The Girl Carrying the Bull: Experiments in Rethinking European Sovereignty

From the Series: Russia’s War in Ukraine, Continued

Photo by Serkant Hekimci / Alamy Stock Photo.

Ukrainians are very good at the internet.

I know such sweeping generalizations are the bane of cultural anthropology, but this one holds up to scrutiny as well as any generalization could. The 2013–14 Revolution of Dignity, for example, took place online as much or more than it did in Kyiv’s Independence Square.

Since Russia’s current military invasion of Ukraine began, messaging apps like Telegram have become the new frontline for battles over narrative. The app is allegedly replete with misinformation, but is also a heavily trafficked—and (for those with the knowledge to navigate it effectively) reasonably reliable—repository of live updates and firsthand accounts from Ukrainians who are actively living through this war. It is not well appreciated how many of the soldiers currently defending Ukraine against Russia’s war are web developers, programmers, and online marketing specialists. They are extremely good at shaping discourse about the war on social media. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has his own Telegram channel, where he posts several war-related video addresses each day, many accompanied by English subtitles.

In this online space, visual responses to the war—ranging from Internet memes to skillful works of art—proliferate. One such image, which has already made several rounds across a number of social media platforms, is a sketch by the Russian artist Vladimir Fokanov known as “Girl Carrying a Bull,” or, as Fokanov refers to it, “Woman Carrying the Bull.” This is perhaps the most famous of Fokanov’s drawings, much to his chagrin. Fokanov describes himself as conservative and the meaning of his image as “ordinary and patriarchal.” Yet, this drawing of a woman—young, nude, taking slow, deliberate steps as she carries a massive bull three times her size across her shoulders—has been widely understood as a metaphor for Europe and European futures and as a feminist critique of patriarchal systems (an interpretation which Fokanov openly rejects).

Despite the banality of his artistic intent, Fokanov’s image is visually compelling and, in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, resonates deeply with historical imagery that personifies the Ukrainian nation as female—specifically, as the Berehynia—a revered female figure in Slavic folklore; the keeper of the hearth, the “homemaker” of the nation, the progenitor of Ukraine, both figuratively and literally. Irina Zherebkina, a Ukrainian scholar of gender studies at Kharkiv National University, which is under siege from Russian bombardment as I write this, has described the Berehynia as the actualization of a symbolic body for the production of national identity—specifically, a female body that has been violated by outside aggressors. In 2001, a towering Berehynia statue was installed in Kyiv’s Independence Square at the site where the city’s central-most monument to Lenin once stood. In recent weeks, the girl carrying the bull has been circulating via messaging apps and social media with the caption “Ukraine saves Europe.”

A pysanky with the figure of a Berehynia. Lubap, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Close-up of the Berehynia statue, Kyiv. Antony Stanley, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr.

For as long as I have been living and working in Ukraine (on and off for fifteen years), I have heard Ukrainians discuss their country as a place stuck in a space in-between. The question was never, “What do we want Ukraine to be?” Instead, it was always, “Whom should Ukraine be with? Europe or Russia?” The dilemma presented was more like being caught in a finger trap than a repetition of Cold War logics. Russia was always busy extending its reach into Ukraine. Europe was always an aspirational ideal that seemed somehow out of reach. Year after year, political battles made fruitless circles around this core, divisive issue.

The first time I heard a different sentiment was 2014. I was sharing a car with a young professional in Kyiv—someone I had met only days before—heading from the city’s southern residential districts toward Independence Square, the epicenter of the protests that ultimately resulted in the ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. The end of the Yanukovych regime, in turn, prompted Russia to seize control of the Crimean Peninsula and foment separatist conflict in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. The War in Donbas, which has devastated Ukraine’s Donets’k and Luhans’k regions ever since, was the final result of those efforts.

But that cold evening in January 2014, knowing nothing of what lay ahead, this fellow (who remains a good friend today) turned to me and said, “We’re not against Russia; we just want a place that is Ukrainian, where we can really be Ukrainian.”

Independence Square, Kyiv, December 8, 2013. Photo by Jennifer J. Carroll.

Ukrainian cultural and national identity has undergone something of a rebirth since 2014. Kyiv, once a solidly Russophone metropolis, is now lush with Ukrainian language use, as many residents have consciously changed languages. Traditional Ukrainian embroidery, only recently the frumpy, outdated fashion of village grammas and national holidays, is being elevated by Ukrainian fashion designers as a reimagined, modern Ukrainian aesthetic. In summer 2019, I attended an observance of Ivan Kupala—a traditional Slavic (and very pagan) holiday of the summer solstice—at a newly opened arts complex. Crowds of Kyivans made traditional wreaths, ate trendy street foods, and ran circles around a massive bonfire to the beats of electronic dance music. It was spectacular.

Policy reforms have been no less dizzying. Since 2014, Ukraine has undertaken primary health care reform and nationalized essential healthcare, digitized social and pension services, and undertaken major parliamentary and anticorruption reforms. Implementation of these reforms has often been slow, rocky, and only partially successful at best. Yet the sheer fact of these efforts marks a significant departure from the administrative stagnation Ukraine experienced under previous governments.

All of this has contributed to a sense of what Ukraine is and who Ukrainians are in a manner no longer dependent on post-Soviet or Cold War dialectics. Instead, something like an ideological pivot has occurred: attention has shifted away from the question of whether to “be with” Europe to the question of what democratic ideals Ukraine can strive to embrace. The girl carrying the bull represents this shift in a compelling way. The bull is a metaphor for Europe, just as Europe is a metaphor for certain idealized notions of democratic sovereignty, entitled citizenship, and economic integration.

In the coming weeks, much ink will be spilled analyzing these and other discourses about Russia’s war through the tired frameworks of the Cold War, pitting East against West, defining Russia as a threat to the pillars of post–World War II Europe. But “Europe” is and always has been a problematic category. There is certainly much to be gained from critical and historical analyses of political discourse about this war, but the risk of falling back onto old categories, onto old ways of thinking, always haunts these endeavors.

This is why I keep coming back to the girl carrying the bull. To me, she is an invitation to think differently about democracy, sovereignty, and “Europe.” She represents the possibility of a “Europeanness” imagined beyond imperialist legacies, a “Europe” that comes into being through a set of practices, as an act of husbandry, an act of care. These visions, too, are extremely imperfect, but she represents one of a million discursive experiments—circulating online—in rethinking what it means for a society to be free. There is value in paying attention to those imaginations. Whatever society emerges from this awful war will be shaped by some or all of those ideas. Those ideas will circulate far beyond Ukraine as well, as audiences in Europe, North America, Asia, and beyond are reached through open social media platforms. At least I am hopeful that it will. Ukrainians are, after all, very good at the internet.

“Ukraine is the geographical center of Europe,” Kyiv, December 4, 2013. Photo by Jennifer J. Carroll.