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17 May, 2013  ▪  Ihor Losiev

Break-Up Inevitable

De-Russification is crucial to a split with the Soviet past

Ukraine’s grueling progress towards Europe, whereby going around in circles alternates with plunges into what seems like the distant past, prompts people to go deeper than personalities, historical coincidences and unavoidable mistakes in the search of the sources for these failures. While declaring its European nature, Ukraine is failing to separate from the opposite civilization and culture across its north-eastern border, both ideologically and mentally.

READ ALSO: From Russification to Poverty

Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenka once solved the dilemma for his nation, calling Belarusians “Russians with a certificate of quality”. Ukrainians have yet to define themselves in relation to Europe or Russia. Without this, they will never accomplish de-Sovietization or switch to democracy, statehood and independence. Just as in other former USSR countries, Sovietization in Ukraine was in fact a form of Russification. It proclaimed the existence of a single Soviet nation as a historical community with the domination of the Russian language, history and culture. “The sooner we all speak Russian, the sooner we will build communism,” Nikita Khrushchev said at a Belarus university in the 1960s. Thus, all things Russian officially turned into a cultural and spiritual hegemon throughout the USSR. Communism, the dream of a global socialist system based on the Moscow model and rejection of bourgeoisie were layered over traditional Russian messianism, Russocentrism and xenophobia. The new communist messianism was supposed to replace the imperial and Orthodox one. “If the Third Rome failed, there will be the Third International,” Karl Radek, a Bolshevik and Comintern leader, once joked, playing on the words of the famous quote by the Russian monk, Philotheus: “Two Romes have fallen, the third Rome will be Moscow and a fourth is not to be”. Millions have grown used (and have been taught) to accept all things Russian as Soviet and all things Soviet as Russian.

READ ALSO: Russification Redux?

This shows that de-Russification is an integral element of Ukraine’s effort to shed its Soviet and communist legacy. However, Russification is far deeper and more intricate than just the language. It involves following Russia’s model in building political institutions, such as the Prosecutor General’s Office with its overwhelming control, inherited from Soviet times and similar to that in the modern Russia; healthcare, education, the utility system, the judiciary and penitentiary systems and more. This is more dangerous than linguistic Russification. Today, the Ukrainian government is blindly following the Russian socio-economic experience – largely negative. Perhaps the most damaging aspect of Russification is that of political practices and habits. As a result, both practices and the elite are completely incompatible with those in Europe.


If they have not lost their identity, ethnic communities see a clear line between their culture and traditions and those of other communities, which they respect. The twenty-year promotion and domination of Russian show business, mass media, cinematography and books in the independent Ukraine, after centuries of it being part of different empires, has diluted national identity in the minds of Ukrainians. Subsequently, they stopped distinguishing between Ukrainian and Russian in art, public life, historical memory and the like. Some in Ukraine realize how deeply the Russian and the Soviet is intertwined, hence the restoration of many aspects of Soviet ideology, the fueling of nostalgia for Soviet times, and the whitewashing of the most notorious figures and organizations of the Soviet past, such as Stalin, Molotov, Cheka, the NKVD, KGB and so on, poured into the minds of Ukrainians through endless Russian TV series.

What is Russian civilization? Many Western scholars, including Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, never qualified Russia as part of the European world and treated it as a stand-alone civilization. Three years ago, the Levada-Centre, the most respected sociological organization in Russia, surveyed Russians on the matter. 70% of those polled did not think of themselves, nor did they want to be Europeans. Europe has always been widely criticized in Russian political philosophy, while the advocates of Europe known as zapadniki or Westernizers, were far less popular than Slavic and Eurasian oriented ideological groups. Eurasian-oriented intellectuals were the fiercest opponents of Europe. After years in Europe, these one-time emperor’s professors and privatdozents who fled there after 1917 never accepted its culture. They insisted that Russian and European cultures were fundamentally incompatible and belonged to opposite civilizations. In their opinion, Russia was a standalone civilization (“Russo-Siberian” according to Oswald Spengler) opposite to the fundamental aspects of both European and Asian cultures: “The culture of Russia is neither European, nor of one of the Asian cultures, nor the sum or combination thereof… It should be distinguished from the cultures of Europe and Asia and viewed as a median Eurasian culture.” Supporters of the Eurasian foundation admitted the huge impact of the East, especially Turkic and Mongolian, on Russia. “How can we possibly be the descendants of Kyiv Rus? We are the successors of the great empire of Genghis!” wrote Russian writer and journalist Vadim Kozhynov in Soviet times. “… without the Tatars there would have been no Russia” claimed Pyotr Savitski. Other like-minded intellectuals believed that the Russian state was founded by Moscow tsars, the successors of Mongol khans, rather than by Kyiv princes. They believed that the collapsed Golden Horde was revived as the Moscow kingdom. Some mentioned “the miracle of the Tatar environment transforming into Russian statehood” in their publications. Pyotr Struve, a Russian liberal known for his proactive struggle against all things Ukrainian, among others, insisted that “The key factors in the rise of the great Russian nation were the Moscow State and Tatar-Mongolian influences.” “The sounder the culture and nation, the more powerful and cruel its state,” Eurasia-oriented intellectuals concluded, often referring to the Russian World concept in the same spirit now echoed by Russian Patriarch Kirill.

READ ALSO: Russification Via Bilingualism

One may refer to Peter the Great’s reforms and take exception to the Asian nature of Russian civilization. However, that Westernization of Russia was probably purely superficial and formal. Did Turks become Europeans when they swapped their turbans and tarbushes for hats? Yuri Lotman’s Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School offered an accurate portrait of Peter’s Westernization in the Sign Systems Studies. It described a typical 18th-cent. Russian nobleman as someone who wore verigi – the rusty chains of a Moscow fool for Christ – under the fine Brabant lace of his shirt. Peter the Great, who wanted to take technical, administrative and scientific accomplishments from the West, while leaving the multi-century Russian tradition of despotism, arbitrary and undivided rule intact, himself realized how limited his reforms were. It was European worldview that scared Peter, because it could undermine if not destroy the Russian system. “Leibniz is very smart, but not in our way, not in a Russian way,” he described the outstanding mathematician and philosopher when the Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts in St. Petersburg wanted to invite him to work there. He was rejected…

Peter the Great also realized the fundamental contradiction between Europe and Russia. Aleksey Tolstoy described them in his novel Peter I that won him the Stalin Prize. When Peter, under the pseudonym Pyotr Mikhaylov, worked as a carpenter in a town in Holland (although all locals knew that he was actually a Russian tsar), he once went on a walk through the typical flatland, surrounded by waters, canals and bridges. He stepped on one of the bridges when he saw a young boy walking underfoot, eating an apple. Pytor grabbed the boy by this shirt and tossed him over to the other side of the canal. They boy got mad and threw the apple core in the Russian tsar’s face. Pyotr’s reaction was interesting. He wiped his face, came up to the boy and said, “I’m sorry, brother, I forgot. I thought I was walking in Moscow.” This episode shows more than the volumes of research into European and Russian civilizations. With his apology, Pyotr admitted that Holland had a completely different civilization which has very little in common with his homeland. There, even a child has its own dignity that cannot be abuse. In Moscow, there is no such thing as human dignity.

READ ALSO: The Spenglerian Fallacy and Europe as a Mutual Rediscovery

Westernization of Russia should not be overstated. It was one of the many perestroikas orchestrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Soviet-American Professor of History and Political Science Aleksandr Yanov estimated that there were twelve, Gorbachev’s perestroika being the thirteenth and the last. All these perestroikas had one thing in common: they brought ultimate victory to anti-European reactionary forces.

Liudmila Narusova, the widow of politician Anatoliy Sobchak, proved in her PhD thesis that any reforms in Russia are only possible when launched from the omnipotent centre and carried out with cruel anti-liberal methods. This was how reforms were undertaken in Japan after the Meiji Restoration; China; under sultans in Turkey and shahs in 20th century Iran. Otherwise, she insists, reforms in Russia will fail. All this comes from several specific features of Russian civilization: a mindset that rejects the power and rule of law, over-centralized and virtually unlimited power, the conviction that violence can be applied everywhere and solve any problem, and little respect for an individual, etc. 

The rejection of the power of law in Russian mentality and political practice manifests itself in the fact that the subject of law in Russia is the state/government – often despotic, not like in the West, where the state/government and individual are equal in the eyes of the law, which is why cases like “Mr. Smith vs USA” are possible there. This feature of Russian mentality has a long and strong historical background, from Ivan the Terrible to Vladimir Putin. An important component of it is the arbitrary exercise of power by those who wield it, although the process is sometimes masked under the guise of justice. The fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Roman Abramovich was luckier) brings Ivan the Terrible’s quote to mind: “I am the ruling tsar and the will is mine to execute or pardon my serfs”. In a letter to Queen Elizabeth he once demanded that she punishes the English journalists who wrote of him disrespectfully in their digests. Appalled, the Queen replied that not only can she not instruct journalists on what they write, but neither can parliament. Meanwhile, Russia still lives by an unspoken rule: he who has power – or money under a more liberal scenario – is right.

Ukrainian Cossacks faced this “jurisdiction” at the Pereyaslav Convention. Prior to this significant event in Ukraine’s history, they had taken a pledge to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Crown to patrol frontiers and fight against the enemies of the Polish state, while the king committed to respecting their rights and privileges. After pledging allegiance to the Muscovite tsar in 1654, the Cossacks asked the Muscovite ambassador, boyar Buturlin, to pledge allegiance to them as well on behalf of the tsar. “The tsar does not pledge allegiance to his serfs,” he replied. Overnight, the free Cossacks became serfs.

Ukraine’s current legal, especially the judial system, is a continuation of the Russian one. Yet, the nation that had some of the earliest laws in Eastern Europe, including Yaroslav the Wise’s Ruska Pravda (Rus Truth), the Statutes of Lithuania and Magdeburg Rights, could hardly have created that, which is now referred to as law in Ukraine – something imposed externally.  A fundamental element of Russian civilization is a top-down hierarchy of power, from the omnipotent centre to powerless provinces. It is mirrored in the framework of public finance where territories send almost all their money to the centre, then receive their share in the form of subventions. In this civilization, the government appropriates all functions of civil society, making it totally inert and helpless. “The Germans attempt to resolve conflicts, recognizing them as being inevitable,” notes Russian writer, Boris Orlov. “Russians prefer to stifle conflicts and reach consent through violence. Germans view a party to the conflict as a partner or competitor. The Russian concept is of friend of foe. The ability to solve conflicts peacefully is a prerequisite of civil society. In Russia, the state/government tries to eliminate conflicts rather than solve them.”

Historically, Russian society has always been community-oriented and anti-individualistic. This escalated over the decades of communist totalitarianism where individual rights were miserable compared to those of the government, society or a community. The accusation of individualism was among the worst libels in Soviet schools. By contrast, over the centuries, Europe has evolved to respect human rights. Ukrainian individualism had long been fed by peasants who owned land, unlike Russian communities, where the peasant world was the predecessor of kolkhozy - collective farms. Therefore, the Ukrainian peasant community was fundamentally different from the Russian world. It was a free association of small individual land owners until Russia introduced serfdom in Great (Central) Ukraine in the late 18th century.

READ ALSO: How Ukrainians Turn Into Russians

Ukraine’s further geopolitical path and civilization choice requires an ideological and institutional separation from the one-time parent state with a despotic government that ignores social sentiments; a system controlled by clans and tycoons; disregard for individuals; an omnipotent and uncontrolled bureaucracy; a mass media that is restricted and manipulated by top officials; no fair, equal and competitive elections; but with an integral fuehrer, from Lenin to Putin. 

Ukraine has to clarify where Ukrainian society starts and ends, and where the Russian does. Based on this, it should choose its civilization model. The fact that Ukraine belonged to European state and political entities for many centuries should make the choice easier. After all, this helped the nation preserve its European intentions, as well as cultural and social priorities. However, any European aspirations that Ukraine declares, without the ultimate separation from “Moscow’s Eastern despotism” (a quote of Russian philosopher and cleric Georgiy Fedotov), are merely a pretence and wishful thinking.  

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