9 Embarrassing Answers to Stupid Questions about Ukraine

I hate to do another deconstruction so soon but the purpose of this blog is to shine a spotlight on bad journalism regarding Russia. This also includes topics involving the former Soviet Union, when Russia is an involved party.  Let’s jump right in and present the defendant.

“9 Questions about Ukraine you were too embarrassed to ask” by Max Fisher of the Washington Post

Now I have a special kind of hatred for articles which pretend to simplify things for the unassuming, curious observer, and then clearly take advantage of said observer’s ignorance to fill their heads with bullshit. In all fairness however, I must say that judging by the author’s credentials it is very possible that he himself has been taken advantage of.  In any case, this article is filled with Ukrainian nationalist mythology and bullshit and I intend to debunk it as efficiently as possible.  I do not intend to address every statement made in the article, only the ones which draw particular ire.

I want to make one thing clear before we begin.  I am not opposed to Ukrainian “independence”, insofar as modern countries like Ukraine can actually be independent.  I don’t believe that Ukraine would be better served by any sort of “unity” with capitalist Russia than it would via submission to Brussels.  I am no modern Russophile, that is to say someone who denies the unique culture of Ukraine. I am opposed to Ukrainian nationalism because I am opposed to all nationalism, and I am so opposed because I reject romantic national myths which distort history.  I abhor mythology which attempts to project modern national identifiers back through history as though they always existed.  I hate it even more when these fairy tales are used to justify wars and atrocities. I hate it when nationalists repackage their bullshit to be more acceptable to liberalism, and I hate it when the anti-sovereignty EU utilizes nationalism whenever it suits its purposes.  Moving on.

Let’s start with the first question:

1. What is Ukraine?

Gee I can see why a person would be embarrassed to ask this. This is like asking what Hungary is, or what Italy is.  Now I know that someone might object and say, “But Ukraine is a new country!”  Bullshit. Ukraine has existed as an independent country since 1991; that’s over two decades now.  We already have college graduates who lived their entire lives in a world in which Ukraine has always been an independent country. Here’s a partial list of European countries which have become independent since Ukraine.

Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992

Czech Republic 1993

Slovakia 1993

Montenegro 2006

Kosovo 2008

Also, while it is understandable how the 1990’s could be a bit confusing due to the explosion of newly independent nations, one has to look at the big picture and think back to the post-WWII and consider how much more complicated things must have been for the boomer generation. Colonial empires were collapsing into independent states, which like India, sometimes fractured again into more states. I was born into a world without Namibia, with Zaire instead of the Democratic Republic of Congo, with Yugoslavia, with the USSR. Somehow I managed, geographically speaking.

What I’m trying to say here is that this question might be appropriate if we were dealing with more obscure, possibly unrecognized countries such as Abkhazia or Transnistria, but we are not. Moreover I feel this super-simple beginning is the author’s attempt to soften the reader up, to make them think they know absolutely nothing about Ukraine, and thus make them more vulnerable to the Ukrainian nationalist mythology that he’s about to drown them in.

Ukraine – not “the Ukraine” – is a country in Eastern Europe, between Russia and Central Europe.

The quibbling over the “Ukraine not the Ukraine” bullshit is a typical trope used by English-language journalists to sound like they are savvy on the topic.  It fails for several reasons. First of all, neither Russian nor Ukrainian have articles, much less definite articles.  Second, the idea behind this is that in the past, English-speaking writers would refer to the region as “the Ukraine” because it was a region of the Russian Empire. Later the practice stood for some time despite the fact that it became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.  The idiotic insinuation is that using “the” with Ukraine, something many people don’t do, somehow relegates Ukraine to being a region and not a real independent country, as if independence is determined by English grammar conventions. And speaking of grammar, geography happens to be one area where ordinary rules about article usage fly right out the window.  They say that “the” denotes a region, whereas the lack of “the” means an independent country? Okay then.  Here’s a short list of regions with which we do not use “the.”

Siberia

Anatolia

Waziristan

I guess these are all independent countries because we don’t use “the” with them.  In short, you shouldn’t use “the” when you say Ukraine because we typically do not use the definite article with common country names in English. We do use it with official names like The Republic of Ukraine or The United Kingdom. One thing you definitely shouldn’t do is bring up this stupid “Ukraine vs. the Ukraine” bullshit in an attempt to sound informed on the subject of Ukraine.

“It’s big: about the area of Texas, with a little less than twice the population. Its history goes back thousands of years – the first domesticated horses were here – and has long been characterized by intersections between “east” and “west.” That’s continued right up to today’s crisis.”

Uh…What? When you say “its history goes back thousands of years”, this refers to the region, not “Ukraine.” This would be akin to saying that the United States’ history goes back thousands of years.  When you talk about things like the domestication of the horse you’re talking about events which happened long before Slavic people even appeared.

The author’s habit of pretending as though Ukraine was always “Ukraine” is a running theme with this shitacular article, and it drives me up the wall because this is a particularly serious problem for America. We look at a map, see the name of a country, and then we just assume that everyone in that country is of that nationality. Some people saw a country called “Iraq” and they decided that the people of Iraq must be Iraqi. The poor Iraqi people were oppressed so we “rescued” them in 2003. Suddenly, to everyone’s idiotic surprise, it turned out that not everybody in Iraq sees themselves as “Iraqi.” Same deal with Afghanistan. How many lives are being wasted in the attempt to build a “nation” in Afghanistan, where things like clan or family loyalty are the foundation for society?  Many Americans think that if you give these people a parliament and a flag they’ll see themselves as Afghans and work for the good of the country.  It’s a ridiculous fantasy and people die as a result.

Ukraine has a long history of being subjugated by foreign powers.

Once again, author implies that “Ukraine” has always been this unique, existing nation which sadly was dominated by foreign powers. The region currently known as Ukraine, not “Ukraine” was subjugated.

This is even reflected in its name, which many scholars believe means “borderland” and is part of why it used to be called “the Ukraine.” (Other scholars, though, believe it means “homeland.”)

What he should have written is that the vast majority of scholars say it means borderland, whereas some Ukrainian scholars who are fond of rewriting history if not logic itself make the ridiculous claim that it means “homeland.”

Let’s dissect this a bit.  As the power of the Golden Horde receded and that of Lithuania, Poland, and Moscow grew, this area became the theater for repeated conflicts between the largest players in the region. For some time one of those players also included the Crimean Khanate, which lasted into the late 18th century. For much of its existence the Khanate was a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, which therefore brought them into regional struggles. So here we have this region, which for a few centuries serves as a buffer between the rising power of Moscow, Lithuania and later Poland-Lithuania, the Crimean Khanate and later the Ottoman Empire.  Hmmm… It’s almost like Ukraine, during this time it was called Ukraine, was like…some kind of frontier area…like a…borderland!

“Krai”, from which Ukraina and thus Ukraine is derived, also still means “edge” or “border” in modern Ukrainian. Words for “homeland” do not resemble the name of the country at all. “Kraj” is indeed “home” in Polish but Ukraine and Ukrainian are not Polish, historical influence notwithstanding.

“It’s only been independent since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and it broke away. The last time it was independent (for a few short years right after World War I; before that, briefly in the 1600s), it had different borders and very different demographics. ”

Here we have another lie which takes advantage of the reader’s potential ignorance. What existed in the 1600’s was the Cossack Hetmanate. It’s people did not refer to themselves as “Ukrainians” but rather “Rusyni”, which is sometimes Latinized as Ruthenians(the term seems to have been applied to all formerly “Rus” people who ended up in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania or the later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth).  He also mentions independence for “a few short years right after World War I.” I didn’t know that roughly one year equals “a few”, but I dispute this claim because the original, socialist leaning Ukrainian People’s Republic was basically overthrown by the pro-German Pavlo Skoropadskyi and the truth is that there were several things which could be considered “Ukrainian states” at the time, not the least of which were the pro-Bolshevik “states” which would later lead to the Ukrainian SSR(Soviet Socialist Republic).  Ukrainian nationalists and Western sources tend to treat any pro-Communist movement as automatically foreign and therefore illegitimate, but they fail to explain how the German puppet Skoropadskyi can’t be judged by the same criteria. As is the case with many other countries, being a loyal Ukrainian, Pole, Lithuanian, etc. means you can’t possibly be a Communist.  I find this form of biological determinism to be rather idiotic. It’s as if saying that an American must be a Democrat or Republican based on what political party is in power.

It is often taken as a given that pro-Soviet Union and Ukraine are somehow diametrically opposed concepts. In reality the Bolsheviks were the most important architects of modern Ukraine. When you look at a map of Ukraine today, you are seeing the product of the USSR, of Lenin, and in fact of Stalin who authored the USSR’s nationalities policy(which enshrined the idea of Ukrainians as a separate nation).  While it is difficult to speculate, there are large parts of what is called Ukraine today which, had it not been for the revolution and subsequent events, might be part of Poland or Russia today.  In short, when you look at modern Ukraine you are looking at that which was once the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

In any case, the history of WWI, Soviet nationalities policy, and Ukrainianization(devised and advocated primarily by Josef Stalin) is ridiculously complex and I’ve barely scratched the surface here.  Suffice to say that the way Fisher presents it is highly misleading.  Again, sometimes I wonder if the problem isn’t just his own ignorance making him vulnerable to myth-making.

I want to emphasize one other point. Much of what I’m saying about Ukraine’s alleged history could just as easily be said about the history of “Russia” or dozens of other countries throughout the world. Pretending that “Russia” or “Ukraine” today are the same as “Rus” in 988 is simply idiotic. If you could travel back in time to any given era in Russian/Ukrainian history, you would find that ordinary people had very different ways of identifying themselves depending on which era you visited.

Moving on…

2. Why are so many Ukrainians protesting?

The protests started, mostly in the capital of Kiev, when President Yanukovych rejected an expected deal for greater economic integration with the European Union. The deal was popular with Ukrainians, particularly in Kiev and that part of the country (although not as popular as you may have heard: about 42 or 43 percent support it).

What is being left out here is that many people were not, and still are not fully aware of the details of this trade deal. Some people were intentionally duped into believing that this deal would lead to EU membership and freedom of movement to EU countries.  The truth is that most people in Eastern Europe are not so ignorant or stupid as to believe that EU membership will turn their country into Germany or Belgium. What they are hoping for is the right to emigrate or at least work abroad.  In any case, the trade deal wasn’t going to give them that right.

But this is about much more than just a trade deal. Symbolically, Yanukovych’s decision was seen as a turn away from Europe and toward Moscow, which rewarded Ukraine with a “stimulus” worth billions of dollars and a promise of cheaper gas exports. Moscow had subjugated or outright ruled Ukraine for generations, so you can see why this could hit a nerve.

Here’s where the author shows massive dishonesty again.  He fails to point out the radical, right-wing nationalist character of this anti-Moscow hatred. In Eastern Europe, particularly in EU countries, many have learned to cloak their Balkan-style, “I don’t care if my cow dies as long as my neighbor’s cow dies” nationalism in acceptable, European liberal-sounding phrases. But if you can see what these people say to each other when Westerners aren’t present, it’s basically blatant racism. One common attack against Russia is that unlike Ukraine, Russia is ethnically diverse. Ukrainian athletes are Ukrainian and “white”, while Russia’s famous athletes are from the Caucasus, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, etc.  Many mean-spirited attacks on “Moscow” include making fun of the poor and impoverished, which is insane considering that conditions are far worse in Ukraine and have been for some time. In this part of the world, where nationalism is akin to rooting for football teams, people will deny the suffering of their own people just to insult their national rivals.  As a result, the suffering continues in both nations.

So as to avoid a long digression on this topic I will leave the reader with this link, which does a fine job of highlighting the nationalist and neo-Nazi presence in this Evromaidan movement. While it is true to say that the entire movement does not necessarily consist of nationalists or fascists, what is true is that the supposedly non-nationalist contingent, as far as I have seen to date, has failed to make any public statement distancing themselves from or repudiating the fascists such as those of the “Svoboda” party.

I should also point out how the author dishonestly implies that Putin somehow bribed the government with money and cheaper gas. Well I’m very sorry but Ukraine has serious financial problems and they are not going to just disappear by signing a trade deal with the EU. This is why the whole idea of Ukraine moving towards Europe or Moscow is complete and utter bullshit. Unless Ukraine manages to discover major sources of natural gas on its own territory, or it manages to physically move itself to another region, it is always going to be heavily influenced by Russia. We live in a capitalist world and in that world large powerful countries dominate their less developed neighbors.  Europe isn’t going to sweep in and start providing Ukraine with cheaper gas.  Ukraine isn’t just going to stop needing gas. Ukraine’s debts won’t disappear.  If you don’t like this situation, then your problem is with capitalism.

But this is about more than just geopolitics. Yanukovych and his government, since taking power in 2010, have mismanaged the economy and have been increasingly seen as corrupt. In 2004, there had been mass protests against Yanukovych when he won the presidential election under widespread suspicions of fraud; those protests, which succeeded in blocking him from office, were called the “Orange Revolution” and considered a big deal at the time. But now he’s back.

Here the author does some more dishonest implying. He suggest that Yanukovich mismanaged the economy while not mentioning the utter failure of the “Orange Revolution” to improve conditions. In many ways it actually made Ukraine’s situation worse.  The Orange Revolution, according to the Western media, had one allegedly positive result, however. I remember the claim was that Yanukovich was re-elected fairly and democratically in 2010, and that this was made possible because of the Orange Revolution. No, I don’t understand how exactly they came to that idiotic conclusion myself, but it’s important to keep that in mind when some of the same people today are calling Yanukovich a dictator and saying he should step down.  I’m no more a fan of Yanukovich than I am of any politician, but it’s simply worth noting that he had the stamp of approval from many “experts” several years ago.

The Russian-speaking, eastern half of Ukraine tends to be, big surprise, more pro-Russian. Yanukovych is from that part of the country, has most of his support there, and did not even speak Ukrainian until he was in his 50s.

The pro-E.U.-deal protests have mostly been in the Ukrainian-speaking, western half. That’s also the half that voted overwhelmingly against Yanukovych in 2010. (That has been changing since the anti-protest law, which inflamed nationwide anger with Yanukovych.)

I have a major problem with this because the fact is that there isn’t one, monolithic “Ukrainian” language. It has been noted both in recent times and in the early Soviet era that nationality and language were very malleable in Ukraine. Someone who saw their nationality as Ukrainian might claim to speak Ukrainian even if they were basically speaking Russian(which is often mixed with Ukrainian pronunciation and vocabulary to varying extents), ethnic Russians who spoke Russian might identify themselves as Ukrainian because they were born there.  It’s important to realize that in the 19th and 20th century, Ukrainians moved out of Ukraine into all reaches of the Russian Empire and later Soviet Union. Even during the 1930’s the Ukrainian SSR, which enjoyed a privileged position among union republics, declared itself the representative of Ukrainians throughout the entire world, much less the USSR, and at one point the SSR’s government made territorial demands on the RSFSR(today’s Russian Federation) based on the population of self-identifying Ukrainians in these areas.  Again this is a ridiculously complicated and very obscure part of history but if the reader is interested I recommend looking up Terry Martin’s Affirmative Action Empire – Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923-1939.

Later the author includes a quote from an “expert” which is a breath of fresh air:

As the Ukraine-focused political scientist Leonid Peisakhin put it, Ukraine “has never been and is not yet a coherent national unit with a common narrative or a set of more or less commonly shared political aspirations.”

This is all well and good but the problem is that a particularly loud segment of Ukrainians wants monopoly rights to define what “Ukrainian” is(HINT: It’s the opposite of whatever “Russians” are).  They want to write Ukraine’s history, its language, its culture, and create its heroes and villains as they see fit. Nationalists, like those of Svoboda, sometimes refer to this as the “Ukrainian national idea.”  This might frighten some of you freshman Eastern European studies majors out there, but that “national idea” isn’t just about souvenirs and folk music. If you’re an atheist, tough shit; the “national idea” says you must be a Christian. Are you a feminist? Sorry, like all right-wing nationalists they see a woman’s rightful place as being in the home.  Do you “celebrate diversity”? Better not celebrate it in Svoboda’s Ukraine.

Oleh Tyanhybok, antisemitic leader of the fascist Svoboda party.

Oleh Tyanhybok, antisemitic leader of the fascist Svoboda party.

Ukraine was conquered and divided for centuries by neighboring powers: the Polish, the Austrians and most of all the Russians. But Russian rulers didn’t just want to rule Ukraine, they wanted to make it Russian.

Here the author once again uses the word “Ukraine” as though it was always an independent country(or that it should have been), and fails to note that the reason it came to be dominated by Russia was that the Hetmanate’s leaders sought the protection of Moscow. This is what led to its subjugation in the 18th century.  Interestingly enough, Moscow only started to show interest in the Hetmanate when it began to flirt with the Ottoman Empire.

Then came Joseph Stalin. In the 1930s, the Soviet leader “collectivized” peasants into state-run farms, which caused several million Ukrainians to die of starvation. The governments of Ukraine and the United States consider it a deliberate act of genocide, though historians are more divided. In either case, after the famine, Stalin repopulated the devastated eastern farmlands by shipping in ethnic Russians.

I applaud the author for pointing out that the claim that collectivization was deliberate genocide is indeed disputed, but this still needs a few corrections. First of all, for all collectivization’s faults, its intention was to modernize agriculture throughout the USSR. That it did. There are over 400 recorded famines in the history of the region going back to Kievian Rus in 988. The last was in 1947, due largely in part to the effects of the war. The man-made component of the 1931-32 famine in the USSR(it wasn’t limited to Ukraine) is comparable in every way to several other historical famines in other regions, some of which took place at the same time or around the same time as that which occurred in Ukraine.  In some cases the Soviet government, though displaying obvious incompetence, comes off far better in their handling of the 1931-32 famine than say, Churchill in the matter of the West Bengal famine which occurred during WWII. One thing is for sure, you won’t find Stalin talking about Ukrainians the way Churchill repeatedly described Indians.

I’m only pointing this out because once again, there is this idea that the Soviet Union suppressed the Ukrainian identity and this is not entirely true. The creation of Soviet Ukraine and Ukrainianization were both founded on Stalin’s nationality theory and the policies derived from it.  What definitely happened after the war was that the Great Russian(Moscow) nationality came out on top, and its dominance increased as the USSR became a superpower. This was very different from the 1920’s and 30’s when Stalin insisted that Great Russian chauvinism was the “greater danger.”  Again, Terry Martin’s work on the subject is quite eye-opening.

Even if Putin can’t bring Ukraine in, he’d like to keep it out of the European Union, which he sees as an extension of a century-old Western conspiracy against Russia. There is a certain lingering suspicion in Moscow that the West wouldn’t mind Russia’s destruction, which is part of why it so opposes any Western intervention into another country, which it fears could be precedent for a similar attack on Russia some day. This is why, silly though it may sound, some security experts tend to emphasize Ukraine’s importance to Russia as a defensive buffer.

One thing that people tend to forget during a crisis like this is that Putin has been playing up to the EU for quite some time now.  His power rests on his ability to pimp his nation’s resources out, mostly to the EU. He has made public statements claiming that Russia would always be a source of resources for Europe. On the other hand, his domestic power rests on his ability to portray himself as a strong man, so much the better if he can pretend to rebuild the USSR. When Putin causes apparent conflicts with the West, a great deal of people who would otherwise focus their hatred on him suddenly rally to the colors. Some may see the “Eurasian Union” as a new Soviet Union, others will envision a new Russian empire, in either case it gets people to stop complaining about Putin and fall in line.

By far the most disturbing thing about this article is how it utterly, if not deliberately fails to make any mention of the right-wing, fascist character of these protests. Historically, Ukrainian nationalists haven’t limited their list of enemies to Muscovites. Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians who failed to accept their idea of Ukraine also made the list, and many lives were lost as a result.  By leaving this element out of the story, Fisher’s attempt to inform the otherwise ignorant actually leaves them in a worse position than ignorance. Whereas once the readers simply did not know, now they hold false notions and think that they are informed.  Can you see how that is worse?

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