Ukraine: A country always on the edge
Meic Pearse considers what Ukraine’s past tells us about the present and future
Few countries illustrate better the “clash of civilisations” thesis of the late great Professor Samuel Huntington than does Ukraine. Indeed, its very name means “borderland”. According to him, international politics after the Cold War has reverted to long-run-of-history type, with affinities and enmities running along civilisational lines – we want to be close to those who are culturally similar, and we distrust those whose whole thinking differs radically from our own.
Huntington’s book contains a map illustrating that Ukraine is a “torn country”, caught between worlds. Those districts that had been historically Russian Orthodox voted for Russian-leaning political candidates – with no exceptions; all those that contained significant numbers of Uniates (Greek Catholics) voted for pro-Western parties – no exceptions. The evangelicals, who make up 1% of the population, are even more pro-Western.
Most Ukrainians (62%) don’t belong to any Church at all – under 15% of them are Uniates – and yet, religion generates mentalities, thought processes and, as we are seeing all too clearly right now, cultural loyalties, that persist long after secularisation has washed away the religious foundations that originally underlay them. So the inhabitants of Lviv and Kiev feel themselves to be Westerners trapped in a state that cannot escape the hold of its Soviet past. For them, the legacy of dysfunctional government, kleptocracy and the misallocation of resources in what should be a prosperous country are humiliating and unbearably frustrating. They are determined to join the Poles and Hungarians in the EU.
In the east of the country – in Donetsk and Kharkiv – all of this looks completely different. People there speak of a “fascist takeover” in Kiev. The inhabitants of Russia might be excused for spouting such rubbish – they have little choice of media to listen to. But when the inhabitants of eastern Ukraine speak thus, they have chosen to read events this way. And they have made this choice because that is one aspect of how the Orthodox world sees the perfidious west. In the particular case of eastern and western Ukraine, the present is seen through the lens of a simplistic view of what happened in the Second World War (although, before we permit ourselves too much in the way of smug superiority, even their simplistic view is a lot more complex than the view of that war we have fed ourselves).
According to that view, western Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis in 1941, and Stepan Bandera’s UPA units actually fought for them. So the current takeover by pro-Western forces in Kiev is just a reassertion of the fascistic tendencies that are “natural” to those wicked western Ukrainians, who never could be truly part of “us”. That war story is a half-truth: Countless Soviet citizens welcomed the Nazis as a rescue from the horrors of communism, especially the man-made famine of a few years before that had killed millions in Ukraine alone; Bandera spent several years as a prisoner of the Nazis; the UPA fought Nazis and Soviets alike but, late in the war, concentrated on the latter, making them de facto a Nazi franchise.
Winning the Second World War gave Stalin a fresh opportunity to legitimise his regime following his vast crimes of the 1930s, and he seized it. Indeed, all of the new communist governments of eastern Europe did likewise – they were the victors over the Nazis, and, just like the EU today, they posed as the only possible guarantors against a return to Nazi atrocity. Indeed, Putin is still using that line of legitimation for his actions – and the high-profile role of fascistic groups in Kiev like Svoboda and Right Sector has played into his hands.
What will Putin do now? Even swallowing Crimea would be likely to give him trouble a few years hence from Tatar guerrilla groups, who may make common cause with their co-religionists (there’s Huntington again!) in Chechnya and Dagestan. If he goes further and tries to take eastern Ukraine, then the rump state remaining in the west of the country would be an implacable enemy ever after. Right up against his border. He would have his expansion all right, but at the probable price of a return to full-on Cold War and a hardline enemy right on his border. Or, he could take the whole country – but the guerrilla resistance would be enormous.
I am among those who think that Putin does not himself know his own final game plan – he is making it up as he goes along. There are no just outcomes; people cannot be persuaded out of their ethnicity or their culture. And so it is the peoples living on the edge of two civilisations who are paying the price for the current uncertainty, and will continue to do so for quite some time to come.
Meic Pearse is professor of history at Houghton College, New York, and author of Why the Rest Hates the West (SPCK, £12.51)
This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Reform.