Reviews | How the West is wrong about Ukraine – and helping Putin as a result

To challenge the Kremlin’s cascading aggression, start by revising your mind map. Ukraine is a great country of enduring strategic and intellectual importance, and not just because of its diverse human capital, its abundant economic potential, or its pivotal position between Russia and the European Union. Beyond questions of what they have and where they are, Ukrainians are important for what they To do and what they did.

The truth is that Ukraine’s political and cultural agency has helped shape and reshape the map of Europe for generations. Indeed, the Ukrainians played an active role in the demise of not one, or two, or three, but four different empires, including Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union.

This role was not incidental. It was hard-won, driven by a modern national identity based primarily not on ethnicity or religion, but on one idea: universal democratic freedom.

This idea may strike some as saccharine or strange. After all, Ukraine’s image in the West is often one of rapacious oligarchs and corrupt, belligerent politicians – and not without reason. But look beyond Ukraine’s recent history of elite government and intrigue, and you will see a vibrant and grassroots civil society that embodies the egalitarian agenda of Ukrainian civic nationalism. Especially since 2014, after hundreds of thousands of protesters fought against corruption and bled for freedom and the rule of law in what became known in Ukraine as the Dignity Revolution, civil society has succeeded in forcing the Ukrainian state to do better.

Putin, meanwhile, has gone to extraordinary lengths to assert that there is no such thing as an autonomous Ukrainian national identity. We must be wise to the scam. Information is one of the many fronts of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Time and again, Putin has actively sought to convey a narrative about Ukraine and Ukrainians as being deeply, historically and spiritually embedded in the so-called Russian world. “Russians and Ukrainians,” he insisted last July, are “one people, one whole.”

Putin’s assertion clearly illustrates a long-standing practice of refusing to make Ukrainians the subjects of their own history, of denying them a distinct historical trajectory and cultural agency of their own. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, of all peoples, understood this practice. “To ignore the importance of the national question in Ukraine,” he writes, “is to commit a deep and dangerous mistake.” Lenin spoke of this mistake as a common Russian “sin”.

So what do we see when we take the modern Ukrainian nation seriously, on its own terms? We see a social and cultural movement with an anti-colonial backbone and a distrust of state institutions run by strongmen. We discover that, in the field of political values, Ukraine is not the cousin of Russia. It is the competitor of Russia.

Until 17and century, almost all the territory of today’s Ukraine was located in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, that is, in a Polish “sphere of influence”. Previously, for more than three centuries, the peoples we now call Ukrainians and Russians had traveled in different political orbits.

These orbits crossed in the Treaty of Pereiaslav of 1654 – an event that figures prominently in the Russian version of Ukrainian history. At that time, Ukraine was a name for the land controlled by the Cossack Hetmanate, an autonomous regime carved out of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after a bloody Cossack rebellion against Krakow. The Ukrainian Cossacks and the Russian Tsar concluded a pact in Pereiaslav which marked the beginning of a difficult relationship. It was a transaction between parties who needed language interpreters and referred to each other with terms like “foreign”. Today, however, the Kremlin presents the Pereiaslav treaty as a “meeting” (vossoedinenie), a term that obscures the reality of Russian imperial expansion.

Half a century later, Tsar Peter I refused to honor what the Cossacks understood to be terms of mutual defense in their alliance, prompting the Cossack leader or “hetman” Ivan Mazepa to turn his forces against Russian power. Years before, Mazepa wrote a prescient poetic lament about “mother Ukraine” in tension with an untrustworthy Moscow. Mazepa’s dramatic defeat at the Battle of Poltava in 1709 inspired further lamentations. Peter’s soldiers razed the capital of the Hetmanate, but the political autonomy of the Ukrainian Cossacks persisted in fits and starts for most of the 18and century. Rich and colorful European maps from the time show “Ukraine, Land of the Cossacks” clinging to borders similar to those we know today. In 1775, however, the Russian Empress Catherine II, seeking to subsume neighboring peoples into an ever-growing Russian Empire, razed the remaining Ukrainian Cossack strongholds and inaugurated the institution of serfdom in their place. Note the historical arc: Slow Imperial Conquest, not Eternal Confederacy.

As it was absorbed into Russian imperial space in the 18th and 19th centuries, Ukraine was often referred to as ‘Little Russia’, a term which may partly explain the lingering impressions of Ukraine as somehow small” today. But the origins of the name, coined by the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople at the turn of the 14th century, when Muscovy was little more than a fledgling principality to the north, probably have less to do with size than distance. “Rus” was the historical name for both the people and the vast expanse of territory centered on what is now Ukraine and Belarus. For the Patriarch of Constantinople, “Little Russia” – or better translated, “Rus Minor” – had the meaning of the nearby Rus. It was juxtaposed with “Great Russia” – or better, “Rus Major” – which connoted Rus further, on the periphery. Think Asia Minor and Asia Major, or even terms like “Greater New York.”

As geopolitical fortunes have changed over time, so has the understanding of these terms. By 1762, Ukrainian writers like Semen Divovych had come to read “small” and “big” as reflections of political power. But Divovych and his compatriots still had no patience for the lazy amalgamations of Ukrainians and Russians as “one people”. Speaking of the voice of ‘Little Russia’ to ‘Great Russia’, Divovych wrote: ‘Don’t think that you dominate over me… You the Great, and I the Little, live in the neighboring countries. »

Ukrainians love Divovych often clarified their differences with the Russians, but it took a pioneering poet in the mid-nineteenth century to invest these differences with clear ethical and political significance. That poet was Taras Shevchenko, and his passion for freedom, his distaste for tyrants, and his distrust of structures of political authority became the primary source code for the modern Ukrainian nation. Without him, the Ukraine of today would not exist.

Shevchenko gave meaning to the history of Ukrainians by centering their identity on one key value above all others: freedom, steal. All grassroots national movements seek freedom for their people, but Shevchenko, a former serf with intimate personal knowledge of slavery and servitude transcending ethnic and religious boundaries, favored the very idea of ​​universal democratic freedom. . He sought freedom for all oppressed peoples, especially Muslim communities in the Caucasus, driving away the Russian forces that surrounded them in their time. His anti-colonial watchwords”Boritesia, poborete– “Fight, you will win” – echoed in the streets of Kiev during the Dignity Revolution in 2013-2014. They now resonate across the country.

For Shevchenko, the idea of ​​“mother Ukraine” was poles apart from aristocracy in the west and autocracy in the east. In his poetry, he defined Ukrainian identity not primarily as a matter of ethnicity, religion or political allegiance – he had no love for hetmans or tsars – but as a matter of cultural authenticity and ethical behavior in the face of the twin systems of serfdom and colonialism. , which turned human beings into chattels or cannon fodder. “When will Ukraine have its own [George] Washington,” Shevchenko asked, “with a new and just law?

Shevchenko wrote his nation-building poetry in the Ukrainian vernacular, but he also used Russian in his prose. He did not view language policy as a zero-sum game. “Let the Russians write as they want, and let’s write as we want,” he said. “They are a people with a language, and so are we.”

In his verses, Shevchenko favored Ukrainian, but in his life he practiced what remains today a prominent Ukrainian bilingualism, in which the Ukrainian and Russian languages ​​can circulate in everyday life. Americans often misinterpret this easy multilingualism, confusing Ukraine’s linguistic diversity with linguistic adversity – as “Ukrainian speakers” versus “Russian speakers”. In fact, most Ukrainians can qualify as both, depending on the context, and language use is by no means a clear indicator of political sentiment in Ukraine today. In fact, according to former President Petro Poroshenko, Russian speakers make up the majority of the thousands of Ukrainian servicemen killed in the ongoing undeclared war with Russia.

Shevchenko’s liberationist message went viral in the Russian Empire. It also resonated with Russian, Polish, Jewish and Crimean Tatar ethnic groups, fueling a civic nationalist movement that took advantage of the political opening of 1917 to announce the birth of a country: the Ukrainian People’s Republic. The founding declaration was addressed to the people in four languages: Ukrainian, Russian, Polish and Yiddish.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks defeated the Ukrainian People’s Republic a few years later, but only after recognizing that Ukraine was a nation deserving of a form of statehood, a concession that helped make Soviet victory possible along the unsettled peripheries. Russians of the former tsar’s empire. After all, the Soviet Union was formally a union of national republics, and the Ukrainians were a central reason for this.

The Soviet Union is now long gone. Today, in the corridors of the Kremlin heavy with grievances, Russian chauvinism vis-à-vis Ukraine remains strong. Since 2014, it has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Ukrainian citizens and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.

Now it is holding well over 40 million people hostage. By threatening Ukraine’s borders, Putin is not just betting that the West doesn’t care about Ukraine. He also bets that the West does not know or even see Ukraine. Our ignorance fuels its aggressiveness.

When we strive to study Ukraine on its own terms, when we see Ukraine as it is – a massive, central and unique country whose people are once again at the forefront of democratic freedom – we are beginning to prove him wrong.


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