Overlapping identities

16/Sep/2016

Ukraine is a landscape torn by the battle for influence between its neighbours, Europe and Russia. But, according to researchers, this has opened fertile ground for being Ukrainian, even in the east of the country. By Benjamin Keller

(From "Horizons" no. 110 September 2016)​​​

In 1992 the artist Benjamin Vautier declared that "Switzerland does not exist". Could the same be said for Ukraine? The country has always been an area of contention in the battle for influence between its neighbours. It has been continually appropriated and subjected to varying identities, from the very beginning of its history until the war that afflicts it today. On 24 August 1991, however, the former Soviet republic declared its independence and made a relatively late and sudden entrance onto the international stage. Consequently, and as a newly emerged state, it has only recently begun to be considered as an autonomous entity.

The current conflict has unveiled Ukraine's complexities and multiplicities. Fighting broke out in 2014, following the uprising known as Euromaidan – which had led to the deposition of President Viktor Yanukovych, who in turn had refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Everything has since changed: the new, Western-backed president, Petro Poroshenko, has had to face a pro-Russian and Russian-backed rebellion in the south east of the country. In other words, Ukraine is still the stage for the East-West struggle for power, which has always been the case, at least to a certain extent.

Ukraine (which translates roughly as 'borderland') has a shared and antagonistic history with its neighbours. "The hostility is fed by diverging interpretations of history", says Korine Amacher of the University of Geneva. Amacher is a professor of Russian and Soviet history, and this January began research that aims to draw attention to the overlapping paths of Ukraine, Russia and Poland.

Little Russia

By the fall of the Mongol Empire in the 14th century, the north east of today's Ukraine was largely dominated by Western forces (Poland, Lithuania, Prussia, Austro-Hungary), whereas the south east was controlled first by the Tatars and the Ottomans, and later by the Russian Empire, whose grip became tighter from the 17th century onwards. So tight was it that in the 19th century, the territory became known as "Little Russia". Although Ukraine was briefly independent following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, it was reinvaded by the Red Army and integrated into the USSR. In 1939, as part of the deal with Nazi Germany, Stalin also took hold of the regions that had been under Polish control. "This is why we often say that Ukraine's current borders were the work of Stalin", says Amacher.

Antagonistic views

Ukraine wouldn't be independent again until 1991, but the result was a country composed of historically disparate constituents. "Galicia (West) first aligned with Austria, then Poland, in other words towards the West; whereas the Donbass region [the location of current conflict, Ed.] has been Russian since the 18th century". There are of course other influences, such as Romania and Hungary. "Some Russians still consider that Ukraine shouldn't even be a state", says Amacher. "We even sometimes hear – both from Russians on the street and in parliament – that all of the problems would be resolved if only each former empire regained its former piece of Ukraine".

Daniel Weiss is an emeritus professor at the University of Zurich. He and his team have been studying interviews, government statements and televised and parliamentary debates on the Ukrainian conflict with a view to identifying the most commonly used terms. "Russians see themselves as having always been on the defensive against attacks from the West", says Weiss. "As with Poland, the Ukrainians see themselves as the last bastion of civilised Europe, encroached upon by the brutal force of the barbarous Russian military. A key moment for the Ukrainians was the Cossack Hetmanate of 17th-century central Ukraine, an area that was more or less sovereign at the time. The Kremlin never accepted this state and eventually destroyed it".

According to Weiss, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists argue that there is "a fear of an economic catastrophe should the country accede to the European Union, because the east of Ukraine has very tight economic ties to Russia". As with nationalist and populist movements in many European countries, pro-independence Ukrainians also claim that joining the EU means losing sovereignty. The disagreements do not stop there either: in 2014 the Ukrainian parliament repealed a law granting a special status to the Russian language – although the government never supported this modification.

Shared values

The tumultuous history of Ukraine has also led to the creation of a wide array of identities. These form the work of Ulrich Schmid, a professor of Russian culture and society at the University of St. Gallen, who, in spring 2013 and 2015, conducted two surveys in Ukraine, each involving 6,000 subjects. The aim was to create a detailed map of values according to geographical region (mapsukraine.ch) by examining the following five topics: literature, language, history, religion and economics.

"We gathered a clearly differentiated view from the a priori ideas often found in the press", says Schmid. "One misconception is that eastern Ukraine is backwards, Soviet and pro-Russian whereas the West is modern and pro-European. What we have seen in reality is more nuanced and highlights common Ukrainian values". One example is the fight against corruption. Another is public figures such as Lenin and the Romantic poet Taras Shevchenko, although nothing prevented nationalists from pulling down a statue of Lenin during the Euromaidan protests. In fact, this event actually irritated the leaders of the movement, who were conscious that he was held in high regard in both the east and the south of the country.

Schmid also points to "another often oversimplified issue: language. Having analysed the behaviours of readers in Ukraine, we noticed that Russian has its place in every region and not just in the East. There is also consensus on the general requirement of mastering the Ukrainian language. In fact, a considerable portion of the population speaks both languages. There is also a dialect which mixes Russian and Ukrainian: Surzhyk. It is interesting to note that, occasionally, people think they're speaking Russian when actually they're speaking Surzhyk".

The indecisive majority

Even more unexpected is that Schmid discovered a unifying effect of the war among the regions. "We see patriotism even in the areas where it has historically been low, such as in North Bukovina". Generally, the 'consensus on Ukrainian citizenship' is drifting eastward, with the sentiment of Ukrainian belonging being the strongest among those born after the fall of the USSR.

The separatists appear then to be isolated. "In the occupied territories, other surveys conducted before and after the outbreak of hostilities show that the rates of identification with Ukraine and with Russia have fallen and that indecision has become the majority stance. This leads us to think that neither Kiev nor Moscow holds any attraction for them. In a certain way, they see their region as being lost".

A commonly invoked solution is to decentralise Ukraine, but would it work? "It's desirable but not realistic", says Schmid. "The last time that this possibility was discussed in the Ukrainian parliament, it led to three deaths among angry demonstrators. The issue with decentralisation is that it is a condition of the Minsk Two Treaty signed in February 2015. Ukrainians, however, clearly recognised it as a Russian demand, and so it was a relatively unpopular option. It remains to be seen whether the treaty will be reformulated, but I think that Russia will continue to insist on the extended autonomy of the occupied territories in Donbass".

Benjamin Keller is a freelance journalist in Tunis.