Europe, Headlines

Q&A: Ukraine Divided Over Russia

Interview with Russian Historian and Professor Alexei Miller

BUDAPEST, Apr 21 2008 (IPS) - Key pro-Western politicians in Ukraine are promoting the revival of an ethno-cultural nationalism which is built on opposition to Russia and has driven a wedge between Ukrainians – western Ukrainians tend to see the eastern neighbour as the eternal enemy, while many in the east see Russia as a part of themselves.

Alexei Miller Credit:

Alexei Miller Credit:

Ukrainian nationalism has been often played down by Western media and analysts, who tend to focus on the allegedly liberal and pro-market characteristics of pro-Western Ukrainian politicians, ignoring one of their essential themes in scoring votes with the electorate: nationalism.

An expert in Eastern European nationalism, Russian history professor Alexei Miller, has carried out extensive research in Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Miller is currently a visiting professor at Budapest&#39s U.S. and Hungarian-accredited Central European University, and works in the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. He speaks to IPS correspondent Zoltan Dujisin.

IPS: What are the main dividing lines in Ukrainians&#39 understanding of themselves?

Alexei Miller: There is an ethno-cultural Ukrainian nationalism which strongly believes a good Ukrainian is a Ukrainian speaking Ukrainian, that thinks of Russian culture as an alien culture.

In contrast, in the east people mostly speak Russian, they think Russian culture, together with Ukrainian culture, is their culture. They are loyal Ukrainian citizens and they think you can be a good Ukrainian citizen and patriot without necessarily alienating yourself from Russian culture, without questioning that you were on the right side during the war, without necessarily agreeing that those who were so to say on the German side during the war are the exemplary Ukrainians.

The main problem now in Ukraine in terms of ethnic nationalism is that they think the east is an object for social engineering. The east is not proper Ukrainian and should be made proper Ukrainian, whereas eastern Ukrainians believe they have the right to define what Ukrainianness means for them.

IPS: What do you make of frequent depictions in Ukrainian press of eastern Ukrainians as oblivious to what is really happening in the country?

AM: It is absolute nonsense, there are many myths and false images which are supposed to legitimise an attitude towards easterners as objects of social engineering that need to be reshaped into proper people.

There is a trend to describe the "Blue" Ukrainian east as a land of criminals and tyrants, whereas the "Orange" West and Centre represents democracy and western economic orientation. But this is a false picture. The economic transformation of Eastern Ukraine is much more dynamic than in Western Ukraine.

IPS: Where do you place the origins of Ukrainian nationalism?

AM: One of the crucial elements of Ukrainian nationalism was the emancipation of Ukraine, as a project, from the concept of Russian nationalism, which was claiming Ukraine as part of the Russian nation.

The understanding of Russians in the 19th century was that there are different sorts of Russians: Great Russians, (what we now know as Russians), white Russians (which stood for Belarusians), and Little Russians, (which stood for Ukrainians).

Russian nationalism claimed all the territory of Ukraine, because it claimed all Eastern Slavs are Russians, but by that it wasn&#39t meant that Russian nationalism wanted to transform Eastern Slavs into Great Russians.

Ukrainian nationalists had to invent a name for a nation that would separate them from the Russian nation. You have plenty of such examples all over Europe. The point is that if you want to build a Ukrainian national project, then the first thing you have to do is to argue that Ukraine is not Russia, to take distance from it, and that was very much inherited by Ukrainian nationalism.

IPS: How was Ukrainian nationalism affected by the Soviet experience?

AM: There were different periods, but overall there was a transformation, because the Soviet project recognised Ukraine as a separate nation. Under the new project Great Russians, which became Russians, and Ukrainians were now brothers, close relatives who together build a new socialist future and the Soviet Union. As far as the Soviet Union recognised Ukraine, you could be Ukrainian but not hostile to Russia. (Unlike Eastern Ukraine, Western Ukraine was until 1939 under Polish rule, and joined the Soviet Union following a pact with Germany to divide Poland).

In the 1920s we saw the Ukrainianisation of what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was rather an undoing of some achievements of the old Russian project, which was buried. By 1917 there was only one city in Ukraine where the majority spoke Ukrainian, Poltava, and then again 52 percent of its inhabitants were speaking it. When the Soviets started the Ukrainianisation policy there were plenty of protests from Russian speakers, but these were ignored.

This policy of Ukrainianisation lasted until the 1930s; then Russian was gradually introduced, but it has to be studied how much of Eastern Ukraine was Russified before 1917 or after 1945, how much was about the migration of labour force in both directions, and so on.

IPS: The memory of the Second World War is still hotly disputed in Ukraine.

AM: During the second world war the majority of Ukrainians, particularly from the East, fought in the Red Army, whereas some Western Ukrainians, those who had been under the Polish state, sometimes saw themselves as allies of Germany and were definitely not happy to find themselves among the ranks of the Red Army.

The memory of the war was very much instrumentalised by a Soviet propaganda that claimed it was the right cause against the wrong cause, and this was deeply ingrained in the consciousness of everyone living in the Soviet Union, including Ukrainians in the east.

A new situation was then created, because two versions of understanding what it is to be Ukrainian were brought together.

IPS: The division persisted well into the Soviet Union until our days.

AM: After the annexation of Western Ukraine by the Soviet Union following the Second World War, the regime of imposing Soviet control over every sphere of life became even tighter than in Eastern Ukraine, but there was a long tradition of fighting for Ukrainianness in inter-war Poland, and this tradition survived into Soviet times, in different circumstances, under bigger pressure, but it survived.

As far as they were surviving as a clandestine movement, you might say many of these people were sacrificing their prosperity and careers, sometimes undertaking heroic acts. But they created a war mentality, and after the emergence of independent Ukraine they didn&#39t bury the axe of war, they rather thought that now they are going to win this war.

After the 1960s-1970s the Soviet idea was that a good Ukrainian speaks Russian and some Ukrainian, although you could for instance publish books in Ukrainian language. But it was a policy keeping Ukrainian with a lower status. That had to be changed and it was changed, but it does not mean that you can follow on with the programme of "eradicating colonial influence" because that is the talk of these "fighters" against "Russian colonial heritage."

IPS: Are the positions irreconcilable?

AM: Both sides are very hostile to each other, which has been shown by many elections. The point is there could be some common ground: people in the east could recognise that in the conditions of the war fighting on the German side against the Soviets doesn&#39t necessarily make you a war criminal, but the western side would have to recognise that they cannot eradicate Russian language.

There is a need to build a consensual version of a Ukrainian nation which is not based on the exclusivity of Ukrainian language, on hostility to Russia, or even on justifying atrocities such as the killing of Jews claiming they were active supporters of communism or of Poles because of their &#39unlawful colonisation&#39 of Western Ukraine: we know this talk all over Central Europe.

IPS: What are the key historical issues that still weigh in Ukrainian politics?

AM: Firstly, the status of the Russian language. Ethno-cultural Ukrainian nationalists would like to eradicate it, and while they will tell you that they cannot do it now, their policy is based on the hope that you can do it within a generation, which is a wrong policy. Hatred of Russia is influential at the government level, it&#39s more than political; it is cultural hatred.

A second issue is that of the reconciliation of memories. Both sides should admit they have their reasons and wrongs in the Second World War. It should be proclaimed past and nobody should claim to be an impeccable hero, rather there should be mutual forgiveness for what was done in the war.

The next issue is that of potential federalism in Ukraine. People have different opinions on it, but it&#39s clear the issue needs to be addressed. Regions must be given something, how much of these federal solutions could be implemented is another question. There are many people who, from the point of view of so-to-say "western-type Ukrainian nationalism", claim any federalist talk is a cover-up for separatism, which is not true, at least for the absolute majority of Eastern Ukrainians.

Whatever you may say about Eastern Ukrainians, they are not crazy, and they want to stay as the strongest regional business elite in Ukraine; they know as Russian citizens they could end up in Chechnya, and so on.

IPS: How influential is Soviet culture, often equalled to Russian culture, on Ukrainians?

AM: It depends on which Ukrainians. You can have an absolutely negative attitude towards Nazi culture in Germany; that lasted for 13 years, it was very militaristic, etc. But the Soviet culture lasted for 70 years, and it underwent a long evolution. Ukrainians where very heavily represented in the Soviet nomenklatura through all the Soviet period.

It is interesting to observe that the images and messages used by the Orange camp in the 2004 election campaign were all Soviet: Images of popular Soviet movies, popular soviet songs, and so on, which shows just how important the Soviet cultural entity is.

There was a Soviet popular culture that was accepted by people and is still valued by them. If you reduce this to Russian culture, as do the representatives of Ukrainian ethno-cultural nationalism, you simply create a cultural desert; there is nothing there except death. You cannot build a culture on Taras Shevchenko (19th century Ukrainian national poet who wrote both in Ukrainian and Russian), however great he is: you need something more for everyday life.

There is a situation in which you cannot prevent people from buying Russian books, music and so on. The constant talk of &#39Western-type nationalists&#39 on the disappearance of the Ukrainian language and on preventing Russian culture from getting into Ukraine and becoming popular can go on but they basically cannot take any serious steps. What they have to do is promote Ukrainian culture, it&#39s an obligation of the Ukrainian state, but this is about investing in what is Ukrainian rather than on increasing taxation on everything which is Russian.

IPS: What historical legitimacy does Russian language have in Ukraine?

AM: What we call now Russian language was created by a joint effort of Little (Ukrainian) and Great (Russian) Russians and approximately half, if not more, of Eastern Slavs with higher education in 18th century Russia were Little Russians.

It is mistaken to think that what was spoken in 17th century Ukraine was Ukrainian language: it was not, there were plenty of dialects. The Ukrainian language that we know nowadays was basically created in the 19th and 20th centuries by a conscious effort of what central European historiography calls &#39awakeners&#39. It was consciously created in an attempt to separate it to from the dominant Russian literary norm which was supposed to be common for all.

The distance between Ukrainian and Russian was not bigger than that between upper and lower German dialects. There can be different possible developments, we know that Dutch is a separate language, but it could easily have been a German dialect.

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