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1 November, 2012  ▪  Спілкувався: Oleksandr Pahiria

In Russia’s Shadow

Andreas Kappeler talks about why Ukraine is still a blank space on Western Europe’s mental map

It takes more than just a few decades – centuries sometimes – to shape an international image of a country or a nation. Ukraine is not an exception in this sense, but a typical model. The image of modern Ukrainians in the West has largely been shaped by the stereotypes of previous epochs layered over new perspectives. Austrian historian Andreas Kappeler talks to The Ukrainian Week about the historical era that brought Ukraine onto the European mental map, transformations of its international image and what Ukrainians should do to improve their image in the world.

UW: When did Ukraine appear on the mental map of Europe?

Ukraine appeared in the 17th century largely due to the Cossack revolution led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Before that, there were Beauplan’s maps that launched the name Ukraine into the scientific and political circulation, preceded by the extremely interesting reports on the life of Zaporizhian Cossacks of Austrian diplomat Erich Lassota von Steblau (published only in 1866). With the 1648 revolution Ukraine appeared on the mental map of Western Europeans, and it stayed there until the end of the 18th century. There were detailed maps of Ukraine; it was described and mentioned in travel reports of Western European diplomats and traders, and in he press.

On this map, Ukraine and Cossacks were almost identical. Ukraine was marked as the land of the Cossacks. Its image was not only topographic on the map – it had a political meaning presenting Cossacks as people who valued freedom above all. Ukraine was treated as a political player on the map of the continent, and the image survived for almost 150 years in the European mind. The last testimony of this period was Johann Christian von Engel’s “History of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Cossacks”, published in 1796.

UW: How did the perception of Ukraine change after it was annexed to the Russian and Austrian empires in the late 18th century?

Ukrainians lost this reputation of a political force after the decline of their sovereignty.  Now,  Ukrainians appear in several Western European works as primitive savages, as peasant people with picturesque folk traditions. The most well-known text of that period is Johann Gottfried Herder’s utopian vision of Ukraine as the land of the future. Though Ukrainians were wild and uncivilized then, they had the potential to become a civilized nation like the Greeks. That was quite a new view of Ukrainians, emerging on the verge of the 18th and 19th centuries, as a non-civilized people of half-Europeans and half-Asians. Actually, they were explored as part of Oriental studies. In 1845, the German writer Friedrich von Bodenstedt published a collection of Ukrainian folk songs “Poetic Ukraine” (Die poetische Ukraine), and he was a specialist on Asian and Caucasus peoples! Ukrainians who lived in the territories that were part of the Russian Empire were then seen in this oriental context. Then, complete oblivion followed. By the middle of the 19th century, Ukraine had disappeared from the mental and geographic map of Western Europeans.

Ukrainians who lived in the Austrian, and later Austro-Hungarian Empire, were designated as as Rusyns (Ruthenians – Ed.). They had great advantages compared to Ukrainians who lived in the Russian Empire, since they were acknowledged as one of Austria’s nine nationalities with their schools, their language,  the Greek-Catholic church and so on. However, the perception of Ruthenians in Vienna was not really different from that oriental discourse. They were seen as poor people living in an underdeveloped country with interesting folklore. They had a very low position in the hierarchy of peoples in the Habsburg monarchy.

UW: How did the short period of statehood revival and national liberation struggle in 1917-1921 affect the perception of Ukraine in the West?

 During the First World War, the interest in Ukraine suddenly rose, because Germany and Austria-Hungary tried to use Ukraine as an instrument in their war against Russia. There was a short period of German and Austro-Hungarian occupation of Ukraine in 1918, when politicians and advisors gained some knowledge of the country, especially as a grain provider. And indeed, it had to deliver a lot of grain to Germany and Austria. Then the German and Austrian empires collapsed.  Central and Western Europeans lost their interest in Ukraine.  Nwspapers mainlyly focused on the struggle between the whites and the reds in the context of the civil war in Russia. Western politicians and diplomats thought that Ukraine had no chance to defend its statehood and did not support it.

In the interwar period, Ukraine disappeared from the mental map of Western Europe again, although to a lesser extent than in the 19th century. This was due to several immigrant centres that were active in Central and Western Europe, including the Ukrainian Free University in Prague and the Ukrainian Scientific Institute in Berlin. However, their scientific and publishing activities were hardly noticeable. The only event that caught its attention was the assassination of Symon Petlura by Sholom Schwartzbard in 1926. That was the time when the image of Ukrainians as anti-Semites appeared and grew stronger – it has lasted until the present time.

UW: How did the Second World War change the attitude towards Ukraine in the West?

Just like during the First World War, Ukrainians were used as a political instrument of Germany against Russia in 1939-1945. The Third Reich had plans to use Ukrainians in its plans on the decomposition of the USSR but Hitler opposed the idea of an independent Ukraine. Before and during the Second World War, numerous works were published to justify these projects. The fact that Ukrainians were used as a political instrument by the Nazis were detrimental for the image of Ukraine in the long run. After the war,  Ukrainians as a nation were of no interest for the broad public in Western Europe, except for a few outsiders.  

UW: How did the stereotype about Ukrainians as nationalists and antisemites emerge in the West? What role did the legacy of the Second World War play in the process of its establishment?

There were some events that preceded this stereotype. The terrible anti-Jewish pogroms during the Khmelnytsky uprising was often brought up in the Jewish memory; another element was the anti-Jewish pogroms by Ukrainian otamans in 1919, which became well known by the assassination of Petlura by Schwartzbard. These were the real grounds for the stereotype of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.However, the Second World War was far more important in that matter. Again,  there was reality behind it, including the collaboration of Ukrainian forces with German occupiers and their participation in the extermination of Jews and Poles. On the other hand, there were people and governments interested in preserving and promoting this stereotype. It is still greatly damaging the image of Ukrainians abroad.

However, there is another dimension: the Holocaust is one of the central factors for the European thought and consciousness. Meanwhile, Western Europeans often do not realize that for Ukrainians Stalinism was at least as important, and coming to grips with the sufferings of Central and East European nations under Stalin’s rule should become an other main element of European consciousness.   

UW: Did Soviet Ukraine exist on the mental map of Europe in the time of the USSR?

It may have been recognized in the West as a separate entity in a short period during the 1920s , but not after the 1930s. From then on, Ukrainedisappeared from the mental map again, being seen as a part of the USSR, which was regarded as a new form of Russia.. Western Europeans did not differentiate Soviet people,  Russians or Ukrainians – to them, all were Russians.

For the broad public in the West, Ukraine had not existed until the late 1980s. Only in 1991, the public slowly began to acknowledge that the Soviet Union might disappear as a state. Western politicians did not think about it until the very end. When it collapsed, people realized that it was not just Russia. But by a broader public Ukrainians were not seen as a separate nation then, unlike Lithuanians who had their state in the interwar period, or Georgians whose culture, language and traditions were totally different from those in Russia. Even after Ukraine declared independence in August 1991 - as all Soviet republics did - the West still thought that a new federation of Soviet republics would emerge. Only slowly  people became aware that Ukraine could exist apart from Russia. This process continues until today.

UW: What are the key elements of Ukraine’s image in the world today?

In my opinion, Ukraine does not yet have a firm place on the mental map of Europe. The West lacks the knowledge of your country, language, culture, traditions and history. One could mention many examples, especially in the early years of Ukraine’s independence. I remember one time when the then President Kravchuk visited Helmut Kohl. When Kravchuk started his speech, Germans had provided a translator from Russian only. This was a typical situation: nobody thought that Kravchuk could speak any language, other than Russian. This lack of knowledge is still present, even if less widespread compared to the 1990s. But Ukraine was absent from the European mental map for 200 years. It takes a lot of time to get to know the fact of its existence as a national independent state. Now, Ukraine is often mentioned in newspapers, although mostly in the context of gas conflicts with Russia, the Tymoshenko case and backslide on democracy. There are important non-political aspects, too, such as the nation’s football team, Olympic athletes and fantastic Klitschko brothers in boxing. Before 1991, all this was Soviet. Now, it is Ukrainian, and this probably has a much bigger impact on public opinion than politics. Now, the evolution is on and it is irreversible. More and more Western Europeans – the broad public, I mean - get to know about Ukraine. Recognition is a difficult process that takes much time. It requires consistent efforts from Ukrainians and Ukraine, as well as for people interested in Ukraine like me, to build its image abroad.

UW: Why is Ukraine still a blank spot for Europeans?

Since the second half of the 19th century Ukraine has been in the shadow of Russia, not just politically – that is a very important aspect of the Western perception of Ukraine.

Many Ukrainian scientists and intellectuals are perceived as Russians. In Germany, only the Russian Don and Volga Cossacks are known, but not the Zaporizhian Cossacks. Even European historians used to write about Kyiv Rus as part of the history of Russia. This image sits extremely deeply and firmly in the minds of most Western Europeans.

The impact of the Cold War and the iron curtain is still very strong in their minds. One example: Bratislava is just 60 kilometres away from Vienna, but to Austrians, in terms of mental perception, it is as distant as Zurich, which is 800 kilometres away,. Countries may be in the EU and NATO and still these old mental borderlines are persisting that many people are reluctant to cross. It is even more difficult with Ukraine which is some sort of a grey zone between Russia and the West.

Another great obstacle for the appearance of Ukraine on the mental map of West Europeans is the lack of any personalities or events that were associated with Ukraine and could serve as components of Ukraine’s image. There is not a single Ukrainian composer or writer accepted into the pantheon of European culture. Taras Shevchenko, for instance, was never widely known in the West. Nikolai Gogol was never regarded as a Ukrainian writer. Oleksandr Dovzhenko was known as a Russian director. There are virtually no stones for building a recognizable image of Ukraine. The Orange Revolution with its two leaders, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, had the potential to fill this gap offering personalities that were known world-wide. However, one has disappeared from politics completely; the other one is in prison, seen as a martyr or victim, which is hardly the best foundation for image building.

UW: How can we change the way Europe and other countries view Ukraine?

Tourism, cultural and academic exchange programmes, international sports events such as Euro 2012, and deeper diplomatic, economic, research and cultural contacts – especially in the younger generation - may contribute to this greatly. Take one example: the number of dissertations written on Ukrainian history in the German speaking countries was zero in the 1960s-1970s, and three per hundred in the 1980s. This has grown to 10% lately. This is a great trend. Ukrainian language and history are presented in European universities on a better scale now. It would also be very helpful to have special institutions abroad to promote your culture.


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