
Oksana Kuzmenko: In the late 1800s and till the 1930s the development of folklore is characterised by what Eric Hobsbawm has cleverly termed the “invention of tradition.” The many armed conflicts on Ukrainian territory produced a whole social genre which also includes conscript and soldier ballads. Some of the first Ukrainian Sich riflemen folklore was invented by the rural intelligentsia. Some of the most prominent folk poets like Roman Kupchinski and Levko Lepki came from the families of Greek-Catholic priests. They methodically worked to recreate Ukraine’s heroic past at the time of the Cossacks and used the magnificent military victories of the past to glorify contemporary events. But what was happening on the ground at the time had nothing to do with the history of the Cossacks.
Also, the Sich riflemen included a core group of officers who referred to themselves as the Knights of the Iron Spur. The officers produced songs which focused exclusively on the group’s history. This is invented tradition. But most importantly, Kupchinski wrote a song called “We Should Not Have Any fear or Any Concern” which became the group’s anthem. In the postwar period, the song became popular with the Plast scouting movement. Today it exists in different variants, one of which includes a blend with Lepki’s “Plank on the Pond.” This particular variant is missing almost all of the original text, as presented in my book The Riflemen Ballads (2005). Still, the new rendition calls to abandon “any fear or any concern,” which is an important message which is still relevant today. The lyrics also mention Ukraine’s victory. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and unrest in the Donbas region aided in the song’s revival as it grew more popular with YouTubers. Hopefully, it will continue to grow in popularity to become another iconic song like “In the Meadow, a Red Guelder Rose.”
Overall, the virility of an invented text really depends on the social milieu and the group which feeds it. The Knights of the Iron Spur ceased to exist and so did their song culture. The song lyrics could have disappeared forever but they were revived by the Plast movement, and today they may well become an anthem for the new generation of soldiers fighting in the Russo-Ukrainian war. So, the historical past is now built into the new artistic tradition. The language of folklore is rich and profound. The words are layered with meaning and are open to more meaning.
For example, the lyrics to the song “The Rifleman Was Going to War” were composed in 1916 during WW1. The song was allegedly authored by Kupchinski and Hayvoronski but historical analysis has proved that it was a product of collective work, where each soldier contributed a line or two. Notably, folklore is always a product of collective work. The song was also performed during the Soviet era when any mention of the Ukrainian riflemen brigades, resistance movement, and Ukrainian military history was purposefully removed. The song got a new name and was called “The Cossack Was Going to War.” So, what happened? A switch in terminology had no meaningful impact on the song’s composition because folklore is potentially very malleable. The text’s poetic essence does not change: both soldiers are representative of Ukrainian culture; both stand for national military valour. Notably, traditional folklore aesthetics are always open to innovation. But innovation exists only within a specific canon otherwise it becomes kitsch. The history of kitsch songs is fascinating and diverse, but the term relates more to mass culture.
Tell-Tale Signs of Fakelore
Oksana Kuzmenko: The first attempts at authenticating folklore were performed by Mykhailo Dragomanov in the preface to his Historical Songs of the Malorussian people (1874). Some of the key tell-tale signs include blending the ballad and song measures, combining different genres in one text, and artificial language. These are definite signs that what you have on your hands is fake. Also, it’s suspicious when there are no variables and the text cannot be linked to a precise location; more specifically, it’s suspicious when the text’s attribution and origins are unclear.
In Ukraine, the first fakelore was created by the Kharkiv romantics, to be more specific by their founder Izmail Sreznevski and his six-volume collection of books titled The Zaporizhzhia Relics. The texts continue to stir up controversy almost two hundred years after their publication. For example, Kateryna Hrushevska was ambiguous in her statements. In 1927, when working on her own collection of historical ballads, she writes that The Zaporizhzhia Relics was the greatest discovery of all time. But privately she called it the most magnificent hoax ever known. Filaret Kolessa also was extremely critical in his assessment of the The Zaporizhzhia Relics; he traced it back to the majority of the invented ballads and folk songs.
At the time, the study of folklore was in the initial stages of development as an academic discipline. In the case of Sreznevski, he usually reconstructed the oral narrative before printing it, and it should be noted that, at the time, there were no guidelines on documenting and printing the materials. These texts were viewed as ancient curiosities or historical testimonials. The folklore tradition did not have a social function yet, and such issues just did not arise. Guidelines for ethnographic researchers were developed only in the 1920s based on the systematised knowledge and skill needed to make a collection.
Panteleymon Kulish is known for editing ethnographic texts. Vasyl Ivashkiv in his study which focuses on Kulish’s early career as a writer and his interest in folklore says that his transcripts and printed materials were edited for clarity. Kulish was a writer through and through and he just could not contain himself. Nonetheless, Kulish’s textual analysis of transcripts, especially the song lyrics, is of outstanding quality. But again, when discussing such personalities as Olexander Shyshatski-Illich, a Ukrainian 19th century poet and ethnographic researcher who is notorious for his falsified texts on the subject of pre-Christian religion in the Kyivan Rus—how come we know so much about him?
Аrmen Tonoian: From Kulish.
Oksana Kuzmenko: That’s correct. Because in The Notes of South Russia, Kulish includes The Ballad and True Tale of the Sea Expedition which is a hoax manufactured by Shyshatski-Illich. Professor Stanislav Rosovetski in his article on folklore and fakelore has carefully and in detail studied the ballad’s old church Slavonic language which is largely alien to the Ukrainian language. Theoretically, it’s possible to analyse the text by comparing it to the classical grammar of the period and then draw conclusions on whether it’s a hoax or an authentic text.
Soviet Fakelore and Folklore
Oksana Kuzmenko: It is well known that ethnographic texts in the Soviet period were carefully selected, edited for clarity, abridged, and extended, and it was carried out on a massive scale. The collection of academic texts titled The Folk Culture of Ukraine which included a whole variety of folk tales, riddles, historical ballads, and fairy tales also included a lot of fake folklore, especially in the 1960s. For example, the ballad on Ukraine’s reunification with Russia was allegedly composed in 1953 in Kyiv. Also, there are more recent texts, like The Book of Veles. This particular hoax has a long and fascinating history. I recall how it was first discovered in the 1990s, and all of the attention of the Ukrainian academic community was immediately turned towards the book. Yuschuk, an expert in linguistics, the writer Nalyvayko, and Valery Shevchuk believed that the book was authentic. In 2015, the text was carefully studied in the framework of comparative linguistics and the conclusion was such that the book in its entirety cannot be placed within a particular time period or linked to a specific geographic location. It’s an invention. Even though in the 1990s it was part of the official Ukrainian studies course.
So far as hoaxes are concerned, they are usually manufactured by writers and not by experts in ethnography or other professionals. The hoax makers are guided by the desire to create a beautiful myth. Compared to the motivations of the Soviet ethnographers, this type of creative impulse is much more honourable in my opinion. The term Soviet folklore per se is misleading. Roman Kyrchiv has extensively studied the topic in his book titled The Twentieth Century in Ukrainian Folklore. The term was first coined in the 1930s when the communist party exerted full control over the folk culture. During the same time period, similar processes went on outside of Soviet Russia, in countries like Nazi Germany. The western academic tradition has extensively studied the use of folklore in Nazi propaganda. Similarly, in 1933 the leadership of the Union of Soviet Writers proclaimed its main goal, which was to take complete ideological control over the oral folk tradition. And the term control is key. So, what did it entail? It meant cataloguing the artists and obliterating and eradicating any tradition which went against the Soviet ideology. The ceremonial Christmas folklore was heavily abridged as a result, and any references to it in other literature were removed. The party focused on promoting the new folklore which glorified the regime and party leadership.
Armen Tonoian: But other Christmas carol themes still appeared, which also signified fakelore because it went against the party policy.
Oksana Kuzmenko: Indeed, because the existing party policy favoured glorification of the regime. Christmas carols are all about singing glory to God and the party has replaced Jesus with their own leadership because communism is just another type of religion. But it was nothing short of hilarious and did more damage than good. The Soviet academia published a collection of Soviet Ukrainian folk songs; the book included several dozen invented lyrics which were presented as folklore. My university admission tutor shared an interesting story with me. In the late 1940s-early 1950s she was a student at the Lviv University and the country was ruled by Stalin. The students of Ukrainian and Russian literature were given coursework to compose carols and songs, which was later presented as results of ethnographic field research. These invented texts appeared in print and were presented as authentic folklore. The activities were organised on a massive scale.
The party sought to eliminate the so-called anti-revolutionary petty bourgeoisie ideology from folklore which unwittingly added more definition to authentic folklore. True folklore is impossible to contain, it’s spontaneous and free. Contemporary memes are a good example. Memes are the people’s reactions in the framework of existing culture. Similarly, in the Soviet era such reactions were expressed through political folklore that was heavily censored with the exception of the 1930s humour and rhymes on the subject of Holodomor and collectivisation. Together with the Soviet folklore, there was folklore of the Soviet era. And the difference between the two is absolutely vast.
For example, in Soviet Ukraine there was a tradition of lampooning communist songs, like The International and other socialist anthems. “The International” was an official communist song, which became popular in the Russian Empire in the early 1900s and in 1922 “The International” became the official anthem of the Soviet Union. The tradition of parodying official anthems and revolutionary songs continues to live on. For example, during the Revolution of Dignity Shevchenko’s poetry, including “My Testament” was remastered to add new political meaning; the new versions resurfaced again in February 2022 and they had a new ring to them. “The International” was widely parodied in the 1920s, and fortunately some texts still survive in the archives. When preparing for the interview, I found this parodied version in Evhen Paschenko’s book titled Ukrainian Political Folklore:
Arise ye Danylo and Havrylo from your slumbers,
Get your scythes and pikes,
And do away with the katsapy*—
They gobble up our food!
Hark ye, the hen is gone
Now they’ve come to steal the rooster,
They keep the stolen chickens in the same sack with “The International”
*Katsapy—big billy-goats, the name given by the clean-shaved Ukrainians to their hairy neighbours, the Russians.
I believe the 1920s remastered version has a contemporary sound to it. It has been almost one hundred years but the lyrics tell a contemporary story of conflict with our neighbours in the east and also include some of the key ethnic stereotypes attributed to Russians, like stealing and looting.
The New Life of Folklore
Oksana Kuzmenko: Today we witness the rebirth of folklore, for example, in the work by Father Ioan (secular name Ivan Shvets). Father Ioan is the archbishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, and in 2014 he began work on reviving old riflemen songs and songs popular with the Ukrainian resistance movement. The original riflemen song “Hey, on Top of the Makivka Mountain” was reworked and now it’s called “Our Brigade is Advancing towards Donbas.” The song “Oh, on the Meadow, Close to the Donbas in the Bloody Hour” is another example of a reworked song of the Ukrainian resistance movement, which was originally called “Oh, in the Forest, on the Meadow the Resistance Army is Camping.” The song was composed in the mid 1900s, and in the 1990s it was revived by the Sokoly music band. And now the folk song is revived once again as it goes viral on social media. The audience is captivated by it because the lyrics tell a dramatic story of events which unfolded in the mid 1900s and are unfortunately repeating today:
Ukraine is under threat
The country is plundered,
Rise, ye Ukrainians,
And fight for your country!
From all of Ukraine
The bravest of the brave have gathered
To face the enemy
And save our Mother Ukraine!
Live on the military valour
Of the Cossack nation!
God will protect Ukraine
And brotherly love shall prevail!
The lyrics reference Mother Ukraine and the Ukrainian nation. The song talks about Ukraine’s military valour and calls Ukrainians to band together; these are important social messages of the past which are still relevant today. And as a result, the new lyrics and old music work together in harmony.
During WW2, professional songs about the “Great Patriotic War” begin to appear. Also, there were spontaneous songs, like songs about the red partisan movement. These songs need more research on whether they can be considered true folklore. I viewed them in the archives and they are undoubtedly original, the songs are catalogued and tell the story of the red partisans. And in the meanwhile, Ukrainians were waging another type of guerilla war for the country’s independence which was led by the Ukrainian Resistance Army. These songs are still circulating today. Some of the folk songs have been revived, just like in the case of Father Ioan/Ivan Shvets.
The Positive Side of Fakelore
Armen Tonoian: Are there any cases when fakelore has played a positive and meaningful role and do we still have texts which are mostly based on fake narratives?
Oksana Kuzmenko: I believe, in this case we should be using the term folklorisation instead of fakelore. Folklore and mass culture have now merged as a result of changing communication practices and the speed at which the information is going viral. Material is folklorised when it’s methodically promoted through things like centrally-organised folk festivals which feature authentic folk performances, and please note—not reworked songs, but real folk songs performed in the regional style. The process is the same when folk ensembles and choirs perform at international events. They are using authentic material; nothing is borrowed. But they do it in an artificial setting, so they engage in the folklorisation process. Researchers say that the most evident sign of folklorisation in a song is when the first verse is repeated at the end of the song. Andriy Hlyvniuk’s rendition of “In the Meadow, a Red Guelder Rose” instead includes frequent repetitions of the first verse which is different from how the song was originally performed. So, when the material folklorised, meaning that it is purposefully stylised and remastered based on the accepted guidelines which is done without any ulterior motives—we arrive at some thought-provoking and positive examples of fakelore.
Armen Tonoian: I would like to illustrate my point with a real-life case from the Soviet era. Petro Baranovski, a prominent restorer, is known for generating numerous fake stories to save churches from demolition. For example, this is what happened with the Church of the Saviour at Berestove, which has been recently restored. Baranovski claimed that, according to the old chronicles, the church houses the burial place of Yuri Dolgoruki, the founder of Moscow. When the Soviet authorities decided to demolish the church, he systematically promoted a false narrative that Dolgoruki is buried on the church grounds. Instead, it has been confirmed that the burial place belongs to the daughter of Volodymyr Monomakh (father of Yuri Dolgoruki and the Grand Prince of Kyiv from 1113 to 1125). As a result of Baranovski’s efforts, the church was left to stand, and the Soviet authorities even erected a cenotaph, an empty tomb to commemorate Yuri Dolgoruki. So, with this anecdotal evidence in mind, do we have our own Ukrainian half-fictional stories which are based on a false narrative but have done a world of good?
Oksana Kuzmenko: I believe the experience is universal and goes beyond Ukraine. As a part of a group of tourists, I went on a guided tour to a Norwegian museum—the museum houses a valuable artifact, an ark. The group received a prolonged lecture on the history of the ark, its discovery and its most significant role in the country’s fight for independence from Sweden. I was very surprised. The whole story is an artificial construct and this type of invented tradition is more typical for nascent make-believe communities. So, it’s not just about Ukrainians.
Many folk rhymes and one-liners were composed by the soldiers of the Ukrainian People’s Army in the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921. If the riflemen brigades were college and university educated sons of priests who used accentual-syllabic verse, this type of poetry was composed by the soldiers from the rural areas in central Ukraine. They had to do with what they had. Here’s an example of a humorous song:
Pitter patter droplets drop,
Light rain is falling.
I am a young lass,
Who’s gonna walk me home?
The lyrics were used as a guideline for a whole collection of rhymes on Symon Petlura:
Pitter patter droplets drop –
Petlura’s army is calling.
Run for safety, commies,
Or he will throw you into the sea.
Authenticity Claims as a Sign of Fakelore
Armen Tonoian: I believe that the lack of authenticity claims is the key to identifying folklore. Hlyvniuk’s rendition of “In the Meadow, a red Guelder Rose” and “Clatter” by Go_A are evidently stylised songs. The song’s creators have never claimed that the song was documented during an expedition to an imaginary village in the Chernihiv province. But Shyshatski-Illich did claim something like that. He spun a story about an 85-year-old grandmother who shared with him the history of pre-Christian religion in the old Rus. It seems counterintuitive, but fakelore seems to be revealed through the abundance of detail about its discovery. For example, if a song was discovered in a worker’s choir, the Soviet ethnographers were very particular about noting that down.
Oksana Kuzmenko: Please note that the Soviet ethnographers always attributed the song to a specific group of people without identifying a particular person and a name. As a result, the authenticity claim is impossible to prove. Shyshatski-Illich was free to spin any story he wanted because there was practically no way of proving otherwise, only a handful of people could have disproved his case. Nowadays, hiding something like that is impossible. The song “Bandera is Our Father” is a good example. I was startled to find that the internet says that the song has an author. Perhaps a couple of lines have been added, but the rest was an original song of the resistance movement which was documented back in the 1950s. I personally documented the song long before these authorship claims. But it happens across the board. I researched the archives and some of the archived copies of “The Black Tilled Earth” include notes by Zhovnir which say “the song is mine.” True, a couple of verses have been added but it’s not sufficient to claim authorship—the song was first documented back in 1833.
Armen Tonoian: Interestingly, “Shchedryk, the Little Swallow” is a folk carol, but authorship is attributed to Mykola Leontovych.
Oksana Kuzmenko: Rather, “Shchedryk” was adapted by Leontovych. Here we need to analyse the extent to which the song was adapted, e.g., new lyrics are introduced but the music stays the same. Ukrainian experts in folk music apply their own criteria in determining the authenticity of folklore. They have developed their own classification system where the non-ritual songs are categorised as imported—they have a different music style. The archaic symbolism is preserved in the ceremonial song only. So, it’s next to impossible to claim authorship of the music. But it does happen, perhaps due to the fact that there is a finite number of musical combinations that can be created. Here innovation is not easy.
Is Modern Fakelore Destined to Become Future Folklore?
Oksana Kuzmenko: I would like to critically expand on your idea. It’s more about the folklorisation of literature. If we start with high grade, professional literature, quality music or a good song—they can be folklorised. Theoretically a high-quality text or a song should be able to survive remastering, introduction of new lyrics and verses as well as other alternations. As Filaret Kolessa once put it, “now the long process of being polished and refined begins in earnest.” And as an end result, we will have folklore based on professional literature.