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4 May, 2019  ▪  Stanislav Kulchytsky

Will the Russian sea swallow Ukraine?

How Russia’s policy of assimilation transformed over time

The Ukrianian-Russian conflict in the unusual shape of a hybrid war has been simmeringfor six years now. Society has grown weary and wants peace. The politicians linked to Russia use that desire pledgingto get peace with Vladimir Putin if they win this year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. 

Obviously, peace on Putin’s terms could come quickly. But what awaits us if we once again end up in the “brotherly” embrace of our neighbor? 

Forecasting the future is a dangerous thing. But there is a convincing answer to that question. One simply has to peek into the past in order to understand that we will have no future if the abovementioned scenario comes to life.


Little Russians or Ukrainians? 

When Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s state was dragged into the Russian tsardom, its autonomous rights were restricted, then abolished under Catherine the Great, while Ukrainian history was appropriated by Russia (with a helping hand of many Ukrainians). 

The Moscow dynasty of the Romanovs fully expropriated historical memory of the Ruriks’ medieval empire centered in Kyiv. The fact that the Rurik dynasty functioned in Moscow up until the tsardon of Ivan the Terrible and his son Fedor made this easier. The tsar’s subjects were educated through brilliant works of historians, including Nikolai Karamzin (History of the Russian State, vol. 1–12, 1818–1829), Sergey Solovyov (History of Russia from the Earliest Times, vol. 1–29, 1851–1879), and Vasily Klyuchevsky (A History of Russia, chap. 1–5, 1904–1922). None of them bothered to considerthe fact that the history of the Russian people initially unfolded along the banks of the Dnipro between the 9th and the 13th centuries, then flowed smoothly to the banks of the Oka and the Moskva River. In theirversion of history, the Russian Empire started when Rurik, a Varangian and the founder of the Rurik dynasty, was summoned to the prince’s throne in Novgorod. Nestor’s 11th-century Primary Chronicle dates that to 862. The Millenium of Russia, a grandiouse monument, was erected in Novgorod in 1862 to celebrate exactly that.  

Yet, before Rurik was invited to Novgorod, an army of the “Ros people” (in 860 according to Byzantine sources and 852 according to Nestor the Chronicler) went down the Borysphen (Dnipro) and devastated the suburbs of Byzantium’s capital. This points to the existence of the state in the Dnipro area by that time. But no monument to celebrate the Millenium of Rus-Ukraine was erected eitherin 1852, or in 1860. The reason was very trivial: Ukraine was then swalled by the Russian Empire. It appropriated Ukraine’s territory, its people that had shaped that territory, and Ukraine’s past. It appropriated Rus, the Rus people or Rusyn, the ethnic self-name origintaing from the Varangians (the Normans), albeit changing it to russkiye (Russian).

Ukrainians did not dissapear completely. When Russia emerged (as the Russian Empire after 1721), the Great Russian nation appeared with two ethnographic “offshoots”, the Little Russians (Ukrainians) and the Belarusians. They were presented as offshoots from the one Rusky tribe because they had lived beyond the Muscovy (Russian) state for a long time. They were believed to constitute the one Russian people together with the Great Russians. Moreover, both the Little Russians and the Belarusians were supposed to appreciate being Russians, even ifsecond-rate in a system where subjects of the Russian tsar were dividied into the Russians and the non-Orthodox non-Russians conquered by the empire. The empire was flexible in the way it treated them.For example, those in the Ostsee governorates (in the conquered territory) and the Germans invited to serve the tsar enjoyed high status. The Little Russians were diminished to alienswhen they insisted on being a separate people.  

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The Little Russian intelligentsia thought about ways to separate from the Russians and to name their people once it lost its historical self-name. The logical decision was to transform the name Ukraine known since the 12th century into an ethnotoponym. That’s how Ukrainians appearedon the verge of the 19thand 20thcenturies. Historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky emerged as a figure who returned their own history by writing a multi-volume History of Ukraine-Rus. This made him such an authoritative figure in Ukraine’s society that he was uniformly elected head of the Central Rada, a revolutionary body that led the war of the Ukrainian people for independence, after the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty. 

The episode of the Little Russians and Ukrainians completes in November 1918. That’s when the First World War ended and delegations of the participant countries were going to Paris forthe peace congress. Authorized representatives of the victorious Entante gathered in Iași (Romania). The attendees included well-known Russians - Pavel Miliukov, Nikolai von Dietmar, Vladimir Riabushynski and more. They begged the Entente to occupy Ukraine and help restore the unified and undivided Russia. Thegathering produced an instruction for the Russian delegation to the Paris congress, reportedly authored by Miliukov. “Conversations with the Ukrainians are unacceptable because the mere notion “Ukrainian people” was made up by the Germans. The official recognition of the words “Ukraine” and “Ukrainians” will inevitably lead to the shrinking of the Russian (Russky in the original version) people by a third and cut off the Russian lands from the Black Sea. Even if the Paris congress were to include “Ukraine” into the Russian statewith its name preserved, we would leave a rich field for separatism in the future. Because for as long as a separate nation exists, there will remain ground and reason for the seeking of its own separate state.”


The endless “Russian sea” 

The Russian society got used to almost unstoppable expansion of the imperial borders during the 18th and early 19th century. The collapse of Napoleon’s empire allowed Alexander I to swallow Poland. The insurgency the Poles started in 1831 was drowned in blood. Alexander Pushkin, 32 at that time, reacted to this with a poem and a purely rhetorical question:

Which shall stand fast in such commotion
The haughty Liakh, or faithful Russ?
And shall Slavonic streams meet in a Russian ocean? –
Or il’t dry up? This is point for us.


A year later, the equally freedom-loving, liberal and progressive Mikhail Lermontov, 18, commented on the bloody advance of the tsar’s army in the Caucasus:

Accept it, oh Circassian! West and East

Might soon share your fate. 

The time will come when you will utter haughtily: 

A slave I am, but of the tsar of Universe!


Supported by the Russian society, the next emperor Nikolai I took on the function of a genderme of Europe, making the last attempt to ultimately crush the weakened Ottoman Empire in order to expand his state to four continents, from Alaska to North Africa.Thatdid not happen. Guided by their interests, the UK and France protected the sultan. Tsarism faced a crushing defeat in the 1853-1856 Crimean Warand the autocratic Russia realized that military might could not relyon slavelike dependence. 

The era of reforms under Alexander II introduced the Russian Empire to the industrial epoch and revived its military might. But it remained an autocratic empire and was defeated in the First World War even though its allies, the UK and France, came out victorious. The military defeat led to the collapse of the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- Ukrainian lands werepart of both. The Ukrainian people gaineda window of opportunity to create their own staehood. The Ukrainian People’s Republic emerged on the European map in 1917, followed by the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918. In January 1919, both republics announced their intention to unite in Ukraine. But the War of Independence fought by the Ukrainian people was defeated. Ukraine ended up carved between four countries for the interwar period, including Russia, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. 


The communist superpower 

The War of Independence was defeated largely because the autocratic Russia did not provide any environment where the Little Russians could turn into a united Ukrainian nation. That environment only began to emerge during Ukraine’s war for national statehood.  

Ukrainians had to clash with two Russias, white and communist, in that war. The White Russiastood for the revival of the united and undivided Russia. It met resistance both from the Lenin-led commune state, and from the new statelets in the national regions of the former empire. The bolsheviks usedthe misleading tactics of interaction with the national liberation movement of the oppressed and won. Lenin built the commune state with two parallel power hierarchies: one based on the extraconstitutional Communist Party with dictatorial powers, and the other as the hierarchy of constitutional soviets with managerial functions. This helped him create a centralized state that initially misleadingly looked like a conglomerate of independent, then union republics with a fake constitutional right to leave the Soviet Union.  

In the fall of 1917, the bolsheviks got power, appropriating the hethero alien slogans of the revolution of workers and peasants. In January 1918, they disbanded the Constituent Assemblyal though that convention had initially been the ultimate goal of the Russian Revolution. As a result, the revolution launched to overthrow autocracy exhausted its potential. Then, using the soviet slogans and declaring their authority soviet, the bolshevik leaders gained control over most of the former empire except for Finland, Poland and three Baltic States. Communist transformation followed. Party propagandists declared them to be the natural continuation of the revolution of workers and peasants. In reality, however, these transformations had nothing to do with the people’s revolution. Instead, their aim was for thestate to expropriatesocietyso that every citizen would be economically dependent on the state. This economic dictatorship complemented the political dictatorship of Lenin’s party leaders established after the 1917 October overthrow. This made the commune state omnipotent. 

By acknowledging Ukrainians as a separate nation, the Kremlin gave them external symbols of statehood, recognized the borders of the national state outlined by the Central Rada, and attached the annexed territory populated by Ukrainians predominantly to it when moving its borders westward. Ukrainians obtained the right to a third of their historical heritage while Kyiv was declared the cradleof the brotherly nations. Widescale de-Russification took place in administration, education and socio-political life. Communist Party and soviet officials and nomenclature propagandists were forced to impose the values of communism in Ukrainian. 

Ukrainians resisted expropriation of society by the state disguised as the construction of a socialist country much stronger than other peoples did. This put then in the epicenter of Stalin’s various repressions, including genocide. Communist transformations lasted two decades, ending up in the massive cleansing of the soviet society in 1937-1938. Catastrophic defeats of the Red Army in the first stage of the soviet-German war, especially in the Ukrainian section of the German assault, had just one cause: Stalin’s prewar repressions. The society did unite in the face of the Nazi aggression while British and American allies provided soviet troops with effective technical assistance. The Soviet Union made the key contribution into the victory on the European war arena, came out of the war as a superpower and immediately launched its expansionist policy into all continents. The union republics made the internal belt of the Russian-soviet empire, while the Kremlin-dependent states of the post-Yalta Europe made the external belt. After liberating Central-Eastern Europe from the Nazi conquest the Kremlin kept it under control for dozens of years and applied armed interventions to prevent a threat of overthrow of its puppet regimes. 

The communist superpower did not have internal or external enemies that could end its existence. It fell apart when it exhausted the development resources laid into its foundation (of expansionist nature primarily), when it failed to respond to the challenges of the new post-industrial era. 

The troubadours of the empire. Karamzin in history and Pushkin and Lermontov in literature forged a framework that supported Russia’s politics of expansion 


Nostalgic for the imperial grandeur 

By claiming that Ukraine’s War of Independence in 1917-1923 was defeated we only see one side of this, and not the most important one. We must remember that the soviet statehood Ukraine gained then was fictitious and limited to the force orbit of the Kremlin’s dictatorship. The 1988 constitutional reform pushedthe Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the sidelines and free elections of government authorities in 1989-1990 turned the fictitious statehood into the real one. All elements of the Russian-soviet empire, including Ukraine, thus organically turned into independent states. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union was completely unexpected for the soviet people. For the Ukrainian society, however, it was an event of primary importance as proven by the December 1, 1991 referendum. Most of the Russian society saw the collapse of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical disaster. It is shocking how arrogant that interpretation is -- less so from Vladimir Putin who expressed it, and more so from the millions of people in solidarity with him. One thing to remember is that Russian society has beenindoctrinated with the idea of a higher eurasian civilization for centuries. This came from brilliant writers (Nikolai Karamzin was not just historian) and genius poets. This came from soviet propaganda. Just think of the Soviet Union’s coat of arms where the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was symbolized asthe crossed sickle and hammer over the contours of the Earth. It is also worth remembering that the absolute dependence on the state as the sole employer aggravated the apocalyptic nature of the situation in the eyes of the people used to state paternalism. This was true both for the Russians, and for many Ukrainians. 

In the past three decades, generations have changed in post-soviet states. Yet the dependence on state paternalism (homo sovieticus) is still palpable. The Russian Federation used its oil and gas dollars to cement economic dependence of its citizens on the state. Ukraine does not have such resources, yet its overdue reforms are very slow as they face resistance both from the paternalism-prone population and the corruption-ridden groups in power. Still, Ukraine’s and Russia’s vectors of development are opposite. Ukraine wants to join the countries of the euro-atlantic civilization that are already in the post-industrial world. Russia is defending archaic eurasian values.  

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Russia has aspired to the revival of the former empire since the moment it collapsed. When Putin came to power, his course of militaristic nationalism began to define all aspects of its domestic and foreign policy. As they cement soviet legacy that helps them control the country, Russia’s ruling elite doesnot want to see Ukrainians and Belarusians as different nations that deserve their own, even if fictitious statehood. Putin has stated more than once as he used force to drag post-soviet states into Russia’s orbit of influence that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. This means no national republics on the table. His model of the future is shaped after the pre-bolshevik revolution administrative division into gubernias. Ukrainians longing for the revival of the Soviet Union in its last, fairly liberal stage have to remember that. 

What Ukrainians need to do is build a mental wall between Ukraine and Russia. Mental unification of the two peoples was a serious factor in the defeat of the War of Independence and is fatal for Ukrainians. Hopefully, the mental unification of the Russian state and society during the annexation of Crimea will help us understand the situation we are in. 

Putin’s regime has employed all available tools to take over Crimea in the shortest time possible. The annexation was accompanied by journalists talking about a “radioactive desert” and Putin’s assurances to the leaders of the West (made public a year later in a film screened by Rossiya 1 channel): “As to our nuclear deterrence forces, we are ready to put them in full combat readiness.” The euphoria permeating Russian society during the annexation and reflected on TV and online had some notes of nostalgia over the lost Alaska. 


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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