Birth of a nation. How Putin wanted to destroy the Ukrainian people, but eventually strengthened the Ukrainian identity
Birth of a nation.
How Putin wanted to destroy the Ukrainian people, but eventually strengthened the Ukrainian identity.
Vladimir Putin stubbornly repeats that the state of Ukraine is an artificial entity created by the Bolsheviks at the whim of Vladimir Lenin. The Ukrainian people, he argues, do not exist at all, because Ukrainians and Russians are – it’s actually one people.
Pseudo-historical statements about the role of Lenin in the formation of Ukraine do not need comments, but, paradoxically, the role of Putin himself in strengthening Ukrainian identity turned out to be important enough. Putin’s Ukrainophobia
Putin has been preoccupied with questions of Ukrainian history and Ukrainian identity for many years.
Few people then paid attention, but back in April 2008 (then there is even before the war with Georgia) at a closed meeting of the Russia-NATO Council in Bucharest, Putin said that he did not consider Ukraine a real state. That’s how one of the participants in the meeting retells Putin’s speech:
“When it came to Ukraine, Putin flared up. Addressing Bush, he said: “You understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, and part, and a significant one, was donated by us!” And then he very transparently hinted that if Ukraine is still will be accepted into NATO, this state will simply cease to exist. That is, in fact, he threatened that Russia could start tearing away Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.”
“Putin wanted to destroy the Ukrainian people, but eventually strengthened the Ukrainian identity”.
For a while, Putin subdued his desire to rewrite Ukrainian history, but in 2021 he broke through again. In the summer of 2021, he published a gigantic article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (moreover, a version in Ukrainian was posted on the Kremlin’s official website), in which exhaustively stated his views: “Our spiritual, human, civilizational ties were formed centuries, go back to the same origins, tempered by common trials, achievements and victories.
Our kinship is passed down from generation to generation. It is in the hearts, in the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. After all, we are one people.”
In a text rife with manipulation and blunders, Putin not only denied Ukrainians the right to national independence, but essentially announced plans to resolve the “Ukrainian issue” by force: “We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who make such an attempt, I want to say that in this way they will destroy their country.”
The main culprit of the unnatural emergence of Ukraine on the political map of the world, Putin called the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin: “As a result of the Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called “Ukraine named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.” He is its author and architect. This is wholly and completely confirmed by archival documents, including tough Leninist directives on the Donbass, which was literally squeezed into Ukraine.”
It is likely that the Russian leader sincerely believes that there are no Ukrainians in nature. Therefore, he gave the order to attack Ukraine on February 24, 2022, counting on the broad support of Ukrainian citizens who yearn for reunification with their Russian brothers. However, even the obvious failure swift special operation, which grew into a protracted and bloody war, had no effect on his rhetoric. On March 3, 2022, Putin, as if nothing had happened, said during a meeting with the permanent members of the Security Council: “I will never give up my conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.”
Only now it is very likely that the result of Putin’s military adventure will not be the restoration of the “historical unity” of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, but exactly the opposite – the final formation of the Ukrainian nation. And not just as an original ethno-cultural group, but as a political community, welded together by the collective experience of mobilization to combat Russian aggression, and for this reason for not wanting to consider itself a part of the Russian cultural space.
New “national myth”
Any modern political nation has a pantheon of national heroes and key events in history that serve as the foundations of a common identity and a sense of civic solidarity. The so-called “national myth” does not necessarily reflect reliable or generally accepted historical facts. But for effective dissemination through education, media and mass culture, he must be distinguished by internal logic.
Post-Soviet Ukraine experienced serious problems with the “myth of foundation”, since for different groups of the population, not just different, but directly contradictory historical narratives had symbolic value. In the most general form, they can be designated as Soviet (imperial) and anti-Soviet (anti-imperial) versions of the history of Ukraine.
The annexation of Crimea and the low-profile armed conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014 provided an ideal setting for a nation-building project that would take an alternative to the dichotomy of Soviet and anti-Soviet historical memory.
Arguments about figures like Stepan Bandera or Symon Petliura have been overshadowed by the image of a cunning and powerful external enemy. Russia received this role, treacherously tearing away part of the Ukrainian territory and unleashing a civil war.
war by supporting the separatists of Donbass. Moreover, the experience of contact with the enemy turned out to be truly massive. More than 400,000 people passed through the zone of the Joint Forces Operation (formerly the Antiterrorist Operation, ATO) in certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions
human. Together with family members, these are millions of Ukrainians with a personal negative attitude towards Russia.
The full-scale war that began on February 24, 2022 greatly increased the effect of alienation. According to the latest available opinion polls, 92% of Ukrainians treat Russia mostly badly or very badly.
Ukrainians have changed their attitude not only to Russia, but also to their own history. In the early 2010s, roughly comparable groups of Russians and Ukrainians lamented the collapse of the USSR. But if in Russia over the past 10 years nostalgia for Soviet past only increased, then in Ukraine there are almost no people who share such an opinion.
If in April 2012 74% of Ukrainians considered May 9 before only “Victory Day”, then in April 2022 there were only 15% of such people left. Now 80% of Ukrainian respondents call the sacred date for the Kremlin “the day of remembrance for the victims of World War II.” Even among the Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine, 66% adhere to a completely blasphemous, from the point of view of Russian officialdom, interpretation.
For a long time, Ukraine was considered a classic example of a divided society.
In the 1990s and 2000s, each electoral cycle showed a split between the conditionally “pro-Russian” southeast and the conditionally “pro-Western” west and center of the country. Magazine “Kommersant. Power” in 2004 came out with a characteristic cover titled “Yakraine vs. Ykraina”, referring to the confrontation in the presidential elections between the “pro-Russian” candidate Viktor Yanukovych and “Western” Viktor Yushchenko. Then the fight between them ended with the first Maidan – the Orange Revolution, on the wave of which Yushchenko came to power.
The second Maidan in the winter of 2014 not only led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, who nevertheless managed to win the presidential election on his second attempt, but also became the reason for the forcible seizure of Crimea and the subsequent hybrid aggression in the Donbass. As a result, Russia withdrew from the Ukrainian political and electoral field 1.7 million voters in Crimea and Sevastopol and about 3.5 million voters in the territory of the “DPR” and “LPR”. Moreover, voters who had previously voted in a disciplined manner for political forces loyal to Moscow and generally rejected Ukrainian identity.
Without these votes, the electoral split in Ukraine came to naught. In 2014, Petro Poroshenko became the first Ukrainian president to win a majority in elections in all regions of Ukraine. In 2019, following the results of the second round, Vladimir Zelensky won in all regions except Lviv.
However, neither the annexation of Crimea, nor the conflict in the Donbass, nor openly anti-Ukrainian propaganda on Russian state channels for the time being could shake the conviction of almost half of the inhabitants of Ukraine that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. In August 2021, 41% of respondents thought so. But after two months of the war, by April 2022, this figure had dropped to 8%. Relatively noticeable support for so dear to Vladimir Putin’s thesis persisted only among the older generation (13% among respondents over 50) and in eastern Ukraine (23%).
Over the same period of time (from August 2021 to April 2022), the share of Ukrainians who define themselves as “citizens of Ukraine” (from 75% to 98%) and “Europeans” (from 27% to 57%) has grown significantly. Self-identification as “Soviet people”, on the contrary, was rapidly losing popularity (from 21% to 7%). In other words, civic and civilizational identities have come to the fore, incompatible with the project of a “big Russian nation” that includes both Russians and Ukrainians.
De-Russification by the hands of Moscow
The protection of the Russian language on the territory of Ukraine is a favorite topic for attacks and high-profile information campaigns by the Russian authorities. At the same time, both before 2014 and after it, Ukraine remained a bilingual society dominated by Russian language at the level of personal communications and in the public sphere.
For example, according to the social network VKontakte (before its blocking in Ukraine), the Ukrainian language certainly prevailed among users only in the west of the country. In January 2022, 50% of Instagram users from Ukraine used Russian, 46% – Ukrainian, 4% – other languages.
The Russian attack overnight changed the position of the Russian language. As producer Alexander Rodnyansky noted, now the Russian language is associated with those who came to kill Ukrainians: “If you read Ukrainian publics, you will see a huge number of texts that will tell you the same thing: I used to be Russian-speaking or I spoke only Russian, and today I switched to Ukrainian, I want to be Ukrainian and speak the language, I want to forget Russian or not use it, because this is the language of those who came to our country with weapons and kill people ” .
In just a few months of the war, the share of Russian-speakers in Ukraine fell from 18% to 15% (in 2012, there were 37% of them). True, the main flow occurs in the bilingual segment. But Ukrainian, apparently, has forever occupied the dominant position in the list of languages spoken by Ukrainians at home.
Ukrainian nation named after Vladimir Putin
The Kremlin’s policy in the Ukrainian direction, the crowning achievement of which was a military invasion, apparently forever discredited the concept of the “Russian world”, dealt a crushing blow to Russia’s ability to implement foreign policy tasks through the tools of “soft power” and most importantly created all the necessary conditions for the formation of a full-fledged civil nation of Ukrainians.
With his own hands, Putin made a close-knit community of citizens out of an objectively heterogeneous mass of Ukrainians in terms of origin, language, religious affiliation and values. The Russian language and culture, the Orthodox Church, the memory of a common past – all this has turned from factors of mutual attraction into lines of tension and demarcation.
It is unlikely that future textbooks on the history of Ukrainian statehood will, as the Russian leader suggests, name Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. But the name of Vladimir Putin in the section devoted to the Ukrainian nation will appear almost for sure.
“De-Russification for modern Ukraine will be inevitable”
Andrey Zorin, Russian literary critic and historian, specialist in the history of Russian culture
I believe that Putin, indeed, unwittingly, made a significant contribution to the formation of post-Soviet Ukrainian culture, but still not decisive. It is obvious that the Ukrainian civil nation existed even before the war, otherwise such a level of national mobilization would have been impossible.
As for the cultural split, if it existed at all, then, apparently, it had already been overcome earlier, long before the war, and serious cultural differences will remain in any case. Ukrainian identity is largely based on regional diversity and internal differentiation. Only
The components of this mosaic are not two, but much more. As for the language, the process of establishing the Ukrainian language as a universal means of communication for citizens of the country, of course, received a powerful impetus, but it began earlier and will not end soon – it will take a couple of generations.
If we are talking about the Russian language, then there is no special “imperial” in it. But if we are talking about culture, then it would be strange to assume that the culture of a huge empire could remain aloof from this issue – in Russian culture there are both imperial and anti-imperial components that are in very complex relationships with each other. At the same time, I would not exaggerate the importance of both components. Any culture, if it is worth anything, first of all correlates human existence with the issues of life, death, love, suffering, mutual (mis)understanding, and only secondarily speaks of the empire, the state, the people and the like.
“There are both imperial and anti-imperial components in Russian culture, which are in very complex relations with each other”
As for “de-Russification”, this is a natural component of any decolonization process. For modern Ukraine, it is not so much “necessary” as inevitable, and it has no special relation to the specifics of Russian culture, and even more so the language. For better or worse, this is the culture of the former metropolis, the influence of which must be and is being eliminated. Another thing is that this process could go smoothly and evolutionarily, but now it has received a sharp acceleration.
There is no doubt that this war will become a constitutive national “myth of foundation”, a kind of basis for a future more homogeneous nation and a more stable state, replacing historical constructs that are controversial for many and personalities of the First and Second World Wars. And almost regardless of its outcome. The specific mythological narrative may change somewhat depending on how this war ends, but its “mythogenic” potential huge and will definitely be in demand.
However, I am sure that the Russian language and culture will not become part of such a national myth and will not be included in the symbolic complex of the future Ukrainian nation. And it’s not just the war, although it will definitely play its part. Postcolonial identity is built on repulsion from the former metropolis, so the process of removing, relatively speaking, monuments to Pushkin is natural and inevitable. If there had been no invasion, they might not have been demolished for the time being, but simply stopped notice and pay attention to them. The entire ideology of the Putin regime was built on the cultivation resentment about the image of the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” retrospectively imposed on the country – the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War, which should be followed by a revival and revenge.
This myth was a metaphor for the dismembered body of the Russian people, where Ukraine and Kyiv (“the mother of Russian cities”) were assigned the role of the main symbolic loss, which must be returned at any cost. In this context, European the choice of Ukraine was a serious threat to the regime – if one part of the once united people is able to build a European-style democracy, it is impossible to explain why Russia is doomed to a personalist dictatorship.
Sooner or later, Russians will begin to consider Ukrainians as an ethnic group separate from them, like Poles and other Slavs. This will happen inevitably.
The only terrible thing is that tens of thousands of people will have to pay with their lives, and tens of millions with broken destinies, health and well-being of their own and loved ones for these lessons of history.
“Putin has strengthened the Ukrainian political and cultural identity”
Georgy Kasyanov, Ukrainian historian, Doctor of Historical Sciences.
I don’t think that Putin made a decisive contribution to the formation of the Ukrainian nation, although I myself joked that he should be awarded some prestigious Ukrainian order for helping to do this. But seriously, one person cannot make a decisive contribution to such a complex process. Ukrainians became a nation because they themselves wanted it. He only helped them finally understand that Ukraine is not Russia.
The presence of the Russian army in Ukraine, its behavior, and the destruction it caused showed Ukrainians how different they are. And the awareness of this difference is not only political, but also much deeper – cultural and civilizational. Of course, some bitter irony of history
is present in the fact that a person who does not recognize the right of Ukrainians to exist as an independent subject of history at least three times acted as a catalyst for the unity of Ukrainians in the fight against an external threat: in 2004, when he supported Yanukovych in the presidential elections, in 2014, when he annexed Crimea and arranged a covert intervention in the Donbass, turned into a hybrid war, and in 2022. Now he has switched to the most radical tactics: the military destruction of Ukraine as a state and a genocide-like policy towards Ukrainians.
Of course, in this way he only contributes to the mobilization of Ukrainians and the strengthening of Ukrainian political and cultural identity, moreover, strengthening it precisely in the sense of understanding that Ukraine is not Russia, Ukrainians are not Russians, but Ukrainian Russians (in ethno-cultural terms) – this is completely not that Russian Russians.
There was no split between the west and the center, the south and the east of Ukraine. There were quite tangible cultural, linguistic, political differences, different attitudes towards the past. The theme of the split was willingly exploited by politicians, both Russian and some Ukrainian, it was intensively introduced by the media. But such differences can be found in any country and any society, for example, in Germany, or the USA. Differences are not the same as splitting.
“The theme of the split was willingly exploited by politicians, but such differences can be found in any country, for example, in Germany, or the USA”
If we consider the topic of language, then all sociology over the past 30 years indicates that the “language issue” in the ranking of problems is somewhere at the bottom. Ukraine is a functionally multilingual country, almost the entire population speaks Ukrainian and Russian, let’s add here Hungarian, Romanian, Polish and Crimean Tatar. Another thing is the use and political instrumentalization of this topic by politicians. And again – both in Russia and in Ukraine. Here we observe a touching unity between our ultra-patriots and Russian great-power chauvinists: both of them use the topic of language specifically to split Ukraine, but without much success. And the great chauvinists willingly use the escapades of Ukrainian ultra-patriots to justify their paranoid actions, and they, in turn, fuel their chaotic happenings with references to “damned Muscovites.” Such is the symbiosis.
Even with the current events, I do not observe an accelerated process of nation-building. There are no special qualitatively new actions of the state related to the building of the nation, and is it up to this now?
Of course, some especially gifted individuals who have settled in the rear produce some discourses, but there is nothing new in them, it is all a repetition of old forms, moreover, they were not created by them. No new meanings are introduced into the idea of building a nation. The current fuss over the ban on the “imperialist Pushkin”, the abolition of Russian culture and very renaming is a manifestation of rather archaic, up to tribalistic practices. What actually comes out of what has to do with the formation of a civic nation is mass consolidation in the face of an existential threat: and here everything is very simple – us or will be destroyed as a community of citizens (so far this has not been possible), or we will stand and survive as a nation. And here this threat makes us perceive ourselves differently as a community, perhaps forming a higher level of civil society.
responsibility and solidarity.
The idea that the Russian language and culture, at least those of their incarnations that have formed on the territory of modern Ukraine, are unique and should be appropriated by Ukraine, is not new. There is a unique Russian and Russian-speaking culture in Ukraine, and it cannot be given away in the property of the Kremlin’s underdogs, nor allow it to be torn to pieces by our homegrown guardians of the purity of the nation, albeit small in number, but very shrill. Even the “Ukrainian Russian” language is quite expressively different from the “Russian Russian”. Maybe like Australian English from British or American. This is my feeling, based on personal and social experience and on the testimonies of people who understand this.
And let me remind you that the culture of the Ukrainian nation is Malevich, and Bulgakov, and Zhabotinsky (Zeev), and Gogol, and Odessa with Lvov, and the Dnieper with Kharkov. In terms of richness and level of interaction and interpenetration of different cultures, Ukraine is an outstanding country. Of course, the trauma of war, criminal politics
Putin and the disgusting guise of marauding, raping and killing “liberators” provoke a psychological rejection of Russian culture as such and give rise to extreme reactions, but already now we need to think about a longer perspective in which at least Russian the culture of the Ukrainian soil should be considered as an integral part of the national collective identity.
“The culture of the Ukrainian nation is Malevich, and Bulgakov, and Zhabotinsky, and Gogol”
The worldview of Putin and many of his compatriots, both within the ruling class and in the broader strata of society, does not imply understanding and recognition of Ukraine and Ukrainians as a cultural and civilizational Other. For them, Ukraine and Ukrainians are part of the historical body of the Russian people.
True, with some folklore features: melodic songs, salo, hopak, a special dialect and borscht (however, about the latter, as I heard, diplomats of high level express a special, original opinion). Accordingly, if a part of the historical body suddenly claims independence and uniqueness, different from Russian, there is something like cognitive dissonance, and then bewilderment, irritation, indignation, and so on.
Of course, the desire of Ukrainians to live independently, and not as part of Russia, is traditionally explained not so much by some internal processes in Ukrainian society as by the intrigues of the West, which dreams of destroying Russia. This worldview is rooted in the second half of the 19th century, and in combination with another generation long nineteenth century – geopolitics formed a resentment that resulted in aggression and a dirty war of aggression.
And then – a well-known psychological phenomenon: to hate those whom you hurt and suffering.
As for the Ukrainian nation, if we are talking about the existence of a community of original culture, language, common history and collective self-consciousness (identity), that is, what is called an ethnic nation in science, then the fact of the presence of the Ukrainian nation can be recorded already in the 19th century. Of course, this is if we consider the concept of “nation” in the framework of modernist theory. There is another approach, when signs of a nation are found in more ancient times, in Kievan Rus, for example, or even further – in the times of the Tripoli culture.
I believe that Ukrainians as an ethnic nation were formed in the second half of the 19th century.
If we are talking about a political (civil) nation – a community of fellow citizens united by the principle of civic loyalty and the framework of the state, which they recognize as their own, regardless of ethnic, religious, linguistic and other forms of identity, then this process is in final stage, although it is subject to critical external and tough internal challenges. Putin’s goal is to eliminate the Ukrainians precisely as a political nation.
[Text prepared jointly by Vyacheslav Epureanu and Sofia Pryasnyakova]
Writer Irina Mirochnik is the President at IMMER Group & Doctor of Philosophy in Law(PhD)
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