Greetings once again from Ukraine!
It is perhaps fitting, that this time I should be writing to you from a location that contrasts as starkly with my little Soviet apartment as the gloriously warm Kiev autumn does with the crisp, cold winter. Gone are the ghastly drapes and cold little balcony, instead I am surrounded by the modern interior and thumping music of a Russian replica Starbucks: Kofe Xayc. Here, where the babushki never set foot, where the seats are occupied by up-and-coming businessmen and women, I find myself contemplating the confusing parameters of the Ukrainian national identity.
Even for a native, this is a very difficult topic. For a foreigner only two months on Ukrainian soil, it is a labyrinth of contradictions and subtle rules with no helpful ball of string to show me the way. However, I have found myself repeatedly drawn into conversations on the subject. What makes you Ukrainian? I ask my flatmate, a quiet girl in her early twenties. She pauses a long time before replying. “For a start, I speak the Ukrainian language, I know about Ukrainian traditions and…I’m not Russian.” This seems to be the defining factor: being Ukrainian means not being Russian.
This may seem trite, but for people born and bred in the Crimea or Donetsk regions this is highly significant. Here the first language is generally Russian. One of my students from Donetsk told me that he had to learn Ukrainian almost from scratch on arriving in Kiev to find work as a musician. People sometimes refuse to respond if you speak to them in Russian, they get angry when you slip into saying “Russian” rather than “Ukrainian” in reference to some cultural trait. They insist on saying “the Soviet Union” rather than “Russia”, when talking about the past. It is a touchy topic, and I invariably find myself tip-toeing around various adjectives when speaking about it. Thankfully, in my role as Stupid Foreigner I am saved from being judged too harshly, rather it confirms their willingness to answer my questions.
It came as a shock to me that the people most inclined to object when spoken to or referred to as Russian in any way should be young professionals. The older generations who lived under Soviet rule seem remarkably free from animosity towards their gargantuan eastern neighbour, some are even slightly nostalgic. “When we were younger we didn’t have clothes and fashion like we do today, everyone used to share”, said another student, a beautiful lady in her forties, “we also didn’t have television series and magazines, we used to read books. This is how we were differentiated, through what we read and what we knew…not by the cost of our shoes or which designer they came from. It was a lot better.” Seriously? A youth culture defined by literature? Dostoevsky-ists versus Tolstoy-ers? Shevchenk-ans versus Ivan Frank-istas?
The subject of education may appear far removed from the question of identity, but in fact this has been repeatedly highlighted as a factor by my various mentors. Many of the universally controversial national heroes shared the belief that the Ukrainian people should be identified by their high-level of education. Even the hugely influential military leader, Ivan Mezerpa, was also a gifted painter, poet and musician. Today students of music, art and dance are still expected to put enormous amounts of work into their chosen field, as well as pursuing a parallel education in more general subjects. A student of mine recalled how she used to get up at 4am every morning to practise the piano at the academy followed by lessons in 12 other disciplines every evening. “I had no time for talking or relaxing, no hobbies apart from lessons,” she told me.
This desire to produce an educated, well-rounded populace is clearly deeply ingrained. In 1615, Ukraine’s first collegium was founded, now the prestigious National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, which produced some of the greatest scholars of Eastern Europe. However, the advent of strictly Ukrainian literature, arts and sciences had to wait until the 17th century as Catherine the Great ruthlessly plundered the land of its greatest minds. The richness of Russian culture would surely have suffered without the generous imports from the occupied territories around the Dnipro.
The other factor of the Ukrainian soul that I have thus far identified runs just as deep. The historical division between the nationalist West and the Russophile East goes back to the very beginning of the country’s history. The Great Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth quickly laid claim to the territories of Kyiv-Rus, until the uprising of 1648 predominantly lead by Western hetmen such as the (in)famous Ivan Mazerpa. The subsequent agreement of 1653 and decade-long battle between the Commonwealth and Tsarist forces divided the lands into the Russian occupied regions on the East banks of the Dnipro and the Polish-Lithuanian regions to the West. Then in the Swedish-Russian war of 1700, allegiances were further solidified when Mazerpa collaborated with King Charles XII of Sweden to defeat Russia in return for Ukrainian autonomy.
The same dichotomy is evident in contemporary attitudes. Russia still considers Crimea to be one of its many territories, the people living there are in the majority children and grand-children of Russian emigrés who settled there under the Soviet Union. In 2004, the Orange Revolution saw Ukrainian names Tymoshenko and Yushenko (the clue is in the ending: -enko) compete against more Russian sounding names (Yanukovych) with the policies to match. During his mandate Yushenko implemented De Gaulle-ian style measures to strengthen national unity, spending a huge portion of the budget on monuments to Babi Yar, to the 1653 uprising, on founding the museum of Tripillya and many others. In contrast, Yanukovych has increasingly shifted his gaze pro-East, with agreements allowing Russian military installations to remain within Ukrainian borders and creating a strong Russian-Ukrainian trade alliance.
It is interesting to note that whilst proud Ukrainian nationals slate Yanukovych for his pro-Russia politics, they did not re-elect ultranationalist Yushenko for a second mandate. This can of course be partially attributed to his voters in the East, but that is not the only factor. The most frequent complaint I hear about Yushenko is that he dealt only symbolically with the problem of identity. He did not seek to build a new nation of proud, prosperous, well-educated professionals to rival the global West. He did not seek to bring Ukraine to the level where they could hope to join the European Union, definitively ridding themselves of the Russian ghost and creating a new future with new associates. Recently I asked a group of students to name one national hero, just one figure they could agree symbolised their country…they were incapable of naming even one. Why? Not through lack of knowledge, although some of them had lived through three different official histories, but because the past is a murky and ultimately an unhelpful place to look for resolution to the question: what makes someone Ukrainian?
Perhaps in the future the question will not be so difficult. “Maybe not my children, but my grand-children or great grand-children will know what makes them Ukrainian,” said my favourite mentor. Alternatively, maybe the problem lies with my question. Next time I won’t ask what makes people Ukrainian, but what they will make of Ukraine and let this unite them.
Image – Bogdan Seredyak