Why Ukrainians still view aggressors as "friends" and "brothers"
There's an interesting book by the Harvard historian Edward L. Keenan called Russian Historical Myths. Some of these myths were successfully imposed upon the neighboring Ukrainians. One is of eternal “friendship” and “brotherhood” between the two nations. The myth had not been of much use before 1917, as the then government would not recognize Ukrainians as a separate nation, and being “friends” or “brothers” with yourself did not make much sense.
The true promoters of this “friendly brotherhood” myth were Russian Bolsheviks who, after winning the struggle for power in the former empire, had to formally recognize the existence of the Ukrainian nation. They, however, felt the need to secure themselves from the potential demands of the newly legitimized nation. So, feverishly, yet consistently, they began to create this story of inseparable Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians, and of phenomenal friendship between them. Much emphasis was made on the "common history"; the fact that millions of Ukrainians had no access to their true history in the Soviet Union certainly helped the cause. Another point of speculation was the similarity of the languages, even if it hardly conceals ethnic differences.
In the recent past, the present-day Ukrainian Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko once challenged the then president of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski in the Ukrainian Parliament: “How are you personally, Mr. President, going to strengthen the unity of the Slavic countries?”. The Polish leader's response was clear and rational: “I do not believe in political unity based on language similarities”.
The communists, however, succeeded in instilling imperial myths in the minds of the people they colonized. In Soviet times the oath of allegiance to the "brotherly" Russian people became the obligatory ritual for all state officials. Such statements were also useful for self-defense, as they could be referred to during KGB interrogations, as a proof of non-involvement with the "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism". The myth, however, spread far beyond the ranks of party nomenclature. The communists managed to infect the minds of regular Ukrainians who to the present day, seemingly by inertia, continue to see their "friend" and "brother" in the aggressor, in spite of all the facts.
According to all opinion polls, regardless of all trouble, big and small, that Russia caused for Ukraine over the years of its independence, the absolute majority of Ukrainians are stuck with the habit of perceiving Russians as the "brotherly" nation and the Russian Federation as the "friendly" state. Such an attitude is full of masochism and victimity. The events of 2014 are forcing Ukrainians to draw the right conclusions, as more than 80% of Russians, according to Levada Center, a trustworthy Russian sociological surveyor, support the idea of going to war with Ukraine as well as the annexation of Crimea.
There is another myth of a more generally political nature. Its gist is that it is the politicians who are the bastards, villains and criminals, while the people are all good, guiltless and practically saint. In the present case we see all the responsibility being removed from the Russian people and placed solely on Vladimir Putin.
As the popular football chant rightly puts it, “Putin is a pr*ck” indeed, there is no getting away from the fact. But the people of Russia are not exactly above suspicion either. The truth is that there always is a certain connection between the masses and the leaders that govern them. A nation would never accept as its leader a figure mentally, morally and politically alien. It is hard to imagine Kim Ir Sen becoming the president of the United States or Adolf Hitler becoming British prime minister. The Fuehrer would never manage to organize Holocaust if the majority of Germans (to a varying degree) weren't anti-Semitic. The Bolsheviks would never manage to capture the reigns over such a vast country without having deep, albeit often purely instinctive, understanding of the Russian psychology. As was well noted by Mykola Berdiayev, add Marx to Pugachov and you get Lenin. And it is no coincidence that Berdiayev titled his book researching communism The Origin of Russian Communism. Peoples often become complicit in the crimes of their leaders. Europe has come to terms with this idea a long time ago. After the World War II German thinkers, Karl Jaspers among them, discussed their nation's problem of guilt. He managed to admit to being personally guilty in the crimes of Nazism, to put his hand up and utter: "Mea culpa". And thus the German land no longer poses a threat to the world and Europe. But when it comes to Russians, even a thought of bringing up the issue of national guilt is seen as treason and utter malice. Instead a powerful complex of national innocence has formed: the crimes of the Russian Empire are all on the Tsars, the communists bear the responsibility for the deeds of the totalitarian regime, and what came afterwards is blamed on Yeltsin, Putin, the damned democrats, or in fact anyone, but the Russian people that are never ever responsible for anything. However, in judicial practice, the ones who usually bear no responsibility are the incapacitated and the insane.
Putin’s skyrocketing popularity is the result of the support of his policies by tens of millions of regular citizens who in such a way unwillingly take the responsibility for the results of said policies. Putin, (who much like other tyrants demonstrated his dependence on the moods of the crowd more than once), would never dare invading Crimea knowing that the people of Russia would not approve, neither would he start the war in the South-East of Ukraine. That’s where the parallels with Hitler are even more appropriate than with Stalin. The latter was a quintessentially Asian despot who was satisfied by the shear fear of the controlled masses, for whom being feared meant being respected and loved. Hitler and Putin are much more the tyrants of a western ilk. They require public allegiance, the ecstasy of the masses. They feed off the crowd's energy. Hitler was reluctant to implement the state of total war in Germany (even when the circumstances called for it) for fear that the Germans would not approve. Stalin was completely devoid of such prejudices.
Putin is currently acting in accordance with the public moods. Not only the dictator himself but millions upon millions of regular Russians believe that the existence of the Ukrainian nation is nothing other than a work of fiction imposed by Russia’s enemies, and the existence of Ukrainian state a historical mishap, a misunderstanding. According to Putin and his compatriots Ukraine has no right to exist as a sovereign independent state. That’s why the Russian society (with the exception of a handful of people) will happily swallow all sorts of Kremlin's crimes against Ukrainians. There should be no illusions about that. Russia in its current state has already become without exaggeration a fascist country (this is not meant as an insult, merely stating a fact). Granted, each fascist system has its own national peculiarities. The Communists of the PRC, for example call their current system “the socialism with Chinese peculiarities”. Similarly Putin’s state is fascism with Russian peculiarities. And, by the way, its origins don’t necessarily have to be found in Germany or Italy. As the philosopher and Orthodox priest Georgiy Fedotov put it: “Another thing remains a fact: the structure of the fascist state, just like the methods of terror, have been created by Lenin and were simply replanted into the European soil. The same philosopher also wrote: 'For Russia itself the forcible extension of imperialist being would spell the loss of all hopes for its own freedom… Just like in the age of Moscowian Tsars autocracy was the price paid for expansion, similarly fascism is the only state order capable of prolonging the existence of this empire of servitude.” And this is exactly what we see today.
But how can Ukrainians rid themselves of their biggest illusion, the one of “brotherhood” and “friendship” with their historical enemy. And even setting history aside, it’s hard to ignore the fact that no other country caused Ukraine as much trouble over the 22 years of its independence as Russia. The fact remains, the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian society failed to see the obvious: the real threat for Ukraine is represented not by the NATO, not by Poland and neither by the United States, but by Russia that was, is and for the foreseeable future will remain Ukraine's only true enemy. So the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians turned out to be blind. But the worst part is that many carriers of these pro-Russian illusions happen to be members of the ruling elite, President Petro Poroshenko for one. Even the tragic events of 2014 failed to bring drastic changes. High-rankng officials in Kyiv continue to hope that Putin will come to his senses, that he will somehow regain sanity and change his attitude towards Ukraine for the better. Such expectations are downright absurd. And the problem doesn't end with the political leader who happens to be a "pr*ck". There also the "collective Putin" – the people of Russia who provide rock-solid support for all the ventures of their ringleader. And after all, should this particular Putin somehow disappear, his compatriots would simply find another... It looks as though the formation and self-identification of the Ukrainian people cannot be completed without liberation from this pro-Russian illusion that proved so devastating for the nation. In the East Ukrainians are currently being killed not by "friends" and "brothers". The territory from where they come is not populated by an ally-nation. The realization of this fact may not be pleasant, but it is absolutely vital. And if even now Ukrainians fail to realize what Russia really is for them, all the lives lost in the 2014 war are lost in vain.
The Ukrainian Week talked with French cybersecurity expert Christine Dugoin-Clément about mechanisms for fighting fake news, the prospects for certifying true information, and the likelihood of separating propaganda from journalism once and for all.