Stanislav Kulchytsky:“Psychological dependence on Russia turns Ukrainians into Little Russians”
Historian Stanislav Kulchytsky speaks to The Ukrainian Week about why the Kremlin needs Ukraine, what threat the annexation of Crimea poses for Russia, what the essence of the problem in Ukrainian-Russian relations is, and how the political Ukrainian nation is emerging
U.W.: It has been 23 yearssincethecollapse of the USSR. Everynewly-createdstatehasdeveloped in its own way. Whyhavethepathstakenbythembeensodifferentthattheyhaveled to the Ukrainian-Russian war?
– I will restrict myself to three former Soviet republics, which cover almost the whole territory of Eastern Europe: Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. The great Ukrainian thinker, Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky, as well as, independently from him, renowned English historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee, stressed that Ukraine is located on a fault of civilizations. One of Lysiak-Rudnytsky’s books is actually titled UkraineBetweenEastandWest. The fault has impacted the nature of developments in our country. Ukrainian regions failed to come to a consensus about geopolitical choices. On the eve of the EuroMaidan, 67% of the population in the west and centre of Ukraine voted in favour of integration with the European Union, while 68% of citizens in Southern and Eastern Ukraine expressed the desire to become a member of the Customs Union. Five rounds of voting in the presidential elections of 2004 and 2010 politicized this sociological pattern. Presidential candidates declared the vector they were striving for, while the electorate voted predictably: the west and centre largely voted for Viktor Yushchenko (and for Yulia Tymoshenko in 2010), and the east and south – largely for Viktor Yanukovych.
The existence of enterprises with workforces numbering many thousands and specific flow of privatisation have led to the emergence of an economic oligarchy in Ukraine. Ukraine became an oligarchic but democratic country. In contrast to political oligarchs, who during the Soviet era were members of the Soviet Union Communist Party Central Committee, today’s economic oligarchs are not a consolidated centre of power, so they do not pose a significant threat to democracy. Their efforts are directed towards competitive struggle - note on-going duel between Dmytro Firtash and Ihor Kolomoyskyi in the mass media. However, oligarchs are economically dangerous, because they do not allow real reform.
At the opposite end, Belarus is undergoing post-Communist transformations. Soviet order has been preserved to the maximum extent, which poses the threat in the future of the same uncontrollable chaos that other countries experienced in the “evil 1990s”. But I like Alexander Lukashenko. He does not exploit the Soviet legacy to the same extent as the presidents of Ukraine or Russia who throw crumbles to the people and the budget, but leave most for themselves and their allies. In other words, Lukashenko’s dictatorship makes social sense. The state must limit those, who want to become rich at the expense of their neighbours, who are paupers.
For years now, we have not wanted to look at ourselves in the mirror. We must now acknowledge that Soviet society in the third generation was not immune to life in a market economy. Recall the anxiety about MMM, a notorious Ponzi scheme in Russia and Ukraine. Former Soviets are used to looking at the state as a provider. We often use the term “paternalism”, unaware of the fact that Communist leaders had revived the Ancient Roman relations of patron and client for society as a whole.
Imperial structures have survived in Russia. Take the “brotherhood” of former KGB employees. Their consolidation accelerated in the late 1990s. A clear hierarchy of power has been recreated in the 15 years of Putin’s rule. When new masters of life appeared – the oligarchs, this powerful clan of officials quickly expropriated them or forced them into subversion. In contrast to the Soviet regime, the current Russian one is devoid of Marxist-Leninist ideology and the resulting economic dictatorship. In other words, society has the right to private ownership. Vladimir Putin’s political dictatorship is based on an economy that is almost completely independent of business activity. The extraction of raw materials with its subsequent sale abroad can hardly be considered business activity. The gas rent in US dollars is used to buy nearly everything, from Mistral ships to toothpicks. Russia has vast natural resources, which allows Putin’s regime to rely on paternalism and controlled mass media, rather than on coercion. Since the Russian economy is integrated with the European economy, the regime permits the existence of individual islands of liberal thought. As a rule, he does not make short work of them on his own, but by shaping public opinion respectively.
U.W.: WhatmakesUkrainesoattractivetohigh-placed officials in the Kremlin?
The Russian president is trying to restore the Soviet Union, the collapse of which he referred to as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, in a different form. Transnistria, Georgia, Ukraine, where next? Ukraine was always at the top of the Kremlin’s plans. The Bolsheviks agreed to view the population of Eastern Europe as three separate, but at the same time, related nations. However, today’s Russian chauvinists are in solidarity with pre-revolutionary ones and deny Ukrainians the right to independent existence. They lay claim to everything: territory, the population and history.
You have to understand that the danger to the existence of Ukrainians as a separate nation is not simply rooted in the ever-present aggressive intentions of Russian leaders. In the case of Ukraine, this intent is intensified and encouraged by the objective to satisfy the desire of a significant share of Russian citizens, not to be torn away both physically and mentally from the Ukrainian people. I shall explain this concept with an example.
In March 1917, there was a manifestation of many thousands of local Ukrainians in St. Petersburg to commemorate the Shevchenko anniversary, and for the first time, Russians saw the “Ukrainian issue” materialized. The cadet newspaper Rech (Speech) responded to this event with an editorial, which described the persecution of Ukrainians under Tsarist rule. The list of persecutions ended with the following sentence: “Bureaucratic ignoramuses, in their unofficial acts, were able to ridicule the Ukrainian language, which has its own history and literature – one of the most spiritual creations of a Slavic tribe that is closest to us by blood and lineage, inseparably connected to us through historic ties.” The compassion towards Ukrainians was completely sincere. But just one word – “inseparably” – in the quoted sentence, convincingly showed the subconscious attitude of the liberal Russian intelligentsia towards the “Ukrainian issue”. During the Russian Revolution, cadets proved themselves to be the most consistent defenders of the “one and indivisible” Russia.
Where does the essence of the issue of Ukrainian-Russian relations lie, from the historic perspective? Once upon a time, there was an empire in Eastern Europe, with its centre in Kyiv, but it collapsed, and the development of its peoples took different paths. The mission of gathering the lands of this medieval empire was then undertaken by a different centre from within its former borders. A new empire formed over the course of several centuries – from Alaska to the River Vistula. Its representatives claimed that it was connected to the original one by the ancient ruling Rurik dynasty. They built a grandiose monument commemorating the “millennium of Russia” in Novgorod in 1882 and declare that Ukrainians and Belarusians were the ethnographic offshoots of a single Ancient Rus people – the Russian one. The historic myth about this people still continues, even in independent Ukraine, through the efforts of individual academicians. It is one of the foundations of the Russian World ideology.
U.W.: Inotherwords, bothgoodandbadrelations with Russia are equally dangerous for Ukraine. GiventhelengthofourborderwithRussia, is it possible to avoid the “inseparability” in which our northern neighbor strongly believes at all?
It’s not hopeless. There are three dimensions to relations between countries: national, socio-political and economic. The economic dimension regulates the market, the socio-political one defines self-confidence of the people, plus international law, while the national dimension is determined by various phobias or branches. It so happens that in our relations with Russia, the most important of these is the very dangerous national dimension. Look at the verbal battles between “katsapy” and “khokhly” (derogatory terms for Russians and Ukrainians respectively) in internet commentaries… Putin has revived Hitler’s practice of demonstrative protection of his citizens in neighbouring countries – in the name of “sharing one blood”. I still remember those happy Volksdeutsche children in German and Romanian-occupied Odesa that we, hungry children, looked on in envy. The Russian President even perfected this practice, announcing that “fellow countrymen” are not necessarily Russians; simply to speak Russian is enough to become one. He subsequently annexed Crimea, under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine. Such action is a complete contradiction of the socio-political dimension of intergovernmental relations, but this is a separate issue for discussion. I just want to say that building intergovernmental relations on the basis of nationalism is extremely dangerous for the president of a multi-national country with an antidemocratic social order.
Russian nationalists have always portrayed the followers of Stepan Bandera (Banderivtsi), Symon Petlyura (Petlyurivtsi) and Ivan Mazepa (Mazepyntsi) as the enemy – in other words, they picked the most passionate followers of the idea to liberate Ukraine from Russia’s hold. The Ukrainian people experienced multi-million losses, but the battle with the enemy has hardened them. It is also hardening them now.
At the same time, Ukrainians shouldn’t be flattered too much. The current situation is aggravated from the north, but also has an internal context. Ukrainian civil society (political nation) is only just coming into being. The war with Russia is a tragedy but it has become a powerful incentive for the citizens of Ukraine to unite.
Before the Maidan, in July 2013, the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences conducted an opinion poll. The question was “Who do you consider yourself to be, first and foremost?”, offering several options for an answer. 50.6% selected “Citizen of Ukraine”. A third selected “Resident of a village, district, city or region”. Since independence, the share of those who think of themselves first and foremost as citizens of a specific region has grown (30.8% in 1992). The only relief is that aggressive nationalistic propaganda, like the one coming from the Svoboda MP Iryna Farion, is not popular among Ukrainians. In 2013, only 2% of those polled considered themselves to be, first and foremost, representatives of their nation rather than country.
U.W.: You mentioned the annexation of Crimea in the context of intergovernment relations. Do you have anything new to say about this?
To understand the significance of the annexation of Crimea in full, view this action of Russian leaders in the context of the past century. The slogan about peace without annexation and contribution became popular in the final years of the First World War. The victors did not pay attention to it then and two decades later, were faced with a new world war. Two years after it began, in August 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill announced the Atlantic Charter, which guaranteed the development of world order after a crushing defeat of Hitler’s Germany on the basis of three principles: territorial integrity, the abandonment of the use of force in international relations and the establishment of a collective security system. On January 1, 1942, the 26 countries that were fighting against Germany and its allies, pledged their adherence to the declared principles and signed two words under the Declaration: United Nations. The word-combination became the name of the organization, which now monitors compliance with these principles of the global order.
As a result of the Second World War, the Soviet Union acquired some territories, for legal or historic reasons for each. The only exception was part of Eastern Prussia and Konigsberg (Kaliningrad). However, at that time, the allies were destroying this province as a centre of German militarism and compensated with it for the territorial losses of Poland after the shift of its borders to the Curzon Line as per the Entente in 1918. Joseph Stalin succeeded in snatching part of the ruined province before Poland got it.
Dozens of states were created and collapsed after the adoption of the Atlantic Charter, but there wasn’t a single case where any country, using its military advantage, annexed part of the territory of another country. Putin brought “peace-keeping” military contingents into Moldova and Georgia, but did not dare to declare the areas where they were stationed parts of Russia. We must clearly understand this: the annexation of Crimea was the first blatant violation of the world order declared by the Atlantic Charter in 75 years.
I just learned about the initiative of a Chinese newspaper (all of them are the mouthpieces of the government of course) to launch a programme for China’s territorial acquisitions in the coming 50 years – by 2060. According to journalists’ forecasts, the Chinese will conduct six wars, during which they have to win back lost territories, particularly those taken by the Russian Empire, covering an area that is almost three times the size of Ukraine – 1.6 mn km². Nothing extra, only that which was lost. But after gaining an absolute military advantage over its neighbours, the leaders of this country could also be urged to take territory which China did not lose to Russia. The Crimean precedent has created this possibility.
Vladimir Putin understands this better than anyone else. So he started a “hybrid war” in Eastern Ukraine immediately after the annexation of Crimea. There was no longer talk of annexation, no matter how ardently local mercenaries ran around with Russian flags. The purpose of the Russian president was to weaken the Ukrainian government. It was supposed to have withdrawn the demand for the return of Crimea, and this rejection should have appeared voluntary. It was only by these means that Russia could have avoided accusations in the criminal violation of world order.
However, it emerged that Putin’s assumptions were built on sand. He suffered his first defeat during the presidential election in Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko convincingly defeated his opponents in the first round. This was not his accomplishment, but he showed that he had no intent to bow to the Kremlin’s will, in other words, he was ready to carry out the will of the people. Putin faced his second defeat when a new Ukrainian army suddenly appeared within a matter of months. This army began to liberate the Donbas from Russian mercenaries. The third defeat was when the wrath of the world community materialized in the form of sanctions.
In contrast to the Soviet Union, the economy of Russia is completely dependent on the world. The gradual build-up of sanctions leading to international isolation threatens the aggressor country with a future economic and political collapse. Russia is already forced to pay a high price for the annexation of Crimea.
U.W.: Howshouldwe, Ukrainians, behavetowardsourRussians who have Ukrainian passports?Thereisnopointinhidingthe fact thatsomeunpleasantfeelingshave already reared heads on both sides.
It’s good that I will answer your question as someone who used to have “Russian” as nationality in my Soviet passport. It would still be there today if Ukrainian passports indicated this detail. I got my passport during Stalin’s lifetime and wanted to be a Pole, after my father. However, my mother (born in Odesa, but descended from Akkerman Armenians) was horrified, because she knew that Ukrainian Poles and Germans were exterminated or deported. It emerged that my father was of Ukrainian origin, initially Polonized, but deported to the Caucasus and Russified after the 1830 uprising (this did not save him from arrest in 1937). The certificate on nationality was kept by the family and presented to the police.
All of us are burdened not just by the general atmosphere now, but by the Soviet past that developed political hierarchy of ethnic origin, placing Russians as ethnic nation No 1, followed by titular nations of Soviet republics and titular nations of autonomous republics as No 2 and 3 respectively. Soviet authorities needed enemies, so that with their elimination, they could keep all others obedient. At first, the enemies were people from pre-revolutionary privileged classes. Then, representatives of nationalities descending from neighbouring hostile states like Poland and Germany, or with many relatives abroad like Jews. For the third generation, Sovietized profoundly by then, terror could be replaced with “preventative measures” (which Vladimir Putin was engaged in). The fourth generation are people, who have spent most of their lives in independent Ukraine. These are the ones from whom we sometimes hear: reinstate the “nationality” column in the passport, I’m a Ukrainian and proud of it!
All this helps us justify one simple concept with which the Constitution of Ukraine begins: “the Ukrainian people is the citizens of Ukraine of all nationalities…” There was no civil society (which is referred to as political nation in the national dimension) in the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian nation-society is being created before our eyes, passing through critical dates: 1989–1991 (gaining of independence), 2004–2005 (Orange Revolution), 2013–2014.
Whoever wants to politicize ethnicity again must remember that it wasn’t us who accomplished the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the Russian intelligentsia, and the crafty nomenclature man, Boris Yeltsin, who joined it. Today, it is on our maidans that we are protecting democracy and shedding our Soviet past not only from ourselves, but from the Russian nation as well.
In conclusion, I will remind you of one aspect expressed by an ethnic Russian but a Ukrainian writer Mykola Fitilov (Khvylovy): “Away from Moscow!”. He did not speak against the Russian people. He called on Ukrainians to be themselves because he understood that psychological dependence on Moscow turns into political dependence and makes Ukrainians Little Russians.