Why Russians will never give up on Ukraine
In August 1948, at the request of Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, the U.S. National Security Council issued a memorandum (NSC 20/1 1948) on U.S. objectives with respect to Russia. A large part of the memorandum was devoted to Ukraine. U.S. analysts argued with certainty that Ukraine was an organic part of Russia, that it was highly unlikely that Ukrainians would be capable of an independent national existence, and most importantly, that an attempt to support Ukrainian separatism would cause a sharply negative reaction from the Russian nation.
«The economy of the Ukraine is inextricably intertwined with that of Russia as a whole. There has never been any economic separation since the territory was conquered from the nomadic Tatars and developed for purposes of a sedentary population. To attempt to carve it out of the Russian economy and to set it up as something separate would be as artificial and as destructive as an attempt to separate the Corn Belt, including the Great Lakes industrial area, from the economy of the United States…
Finally, we cannot he indifferent to the feelings of the Great Russians themselves. They were the strongest national element in the Russian Empire, as they now are in the Soviet Union. They will continue to be the strongest national element in that general area, under any status… The Ukrainian territory is as much a part of their national heritage as the Middle West is of ours, and they are conscious of that fact. A solution which attempts to separate the Ukraine entirely from the rest of Russia is bound to incur their resentment and opposition, and can be maintained, in the last analysis, only by force».
What was obvious to U.S. analysts and statesmen in the era when the United States became a superpower and had a monopoly on nuclear weapons has been forgotten by America’s modern political establishment and media. The White House and European Union leaders believe that they can use force or the threat of sanctions to make the Russians think of Ukraine as a country separate from Russia. And if the West succeeds in “containing” Russia, the reward will be the accumulation of long-term resentment of Russians, who will see the West, the United States, NATO, and the EU under a single lens: as a force that prevents Russians from owning and using much of their land and their heritage and being close to, and united in one country, with their loved ones.
Why do Russians perceive Ukraine as Russia?
First of all, personal ties. An enormous number of Russian citizens were born on Ukrainian territory, but they do not consider themselves Ukrainians, especially in the sense implied by Kiev authorities. Even more Russian citizens have ancestors and relatives in Ukraine. It would be surprising to find a Russian citizen who has none at all.
That is, Russians perceive Ukraine as their ancestral land in the most literal sense of the word, ready to point out the graves of relatives and the plot of land on which their house stood.
When the administrative boundaries of the republics of the USSR were turned into “hard” borders in 1991, 8 million people who had been considered Russians in the narrowest, ethnic sense of the word, turned out to be “Ukrainians” in the legal sense. Quite often, the ties were torn like living tissue. For example, Kharkov and Belgorod, essentially twin cities founded in the same era, the late 16th to mid-17th centuries, by Russian tsars as outposts against Crimean Tatar incursions, ended up on opposite sides of the border. The country houses of the inhabitants of “Russian” Belgorod turned out to be on the territory of Ukraine, and the country houses of the inhabitants of “Ukrainian” Kharkov, vice versa.
Therefore, Russians from Russia are perplexed as to why the regime in Kiev thinks it has the right to dispose of their land, especially considering that this regime came to power through a coup and subsequent direct intimidation against the backdrop of a civil war. And it is not surprising that many people support the so-called separatists. This term, however, is misleading: in relation to unified Russia, it is the Kiev regime that can rather be considered separatist, while Crimean activists or Donbass militia are more likely to fall under the definition of “separatists from separatists,” that is, «unionists». Both the activism in Crimea, the insurrection in Donbass, and the protests in Odessa, suppressed in a massacre in which some 50 people were brutally murdered in one evening on May 2, 2014, were all, in the logic of a greater and united Russia, unionist, not separatist.
A huge number of Russians not only lived but also worked in Ukraine, which in the 20th century was the main industrial area of Russia. Industry grew there not as a byproduct of the Ukrainian national character, but because it was created in the region first by the tsars and then by the Soviets. The industrial density of eastern Ukraine was comparable only to the German Ruhr. A great many people in Russia, at one stage or another of their lives, worked in Ukraine at enterprises that built aircraft carriers, helicopters, space industry components, all the things that were part of the most complex economy of a huge superpower, but were in no way needed by an independent Ukraine.
The political and economic elites of independent Ukraine treated the industrial “dowry” they had inherited not as a complex system in need of maintenance, but as wild walnut trees to be picked while they could.
The attitude of Ukraine’s leaders toward the powerful gas transportation system created by the Soviet Union is characteristic in this regard. They perceive it as an instrument of blackmail. Unable to create or improve such a system, they threatened to stop it or destroy it if they did not receive more money from pumping gas through “their” territory. Hence the hysterical reaction of Ukrainian elites to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The fact that the U.S. and German authorities have gone along with this reaction has led to the biggest gas crisis in Europe’s history.
Of course, Russians living in Russia as well as Russians living in Ukraine cannot understand why their land should be used as a NATO forward base in a possible attack on their country, Russia. Ukraine’s accession to NATO is not interpreted in Russia as a free choice of the country in the interests of its own security. It is interpreted as the West building forward bases for a direct attack on Moscow.
Do Russians have historical grounds to consider this land their own, and the regime in Kiev and NATO as de facto occupiers on this land? Absolutely.
Both Kiev on the territory of modern Ukraine, and Polotsk on the territory of modern Belarus, and Novgorod, Smolensk and Rostov on the territory of modern Russia in ancient times constituted one state – Russia (the notion “Kievan Rus” invented by Soviet historians distorts the historical reality).
Kiev was the capital of this state, “the mother of Russian cities,” but no less important was Novgorod, which is part of Russia today. A striking fact: the Russian byliny, epic songs about Prince Vladimir who baptized Russia and his heroes, much like the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, were recorded by ethnologists in the north of Russia, in the Arkhangelsk region. Apparently, it was the local population that preserved a direct cultural connection with the population of ancient Kiev and Rus. At the same time, no bylinas survived on the territory of modern Ukraine.
Kiev was practically destroyed as a result of the invasion of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan in 1240, and the fate of the inhabitants of different parts of Russia was divided after that. The eastern regions became vassals of the Mongols (Tatars), and the direct descendants of Prince Vladimir in the male line continued to rule there. The city of Moscow with the princes from this house gradually gained hegemony and created a state that managed to gain independence.
A different fate awaited the citizens of Western Russia. Cities there lost the power of the descendants of Prince Vladimir and the historical connection with ancient Kiev. They were conquered by Lithuania, which soon merged with Poland into one state – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Because these lands were cut in half by the nearly impassable swamps of Polesie in the Middle Ages, two different groups of Russian origin were formed there: the Byelorussians to the north of the swamps, and the Malorussians (from «Little Russia») to the south of the swamps.
The Muscovite princes, who became tsars in 1547, always proclaimed their right to these lands and demanded their return from Poland, leading a slow reconquest. Poland in this struggle lost the support of its subjects Malorussians and Belarusians after proclaiming the religious “Brest Union” in 1596 and starting to persecute the Orthodox religion. A resistance movement of Orthodox Christians surged In the territories of Malaya Rus (Little Russia),
The striking force of the resistance were the Cossacks, a community of free warriors, formed in the steppes, in battles with the Tatars and Turks. A Cossack could be a native of any country who professed Orthodoxy and was willing to fight for it. As Poland persecuted the Orthodox religion, Cossacks increasingly raised the saber against Polish rule. One episode of this struggle was described in Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol. Born on the territory of modern Ukraine, in a village near Poltava, Gogol always wrote in Russian and criticized his acquaintances who tried to create a separate “Ukrainian” language.
In 1648 the leader (hetman) of the Cossacks, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, began a great revolt against Poland in defense of persecuted Orthodoxy. He won a number of victories, triumphantly entered Kiev, welcomed by church hierarchs, and created a state, the Zaporozhian Host, which in many ways resembled the rebellious republics of the Donbass recognized by Putin. In 1654, after the resolutions of the Zemsky Sobor (a kind of estate parliament) in Moscow and the Rada (a kind of national assembly) in Pereyaslavl near Kiev, Khmelnitsky’s state was integrated into Russia.
Tsar Alexey Mihajlovich adopted the title of “Tsar of All Great, Small and White Russia” and began an exhausting 13-year-old war with Poland which resulted in a partial victory: the lands on the left bank of the Dnieper were ceded to Russia, and is on the right ancient Russian Kiev has been bought out by Russian kingdom from Poland for 146 thousand silver rubles – 7 tons of silver which the richest Polish aristocratic families have divided among themselves.
The Ukrainians, the Malorussians, came from the territory of modern-day Ukraine and settled widely throughout the vast territory of Russia, making a career both in the church and at the court. The name “Ukraine” itself was not used at all during this period, the word in both Russian and Polish meaning “borderland,” “frontier. Its use as the name of the territories around Kiev refers only to the 18th century, when these lands really became a frontier in the permanent wars between Russia and Turkey.
The integration of Little Russians into Russia was not disrupted even by the machinations of Hetman Ivan Mazepa, who betrayed Peter the Great and defected to his enemy, Swedish King Charles XII, out of pure self-interest. Mazepa was abandoned by everyone save his personal guard, and a fierce guerrilla war began against the Swedish armies who entered the territory of modern Ukraine. The first attempt at “Ukrainian separatism” ended in disaster for the power that tried to rely on it.
By the middle of the 18th century, the integration of the Little Russians into Russia was extremely strong. The singer and musician Alexei Razumovsky, born near Chernigov, became the secret husband of Peter’s daughter, Empress Elizaveta Petrovna. Kirill Razumovsky, the brother of the “bedroom emperor” , rose to be Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host and simultaneously president of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. His numerous legitimate and illegitimate descendants formed an influential clan in the aristocracy of the Russian Empire.
The new Empress Catherine the Great abolished the Zaporozhian Sich and relocated the remnants of the Cossacks to the banks of the Kuban river in the North Caucasus. She also methodically conquered the steppes of southern Russia from the Tatars and Turks. Together with her secret husband, Prince Potemkin, Catherine founded there a new part of Russia, known as Novorossiya. Its population was extremely motley: mostly peasants from the “Great Russian” parts of the country, along with Greeks, Serbs, and even many Germans, invited by an Empress born in a small German principality. On the contrary, Novorossiya’s ties with the old Malorussia were rather insignificant.
Novorossiya was the Russian equivalent of the New World, only not separated by an ocean. It was a land of opportunities and new leases on life. In this New World, a complex economy began to actively develop in the 19th century, including industry (e.g., in the city now known as Donetsk), commerce (e.g., Odessa, founded by De Ribas, a Spanish nobleman in Russian service), and recreational areas (bizarrely mixed with a naval base) in the Crimea and Sevastopol.
Finally, Catherine II, in three partitions of Poland, in which Russia participated along with Prussia and the Austrian Empire, completed Alexei Mikhailovich’s quest. Russia reassembled virtually all of the lands that had belonged to Old Russia, along with their peasant populations, who had preserved the Russian language and Orthodox traditions.
The process of the return of the inhabitants of these territories to Russian identity has begun. An example is the fate of the family of the great Russian writer Dostoevsky. The writer’s grandfather was a Uniate priest of the Catholic Church near Vinnitsa, in present-day Ukraine. After that territory had been annexed to Russia, he returned to Orthodoxy. The writer’s father went to Moscow and had a brilliant career as a military surgeon. And Dostoevsky himself became the greatest writer, author, among many other works, of the following adage: “The master of the Russian land is only Russian (Great Russians, Malorussians, Belarusians – it’s all the same)”.
Russia in the course of these partitions of Poland went nowhere beyond the borders of Old Russia, and even ceded to Austria the ancient Russian Lvov. However, all the privileged class in these lands considered themselves Poles, and this land, Poland. They waged a persistent struggle against the Russian government, both clandestine and open. A part of this struggle was propagating the idea that the peasant population of Western Russia were not Russians, but “Ukrainians”, a separate people, which is closer to the Poles. Russia was thereby deprived of its national right to these territories.
Some young Russian intellectuals absorbed this idea during the “spring of nations” that shook Europe in the mid-19th century, when original nationalities were discovered or even invented all over the place. Ukrainophiles collected Little Russian songs and wrote their own poems in their likeness, like the proclaimed genius of Ukrainian literature, Taras Shevchenko.
Ukrainophile propaganda was met with hostility both by the Russian imperial government and by Russian society, which had long felt no difference at all between the lands of Little Russia and the rest of Russia. The peculiarities of Little Russia’s life did not seem to them anything extraordinary compared to the far more colorful life of the Don, Kuban, and Terek Cossacks. And, most importantly, a majority of Ukrainophiles were disillusioned with their own propaganda. When they realized that their endeavor was most profitable for the Poles, they themselves abandoned interest in Ukrainianophilia.
However, the Ukrainian idea survived thanks to Austria, which gave a university chair in its own Lvov and a rich subsidy to historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky. The interest of the Austrian Empire, riven by ethnic strife, was twofold. First, to prove that it was not the Russians who lived in Galicia and its capital Lvov, but a different nation, the Ukrainians and Russia had no right to lay claim to this country. Secondly, to prove to the Poles who lived in Lvov that they also had no right to this city. Hrushevsky began to construct a Ukrainian historical myth, which revolved around Galicia, and to publish a newspaper in Ukrainian, for each issue of which he invented several new “Ukrainian” words.
The moment of truth came during the First World War. Austria carried out in Galicia a true genocide of those who had a political and cultural orientation toward Russia. The concentration camps of Talerhof and Theresienstadt, forerunners of Auschwitz, incarcerated more than 30,000 “Moscowphiles” of Galicia and representatives of small ethnic groups, who spoke their variant of the Russian language, the Rusyns and the Lemkos. Thousands were tortured by Austrian warders and died of starvation and disease.
Captured during the war, the Austrians placed the inhabitants of southern Russia in special camps, where Hrushevsky’s followers insinuated that they were Ukrainians. The result, however, was a failure. Vladimir Lenin, who himself had close contacts with the Austrian and German secret services, described this “experiment”, in a letter to his friend Inessa Armand, from the words of the escaped prisoner, in which 27,000 people took part by force:
“The Ukrainians were given crafty lecturers from Galicia. The results? Only some 2,000 were in favor of “independence” … after months of agitat’rs’ efforts!!! The rest fell into a rage at the thought of seceding from Russia and going to the Germans or the Austrians. An amazing fact! It is impossible not to believe… The conditions for Galician propaganda are the most favorable. And yet the closeness to the Great Russians took ov”r!”
And yet, having seized power in Russia, Lenin recognized the self-proclaimed Ukrainian Peo’le’s Republic led by Hrushevsky in Kiev, and then, during the Civil War against the Whites, the defenders “f “one and undivided Russ”a,” demanded that his associates emphasize or at least imitate the existence of “n “independent” Communist Ukraine.
Perfectly aware that Ukrainian propaganda was unacceptable to the masses, Lenin nevertheless insisted on the creation of Ukraine in order to weaken the “Great Russian bully,” as he called the leading ethnicity of the Russian Empire. It was by protecting Ukraine from an inevitable absorption into Russia that Lenin rejected Stalin’s plan to turn ethnic borderlands into autonomous regions of Soviet Russia and insisted on creating the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was, according to its charter documents, a rather loose confederation with the right of secession. To this Leninist project of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR) the modern Ukraine owes its very existence.
However, there were virtually no Ukrainians in Soviet Ukraine. This why the Soviet government takes an unheard-of step: an ideological enemy, the former president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, is invited to the USSR and entrusted with leading the “Ukrainization” of public education. For a decade and a half, schoolchildren could only learn in Ukrainian and using Hrushevsky’s textbooks.
The campaign in the state apparatus was no less rigorous. Officials of ministries and departments (including such ideologically indifferent as agriculture, etc.) were forced to learn and use the Ukrainian language at work. Ignorance of the language, and especially unwillingness to learn it, was punishable by dismissal from service. Interestingly, the number of those fired was quite high. In other words, many people still resisted Ukrainianization.
But not everyone resisted, of course. There were many turncoat officials in the Communist Party. For example, Leonid Brezhnev, the future leader of the USSR during the Cold War, indicated his ethnic origin as “Ukrainian” in some questionnaires and “Russian” in others. This proved, by the way, that there was no way to distinguish a “real Ukrainian” from a “real Russian” at the household level.
Stalin, convinced that Ukrainization simply does not allow to produce literate, technically proficient specialists (most of the scientific and technical literature always remained in Russian in the USSR), began to limit it. The study of the Russian language became compulsory. The enthusiastic propagandists of Ukrainianism began to be persecuted as “bourgeois nationalists”.
However, even after this U-turn, the official Soviet regime strenuously imitated the existence of a Ukraine that was independent, distinct from Russia, but still “brotherly”. Ukraine was given a seat in the UN separate from the USSR (the Russian Federation was not). In the Moscow subway, a “Kievskaya” station was built, whose mosaics created a peculiar iconography of “Ukrainian history”.
Soviet Ukraine, however, faced a new problem. In 1939, Stalin annexed to the Ukrainian SSR areas of western Ukraine that had been seized by Poland after the collapse of the Russian Empire. And with them also Lvov and Galicia, which had never been part of Russia. Under the influence of the Polish government’s harsh national policy, a radical political movement, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, led by Stepan Bandera, was formed in these territories. This political structure is most similar to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, only under a nationalist banner rather than a Communist one. The first object of the Banderites’ hatred was the Poles – in 1943, with Hitler’s patronage, they carried out the horrific Volhynia massacre of the Polish population.
As German collaborators, Bandera and his associates committed numerous atrocities against Jews, Poles, and Russians during World War II. As the Red Army advanced against Germany, the Banderites turned their weapons against Germany more and more often and transferred their hatred for Poles and Jews to Russians and Communists. After the end of World War II, the Banderites fought a fierce guerrilla-terrorist war for many years in the western part of the Ukrainian SSR. When the guerrillas were finally defeated, they went underground, but passed on their radical ideology to a younger generation of Ukrainian nationalists.
When the Soviet Union weakened and collapsed in 1991, three factors came together in Ukraine. First, the official communist structures in Kiev were able to take advantage of the constitutional opportunities left by Lenin to create their own state. Secondly, because of the complete ideological vacuum of this post-Communist Ukraine, it was Bandera’s heirs with their knee-jerk racism against Russians that filled this emptiness with ideas.
The victims of this process were the majority of the population of Ukraine, listed either as Ukrainians or Russians in their IDs. They were used to perceiving the USSR as a big Russia, one corner of which they lived in. They did not know and did not want to know any language other than Russian. If their grandmothers taught them to speak a Ukrainian village dialect as children, they took it as an excuse for joking. All of a sudden, these people came under the powerful pressure of a still recently Communist, totalitarian state, which, through schools, propaganda, and speeches by politicians, began to demand that they be «Ukrainians».
The Russian Federation experienced a long crisis of identity and national consciousness. However, it was Ukraine that brought it out of this crisis. When the Russians found out that propaganda was helping some Russians to reinvent themselves as “not-Russia,” the Russians began to grow furious, just as the analysts of the American NSC had predicted in 1948.
The outrage at the wounded pride of the Russians began back in Soviet times. In 1954, the Soviet apparatchiks Malenkov and Khrushchev transferred Crimea from the RSFSR (Russia) to the Ukrainian SSR (Ukraine), which was seen by the Russians as their own land, watered with blood in the two heroic defenses of Sevastopol (1854-1855 and 1941-1942). This transfer, although outwardly limited to repainting the color of Crimea on maps from pink to green, was perceived by Russians in the post-World War II USSR as an ethnic insult. Sevastopol was “the city of Russian sailors” (as a famous song claimed), and no one dared argue with that. When Sevastopol became part of independent Ukraine in 1991 and Ukraine began to ban the Russian language there, Russian indignation reached its boiling point. The phrase “You will answer for Sevastopol” from the popular movie “Brother 2” became a national meme.
Several waves of forced Ukrainianization in the 20th century convinced Russians that Ukrainian identity is not something that grows organically out of ancient history and culture, but something instilled by propaganda. Whether some people like it or not, Russians from Russia perceive the dislike of Russians by some residents of present-day Ukraine not as a free choice of those ethnic identities, but as an illness that should be treated under the influence of propaganda. The more assertively some Ukrainians declare that they are not brothers to the Russians, but enemies, that they want to join NATO, not Russia, the more the opposite side increases its desire to save and cure them, whatever that means.
The West’s ploy to appeal to the self-consciousness of the population of modern-day Ukraine is only more dangerous in terms of provoking conflict. The reaction of the Russians to such appeals is similar to that of the parents of an abducted child who had been brainwashed to turn against them. It is better not to get in their way.
To summarize. Russians have many vital and historical reasons to regard Ukraine as their land, and Ukrainians, even those most hostile to Russia, as part of their people in need of protection (including from brainwashing). Western claims to hegemony over Ukraine under the pretext that “Ukraine is not Russia” are perceived by Russians as false and aggressive, with the aggression directed at lands that Russians consider their own. Resistance to the attempt to tear Ukraine away was one of the decisive factors in the ethnic awakening of the Russians during the Vladimir Putin era, and the president himself did not initiate the process, but rather accepted it as a fact.
There is no way at all, except by the most brute force, to coerce the Russians to acquiesce to Ukraine’s separateness. Russians will always perceive any world order that implies Ukraine’s separation from Russia as hostile. By supporting an “independent Ukraine,” the West will have in Russia and the Russians a relentless and unyielding enemy. So, what’s the point?