This year Ukraine proudly celebrated 30 years of independence. As a round number, this anniversary invites to a deeper understanding of Ukrainian independence and contemporary identity.
“We need to get rid of the Cyrillic alphabet”, recently said Oleksiy Danilov, the Ukrainian Secretary of the Security Council, in an interview with US funded Radio Svoboda. This statement very neatly symbolized the redefinition of Ukrainian identity that is at the heart of the societal processes driven from above that we have witnessed since at least 1991 and that has intensified dramatically after the Maidan Revolution of 2014.
The reasoning behind the supporters of the idea of Ukraine switching to the Latin alphabet argue that this transition would make Ukraine closer to Europe. “The richest countries in the world use the Latin alphabet”, “the Cyrillic alphabet is used by backward countries”, these are some of the arguments. Others speak of “modernization”, “progress” and similar things. As if there could no progress or modernization without the alphabet used in English, and other Western European languages.
Arguably, today the majority of the Ukrainian population would hardly support abandoning the Cyrillic letters in favour of the Latin alphabet. But this is not the point. The point is that the Ukrainian ruling class has been persuaded that Ukraine must be part of the West, also institutionally, that is be integrated in the European Union and NATO. It does not matter whether this comes at the prices of radically transforming Ukrainian identity and national consciousness. The masses after all are generally static forces, they cannot be always pleased. Historical transformation comes generally from above, that is from consolidated, organized small forces, not from some kind of romantic “will of the people”, regardless of much this will of the people is romanticized in the myth of the revolution.
Everyone who has even just passing knowledge of Ukraine and Ukrainians understand very clearly that today’s Ukrainians are very different from Swedes, Germans, English, French or Italians. This does not mean, better or worse, just different, very different. In the past couple of years, however, the idea that Ukrainians belong to the West and shared the same values and culture of Germans, Americans and French has gained popularity. After all, if we want to see things a certain way it does not matter how things look in reality: reality in a mental construct to a certain extent, and this is even more true when we are talking about immaterial things like “identity”, “self-perception”, in particular in our “fluid” era. Fake it until you make it may affect also being Western or not.
“Ukraine is Europe” was one of the most cited slogans of the so called “Revolution of Dignity” of 2013-2014. People expected European economic integration, European standards, European quality of life. What happened afterward was of course unpredictable. Crimea went over to Russia, the Donbass rose up. Everything is blamed on Russian war aggression in Ukraine, but the events were clearly much more complex. The general Western rhetoric of “annexation of Crimea” fails to mention the Crimean referendum, a forgotten referendum, just like the Transdnistrian independence referendum of 1991 and the independence South Ossetian referendum of 1992.
Crimea and the Donbass were two of the most “Russian” regions of Ukraine. Arguably, if Crimea and the Donbass remained within Ukraine, the process of forced Ukrainization of the Ukraine, that is the progressive exclusion of the Russian element in Ukraine would be much more painful and difficult. Ukraining Crimea would have been much more difficult than Ukrainizing Kiev. If before 2014 at least half of the Ukrainian population spoke Russian at home, now it is entirely acceptable to defame Russian speakers as “betrayers”, not real Ukrainians, “Muscovites”, people damaging their country in public discourse. There is an increasing number of angry language activists who look around for people speaking Russian in the service sector. For some reason the international human rights organizations, always careful about the rights of every possible minority, fail to see these things.
When in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution some people suggested that the triumph of the Maidan would disenfranchise “Russian speaking Ukrainians”, the West, jubilant at the victory of “freedom and democracy”, rejected all arguments, saying that there was no danger to “Russian speaking Ukrainians”, and they blamed everything on Russian malign propaganda. “There are no nationalists in Ukraine”, said Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State at the time, and with her almost the entire Western media circus repeated in chorus.
When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the first Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk promised that the new independent Ukraine was going to be home to Ukranians and Russians, regardless of what language they spoke. What followed, in particular from 2004, and with increasingly violent rhetoric since 2014, turned Kravchuk’s words into an empty promise. The real existential meaning of the Project Ukraine lies in that “Go away from Russia”, even if that means transforming millions of people into something different from what they used to be. The only thing left to the passive masses is to identify in the new symbols of the new nation suddenly all around them.