Little Russia, big dreams

At the third anniversary of the downing of MH17 Alexander Zakharchenko rebaptised his People's Republic Donetsk in 'Malorossia' (Little Russia) and declared it the only legal successor state of Ukraine, with Donetsk as capital. He took his neighbours by surprise and the Kremlin officially dismissed the idea. What to think about this new bizarre development in the murky war in Eastern Ukraine? 

by Maxim Edwards

Another breakaway state has been born in eastern Ukraine. At least in theory.

On july 18, Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People’s Republic', declared the Federation of Malorossiya. The state-in-waiting is to encompass all provinces comprising today’s Ukraine (some sources say just 19 of them), with the important exception of Crimea. Its capital will remain Donetsk, with Kyiv as a centre of 'historical-cultural importance' without official status.

Aleksandr Zakharchenko takes an oath of office as the PM of Donetsk Peoples RepublicAlexander Zakharchenko, leader of Malorossiya

Zakharchenko’s first priority is to declare a three-year state of emergency to 'avoid utter chaos' and to launch an investigation into 'the crimes committed in the Donbas, on the Maidan and in Odessa'. Once drafted, a referendum will be held on the Malorossiyan constitution.

While the internal politics of both the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are tightly controlled by Moscow, apparently even Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s man for overseeing the Donbas, was caught off-guard. As presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it, Russia’s leadership came to know about 'Malorossiya' through the news.

Malorossiya must encompass all provinces of Ukraine, with the important exception of Crimea

Whether that’s at all plausible depends to a large extent on whether 'Malorossiya' really matters — after the failure of the Novorossiya project, which set its sights on all eastern and southern Ukraine and resurrected another moniker from Russian imperial history, this successor seems farcical at best. Even Luhansk isn’t convinced. The Chairman of the LNR’s national council Vladimir Degataryenko says he and his colleagues would’ve dismissed the idea even earlier, had they only known about it. [The Russian former FSB-officer] Igor Strelkov [former minister of Defense of the People's Republic], who is soon to debate Russian opposition leader Navalny, curtly remarked that the whole story was a 'sad farce'.

Zakharchenko couldn’t have chosen a more delicate moment for his announcement. It is the third anniversary since flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 on board. Meanwhile in Kyiv, there’s talk in the Rada of plans to abolish the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) zone, as Kyiv refers to those areas of the Donbas under its control. And another round of peace talks commenced in Minsk.

Little Russians

Malorossiya translates as 'Little Russia', and much like 'Novorossiya' (New Russia), it’s a historically and politically charged term. Tsarist administrators often applied the term to what was once the Cossack Hetmanate and what is now the Republic of Ukraine, referring to the local inhabitants as 'Little Russians'.

By the late 19th century, the term became newly politicised against the backdrop of a growing Ukrainian national movement. In response to the Polish Uprisings of the 1860s and the tide of nationalism sweeping Europe, the concept of a triune Russian nation developed — an attempt to make a pseudo nation-state of a disparate and diverse empire. That’s a project many believe to be unfinished in Russia to this day.

Little Russia was the well-behaved Ukraine of this imaginary, and one of three inseparable members of a supranational Russian identity alongside White Russians (Belarusians) and Great Russians (guess who).

Apart from its name, the only other thing we know of the symbolism of this nascent 'state' is its flag. Zakharchenko has decreed it to be a variant of that flown by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the famous Cossack leader who led a revolt against Poland-Lithuania in the mid-17th century. Khmelnytsky features prominently in both Ukrainian and Russian tales of glory, though complicates both. Any visitor to Ukraine will have seen his face on the azure five hryvnia banknote, and passed his monument in central Kyiv.

While Khmelnytsky may have freed what is now Ukraine from the Polish nobility, his reputation in Ukraine is not entirely untarnished. In 1654, Khmelnytsky concluded the Treaty of Pereyaslav, in which his Cossack Hetmanate vowed allegiance to the Russian Tsar. Unsurprisingly, this goes down well in Russian statist-nationalist historiography, in which Khmelnytsky is seen as a unifier of Eastern Slavic lands.

The Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who called for his rehabilitation in a 1907 essay, struggled to turn Khmelnytsky into a national hero and eventually relented — other Ukrainian cultural figures such as Taras Shevchenko were appalled at the prospect from the start. Khmelnytsky’s role in the slaughter of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jews further complicates his glorification.

Come Soviet rule in Ukraine, Khmelnytsky was derided as a 'traitor of the Ukrainian peasantry', who sold them from one feudal lord to another. He was later rehabilitated by Stalin, who stressed that Ukraine’s annexation by Russia was a lesser evil, thus restoring to favour the Russian imperialist approach.

A vivid imagination

This is rich historic symbolism. Political scientist Alexei Chesnakov told TASS that the project seemed 'more literary than political', predicting that despite the furore, 'in a month’s time, everybody will have forgotten about Malorossiya, including the authors of the idea'.

There may well have been some literary input; Ukrainian academic Vladimir Fesenko believes that the 'Malorossiya' declaration was mostly concocted by ultranationalist Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin, an outspoken supporter of the DNR and erstwhile participant in the conflict. In a candid interview, Prilepin says that he and Zakharchenko genuinely 'wanted to create a surprise' for Moscow, Kyiv and Washington with the declaration [who is Zakhar Prilepin?]

Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin became military consultant of Zakharchenko.

As Prilepin put it, 'factually, we can’t be called separatists anymore, since we’re actually standing up for united statehood within the borders of what used to be called Ukraine'. A spokesperson for the DNR, Alexander Timofeyev, even went as far as to declare that the Malorossiya project is in complete agreement with the Minsk Accords, as it respects the principle of Ukrainian territorial integrity. 'Malorossiya is a multi-ethnic state which respects regional rights and whose official languages are Russian and Malorossiyan [meaning Ukrainian],' he continued.

Alexander Zakharchenko: 'The Donbas may never join Ukraine, but the rest of Ukraine can join the Donbas' 

In a Facebook post elaborating on the project, Prilepin suggested that Malorossiya would continue the legal personality of Ukraine prior to the events of EuroMaidan. The new state would assume no responsibility for loans taken out by the post-Maidan leadership, though strangely would 'keep the visa-free regime with the EU (on the latter’s agreement)'. Among many other proposals, Malorossiya would also commit to 'neutrality' and re-apply for membership in the CIS.

Zakharchenko put it the most succinctly, with the formulation that 'the Donbas may never join Ukraine, but the rest of Ukraine can join the Donbas'. Later on, Surkov also commented on the project, hailing it as a 'movement for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, not its disintegration'.

This is at the heart of the matter: the Malorossiya project is not solely a renaming of the DNR and LNR, nor is it an attempt to forge an alternative statehood based on a supposed regional identity, as in the case of Novorossiya. It’s the most grudging admission of Ukrainian distinctiveness which Russian imperialism can muster.

The Kremlin is gearing up for presidential elections in 2018, and as always there is a strong ethnic nationalist presence among Russia’s opposition. If Moscow does decide to endorse Malorossiya, a move Zakharchenko still awaits, it’s not inconceivable that there’d be some electoral benefit in a tired contest which has even Putin’s most skilled political technologists scratching their heads.

The Ukraine you want me to be

Few will buy Prilepin’s argument that by virtue of this sleight of hand, Zakharchenko is no longer a 'separatist'. Even Boris Gryzlov has stated that 'Malorossiya' clearly goes against the principles of the Minsk negotiations, in which he is Russia’s representative.

As I wrote in 2014, the DNR’s leaders evoked Russophone, neo-Soviet and Donbas regional identities in the symbolism chosen for their 'state'. Coal-miners, Cossacks and neo-Soviet patriotism held sway over this decidedly 'non-national' territory, whose strong local identity was rooted in the rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the early Soviet period.

In the standoff between irreconcilable narratives of the events of 2014, some pro-Russian citizens in the Donbas played around with the marginal identity of 'little Russian-ness'. Pavel Gubarev, the former 'people’s governor' of Donetsk, was an avowed 'little Russian', using a contradictory bricolage of symbols from both Tsarist and Soviet history to voice his hatred of what he saw as 'Galician Fascism' of the Ukrainian state.

Particularly in the worldview of western Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians, the Donbas and its residents have long played the role of a lumpen Homo Sovieticus, preventing the remainder of the country from achieving its European destiny. These attitudes have been keenly felt by IDPs from Ukraine’s east. By 2016, some commentators had begun to openly wonder whether the loss of Donbas might be a blessing in disguise for Kyiv.

The idea that Ukraine has always been cleft in two irreconcilable halves is simplistic at best. But as the war drags on, it’s not without some traction in Donetsk, Kyiv and of course, Moscow. Malorossiya, then, is in its way an admission of 'friendly Ukraine' — albeit one palatable to Russian nationalists.

The irony is that due to its actions in Crimea and the Donbas, Moscow has lost the possibility of the pliant 'friendly Ukraine' it so craves — whether it’s known as Malorossiya, or by another other name.

This article was published by oDR (Open Democracy Russia).

Maxim Edwards is Commissioning Editor at oDR (Open Democracy Russia). He writes on nationalism, migration, minorities and memory, with a focus on post-Soviet countries. His articles have appeared in Al-Jazeera, Al Monitor, Souciant and the Forward among other publications.

Wekelijkse update?

Iedere donderdag uitgelichte artikelen in uw mailbox

Eerst doorlezen? U kunt zich ook later aanmelden via de home pagina.

Als u in uw browser de cookies blokkeert, ziet u deze popup steeds weer. Daarvoor excuus.