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Back to the Future – Return to Ruthenia

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Back to the Future – Return to Ruthenia


From the Editor Reflection on the figure of General Vlasov, which has been the subject of a recent discussion on the Russkiy Mir Foundation website, gives rise to a multitude of serious questions. Are we certain of the standards that we have grown used to in approaching our own history? Where does “our own” end and “foreign” begin? What is and is not treason? Where are the boundaries of one’s own identity? These are just some of the questions that inevitably arise when referring to a controversial moment in our history. It is no secret that the last question, which includes in itself all the previous ones, is more acute in Ukraine than in Russia. Andrei Marchukov of the Institute for Russian History (Russian Academy of Sciences), who holds a PhD in History, discusses the most promising national identity project for contemporary Ukrainian society.

In recent years it has become a tradition that historical events with any degree of significance are given careful attention by Ukrainian authorities and that these events become a pretext for yet another political campaign with far-reaching foreign and domestic policy objectives.

Two events that did not go unnoticed this past August and September were the anniversary of the signing of the nonaggression treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Second World War. The nationalists and the Ukrainian authorities who support them readily joined the chorus of well-known voices that angrily condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as “immoral,” accusing the Soviet Union for the outbreak of war. In this case, however, they are reluctant to return Galicia and Western Volyn to Poland, Northern Bukovina and Southern Bessarabia to Romania (and at the same time give up Transcarpathia). This reluctance comes despite the fact that the entry of these territories into the Soviet Union (specifically into the Ukrainian SSR) was made possible thanks to the agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union (and later the Soviet Union’s victory in the war).

The object of massive falsification was the wars themselves – the Great Patriotic War and World War II. Their interpretation over the past eighteen years has changed radically. Ukrainian authorities and the intelligentsia supporting them use two opposing interpretations of the war: one for the international community and the other for their own citizens. The first holds that Ukraine was a fighter against Nazism and a participant in the anti-Hitler coalition (and as an independent entity rather than a republic of the USSR).

Its own citizens are indoctrinated by something else, namely, that Ukraine was a victim of two equivalent totalitarian regimes (Hitler and Stalin) and that the heroes of the war were not the Red Army and Soviet partisans, but rather the soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (under the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – together the OUN-UPA) and the division of the SS Galicia, who allegedly fought for the country’s independence “against two enemies.” A symbolic act became President Yushchenko’s awarding Roman Shukhevych, commander of the UPA, the title of Hero of Ukraine.

Thus, the USSR is the equivalent of the Third Reich, and its victory is presented as another enslavement of the Ukrainian people by Russia. The desire to once again present Ukraine not as a winner but as a victim becomes obsessive.
In 2010, we will mark the 65th anniversary of the Victory in Great Patriotic War. We can say one thing for sure: the celebratory events in Russia will take place extensively and at the highest state level. But how this anniversary date will be marked in Ukraine is the big question. Of course, for the overwhelming majority of people, especially in Eastern, Southern and Central Ukraine, it will remain as the Day of Victory. At the same time there will certainly be a lot of people for whom this day won’t be a holiday. But the main thing is the position the government will take in Ukraine. And this is well known.

What caused the insistence on reconsidering the meaning of the war for Ukraine? Everything is very clear: the memory of the war plays a huge role in the choice individuals and society make in terms of their national and political identities. One evaluation of the war or another and the attitude as to who was “ours” and who was “foreign” among its participants was previously a highly important identity marker for Ukrainians; it has become one now as well. But the nerve of history in this land over the past five centuries is a problem of choosing a national identity and, as a consequence, of choosing the path of development. Ukraine today once again finds itself at the crossroads.

Historically, the choice has taken the form of conflicts between the various national projects. They include the development of a national identity, its promulgation among a given population and the formation of a nation in accordance with the chosen type.

The creation of various “national concepts of the past” is an essential element in the national projects. And since Ukraine continues to witness a confrontation of identities, then the rewriting of history, including the history of the war, will almost certainly continue. Those who are disturbed by this trend are doomed to defeat in this confrontation until they are able to carry out their struggle on something more than the ideological level. 

Why? Because it is not just a matter of the politics of Yushchenko, Tymoshenko or the state machinery as a whole; it is a matter of the identity on which this machine “works” and in turn replicates itself.

People who are in favor of glorifying the OUN-UPA call themselves (and are) Ukrainian nationalists and contemporary advocates of the Ukrainian project that emerged in the middle of the 19th century. Its goal was to create a specific nation-state organism of “Ukraine” and a Ukrainian nation that was “non-Russian” by definition (which can be seen at least in the name conceived for this nation). The entire worldview of supporters of Ukrainianism and the practice of nation-building is based on this presumption – on opposition to everything Russian. Opposition to everything Russian does not mean opposition to everything “associated with the country of Russia” and the deep layers of history and culture of the people (Ukrainian, in modern terminology), including the historic Great Russian and Ruthenian (as its regional subspecies) consciousness and identity.

Over time, the Ukrainian project was supplemented with new sacred landmarks and national myths. The myth about the OUN-UPA was one component of its ideology right alongside another: linguistic oppression, Russian colonial oppression, original ethnic differences between Ukrainians and Russian, famines, etc.

In offering (actually, forcing) a Ukrainian identity to the people, adherents of this project serve it all together, “in a package,” so to speak. Accepting one part while refusing another is impossible – and not only for fear of being accused of “national inadequacy.” The national project operates under the logic that if one considers himself a “Ukrainian,” that is, someone whose identity is non-Russian, and if in varying degrees one accepts all of its main components (e.g., the concept of history, language, cult figures and attitudes toward Russia), there is no moral reason to refuse to invest oneself in “the struggle for Ukraine” that was carried out by interwar and postwar nationalists.

To this it can be argued that their ideal of Ukraine was very different, first of all, from the ideal that the Ukrainian movement at the beginning of the 20th century had, and especially from the ideal in the 19th century. Secondly, it was very different from the understanding that the greater mass of the country’s population now holds.

The first assertion is unconvincing. Although the ideology of the OUN contains a lot from Nazism and fascism (which was then a pan-European characteristic), its essence, main objectives and principles (including the anti-Russian ones) were worked out precisely by the Ukrainian movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. In interwar Galicia they became even more brutal. And regarding the second assertion it should be noted that the “not like the nationalists” understanding of Ukraine was the result of the impact of Soviet life and Soviet identity (Soviet-Ukrainian as its local variation). Therefore, the Ukrainian nationalists perceive this identity as a distortion of the “true” (from their point of view) shape of the nation.

This identity (awareness of oneself as a Soviet man) meant belonging to the huge public, historical and cultural space of the Soviet Union. Like any other, it had its heroes and its key milestones (naturally belonging to the Soviet period). These included the creation of industrial and scientific potential, the entry into space, building a society based on social justice and, of course, victory in the war and the Soviet Union’s mission of liberation in Europe and the world.

But the USSR disappeared, and the civil and national identity went after it. All that remained was the memory of belonging to the historical world of Soviet Russia. The Soviet-Ukrainian identity was merely a vestige, and only a new state, similar to the USSR, would be able to revive it. Yet this is not forthcoming. The Soviet-Ukrainian consciousness will therefore disappear – both under the influence of time and under pressure from an aggressive Ukrainian project. Industrialization and social justice has already been discredited; remaining now is the Victory and the entry into space.

One can, of course, give up and assimilate to the type of Ukrainian nation envisioned by the Ukrainian project. But recent Ukrainian history shows that this is something that millions of its citizens do not want. Important to them are different values, and the have heros who are different from those offered by Ukrainianism. Where is the exit?

The exit for the Ukrainian people is in the return to their roots. Nationalism can be defeated only by another nationalism. Presently, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine sees the collision of several identities. On the one hand, there is the national Ukrainian identity; on the other (except for the rudimentary Soviet-Ukrainian identity), there is Ruthenian identity, which is increasing in popularity. Here we see something that is a real alternative to the Ukrainian project, which is why the followers of Ukrainianism hate Ruthenianism.

“Ruthenia” is not just another name for “Ukraine” but an alternative to it in the national and public sphere. It is not just a matter of name but in fact of a completely different identity. There are completely different heros, criteria for “good and evil,” visions of the past, attitudes toward Russia and other parts of the Russian world, and, of course, to the Great Patriotic War.

It is impossible to take hold of the people’s consciousness by merely defending against the attacks of Ukrainian nationalists. Victory can only be assured by an offensive on the ideological and national field, and this must be addressed in the construction of a Ruthenian and common Russian identity and its promulgation among the intelligentsia and the people (just like adherents of the Ukrainian project do with the Ukrainian identity). Moreover, highlighting the key points will be much easier, as historical truth is on the side of Ruthenianness (and, furthermore, many people’s understanding of their own “Ukrainianness” is, in essence, analogous to Ruthenianism).

It is important to understand that a return “from Ukraine to Ruthenia” should become a national project aimed not at momentary success but for the long term. Only in this way will we be able to preserve our values, the memory of our ancestors and identity – both individual and national. If, of course, there is the desire.


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