Putin and the Project of a Big Russian Nation

Date: 2022-06-17T04:01:54+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Translation by Alex Andreev. The original article can be found here.

One of the arguments in favor of the initiation of the military special operation, as well as the possible annexation of at least part of the territories of Ukraine to Russia, was the idea of a “triune Russian nation”. According to it, historically, culturally, and even genetically, Belarusians, Russians (“Great Russians”/Velikorossi), and Ukrainians (“Little Russians”/Malorossi) are integral parts of one nation, and therefore should have a common state. This new article by Russian Marxist author Maxim Lebsky explores how true this idea is, whether it will be possible to convince Ukrainians to reunite with Russia on such grounds, and what can generally unite people along ethnic lines. 

Lebsky begins the article by denying the relevance of short-term economic motives – while agreeing on the importance of military considerations – to Russia’s launching of the ‘special military operation’ on the 24th of February 2022. He considers it more important to analyze the contradictions and limits of modern ‘imperial’ Russian and Ukrainian ‘national-particularistic’ nationalism. Critiquing the anti-communist idealism of both discourses, Lebskiy insists on the political, economic, and national rationality of including Donbass in Soviet Ukraine. 

His conclusion is that the modern Russian state, like the imperial Tsarist one, stakes too much on a national project based on abstract ideas and past events, while mass living conditions in the present fail to improve. He compares this to the Soviet project, which based itself on a concrete idea of improving living conditions in the present and future. In the 19th century, as in the 21st century, Russian imperial ambitions were stymied by their inability – or lack of effort – in providing a compelling ideological alternative to local elites in Ukraine, especially as compared to the active efforts of various Western empires. So-called ‘pro-Russian’ political leaders in Ukraine such as Yanukovych had little success in creating a compelling Ukrainian-wide national identity and were outplayed by the west Ukrainian cultural elite.

Throughout this text, the word ‘Russian’ is often used. In the Russian language, there are 2 words that are translated as ‘Russian’ in English: Russkiy and Rossiyskiy. Russkiy refers to the ‘ethnicity’ or nationality, which, as this article will discuss, is quite vaguely defined and can embrace various nationalities that are not ‘ethnically’ Russian. Rossiyskiy refers to the state, eg, the Russian Federation (Rossiyskaya Federatsiya), and does not have an ethnic meaning. Unless it is referring to the ‘Russian state/ruling class/empire/federation/capitalism/gas’, in this article ‘Russian’ is translated from Russkiy.

“Many, very many of us are characterized by an innate mental laziness which constantly predisposes to the choice of simple and therefore generally crude means to achieve state goals. There is nothing simpler than relying on one strength instead of several.”

Valuev P. A., Interior Minister of the Russian Empire (1861-1868)1

“The biggest nationalist in Russia – is me. But the most correct nationalism is the arrangement of actions and policies in such a way that it acts for the benefit of the people.”

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation2

The start of the “special military operation” of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine on February 24 caused many, including me, to feel quite bewildered. Indeed, starting from the first Minsk Agreements, concluded in the fall of 2014, the position of the political leadership of Russia regarding the conflict in the Donbass remained unchanged – it was a civil conflict on the territory of Ukraine, which should be resolved through direct negotiations between representatives of Ukraine and the unrecognized republics of the DNR/LNR. As V. Putin and S. Lavrov liked to repeat: there is no alternative to the Minsk agreements.3 But as it turned out in 2022, such an alternative  nevertheless appeared in the form of a “special military operation.” 

The actions of the Russian Federation in relation to Ukraine cannot be assessed only in terms of geopolitics or economic interests. In my opinion, we are talking about the interweaving of various motives, among which the ideological factor does not occupy the bottom place. In this article, I will focus on this aspect of the conflict. But first, a few remarks should be made about other reasons – geopolitical and economic.

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia clearly involves a form of global confrontation between Moscow and Washington. NATO’s advance into Eastern Europe, which began in the 1990s, did not worry the Russian ruling elite for a long time, as they successfully integrated Russia into the world market as a semi-peripheral state supplying raw materials. On the contrary, reciprocal steps were taken to build cooperation between Russia and NATO within the framework of the Permanent Joint Council and the Russia-NATO Council.

In 2000, Putin, in a conversation with BBC journalists, said that Russia, under certain conditions, could join NATO.4 It is difficult to say exactly what was behind this initiative – a well-thought-out strategy or a propaganda action. Most likely the second. Putin apparently decided to repeat the Soviet note of 1954, which spoke of the desire of the USSR to join NATO and build a system of collective security in Europe. 5 Of course, the Soviet leadership was aware of the impossibility of including the USSR in the North Atlantic bloc, but NATO’s official refusal clearly demonstrated this structure’s anti-Soviet orientation. In 2000, Putin repeated a similar propaganda maneuver, leaving no hope of establishing cooperation with European and American partners, at least without Russia joining NATO.

In 2007, the Munich Conference took place, at which Putin declared that the unipolar world that existed after the end of the Cold War was in deep crisis. New centers of power – China, India and Russia – are claiming their place under the political sun.6 The cooling of Russian-American relations after the 2008 war already clearly testified in favor of the fact that the United States would prevent the restoration of Russia’s influence in the post-Soviet space.

The stabilization of Russian capitalism in the 2000s in the context of the creation of state corporations and the structuration of the ruling class led to the formation of a Russian regional imperialism, claiming leadership in the post-Soviet space. Numerous attempts by the Russian leadership to negotiate with the United States on the division of spheres of influence did not lead to any firm agreements. NATO leadership continued to insist that the doors of the alliance were open for the entry of new members and the issue of including Ukraine would be directly discussed between Kiev and Brussels (NATO headquarters), Moscow being a superfluous party in this dialogue.7 According to the leaders of the alliance, in order to normalize relations between Ukraine and Russia, Moscow had to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine and withdraw Russian troops from its territory (Crimea and Donbass). As a result of numerous negotiations, one thing became clear – neither side was ready to make significant concessions, which naturally led to a large-scale military conflict.

In analyzing the factors leading to the “special military operation” it is important to avoid vulgar economism, according to which some Marxists interpret any action of the ruling class as a task of gaining control over material resources and new markets. Undoubtedly, Ukraine has a favorable geographical position, acting as a transit territory through which Russia exports its energy resources. “Gazprom” is engaged in pumping gas through Ukraine even now, in conditions of military hostilities. On February 27, the press service of Gazprom reported that transit was continuing at the maximum level.

However, since the late 1990s Russia has built new gas pipelines to bypass Ukrainian territory to deprive Kyiv of the ability to exert economic pressure on the Kremlin, as happened during the numerous “gas wars”. However, the diversification of gas supply routes did not lead to a complete bypassing of Ukrainian territory: in 2020, Gazprom supplied Europe, including Turkey, with 174.9 billion cubic meters of gas,8 of which Ukrainian transit accounts for 55.8 billion cubic meters.9

The conflict in Ukraine has led the United States to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 operator Nord Stream 2AG.”10 Analysts are extremely skeptical about the future of the gas pipeline. Mikhail Krutikhin, a partner at the RusEnergy consulting company, said: “US sanctions do not allow anyone to work with Nord Stream 2. This is also taken into account by German companies, which consider this project after the imposition of sanctions to be a toxic asset. The project will never get back to work, since the sanctions will only increase with the continuation of hostilities.”11

Thus, Ukraine has achieved a serious economic victory. If the Kremlin were guided by purely economic motives, then Russia should have by no means started any “special operation” before the full certification of Nord Stream 2. It is not profitable for Russia as a gas exporter to conduct military operations on the territory of a transit country. This undermines its credibility as a reliable energy supplier. However, in reality, political and ideological rationales outweighed others.

After the start of the “special operation”, Germany announced the urgent construction of two terminals for receiving liquefied gas in Brunsbüttel and Wilhelmshaven in order to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.12 Of course, this will take years, but the trend is obvious – the EU has set itself a course to reduce purchases of Russian hydrocarbons. On February 27, in his speech at the emergency meeting of the Reichstag, German Chancellor Olaf Stolz said: 

We are living through a watershed era.

And that means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before. 

The issue at the heart of this is whether power is allowed to prevail over the law. Whether we permit Putin to turn back the clock to the nineteenth century and the age of the great powers.

That requires strength of our own.<…> And we will change course in order to eliminate our dependence on imports from individual energy suppliers. After all, the events of recent days and weeks have shown us that responsible, forward-looking energy policy is not just crucial for our economy and our climate. It is also crucial for our security. This means that the faster we make progress with the development of renewable energies, the better.13

There is a high probability that these big words will be followed by concrete actions that will hurt the Russian budget, which in pre-COVID 2019, according to official data, depended on oil and gas revenues for 40.8% of its revenue.14 In September 2020, against the backdrop of falling oil prices as a result of a drop in global business activity, Putin announced that the Russian budget was only one-third dependent on hydrocarbon exports.15 True, the Russian president kept silent about how this is not a strategic success, but a matter of the global market situation due to the coronavirus.

If you look at things realistically, the main export items of Ukraine are grain and ferrous metals. The industrial potential of Ukraine for 30 years has greatly degraded, as it happened in principle in Russia, but at a slower pace. Some analysts have suggested that the military conflict is a continuation of the economic competition between Russia and Ukraine in the world wheat market.16 However, it is extremely difficult to understand, if Russia is still clearly in the lead in this competition, why it should transfer the conflict into a hot phase, thereby destabilizing the world food market? According to Rosstat, the share of food products and agricultural raw materials accounts for only 7.3% of total Russian export income.17 This was clearly not the reason for the start of the “special operation.”

Until February 24, Ukraine was in an extremely difficult economic situation. At the end of 2021, Ukraine’s external debt amounted to $55.06 billion, and domestic debt to $39.09 billion.18 After the end of hostilities, the economic situation in Ukraine, apparently, will be close to a state of default and complete ruin. On March 10, V. Zelensky’s adviser on economic issues, Oleg Ustenko, said that military actions had caused material damage to Ukraine to the order of more than 100 billion US dollars.19 Furthermore: after the completion of the “special operation”, Russia and the territory of Ukraine it controls (what will remain of it) will live for a long time in conditions of isolation from the EU, the USA, and a number of other developed countries.

Attracting Chinese investors to restore the destroyed infrastructure of Ukraine will, apparently, also be extremely problematic. Over the years since 2014, Chinese companies have not rushed to actively develop their business in Crimea, fearing secondary sanctions. Similar behavior from Beijing can be expected in relation to other disputed regions. Although the conflict around the Ukrainian company Motor Sich20 and the agreements between Putin and Xi Jinping regarding Taiwan may adjust China’s strategy.

After the start of the “special military operation,” the EU and the USA expressed unconditional support for the “young Ukrainian democracy,” which acts as a shield for the whole of Europe from “Putin’s dictatorship.” On March 2, the head of the Accounting Chamber of Ukraine, Valery Patskan, called on Western creditors to write off all debts to his country. Later, the head of the Verkhovna Rada committee on finance, tax and customs policy, Daniil Getmantsev, disavowed Patskan’s proposal, stating that it was Patskan’s personal initiative.21 In any case, for the near future, the military conflict annuls all pretensions by the Ukrainian population and Western allies toward the economic policy of V. Zelensky. For the sake of protecting the fatherland, it is necessary to forget about all differences and rally around the government.

The economic losses of Russia from the beginning of the military operation in Ukraine are already obvious, while the benefits are still visible only in the extremely distant future (appropriation of the agricultural and industrial resources of Ukraine). Against the backdrop of unprecedented sanctions against Russia, even some Russian oligarchs (V. Lisin, V. Alekperov, L. Mikhelson, M. Fridman, O. Deripaska) allowed themselves to lightly criticize the start of the military campaign. In doing so, they violated the agreement that was made at the beginning of Putin’s first presidential term: the oligarchs do not get involved in politics and only engage in business. M. Khodorkovsky paid the price precisely for his violation of this agreement. It is too early to talk about a full-fledged split within the elite, but centrifugal tendencies in conditions of economic crisis and external pressure will inevitably increase.

Of course, every military conflict is ultimately a struggle for the distribution of resources and positions of power. However, ideology also acts as an important symbolic capital, which reflects the ideas of a particular class about its “historical right” to dominate a given territory and exploit its resources. The point is that ideology is not a cover for class interests, but their expression through the prism of historical and philosophical concepts.

Marxists often uncritically perceive the idea of nineteenth-century English political economists about “Homo economicus” (“economic man”), according to which the main goal of the activity of any person is to obtain the maximum economic result at minimum cost. As such, economic rationality has priority, based on the possession by an individual subject of complete information about the functioning of the entire market.

By transferring this concept to the actions of the ruling class, communists often try to identify immediate economic interest which has taken the form of a struggle for some particularly valuable resource, such as oil (in the case of Ukraine, agricultural products, coal or metals). Marx repeatedly stressed: “…the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.”22 Economic interests are mediated by many other factors that form a structured system of the interests of the ruling classes. It is worth recognizing that politicians are the same people as we are, with their own beliefs and views. Such views become especially important in authoritarian political systems, in which there are no counterbalances, and power is concentrated in the hands of one person and the ruling elite close to him. 

The beginning of the military operation in Ukraine was preceded by an almost hour-long speech by Putin, in which he not only talked about the political contradictions between Kyiv and Moscow, but once again tried to conceptualize the conflict, paying great attention to its historical background. The most detailed historical conceptualization, through which Putin analyzes the dispute with Ukraine, is given in his article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians,”23 published on July 12, 2021. As it clearly says in the title of this “analytical material,” as the President of the Russian Federation himself called his work, the main thesis is the idea of the historical and spiritual unity of Russians and Ukrainians within the framework of a single Slavic community.

To better understand Putin’s historical perspective, we must start from afar. As we know from history class at school, the formation of the national history of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine is associated with the birth of the Ancient Russian [Drevnerusskiy] state. Despite the use of the concept of “Rus,” “Rusian land” (precisely with one “s”) in numerous medieval sources, it is important to understand that the understanding inhabitants of Rus had about some kind of united community was, to put it mildly, somewhat different from the modern one. Not only did the medieval man not think in terms of the national categories of the bourgeois era, his self-consciousness had a dual character – on the one hand, identification with a specific determinate area, and on the other hand, awareness of belonging to the Orthodox community of Eastern Slavs.

There is no consensus among historians regarding the existence of the Ancient Russian people. As the modern researcher I.N. Danilevsky put it: “The very concept of “Russian land” is ambiguous. Notions of territorial integrity, a single economic, cultural and political space are not applicable to it. There were not even clearly defined boundaries. In ethnic terms – today it is already quite clear – the population of the Russian land can hardly be represented as a “single Ancient Russian people.” The inhabitants of Ancient Russia were quite clearly divided into several ethnic groups – with different appearances, languages, and material and spiritual cultures. For all their closeness, they differed in their systems of metrology and word formation, dialectal speech features and favorite types of jewelry, traditions and rituals. So, the content of this annalistic phrase is still a mystery.”24

Soviet historians represented by V.V. Mavrodina, B.D. Grekova, and B.A. Rybakov defended the concept of the existence of an Ancient Russian people that lived within the boundaries of a united Kyivan Rus, which was the cradle in which Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians were formed. The modern successor of this historiographical tradition is the Ukrainian historian P.P. Tolochko. In his opinion, the key consolidating factor for the Eastern Slavs was the state: “First, the ethnic group with the name ‘Rus’ created the state, and then this state contributed to the consolidation of all the Eastern Slavs and the spread of the common name ‘Rus’ to all of them.”25

Later, due to the Mongol invasion and the annexation of southwestern Russia to the Lithuanian state, the single Ancient Russian nationality begins to disintegrate into three separate peoples. Although in many Polish sources of the 16th – 17th centuries. the general ancestral concept of “Rus”, “Rusians” is used both in relation to the lands of the former Galicia-Volyn principality and to all of Southern Rus.26

In the context of the conflict in Ukraine, the dispute about the Ancient Russian heritage is not of purely scholastic significance, but expresses the clash of two narratives – national-particularistic and imperial. It is no coincidence that at the end of 19th century, the father of Ukrainian historiography, M.S. Hrushevsky, wrote a ten-volume work “History of Ukraine-Rus,” in which he tried to substantiate the existence in the early Middle Ages of a separate ethnographic group – the Ukrainian-Russian people. It was this people, according to M. Hrushevsky, that created the Kyivan state, and then the Galicia-Volyn principality. Subsequently, the lands of this principality were annexed to the state of Lithuania, which was ruled by “Ukrainian princes of the Lithuanian dynasty.”27 The stronghold for the development of the Great Russians was the Grand Duchy of Vladimir, out of which the Muscovite kingdom subsequently matured. The Great Russians received the culture of Kyivan Rus from the Ukrainians they neighbored. 

Hrushevsky also actively developed the idea of Ukraine as a European frontier, i.e. the border between Europe and the world of nomads. It was Ukraine that became the shield that protected European civilization from numerous invasions by nomads. Hrushevsky wrote: “The struggle against the steppe hordes, which for centuries served as the cause for colonizing movements by the Ukrainian population, is the glory and merit of the Ukrainian people before the history of European culture, protected from the rivers of nomadic hordes by the Ukrainian parapet, which took upon itself those blows that would otherwise fall on the Western peoples with their culture and prosperity.”28

It is easy to see a certain connection between this idea and the agenda that modern Ukrainian politicians are developing: Ukraine is the last fortress in front of the resurgent Russian Empire/USSR, ready to attack Eastern Europe.

Vladimir Zelensky does not write historical articles, but he is also sometimes forced to turn to topics related to Ancient Rus. Last year, on the occasion of the Day of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus, Zelensky delivered a speech to the citizens of Ukraine, in which he reproduced the traditional theses of Ukrainian national historiography, drawing a single historical line between the “Ukrainian ruler” of Rus-Ukraine, Prince Volodymyr, and modern Ukraine. Regarding the historical claims of Russia, Zelensky spoke as follows:

Kyivan Rus is the mother of our history. The 24 regions of Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula are her children. And they are rightfully her heirs. And cousins and very distant relatives do not need to encroach on her inheritance. Or try to prove their involvement in thousands of years of history and thousands of events, being as they are thousands of kilometers away from the locations where they took place.

In the speeches of the Russian and Ukrainian leaders, history is an instrument used to legitimize mutual territorial claims. In both cases, we are faced with the clash between a whole series of ethno-symbolic myths (the myth of the great inheritance, the primordialization of the nation, etc.), on which any nationalism is based.

The roots of the concept of a big Russian nation go back to the writings of representatives of the Little Russian Orthodox clergy of the 17th century (Zakhary Kopystensky “Palinodiya”), who defended the thesis of the unity of the “Slavic Russian people” (Little Russians and Great Russians) within the framework of a single Orthodox community of Eastern Slavs, divided between different states. At the beginning of the 17th century, it was extremely important for the Little Russian Orthodox clergy to connect the tradition of Kyivan Rus with the Orthodox community of the Commonwealth in order to substantiate the historical correctness of the Orthodox in the fight against the Uniates and Catholics, who were supported by the Polish king and gentry.29 However, in the future, in connection with the uprising of Bogdan Khmelnitsky and the Andrusov truce of 1667, the Kyiv clergy began to develop the idea of the existence of a single people, which should unite under the scepter of the Russian autocrat.

In the “Synopsis” – the main historical book on Russian history in the 17th – 18th centuries – the idea of the unity of Great [roughly modern Russia], Small [roughly modern Ukraine] and White [roughly modern Belarus] Russia occupied a dominant position. The author of the Synopsis (presumably Innokenty Gizel) builds a single historical tradition about the existence of the Russian people from the princes of Kyiv to Alexei Mikhailovich, trying to justify the role of the Muscovite tsar as the main defender of Orthodoxy. As the Russian historian A.I. Miller put it: “It is quite likely that the author of the Synopsis pursued quite specific short-term goals: firstly, to give the Muscovite tsar motivation to continue the struggle against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for the liberation of the rest of the “single Orthodox people” from Catholic rule, and secondly to make it easier for the elite of the Cossack Hetmanate to assimilate into the Russian ruling class.” 30

In his article, Putin returns to the historical conceptualization which was actively developed by the Russian historian N. G. Ustryalov in the 1830s. He put forward the idea of “Russian Lithuania” (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania). If in previous historiography the GDL was perceived as an aggressive medieval state that seized part of the ancient Russian lands, then Ustryalov believed that the enmity was between two Russian states (“family strife, not national enmity”). The culturally backward and small-numbered Balts simply dissolved into the Russian majority of the GDL population.31

Ustryalov wrote that it was the Poles who prevented the reunification of the Russian states (the Union of Krevo in 1385 and the Union of Lublin in 1569). It is no coincidence that his work “Research on the question regarding what place in Russian history the Grand Duchy of Lithuania should occupy?” appeared after the Polish uprising of 1830, when the question of the “historical right” of the Russian Empire to the lands of the former Commonwealth arose sharply.32 Thus, starting from Ustryalov’s concept, the Tsarist authorities could argue that Russia did not seize anything, it only returned its historical lands, uniting Western and Eastern Russia. Ustryalov’s ideas had a clear connection with the aspirations of the Tsarist government to subordinate the Uniates of the Greek Catholic Church to the Orthodox hierarchs. To be a “real Russian” in the eyes of the state meant not only to speak Russian, but also to profess the Orthodox faith.

Putin’s argumentation is extremely similar to Ustryalov’s theses. But what is the important issue? When Ustryalov wrote his works, the Ukrainian nation, like the Russian nation, did not exist yet. Little Russians were a regional identity within the triune Russian people, and the Ukrainian national movement began to develop only from the middle of the 19th century (the Brotherhood of Cyril and Methodius). Most of its representatives advocated the creation of a Slavic democratic federation, which would include Ukraine, Russia and other Slavic countries.33 The Ukrainian cultural movement was extremely small.34

As M. Hrushevsky wrote: “The very fact that St. Petersburg became the center of the Ukrainian movement of the late fifties and early 1860s, the government center located 1,500 miles from Ukrainian territory, shows how weak this movement still was, how it was tied up with the activities of a few individuals.”35

However, almost all national movements begin with the activities of small circles of intellectuals who are educated within the framework of imperial educational structures. Despite their small numbers, the Ukrainophiles managed to standardize the Ukrainian language by the end of the 19th century, as well as create a national historical myth.

The repressive policies of the Tsarist government led to an outflow of the Ukrainian intelligentsia from Kyiv to Lviv. In eastern Galicia, after the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1848 by Russian troops, sympathy for Russia was strong. As Hrushevsky wrote: “Russian intervention in the Hungarian campaign left an imposing impression for a long time in Galicia, through which Russian troops passed. They reminded the inhabitants about the existence in the powerful neighboring state of the ‘Russian faith’ and the ‘Russian language’ (of the Sumarok type), quite close to the exercises the Galicians did in their books. Sighing under the yoke of the Polish gentry, the Galician ‘patriots’ began blissfully dreaming about the Russian kingdom, which so sharply and mercilessly suppressed the aspirations of the Poles to restore historical Poland. Nikolaevan Russia was portrayed in ideal terms by the dreaming Galician priests and bureaucrats.”36

The arrival of leaders of the Ukrainian national movement from Russia led to the strengthening in Galicia of supporters of the creation of a united Ukraine, considering Ukrainians as constituting an independent nation. It was the representatives of this political line that over time came to occupy a dominant position in Galicia, the Moscophiles losing their former influence. Thus, prohibitive measures on the part of Russia lead to opposite results – instead of the existence of controlled circles of a small Ukrainian intelligentsia on its territory, by the beginning of the 20th century, the Empire found Ukrainian national parties within its borders.

It is worth noting an interesting fact that it was precisely among the Little Russians of the southwestern provinces of the Russian Empire that Russian nationalists were especially active, who saw in the “Ukrainophiles” the enemies of the Russian people, striving to divide a single community. The Little Russian M.V. Yuzevofich, chairman of the Kyiv Archaeographic Commission, was one those who inspired the “Emsky Decree” of 1876, which restricted the use of the Ukrainian language in teaching and official documents. At the beginning of the 20th century, right-wing parties in elections to the State Duma received most votes in Little Russia.37

After the division of the Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire was faced with the task of the cultural and national integration of the occupied territories, which for a long time had developed within a different cultural and political context. In the course of implementing this task, the Tsarist officials encountered great difficulties due to the economic and cultural backwardness of Russia. The empire could send administrators to the western provinces, but there were still not enough to control the vast territory dominated by Polish political culture. As Miller rightly notes: “The image we were accustomed to of an all-controlling, over-bureaucratized autocratic state concealed in reality an underdeveloped and weak administrative system.”38

Petersburg made its main bet on a replacement of the elites. By forbidding the Polish gentry to buy land, the authorities sought to transfer land in the Western and Southwestern regions into the hands of the Russian nobility. But the Russian nobles, who were not accustomed to care much about the preservation and development of their estates, were in no hurry to go to the western provinces.39 They were unable to become the subjects of Russification.

The Russian army brought in peasant settlers, but the imperial center could not send teachers, doctors and other bearers of knowledge and Russian culture in sufficient numbers. Therefore, all attempts to weaken the “Polish influence” by translating the Catholic service into Russian or by banning the import of books from East Prussia (1865-1904) failed.40

Zemstvo [post-1861 Tsarist institution of local government] teachers and doctors, who could have become an instrument of the center’s Russification policy, belonged for the most part to the raznochintsy [Tsar-era intellectuals] – the bearers of revolutionary culture. Petersburg could put up with the spread of the political and cultural influence of the Polish gentry and officials, but not with the growth of the influence of critical raznochintsy.

The Tsarist officials faced a dilemma: to promote the development of “unreliable” public schools and colleges, or to leave everything in the hands of the Orthodox clergy? Most often, the choice was made in favor of the second option. The level of training of Orthodox priests and the very quality of education in parochial schools did not contribute to the Russification of the western provinces. By the beginning of the 20th century, the authorities were forced to admit that the Uniates and Catholics were finally “lost” for the Russian people, whose borders were limited by that of Orthodoxy.

As Miller notes, the Russification mission of the Empire on the periphery enjoyed little success due to the lack of a clear understanding on the part of the Tsarist elite of the need to build over a long period the project of a large imperial nation, which required significant financial investments for the development of cities and communications. The Russian autocrats relied on spontaneous factors of ethnic, religious, and cultural kinship, which were to become a solid foundation for a large Russian nation. But the hope for the strength of historical roots did not materialize, since in the era of nationalism it was not reliance on a single past that prevailed, but the system of mass education, an extensive bureaucratic network, industrial production, and communications. 

The First World War, which led to the collapse of four empires and the formation of new nation-states in Eastern Europe, contributed to the nationalization of political discourse. The principle of legitimism (the source of power is the king) was finally replaced by the idea of popular sovereignty (the source of power is the nation/people). Not only the Bolsheviks, but also the American President W. Wilson with his famous 14 points began from this principle. 

During the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, the first Ukrainian states were formed: the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Ukrainian SSR. All these states were competing projects of Ukrainian statehood based on different socio-economic and ideological bases.

Putin calls these political formations “quasi-states,” seeking to highlight their instrumentalist function in weakening Russia. According to him, at first the Poles in the 17th – 18th centuries, then Austro-Hungary in turn supported the development of a Ukrainian national movement in order to weaken the unity of the Russian nation by creating a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ project on its borders.

A similar reproach can be turned against the Russian Empire itself, which in the 19th century supported the struggle of Slavic peoples against the Ottoman Empire in order to weaken its old enemy. Fighting an enemy state by weakening its integrity and supporting political movements on enemy territory is a classic technique used by almost all countries. The innovation of Austria-Hungary was that it really tried to engage in the construction of nations in order to weaken, for example, the southern Slavs (support for the Bosniaks as a separate nation). Russia lagged behind in its political tools, preferring to rely not on the ideas of nationalism, but on Orthodoxy and pan-Slavism.

When analyzing the formation of Ukrainian statehood, Putin absolutizes the foreign policy context, which was certainly present, completely dismissing the significance of the activities of the Ukrainian national intelligentsia and its political parties. Simplifying the president’s thesis, one can say that he views the formation of the Ukrainian nation not as the result of a complex historical process with its own internal roots, but only as the fruit of political intrigues of foreign powers against Russia. It is worth noting that Ukrainian historians who support the Ukrainian national myth tend to go to the other extreme – a complete denial of external assistance and the idea that the Ukrainian nation was able to be “reborn” against all odds.41

The decisive contribution to the formation of Ukrainians and the destruction of the great Russian nation was made by the Bolsheviks (among whom there were quite a few Little Russians), who created Soviet Ukraine and actively pursued a policy of indigenization in the form of Ukrainization both on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR and adjacent lands (Kuban). Putin believes that the Bolsheviks “robbed” Russia, arbitrarily changing its borders in favor of the national republics.

Indeed, if we deny, as the President of Russia does, the presence of fairly large-scale national and social movements that swept the peripheries of the Russian Empire in 1917-1920, it remains completely incomprehensible why the Bolsheviks created national republics and distributed territories. It was possible to choose the strategy of the White Guard movement to create a united and indivisible Russia, only there was a small nuance – the Whites lost with this strategy, largely because they could not make any compromises either on the national or peasant question.

As for the “gifts of the Russian people.” The territorial basis for the creation in 1919 of the Ukrainian SSR were 9 provinces of the former Russian Empire (Kiev, Kherson, Podolsk, Volyn, Kharkov, Poltava, Chernigov, Yekaterinoslav and Taurida), except for the northern counties of the Chernigov province and Crimea, which were ceded to the RSFSR. In 1920, the Donetsk district of the Don Cossacks region went to Ukraine, which, together with certain districts of the Kharkov and Yekaterinoslav provinces, formed the Donetsk province. Thus, it was the Bolsheviks who united the Donetsk coal region within the framework of a single administrative unit, gathering it together from different fragments of the imperial provinces.

According to data from a household census of the Donetsk province in 1923, 2.5 million people lived in the region, of which 1.6 million were Ukrainians (64%), 656 thousand (26%) were Russians, 86.6 thousand (3 .4%) were Greeks, 56.8 thousand (2.6%) were Germans, and 42.7 thousand (1.7%) were Jews.42 At the same time, most Ukrainians lived in rural areas (73.3% – in the villages; 33.3% – in the cities), and the cities were predominantly populated by Russians (52.4% – in the cities, 17% – in the villages).

The creation of the Donetsk province within the Ukrainian SSR was due to several reasons. When creating national republics, the Bolsheviks first of all tried to rely on the principle of ethnicization of the territory, according to which the bulk of the titular ethnic group should live within the framework of its single republic. One of the decisions of the Presidium of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee stated: 

In view of the request of the members of the commission from the RSFSR about their line of conduct when considering the borders of the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR, we invite them to be guided by:

1) composition of the national population,

2) the attraction of the population to one or another republic,

3) economic considerations 

4) meeting the needs of the Ukrainian SSR wherever it does not sharply violate the interests of the frontier population of the RSFSR.43

In practice, the national factor often collided with the economic and political expediency of territorial demarcation. Regarding the Donetsk province, all three motives were combined. The bulk of the population of the region was Ukrainian peasantry (until 1917 – Little Russians), which closely interacted with Russian-speaking cities. The Soviet leadership believed that further industrialization would be carried out through the flow of Ukrainian peasants to the cities of Donbass, where they would join the ranks of the working class, which would inevitably be Ukrainianized.

To confirm this trend, Stalin liked to refer to German-speaking cities within Austria-Hungary, which were subsequently Magyarized.44 This was not a completely correct analogy, since despite long historical and cultural ties, Hungarians and Germans belonged to different ethnic groups. Little Russians for a long time considered themselves as part of the Russian people with a certain regional specificity. Close cultural, economic and historical ties prevented the emergence of any serious interethnic conflicts. Despite attempts to Ukrainize the Donbass in the 1920s, the region remained part of the big Russian/Soviet cultural space, within which Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and other peoples interacted. At the end of the Soviet era, a mixed Russian-speaking regional identity was formed in the Donbass, with no fixed ethnic boundaries.45

The second important reason for the inclusion of the Donetsk coal basin in the Soviet Ukraine was the desire of the Bolsheviks to create an economic basis for the development of Ukrainian industry. The Soviet leadership created self-sufficient economic zones that would have all the necessary resources to restore their national economy. Bread, coal and metals were the most important inputs for the realization of industrialization, in which Ukraine played a leading role. Of the 1,500 industrial enterprises created in the first five-year plan, the Ukrainian SSR accounted for 400, among them: Zaporizhstal, Krivorozhstal, Azovstal, DneproGES, and the Kharkov Tractor Plant.46

Last but not least was political expediency. During the years of the Civil War, it was the Donetsk and Krivoy Rog basins with their industry that were the strongholds of the Bolsheviks in the struggle for the Sovietization of Ukraine. The Bolsheviks saw the bulwark of their power in the workers, perceiving the peasants as a social base for new uprisings and “Makhnovshchina” [Makhno-style anarchism and warlordism]. The Donetsk province was for the Bolsheviks a kind of anchor that kept hold of peasant Ukraine. In this context, it is also not accidental that until 1934 the capital of the Ukrainian SSR was located on left-bank [eastern] Ukraine in Kharkov.

In 1924-1925 the Commission for the Settlement of Borders approved an exchange of territories between the Ukrainian SSR and the RSFSR: the Taganrog and Aleksandro-Grushevsky (Shakhtinsky) districts of the Ukrainian SSR departed to the RSFSR, and Ukraine, in turn, received a number of volosts and counties of the Kursk, Bryansk and Voronezh provinces.

The complexity of the demarcation was that in most of the disputed border regions, Ukrainians and Russians lived alongside each other, there were no clear boundaries between them. This did not make it possible to unequivocally determine to whom the territory should belong: among local residents there were different positions on this matter, although most of them were in favor of the RSFSR.47 In such cases, economic motives, as a rule, always remade national ones. The significance of Taganrog, for example, was determined by the fact that it was a deep-sea port on the Sea of Azov, which was extremely important for the industry of the South-Eastern region of the RSFSR. The Ukrainian SSR had two other deep-water ports (Mariupol and Berdyansk) on the Sea of Azov, so the transfer of this territory did not lead to serious economic losses for Ukraine. 

Thus, summing up the analysis of the formation of the borders of the USSR in the 1920s, it is important to emphasize that there can be no talk of any “robbery” of Russia. There was a mutual exchange of territories between the republics within the framework of a single country, for national and economic reasons. One can criticize the Bolsheviks for choosing the very strategy of ethnicization of the territory, there were other proposals: one of the founders of the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic, S.F. Vasilchenko, believed that the federation should be built on the basis of production and economic criteria, and not national ones. However, it is important to emphasize that the decisions of the Soviet leadership on the transfer of certain territories were made in the historical context of the existence of a single country. It is pointless to condemn them today in our conditions of the existence of independent bourgeois states represented by Ukraine or Russia.

Undoubtedly, the Bolsheviks overestimated the degree of maturity of socialist society in the USSR, constantly declaring that the national question was finally resolved. As in any class society, national contradictions existed, but faded into the background during the general modernization breakthrough that the republics of the USSR experienced. As soon as this breakthrough was exhausted, nationalism became more active, and was actively used by the republican nomenklatura within the framework of their corporate interests.

Nationalism itself is a complex political phenomenon that cannot be overcome once and for all. Rather, it is a question of a situational identity that can be activated during struggle for the redistribution of resources and positions of power in society. The British researcher Anthony Smith wrote about the presence of a reductionist interpretation of nationalism in Marxism.48 The nation was considered only as an external form for a class content, it is the classes in the national shell that are the subjects of history. However, Marxists did not allow for the possibility of nationalism penetrating from the external form into the social core, whereby the national identity subordinated the class one.

What Putin is right about is that it was during the Soviet period that the great Russian nation was divided into three separate national communities: Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians. It is important to take into account that the imperial nation was not fully formed in the Russian Empire. The Tsarist government came to understand the necessity of its creation only after the First Russian Revolution. The World War did not allow this to happen, so the Bolsheviks came to power on the ruins of the empire and its national projects. In their national policy they were faced with an alternative: to complete the supernation on a new ideological basis or to develop independent socialist nations.

The Bolsheviks saw in the concept of a big Russian nation the political banner of the Whites, which, in principle, corresponded to reality. The Reds decided to oppose the program of the Whites with the union of socialist nations, for which the main line of identification was built precisely on a class basis, and not on a national basis.

The formation of an ethnos in the view of I.V. Stalin – the main specialist on the national question among the Bolsheviks – had a certain sequence of stages: 1. Ethnographic group; 2. Nationality; 3. Nation.49 The transformation of an ethnographic group into a political nation was seen by the Bolsheviks as an undeniably progressive and inevitable process of industrial development, which testified to the economic and social achievements of the Soviet Union. Thus, by constructing nations, the USSR solved the problems of catching up with bourgeois modernization, which was associated with the creation of a socialist society. 

The Bolshevik course towards indigenization was determined not only by opportunistic factors, but by the principled approach of the new government to solving national problems by fighting against “great-power chauvinism” through the development of political and cultural institutions in the national republics. The Bolsheviks eliminated illiteracy and created a school educational system in Soviet Ukraine that was conducted in the Ukrainian language, which was of fundamental importance.50 And although the pace of indigenization policy slowed down within the USSR in the 1930s, the Ukrainization of the population of Soviet Ukraine nevertheless continued. By the end of the 1930s the share of Ukrainians among the members of the CP(b)U (Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine) was 63%, among the workers of the Ukrainian SSR – 66%, among state administrators of the Ukrainian SSR – 56%.51

As T. Martin writes in his famous work “The Affirmative Action Empire”, the policy of indigenization in the border republics, whose titular nations were divided among different states, was of particular importance.52 The Bolsheviks sought to create on their borders (Ukrainian SSR, Belarussian SSR, Moldavian ASSR) showcases that would demonstrate the unprecedented pace of development of national statehood and culture. In a certain sense, the Bolsheviks used the strategy of the Austro-Hungarian authorities in the second half of the 19th century, directing it now primarily against Poland (10 million Ukrainians lived in the country, which accounted for 30% of its population53), although Ukrainians also lived in Romania and Czechoslovakia. This was especially true in the early 1920s due to the Soviet-Polish war and mutual territorial claims.

The resolution of the Central Committee of the RCP(b) on Soviet power in Ukraine in 1919 stated:

 [it is] incumbent upon all Party members to use every means to help remove all barriers in the way of the free development of the Ukrainian language and culture. Since the many centuries of oppression have given rise to nationalist tendencies among the backward sections of the population, R.C.P. members must exercise the greatest caution in respect of those tendencies and must oppose them with words of comradely explanation concerning the identity of interests of the working people of the Ukraine and Russia.54

 If earlier Galicia, as part of Austria-Hungary, acted as a cultural Piedmont (the center of national unification) for Ukrainians, now this mission, thanks to the Ukrainization policy, moved to Soviet Ukraine. In this way, the Bolsheviks knocked out the nationalist card from the hands of their opponents, which could have played a big role in destabilizing the Soviet state on national grounds. The question of the cultural influence of Galicia on the Ukrainian SSR worried Stalin. In a conversation with Ukrainian writers in 1929, he placed particular emphasis on questions about the influence of Galician literature on Soviet Ukrainians.55 He was interested in the extent to which Soviet Ukrainization made it possible to turn the Ukrainian SSR into a stronghold of Ukrainian national culture.

Soviet leadership in the1920s convinced major representatives of the Ukrainian intelligentsia (M.S. Hrushevsky, S.L. Rudnitsky, M.M. Lozinsky and others) to cooperate, which made it possible to put the process of creating a Ukrainian political nation under its control, directing it into the right political direction. This was of great importance in the future. Despite most severe crises (the famine of 1932-1933, the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945), there were no mass national uprisings in Ukraine that could call into question the stability of the Soviet political system.

The Russian historian A.I. Miller develops in his works the concept of two Ukrainian identities. In giving an overview of his argument, it is worth noting that Miller sees the interwar period (1920-1930s) as a key stage for the formation of the two Ukrainian national ideas – Western Ukrainian (Eastern Galicia and Volhynia within the framework of the Polish state) and Eastern Ukrainian (Left-Bank Ukraine as part of the USSR). As he writes: “It was the interwar period that marked the transition to universal schooling in Eastern Europe. The school is the most powerful mechanism of mass indoctrination, and the experience of the first literate generation is especially important, because with literacy, society acquires new channels for the intergenerational transmission of myths and identificatory attitudes.”56

As a result of the Riga Peace Treaty of 1921, eastern Galicia and western Volhynia became part of the Polish Republic. Despite a number of adopted laws that give Ukrainians the opportunity to study in their native language and use Ukrainian in communication with local authorities, Pilsudski began to pursue a tough assimilation policy in the newly annexed lands.57 Veterans of the Polish army, who received land from the government, moved to the eastern regions. They were supposed to become the backbone of the Polish state in the east. It is natural that in response to repression by the state, a radical nationalist movement formed among Ukrainian youth, which relied on individual terror.

D. Dontsov, one of the main ideologists of post-war Ukrainian nationalism, completely denied the political tradition associated with Ukrainian socialists and democrats (M.V. Drahomanov, V.K. Vynnychenko and others). In his eyes, the Ukrainian socialists were not “harsh” and consistent enough to create an independent Ukraine.58

The rejection of the socialist tradition in the Ukrainian national movement led student youth to the far-right camp. Their sympathies were on the side of the right-wing totalitarian movements that developed in Italy (fascism), Germany (Nazism) and Croatia (Ustasha).59 Representatives of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in Galicia advocated the creation of a Ukrainian state on the basis of an integral nationalism aimed against “foreigners”: Jews, Poles and Russians. An important feature of Western Ukrainian nationalism was the special role of the Greek Catholic Church, whose hierarchs (Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky) supported the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists).

In the USSR in the 1920-1930s. an active policy of Ukrainization was carried out on the basis of the concept of an international brotherhood of socialist nations within the framework of a single Soviet community. The concept of a large Russian nation was not fully rehabilitated, but the idea of a special closeness of the Slavic peoples of the USSR was certainly present both in mass consciousness and in the minds of many leaders of the CPSU.

By the end of the Soviet period, there were three large communities on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR: Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians, Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and Russians. The formation of the Ukrainian bourgeois state was carried out on an ideological basis formed by representatives of the Ukrainian political émigré community and the Western Ukrainian intelligentsia.60 Ukrainian authorities in the 1990s tried to maneuver and carry out a gradual Ukrainization, trying to avoid the growth of interethnic conflicts.61 At the symbolic level (flag and coat of arms) Ukraine in the 1990s. drew its statehood from the Ukrainian People’s Republic of 1917-1920. In 1992, N. Plavyuk, head of the government of the UNR in exile, handed over to L. Kravchuk a letter confirming the historical continuity between the two states. However, Kravchuk and Kuchma, being old Soviet managers, could not completely abandon the Soviet past, which could call into question the legitimacy of their own power.

National composition of Ukraine62

Ukrainian historian G.V. Kasyanov writes about the development of historical politics in Ukraine: “In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a rapid restoration and dissemination of the national/nationalist model in its archaic, antiquarian version. At the same time, the ruling class (especially during the time of L. Kuchma) did everything possible to slow down the process of replacing the Soviet-nostalgic model, believing that too-radical actions could cause a serious conflict, and, moreover, using ideological ambivalence to legitimize themselves.”63

However, the political choice was made from the start by the ruling class in favor of the European vector of development. In this connection, Western Ukraine was seen as a part of Europe and a stronghold of “true Ukrainianism.” Eastern Ukrainians were to learn from the Galicians “real patriotism.”

Leonid Kuchma was elected to the presidency with the active support of the population and economic elites of eastern and southern Ukraine.64 However, having won the elections, he immediately became a firm supporter of constant Ukrainization. As he wrote in his book “Ukraine is not Russia”:

No matter how much the loudest, most ignorant of the “professional Ukrainians” of Galicia annoy me, no matter how much they complicate the political life in the country, I do not forget that they belong to that part of our people which best preserved Ukrainianism, the Ukrainian language, using it not only in the hall of the Supreme Council, but also at home… I know for myself how important it is for an eastern Ukrainian to always remember that there is another Ukraine – yes, while this is a different Ukraine, it is not higher, not better than your Eastern one, in some ways it even lags behind, but you keep in mind not this, but what aspects it is ahead in, what its advantage is. And the advantage is in conscious Ukrainianness, and this is exactly what you should adopt in order, ultimately, to feel with all your heart that your Ukrainianness is a gift from God, and this is how you should relate to it.65

The first Maidan and the coming to power of V. Yushchenko in 2005 qualitatively shifted the balance in favor of the Western Ukrainian political tradition. Yushchenko not only carried out a policy of rehabilitating OUN-UPA activists, but was engaged in glorifying them. In 2007, the President of Ukraine awarded Roman Shukhevych the title of “Hero of Ukraine” “for his outstanding personal contribution to the national liberation struggle for the freedom and independence of Ukraine and in connection with the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 65th anniversary of the creation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.”66 Three years later, the same award was awarded to Stepan Bandera.67 

If before the first Maidan the glorification of the OUN-UPA was a local cult of Western Ukraine, then Yushchenko tried to make S. Bandera and R. Shukhevych heroes for the entire Ukrainian nation. This could not but meet with resistance both among Russians and many Russian-speaking Ukrainians, whose historical memory was based on the tradition of the Great Patriotic War. After 2004, the “war of monuments” resumed in Ukraine. In contrast to the monuments dedicated to the OUN-UPA, in the East and Crimea, the memory of the victims of Ukrainian nationalists was perpetuated.68

Another important element in the politics of memory promoted by Yushchenko was the famine of 1932-1933, which affected many parts of the USSR. However, Ukrainian politicians tried to present this event as a deliberate genocide of Ukrainians by the Soviet authorities. Even President Kravchuk in the early 1990s said at a conference: “I fully agree that this was a planned action, that it was a genocide against their own people. But here I would not put an end to it. Yes, against their own people, but according to directives from another center.”69 

Kuchma, as president, also paid attention to this event. It was by his decree of November 26, 1998 that the “Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holodomor” was established. Yushchenko made the Holodomor the central basis of his ideological policy. As president, he issued 40 decrees perpetuating the memory of the victims of the Holodomor. In the foreign policy arena, Yushchenko tried to get the maximum number of countries to recognize the Holodomor as genocide.

An important question is why the political elite of the industrial East, where serious financial resources were concentrated, lost the war in the struggle to build a Ukrainian political nation? The writer S.V. Kozlov explains this by the fact that Western Ukraine possessed superior cultural and symbolic capital in the form of numerous intelligentsia, educational and cultural institutions actively promoting the Western Ukrainian version of national identity. 

Donbass was the industrial core of Ukraine, in which the elite was aimed purely at expanding their economic and political capital. The East, within the framework of the cultural struggle, occupied a purely defensive position and did not try to promote its version of identity in the center or in the west of the country. Kozlov writes:

 …if Lviv is a city with a developed culture, then Donetsk and Kharkiv are cities with developed industry. Representatives of business circles and industrial bureaucracy have played and continue to play a leading role among the elites of the East. A study of the Ukrainian regional press, conducted by the author of this article at the end of 2013, showed that if in the Western Ukrainian mass media opinion leaders are mainly mediatized intellectuals: scientists, philosophers, cultural and art figures, then for the Kharkiv and Donetsk media opinion leaders are just directors of industrial enterprises and entrepreneurs.70

Being the President of Ukraine (2010-2014), Viktor Yanukovych, unlike his predecessors, did not purposefully build an alternative version of the politics of memory, which was one of the reasons for his political defeat.71  Trying to balance between offensive Ukrainian nationalism and defensive Soviet tradition, Yanukovych pursued a similar policy in the foreign policy arena. Yanukovych led parallel talks on signing an Association Agreement with the EU and Ukraine’s accession to the EAEU Customs Union. The absence of a consistent and principled foreign policy direction, waiting to see which of the unions would offer more preferences to Ukraine, disoriented a significant part of Ukrainians, undermining confidence in Yanukovych.

It is worth noting that certain personnel decisions were still made. In 2010, the well-known Ukrainian historian Valery Soldatenko was appointed to the post of director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. In his interviews, he said that this institution should be transformed from a propaganda tool of the executive branch into a research institute. Soldatenko put forward the thesis according to which Ukrainian statehood took place thanks to the activities of the Bolsheviks and National Communists (N.A. Skrypnyk), who organically combined national and socialist ideas.72 However, this view did not acquire any conceptual design and was not been implemented in the form of a conscious policy by the Party of Regions.

For the sake of objectivity, it is worth recognizing that there was not much time either – Yanukovych stayed in the presidency for about four years. The problem was that the new owners of Soviet industry in eastern Ukraine treated history as a tool for political manipulation, trying to build their connections with voters on the basis of Soviet paternalism. Their model of national memory was a form without content – the cult of the Great Patriotic War without socialism, which was the most important core of the Soviet political project. It was socialism that formed the image of a “great future”, which had great mobilizing power.

The elites of eastern Ukraine made their usual bet on commemorative events related to the Great Patriotic War. In 2011, the annual ritual was introduced in the Verkhovna Rada: “A moment of silence for those who died in the Great Patriotic War.” In 2013, a large military parade was held in Kyiv on the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation from German occupation. As G. Kasyanov writes:

The historical policy of 2010–2013, during which the Soviet-nostalgic narrative of memory was promoted, still did not deny the foundations of the national/nationalist narrative, primarily its antiquarian part. Its legitimizing function was recognized by all groups that came to power.73

In other words, Yanukovych did not implement a comprehensive reform of the education system aimed at creating an alternative historical narrative. As a result, it turned out that the educational system continued to reproduce the set of ideas formulated by Hrushevsky and other Ukrainian historians, and aside from this there was a weak framework in the form of the historical tradition of the Great Patriotic War, which could not unite the country.

The pro-Russian image of Viktor Yanukovych in the media did not result in the decline of ultra-right Ukrainian organizations. On the contrary, VO “Svoboda” increased its membership and was able to get 10.5% of the votes in the 2012 parliamentary elections, which allowed it to form its own faction.74 During the reign of Yanukovych, nationalist marches on the day of the creation of the UPA also did not stop in the capital of Ukraine. In 2013, for the first time, nationalists managed to hold a march on Khreshchatyk road where the famous Maidan square is located, where more than 10,000 people gathered.

The second Maidan further strengthened the centrifugal forces within Ukrainian society, finally dividing it into two camps – supporters of the “European path” and those of rapprochement with Russia. It is quite possible that if the Russian army had not stopped in Crimea in 2014, then in a matter of weeks it would have been able to occupy the main urban centers of left-bank Ukraine.

All these past years, the actions of the Kremlin were limited to attempts to resolve the conflict in the Donbass by implementing the Minsk agreements, which were concluded after major military defeats of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, i.e. the agreements were not beneficial to the Ukrainian leadership. Within the framework of the existing political systems of Ukraine and Russia, a compromise on Donbass between them was impossible. Each of the two sides promotes its own national project, the boundaries of which overlap. 

The Kremlin agreed to a scenario of protracted confrontation, which was beneficial primarily to Ukraine, since it was able to rebuild the army and impose a nationalist discourse on most of society. During the years of the truce, the gap in military potential between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the corps of the People’s Militia of the DPR/LPR has steadily increased, which made full-scale Russian intervention a matter of time. 

The authors of a report on the state of the armed forces of the DNR/LNR from the Novorossiya Aid Coordination Center wrote in 2019: 

The last remaining trump card of the Russian command is direct, overt and massive use of the Russian Army using all the means of destruction available to it. In 2014-2015, Russia could afford to successfully operate against the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the help of ‘polite people,’ volunteer militia and Wagner formations. Since then, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have come a long way in quantitative and qualitative improvement. And now no “little green men” are a threat to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. As a result of a direct clash even between the Donetsk and Luhansk corps and the Armed Forces of Ukraine of the 2019 model, the corps is in for a quick catastrophe. Thus, the range of strategic choices for the Russian command has narrowed to the limit. Now a decisive success in battle against the Armed Forces of Ukraine can be ensured ONLY by the obvious, massive use of Russian troops with the massive use of aviation.75

Against the backdrop of the blockade of Donbass by Ukraine, periodically renewed shelling, corruption, redistribution of property within the elite of the DPR/LPR, the economic potential of the region has degraded most strongly. Even such an active past participant in the Russian Spring as Igor Strelkov is forced to admit in his recent interview a bitter fact: 

“In the Ukrainian regions, these people (pro-Russian citizens of Ukraine – M.L.) made up to half of the local population, and in some areas ( for example, in Odessa) – more. But, of course, over the past years, many of them were imprisoned, killed or crippled, many were forced to flee to the Russian Federation. And for the remaining 8 years, they rained down a wave of Ukrainian propaganda – moreover, total propaganda, comparable to Goebbels’ in scale, and using TV and the Internet, which Joseph Goebbels did not have. At the same time, one must understand that grains of truth were mixed with lies in this propaganda. And, looking from the other side of the Ukrainian border at the DPR and LPR, at their, let’s say, unenviable existence between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, people were convinced that they did not want such a fate for themselves. Thus, they received an additional incentive to listen to Ukrainian propaganda.”76

 This economic problem is also related to the issue of preserving the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine after 2014 saw that Russia first annexed Crimea, and then began to support the republics of the DNR/LNR, thereby calling into question the integrity of the Ukrainian state. Russia took part of the territories of Ukraine without offering the Ukrainians anything in return. Against the background of the almost complete dominance of the nationalist discourse in the Ukrainian media, in the period 2014-2022, the Western Ukrainian type of identity became dominant in the informational, political and educational space. Its legitimization was due to the struggle against the main enemy, as represented by “imperial Russia.”77

According to the Institute of Sociology of Ukraine, the number of people identifying themselves primarily as a “citizen of Ukraine” increased from 51% in 2013 to 65% in 2014, but then dropped again to 57% in 2017.78 Obviously, after February 24, 2022, this percentage increased again. Military conflict is the most important instrument of political mobilization within the nationalist project. Russia’s “military special operation” gives Ukrainian nationalists a complete ideological carte blanche since it is the material realization of their main idea about Russia as the main enemy of the Ukrainian nation.

However, it would be a mistake to talk about the existence of a certain common position of Ukrainians regarding the conflict in Donbass or joining NATO. Like any class society, Ukraine, given also its dramatic historical fate, remains polarized. If in 2007 the number of Ukrainians supporting Ukraine’s accession to NATO was 20%, then after the conflict of 2014-2015 the number of such people grew to 40%.79 This is a smaller part of society, but it is well organized and dominant, both in the informational and political space of the country.

Many Ukrainian writers try to prove that Ukrainian nationalism is civic in nature and is not aimed at the oppression of national minorities. Most often, evidence of the participation of people of different nationalities in the Euromaidan in 2014 is cited to confirm this (for example, the Armenian Sergey Nigoyan). The fact that the current President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky was born into a Ukrainian-Jewish family often plays in favor of this narrative.

Sociologists V. Ishchenko and O. Zhuravlev presented in one of their articles an analysis of Ukrainian identity through the prism of Maidan. They, following the well-known researcher R. Brubaker, try to overcome the simple binary division: 1. Civic nationalism (inclusive), which includes representatives of different peoples and religions in the civil community on the basis of common citizenship and political values; 2. Ethno-cultural nationalism (exclusive). This type of nationalism excludes “foreigners” from the borders of the nation, who have a different ethnic origin, religion, etc. in relation to the “real nation.” This division is a politicized scheme that opposes the West and the East, which act as carriers of different types of nationalism – “democratic” and “authoritarian.”According to Brubaker, these categories are devoid of analytical value. The civic model of a nation

…never has correspondence in reality, existing only as a conceptual ideal type… In essence, all understandings of nationality and all forms of nationalism are both inclusive and exclusive. The difference lies not in the very fact of inclusiveness and exclusivity, and not even in their degree, but in the grounds and criteria for inclusion and exclusion.80

Ishchenko and Zhuravlev, based on the analysis of numerous interviews with participants in the 2014 Euromaidan, come to the conclusion that Ukrainian nationalism, like most real nationalist movements, is of a mixed nature. In the rhetoric of Maidan supporters, contradictory theses coexist quite organically. Almost all interviewees declare that the events of 2014 united the nation, including among it people concerned with “freedom, civic dignity and European values,” and on the other hand, a clear boundary is drawn between West and East, Ukrainian and Russian/Soviet identities.81Ishchenko and Zhuravlev write:

Many scholars and intellectuals argue that after Euromaidan, Ukrainian nationalism has become more inclusive towards ethnic, linguistic and other minorities. However, there is no evidence of an increase in inclusiveness towards ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers.82

Anti-Maidan participants and residents of the LPR/DPR are portrayed as “sovki with a slave mentality,” preferring a stable philistine life and memories of “cheap sausages” in the Soviet era to the values of freedom and national dignity. In the words of one of the interviewees: “People who live in the east (Ukraine – approx. M.L.) are different from those who live in the center of the country. Their level of understanding, thinking and overall intelligence is lower. For this reason, it is difficult to communicate with them, they do not understand what they are told. These people… some are just stupid, some have succumbed to propaganda.”83

Thus, residents of the DPR/LPR are excluded from the borders of the Ukrainian nation due to the fact that they do not show loyalty to the nation state and do not support the values of Euromaidan. Within the framework of this logic, internally displaced persons from Donbass are deprived of the opportunity to participate in local elections.84 In 2020, in 10 communities in the territories of Donetsk and Lugansk regions controlled by Kyiv, the Ukrainian CEC temporarily canceled local elections, by decision of the military-civilian administrations. About 500,000 residents were unable to vote.85

The “image of the other” (in Ishchenko’s terminology) is the most important element in the development of the ideas of Ukrainian nationalism. Their own political and national identity is built in opposition to this mythologized image of the enemy.86 Participation in Euromaidan or support for its ideas is the fundamental mechanism of civic legitimation that separates “genuine Ukrainians” from “separatists.” Supporters of the DPR/LPR are not only excluded from the borders of the Ukrainian nation; they are also deprived of the status of full-fledged citizens, which justifies repressions against them.

It is important to note that it would be wrong to draw global conclusions only on the basis of sociological data, but they demonstrate well a certain section of the mass consciousness of the Euromaidan participants. The work of Ishchenko and Zhuravlev confirms Brubaker’s thesis: “…citizenship itself, by its nature, has not only an inclusive, but also an exclusive status. On a global scale, citizenship is an extremely powerful tool for social exclusion.”87

The dominant concept of the Ukrainian nation is built on the principles of anti-communism and anti-Sovietism, any actions of the “separatists” being considered in relation to the “imperial aggression” of Russia. The variant of Ukrainian national identity established after Euromaidan needs the image of Russia as the “main enemy” in order to conduct constant political mobilization. In this context, even despite its possible defeat in this conflict, the “military special operation” of the Russian army became a real gift of fate for Ukrainian nationalists against the backdrop of the political and economic failures of the post-Maidan Ukrainian government.

To date, none of the major political forces in Ukraine has supported the actions of the Russian Federation. The leader of the “pro-Russian” OP-FL (“Opposition Platform – For Life”) Yuriy Boyko, during the first week after the start of the military special operation, called for the start of peace negotiations, and on March 2 he condemned the “Russian aggression” and called on members of the OP-FL who are city mayors in the east of the country to not cooperate with the Russian army. Ilya Kiva, who ended up in Moscow, was expelled from the party for supporting the “special operation.”88

Apparently, the plan of the Russian military command was largely based on the expectation that the Ukrainian ruling class would split, and the mayors in the east of the country would ensure order in the rear of the Russian army. But everything turned out differently and the reason for this was serious mistakes in planning the operation and assessing the mood of the population in the east of the country. Many Ukrainians may have been opposed to the Kyiv authorities, but this did not mean at all that they would support Russian military actions against their country in 2022. 

Is it any wonder that after more than a month of fighting, there were no uprisings in the rear of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and that people in the territories occupied by Russia did not meet its troops with obvious approval (the exception being the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied after February 24)? Of course not. The Kremlin’s strategic plans are not clear, and cooperation with the new government will be severely punished by Kyiv if the Zelensky regime manages to reach some kind of compromise with Moscow.

Oleg Tsarev, a former deputy of the Party of Regions, who returned to Ukraine with a convoy of the Russian army, characterizes the mood of the population thus: 

As far as I could understand, people do not fully understand the goals of the special operation. It is stated that these goals are denazification and demilitarization, but what will follow this is not yet clear. People are afraid that the Russian army will fulfill its tasks and leave – after all, some high-ranking representatives of the Russian authorities openly speak about this – and nationalists, sorosites and other elements that led the country to its current state will return to power in Ukraine. If so, then those who cooperate with us will be punished. The current Ukrainian elites directly tell me this. Also, people in the liberated settlements speak directly about this. People have this picture in their heads – so they just run or hide in order to sit out this turbulence and then take the side of the winner.89

The Russian government, with its many years of maneuvers and compromises with “respectable partners” from Kyiv, Europe, and the United States, has undermined the belief of Ukrainians, like many Russians, in its ability to pursue to its conclusion a principled line at least to some extent in the interests of the majority of the population. It would seem that, based on common sense, Putin should have addressed the citizens of Ukraine with a clear message about the future of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia, but this is not the case. Without a clear answer to what the Russian army carries on its bayonets, it is impossible to attract the sympathy of Ukrainians.

So far, from what we see in official Russian media, there is an active appeal to anti-fascism and the traditions of the Great Patriotic War. It is no coincidence that one of the official goals of the military operation is “denazification”. The goal is quite just, given that in Ukraine, representatives of the ultra-right movement have access to the resources of state power and are included in the structure of the army.

The problem is that the very project of the political nation, as based on the Western Ukrainian political tradition, cultivates the “image of the enemy” in the face of Russians and Russia, thereby constantly provoking political tension. After the completion of the “military special operation”, the alternative version to Ukrainian identity will inevitably be considered to be external, i.e. a political project planted by the aggressor, which does not have any local soil under it.

The degree of hatred towards Russians and Russian culture in Ukraine will only grow, which will provoke mutual hostility among a significant part of Russians and Ukrainians. This has been actively facilitated all these past years by Russian official media, which cultivated chauvinism towards Ukrainians and Ukrainian culture. The wounds inflicted by Russian and Ukrainian propaganda will take a very long time to heal.

The modern ideology of the Russian political regime – “the Russian World” – has become a kind of mosaic involving the imperial paradigm, nationalism, Soviet patriotism and the civilizational approach. The core of this concept is the idea of the existence of a special Russian civilization, which must be protected from hostile civilizations. The confrontation is not due to the interests of certain political parties and social forces, but to fundamental contradictions between different types of civilizations. Western civilization is constantly striving to weaken Russia by limiting its sphere of influence. Therefore, the political confrontation between Russia and the West is a natural and inevitable fact. Here it is easy to notice the influence made on the ideologists of the Russian World by S. Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations, first published back in 1993.90

The roots of the concept of the “Russian World” lay in the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet social unit, during which 25 million Russians and Russian-speaking people found themselves outside the borders of Russia.91 The peculiarity of the historical situation was that a large Russian diaspora in the CIS was formed not by the departure of citizens from the state, but mainly as a result of the contraction of previously established borders.

In the 1990s Russian oligarchs and bureaucrats were actively involved in the redistribution of the Soviet economic inheritance; the fate of Russians in the Baltics or Ukraine was of little interest to them. But given the stabilization of Russian capitalism and the formation of a new ruling class – the bureaucracy, the security forces and part of the oligarchs of the 1990s – the foreign policy ambitions of the Russian Federation have naturally grown.

In 2001, with the support of the Russian authorities, the first World Congress of Compatriots was held, which set the goal of “preserving ethno-cultural identity and maintaining ties with the historical Motherland.”92 It is important to note that the definition of the category “Russian” included a cultural factor, and not an ethnic one, i.e. Russian is defined not by blood, but by language, culture and historical traditions.93 Thus, Russia tried to present itself as the main defender of Russian culture and Russian diasporas in other countries. Irredentist goals (Italian terre irredente – lands not liberated) were denied until 2014, the emphasis remaining on the preservation of cultural heritage and honouring the memory of veterans of the Great Patriotic War (the St. George’s Ribbon and Immortal Regiment campaigns).

The Russian presidential advisor and ideologist Vladislav Surkov describes the emergence of the Russian World idea with the following words:

When this idea was presented to me, what was the task? What to say about the empire, about our desire to expand, but at the same time without offending the global community and modern people.94

The 2014 crisis in Ukraine contributed to the rapid shift of the concept of the “Russian World” from the sphere of culture to the political plane. The annexation of Crimea was the first irredentist action of the Kremlin, which testified to the intention of the Russian leadership to revise post-Soviet borders. In my opinion, it would be wrong to talk about the existence of some clear-cut plan, which was implemented after Maidan in 2014. The Kremlin was largely forced to respond to a serious political challenge, relying on the previously developed discourse of the Russian World. Between 2015-2021 the Russian leadership, apparently, could not completely decide to take new steps along the chosen path, trying to preserve room for maneuver for itself. But on February 24, 2022, the Rubicon was crossed.

Of course, the idea of the “Russian World” is devoid of political neutrality. It acts as a symbolic tool of the Russian ruling class, aimed at ideological legitimation of its actions both within the country and in the international arena. According to Surkov: 

We are a divided people, our influence extends much further than the borders of the country. The Russian world is where people speak Russian, respect Russian culture, where our Putin is respected, and there are many of those who respect him. It is where they are afraid of Russian weapons, this is also our influence. Where our scientists, writers, art is respected – this is all elements of the Russian world. Not every nation has that kind of influence.95

In the context of Huntington’s ideas, it is worth asking the question, what kind of clash of civilizations can we talk about in the case of the conflict in Ukraine? Russians and Ukrainians belong to the same Orthodox community. 

The Russian president has repeatedly said that the Ukrainian leadership is not independent in its decisions, being instead completely subordinate to external control. Thus, the Ukrainian state is seen as a weapon in the hands of the US and the EU, which is directed against Russia. With regard to Ukraine, any kind of political and national subjectivity is denied. Russians and Ukrainians are one people and the task of the Kremlin is to convince the population of Ukraine that they are being deceived.

Russian irredentism transcends ethnic boundaries, relying on imperial and Soviet state traditions. In his article, Putin returns to the imperial concept of a large Russian nation. At the same time, it cannot be said that the population of Ukraine completely denies this view. According to a social survey in July 2021, 41% of the polled citizens of Ukraine agreed with Putin’s recent statement that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people who belong to the same historical and spiritual space.” The regional spread of opinions is quite natural: Western Ukraine – 70% do not agree with the thesis of the President of the Russian Federation; in the East, 60% agree.96 However, the big question is whether the supporters of this unity in Ukraine would agree to unite with the “Russian world” through military means?

After the start of the “military special operation” in Ukraine, Putin said nothing about the future borders of the Ukrainian state. On the contrary, he stated that in the near future the fate of the Ukrainian statehood itself could be put to question. The conflict itself is seen by Putin as a struggle between Russia and a hostile Ukrainian state, which is being used as a weapon by NATO against Moscow. In many ways, this is true, but if until February 24, the Kremlin constantly emphasized that a civil conflict was being fought in Ukraine, now the confrontation has clearly reached the level of a military conflict between two different countries.

However, this does not remove the following question: how is the Kremlin going to win the sympathy of Ukrainians by calling into question their statehood and the independence of the Ukrainian political nation? As one of the former leaders of the Ukrainian socialist organization “Borotba” S. Kirichuk rightly noted: 

In any military outcome of the campaign (in the event of a complete military victory of the RF Armed Forces or the signing of imposed agreements), any existing pro-Russian forces will be marginalized. The invasion cements the Ukrainian identity in its most nationalistic form (against which, allegedly, a struggle is being waged). The current state of affairs has shown the most chauvinistic circles of Ukrainian politics and the US administration to have been right, since they argued that it was necessary to prepare for a Russian invasion, while the “sensible” part suggested not to whip up panic.97

The cult of the Great Patriotic War is not capable of uniting Ukrainians and Russians. Although, according to sociological surveys in 2021, the share of Ukrainians who have a positive attitude towards May 9 (Victory Day) averages 62.2%: in West Ukraine – 36.4%, in Central Ukraine – 71.1%, Eastern Ukraine – 68.7% , Southern Ukraine – 85.3%.98 The French thinker Ernest Renan wrote that a nation is formed out of two components – the myth of the great past and the myth of the great future:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things that are essentially one make up this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other is in the future. One is the common possession of a rich heritage of memories, the other is a common agreement, a desire to live together, to continue to share the undivided inheritance that has been inherited <…> A nation, like individuals, is the result of continuous efforts, sacrifices and self-denial. Ancestor worship is the most legitimate of all; our ancestors made us what we are today. The heroic past, the great people, glory (but real glory) – this is the main capital on which the national idea is based. To have common glory in the past, common desires in the future, to accomplish great deeds together, to desire them in the future – these are the main conditions for being a people.99

The Kremlin is trying to actively broadcast the idea of the great glorious past of Russians and Ukrainians as part of the Old Russian state, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, but at the same time it completely forgets about the second component – the project of a “great future”. The strength of the Soviet political project was that it tried to construct political nations within the framework of a single Soviet community that built a communist society.

However, the crisis of national politics in the late USSR was expressed in the slow degradation of the common Soviet identity, and the almost complete predominance of national feelings in the minds of Soviet citizens in the union republics (the Baltic states, the South Caucasus). Putin’s ideology is devoid of any project of a common future for Ukrainians and Russians, which makes it extremely vulnerable, since it is unlikely that it will be possible to build a stable political structure simply on the basis of the memory of the victories of the USSR in the Great Patriotic War.

The politico-technological imitation of the Great Patriotic War by the Kremlin in these new conditions is only a repetition of the mistakes of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, who knew how to work only with the population of southern and eastern Ukraine. Over years of protests on Maidan, methods of political self-organization and street struggle have become established in Ukrainian society, which will be a big headache for the pro-Russian government in Kyiv if the conflict ends in a Russian victory. People need at least a remote hope for a better future, and the fate of Ukraine as an expanded version of the LPR/DPR is unlikely to attract a lot of Ukrainians to Russia’s side.

Putin, of course, is not a professional historian, and all his ideas on this issue are imbued with a deeply conspiratorial idea about how foreign states, starting from the 17th century, developed the Ukrainian national project in order to annoy Russia. However, unlike most people, the president of Russia has the opportunity not only to analyze history, but to create it by his actions, which is what he is actually doing now. Historical analogies have their limits and it would be a mistake to equate imperial and modern Russia. There are too many differences. At the same time, the common features of a personalized management system are obvious – staking everything on a single historical past, instead of a well-thought-out project of a new future within a single community.

An important difference between the foreign policy of modern and imperial Russia is that the expansion of the empire in the 18th – 19th centuries was carried out on the basis of the interests of the bureaucratic monarchical state, the ruling class of which was based on the estate, and not national principle. The modern political regime in Russia operates within the logic of national-cultural irredentism: the unification of people of Russian culture within the framework of one political space. The broad borders of the Russian nation allow the authorities to sidestep uncomfortable questions about the role of ethnicity.

I repeat that, in my opinion, Putin’s historical text is not just an ideological cover for some economic interests, which, of course, matter, but is in fact a reflection of the deep conviction of the President of Russia and the ruling elite in the existence of a large Russian nation, or in other words, the “Russian world,” the unity of which needs to be restored.

The difficulty of this task lies in the fact that without a well-thought-out socio-economic and cultural policy in the interests of the majority of the population, it will hardly be possible to simply impose on Ukrainians a new political project of a federal Ukraine. Thus, the Kremlin today has no good solutions before it, just a bad one (win this conflict and control Ukraine and Ukrainians militarily) and a very bad option (make peace without overthrowing the Zelensky regime). The near future will put everything in its place.

Maxim Lebsky , 04/17/2022

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