'Oekraïne ontworstelt zich aan de slavische Ummah'

De Amerikaans-Oekraïense historicus Alexander Motyl sprak met de Oekraïense politiek en cultureel analist Mykola Rjabtsjoek over de Oekraïense identiteit, tweetaligheid, de emancipatie van Slavia Orthodoxa en de overlevingskansen van Oekraïne na de breuk met Rusland.

door Alexander Motyl

You’ve written extensively about Ukraine’s bifurcated identity – about those Ukrainians who identify with Ukraine and those who don’t. Has that division been overcome by the Euromaidan Revolution?

'First of all, to be more precise, I have never implied that there is any significant number of Ukrainians who do not identify themselves with Ukraine. All the opinion surveys say the opposite, and the 90% support for Ukrainian independence in the 1991 national referendum proved nearly full consensus in this regard. The bifurcation comes actually not from any lack of patriotism among the majority of Ukrainian citizens (only 6% of respondents today claim they are not patriots of Ukraine). The bifurcation results from different notions of what Ukraine means, who is our main “Other” and main “Ours”, what was Ukraine’s past and what should be its desirable future.

'The main divide is determined not by a different level of Ukrainian loyalty and patriotism but by a different level of mental emancipation from the imagined East Slavonic, Orthodox Christian community – supraethnic quasi-spiritual entity (like Muslim “ummah”) constructed three hundred years ago. It was Peter the Great who fused the political (“Russian”) identity of his new-born empire with the traditional religious (“Rus”) identity of Slavia Orthodoxa. As the result, the empire was sacralized and the religion “imperialized”. This type of identity was inculcated in Russians and substantial part of Ukrainians and Belarusians who were officially redefined as subgroups of “Russians” (“almost the same people”, in today’s Putin’s parlance). The problem with this type of identity is not only that it precludes a development of a separate Ukrainian (or Belarusian) national identity but also facilitates and actually legitimizes their repression. Still worse, it precludes a development of the modern Russian national identity insofar as it is tightly connected to premodern, paternalistic, etatist, non-civic, conservative (if not overtly reactionary) and profoundly anti-Western values deemed officially “traditional” and “authentic”.

Ukraine's identity split

'Within the past two centuries, Ukrainians advanced significantly in their emancipation from this archaic supra-ethnic community (slightly redefined by the Soviets in ideological, but sill quasi-religious terms). Yet, the level and speed of the emancipation appeared unequal in different parts of the country (being much more successful on the territories outside Russian/Soviet control) and in different strata of society. So, the main identity split or, as you put it, bifurcation stems not from different levels of patriotism or support for national independence but from different levels of emancipation from the East Slavonic “ummah”. One part of Ukrainian society has nothing to do with this mythical imaginary community – exactly like Poles, or Czechs, or any other European nation. Whereas the other part of society has residual loyalties, of different intensity, to that virtual world. I cannot say these loyalties undermine their Ukrainian identity and patriotism but they definitely undermine their openness to the West and to modern, liberal democratic, anthropocentric values that have a clear Western provenance, at least in our part of the globe.


Demonstranten sliepen tijdens Euromaidan maandenlang in het stadhuis aan de Chresjtsjatik in Kiev

'Euromaidan and, especially, the ensuing Russian aggression have subverted substantially Ukrainian imaginary belonging to the mythical East Slavonic “brotherhood”. The ambiguous double loyalty on the part of Ukrainian society has noticeably decreased, even though not vanished completely since the attachment to the imaginary East Slavonic / Orthodox Christian community is not, and has never been, tantamount to political loyalty to Russia. So, I would say – and opinion surveys confirm it – that Ukrainian society is less ambiguous today and that Ukrainian identity becomes increasingly civic rather than ethnic, and increasingly incompatible with supra-ethnic, essentially non-civic, quasi-religious, East Slavonic identity.'

How have the ongoing war with Russia and the loss, whether permanent or temporary, of Crimea and eastern Donbas affected Ukrainian identity and Ukrainian perceptions of Russians?

'With the occupied territories, Ukraine lost approximately 10% of the population. For the most part, it was population with predominantly Soviet, or East Slavonic, or genuinely Russian identity, so the demographic change was both quantitative and qualitative. But the rest of the population has also underwent substantial changes. I have mentioned already the noticeable increase of civic unity and civic identity, as reflected by both the opinion surveys and developments on the ground. And the residual attachment to the imaginary East Slavonic community has noticeably decreased. At the same time, the Ukrainians’ attitude toward Russians remains rather positive – in contrast to the opposite, highly negative Russians’ attitude toward Ukrainians. The reason is probably two-fold. First, the Ukrainian media do not practice hate speech and propagandistic brainwashing on the scale of the Russian media. And secondly, Ukrainians are much less inclined to identify the people with the state; their record-high negative attitude toward Russian leadership and a sheer loathe for Mr Putin is not retranslated into a similar attitude toward common Russians. Majority or at least plurality of Ukrainians still would like to keep open borders with Russia and maintain good relations, even though it becomes increasingly impossible in the conditions of undeclared war.'

Country with two languages

Will Ukraine ever become a country in which the majority of the population prefers to speak Ukrainian on a daily basis?

'The majority actually speaks Ukrainian on a daily basis – as both the national census and various opinion surveys suggest. But “daily basis” is a precarious term – it breaks down for different fractions. So, while a clear majority of Ukrainians speaks Ukrainian at home, a bit less of them do it with friends or with colleagues at work, and very few dares to speak Ukrainian in the public space of big cities for a simple reason. All the Ukrainian urban centers have a long and dramatic tradition of social domination of Russophones over Ukrainophones, with all the concomitant quasi-racist mockery, humiliation, linguistic discrimination and anti-“nationalistic” witch-hunt. There are plenty of recorded stories, even in independent Ukraine, about officials who refused to communicate with Ukrainophone citizens in “cow language” and demanded them to “speak human”. None of them have been ever punished. Little surprise, then, that Ukrainian society is profoundly traumatized by such an experience and needs something like a psychological therapy. You perhaps heard about prof. Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. After the poor creatures were struck a few times by the current that circulated within a wire, they tried to avoid the wire regardless of whether it was plugged in or not.

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Het Holenklooster in Kiev ressorteert onder de patriarch van Moskou

'I feel, a two-track policy should be applied. On one hand, we need some sort of protectionism for Ukrainian language and culture, a kind of affirmative action, to overcome the colonial legacies and disparities, and counterbalance a strong structural advantage the Russian language and culture have by the sheer fact of their metropolitan character and resourcefulness and much more advanced, urbanized social status of Russian-speakers. On the other hand, very strong anti-discriminatory measures should be applied against any ethnicity-, culture-, or language-related offense, any hate speech in general.

'I don’t see any problem with bilingualism in Ukraine. It can really be our asset rather than liability, but only in the case it is properly framed and placed on a firm legal ground. To be really functional, it should be understood not only as a citizen’s right to use freely his/her language of convenience but also as the official’s duty to accommodate the citizen. Alas, the latter is a big problem in all post-Soviet societies where officials rather than citizens have always had a priority and chose the language suitable for themselves rather than for the customers. Predictably, in most cases it was and still is Russian. (Belarus provides a very graphic example of such a Soviet-style “bilingualism” that leads ultimately to complete extinction of the “aboriginal” language).

'The (post)Soviet “bilingualism” is really a tricky thing that foreigners rarely grasp because it sounds quite liberal even though hides absolutely illiberal stance. The irony is that the slogan stands not for the legitimate right of the Russophones to freely use their language (actually nobody questions this right enshrined in Ukrainian constitution and practiced daily in all spheres of life – far more broadly, in many cases, than Ukrainian). The slogan, in actuality, stands for the right not to learn and to use Ukrainian under any circumstances, including in the official positions where it should be a duty – a part of the professional qualification. This is just reflection of a profound despise of any Creole/colonial elite toward the aboriginal language (and culture).

'I feel we have better chances than ever to solve this problem since the war consolidated Ukrainian nation and increased mutual trust between all the ethnic and linguistic groups. But still, a comprehensive solution requires an honest public discussion and coherent legal enforcement, possible only under the rule of law.'

Institutional redesign

If you could introduce three major policies in Ukraine, whether of a political, economic, or cultural nature, what would they be?

'I’ve just mentioned one policy. The other one should be definitely the institutional redesign, starting from the judiciary and law-enforcement agencies. I feel that the system is so rotten that it cannot be fixed from inside, and therefore some international supervision and guardianship is needed. I don’t exclude even outsourcing of Ukraine’s customs or tax service, or Supreme court to some international bodies created in an agreement with the UN or so.

'And the third policy should be, of course, economical. I’m not much of specialist in the field but I believe we should eliminate the state from economy as much as possible. And the main tax should be on consumption (and on transfer of money and raw materials abroad) whereas any domestically invested income should be exempted from taxation.'

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Vechtpartij in de Oekraïense Rada

Are you bullish or bearish about Ukraine’s prospects in the next few years?

'I’m quite optimistic in a long run, but I don’t expect any miracles in a foreseeable future. Ukraine is too large and complex and burdened with unhealthy legacies to move fast and coherently. It is likely to “muddle through”. Of course, we can influence both the speed and direction of this “muddling”, and this is actually what Ukrainian civil society is successfully doing, with some Western support. But we cannot completely ignore path-dependence and jump from the third-world capitalism that we have today to the Scandinavian-style welfare state. The only disaster that may happen to Ukraine after it stopped the Russian invasion in the south-east is a prospective inclusion of Donbas into the national body on Putin’s terms. But I don’t think our political elite, however parochial and opportunistic, is going to commit suicide.'

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