War with Russia is at the root of contemporary Ukrainian identity

Русская версия здесь

In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, you hear the Russian language almost everywhere, even among young people. Roughly every second inhabitant of the capital, according to a conservative estimate, will probably be likely to speak Russian rather than Ukrainian in his everyday life. There is an increasing group of young Ukrainians, though, who have come to stubbornly refuse to speak the Russian language, even when they know it perfectly well, because of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Some others will say that “unfortunately” they speak Russian or that they are even ashamed of speaking Russian as a native language.

President Poroshenko has repeatedly made the point that Ukraine has said “Goodbye forever” to the Soviet past and the “Russian empire” and that there is no way back. If the war going on in Eastern Ukraine is between Ukraine and Russia, that is to say, between the Ukrainian army which stands for and defends the whole of a unitarian Ukraine and a homogeneous Ukrainian nation and the Russian army, which wants to annihilate Ukraine, it seems to be, at this moment, a rather low intensity conflict. Young men stroll through the streets of the Ukrainian capital, a Eurovision song context and the football Champions League final take place in Kiev, while a war for the survival of the Ukrainian nation is going on in the East. A country constantly under mortal threat could look a bit differently.

The sacred fire of the revolution

People and countries generally very rarely want to provoke a war. Nothing however may be as good as war in keeping the spirits high and a nation united. It is the famous “rally around the flag” phenomenon. War is an exceptional state, where many unusual things and extraordinary can happen, and a sign of exciting and interesting times for some others. One cannot forget that the post Maidan government was, after all, a revolutionary government that came to power as a result of an unconventional power change, and like all revolutionary governments it felt a sense of destiny bordering on fanaticism, a sense of self-assurance and a belief in the cause of the “popular” Revolution of Dignity that seemed to be reinforced by the unconditional support the new revolutionary government enjoyed from Europe and the United States. And revolutionaries famously are not the sort of people who are likely to sit down, devote themselves to boring administrative tasks and find compromises. They came to power for a holy and pure cause, to end corruption and transform Ukraine into a European nation. The lesson we can draw from this is that sometimes it may not be enough to be formally integrated into a European system of abstract laws and agreements when a country is run according to very different, more deeply ingrained dynamics. Germany may have had a sincere interest in helping Ukraine become more European, more German, more transparent. The Ukrainian elite did not seem to have any wish to become more German however.

The new revolutionary government had come to power after protests lasting for three months during which government buildings were seized. The government of the square, a real popular government, however, was not ready to tolerate any dissent, because its cause was good and its mission was sacred. And let’s not forget this, they were enjoying the moral support of the “civilized world”: so when government buildings were seized in Kharkov and in the Donbass, in response to the transition of power that had happened in the capital, an antiterrorist operation was launched. Only a few months before, the whole civilized world was supposed to be shocked at the images of Ukrainian police beating up students and unite in support of the Ukrainian people on the streets. The masses on the square were the forces of good, the authoritarian government stood for the forces of darkness and oppression. When the same happened in Eastern Ukraine, the picture was quickly reversed, in the space of a couple of weeks: the government now had the right to defend itself against terrorists who occupied government property and endangered the state. The protesters, now ascended to power, as it often happens, were not tolerating other protesters. By March, with Crimea already gone, it was easy to put the entire blame on Russia. It was a gradual process, however, because at the beginning, between April and August 2014, it would have been difficult to call the antiterrorist operation in the Donbass a war between Russia and Ukraine. It would have been difficult to maintain that in these months, between April and August, Ukraine was fighting a war against the Russian Army.

Elections in Ukraine will be next year. In March, that is in 6 months, the President is to be elected. Later in the year, there will be elections for the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. Four years and a half after the revolution and with the war in the Donbass having come to an unstable stall that leaves neither side happy, the drums of war resonate constantly. The war with Russia is a constant there. The suggestion that the conflict in the Donbass may be a civil war, with the Ukrainian army fighting pro-Russian separatists, but still formally Ukrainian citizens, is met with angry rejection by many who think that the sole responsible for this war is Vladimir Putin, who always had plans to dismember Ukraine. This appears to be a very simplistic analysis of the events since 2014. Two Ukrainian TV channels, 112 UA and NewsOne are currently risking being closed down because somebody dared to suggest during airtime that the Maidan was not maybe so heavenly a revolution as it wanted to be seen and that the conflict in the Donbass may be a civil war. War time, war measures.

The war with Russia or at least the idea of a war with Russia based on an existential threat to Ukraine, has allowed people and professional commentators to maintain that finally Ukraine has become independent from Russia for real now, as if the formal independence of 1991 had never been a real one. The war with Russia also allows for the proper corrections to be made in how the history of Ukraine is told. Ukrainians were never Russians and Russia had oppressed them for many centuries. Ukraine became the land of the free loving Cossacks, who joined forces with the Russian Empire in 1654, only to regret it just a couple of years later. It is not clear to what extent the Cossacks referred to themselves as Ukrainians and as it is known, not all Cossacks became later Ukrainians. What is known as that by the end of the XVI century official documents of the Great Russia or Moscovia were registering the noun “Ukrainians” applied to the people who inhabited a part of contemporary Ukraine of Mala Rossiya.

It seems to matter little that once, what today is known as Ukrainian language was called “Ruska mowa”, ruska language (“ruska” and not “russka”!) or “prosta mowa”, simple language. Ukraine is the real Rus, so goes the thinking, and Russia in the form of the Russia empire simply expropriated Ukraine (or the real original Russia) of its history. The real Rus however, which now is not called Rus because it was never part of Russia, wants to cut all ties to the big Rus, because the big Rus is not the original Rus and the original Rus was not what now people have come to think Rus was because the real Rus was already a thousand years ago a part of Europe. Are you a bit confused? You may well be excused if you are.

Kill the Russian in you

Hence the foundation of the Ukrainian identity appears to have become on the opposition to the Russianness. The “border people” (so one could roughly translate the word “Ukrainians”), who until a 100 years ago were not sure if they were Rusky or Ukrainians, have now found the core of their identity in their “Non-Russianness”. They might as well have called themselves the Unrussians, or the Real Russians, not the Muscovite Ones or the Eurussians, the European Russian or etymologically, the “good” Russians. Or the Stinians, стінякі, the Wall People, from the Ukrainian word for Wall, стіна, (in Russian that would be стена, stena): Ukraine is after all more and more being portrayed as the wall between Europe, the territory of civilization, and the wild East, were barbarians roamed. It may be a not very precise historical conception, but it is a very powerful founding myth. A novel called “Stena” (the original version was written in Russian, but it does not have to be given too much relevance) by the Ukrainian writer and war correspondent Andrey Tsaplienko has been published only a few months ago. In the novel, which falls in the category of antiutopias and explores a future thirty years from now, the Russian Federation has broken up into several smaller countries at war with each other, degrading into a territory of lawlessness and Ukraine, protected by a wall 1000 kilometres long, has become the bulwark of civilization. It seems to be the dream come true of many Ukrainian patriots these days.

Other than the national question, the successes of the revolution of dignity seem to have been very modest, in spite of the lodes Ukraine may have received for its attempts to reform. Is the closer cooperation with NATO and the European Union an achievement in itself? It well may be, but if the European Union and NATO cannot help a country become a bit better, what is their general purpose at all? It is a general understanding that corruption, the root of all problems in Ukraine according to many, remained exactly as it was before the new government, finally a moral government, came to power. It appears to be in the interest of those in power now to continue the confrontation with the separatist forces supported by Russia and by extension with the whole of Russia and Putin: as long as the confrontation continues, few are supposed to be paying attention to the “imperfections” of the revolutionary government. Only traitors criticize a government at war.

You want to read more about Ukraine? Check out our author Stepan Antonov’s latest book: “Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between East and West”, published by East & West Books. Available on amazon on kindle and in print.


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