Wagging the finger: where the West fails to understand Ukraine

‘East and west together!’ This photography project, popularized by hromadske.tv (an internet TV station) through its Facebook page, plays on common stereotypes: a girl in national dress represents the west of Ukraine, and a girl in working dress represents the east. Both, however, sport the colours of the country’s flag.

‘East and west together!’ This photography project, popularized by hromadske.tv (an internet TV station) through its Facebook page, plays on common stereotypes: a girl in national dress represents the west of Ukraine, and a girl in working dress represents the east. Both, however, sport the colours of the country’s flag. 

2016/09/05 • Op-ed

Article by: Adrian Bonenberger

I grew up in the West, where few people know much about Ukraine. In the USA—my home country—most people grow up thinking Ukraine is a part of Russia. They call it “The Ukraine.” If they have grandparents from Kyiv or Odesa, they say “my grandparents emigrated from Russia,” or describe their ethnicity as “Russian.” Ukraine is a footnote in Western history books—a part of various empires, history without a nation.

Maybe this is why most Westerners, when they come to Ukraine, fail to understand the culture. They don’t see Ukraine’s cultural evolution in its proper context, because the historical lens is skewed. What happens instead is one (or both) of two things. First, Westerners tend to echo Soviet-era propaganda—Ukraine has always been part of Russia, it’s within Russia’s sphere of influence, Ukrainian is an invented language, Ukraine is a fake country. Second, Westerners tend to make claims about Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans that would in any other context be described as racist. The two places where this is most conspicuous is when it comes to Western discussions of corruption, and of how Ukraine values human life and treats its civilians.

Maybe this is why most Westerners, when they come to Ukraine, feel entitled to lecture Ukrainians about how to be good global citizens.

Ukrainians understand their own history fairly well—certainly no worse than any other country’s citizens, and better than many (including citizens of the USA who routinely begin their country’s history in the early 17th century with the arrival of the Pilgrims). There aren’t serious consequences for Westerners (British, Americans, Germans, Italians, French, and etc.) being ignorant about the various struggles and ordeals of Ukrainians over the centuries—it’s all part of the same broad, dismissive hand-wave Westerners normally assign to the Middle East, Africa, and countries from Ukraine all the way up to Finland. “What’s their history?” “Ah—I dunno. Russia. That whole Russia thing.”

Ukrainians are accustomed to this ignorance, and are eager to share the many important ways their country’s history diverges from Russia’s. Ukrainians appreciate that old feeling of kinship with the other Europeans they resemble, physically and culturally—it reminds them that Russia is a very recent part of Ukraine’s history, and reassures them that the antipathy with which they view that association is well-founded. They are so eager to please Western Europeans, in fact, that they lose sight of an important if not overwhelming historical fact—that Europe abandoned them in the 20th century. Once if you look at the outcome of World War One and the British, French, and American failure to protect Ukraine and Kyiv from the Soviet Red Army. Twice if you consider how World War Two played out. Three times if you count the Budapest Memorandum—and you should. You should definitely count that.

What Ukrainians aren’t accustomed to is thinking, really believing that they have a moral leg to stand on.

They’re so used to being called “little brother” by Russians, and dismissed as antisemites (by Jewish refugees who only remember what the Ukrainians they encountered did in the concentration camps) or fascists (by Europeans who remember only what some Ukrainians did in WWII) that they’ve developed an inferiority complex of epic proportions. Their inferiority is so powerful, runs so deep, that it never even occurs to most Ukrainians that they actually have the upper hand—that, like Israel, they can hold history over the heads of the safe, comfortable Europeans and Americans who are so eager to criticize Ukraine.

It’s time that Ukrainians recognize and embrace the fact that were it not for their suffering, the burden they bore for eighty years, it’s likely that the Red Army would have washed over Austria and Germany in 1919. Had it not been for their frequent and fervent rebellions from 1944-1954—the war they fought with Poland and with Russia, in which tens of thousands died, and hundreds of thousands deported—that Central Europe would have groaned under the yoke of totalitarian tyranny much earlier (in the case of Hungary and Czechoslovakia) and Western Europe might not have survived.

Western Europeans and Americans that never had to contend with the Iron Curtain don’t even know what Ukraine’s suffering did to protect them. They are blissfully ignorant.

So the next time an American or Western European decides to lecture a Ukrainian about the choices Ukraine makes in its present moment or about its complicated history, instead of attempting to justify or defend it, Ukrainians should simply say “well, if you hadn’t abandoned us three times in the 20th century, maybe we wouldn’t have these problems. Oh, and by the way—what exactly have you done for us lately? Nothing? Yeah, thanks for that. Sorry—continue with what you were saying before.”
Адриан БоненбергерAdrian Bonenberger is a writer and Army veteran living in Ukraine. His accomplishments include publication in the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and not believing obvious Russian propaganda.


Related:

Edited by: A. N.
Source: Originally published in Russian on nv.ua

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  • bornawake

    Good article BUT… please stop wagging the finger at ME, Adrian Bonenberger
    – sic – “It’s time that Ukrainians recognize and embrace the fact that
    were it not for their suffering… blah blah blah blah blah.”

    Blame the school history textbook publishers, The New York Times
    (& all other news sources), The History Channel, Hollywood etc as portraying
    Ukraine as THE Ukraine and the Nazis (never Russian Bolsheviks) as being
    the only ones to commit heinous crimes against humanity.
    The genocide of Ukrainians never ended!!!

    • Jim Kovpak

      Hollywood doesn’t portray the Bolsheviks in a negative light? Do you even watch any movies?

      • zorbatheturk

        Bolshevics are not as telegenic as Nazis.

        • zorbatheturk

          The Nazis sure got around.

  • Jim Kovpak

    This is easily one of the stupidest articles I’ve ever read. Starts out good, then goes full retard with this self-righteous masturbation. It sounds like the kind of nonsense spouted by Polish ultra-nationalists, who also claim to have saved Europe (3 times in fact).

    Perhaps Adrian is getting these ideas by hanging out with certain Ukrainians who are less connected with material reality, or he is, as many Westerners often do, projecting his own poorly formed ideas onto them.

    Ukraine doesn’t need Western cheerleaders bringing self-righteous, laughably pretentious narratives, particularly this one with its ridiculously obvious Jesus metaphor. What it needs from foreigners is reasonable, objective observations, and most of all- real criticism where it is needed (and believe me, it is needed).

    That is how you help Ukraine, not by flattery and patronizing fairy tales. I truly hope Adrian will find another country through the struggles of which he can live vicariously, preferably one that has nothing to do with my heritage. I hear South Sudan’s currently suffering from the pressure of their northern neighbors. There’s a good cause to take up. Truly the South Sudanese suffer for the sake of all of us!

    • WorldCommenter

      What Ukraine needs is military and international diplomatic support to kick the chauvinist Russians out of Crimea and eastern Ukraine (Donbas – Donetsk and Luhansk).

      He is correct about Europeans and Americans not understanding Eastern European history and the lack of understanding of Russian intentions to control that part of the world since the Tsars.

      • Jim Kovpak

        A lack of understanding doesn’t mean Westerners should remedy that by adopting this bizarre myth. I found his narrative patronizing and laughably ahistorical.

        • Bo Mychajliw

          How much “understanding” does it take when Ukrainian ex-President Yanukovich goes against the efforts of the Ukrainian Parliament and the Ukrainian people to join the Russian based Eurasian Union after a “quick” 24 lecture from Putin in Sochi?
          How much “understanding” does it take when Putin himself admitted that the “little green men” in Crimea were Russian Special Forces troops. What would the USA do if Mexican Special Forces Troops appeared out side police stations, military bases. government buildings and communications locations in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas?
          How much “understanding” does it take when the initial “leaders” of the “pro-Russian terrorists” in eastern Ukraine were all Russian citizens from Moscow and most had covert KGB, GRU or FSB backgrounds?

        • Lesya Ukrainka

          How many times you going to say this.

  • Jim Kovpak

    I think I should also take some time to point out a few lies in this article:

    “First, Westerners tend to echo Soviet-era propaganda—Ukraine has always been part of Russia, it’s within Russia’s sphere of influence, Ukrainian is an invented language, Ukraine is a fake country. ”

    Read the link where it says “echo Soviet-era propaganda.” Note that it does not say anything about the four points the author follows it with. In other words, the author basically put words in Cohen’s mouth. Gee…What’s that other country whose media is known for grossly misrepresenting the content of authors’ work? Err…Starts with an R. Uh…Reunion? No. Rwanda? No…Ruuuu….RUS…Crap I can’t remember!

    ” The two places where this is most conspicuous is when it comes to Western discussions of corruption, and of how Ukraine values human life and treats its civilians.”

    Follow the link he uses here as well. Does the author actually dispute anything in either of those articles? Nope. He just implies that they’re “lecturing” Ukraine. Well I’m very sorry but a certain movement in 2013-2014 said they want to be like “Europe,” more Western. Personally I’m not sure the West lives up to its own values very well these days, but it you want to be included in the West you have to make the cut. Complaining about this kind of scrutiny is no different than the Russians wanting to be “part of the club” and then whining when members of the club point at their poor human rights record.

    “Ukrainians understand their own history fairly well—certainly no worse than any other country’s citizens, and better than many (including citizens of the USA who routinely begin their country’s history in the early 17th century with the arrival of the Pilgrims). ”

    No, I’m sorry but many Ukrainians, like many Americans, don’t know dick about their history. In the case of Ukrainians, they have an excuse because many of them had to deal with Soviet education, but then the remedy to that Soviet education hasn’t really been an improvement but rather just “Whatever is the opposite of what the Soviets said must be true.”

    Perhaps the author was ignorant of Ukrainian history prior to moving there, talked to some random people, and suddenly decided that he had an edge on the rest of Western society.

    Anyway, there’s a reason why I refer to this site as “Ukraine’s Russia Insider” and this article is a good example. Once again, Ukraine doesn’t need these cheerleaders with flattering narratives kissing people’s asses and making them feel good about themselves. Ukraine needs sober reality. Let Russia wallow in self-serving delusions.

    • Tony

      “Ukraine has always been part of Russia, it’s within Russia’s sphere of influence, Ukrainian is an invented language, Ukraine is a fake country.”

      The source may have been poor but these points are often parroted by rus-bots. Also, unfortunately its quite well known (just ask random people where Ukraine came from, they will say russia) that westerners widely hold the first misconception. Also the second one to a degree, but I think the other two arent so strong though.

      The article also brings up another point of irritation, “The Ukraine”, unfortunatley many westerns are convinced by the russian explanation of the word “Ukraine” being “the borderlands” (of russia according to their suggestion).
      Check the top comments on reddit here:
      https://www.reddit.com/r/YouShouldKnow/comments/1zhb30/ysk_there_is_no_word_for_the_in_the_ukrainian/

      “The name Ukraine actually comes from the Russian word край ”
      The upvoted commentator goes on to say
      “Край means literally “the edge”. So “The Ukraine” refers to “The border region””
      thereby reinforcing the misconception that Ukraine is a breakaway part of russia.

      Yet:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Name_of_Ukraine
      “The oldest mention of the word ukraina dates back to the year 1187”

      russia didnt even exist back in 1187 (muscovy started like 13th century) and for some reason the commentator fails to mention (and none of the up-voters corrected him) that the “U” in front of krajn means “in/within”. i.e the complete word means “in/within country/border”, or in other words Kievan-Rus refereed to “Ukraine” as the land within its borders, makes sense and quite different to the chauvinistic “borderlands” interpretation. I also find it strange that people consult russian interpretations on the meaning of Ukraine, perhaps people mistakenly think they are going back to “the source”.

      Anyway one can verify this in google translate:
      https://translate.google.com/#uk/en/%D1%83%D0%BA%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%97%D0%BD%D0%B0%D1%83%D0%BA%D1%80%D0%B0%D1%97%D0%BD%D0%B0

      (it will try to auto correct, click on “Translate instead У країна Україна” for intended result )

      • Jim Kovpak

        “The source may have been poor but these points are often parroted by rus-bots. Also, unfortunately its quite well known (just ask random people where Ukraine came from, they will say russia) that westerners widely hold the first misconception. Also the second one to a degree, but I think the other two arent so strong though.”

        The problem is that the link in question had absolutely nothing to do with such claims. Russian media constantly references articles and then totally distorts what they say.

        As for the term borderland, I have heard arguments on both sides (and frankly do not care), but no, borderland does not imply that it was a breakaway region of Russia. Borderland is an apt description of a land that separated several different empires of very different cultures.

        In any case, the definition of words or foreign grammatical conventions (like “the Ukraine”) do not determine the sovereignty of a country.

        “and for some reason the commentator fails to mention (and none of the up-voters corrected him) that the “U” in front of krajn means “in/within”. i.e the complete word means “in/within country/border”,”

        I failed to mention it because that has nothing to do with the point I am making. I’m simply sick of Western wellwishers coming to Ukraine, often with no background knowledge of their own, and then falling so in love with the country that they somehow think they’re helping by inventing a ridiculous, patronizing narrative that thankfully no sane Ukrainian has seriously tried to advance (unlike certain Poles or Russians). Many times such Westerners are young and idealistic, but this gentleman is simply too old to fall for such fantasies.

        And what is not dishonest linking and patronizing fairy tales in this article is just plain old whataboutism. Is that what we need more of in Eastern Europe?

        If I neglected one important issue, he claims that the way Westerners write about corruption in Ukraine could be considered racist. No, it actually couldn’t. There certainly are racist portrayals of Ukrainians and Slavs in general, but when it comes to endemic corruption this is simply a fact. Yes, there has been notable progress since 2014, but there is still a long way to go. Pointing out corruption in a country is not racist.

        Apparently this Westerner, who just happens to TRULY understand Ukraine (after who knows how much time there), thinks he is somehow serving Ukraine by babying Ukrainians and protecting them from things like taking responsibility for their present condition. Do you know what you get when you treat people that way? Look at Russia, where infantilism is the state ideology.

      • slavko

        У КРАЇНІ (U kraine) means within the homeland. The borderland [email protected] from the Polish and Russian centric translation, is only a way of detracting from the truth. In fact, both Poland and Russia are truly the borderlands, as they are away from the center of the Slavic world… Kyiv. Hence the battle for Kyiv continues after centuries. No one should misinterpret the historical motivations of Polish and Russian empires to dominate Ukraine.

    • Lesya Ukrainka

      You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts

  • Lesya Ukrainka

    How very true – thank you Adrian!

  • Anthony Papagallo

    with U.S taxpayers pouring a million bucks a day into Ukraine, a country the UN recently officially listed as ‘the most corrupt nation in europe’ Putin could ride a donkey naked through Kiev singing ‘we’ll rally round the flag boys’ and America would throw another million bucks into the Ukrainian money pit because there’s no sucker like an American taxpaying sucker.

    • Lesya Ukrainka

      And you know this how?

    • Alex George

      Firstly, if Putin wants to do that, he is going to have to get a much better army than the ramshackle mob he has got now.

      Secondly, you clearly don’t know much about the anglo-saxon nations. They operate in a completely different manner, which is why Vlad the Dwarf is so angry and kicking low holes in the Kremlin walls.

  • Titterling Langs

    “My grandparents came from Russia ( Kyiv and Odesa) ‘ and “my ethnicity is Russian” are usually statements uttered by many American Jews.

    There are several millions of them in NY/E. Coast with majority if them who came from the Russian Empire. Jews were marked as being of ” Hebrew ethnicity” way back in the USA, but their kids had erased it from the American censuses and, instead, they suddenly became “Poles” and “Russians” and “Germans”. They can only be such in America, though.

  • Titterling Langs

    It is not Soviet propaganda to call Ukraine “part of Russia”, In the Soviet times, it was a separate republic from Russia. If it was part of Russia, why did they not incorporate it into RSFSR?

  • George Knight

    Maybe, but the point is Ukraine doesn’t understand Ukraine either. Otherwise it would reduce corruption and seek political cooporation. But it does not. Don’t blame the messenger.

    • Alex George

      Why would that follow? You appear to think that reducing corruption is only a matter of “understanding”.

  • zorbatheturk

    Russia has been menacing Ukraine for centuries. The current specter hanging over Ukraine is Mr Putin. However Ukraine will ultimately be his nemesis, because there is no chance Ukrainians will ever give up independence to be dictated to from Moscow again. As for Ukraine’s identity, I don’t think many Westerners confuse it with Russia. There is a significant Ukrainian diaspora out there and they certainly do not see themselves as anything other than of Ukrainian origin.

  • Ben Skinner

    I much prefer the articles here when written by Ukrainian natives that have spent at least their formative years in Ukraine. I hold this preference not only for factual reports on events, but especially for any opinion or commentary regarding Ukraine. If I’m seeking a Ukrainian perspective to form a more honest worldview, an American one is not going serve that purpose, is it?
    While I do not have the proper Ukrainian understanding necessary to critique this article on it’s finer points, it is absolutely useless to me in forming such understanding.