Photo Credit: Vladymyr Vorobiov
On Monday, February 21, 2022, Vladimir Putin delivered a major address to the Russian people as the world wondered if he was about to invade Ukraine. In a steely voice, he rehearsed the multiple humiliations Russia had suffered at the hands of the West, conveying anger and disgust each time he blamed Ukraine specifically for threatening the supposed “Russian unity” of the region. While ordering a “special military operation” aimed at “demilitarizing and denazifying” Ukraine three days later, Putin stressed that his intentions were “humanitarian,” to protect the people of Ukraine from the genocidal intent of a tyrannical government. Soon after, we all saw how his speech served, in effect, as a justification for the war that Putin launched, when Russia invaded Ukraine.
A critical aspect of Putin’s speech was the spurious history it recounted. He made it clear that he regards Ukraine as an inalienable part of the Russian nation and spiritual space. During his speech, he talked about the common mentality and historical memory of Russians and Ukrainians. He framed the Bolsheviks’ approach to Ukraine as a series of mistakes, blaming Lenin for drawing the modern borders of the former Soviet Republic. For Putin, the idea that Ukraine ought to be a self-determining nation is a historical mistake that must be corrected. Ukrainians rightly understood are not a separate people, instead they form an integral part of Russkiy Mir, the larger Russian World that Putin aims to restore to its pre-Soviet glory as a great Eurasian empire united by language, religion and a shared history.
This was the starkest manifestation in Putin’s speech of what Milan Kundera once described as the “ideology of the Slavic world,” a vision that in Putin’s mind justifies the subordination of all of Central Europe to Russian domination.
The modern history of the region has been turbulent and fragmented. Built upon the overlapping but sometimes contradictory imperial legacies of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, the traditions of modern statehood have been weaker there than in Western Europe. The history of ranging nationalist movements also sharpened interethnic relations and erased the multicultural mosaic of the region. Still, there has been a continuous development of independent political cultures and national traditions.
Ukraine is a good example. Contrary to Putin and many Westerners who support his vision of history, Ukraine became a political entity long before Russia. Similarly, the Ukrainian language is not the same as the Russian language. Moreover, despite Putin’s persistent attempts to rewrite modern history, ideas about Ukrainian statehood and sovereignty have deeper roots than Lenin’s granting the right of self-determination to the Ukrainian people when he made it a central member of the Federal Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Ukrainian political culture has long been pluralistic, and formed in relation to Jewish, Polish, Russian, Romanian, Turkish, and Greek influences. The country has been historically multiethnic and multilingual. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many cities across the country were proudly called “Little Viennas” or “Little Pragues” and resembled their Western neighbors more than Russian cities.
Viewing the past only through a Russian lens produces a gross distortion of Ukrainian history. Even though Lenin initially granted Ukraine a degree of independence within the USSR, Stalin violently subjugated its population through forced labor, purges, executions, and artificial famines.
The history of Ukraine reveals the ongoing desire of its people to be treated as Europeans, to be regarded as a part of Europe. In an essay entitled “The Tragedy of Central Europe” first published in 1984, Milan Kundera argued that the drama of modern Europe has been concentrated in countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Ukraine. The democratic spirit that Hannah Arendt associated with the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is a political desire that proved contagious, as witness the Prague Spring of 1968, the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1980 and after, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, and the Belarus Revolution of 2020. Certainly the current resistance to Russian aggression in Ukraine, following the Maidan Revolution of Dignity of 2014, demonstrate that many Ukrainians are ready to die “for Europe,” insofar as Europe embodies the promise of freedom and political self-determination.
Today, Ukrainians are dying in defense of democratic ideals—and many of us from the region observe this with despair. We keenly feel how deeply uncertain our future is.
Yet, as Kundera reminds us, the real tragedy for Central Europe unfolds, not just when Russia attacks, but also when Europeans and Americans respond with a shrug (as happened in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and occupied parts of the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine—the real start of the current war). While discussing the invasion of Ukraine, many Western commentators ignore the complex history and culture of the country and the region, and all too readily consign Ukraine to an imperial “sphere of influence” and urge its people to acknowledge “Russia’s legitimate security concerns.” In the process, Central Europeans are deprived of agency and political will.
Some in the West are amazed that Russia is losing this war so far. Others are surprised by the courageous ways in which Ukrainians are resisting attacks and defending themselves with determination.
Yet the opposite has happened. Ukraine has never been further away from Russia and closer to Western Europe than it is now. Far from representing a lost fragment of Russkiy Mir, Ukraine today embodies the spirit of freedom, and the possibility of a new beginning—not only for its people, but for the Western ideal of modern liberal democracy.
Karolina Koziura is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.