Russia-Ukraine: Nationalism and History Background

6 m.   |  2022-03-29

I nformation, expert and analytical huge references on Russian-Ukrainian war are mainly focused on the current stage of development of the two states’ relations, omitting their underlying causes.

The 20th century was a period of Ukraine’s formation and further development as a state. The formation of the Ukrainian state was combined with the complicated political events taking place in the territory of the former Russian empire. Actually, until 1917 the idea of creating an independent state in Ukraine did not enjoy public authority. Even during the 1917 turbulent political events, majority of the Ukrainian elite continued to link the future of Kyiv with Russia. It was during this period that Ukrainian nationalist stories became more general.

Ukranian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky was the main presenter and generalizer of the Ukrainian history, and the intellectual representing Ukrainians as a separate ethnic community. Hrushevsky was not a random person, he was the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine from March 1917 to 1918, actually the first person of the first political-state body formed in Ukraine at that time, the head of the state. The conceptual coup of Hrushevsky was that he put forward in his works a viewpoint that Ukraine is not Russia, and that the united Russian people is just a myth. 

According to Hrushevsky, Vladimir-Moscow government is not the heir of the Kievan Rus, but emerged and developed on the basis of its own root. And the contrary, Kyiv’s government is the constant heir of the Kievan Rus, on the basis of which the Ukrainian people and the state of Ukraine was formed.

Without delving into historical details and debates, it should be noted that the debates of both Russian and Ukrainian specialists have a political tone. Both in 1918-1920, and in the Soviet period, and in the post-Soviet period the political component has accompanied and accompanies publications and debates on the history of Ukraine and Russia.

In case of Russia, the political component refers to the imperial past and logic, and in case of Ukraine, to break away from that imperial orbit. The formation of the Soviet Union played an important role in the establishment of Ukrainian statehood. The Ukraine’s factor was important in the formation of the USSR, on which the bet was made. With all the borders that Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was formed during the early years of the Soviet Union, and since 1954, the Crimea has joined it. Ukraine, as a state unit, was established in the Soviet era, not only in terms of administration and borders, but also in terms of language and culture.  

The policy of corenization and nationalization in the 1930th was aimed at localization of local languages, elites and culture in the Union republics. In case of Ukraine, it was called “Ukrainization”. With such a policy, the Bolshevik leadership in Moscow aimed to strengthen its power, and somewhat that liberal policy covered almost all the spheres of life. 

It turns out, the Ukrainian National Revival in 1917-1921, the nationalist moods and as a result the process of Ukrainization was taken over and continued by the Soviet authorities. Newspapers, universities, schools, theatres and the administrative apparatus were Ukrainianized. The official correspondence was also in Ukrainian, the publishing gained momentum, the works of Ukrainian classical and young writers were published in Ukrainian.  

T he policy of Ukrainization by Moscow wasn’t unequivocally adopted in Ukraine. The point is that the leaders of the Communist Party of Ukraine were not ethnic Ukrainians: among the leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party were German Emmanuel Kviring, Jew Lazar Kaganovich and Polish Stanislav Kosior. They considered the Moscow culture to be progressive, and the Ukrainian culture to be “a low rural culture”, hence they resisted the policy of corenization. Against the background of this, the National-Communist Party emerged, in the person of Alexander Shumsky and Nikolai Skripnik. The latter went further, taking with him a translator when travelling to Moscow for meetings. The fact that the policy of corenization in general and Ukrainization in particular was conditioned by a political expediency became obvious by the Moscow center’s steps in the late 1920s and 1930s, when they realized that the process of Ukrainization had gone far enough, and they returned to repressive methods. One of the components of that policy in Ukraine were the confiscation of grain and the hunger.

It turns out, that after the Sovietization of Ukraine, the Soviet Union didn’t fight against the national sentiments, moreover, it made the Ukrainization more systematic, practically formulated the national territory, language, administration, the idea of Ukraine’s being a separate cultural and political unit.

Ukraine had a serious influence in domestic politics during the whole period of Soviet Union, and the Soviet Ukraine had the right to vote in the UN. Here is the heritage, Ukraine got after the collapse of the USSR. The post-Soviet space-time reality is a record of the contradiction between Russia and Ukraine. Russia’s policy fits in the logic that Russia is actually the legal successor of the Russian Empire and the USSR, and that the countries of the former Tsarist Empire and the USSR are its sphere of influence. Relations with the states of that territory are built in just the context of keeping them under Russia’s influence, through the use of various integration models. The relations with the states of that territory are built in the context so that they are kept in the Russian influence zone, through the application of different integration models.

Having in the background the reality of the historical memory of the rise of nationalism in 1917-1921 and the reality of the Ukrainization in the first decade of the USSR formation, Ukraine tried to pursue a policy of independent integration orientation. The fact that the country’s territory was not culturally, linguistically and religiously homogenous was an ideological and political complication for post-Soviet Ukraine. Galicia and Western Volhynia, that is the Western Ukraine belonged to the Uniate-Catholic church, whereas the Eastern Ukraine belonged to the Orthodox church, traditionally leading the Western part to the European integration and the Eastern part to the Russian integration. This reality played a no less influence on the political developments in post-Soviet Ukraine. In the context of escalation of Russian-Ukrainian relations the above-mentioned realities are of a key significance.