We continue our exploration of the shared history of Moscow and Ukraine, turning to the construction of Ukrainian nationalism before drawing a conclusion.
In his Analects (16:1), Confucius writes that, “if the people of far-off lands do not submit, then the ruler must attract them by enhancing the prestige [tê] of his culture [wen]; and when they have been duly attracted, he contents them.” In this case, it was not just culture, but common roots, that should have served to generate a sense of attraction as well as of care for local customs and institutions.
The opposite, that is, the tendency to pursue unity on the basis of an inorganic cultural fabrication, also manifested among the champions of modern Ukrainian nationalism. We may again cite Solzhenitsyn, referring to Galicia, the westernmost recess of Ukraine and the cradle of that concept of Ukrainian identity most at odds with the idea of sharing in some larger Russian identity:
As late as 1848, Galicians in Austria-Hungary referred to their national council as the “Chief Russian Rada.” But then, in a severed Galicia, and with active Austrian encouragement, a distorted Ukrainian language was produced, unrelated to popular usage and chock-full of German and Polish words. This was followed by the attempt to force Carpatho-Russians away from their habit of using the Russian language.
The degree to which a linguistic discrepancy from Russian was actively fostered is disputed, but Galician Ukrainian political consciousness was certainly conditioned by Austrian rule.
Solzhenitsyn is referring principally to the actions of Austrian Count Franz Stadion, who became governor of Galicia in 1846. At the time, the authorities had faced several Polish revolts. In this context, Count Stadion understood that Polish revolutionaries faced an obstacle in the Ukrainian population, who viewed Poles as responsible for their exploitation. In this respect, he proposed that measures be taken to garner Ukrainian favor.
When revolution broke out in 1848, Stadion’s approach gained support. He convinced Ukrainians to send formal word of their aspirations to the Austrian emperor. These were articulated according to the Count’s own earlier proposals. He successfully lobbied Vienna to end serfdom in Ukraine before it was abolished elsewhere, somewhat stealing the thunder of Polish revolutionary elements. He also obtained funds for favorable Galician publications and activism. Of course, this could only be pursued if assurances were given that no attempt to unite with Moscow would be pursued: “he assured Vienna that the Ruthenian Council would not seek union with Russia, but instead would oppose the activities of the Polish Council.” As for the Count’s Polish rivals, they “charged that he had invented Ukrainian separatism.”
Regarding the consequences of this initiative, a similar sentiment to that of Solzhenitsyn above was expressed by the Ukrainian writer Ivan Nechui-Levytsky, who penned two works, S’ohochasna chasopysna mova na Ukraïni (“Contemporary Language of the Press in Ukraine”) and Kryve dzerkalo ukraïns’koï movy (“The Distorted Mirror of the Ukrainian Language”), in which he opposed the dissemination of the Galician variant of Ukrainian with Polish borrowings. The project of developing Ukrainian culture in such a way as to diverge from Russia would later be taken up by communists, prominently Mykola Khvylovy with his “Away from Moscow ” motto, but would be ended by Stalin in the early 1930s (and is obviously starkly at odds with the Soviet line of the 1954 theses).
What we have called the “statist school” (understanding Khmelnytsky’s rebellion as setting up a Ukrainian state) would, naturally, be adopted by an independent Ukraine after the fall of the USSR. In more recent times, following the February 2014 deposing of Viktor Yanukovych, the Ukrainian state has struggled to seize upon opportunities to articulate a sense of nationhood capable of integrating Russian Ukrainians (that is, Ukrainians who identify as ethnically Russian). Such a project could have been politically deployed to contrast with what has been described as Putin’s “Eurasianism,” while possibly preventing a deepening of the rupture within Ukrainian society.
Russia, for its part, preferred a united Ukraine with a sizable Russian population to having to formally recognize the independence of the pro-Russian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. From Russia’s perspective, the prior arrangement could have guaranteed Ukraine’s neutrality vis-à-vis the West through democratic means. This situation is not dissimilar to the initial failure to grant Russian passports to those Russian populations who were initially denied citizenship by newly independent Baltic states after the Soviet era. By staying put, these populations could serve as counterweights to pro-western enthusiasm in their nations of residence.
A fifth-column, or at least a demographic bulwark against Russia’s western neighbors entering a foreign sphere of influence, seems to have been sought. However, the 2014 Euromaidan dealt a serious blow against this ambition so far as Ukraine is concerned, and led to a civil war which has wrought havoc on the Donbass.
A recent example of the Ukrainian government missing an opportunity to articulate what we have called organic association and the exertion of soft power occurred on 18 May, 2021, when President Volodymyr Zelensky introduced a law draft into Parliament that would define Karaites, Krymchaks, and Tatars from Crimea as indigenous peoples of Ukraine, but not Russians. The excuse here is that these groups have no homeland other than Ukraine, but this is hardly a strict definition of indigenous people, who often span borders. One could simply specify the specific Russian communities that are native to Ukraine. More importantly, it constituted an unwarranted provocation to many Ukrainians who identify as ethnically Russian while considering themselves native to the land they live on. Putin, for his part, reacted negatively to the proposed law.
Anecdotal as it may seem, this illustrates how the Ukrainian government chose not to pursue reconciling narratives that are true to history and that might have countered Russia’s appeal to identity. Instead, it increased polarization.
Of course, a Ukrainian need not conceive of his nation as wholly discontinuous with respect to Russian identity in order to oppose Russia’s specific, current project, which some see as a would-be Eurasian civilization-state at odds with, or at least distinct from, the European vocation (whether this latter is understood as liberal-modernity or in more traditional terms). On the other hand, a Ukrainian does not have to be particularly pro-Russian in order to view the EU and NATO skeptically.
Thinkers who supported federal or confederal arrangements for Russia and Ukraine, like the historian Mykhailo Drahomanov or Solzhenitsyn, sought to depoliticize cultural differences. This, however, would require such arrangements to allow for overlap with the rest of Europe. We can imagine Ukraine strengthening ties with Russia even if the latter continues pursuing a Eurasian vocation with Ukraine functioning to balance Russia’s position while participating in a wider European project (granted, in 2013 Yanukovich tried and failed to arrange a customs union with Russia and a free-trade agreement with the EU).
If such could be achieved, Galician idiosyncrasy (partly resulting from that region’s historical links to Austria), for example, would not pose an existential counterpoint to Russophilic elements in Ukrainian society, but we would also do justice to Ukraine’s historic western orientation, hearkening back to Vyhovsky’s attempt at a Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth.
The consummation we mentioned earlier (the longed for reunion of the Rus), in whatever form, cannot be accomplished so long as Russia is contrasting itself with Europe (not necessarily modern, liberal Europe, but Europe in general as opposed to a Eurasian bloc). Ukraine’s links to Europe are not an alternative claim on its identity so much as a necessary mark of that identity, one which cannot be denied, just as the gods did not permit the Trojans to deny Latium its culture and impose their own. Aeneas did not take the Latin princess Lavinia from her household, nor did Odysseus return to Anatolia and take Penelope from Ithaca. Russia mustn’t alienate itself from (its own, or Ukraine’s) Europeanity.
This denial of Europe, and a widening of the gulf with Ukraine, is, in fact, a real danger in Russia’s current orientation. This comes through in the prominence of Eurasianism as a school of historical and geopolitical analysis in Russia. Eurasianism tends towards a positive appraisal of Muscow’s vassalage to the Mongolian Golden Horde in the 14th and 16th centuries, seeing it as Russia’s mission to restore Eurasian unity. The Mongol invasion, the very thing that interrupted the development of the longed-for Kyivan Rus state, then, becomes, for Eurasian historiography, the predecessor of the Russian state, justifying present territorial ambitions.
This understanding of Russia would seem very much at odds with Ukraine—even with a Ukraine wanting to link itself with Moscow through the memory of the Kyivan Rus. (As an aside, one can certainly assume positive elements in the Khan’s legacy without identifying it with Russia’s world-historical mission, but one cannot downplay the degree to which Ivan III’s ending of Muscovite subservience to the Tatars defined Russia.)
Indeed, if we are justifying alliances and shared institutions on the basis of historical ties, Ukrainian participation in a European project can lay claim to no less prestigious a pedigree than the Scandinavian origin of the Rus itself (the very basis of its national mythos). The fact of there being a common origin between the Cossacks and the Muscovite Tsardom cannot be ignored, but the political expression this takes can vary widely, including simple association between independent states.
In this regard, those who, with Solzhenitsyn, consider Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine parts of an extended identity should not deny that, just as a body cannot suffer to lose organs, organs must likewise resist one among them metastasizing and cancerously encroaching on the proper sphere of the others (analogous to military invasion). Russia has not succeeded in pursuing its ambitions with respect to Ukraine along those lines recommended by Confucius (increasing cultural prestige and achieving unity through cultural attraction).
Neither has it managed to counter the tê (prestige) of the West, and western enabling of the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan, in ways that could avoid further polarization and alienation of Ukrainians from Russia. The human tragedy represented by its recent invasion of Ukraine is the bloom of that failure, and of the approach that led to it (apart from being a response to Ukraine becoming militarily aligned with the west, and potentially relating to the presence of exploitable uranium ore in the country, of course).
Geography and natural resources will motivate political conflict, but identity and national construction will determine what social cleavages can be fruitfully exploited by local and foreign agents in that conflict. Political centralization and cultural homogenization, if sufficient resources are committed, can achieve unity, as well as sowing greater division by politicizing cultural difference. But both success and failure in this area—both the unity and division wrought by this approach—will reduce the plenitude of a wider identity or political project’s local differentiation, severing a polity from its tradition.
An attitude of caretaking for both common origins and local customs— overarching (and, in some cases, overlapping) identities as well as local, regional ones—should serve as a guiding principle. Institutional ties reflective of these complex realities (complex in the sense in which any higher organism is anatomically differentiated) can help lessen the ability of political actors to violate them.
Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.