From Russification to Poverty

4 July 2011, 16:40

Russification is a well-known term in Ukraine. Even a plain school textbook offers a vivid explanation to what it means: russification is a policy aimed at entrenching and reinforcing Russian national and political domination in Ukraine or other countries. It is implemented by making non-Russians switch to the Russian language and culture followed by further assimilation. The widespread interpretation of this phenomenon goes back to the verge of the 19th -20th centuries when the political wing of Ukrainian national liberation movement fought against all kinds of restrictions imposed on Ukrainian language and literature. During the soviet era, this interpretation transformed into a damming castigation of the USSR’s cultural and educational policy. However, from the very beginning, russification has never merely been about the language or vyshyvanka . 

Economic russification: guns, versus butter

For the most part, russification is interpreted as the imposition and cultivation of the Russian culture to oust and downplay something specifically authentic. In fact, oppression and assimilation always was and continues to be only one side of the russification agenda. Its other function was the preservation and development of some elements of the local culture or social practices which would serve the headquarters well, promising the strengthening of its influence on the local level.

Russification is largely – and justifiably – identified as the expansion of Russia’s political influence over Ukraine after the Cossack Revolution in the 17th century and a slew of wars against Poland and Turkey, as the “white Orthodox Tsar” grabbed more and more Ukrainian territories. In fact, however, russficiation originally pertained not so much to the cultural and educational, but to the social and economic sphere. Zealously defending the benefits that were allegedly provided to Ukraine’s economy by imperialistic Russian occupation, the spin doctors of the ideological front kept stressing the fact that this allowed Ukraine access to foreign markets to sell its products – first and foremost, agricultural – and transformed its southern and eastern regions into the bread basket of Europe, to name but a few. The bitter truth, though, was that all these changes made Ukraine an economic outsider – a trend that can be seen as far back as the 18th century – rather than being a player. It is no secret that Ukrainian merchants could only “access” Western markets through Russia and transit points controlled by the Russian metropolitan center rather than by commercially profitable means, as had been done since the Middle Ages. Russian foreign trade ideology had nothing in common with the philosophy of free exchange, which was inherent in the West. It was focused on the establishment of economic and subsequently political domination. As Russia gradually restricted the export of strategic goods and channeled trade flows to its own transit points, it quickly set new playing rules for Ukrainians, whereby business could only be a success for those linked to the people in power. In no time, the only businessmen left in the game were those who enjoyed the support and protection of influential nobles or the tsar’s favorites. 

Another bitter consequence was the integration of Ukrainian manufacturers into the Russian market, praised by many historians of imperialistic and soviet times. Ukrainian agriculture was export-oriented at that point. Ukraine’s status as the bread basket of Europe flattered quasi-patriots. Meanwhile, the fact that the grain exported was largely feed grain, not designated for the European consumer, but for re-export by the latter to the colonies, was kept secret. The rapidly developing sugar industry in Western Ukraine, which so pandered small-town vanity, also became a small “economic wonder” of sorts. The only drawback was that sugar plants offered almost unbearable working conditions and the network of enterprises in no way resolved the problems of unemployment and poor living standards. Even though Ukraine was virtually considered the capital of European sugar production, the average Ukrainian consumed the least

amount of sugar per year than his/her European neighbours. 
The industrial upheaval of the second half of the 19th century was a purely “Russian” project, since the government controlled all investments, trying to channel the cash for the development of strategically important industries which served the army and the fleet rather than to improve the prosperity of the country. Bismarck’s “guns versus butter” model attracted foreign investors, since it guaranteed a market for their products, such as cannons, steam ships, rolled metal, rails, railroad cars and industrial equipment, the consumer of which was the state. The imperialistic industrial revolution and shortly thereafter, soviet industrialization followed virtually identical economic priorities, where extraction and heavy industry dominated over food and textile industries. On the eve of WWI, finished products constituted less than 20% of total Ukrainian exports, the rest being raw materials and semi-processed goods. 
The inefficient development of industry and farming designed and promoted to meet the interests of the minority in the country hampered the increase of domestic consumption. The imperialistic economy lagged behind the sound ones mothballing the outdated diet and the everyday culture of Ukrainians. All the rudiments of archaic everyday life, such as excessive consumption of bread and grain to fill in the deficiency of proteins and fats in the diet and high level of alcohol consumption tacitly encouraged by the state-owned monopoly, survived imperialism to become one of the key codes of soviet civilization. 

Underdeveloped communications described by Nikolai Gogol as Russia’s chronic disease turned into a fait accompli for Ukraine. Irrational and slow construction of road and subsequently railways, outdated technologies and the misappropriation of funds forever became a clearly Russian brand in this field. Transportation projects often turned into window dressing, concealing the country’s helplessness. Scenes in which the future Emperor Nikolai II is pushing a wheelbarrow during the laying of the Trans-Siberian Railway were published in all secondary school history textbooks. Some time later, they were reincarnated in the propaganda-oriented posters of BAM, another Potemkin project launched by the now soviet empire. The current Euro 2012 infrastructure projects in post-Soviet Ukraine appear to have a similar resonance.  

Social russification: long lines replacing barricades 

The participation of the Ukrainian elite in the development of the Russian and Soviet empires as the most vivid example of social russification, has often been used as an argument in favour of the closeness of these formations and their ideology are to the Ukrainian mentality. For the sake of accuracy, it should be noted that the “khokhols” who built the empire, included hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks, who were relocated to the Kuban, Crimea, Eastern Siberia and Kazakhstan “for the purpose of russification,” not only the Rozumovsky, Troshchynsky or Kochubeys. A significant feature of the parent state’s social policy was that all of its regulatory measures regarding Ukrainians only addressed two social classes – the nobility and the peasants. The former faced career and financial prospects in imperial service in exchange for their social and political independence (and in time, their identity). The latter were lured – by carrot or stick – to the “land and freedom,” two illusionary yet integral elements of peasants as a social class. At the same time, the policy of both the imperial and Soviet governments consistently ignored and marginalized the middle class. Property rights for the unprivileged classes according to imperial legislation always remained an illusion rather than a reality, while political freedoms did not exist at all. This stifled the development of bourgeoisie as a bearer of an essentially different civil religion, based on individualism, independence, responsibility and enterprise. 

By contrast, social russification was always concerned with the preservation of the social hierarchy. Leadership positions were traditionally filled by officials and military officers appointed and protected by the political regime, sometimes joined by other categories of the “servants of the people.” Under conditions of the chronic inefficiency of government and the economy, in addition to their power, these categories had additional privileges, ranging from access to the benefits offered by the Western civilization to high-quality medical care and access to food from special distribution centers. The rest of society looked like an amorphous depersonalized mass, the key moral values of which included blind obedience and faith in a strong state (tsar, leader). All social ambitions focused on the search for means to become one of the “chosen ones”, thus gaining the privileges accorded to them, rather than on personal fulfillment and growth. Individual freedom within collective-oriented rural communities or Stakhanov brigades was always seen as a distortion and a challenge to traditional values. The consequences of paternalist ideals and expectations were always passive and well-controlled individuals, the most valuable social product of russification projects. They were the ones that allowed the parent state to shape new communities at the level of physical human masses, not only identities, which is how the phenomenon of the “soviet nation” became possible, representatives of which still live in virtually all former Soviet countries to this day. 

Having said this, the social achievements of russification were and continue to possibly be the most dubious and limited of all. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the surprisingly long-lasting social memory of Ukrainians (such as peasants whose intuitive and subconscious distrust of the government, caused by the traumatic experience of famines and collectivization, lives for at least four to five generations), as proven by social psychologists, to the elementary clumsiness and superficial implementation of specific measures. Having wasted much time and funds to even out the social and ethnic diversities among “brotherly soviet republics,” in its last hours of its existence, the USSR had to face an explosion of previously repressed “nationalisms” and the revival of social everyday traditions that it had failed to root out. 

The systemic shortcoming of russification was its lack of constructivism. In his review of the consequences of the russification of Crimea, which, in the view of Russian society was the analogy of bringing civilization to barbarians, Yevgeniy Makarov, a Russian writer, sadly noted that: “The question of what is good for a nation should be answered with unbiased logic and sincerity… Let’s look the issue in the face and, hand on heart, state candidly whether we really gave the Crimean Tartars a better life?” 

Cultural russification: “We are poor because we are stupid and we are stupid because we are poor!” 

The impact of russification seems the most visible in culture, yet it is much wider and more threatening than the Valuev Decree of 1863 banning any printing in Ukrainian or a triumphant march of the Russian pop product on Ukrainian television. 

The global result of cultural russification is a new system of values and motives, which is particularly entrenched in everyday life. These are the habits and judgments of people quoted by Ukrainian classical writers, Hryhoriy Skovoroda and Ivan Nechuy-Levytsky: “the boss is always right”, “keep a low profile”, or “do I really need this?” etc. 

Social indifference and spiritual lethargy are actually far more dangerous than the primitive taste cultivated by the mass culture of the “Russian world.” In this sense, the impact of russification can even be seen in places where people speak Ukrainian, not Russian, but in hospitals and courts, people are treated on the basis of their social “quality” and the thickness of their wallet.  

Another trauma of civilization, inflicted by russification is the emergence of the notions of “province” and “capital city” which has become rooted in Ukrainian cultural vocabulary. Prior to the russification era, the cultural scene was unaware of such stratification because of the specific European homogeneity of Ukraine. Its big cities and towns comprised the major economic and cultural foundation of regional life where education and powerful trading centers were not necessarily in line with administrative capitals and the strongholds of the movers and shakers. The transformation of the imperial era drew a new coordinate grid over the country, quickly eliminating homogeneity along with ancient cultural and economic centers. It is doubtful whether anyone will currently recognize Kamyanets-Podilsky, Bila Tserkva, Korop or Novhorod-Siversky as former “significant” towns. To a large extent, the center of gravity was selected artificially by the new government and moved to locations which never succeeded in developing sufficiently while the clarification of opportunities and prospects was not determined on the basis of the natural capacities of the region or the location, but on the hierarchic division between the “center” and the “outlying districts”. Thus, provinciality became a category of quality or essence rather than location. 

Immunity from russification 

Russification models were and continue to be necessary to maintain the integrity and influence of the empire. But are they really so omnipotent and effective? The weak spot of russification is total indifference towards any individuality that is based on purely civil values, such as respect of human rights, individuality, tolerance, social constructiveness and so on. For this reason, even russified people do not always accept the values and conditions offered by the “Russian world,” even if they are ethnic Russians. The russified model of the social and cultural system offers an ineffective state, financial instability and social inertness, thus depriving people of the opportunity to choose and reboot social development. This artificial development model hampers full progress in Lviv, Kolomyia or Lutsk – all in Western Ukraine – as much as it does in Luhansk, Jankoi or Kherson. Russification and its recent remake, homo sovieticus, will never stand a chance in a place where people prefer to be citizens rather than slaves.  

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