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Ukraine: Not So Unexpected Nation

Mykola Rjabčuk / Ed. 22. 2. 2016

A year ago, the Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma produced, or at least signed, the book under the curious title “Ukraine Is Not Russia”. Some critics jeered at it instantly: “Good for Mr. Kuchma! He has not wasted his two presidential terms but made an important discovery: the country he rules – you wouldn’t believe – is not, after all, Russia!”

Today, as the Ukrainian “orange revolution” has drawn attention of the whole world towards what was believed to be just a “Russian backyard”, and the Kremlin elite has apparently got uncomfortable with the prospect of democratic Ukraine influencing authoritarian Russia, a new joke emerged in the Kyiv streets referring to the notorious Kuchma’s title: “You know? Putin is writing a book! ‘Russia Is Not Ukraine’!”

The uneasy relations between the two “brotherly” nations the best described as a “fraternal rivalry” (if not a “mortal friendship”), has come to the fore in last months as Ukrainians bravely rebelled against the electoral fraud and creeping dictatorship, while Russians did their best, albeit in vain, to meddle in Ukrainian developments on the side of corrupted authoritarian government. International media seem to discover, with a great surprise, that Ukraine is not Russia. The headlines are striking: «The Rise of a Nation» (The Wall Street Journal), «A Nation Is Born» (Financial Times), “The Awakening of a Nation» (The Times), «We Are a Nation» (The Independent). This undoubtedly sounds much better than the titles from 1991 when the nation had really emerged as a state after the collapse of the Soviet Union: «Nasty Ukraine», «A Nowhere Nation», «An Unwanted Child of the Soviet Perestroika». Ironically yet, neither then nor today Ukrainians ever believed they were a «nowhere» and «new-born» nation – exactly like the Caribbeans «discovered» by Columbus.

The Kyivan Rus’ Controversy, or Who Is the ‘Older Brother’?

The Ukrainian historical narrative, broadly accepted with some amendments by the whole nation, stems from the fundamental 12-volume «Histrory of the Rus’-Ukraine» by Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, a prominent scholar and, perhaps not accidentally, the first president of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic (1917–1920) conqured eventually by the Bolsheviks. The very title of his canonical work points at the direct continuity between the contemporary Ukraine and the medieval state (and civilization) of Kyivan Rus’. The loose conglomerate of East Slavonic principalities that emerged in the 9th century on the territory of contemporary Ukraine, Belarus, easternmost regions of today’s Poland and westermost regions of today’s Russia, reached its imperial height in the 11–12th centuries and fall dawn under the Mongol and Tatar invasion in 1240. Since 19th century however, i.e., since the emergence of modern Ukrainian and Russian nationalisms, the quasi-imperial legacy of Kyivan Rus’ has become one of the most contested issues in the Ukrainian-Russian realtions.

Russian nationalism as a nationalism of a «state» nation had an advantage to rely on the imperial historical narrative elaborated and promoted officially throughout the 18th century. It strictly followed the dynastic model of history, which secured otherwise dubious continuity between the Grand Duchy of Kyiv and the Moscow Tsardom. In terms of territory and ethnicity, Muscovy had been a rather marginal shiver of the Kyivan Rus empire and had probably not much more legitimate claims to its legacy than, say, Romania to ancient Rome. After Kyivan Rus’ collapsed, the bulk of its territories (today’s Belarus and Ukraine) came under Polish and Lithuanian rule. Only the Eastern Rus’ territories went under the Tatar protectorate – to be unified eventually under the Moscow auspices and emancipated ultimately from the «Tatar yoke».

Till the end of the 17th century, this relatively weak and largely oriental state played virtually no role in the European history and laid no claims to the Kyiv Rus’ legacy or the very name «Rus’». The idea of continuity simply had not existed on the intellectual level – as a brilliant American scholar Edward L. Keenan has proved convincingly in his primary-source studies. The situation began to change since 1654, as the Cossack Uprising – the Great Liberation War – in the Polish (i.e., Catholic) dominated Ukraine resulted in a de-facto independence of the Left-Bank Ukraine – the Cossack republic called Hetmanate, which moved, with the Right-Bank city of Kyiv, under the protectorate of the Moscow Orthodox tsar. Ironically, it was the Ukrainian intellectuals (mostly clerics) who invented the idea of continuity between Kyivan Rus’ and the Moscow Tsardom. Peter the Great who decided to westernize the country, rightly engaged in the project a huge number of people from his most westernized province – the Ukrainian Hetmanate, which still enjoyed at the time significant cultural and political autonomy. Hordes of clerics and scholars, musicians and artists, bureaucrats and adventurers had been driven to St. Petersburg, the new «western» capital of the Empire that changed its name from Muscovy to Russia, making a clear claim to Rus’ legacy.

The Ukrainians who forged the idea of continuity, pursued a very particular if not personal goal. They intended to stress the historic centrality of their own country («Little Russia») vis-à-vis the rest of the Empire («Great Russia») and therefore elevate their own stakes and credentials within the imperial hierarchy. In their scholastic model, the Little Russia (Ukraine) was an analogy to the Little Greece (i.e., Greece proper) while the Great Russia was an obvious paralel to the Greater Greece, i.e., all the territories of Greek colonisation – in the Middle East, North Africa, Caucasus, Crimea, and so on. The two major medieval institutions – the ruling dynasty and the church – had largely facilitated, and benefited from, the idea of continuity.

By the end of the 18th century, however, the initial concept of Great/Little Russia had been reversed diametrically. On the one hand, Great Russia became a strong centralized empire with the western-like centre St. Petersburg; on the other hand, Little Russia had been gradually provincialized and lost ultimately its autonomy. Thus, in the 19th century, the modern Russian nationalism had inherited not only the early imperial idea of continuity (Kyivan Rus as a cradle of the Rus’-sian Empire) but also the late imperial idea of superiority of Great Russia over Little Russia (as well as over all other neighbouring territories incorporated in the Empire). Within this nationalistic scheme, Ukrainains were treated as just a local brand of Russians, with the culture and language allegedly corrupted by the protracted Polish influence. Hence, the absorbtion of Ukraine by Russia (the Right Bank Ukraine was taken at the end of the 18th century, after the partition of Poland) meant just to fix the historical «injustice», while the forceful assimilation of Ukrainians in Russian language and culture was merely «acculturation» of local peasants.

The scheme was apparently challenged by the modern Ukrainian nationalism, which, in spite of the widespread prejudice, emerged not in Western Ukraine but in the easternmost city of Kharkiv where the modern university was found as early as 1804, and where the scions of the cossack gentry still cherished memory of the glorious past, and where some remnants of the Hetmanate autonomy still persisted. Like all their East European brethrens, Ukrainian nation-builders were inspired by the same ideas of Hereder and employed the same building blocks to construct the modern national identity. They emphasized the uniqueness of Ukrainian language and culture, and glorified the national history – with its «Golden Age» in Kyivan Rus’ and «Silver Age» in the Cossack Republic; they compiled dictionaries and collected folk songs; they published grammars and cossack chronicles, and employed the vernacular instead of the dominant Church Slavonic to produce poetry, prose, and dramas. They had not been separatists or even autonomists, but they paved the way for the modern political movement. And last but not least, they coined the self-name Ukrainians instead of the official «Little Russians» and historical «Rus’ky» («Ruthenians») – since the official name sounded degrading, while the historic self-name was usurped and monopolized by the Muscovites who became thereby «Russians».

Both Ukrainians and Russians had their own reasons to monopolize the Kyivan Rus’ legacy and to make it a cornerstone of their national identity. Besides the mythology of glorious past and thousand-year-old history that many nations strive for, Kyivan Rus’ provided both Ukrainians and Russians with the opportunity to marginalize the rival – albeit for different purposes. For Russians, it was a convenient way to legitimize the (re)absobtion of Ukrainian and Belarusan lands and (re)assimilation of the local «lesser» people back in the Russian nation. For Ukrainians, it was the best way to delegitimize Russian conquest and assimilationist policies by stressing their own difference and separatness from Muscovy, and representing themselves as the direct and genuine heirs of Kyivan Rus’. Muscovites, in this scheme, were just a marginal off-shoot of the Rus’-Ukrainian people, with a questionable Slavic identity – corrupted allegedly by an extensive absorbtion of Finno-Ugric tribes and inflated by strong oriental, Mongol-Tatar, influences.

It was a clear attempt of the subjugated nation to turn the tables on the subjugators. They largely mimiced the imperial myth, which claimed that Ukrainians are just corrupted – Polonized and Catholicized – Russians. No, Ukrainians responded, it was Russians who were corrupted – orientalized – Rus’-Ukrainians. Thus, not only Ukrainian language, within this scheme, could be degraded as a «spoiled» (Polonized) Russian, but also Russian could be described as a «spoiled» (orientalized and, even more so, Bulgarized – through the biblical Church-Slavonic) Ukrainian.

The ideological struggle, however, had been far cry from fair. The imperial myth was supported by the powerful state that included the army, police and state apparatus, imperial culture and education, mass media, scholarship, and international diplomacy. The Ukrainian myth, in the meantime, was promoted only by a tiny group of the Ukrainophile intelligentsia who were obstructed, on the one side, by the highly repressive empire and, on the other side, by a huge level of illiteracy among the predominantely peasant population. There had never been any Ukrainian education, even the primary, in the Russian empire; and virtually no Ukrainian publications were allowed since 1863.

No surprise then that the Western Ukraine took eventually the leed in the process of nation-building. That relatively small part of the country was lucky enough to avoid the Russian dominance. At the end of the 18th century, after the partion of Poland, this territory was ceded to Austrians. The Poles, however, remained the dominant social strata in the region. But Ukrainians («Rusyns», as they called themselves at the time, bearing the self-name from the historical Rus’) practiced different religious rite and had strong sense of «otherness» vis-à-vis Catholic Poles. In the second half of the 19th century, they were exposed to the whole set of Western liberties (however imperfect at the time) granted them by the constitutional Habsburg Empire. By the end of the century, they developed a rather strong ethnic identity and virtually all institutions of the national civil society – political parties, schools, periodicals, religious, and women, and youth organisations, sport clubs, trade unions and credit unions, cooperatives, and so on. Ironically yet, they adopted the East Ukrainian version of nationalism, with its vision of a «Greater Ukraine» and commitment to Kyivan Rus’ and glorious Cossackdom.

By the end of the first world war, as the rival Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires collapsed, West Ukrainians were much better prepared to take their destiny in their own hands than the Easterners. Both the West Ukrainian National Republic at Lviv and the Ukrainian National Republic at Kyiv proved to be short-lived, but they fell down because of the very different reasons. West Ukrainians proved to be well-organized, disciplined, and rather conservative in their policies aimed mostly at preservation of «old Austrian order». They enjoyed the broad support of the population but fell down only because the Poles were much stronger – both numerically and logistically, due to the Western support. East Ukrainians proved to be inefficient, splitted for numerous factions, and rather chaotic in their leftist reforms. They had limited support from the highly anarchic and unpredictable peasants, and fell down due to their own weakness rather than the Bolshevik’s strength.

The Ukrainian awakening of 1917–1920 had not been completely spoiled. The Russians had, for the first time, to recognize Ukrainians as a separate nation and even to grant them a quasi-sovereign Bolshevik state within the Soviet «federation». The Kyivan Rus’ myth was substantially modified. Officially, the Soviets adopted the concept of Kyivan Rus’ as the «cradle of three brotherly peoples», i.e., Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusans. The shareholding, however, was far from equal. Russians had still been distinguished as the «older brother» and the «first among equals». Both Ukrainian and Belarusan histories had been overtly theleological – the main if not only goal of these peoples was to overcome the historical obstacles and get re-unified with great Russia. Their assimilation was encouraged also by the idea of the «new historic community – the Soviet people», which meant a sort of the communist melting pot, primarily ideological but with obvious Russian cultural and linguistic core.

Hardly surprising that the Russian historical myths remained largely unchallenged on the international level, despite their strong nationalistic/imperialistic lining. They had got a broad currency in the academic community, being accepted as the «objective truth», while any attempts to present the alternative view had been either silenced or discredited at the scratch as Ukrainian (Polish, Belarusan) and therefore «nationalistic». The both Russian state and Russian emigree scholars had contributed greatly to this situation.

Since 1991 it began to change. On one hand, a bunch of new nations (including Ukrainians) emerged from obscurity, encouraging younger scholars to revise old imperial dogmas and stereotypes. On the other hand, Russia itself emerged for the first time as a nation-state rather than empire, urging us to re-model its history as a history of today’s people within today’s territory rather than the imperial history of the ruling dynasty that stems from the foreign (Ukrainian) city of Kyiv. Of course, from the scholarly point of view, there is little reason to believe that the people of Kyivan Rus’ had identity of contemporary Ukrainians and spoke nearly-contemporary Ukrainian language. But there are even less reasons to think those people had identity of modern Russians and spoke something like today’s Russian. One cannot deny some connections between Russia and Rus’ – like between York and New York, Britain and Brittany, Romania and Rome. But one should recognize at last that the formula «Kievan Russia» instead of «Kyivan Rus’» is as stupid as «Ancient Romania» instead of the «Ancient Rome».

The imperial model of history is not just scholarly wrong, it is politically dangerous. It cherishes vanity dreams among Russians, and encourages grass-root revanchism making Russian politicians to lay claims to neighbouring lands, popualtions, and histories, instead of focusing on the real past of their nation and on its real present-day problems.

«Divided We Stand»

One of the numerous implications of the imperial myths is a widespread belief of many Russians that the majority of Ukrainians speak Russian language and, what is a real blunder, everybody who speaks Russian wants to re-join the old-new empire. Such a belief leeds Russian politicians to wrong statements and unreasoned steps that harms usually Russian own interests. The last example was an extensive involvement of Russian media, money, experts, politicians and president Putin himself in Ukrainian presidential elections on the side of allegedly pro-Russian candidate, prime-minister Victor Yanukovych. The interference was too rough and disgustful even for some ardent Russophiles. Putin’s rather high popularity in Ukraine fell down more than twice within a few weeks, while every fifth ethnic Russian cast his/her ballot for the opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko, allegedly «nationalistic» and heavily demonized in a Goebbels-style propaganda.

The 20% support from the Russian minority is not the figure, of course, the all-national politician could be fully satisfied with. Yet, such a figure is barely possible in the ethnically divided societies – say, in Kosovo or Bosnia. Moreover, the opinion surveys show that the pro-Yushchenko group consists mostly of younger and better educated people, i.e., people who are better informed and less burdened with old Soviet «anti-nationalistic» (essentially imperialistic) stereotypes.

The major problem, however, which the Muscovites fail to grasp is that even those people who vote for «pro-Russian» Yanukovych (and who, ten years ago, voted for allegedly «pro-Russian» Kuchma), do not identify themselves politically with Russia and have no intention to «re-unify» their country with a Big Brother. The idea is simple: Irish people may speak mostly English but secede from England; Belgian Francophones may support good relations with France and may have some tensions with their Flemish fellow-citizens but this not necessarily makes them separatists and irredentists. The imperial Russian mythology yet makes some simple ideas incomprehensible.

Thus, the both Russian ambassador in Ukraine Victor Chernomyrdin and Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov come rashly to the Donbas city of Siverskodonetsk to participate in a congress of local nomenklatura under pro-Russian and, by and large, separatist anti-Ukrainian slogans. The event comes onto the first pages of international media, experts muse once again on the possible split of Ukraine, civil war, and Russian military intervension. Very few sober voices point out that the whole event is a virtual simulacrum, a smoke screen designed to draw public attention away from the main problem – who and how falsified the elections. The regional nomenklatura might have really good reasons to be scared by the ongoing change of power in Kyiv, and to blackmail the rivals with a «separatist threat». But the threat is a paper dragon.

The region with its outdated heavy industry, coal mines in particular, is extensively subsidized by the rest of the country. Neither Russia would need Dondas nor it ever itself would become self-sufficient. And last but not least, there is no grass-root «separatist» movement in the region – except the Crimea, where this movement had reached its height in the early 90s, yet since then fades inevitably due to a number of reasons. The all-national survey, carried out on December 6–9, 2004, proved that Ukrainians do not support either the idea of the establishment of an independent state in the South-Eastern Ukraine (82.3% and 8.8% respectively), autonomy of the Donetsk region (83.4% 8.1% respectively), or the separation of the Donetsk region from Ukraine and its joining Russia (86.2% and 5.9% respectively).

To comprehend the Ukrainian reality one should notice that its 48-million population, according to the 2001 national census, consists of 77.8% of Ukrainians, 17.3% of Russians, and about 5% of other nationalities. Since 1989, when the previous (Soviet) census was held, the number of Russians decreased 5% while the number of Ukrainians incresed for the same figure. It was the first time in many decades that the percentage of ethnic Ukrainians grew up – just because after the independence many people with mixed identity re-identified themselves in a new way. Sociologists yet point out that the identity of many citizens is even more fluid. If opinion polls provide more options for self-identification, they find out that only 56% of respondents define themselves as «Ukrainian only», and only 11% as «Russian only». At the same time, 27% identify themselves as «both Ukrainian and Russian».

In terms of language, the situation is also ambiguous. According to the same 2001 census, 67.5% of citizens define Ukrainian as their native language, 29.6% refer to Russian, and 3% mention other languages. Sociologists yet insist that the census reveals rather symbolical value of languages than their practical usage. Opinion surveys prove that about 40% of citizens speak Ukrainian at home, about 30% speak Russian, and another 30% claim they speak both languages, «depending on circumstances». Whatever these «circumstances» might mean, Ukraine is largely bi-ethnic and bi-lingual country, where virtually everybody can understand both Ukrainian and Russian, and where two thirds of the population can fluently communicate in both languages. The situation where one person converse in Ukrainian and the other in Russian is not so rare either in public or in the parliament, on TV, and elsewhere.

Ukraine is undoubtedly divided – linguistically, culturally, religiosly, politically, regionally. Yet, at the same time, there are no clear fault-lines that may facilitate the would-be split of the country, so broadly advertised in both Russian and international media. Different groups overlap, permeate each other; the inter-group borders are blurred and easily crossed or shifted or even removed; the various swing-groups facilitate the diffusion of different identities, their hybridity, and grass-root dialogue.

The east-west divide that looks so tremendously when somebody visits the westernmost city of Lviv with the strong Central-European identity and the easternmost city of Donetsk with primarily Soviet (but also with robust local rather than Ukrainian or Russian) identity. The difference however fades as somebody moves to the centre: the postmodern hybridity or, rather, post-Soviet eclecticism comes to the fore. To put it simply, neither the west is 100% orange nor the east is 100% blue. Lviv and Donetsk represent just two opposite sides of the rainbow that covers Ukrainian territory. Ukraine is divided ideologically but not geographically.

In ideological terms, it can be represented as two different projects – two different visions of the nation’s future and two different ideas of the nation’s past. The projects indeed are incompatible and irreconcilable. The first one can be roughly defined as «Ukrainian», or «European». It is based on the assumption that Ukraine is essentially a European nation whose development had been arrested and largely distorted by Russification and Sovietization, but who still strives to «return to Europe», its values and institutions, following the way of Poland, Lithuania, and other Central-East European countries.

The other one can be even more roughly defined as «Little Russian», or «Soviet», or «East Slavonic». The problem with definition comes from the fact that the project is much less elaborated and much more fluid. Essentially, it fluctuates between the old imperial regionalism (psychological, cultural, and political) and a new sort of post-imperial «creolism» that explicitly asserts superiority of Russian language and culture, and implicitly protects the superiority of more urbanized Russophones over historically backward Ukrainophones. The project apparently lacks symbolic resourses and coherent argumentation, being a rather transitional phenomenon (from colonial to post- or neo-colonial). But in essence it is highly conservative, Sovietophile, anti-Western, authoritarian, and implicitly Ukrainophobic.

This crypto-Soviet project, however vague, was supported in fact in 1991, when two thirds of Ukrainians voted for independent state with an ex-communist boss Leonid Kravchuk as a president, i.e., for the continuity of the ancien regime with some, mostly superficial, changes. And only one third of voters opted for indepnedence with a president not from the former nomenklatura (either ex-dissident Viacheslav Chornovil or a few minor candidates), i.e., for the radical break with Soviet past and definite decommunization and europeasation in a Polish or Baltic way. By 2001, yet, the situation had changed, and in 2004 it reversed dramatically. The Ukrainian identity has apparently strengthened, and civil society has definitely grew up. Today, almost two thirds of the people cast their votes for the pro-Western and pro-democratic candidate Vicctor Yushchenko, while only one third supported the crypto-Soviet regime of Messrs. Kuchma and Yanukovych.

No doubt, Ukraine’s «return to Europe» would not be an easy endeavour . Yet, it is certainly a good chance for both Ukrainians and Europeans and, paradoxically, for Russians who may finally develop their new – national – identity instead of the outdated and less and less feasible imperial. So far, alas, one of the graphic explanations of what is the difference between Ukrainians and Russians comes from a popular joke. «Just ask a Ukrainian and a Russian whether they would exchange their nukes for a nice house, good car, and a round sum of money. A Ukrainian would agree happily, a Russian would indignantly refuse».

Europe 667
Post-Soviet Region 98
Russia 202
Ukraine 187
elections 103
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