Ever since the Euromaidan began, Ukraine has been a giant social experiment, and for the most part results have been positive. We have seen a people cowed by an increasingly authoritarian and mercurial government rise up on the principle that they are collectively responsible for the kind of state they live in. Now thanks to Vladimir Putin, Ukraine has become ground zero for a new social experiment in which the relative effectiveness of two diametrically opposed conceptions of the nation are being tested: the völkisch ethno-nationalist vision Vladimir Putin has invoked to justify his decision to annex Crimea, which can easily be applied elsewhere, including Eastern Ukraine on the one hand, and the open, inclusive civic nationalism of symbolized by the the Maidan protests on the other. The stakes are huge. If Putin succeeds in dividing Ukrainians along ethnic and linguistic grounds, we will likely be in for years of misery, and a return to civil war on the European continent. Worse, it will destabilize the Baltic states, and Kazakhstan, and even perhaps Belarus, where Putin’s recent aggression has even begun to worry the Kremlin’s long-standing ally Aleksander Lukashenko. If Ukraine survives intact save Russia’s de facto control of Crimea, then we can truly begin to speak of putting the darkness of Europe’s twentieth century behind us.
Twentieth century history tends to make the first and more pessimistic scenario seem more likely. As conventional wisdom goes, the appeal to tribe is powerful and once unleashed inexorable. Throughout the twentieth centuries from population exchanges of Greeks and Turks after at the end of WWI to the ethnic cleansing that occurred in east central Europe during and after WWII and occurred again in Yugoslavia, we have seen how escalating ethnic tensions create a logic of their own that countervailing tendencies like mixed marriages, inter-ethnic friendships, and cooperation on a local level become unable to resist. This is the road to civil war, and unrest in the major eastern cities of Ukraine, like Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Luhansk it is all too plausible right now. Never mind that there is increasing evidence that pro-Russian demonstrations in those cities are dependent on Russian agitators crossing the border, because what matters is not how divisiveness takes hold, but whether or not it takes hold. If such provocations work, then they will have served their purpose and Putin will intervene. Sadly even if the provocations do not work, and for the moment they do not seem to be, except in the now alternate universe of the Russian media, Ukrainians will not be able to rest easy. For Putin and his media spin doctors have now created a worldview where the Russian soul can only be satisfied by redeeming Russians from foreign rule, which if repeated often enough in an environment where Putin has little option other than to attack Ukraine ostensibly to save Russians from fascists and divide the community after the fact as has happened in Crimea.
Bleak as that possible future is, however, we should not resign ourselves to the notion that history will repeat itself. Indeed, far from marking the descent into the ugly narrative we know so well from the past century, Putin’s recent aggression may mark the bitter twilight of an awful era of European history in which nations were understood defined first and foremost by ethnicity, rather than shared political interests grounded in living within the same state.
Nationalists think of nations as grounded in ancient ethnic bonds, but the reality is that our understanding of nations as political communities is modern, and the shape of nations determined more by states than ethnic ties. Indeed, if we look around the world today, the reality is that all nations are heterogeneous, and most quite openly so precisely because it is understood that above all nations function to bind a political community. While some nations feel compelled to sweep that diversity under the rug in the name of today national unity, the number of nations that are defined primarily by ethnicity is quite rare, otherwise, there would be thousands of them. Yet, the dirty secret is that while the rhetoric of shared language and culture is what generally attracts people’s attention, even those ethnic nations owe their positions to the actions of states, are often seen as reflecting a distinct ethnic heritage. This insight also explains the curious concentration of ethnically defined nations in central, eastern, and southeastern Europe. For in the nineteenth century when nations first began taking shape these regions were ruled by large empires, which were unable to establish cultural hegemony of the language of the state. In the Balkans this can be traced back to the millet system the Ottoman state used to govern peoples according to their religion, something that was complicated further by the Orthodox Church’s support of local vernaculars. Further north the key factor was the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
We will never know whether if left to its own devices, the Commonwealth would have cultivated a modern national identity that would have incorporated all the peoples living in the Commonwealth, whose descendants we today identify as Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, and Jews. It certainly seems possible, as that is what their respective elites had already done. We do know, however, is that all the partitioning powers found incorporating the Polish-speaking elites problematic. As a linguistically largely homogenous state with a comparatively small number of Poles, Prussia and then Germany managed this reasonably well at least until the 1880s, but the Habsburg and Russian Empires both struggled to find a way to incorporate the Poles and bring them to accept the state language as their own. As a result they each followed the path of divide and rule, recognizing other lesser nationalities to offset the prominence of the Poles. In our modern world with its emphasis on diversity the path taken in Habsburg Austria were a multi-cultural society was emerging by fits and starts is particularly appealing and is destruction by World War I especially poignant. In Russia, divide and rule politics proved sufficient to preserve Russian dominance until the crisis brought on by World War I. Nonetheless, the old regime state provided enough nourishment to various nationalists that when the Bolsheviks took over Lenin too felt some kind of recognition was necessary. Stalin aborted that project and revived the imperial order albeit without formally discontinuing the Soviet Union’s nominal national federal structure of Soviet Republics, Autonomous Republics, and Autonomous regions that nonetheless affirmed the mystical importance of nationality.
No wonder that when that day came, there was grave concern that radical nationalists would be the great problem of post-Soviet space as they sought to assert control of ethnically diverse political communities in the name of titular nations. In the case of Ukraine, independence did not lead to significant bloodshed until this year, but by no means did this naturally lead to the kind of inclusive understanding of identity that has been the hallmark of the Euromaidan protests. The Soviet legacy was as engrained in Ukraine as any republic, perhaps more so given that the Ukrainian nationalist movements’ activities before and after WWII, and many of the problems still faced by Ukraine today, especially the sense of an east-west divide, can in part be traced back to the Soviet conception of nations first and foremost as cultural communities. Thus, as the Soviet Union collapsed it was simply understood that now all people living in Ukraine should participate in that community by speaking the language of the titular nationality.
Given that at the time of independence ethnic Ukrainians were by far the largest single ethnic group making up about 72% of the population while the ethnic Russian minority was circa 20%, not including Russian-speaking Ukrainians or other minorities, 20% at the time of independence and no other group made up more than 1%, the expectation that all people learn Ukrainian may not seem unreasonable. Nor was it perceived as such at the time of independence, whether out of naiveté or just out of shock. Still, that thinking almost immediately created a divide in the society between those, especially among the educated, who felt comfortable speaking Ukrainian and used it as their main language, and those who did not with a mild, though generally unspoken, aura of shame being associated with speaking Russian. As a result, the former group became identified with being less Soviet, and often with the best of intentions felt it was their duty to evangelize Ukrainian identity among those who used Russian.
No one likes to feel ashamed, especially when one feels one had done nothing wrong. Nor did it help that the bulk of Ukrainian speakers came from the west of the country, which was seen as underdeveloped, and where the survival of Ukrainian was associated with deep-seeded resistance to the Soviet project, the very project people of the East attributed their economic status to. On that basis the very real differences between East and West solidified into the East-West political divide. By 1994, frustration over the law making Ukrainian the only legal language was already and an issue, and would remain so through the 2010 presidential election, creating a distraction that the oligarchs used seize control of Ukrainian business.
For all the inequities and criminal activity that accompanied Ukraine’s privatization, however, there was an upside to the emergence of the East-West divide. Too big, and its economy too diversified for one group to seize control, but not so large that total control was impossible, Ukraine’s political culture remained pluralist to an extent no found in any other Soviet successor state outside of the Baltic states. That in turn nurtured a belief that elections should be free and fair, and that orderly transfers of power were possible, a point testified to by the 2004 Orange Revolution when outcry over rigged voting led to a rerun of the run-off election, and the subsequently smooth 2009-10 elections. This condition lasted long enough that a generation of people have grown up in the east, west, north and south of the country with a connection to the Ukrainian state and be shaped by its institutions. It also made the political systems people encountered when they went to Poland or countries in western Europe seem familiar, making comparisons between those countries and Ukraine’s progress seem more valid. Thus they had taken Yanukovych’s promise to lead Ukraine into Europe as a dividend for his corruption, and they felt a responsibility to keep Ukraine on that track when Yanukovych decided to back out of the association agreement with the EU in November. This sense of collective responsibility became even stronger following the government’s crackdown, and as has been noted time and again by commentators, the Euromaidan protests cut across lines that have so long been understood to divide Ukrainians. Russian-speakers and Ukrainian speakers, West and East (even if the former was more widely represented at Independence Square in Kyiv), Jews and Gentiles, and even Muslims, not to mention all branches of the Orthodox faith.
Putin, of course, seems to believe that this new unity of action can be sabotaged, and perhaps it can, but this suggests how little he understands what has been taking shape in Ukraine, even as he recognizes it poses a threat to his world. He certainly did not understand it this fall and winter as he insisted on Yanukovych cracking down, and the power of the Maidan and Ukrainians’ belief in themselves has only gotten stronger now that they have overthrown Yanukovych and begun to organize to defend their country. With the news in the south and east no longer run through the filter designed to promote Yanukovych and Putin the people are increasingly showing themselves to be ready and willing to firm for a united Ukraine. If Putin knows what is good for him, he will leave things as they are. If he does attack Ukraine, he will bring on a bloody miserable guerilla war with brother Slavs he claims to be saving. Then, the truth will slowly sink to undermine the lies of the official media, and bring him misery that will not be offset by the annexation of Crimea, or any other territories in Eastern Ukraine he might be able to bring under Russian control. For the moment, however, we must watch and wait, to see what happens. Perhaps a well placed bomb can create the discord Putin needs, but I am not betting on it, rather I’m betting on the power of shared political interest in a safe and open society reasonably free of corruption and Ukrainians’ will to work towards that.