Ukrainian identity: away from Moscow

Ukraine European Union

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Culture, History

Article by: Zarina Zabrisky

Editor’s Note

On 18 April, Ukraine completed the questionnaire on accession to the European Union. Next, the European Commission will prepare a recommendation on Ukraine’s fulfillment of the Copenhagen criteria for joining the EU. Ukraine aspires to receive the status of a candidate country for EU accession in June 2022. Zarina Zabrisky talks to a prominent Ukrainian art critic Kostyantyn Doroshenko and award-winning Ukrainian novelist Oleksiy Nikitin about Ukraine’s history, identity, and desire to join the EU.
Kostyantin DoroshenkoKostyantyn Doroshenko, an art critic, author, a podcast host, and, according to “Art Ukraine” magazine, one of the top five most influential Ukrainian curators, spoke from Chernivtsi, Ukraine.

Ukraine identifies itself as part of Europe

– The East Slavic people—Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians—once shared Kyivan Rus, a powerful metropolis that flourished from the 9th century until its conquest by the Tatar Mongols in the 13th century. The territories constituting the state of Ukraine at different times belonged to a wide range of empires: the Golden Horde, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Kingdom of Poland, the Crimean Khanate, Habsburg Austria, and the Russian Empire. How did this tumultuous history influence today’s political landscape?

– Tsarist Russia created a myth of the descent of the Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov Empire from Kyivan Rus. Soviet ideology adopted that tsarist version of history. The doctrine “Three peoples — Three brothers” labeled Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian peoples as “brotherly” and recognized the supremacy of the Russian people. The Belarusian and Ukrainian peoples were considered “Russians with local deviations.”

– Ukrainian and Belarusian priests who were educated in the Lithuanian-Polish kingdom influenced Russian culture. It was them who exported Western and Latin traditions to Moscow at the end of the 17th century. Russia existed in complete isolation from Europe and experienced no Renaissance. How would you describe the main differences between Russian and Ukrainian cultures?

– Ukrainian and Russian histories differ dramatically. The Moscow state tradition was formed by its proximity to the Golden Horde, while the Ukrainian state tradition was influenced by the Galician Principality, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Commonwealth.

By the time Bohdan Khmelnytsky unified Ukrainian lands with Russia, Ukraine had already been a part of European civilization, intellectually and socially. This event was the starting point of the Europeanization of Russia. The West-oriented policy of Peter the Great was influenced by Hetman of Ukraine Ivan Mazepa to a great degree.

Ukrainian folk tradition and culture have remained different from the Russian for centuries. In the 19th century, the blossoming of Ukrainian-language literature and the humanities was inspired by the European Spring of the Peoples.

Is Ukraine European? Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak answers

– How does joining the EU fit into the concept of Ukrainian independence?

– The desire to join the family of European nations does not contradict the aspiration for Ukrainian independence. The very idea of independence is rooted in Ukraine’s orientation towards Europe. Ukraine sees its future in separation from Russia as the Russian mentality with its communal values contradicts the individualism inherent in Ukrainian culture. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Ukraine’s motto was “Away from Moscow!”

– In 1922, after a couple of years of independence, Ukraine became a republic of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian remained the official language till the 1930s when Russian was enforced. Ukraine finally gained its independence after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

– Ukraine was one of the main republics in the USSR, and one of the most affected by WWII. The country became a co-founder of the United Nations while remaining under the full control of Moscow. After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine demonstrated a peaceful and lawful transfer of power from the first president to the second, showing adherence to the principles of democracy. Since then, Ukrainian society has consistently resisted attempts of authoritarian usurpation.

We are looking at a real confrontation of civilizational values today. Russia is a prison of nations, as it was called in tsarist times, and Ukrainians understand that well.

Ukraine identifies itself as part of Europe, not as a buffer between Europe and the Great Steppe. And it has always been, since the dynastic marriages of the daughters of Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv with European monarchs.

– Today, the Kremlin follows the Soviet-era textbook on subversive activities: “encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all extremist movements — racist and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes.” It ignited and funded the military unrest in Eastern Ukraine that took almost 14,000 lives. Now Putin is obsessed with “denazification” of the country that has democratically elected a Jewish president. Can we talk about that?

– From the time when Ukraine lived behind the Iron Curtain, in isolation from Western thought, we inherited two socio-cultural trends, both retrospective.

One drew a vision from the Soviet project, the other from the ideology of nationalism. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, Russian political technologists aggravated this confrontation, virtually splitting the country.

The Euromaidan of 2013 demonstrated the Ukrainians’ choice of Western values as opposed to the reactionary changes that destroyed the human rights and freedoms we have seen in Putin’s Russia. Radical nationalist forces tried and failed to appropriate the will of Maidan. These forces are not represented in the Ukrainian parliament and they have zero influence on the society.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s stunning victory in the 2019 elections can be considered the end of the split. Ukrainian society learned the achievements of democracy and modern concepts of the civilized world, healing from divisive concepts. In today’s war, we see the Ukrainian nation united in the awareness of its diversity. Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking people, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics and atheists, people of all classes defend the values of freedom.

Ukraine identifies itself as part of Europe, not as a buffer between Europe and the Great Steppe Click To Tweet

– Why is an independent, sovereign Ukraine important for the European Union’s wellbeing?

– It is important to remember that since declaring independence in 1991, Ukraine has officially renounced all territorial claims to its neighbors and advocated the integrity of postwar borders. By surrendering a large number of its nuclear warheads while having the great scientific potential for its development Ukraine has set a world precedent for abandoning this lever of deterrence. If Ukraine is not saved today, the entire global nuclear deterrence system might be destroyed.

Ukraine’s attraction to Europe is a return to the interrupted relationship with Europe

Aleksey NikitinOleksiy Nikitin, a novelist, a member of the Ukrainian center of the International PEN Club, spoke to me from Kyiv. His books have been translated and published in Ukraine, Russia, the UK, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States. Nikitin received the Korolenko prize of the National Writers Union of Ukraine, for the best Ukrainian prose written in Russian and the 2014 Russian Prize, which honors extraordinary prose works written in Russian by authors not living in Russia.

– In 2014, the Maidan uprising of the pro-European population lasted for months and ousted pro-Kremlin and anti-EU president Viktor Yanukovych, who later fled to Moscow. What is your view on the process of Ukraine gaining its identity?

– The self-awareness of a large part of the Ukrainian population did not arise in an instant. It developed unevenly. Qualitative leaps took place in 1991, 2004, and 2014 and the process came to the end now, in 2022.

Paradoxically, in almost all cases, these jumps were provoked by the aggressive actions of Russia and Putin, in particular. He has always considered the subjugation of Ukraine as one of his key tasks.

None of Putin’s attempts yielded the desired result. On the contrary, they intensified Ukrainians’ rejection of the Kremlin’s demands and the rules it was trying to impose on them. All of Putin’s decisions were based on fundamentally incorrect ideas about the processes taking place in Ukraine and the methods by which one can achieve one’s goals.

– From 2014 to 2022, the Ukrainian people have been stretched thin. The Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, eight years of war in Eastern Ukraine, COVID, and a full-blown war—yet, the Ukrainian spirit of freedom is as strong as ever. How do you explain that?

– The current war has created a generational divide among both Russians and Ukrainians. Russia committed criminal acts against Ukraine and has raised a strong and fierce enemy near its borders. Ukraine will not forget or forgive the bombings and shelling of its cities. Mass hatred of Russia from now on will remain a defining feature of Ukrainian self-consciousness.

Timothy Snyder: If Ukrainians hadn’t fought back, the world would’ve been a much darker place

– How does the Ukrainian intent to join the EU reconcile with the pursuit of independence?

– Modern Ukraine gravitates toward Europe. It has been Europe for most of its history, part of the European political, military and cultural space.

Look at the network of European medieval universities: the easternmost of them, the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, was in Ukraine. Students from Kyiv studied at the Sorbonne even in the times of the Mongol empire. Later, the people of Kyiv became compatriots of Nicolaus Copernicus. In the 20th century, many Ukrainians who fled the Bolshevik rule were the pride of European culture and science.

Therefore, for Ukrainians, the attraction to Europe is a return to those values, a return to the interrupted relationship with Europe.

Ukrainians were deprived of this cultural tradition in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. At the same time, the political structure of the EU allows the country to remain independent.

– Is it fair to say that the current unspeakable horror is the consequence of the Russian imperial history and colonial ambitions? In the early 1500s, monk Philotheus wrote to Vasily III of Russia that the fall of Constantinople makes Moscow the Third Rome. The myth of a “big brother” with its “vassal” countries is a major force driving Putin’s 2022 war against Ukraine. Russian crusaders are on the mission to fight “nationalists.” What is his “nationalism” idée fixe?

– It is difficult for me to understand what Putin and his entourage mean by “nationalism.” For them, this has long been just a propaganda cliché.

There are far more far-right groups in Russia than in Ukraine. They are more numerous and get support from the state. It’s nobody’s secret and nobody tries to hide it.

But it seems to me that for the Kremlin, nationalists are all Ukrainians who do not want to accept Russia’s imperial dictatorship, all those who do not want to obey, and who value their personal freedom and the freedom of the country.

This is the root of Putin’s mistake. He imagined that his enemy was non-existent “nationalists.” But they were just a phantom of his imagination. In reality, he faced opposition from all the people of Ukraine. Ukrainian people are united, know how to fight, and are ready for it.

For the Kremlin, nationalists are all Ukrainians who do not want to accept Russia’s imperial dictatorship Click To Tweet

Contributing writer Viktoriia Bazilevych from Cherkasy, Ukraine

Zarina ZabriskyZarina Zabrisky is an award-winning American author of five books published internationally, including the novel “We, Monsters” and three short story collections, and journalist. She is a regular contributor to Byline Times, and contributed to Indivisible Movement, Crossing Genres, Digital Left, and elsewhere.

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