For centuries Russians have both condescended to Ukrainians and refused to recognize Ukraine as distinct, writes Dr. Vitaly Chernetsky.
Ideological narratives that guide contemporary politics often have very deep historical roots, reaching back not just for decades, but for centuries. Although social science tells us that modern nations are a recent product, only about 200 years old, their origins, and narratives of origins, go much deeper. When a portion of Ukraine was incorporated into the Muscovite state in the mid-17th century, these two cultures saw each other as distinctly different from one another. A tragic paradox is that among the ideologues of the ascending Russian Empire in the 18th century there were many educated Ukrainians who de-emphasized this difference, in part to assure their own legitimacy as participants in building the Russian imperial project. The ascent of imperial Russia combined with both the colonization and the provincialization of Ukraine. By the 19th century, Ukraine was seen in Russia (including by many Ukrainians) as something quaint, colorful, with a romantic past, but with no prospects for a meaningful future, much like Scotland or Ireland. The Russian imperial narrative, by contrast, was seen as future-oriented, much like in the case of Western colonial empires. It took the passionate writings of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, born a serf, whose bicentennial is marked this month, to start radically changing the Ukrainian discourse. Russian authorities saw him as very dangerous, and treated him with extreme brutality. Shevchenko’s writing deserves to be much wider known and appreciated internationally, because he is one of the first and most powerful spokespersons for global anti-colonial solidarity.
Over the course of the past 200 years, a new modern Ukrainian national identity was being forged. At the same time, the dominant Russian ideological narrative has been that Ukrainians are but a (lesser) branch of the Russian nation, that there is no such thing as a distinct Ukrainian language (with Russia nevertheless acting to restrict and ban the use of this language), that Ukraine and Ukrainians as a separate entity are an aberration on Russian territory. For all the absurdity of this view, quite many people in Russia still subscribe to it. Alternatively, others follow the Soviet practice of recognizing ethnic difference but rejecting the possibility of a distinct and uniting Ukrainian civic national identity. This makes Russian colonialist attitude to Ukraine different from the colonialist attitude towards the Caucasus or Central Asia. Their otherness is not disputed when they are treated with racist prejudice. In the case of Ukraine and Ukrainians, there is both condescension from Russia and a refusal to recognize Ukraine as something truly distinct. By contrast, the West has struggled to develop a coherent narrative of what Ukraine and Ukrainians are and where they belong, even though this is a country in Europe the size of France. While this can be seen to a degree as a shortcoming of the Ukrainians themselves, the events of both 2004-2005 and of the latest several months emphasize that the West needs to discard stereotypes and look at the people and events not only in Ukraine, but in the broader region of Eastern Europe. Thankfully, there are indications that the earlier misperceptions that handicapped the formulation of a coherent Western policy on Ukraine are now being discarded. Most importantly, the recent months witnessed a rapid acceleration of the development of a modern united civic Ukrainian identity that transcends ethnic difference and emphasizes Ukraine’s rightful place as an equal member of the family of nations which seeks, and deserves, to live in peace with all its neighbors.
—Vitaly Chernetsky, an associate professor at The University of Kansas, is the author of Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine in the Context of Globalization, co-winner of the Prize for Best Book given by the American Association for Ukranian Studies. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote about Ukraine for 2paragraphs recently here.