Strona główna/[ENG] Making Sense of Ukraine

[ENG] Making Sense of Ukraine

Mykola Riabchuk
Making Sense of Ukraine: From the “nowhere nation” to the “linchpin of European security”

My first trips to the West in the late 1980s (as the Gorbachev perestroika advanced) had been bitterly disappointing: all the time I had to struggle with a seemingly simple question – “Where are you from?” The simple answer “Ukraine” could rarely satisfy my interlocutors. “I’m sorry?” – some of them politely responded. – “Bahrain?”
“Ukraine?” – others exclaimed, less politely. “What’s that?”

The country of 50 million people in the very centre of Europe (in strictly geographical terms) seemed to be absolutely invisible and virtually non-existent. The situation began to change in 1991, when the huge Soviet Union commonly known as “Russia” collapsed and an impressive number of the new independent states emerged from its ruins. The secession of Yeltsin’s Russia from Gorbachev’s “Russia” was probably the most puzzling event. But some other developments, like the succession of Soviet property by the former republics, the fate of the formidable nuclear arsenal on their territories, all kinds of ethnic conflicts and border disputes, and multiple continental spill-overs of oligarchic privatization had inevitably drawn the attention of the international community.

Ukraine was apparently a nuisance and a troublemaker in all of these reports. First, it was a “nowhere nation”, as a reputable American periodical reported on its cover, with the language allegedly “deriving from Russian in the 16th century”, divided into “a nationalistic West and pro-Russian East” (as if being “pro-Russian” absolved anybody from being “nationalistic”), and with the contentious Crimean peninsula that had arguably “always been Russian” (as if the native people of the peninsula who had run their own state, the Crimean Khanate, for centuries, until it was occupied by Russia in the late 18th century, had never existed). And worst of all, Ukrainians did not want to give up the nuclear arms they inherited from the Soviet Union on their territory for nothing, so they were bashed in mass-media as a “nasty Ukraine” (another title in the influential newspaper), “unwanted step-child of the Soviet perestroika”, and an “odd mésalliance of nationalists and communist apparatchiks” who tricked the gullible population into independence.

By the end of 1994, the issue of Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament was settled at the OSCE conference in Budapest where “nationalistic” Ukraine agreed to pass hundreds of missiles and heavy bombers to presumably “democratic” Russia in exchange for security guarantees from three major nuclear powers – USA, UK and, yes, you may laugh today, Russia. All of them obliged to “respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within the existing borders”, to “refrain from the threat or the use of force against Ukraine”, and from the use of economic pressure to influence its politics, and to “consult with one another if questions should arise regarding those commitments”.

After that, Ukraine disappeared from the international screen, to emerge once again in 2000-2001, after the tape scandal that implicated the Ukrainian president in a killing of the investigative journalist Georgy Gongadze. That crisis lasted through 2004 and culminated in mass protests, a.k.a. the Orange Revolution, provoked by the incumbents’ attempts to falsify the presidential elections. This was probably the first time when developments in Ukraine acquired some positive coverage in the international media, with many titles and statements that sounded both enthusiastic and ambiguous: “The Rise of a Nation” (The Wall Street Journal), “A Nation Is Born” (The Financial Times), “The Awakening of a Nation” (The Times), “We Are a Nation” (The Independent) or “The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation” (the title of Andrew Wilson’s book).

The ambiguity stemmed from the fact that Ukrainians did not consider themselves “new-born”, or “awakened”, or “unexpected”. Not any more, at least, than the inhabitants of some exotic lands “discovered” allegedly by James Cook or Christopher Columbus.

The Kyivan Ruś controversy

The Ukrainian historical narrative, broadly accepted with some amendments by the whole nation, stems from the fundamental twelve-volume “History of the Ukraine- Ruś” by Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, a prominent scholar and first president of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic (1917-1920), which was eventually conquered by the Bolsheviks. The title of his canonical work points at the direct continuity between contemporary Ukraine and the medieval state (and civilization) of Kyivan Ruś. This loose conglomerate of East Slavonic principalities emerged in the ninth century on the territory of contemporary Ukraine, Belarus, the easternmost regions of today’s Poland, and the westernmost regions of today’s Russia. Kyivan Ruś reached the height of its imperial might in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and collapsed under the Mongol and Tatar invasion in 1240. Since the nineteenth century, and the emergence of modern Ukrainian and Russian nationalism, the quasi-imperial legacy of Kyivan Ruś has become one of the most contested issues in Ukrainian-Russian relations.

The controversy revolves primarily around the myth of the “Kievan Russia” that was invented at the turn of the 17th century when the Tsardom of Muscovy turned into the Russian Empire by appropriating new lands and, crucially, the new name that phonetically and symbolically alluded to the medieval entity called (Kyivan) Ruś. The real connection between the two entities was very vague, like between Ancient Rome and modern Romania, but its invention allowed the Eurasian Muscovy appropriate a few centuries of the Kyiv Ruś history and, eventually, the core lands of historical Ruś (today’s Belarus and Ukraine) that belonged at the time to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Muscovy, that evolved rather late in the north eastern fringes of Ruś under the auspices of the Golden Horde, managed not only to legitimize its claims to Ruś history and territory but also, crucially, to delegitimize the very existence of Ukrainians and Belarusians, who were thus downgraded to the status of the regional Russian ethnic subgroups.

The story is not unique, since quite a few nations draw their histories on invented traditions. But hardly any invention appeared as harmful for both the dominant and subaltern groups as the Ruś=Russia myth. For three whole centuries, it increasingly hindered development of both Ukrainian and Russian national identities (out of either local or imperial ones) and hampered successful modernization of both nations. The entire history of Russian-Ukrainian relations since then can be described as a history of colonization, oppression and co-optation on one side – and of resistance and collaboration on the other side.

The toxic spell of “imperial knowledge”

Putin’s obsessive denial of Ukraine’s existence and genocidal attempts to extinguish Ukrainians as a nation, originate, paradoxically, from the same quasi-intellectual roots, from the “imperial knowledge”, that informs the Western orientalising view of Ukraine as a “nowhere nation”, a European “neighbour” (rather than member), the Russian “backyard” that has no political agency of its own and therefore legitimately belongs to the Russian “sphere of influence”. Ewa Thompson (after Edward Said) has aptly defined those roots as the “imperial knowledge” – a system of narratives aimed at the silencing, undermining and provincializing of subjugated nations, making them voiceless and almost invisible on the international scene, insofar as the empire monopolized the authority to speak and act on their behalf.

The “imperial knowledge”, produced and disseminated by powerful imperial institutions throughout the centuries, strongly influenced Western media, academia, mass culture and common wisdom. The world both adopted and normalized it; the international public tuned their sensors habitually to the imperial messages as presumably the most comprehensive, “important” and authoritative – rather than to the marginal voices of minor, subaltern, and “less important” nations. In practical terms, it meant that whatever lie came from Putin’s or Lavrov’s mouth, it was reproduced globally by top international media and considered te be serious, regardless of its falsity and mendacity. Nobody dared to call the liars the liars and the chutzpah the chutzpah. All the alternative voices of Ukrainian experts and politicians were rarely heard and even more rarely they outweighed the “imperial knowledge” spread by Moscow. At best, they were recognized as “an alternative view” that does not disprove the Kremlin’s lie, but rather implies that the truth dwells somewhere in between.

The second problem that precludes deconstruction of the “imperial knowledge” is a poor knowledge of Ukraine in general and, in this particular case, of its linguistic and ethno-cultural peculiarities. A typical template applied to the Ukrainian situation is that of a “nationalizing” state that tries to assimilate the minorities into the dominant language and culture, and of the titular majority that predictably strives to oppress minorities and variously marginalize them. It completely ignores the fact that Ukraine is a postcolonial country where the “dominant” language and culture had been (and remained) that of the imperial minority, while the titular majority was (and remained) a socially disadvantaged and culturally marginalized part of the population. It even more ignores the crucial fact that an independent Ukraine emerged not as a result of the national liberation struggle and radical political turnover, but as a marriage of convenience between the old, thoroughly Russified communist elite and the nascent civil society led by Ukrainian national-democratic intelligentsia.

The result of this pacting was a negotiated transition – very slow, convoluted but relatively smooth, insofar as the ancient regime has largely retained its political and economic power, while making important concessions to the junior partners in terms of political freedoms and civic liberties as well as the soft “Ukrainization” policies in culture and education. Even thirty years after independence, Ukrainophones (whatever it means in a universally bilingual country) still remain heavily under-represented at the top levels of state administration, military, police, and judiciary, and virtually absent in big business. It suffices to mention that not a single “oligarch” uses Ukrainian as his/her primary language, if at all. And out of the six Ukrainian presidents (1991-2022) only Viktor Yushchenko spoke Ukrainian at home and in private (as a joke says, he had to because his wife, a Ukrainian-American, knew no Russian). The same can be said of the huge majority of the Ukrainian post-Soviet elite, which is predominantly Russian-speaking. So one may only guess whom Mr. Putin is going to “liberate” and “protect” – and from whom (certainly not the Ukrainian soldiers who speak mostly Russian on battlefield – for both the Soviet military terminology and the imperial swearing serve them best).

Ukraine is essentially a bilingual country, where most people have a good command of both Ukrainian and Russian and often use them interchangeably, depending on the circumstances. Russian strategists miss – or deliberately ignore – the fact that the absolute majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians and a solid plurality of ethnic Russians in Ukraine are patriots of their

country, not of Russia, – exactly like Irishmen or Americans who speak English remain patriots of their respective countries rather than of England. They may disagree, even quarrel with their fellows on various issues, but at a critical moment they will take up arms and defend Ukraine as their political nation. Just because the political nation for them is not about language and blood, nor about the common history and religion that may divide them, but about the common values and common future that they envision as “European”.

Beyond the Kremlin newspeak

It seems that Vladimir Putin and his associates fell victim to their own propaganda. For years, they promoted the notion of Ukraine as an ‘artificial’ state, deeply divided and ready to split. For years, they brainwashed their own citizens and gullible foreigners with hysterical invectives against the ‘fascist junta’ in Kyiv which allegedly persecutes ethnic Russians and forbids the Russian language. By February 2022, after eight years of the de facto war, their fundamental assumption about Ukraine was the same as it was in 2014 and, in fact, it had not changed much since the 19th century: Ukrainians are essentially Russians (“one people”, in Putin’s parlance), they are eager to embrace their Russian brethren but nationalists (neo-Nazis, a.k.a. “Banderites”) hold them hostage and prevent them from the much-wanted return into the “Russian World”.

This illusion cost them a disastrous defeat at Kyiv, but it appeared to be even more disastrous for millions of Ukrainians who lost their relatives, homes, jobs, and all of their habitual way of life that they believed was quite normal and not threatening anybody. The defeat, however, was only partial and apparently not sufficient to make Russians radically revise their policy, their values, and their toxic imperial identity, as the Germans did after WWII. So far, the Kremlin revised only the idea of the allegedly friendly Ukrainian majority seeking for reunification with mother Russia – since the thesis became absolutely untenable in view of mass civic mobilization in all Ukrainian regions and fierce resistance to the invaders instead of warm greetings.

Now, the official war narrative promoted by the Kremlin, abandons the notion of the “good” Russia-loving majority, enslaved by a Nazi minority and claims that “a significant part of the people – most likely the majority – have been sucked into the Nazi regime politically. That is, when the “people are good – the government is bad” hypothesis no longer works. Recognition of this fact is the basis of the policy of de-Nazification, of all its measures.” The proposals include, on the one side, physical extermination of all those who took up arms, as well as the top leaders and activists – “active Nazis who should be punished extra harshly and demonstratively” (the idea of public hanging of the alleged “Nazi criminals” is vividly discussed in Russian media). On the other hand, the punitive “measures” require “inflicting the unescapable hardships” on the majority of population “guilty as accomplices of Nazism”. The program envisions “re-education through ideological repression (suppression) of Nazi attitudes and strict censorship: not only in the political sphere, but critically, also in culture and education”.

The Orwellian terminology employed by the Kremlin may delude the domestic audience, but will barely make the external observers believe in Ukrainian “Nazis” – in a country with a functional multi-party democracy, a multi-ethnic civil society, and a Jewish president elected with a large margin in free and fair elections. What Putin’s perverse terminology really means, is that every Ukrainian who refuses to be “one people” with the Russians, as Putin insists, is a Nazi and should be exterminated, or else “re-educated through an ideological repression and strict censorship”, under the “unescapable hardships”, as some Putinists generously concede. This makes all the wishful talks of the Western peacemakers about a “dialogue”, “a compromise, and possible concessions to Moscow – either in the form of Ukraine’s coveted “neutrality” or territorial sacrifices – as futile as they had been from the very beginning, until it became just obvious.

Ukrainians understand something crucial that the Westerners did not wish to understand until recently – that the very existence of an independent, democratic and European Ukraine is unacceptable for Putinist Russia, insofar as it considers Ukraine an indispensable part, a centrepiece of its (still incomplete) imperial identity. It looks irrational for the thoughtful Westerners committed to formal logic and strict rules. Hitler’s hatred for Jews, however, was also irrational and hardly any concessions could dissuade him from the “final solution”. Ukrainians have little choice but to fight, either with Western support or without, since it is not a matter of national borders, or “neutrality”, or NATO/EU membership, but a matter of survival. As free citizens of a free state, they fight for freedom and dignity – something that Putin and his obedient subjects barely understand.

Kultura Enter

Kijów, fot. Aleksandra Zińczuk.