Ukraine: A tale of two extremes?

Did Brussels light the fuse of a new Cold War?

Giorgos Regkoukos

The fact that one of the existing etymologies for the word ‘Ukraine’ is derived from the Slavic word for ‘extreme’ or ‘border’ is one of the ironies of history. Characteristically, the use of the definite article which preceded the name of that country in a number of European languages has been rendered politically incorrect, much like its much older designation as ‘Little Russia’. However, both onomatopoeiaic practices do not stem from a supposedly perennial Russo-Ukrainian rivalry, but from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Œcumenical Patriarchate respectively. The ‘extreme’ referes to the easternborder of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the epithet ‘Little’ to the administrative division of the Slavic Metropolitan Church (‘Μεγάλη Pωσσία’ and ‘Μικρή Ρωσσία’)  in the 14th century.

Historically, the annexation of Ukraine by the Russian Empire, as well as its secession from the USSR, took place, also ironically, under entirely comparable circumstances and for very similar reasons. Besides, in over 40,000 years of human history in the Ukrainian planes, the balance of armed conflicts, occupation and enslavements tilts emphatically towards the West. A destruction of the first ‘Ukrainian’ state (the Kingdom of Rus) by a major eastern power happened for the first time in 1240 when the Mongols sacked Kiev. Following the decline of the Mongol Empire and the dismemberment of its European lands, Ukraine came under the control of Lithuania (northern, north-western sectors, Volhynia), of Poland (Galicia) and of Hungary (Zakarpattia). There followed a period of relative geopolitical stability and increase of Europe’s population, which led many Germans, Poles, Lithuanians and Jews to colonise Ukrainian territories. As Mongol influence waned, the Ottoman Empire expanded into the Crimea (displacing the Genoese merchants who had settled there) by proxy of its Tatar protectorate, a singular and semiautonomous ‘khanate’ whose main economic activity was the slave trade.

What we today regard as the ‘western’ part of Ukraine, i.e. the part inhabited by the ‘westerniser’ majority of the population has its roots in the 16th century. The Union of Lublin (1569), which in reality was a charter for the real union to replace the heretofore dynastic union of Poland and Lithuania, specified that Ukrainian lands would belong to the Polish Crown. Polish landowners, as well as peasants, moved to the new borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in order to take advantage of the rich soil, alleviating at the same time the pressure caused by the hyper-concentration of latifundia in the hands of a small number of nobles inside Poland proper. The colonisation process was accompanied by efforts to ‘polonise’ Ukraine, which had mixed success: the introduction of Catholicism and the establishment of the Greek Catholic Church, the establishment of serfdom and the spread of the Renaissance. Until this point in time it becomes clear that, if we exclude the chaotic conflicts between Rus princedoms, the Russian state (in any of its earlier forms) showed no intention of expanding towards Ukraine. On the contrary Poland – part of which was Ukraine – attempted to take advantage of the anarchy prevailing in Russia during the Time of Troubles (1557-1613), the time between the death of Feodor I and the enthronement of Michail Romanov, in order to achieve territorial gains.

Chronologically, the first attempt to unite the two states, at least on a diplomatic level, came in the aftermath of the Zaporozhye Cossack revolt against Polish rule (1648-1657) led by the hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Zaporozhye Cossacks were a separate ethnic group – distinct from the Don Cossacks who had by this time already pledged allegiance to Moscow and the Kuban Cosssacks who would come under Russian rule in 1783 – that tried to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat by signing the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654, year in which by convention historians place the first union of Ukraine and Russia. The Cossack hetman’s image in present-day Ukraine varies from region to region, much like countries on either side of the Rhine are arguing over the ‘nationality’ of Charlemagne. Most inhabitants of Western Ukraine, especially those with Polish ancestry and Catholic beliefs, appear either outright hostile (casting doubt, for example, on the ‘ukrainianess’ of Khmelnytsky) or simply indifferent. In the 21st century, the Treaty of Pereyaslav has become the object of heated debates between Russian and Ukrainian historians – sparked mostly by the prospect of returning to the designation of ‘Little Russia’.  Despite the fact that no text of the Treaty survives, it is almost certain that later developments surpassed by far the hetman’s intentions, namely securing a powerful ally and the autonomy of the Cossack state: the consequences were long-term and extremely serious.

Yet the rise of Russia as an imperial power, from 1721 onwards, does not essentially affect Russo-Ukrainian relations on the level of populations. Even the annexation of territories east of the Dnieper by Russia in 1667 does not become irreversible until after the Swedish defeat at Poltava in 1709. As a consequence of the Russo-Ottoman conflict, the Crimean Khanate will be absorbed and ultimately abolished by Catherine the Great in 1783. The imperial rivalry of Russia with Poland-Lithuania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire resulted in the annexation of all the lands of modern Ukraine, but this was a process which culminated as late as 1812 with the annexation of Bessarabia. It is extremely doubtful that in the conflicts occurring between the Treaty of Pereyaslav and the Treaty of Bucharest, Ukraine’s indigenous population was en masse on the side of either Russia or any of her rivals. The heritage of Pereyaslav was essentially that it stopped, in effect, the process of ‘polonisation’ of Ukrainians and initiated a process of ‘russianisation’. The designation ‘Little Russia’ – in correspondence to ‘Big Russia’ and ‘White Russia’ – returns after the Russian conquest during the 19th century.

In the same way, the Crimean War (1853-1856) much like the great majority of armed conflicts in the nineteenth century, was not caused by racial or cultural differences but the rivalry of the Great Powers on a geopolitical level.  Russia’s internal policies in Ukraine appear to be those of aggressive russianisation: the country’s legal codex is abolished, the language is banned in 1876, while at the same time the Greek Catholic Church is persecuted. The developments during this period are those most frequently referred to as indicative of a perennial Russian drive to suppress Ukrainian identity. But already in 1818 the Ukrainian language acquires its own Grammar (whose author, prone to hyperbole, characterised as the Grammar of ‘a dying dialect’) and in 1823 its first dictionary. The most important, perhaps, development was the appearance of a national Ukrainian identity thanks to the pioneering efforts of the bourgeoning intelligentsia, representatives of which in the Ukraine – much like in many other regions of the Russian Empire – make use of ethnography, in particular peasant ethnography and folklore, in order to frame a nationalist approach to History. The most famous such intellectual was the poet Taras Shevchenko, ‘Ukraine’s Byron’ (1814-1859). In order to disassociate themselves from the Russians and Poles (‘we’ versus ‘them’), nationalist intellectuals began using the word Ukraïna, a term we come across in some of the few Old Church Slavonic texts in existence. Hence the categorisation of the word Ukraine as a nineteenth-century neologism, since until that time the indigenous populace referred to itself asmuzhik, or Orthodox, or simply as tutesni (‘the people who live here’, ‘the locals’). In Hapsburg Galicia, the area surrounding Lvov, the Ukrainian nationalist movement was more successful. It founded its own university and legal political parties. The Austrians were a little less authoritarian than the Russians, partly because of the multicultural makeup of their Empire, but mostly because they needed a strong Ukrainian nationalist movement to play against the Poles.

When both Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires collapsed at the end of WWI, Ukrainians managed to establish short-lived governments in Lvov and Kiev – only to be ignored by the Entente Powers when redrawing European borders in Versailles and St. Germain. The destruction and desolation suffered by Ukraine during WWI heralded the darkest period in the region’s history. In the interwar period the contrast between Poles, who launched bloody pogroms against Ukrainian nationalists and the Soviets, who immediately recognised the independent Republic of Ukraine while encouraging the rebirth of Ukrainian culture, had as a direct result a new rapprochement between Russians and Ukrainians. It is true that the elimination of Soviet intelligentsia and forced collectivisation affected Ukraine proportionally more than other Soviet Republics. The Second World War, however, would bring disproportionally more casualties as a result of regular and partisan fighting, forced labour and – of course – the systematic extermination of Ukraine’s Jewish population by the SS and their local collaborators. In the end, the Ukrainian state would actually enlarge its territory after the War. Galicia was retaken from Poland, the ‘tail’ of Czechoslovakia was annexed, as were some Romanian lands. In 1954 the remaining Crimean Tatars were forcibly relocated by Khrushchev as punishment for their collaborating with the Nazis and Crimea was also handed to the Ukraine. The country was even given its own seat in the UN, along with Russia and Belarus, thanks to successful diplomatic manoeuvring by the USSR.

Therefore, if we except Stalinist rule, Ukraine’s experience as part of the Soviet Union was overall positive, at least with regards to its national issues and cultural rebirth. For this reason, its declaration of independence following the breakup of the USSR in 1991 was by no means a foregone conclusion. At this stage in its history, Ukraine was heavily russianised and home to the largest concentration of CPSU members outside Russia. On the other hand, the fallout from Chernobyl in 1986 had undermined Moscow’s authority in the country, while Catholic Ukraine – echoing the Polish ‘Solidarity’ – had begun an independence movement called ‘Rukh’. When the coup against Gorbachev fell through in 1991, Ukraine’s communists – who were still the majority in Parliament – tried to save themselves by opting for independence. They closed, in this way, a historical circle begun by Khmelnytsky in Pereyaslav. Over the following decades, Ukraine – until recently the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and home to much of its heavy industry – was plagued by recession, stagflation and political disillusionment which led to indifference. Hyperinflation forced its government to adopt a new currency, while public property was carved up and privatised, coming under the control of the oligarchic nomenclature, much like it did in Russia.

In 2004 the Orange Revolution was hailed by western commentators, as a move towards ‘real independence’ thirteen years after the dissolution of the USSR. Its culmination was said to have been Yushchenko’s victory in the second electoral faceoff. Those who propagated such views did not take into account that almost half of Ukraine’s population is Russophile, a large number of its Orthodox citizens consider the Patriarch of Moscow their spiritual leader and the majority of the inhabitants in Donbas and the Crimea are ethnically Russian. Meanwhile, a financially and militarily rejuvenated Russia led by Putin, tried to overturn the multiple and continuous humiliations of the past twenty years. The EU, for its part, followed a mixed external policy and seemed indecisive as to how to handle ‘the Ukrainian question’. Historically, Russian/Soviet expansionist policies served the strategic objective to create a large buffer zone between East and West. Did Brussels, in its attempt to follow a similar strategy, light the fuse of a new Cold War?

History categorically favours a culturally composite Ukraine. Successive partitions, colonisation and occupation by powerful neighbouring states have left a multicultural legacy, an advantage that some Ukrainian governments in recent years have refused to exploit, especially at a time when the Council of Europe religiously follows the ‘everybody’s different, everybody’s equal’ dogma. Ukraine’s urban centres have for centuries been multicultural melting pots. The country’s religious and ethnic minorities are varied and populous. They can refer to a historically proven national identity stemming from sobornist Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the denomination which first introduced the concept of a ‘people’s soul’, a non-individualistic egalitarian conceptualisation of the social whole. In contrast to the historical evolution of Russia, which is characterised by the rationalisation of absolute state authority, the Latinimperium, Ukraine’s history is the history of a people that realises its national potential within the framework of the Russian Empire and the USSR. Historical conditions imposed upon Ukraine an internationalist worldview, a mind frame of tolerance and cultural rapprochement. This seemingly delicate balance lasted for thirteen years, a lot more than Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia. Attempt to legislate in favour of ‘good neighbourly relations’ with the EU overturned that balance and crisis erupted. Whether and to what extent the westerniser movement of 2013-14 is representative of Ukraine’s historical tradition is for the reader to decide.

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