Eastern Ukraine is at the moment a quicksand society. What is true today was not so yesterday and will likely have changed again tomorrow. People who a day ago spoke for Ukrainian unity are today advocating separation. Crowds that are invisible now might make history tomorrow. Nothing demonstrates this shifty picture better than the sudden appearance of Renat Akhmetov’s miner troops, who have answered the pro-Russian separatists with counterdemonstrations in various important towns and have retaken control of much of embattled Mariupol. It is less the case that people have changed their opinion about where they want the Donbass to go (even though that is happening too), and more the case that conditions are so precarious on the ground that people voice their opinion only when they feel protected by powerful sponsors (who are prone to change their mind according to opportunity). In such fast-changing times it is sometimes more productive to take the long view than to analyze recent events. History is a more useful tool for understanding Eastern Ukraine at the moment than speculations about the back and forth of the current power struggle. First, history demonstrates that Eastern Ukraine is not a society divided by different national allegiances but rather a society that has a fluid and liminal concept of nationality. Second, history shows that Eastern and Western Ukraine have many things in common – but that it is precisely these commonalities that have led to mutual alienation and forced the country apart.
The Donbass was the site of one of the big Soviet industrialization drives of the 1930s, which drafted hundreds and thousands of workers into the region. Most of the new coal miners came from neighbouring Russian provinces (which in previous decades had seen Ukrainians settle in their territory), but many others came from all over the Soviet Union, including the Caucasian and Central Asian Republics. The identity that formed in the Donbass region was truly Soviet – despite the fact that every Soviet citizen had to declare his or her nationality in their passports. Yet in the Donbass what mattered was work in the mines and the fact that almost every single family owed their social rise from peasantry to working class to the Soviet state. National identity – might it be Russian, Ukrainian, Uzbek, or Armenian – was subordinate to the Soviet superstructure. That meant that its definition was extremely fluid. There is no answer to the question if the Donbass is Russian or Ukrainian. Until quite recently the question did not even exist. Identities at the moment are made up as events proceed. And they remain in flux, which is both a problem and a possible solution. All of this makes the Donbass sound very different to Western Ukraine, which until 1941 was not even part of the Soviet Union, and is quite sure of its Ukrainian nationhood. Yet one should not forget that all of Ukraine, west and east, were part of the Soviet Union during the crucial postwar years. One of the hallmarks of late Soviet times was an extensive celebration of the World War II, the Great Fatherland War. The Soviet victory was commemorated as a national victory over fascism, saving both the Soviet Union and the world from Nazi domination in all its forms. The tightly controlled narrative left little room for the more contentious aspects of the war, namely the question of collaboration, the role of Ukrainian nationalists and the Holocaust, all of which were covered with a blanket of silence in Soviet times. This silence has in many ways continued. In Western Ukraine, nationalist resistance has been rehabilitated, yet without many of the probing questions about the nationalist movement in the past. In the East the Soviet narrative continues to dominate. This silence about their shared past means East and West stare at each other in mutual non-understanding. This silence means each side accuses the other of anti-Semitism and fascism, while denying the existence of either in their own ranks. And this silence makes East and West truly fear each other. And fear and non-understanding are at the very root of what drives the Ukrainian crisis.
—Juliane Fürst is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Bristol and currently a fellow at Harvard’s Davis Center. She is the author of Stalin’s Last Generation: Soviet Post-War Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism