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Ukraine takes another step on western path it chose 800 years ago

Danylo of Halych / Daniel of Galicia
Ukraine takes another step on western path it chose 800 years ago

Yesterday, Kyiv took another big step on the road to the West by signing an association agreement with the European Union, and Moscow not unexpectedly responded by saying it would do everything it can to punish Ukraine for making that civilizational choice and force it to reconsider.

Part of Moscow’s effort in that regard is to suggest that Kyiv’s decision is the product of outside influence rather than a reflection of genuine Ukrainian aspirations, that it is something that doesn’t reflect the long-term national interests of Ukraine, and that despite all that it has happened, Ukraine will return to the Russian world.

But such arguments, however much they may be believed in Russia or accepted by some in the West, are simply propaganda and ignore the reality that Ukraine made a European choice already 800 years ago at a time when Russia made a Eurasian one and that the current conflict between Kyiv and Moscow is the latest working out of those two very different choices.

Aleksey Shiropayev, a Russian regionalist, has made this argument in a series of articles and speeches over the past six months, most recently at a conference at Moscow’s Sakharov Center earlier this month (more here).

Russians are “always prepared to recognize in words that Ukrainians are a people,” he sys but they insist on adding that it is a “fraternal” one, a formulat which conceals their “firm conviction that “Russians and Ukrainians are ONE people, which is called to live in one state with a capital in Moscow.”

Indeed, Shiropayev continues, “the majority of Russians” are dismissive of the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian identity and suggest they are nothing more than the product of Lithuanian and Polish conspiracies against Russia. What Russians do not accept is that their own choices and not those of anyone else lie behind Ukrainians as a separate and distinct nation.

“Already in th 13th century, two opposed historial vectors which defined the future formation of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples were marked one. The firt vector was a struggle with the Horde in alliance with Europe; the second, a struggle with Europe in alliance with the Horde.”

These vectors were personified by Danylo Halitsky and Aleksandr Nevsky, Shiropayev says. Danylo Halitsky chose the former course, “a natural and logical one at the cultural-historical level,” and Aleksandr Nevsky chose the latter, “a most profound perversion with far-reaching consequences.”

That choice is at the origin of all subsequent relations between Ukrainians and Russians. As a reflection of this “civilizational” choice, it can even be called “people-forming,” for just as Danylo Halitsky made a different choice than Aleksandr Nevsky, so too Ukrainians have chosen law, freedom and property rather than their opposites as Russians have.

“If Ukrainian self-consciousness has historically drawn it to Europe, traditional Russian self-consciousness conceived Europe to a greater or lesser degree with hostility, distrust and envy, the opposite site of which” is expressed in Russian messianism and Russian dismissals of “’the rotting West.’”

For Russians, but not for Ukrainians, “Europe is ‘a paradise lost,’ from which they were taken away” by the horde. And it is “precisely this conflict between an initial European nature and a history and culture imposed by Asianism [which] has defined the Russian psychological type, with all its complexes and phobias.”

“All Russian neuroses, from drunkenness to Bolshevism – come from there,” Shiropayev argues. “Having lost Europe, Russians wanted not simply to forget it;” they wanted to defeat it. And this “psychological and mental perversion is called Russian patriotism.”

Despite Moscow’s efforts to pull Ukraine away from Europe and into its own Asiatic orbit, Ukraine “thanks to Lithuania and Poland has preserved in itself an attachment to Europe,” Shiropayev says. Indeed, it has “preserved itself as Rus in the genuine sense of this term,” in the sense it existed before Moscow and Nevsky made their choice.

Russia and Russians in contrast “degenerated into Muscovy, having lost their immemorial civilizational identity.” Had that not happened, Russians “would not live in Europe and would not have behind them the GULAG” and all the rest of this Asiatic background. “And the history of Europe itself would be different.”

“In the final analysis,” the Russian regionalist says “the cultural-historical beginnings of Russians and Ukrainians are completely different even contradictory.” The two peoples began as close brothers but the former turned away from Europe and has continued to try to force the latter to do the same.

Russians, Shiropayev insists, “are dangerous” because they carry within themselves a destructive quality that at an instinctive level “all who live to the West” of Russia — the Ukrainians, the Balts and now the Belarusians—understand and are repelled by. “On the other hand,” the Chinese are not, and Russia is turning in their direction.

“It is time,” is concludes, for Russians “to recognize that Ukraine’s acquisition of independence is legitimate. It is an act of historical justice” Russians should not just come to terms with but welcome. Ukraine is “really another country, a real abroad,” and accepting that is “a key to [Russian] self-consciousness, self-criticism, and self-liberation.”

Indeed, this acceptance is “a precondition for the birth of a new Russian mentality without imperial and anti-Western stereotypes. If this will happen, all [of Russia’s] vision of history and the world will be changed. Ukraine as it were holds up a mirror before Russians. It is necessary to look honestly and dispassionately” at what it shows.

Originally published on Window on Eurasia

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