Ukraine: Out of the Shadow of the Bear
December 20, 2013
During a meeting with foreign experts in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked about Russia’s efforts to prevent Ukraine from signing an association agreement with the European Union and bring it into the Russian-led customs union. Putin responded:
“Ukraine, without a doubt, is an independent state. That is how history has unfolded. … [but] we have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.”
This response, which tracks closely with what Putin and other Russian officials have said in recent weeks as the crisis in Ukraine deepens, hints at why Ukraine’s relations with Europe have been the source of such angst in Moscow and such passion in the streets of Kyiv. At its core, this quarrel is about a much bigger and much older issue: whether Russians and Ukrainians are in fact one people, and hence whether Ukrainians have a right to determine their own fate without regard for Russian wishes.
Of course, Russians and Ukrainians do have a common past. Yet nations are, in the words of the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, “imagined communities”—they exist in reality only insofar as they exist in the imagination of their members. Because national identity is socially constructed, it can change over time, as one identity narrative is replaced by another. This process has been unfolding in what is now Ukraine since the mid-19th century, when a small group of intellectuals first posited that Ruthenians (whom they termed Ukrainians to emphasize the distinction, since in Slavic the words for “Ruthenian” and “Russian” are practically identical) constituted a distinct nation.
Over the past century, Ukrainian national identity has gradually spread, and today is almost universal among ethnic Ukrainians, even among the roughly 30% of the Ukrainian population whose first language is Russian (though not the ethnic Russian population that remains concentrated in the south and the Crimea). Nevertheless, many Ukrainians, especially in the east of the country, continue to identify strongly with Russia. Polling data shows that, while a plurality of Ukrainians overall favor association with the EU over a customs union with Russia, sentiments in the east are mixed, while in the south, the customs union is backed by a significant majority.
This geographic divide is an inescapable feature of Ukrainian politics, and it is in the west where Ukrainian nationalism originated and continues to have its strongest hold. The west and Kyiv have seen the biggest demonstrations against the customs union and against Yanukovych, an easterner who lost the western Ukrainian provinces badly in the 2010 presidential vote. The cultural and economic ties between eastern Ukraine and Russia are stronger, but even here, Russia frequently miscalculates public sentiments.
Eastern Ukraine has seen very little mobilization on behalf of the customs union, while the cause of European integration has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets of Kyiv and other cities. And of course, even Yanukovych and his eastern-based Party of Regions favored signing the association agreement with Brussels—until they caved under Russian pressure.
Many—probably most—Ukrainians want good relations with Russia. But Moscow’s strong-arm tactics and rhetoric about the oneness of Russians and Ukrainians breed a defensive reaction in a country that has only been independent for 22 years and where a consolidated sense of nationhood remains comparatively recent. It is precisely because widespread acceptance of a distinct Ukrainian identity has only emerged in the past century or so that Russian paternalism appears so threatening to many Ukrainians.
After the first East Slavic state, Kyivan Rus, was destroyed by the Mongols in the 1240s, Moscow eventually emerged as the new center of the East Slavic world, while modern Ukraine spent much of the subsequent centuries ruled by Lithuania or Poland. In the aftermath of the mid-17th century Khmelnitsky rebellion, modern Ukraine east of the Dnipro River came under Muscovite control, while the west mostly remained under Polish, and later Austrian, rule.
Over time, dialects spoken in the west, south, and north of the East Slavic world diverged, as did patterns of dress, music, and the like. Moscow viewed all the East Slavs as three branches of a single Russian people: Great (Russian), Little (Ruthenian), and White (Belarusian). It argued that the difference were the result of Polish magnates’ influence on the Ruthenian and Belarusian peasantry. Until 1917, the tsar’s official title included the phrase ruler “of all the Russias, Great, Little, and White.”
As nationalist ideas began sweeping across Europe in the wake of the French Revolution, some intellectuals began arguing that the Ruthenians were not just a branch on the Russian tree, but a nation in their own right. They created a Ukrainian literary language distinct from Russian, and ultimately sought to unite all of the Ukrainian people, who were then divided between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, into a single state. This narrative of Ukrainian nationhood did not win immediate acceptance, in part because most Ruthenians/Ukrainians were illiterate.
Moscow also sought to stamp it out. Publication in Ukrainian was banned in the Russian Empire until 1905. Tsar Nicholas II believed Ukrainian nationalism was an Austrian-inspired threat to the territorial integrity of his empire. When Russian troops overran much of western Ukraine in 1914, they began to systematically eradicate Polish culture, which, it argued, was responsible for turning the Ruthenians away from their “true” Russian nature. Sergey Sazonov, Nicholas II’s comparatively liberal foreign minister from 1910-16 said of Ukraine “it does not exist…. [t]here is a Little Russia, there is not a Ukraine.”
It took the Soviet Union, with its creation of a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, its brutal suppression of nationalist movements, and its commitment to universal education to accelerate the spread of national ideas throughout Ukraine. Stalin’s onslaught against symbols of Ukrainian nationhood and the millions of Ukrainians who died during the famine of the early 1930s fed resentment against Moscow that exploded during World War II, when Ukrainian nationalist organizations collaborated with the Nazis in the vain hope of breaking free from Soviet control. They failed, but ultimately the USSR itself, a state founded on the principle of Communist internationalism, became a great incubator of nationalist ideas, through its commitment to universal literacy and the Ukrainian-language schools, newspapers, and theaters it provided, not to mention the simulacrum of statehood it created in the Ukrainian SSR.
Yet as discussion over Ukraine’s relationship with the EU have shown, many Russian officials still harbor a kind of reflexive belief in the essential one-ness of Russia and Ukraine. So do many Russian citizens. According to polls, around 59% believe Russians and Ukrainians are of “one blood” and should therefore share a common political destiny. Largely for this reason, the growth of xenophobia targeting migrant workers in Russia has spared Ukrainians, who are the fourth largest migrant group in Russia.
Like Nicholas II, many Russians continue to see Ukrainian nationalism as something foreigners encourage to weaken Russia. The pro-European demonstrators filling the streets of Kyiv are depicted in the Russian media as foreign agents out to seduce Ukraine away from its longstanding ties to Russia. Ukrainian nationalist groups are meanwhile tarred by associating them with the Nazi collaborators of World War II. Moscow also promotes the idea that eastern Ukrainians.
The underlying struggle over identity in the debate over Ukraine’s relationship with Europe and Russia helps explain why the crisis has been so fraught. Of course, the European aspirations espoused by many Ukrainians reflect frustration with Yanukovych’s kleptocracy and with poor living standards, but they are also about asserting a Ukrainian identity that is free of Russia’s shadow. For the protestors in Kyiv’s Independence Square, “Europe” symbolizes not only higher living standards and cleaner politics, but also a sovereign, independent Ukraine. Meanwhile, Moscow’s repeated invocations of a common Russian-Ukrainian identity forces nationally minded Ukrainians to define themselves and their nation in opposition to Russia, a phenomenon that will only deepen the longer the current crisis drags on.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a fellow and deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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