Recently I found a story reported by Miquel Puertas, the brave Spanish independent blogger who has been living in Donetsk for more than three years now. He told of the daughter of a couple he knows there in Donetsk. Both the father and the mother, natives of the region, identify as Russians and they speak exclusively Russian, like many in the Donbass and in other parts of Ukraine. Their daughter went off to study at university in the capital Kiev, however, and when she came back she was a different person. While in Kiev the young woman became persuaded that Russia and the Russians stand for all that is evil in this word and she suddenly rediscovered her ancient Ukrainian identity. She started learning Ukrainian to be closer to her ancestral roots and she and her parents have been on bad terms since, having found themselves on two different sides of an armed conflict.
War divides families
This tale is exemplary in many ways and they are a lot of very similar stories. It will be hard for the young excitable champions of the universality of Western democracy and freedom to understand it, but this is exactly the sort of consequences the battle for the Westernization of Ukraine has meant for those who do not see it only as just another battlefield for their evangelism and hyperprogressive causes, but who happen to live there too: the sudden shift of Ukraine towards the West and the ugly break of its relations with Russia have meant for many the destruction of the most real bonds, the bonds a person has with his family, in favour of some imaginary, patriotic, national bonds. In a country were public discourse now is dominated by the rhetoric of patriotism and war propaganda, it has become ok for children to symbolically “murder” their parents in the name of the Motherland. Now war divides families. This is the direct consequence of the international missionarism of Western politicians and the naive, excitable followers, people with little experience of real life and much free time, who bought their empty talk of Western values, prospertity and freedom. A Russian proverb says: “The motherland begins from the family”, meaning more of less “the root of love for the motherland is love for the family” but in this case love for the motherland has nurtured hate for the family.
European house of nations
The story of this young born again Ukrainian patriot is telling also in another respect. Until a few years ago, it would have been impossible to deny that the story of Russia and Ukraine have always been intertwined. But over the last couple of years, a new paradigm in the interpretation of the history of Ukraine has become commonplace in the country, even if until now this new paradigm has failed to become mainstream in Western historiography (with a few exceptions). According to this new conception, Ukraine has always been, since the outset of the (Kievan) Rus, a “European” nation and its history is no younger that, say, the history of France. One can wonder if the idea of “European” nations makes sense when speaking of the X century. To the supporters of this conception, it does not matter that the term “Ukrainian” began to be used to refer to a separated “Ukrainian” nationhood only in the XIX century and that those who had the luxury to care about the until then scarcely relevant question of nationality did not have any problem in referring to the themselves as Russian. It does not even matter that in ancient Ukraine was in fact simply Rus. One has to say, this paradigm is not entirely new because it had already apperead in the early years of Ukrainian independence, after 1991, probably as way to find historical legitimization, but it was always moderated by less radical, more nuanced and conciliatory views. In other times, it would have been regareded as rather strange for world-renown academics to speak of a nation before there existed any national consciousness of sort. Now the narrative of an entirely separated Ukrainian nation, which for century suffered from the occupation of imperial Russia, has become the dominant one, a narrative reinforced by the rhetoric of the “war with Russia” for the very independence of Ukraine: in fact for many who newly reinvented themselves as ardent Ukrainian patriots, the “war with Russia” appears to be their only raison d’etre.
It has become fashionable in these patriotic circles and for those who for a whole variety of motives support them, to speak of “cultural appropriation” or of how Muscovy stole Ukrainian history, unlegitimately taking possession of the Rus past when it emerged from the Tatar yoke in the XV century. There was much outcry in Ukraine a couple of months ago when President Putin referred to Anne of Kiev, the Queen and wife of Henri I of France, as Russian. Should he have called her Ukrainian, even if at the time nobody had heard of the word “Ukrainian”? Even in French historiography, she had for long been referred to simply as “Anne de Russie”. The supporters of Ukrainian fundamental otherness from Russia like to argue that Muscovy had no claim to the unification of the Russian lands, because it was merely a distant offshoot of the ancient Kievan Rus. In reality they conveniently forget one not entirely irrelevant fact: by the XIV century, two hundred years after the Mongol invasion and the effective fragmentation of the Rus and the decline of the city of Kiev, the Metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus had in fact relocated to Moscow. It was a time when the legacy of the ancient Rus was disputed between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Muscovy: the Lithuanian claim however looked weaker even at the time, because the ruling dynasty was pagan and could not expect recognition from the Patriarch in Constantinople; it suffered an event harder blow when the alternative Metropolitan of Kiev resident in Vilnius effectively abandoned the Orthodox faith by accepting the unification with catholicism in the Council of Florence in 1439. Muscovian Grand Princes since Ivan III, who regined between 1462 and 1505, adopted the title of Tsar of all Rus and the designation “Sovereign of all Rus” was engraved in the coins circulating even before him, under his father and his grandfather, Vasily II and Vasily I respectively. Nobody was going to hear of Ukraine and of the Ukrainians for a long time.
Ukraine is not Russia: or is it?
Nobody wants to deny that there is a Ukrainian national identity: it would be absurd to maintain that now, in 2017, one hundred years after the formation of the first foundations of a Ukrainian proto-statehood during World War I, twenty six years of history as an indepedent country and a consistent part of the population whose first language is Ukrainian (many of whom, especially among the young, do no speak Russian) that the Ukrainian nation is a fiction. But Ukraine is clearly a very young nation. Leonid Kuchma, the second President of Ukraine, who left office in 2004, wrote a book titled simply “Ukraine is not Russia” (even if now Ukrainian patriots say he was pro-Russian…). He could as well have called it “Russia is not Russia” because this is the fundamental belief lying at the core of the new Ukrainian self-perception: Ukraine is the only real Rus and the Mongol Russians stole our identity and our history.