In 1991, Ukrainians separated themselves “not from Russia but from Moscow,” as shown by the continuing willingness of most to speak Russian, historian Georgy Mirsky says. Indeed, at that time, “no one except Bandera supporters separated themselves off from Russia or from the Russian people.”
But now, the Russian historian acknowledges, the situation has changed. Ukrainians in Kyiv in the wake of Moscow’s intervention in southeastern Ukraine are choosing to speak Ukrainian, an indication that Russia may have “acquired Crimea but we have lost Ukraine. Which, he asks, is “more important?”.
When a recent Russian visitor to the Ukrainian capital told him that “everyone is speaking Ukrainian in the streets,” Mirsky says he has “difficulty imagining such a Kyiv,” given that in his past visits even since 1991, Ukrainians spoke Russian “without a single exception” and spoke it just as well as any Muscovite.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, he continues, Ukrainians like other peoples in the region fled from Moscow which had become “a symbol” for them as for others of “empire.” But “no one in Ukraine” fled from Russia or the Russian people until now. And they have done so not only for a long time but perhaps forever.
Mirsky says that he “understands now why people say that in Ukraine there is a ban on watching Russian federal channels: if I were a Ukrainian,” he suggests,” and had to listen to what these channels say about Ukrainians, he would do the same even though he feels no particularly warm feelings for the current Ukrainian government.
The Russian historian’s observation is more important than it might strike some at first glance. Most journalistic commentaries regularly speak about the division between Western Ukraine and the rest of that country, between a Ukrainian nationalist region and a Russian speaking one.
But more scholarly analysts focus on what they describe as a tripartite division of Ukraine, among the Ukrainian-speaking and very nationalist Ukrainians of the West, the Russian-speaking and less nationalist Ukrainians of Kyiv and the center, and the Russian-speaking Russians and Ukrainians in the east.
Moscow never won the sympathies of Western Ukraine – its inclusion in the Soviet Union was one of Stalin’s biggest mistakes because people there continued to resist from the 1940s to the end of Soviet times – but Russia had won over at least in part many of the Ukrainians in the central regions.
That gave Moscow the leverage it needed to control Ukraine. Now, to the extent that the shift Mirsky is pointing to has occurred – and there is a great deal of evidence that he is correct – Moscow has lost that tool. Indeed, one can say that if Ukraine acquired state independence in 1991, it is now acquiring national independence – and both times because of Moscow’s mistakes.