Now that pictures have emerged of the opulence which Yanukovich and his cronies enjoyed, the online commentary (often stated in Russian, rather than Ukrainian) asks the hitherto apathetic public opinion of the East and South of the country whether these are the symbols of power they are truly committed to defend. It’s a fair question but not because it appears politically provocative. And here’s why.
I once witnessed a fascinating scene while strolling near the Kremlin. A cavalcade of black limousines sped up at a clip that would make Formula One drivers envious. Only in Colombia had I seen official limos speed that fast, but that was part of the local security routine. Terrorist challenges that Russia faces today are of different nature and kidnapping is not a big business. And yet, the speed with which the convoy wheezed by brought the rulers close up (though impersonal) to the astonished passers-by. At the same time it separated the two groups. For someone who at least once a year has to share the jaded co-denizens’ indignation at Midtown Manhattan’s UN meeting galore – complete with its unpredictable traffic misrules - it was the precisely the quasi-religious reaction of the Muscovites which surprised me. The locals froze, immobilized by sudden awe during the nanosecond-long proximity of power, the fleeting, yet physical communion with the untouchables. Was it Putin himself? Other dignitaries?
A screen full of simulacra separates Russians from the ultimate worldly authority that rises up like iconoclasis in Orthodox tserkovs. The inner sanctum of the mundane and the supra-mundane must be left inaccessible if it’s to be awed. Not surprisingly, Russian rulers have traditionally sought the buttress of devotional sources to shore up their legitimacy and claim for Moscow the title of “Third Rome”, the last pure remnant of the only genuine Christian tradition.
But this vertical societal tradition has clashed repeatedly with Ukrainian history. Ukraine, predominantly rural and, for a long time, only spottily populated outside of the main river valleys has been an offspring of a uniquely egalitarian project. A horizontal society with a selected number of competing rulers who were mostly of external origin: the Ottomans in the South, Polish overlords with their Jewish administrators from the West, finally the Russians from the North. But below those foreign implants, there was a largely horizontal society. With a sense of warrior class superiority, Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks must not have cared much about peasants’ welfare, but they originated from the Ukrainian speaking roots and responded to (and partly formulated) its aspirations much more adequately than any foreign-tongued magnates could. If Russians continue to view Ukrainian urbanites as external to this egalitarian tradition, it may be due to the history of allegiance to the Soviet cause that many Ukrainian (and not only Russian or Jewish) Communists continued to evince even during the height of Holomodor, blaming the starving peasants for their “reactionary attitudes”.
Russians are not Ukraine’s first neighboring nation making this mistake. Having failed (or never seriously attempted) to create a Republic of Three Nations, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth reacted belatedly to the awakening of Ukrainian national psyche. Nearly 300 years after Khmielnitsky, for many Polish nationalists, Ukrainians were little more than peasants speaking with an accent (the two languages are, to some extent, mutually intelligible). As a result, misguided policies in hitherto Austrian-administrated areas of inter-war Poland triggered an even stronger nationalist response from Ukrainian intelligentsia. In its most brutal terrorist/freedom fighting form, OUN’s activists specialized in physical elimination of first Polish and then Soviet targets (anti-Semitism, prevalent among right-wing groups in Europe at that time, was not OUN’s core ideology). But in the dark days of Bloodlands, the cataclysm of ethnic cleansing, which cost between 60’000 and 200’000 civilian Polish lives in Volhynia and Galicia, was but a sideshow of mass murder orgies exercised on a dispassionately comparable, or even larger scale by contemporaneous Germans and Soviets.
Yalta and its repercussions dealt a painful blow to both Ukrainian and Polish patriots. Ukraine lost any hope for independence and Poland was lost to European history for 40 years. In the monochromatic postwar years, many young people continued fighting without much prospect of beating the Soviet yoke. By 1948, armed nationalist groups in the forests of now Communist-dominated Poland were obliterated. But Ukrainian underground UPA (Underground Insurgent Army) operatives continued to inflict painful losses to Soviet administrators well into the 1950s. To this day, older Russians whose relatives were stationed in Western Ukraine recount with dread the years when not even MGB forces could completely pacify the elusive guerrillas.
It’s the eventual crushing of this movement that bestows on the symbols of the 1940s resistance project a strongly anti-Russian message. Alarmingly, some of these emblems have been resurrected by elements allied with the motley crews of the anti-Yanukovich front. A friend has pointed out this week that the insignia of the self-appointed security guards in Kiev are the same as those used by the infamous Galician Division, which fought alongside Nazi forces in mid-1940s. The exploitation of Austrian (Galician) nostalgia for political purposes by the Nazis in Ukraine helped score some extra cannon fodder for the division. But we should not forget that while being useful (and sometimes extremely cruel) pawns in Nazis' hands, these young men tried to safeguard future independence of some rump Ukrainian state, which, by 1944, was threatened more by the Soviets than the Nazis. Whatever their ultimate Lebensraum ambitions, the Nazis did not have time to engineer in Ukraine a devastation comparable to horrors of Holodomor, the mass famine campaign conducted by Stalin and Lazar Kaganovich in the 1930s, still fresh in the shelled out memory of those who lived in the 1940s. The fact that Stalin added Volhynia and Eastern Galicia to Soviet Union after Yalta was a shock to Western Ukrainians. The story goes that when Mikolajczyk, a Polish leader from London, tried to reason with Stalin on the westward border shift ("Lvov has never been Russian"), Stalin answered: "But Warsaw was". Tony Judt once quoted Clement Atlee speaking of Stalin: “no flowery language, only yes or no, but you could only count on him if it was no”.
Putin’s camp realizes full well that the pro-Nazi past of some of the Ukrainian nationalist heritage is an easy target. Just as Latvia learned in its often painful adjustment to Brussels’ left-liberal bidding, Western Europeans do not recognize full equivalence between Nazi and Soviet crimes. The fact that the elites of those countries, along with Finland, viewed Hitler as a counterbalance against Soviet might is poorly understood in Western Europe, for which Soviets were feted as allies against a monstrous and seemingly unstoppable regime. This is where Warsaw’s active involvement in the EU-Kiev equation irks Moscow.
Poland’s unapologetically anti-Nazi credentials during the Second World War are not in dispute and the country has its own dramatic history of conflict with Ukrainian nationalists. And yet, in its determined westward tilt, Poland has long weaned itself of any illusions of direct or indirect involvement over the vast black earth lands to the East. In fact, the Soviet-directed mutual ethnic cleansing after 1945 turned Poland into a largely homogenous society with little folksy variety to speak of. But that colorless homogeneity became an asset in the wake of Communism’s collapse. A multi-ethnic Poland might have faced many a Yugoslav question, had it not been deprived of its Ukrainian minorities by the might of Stalin’s reliable nyet.
Nevertheless, some Russians tend to view the Lakhs’ (Poles’) involvement in broader historical terms of cultural and religious confrontation. If Ukrainians’ group identity is fuzzy, it is precisely because of the patchwork of past Russian, Polish and, to some extent Turkish influences. Far from being a brotherly nation that the most recent of these three former empires claims it to be, Ukraine presents a kaleidoscopic picture of religious and dialectical allegiances – not least because of the history of the last 100 years. Yes, the unassuming Lenin’s statue on one of Kiev’s nicer intersections is now gone, but there still is an imposing statue of Vladimir Ilitch near the seafront promenade in Yalta. Meanwhile, in Lviv, what was once Sapieha Street (a name of a well-known Lithuanian noble) has changed its name 3 times since the war. It first became "Stalin’s street", then "улица Мира" (Peace Street) and now the same street is called Вулиця Бандери (Bandera Street), after the name of a controversial nationalist, executed by KGB in Munich in 1950s. In another town of Western Ukraine, near a local Greek Catholic church, a statue of Pope John Paul II (who spoke decent Ukrainian and visited this country) contrasts, shoulder to shoulder, with UPA allegories.
It is true that Western Ukrainians have been most incensed by Donetsk mafias’ recent economic misrule and large scale racket these networks institutionalized. But the friction goes deeper into the core of mutual identity theft between the Right and Left banks of Dniepr River. The Greek Catholics – whose rituals are eastern, but whose allegiance is to the Vatican, have been in ascendancy since the Independence in 1991 and their HQ is now located in Kiev, not in the West. As a child of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, this church – uniquely Ukrainian – is scorned by the Orthodoxy. But then the playground of Orthodox Christians is divided into three competitors: Autocephalous Church with roots in Western Ukraine (actively persecuted by the Soviets), Kiev Patriarch’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church and, crucially, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church whose allegiance lies with the Moscow Patriarch. The latter’s ungainly inroads into Ukrainian official space during the Yanukovich years will almost certainly cause a backlash now.
Russian Orthodox Church’s role has never been benign when it comes to Ukrainian affairs. Moscow Patriarch became independent of Constantinople in mid-15th century or some five hundred years after Prince of Kiev Volodymyr had converted into Eastern form of Christianity. Forever since the Russian Orthodoxy has misappropriated the symbols of Kievan Rus’s heritage, thus depriving people on the Dniepr of the right to their own past.
What Tsars referred to as “Little Russia” and what Slavic language dubbed as the “Limit” or “Frontier” (Ukraina) flowered with its nationhood aspirations not long after the anti-imperialist awakenings that shocked Austria-Hungary’s multiple ethnic groups during the second half of the 19th century. But these aspirations clashed with Tsarist Russia’s assignment of inter-ethnic issues to practical, and not overtly political, relations. Throughout the 19th century, big parts of today’s Ukraine were actively russified (and, wherever applicable, de-polonized), a process only partly successful. In 1863, Russia introduced “Ukrainian language law”, banning most publications in vernacular. Then it banned imports of Ukrainian literature from Austria-Hungary and elsewhere. Moscow viewed Ukrainian as “Russian language contaminated by Polish”. The fact that the language survived at all owes much to the fact that 20% of ethnic Ukrainians lived in Austria-Hungary and Tsarist diktat could not reach there.
In a particularly sensitive turn in 2012, the Russophone President Yanukovich and his allies rammed home the issue of bilingualism. I remember watching on Ukrainian TV heated debates between agitated proponents of Ukrainian language, crossing semantic swords with much more self-assured Russophone officials from Donetsk or Kharkiv. The debate was perfectly bilingual and fascinating at that. Each side seemed to understand what the other side was saying, but expressed itself in its own language. If it sounds quite a bit like the Swiss Parliament in Berne, it might even smack of self-confident multi-lingualism. But the context of the imposed law, which deprived Ukrainian vernacular of any chance to take root in the Russian-dominated areas and thus undermined the difficult process of solidifying a common national identity should not be lost on the enthusiastic proponents of Schwyzertütsch-emptied civility of Curia Confederationis Helveticae in Berne.
The Yanukovich episode betrays the continuing cultural insecurity that many Russians outside the Russian Federation feel. Yes, it must take some effort to learn Latvian, and especially Estonian. But is this truly such an insurmountable hurdle? Russian is a language of a great literary glory and significant scientific achievements and as such is not an endangered species. Other than post-imperial hiccup, what really stops Russian speakers from embracing a similar, and deeply sonorous lingua? After all, ethnic Poles of Lviv and Crimean Tatars are also mostly bilingual as they have to be in order to survive in the land which is not, at least not yet, a confederation of separate cantons, each with its own education system. Crimea, incidentally, could be a focal point of any such struggle. Not a part of historical (Hetman) Ukraine of the 17th-18th century, it was a Khanate with a Turkic language and an islamicized population. Catherine the Great’s invasion of Crimea in 1783 turned it into a novel slice of Russia, at least until 1950s, when Soviets turned this most visually appealing slice of Black Sea’s northern shore into a part of Ukrainian SSR – a UN member in its own right. Yes, as a Russian-serving imperial domain, USSR made some crass geopolitical mistakes on the way. But then, the exiled Tatars were coming back since 1957 anyway.
This is a big country. A land blighted by grain requisitions of the 1930s, the brutal war campaigns of the 1940s, Stalinist persecution in Western Ukraine, “anti-nationalist” campaigns conducted between 1961-73 and the rule of successive (and mostly Russian-speaking or ethnically Tatar) mafias since the Independence. A nation that is painfully forging, at long last, its own core identity. It needs to cease functioning as a ‘limit’ between Europe, Turkey and Russia. A promotion of its distinct Ukrainian culture - including its political culture will have to be fostered. The protection of linguistic, religious and other minorities will come anyway as it is the inevitable price for the cake that Europe would offer.
One lesson is clear. Left in limbo, Ukraine will lurch from one crisis to another – unreformed because unable to afford the bitter pill of structural adjustments, emaciated by rent-seeking elites salivating at the prospect of yet another round of lucrative energy deals, hollowed by successive mafias aligned with various political groupings. There is little doubt that Yanukovich was a particularly skilled thug at this game and his electoral campaign, created by puppet masters from Madison Avenue was as convincing as it was ultimately successful. But a decade after the Orange Revolution, the country is still waiting for its first positive hero. Not a Bandera, not a Shukhevytch, not even a Khmielnitsky or Mazepa. Not a warrior, but a builder. Let us hope she or he will emerge from this tragic chapter.