Special Report

Destinies Unknown: Ukraine on the Brink

Historical roots of the Ukrainian future.

By 3.7.14

UPI
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Deep within the recesses of Krakow’s Czartoryski Museum, amidst priceless antiquities and artworks, resides a cabinet of historical curiosities unlike any other in Europe. Therein the visitor encounters an eclectic assortment of Polish and European artifacts, including the hero-king Jan Sobieski’s plush camp bed, Voltaire’s razor-sharp quill, and even a morsel of Napoleon’s half-eaten bread, discarded on the banks of the Berezina in the brutal winter of 1812, and now lovingly preserved, however moldering, behind plate glass. Above this unapologetically patriotic, but distinctly Europhile, display hangs the tongue-twisting inscription “Przeszłość Przyszłości,” or “The Past in the Service of the Future.” It is a quintessentially Eastern European turn of phrase, and one perfectly suited to a region where the thick patina of history is assiduously polished, and not infrequently touched up, by those in the echoing halls of power and in the roiling public square.

The Czartoryski dynasty’s peculiar schatzkammer is situated in the ancient capital of Poland, the royal seat of a nation that has put its tumultuous past very much in the service of its future, with the warp and weft of Polish history, though variegated by intertwining eastern and western strands, producing something of a coherent whole. But it is also located in the chief city of the vanished Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, which once encompassed much of Lesser Poland and what is now Western Ukraine. As one continues east from Krakow, through what the Habsburgs called Zwischeneuropa, “the Europe in between,” and into what they less charitably dubbed “Halb-Asien,” “halfway to Asia,” the Czartoryski motto gradually begins to invert itself. The future instead finds itself in thrall to the past, and history proves less a helpful servant than a fatal burden.

Nowhere is this weight felt more heavily than in Ukraine, as evidenced by the ongoing constitutional crisis that threatens the nation’s domestic repose and international security. Riven by languages, folkways, allegiances, and industries, but above all by unshared histories, Ukraine now faces an almost impossible test, one administered by a decidedly revanchist Kremlin. While in 1991 the Supreme Soviet of Ukraine issued its declaration of independence on the grounds that “mortal danger…threatened Ukraine as a result of the coup d’état in the USSR on August 19, 1991,” we now are witnesses to a democratic coup d’état within Ukraine itself, one which has put paid to President Viktor Yanukovych’s kleptocracy, at least for now, but which has brought mortal danger down upon Ukraine’s territory once more. In a land where corpses and grievances have been sown broadcast by the forces of history, a “military storm” (in the Russian military’s parlance) is forming on the near horizon, with Crimea, the eastern oblasts, and indeed the nation as a whole menaced in an existential fashion.

This burgeoning threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty is fundamentally a product of meta-history. Open a textbook on the Ukrainian past and you will soon encounter sections on the “Russian historical viewpoint,” the “Polish historical viewpoint,” the “Soviet historical viewpoint,” and only then the “Ukrainian historical viewpoint.” The ultimate liminal state, Ukraine’s very name means “borderlands,” though it is far from lacking in symbolic allure. For Russian historians like Nikolai Karamzin, the capital city of Kyiv constituted the “mother of Russian cities,” and therefore it was the manifest historical destiny of “Great Russia” to merge with “White Russia” and “Little Russia” to produce a single people. Vladimir Putin adheres to a typically chauvinistic variant of this narrative, which he provided to President George W. Bush back in 2008: “You don't understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.” So much, then, for the Act of Ukraine’s Independence Declaration’s language regarding the “centuries-old tradition of the Ukrainian state formation.” For Russians of Romanov, Soviet, or federal stripes, Ukraine has always represented a granary, a milch cow, and a warm weather port, but never a true sister-nation. 

Polish historians, meanwhile, have hastened to add that it was the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s civilizing influence that tamed the Ukrainian steppe — the “Dzikie Pole,” or “Wild Fields” — and that the regions of Galicia and Volhynia were essentially Polish, or at least westward-facing, as a consequence. At the same time, as the historian Timothy Snyder has noted,

the Polish approach was strikingly different from the Russian presumption that Ukraine and Belarus are stray ‘Russian’ lands because all three ‘descend’ from Kyivan Rus. By now we know that there is no historical basis for such a view.… If one imagines, then, that ‘descent’ is relevant to diplomacy, Polish diplomats would have as much right to speak of ‘family ties’ as Russian. In fact, Poland avoided this sort of metahistory, treating its eastern neighbors as equal nation-states.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s keg was for centuries tapped at both ends, and nationalists like Yevhen Hrebinka could hardly be blamed for lamenting that “if only one could throw cordons of wide and deep seas and high mountains around Ukraine, then…we might be independent, but now she is like a willow on the roadside trampled by all who pass by.”

It was only in the mid-19th century that Ukrainian intellectuals like Mykola Kostomarov were even afforded the opportunity to craft their own homegrown narrative. For Kostomarov, writing in his Books of Genesis of the Ukrainian People (1846), the Ukrainian people “loved neither the czar nor the [Polish] lord and established a Cossack host…in which Cossacks were all equal amongst themselves,” at least until they were undone by the machinations of the Poles, the Muscovites, and, apparently, the Jesuits. Yet in the end Ukraine would, he predicted, “be an independent republic,” and “all the peoples, pointing to the place on the map where Ukraine will be delineated, will say: behold, the stone which the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone.”

In an 1861 contribution to the Saint Petersburg journal Osnova, entitled “Two Russian Nationalities,” Kostomarov would continue his work of Ukrainian delineation, arguing that “Ukrainians are characterized by individualism, the Great Russians by collectivism” and that the “Great Russian can live through all adversities and select the hour when action is most fitting,” while the Ukrainians’ “free spontaneity led them either to the destruction of social forms or to a whirlpool of striving which dissipated national efforts in all directions.” As for Ukrainian-Polish relations, 

Poles and Ukrainians are like two branches growing in opposite directions; one is pruned and has born refined fruit — the nobility; the other produced a peasantry. To put it more bluntly: the Poles are aristocratic while the Ukrainians are a democratic people. Yet these two labels do not reflect the histories of the two peoples: Polish aristocracy is very democratic; Ukrainian democracy is very aristocratic.

While making allowances for the oversimplifications inherent in presenting broadly defined national characteristics as certain national destinies, there is some merit in Kostomarov’s observations. One notes with interest that the Russian pro-democracy protests of late 2011 and early 2012 were relatively tentative, almost pro forma, while the Euromaidan protests that spread across Ukraine in recent months for better or worse partook of that “free spontaneity,” that eddying, vortical quality described so long ago by Kostomarov.

The Euromaidan protests, which were sparked by the Yanukovych regime’s rejection of an association and free trade agreement with the European Union in favor of the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, have been fueled by the age-old belief, best expressed by the academician Mykhailo Hrushevsky, that “the Ukrainian people belongs to the Western, European, or, in short, the proper European domain not only due to its historical ties which for many centuries connected Ukraine’s life with that of the Western world and also due to the nature of its national character.” While many Anglo-Saxon observers view the European Union as an insidious and sclerotic institution synonymous with decadence and demographic decline, liberal and westernizing Ukrainians see it as far preferable to the Kremlin, an entity which likewise can be said to embody those very tendencies, and in a far more callous manner at that.

It was at the dawn of Ukrainian independence that the politician Dmytro Pavlychko announced that “a completely new era has begun,” one free of the shackles of the past, while Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma looked forward to the day when “the guardposts Poland built in the 1990s on its Ukrainian border would become as obsolete as those marking the French-German border.” Their nation had, of course, been ravaged by the preceding centuries — by war, by terror-famine, and by intestine conflict. The Soviets had done their best to obliterate Ukrainian culture, and had even made the act of writing in Ukrainian punishable by exile or execution, a fate met by hundreds of intellectuals, from Hryhory Chuprynka in 1921 to Vasyl Stus in 1985. (It spoke volumes that, at the time of Ukrainian independence, there was not a single paper mill to be found within the nascent country’s borders.)

Growing pains were not unexpected, and endemic corruption would prove nearly impossible to uproot. The brief flash of hope that accompanied the Orange Revolution of 2004, when a Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko-led coalition mined traditional values and eschewed pure ethnonationalism in the interests of constitutional reform and a westward orientation, soon disappeared in a fug of malfeasance and infighting. Russia, meanwhile, never wavered from its policy of using economic and cultural ties to ensure that Ukraine remained firmly ensconced in the so-called “near abroad.” The nationalist Mykhailo Hrushevsky described the perennial Ukrainian dilemma in his treatise On the Threshold of a New Ukraine: Thoughts and Dreams, published in that pivotal year of 1918:

[W]hile our nationality, the spirit of our people, draws us to the West, our country turns its energies and our efforts to the East and the South, to the domain of our sea, our communication center where our past leads us and where all our roads, as if they had been built by us, should lead us, and we do not embrace it as our goal, but, on the contrary, we struggle against this natural orientation of our economic and cultural life.

Today, with the might of the Russian Federation pressing against Ukraine’s eastern borders, we see the Euromaidan movement struggling against the forces of geopolitical gravity. Whether it is ultimately successful depends both on the willingness of a young nation to risk obliteration in a “military storm,” as well as on the willingness of the European Union and the United States to provide more than a few billion dollars worth of loan guarantees on behalf of the beleaguered nation.

Regardless of the outcome, one of the most important lessons to take away from this ever-escalating Ukrainian crisis is that the traditional Russian view of Ukraine must be forever consigned to the ash heap of history. There clearly can be no sisterhood of the various “Russias,” when the age-old “family ties” prove, under duress, to be marked by passive aggression at best and vicious abuse at worst. For centuries, Russia has treated Ukraine as a mill-horse shackled to the great cog-wheel of history, lashing it with top-whips whenever it seeks out preferable pastures, and inflicting upon it indignities and enormities almost without equal in all the history of the world. What has been presented as an open hand, presented in a spiritual quest for unity with the seat of Russia’s mother city, is revealed to be a closed fist, a resort of naked geopolitical ambition.

Despite the external threats, with tentative steps and fits and starts, Ukraine has nonetheless inched ever westward, and the coming days and weeks will demonstrate whether that ambition is achievable, and to some extent whether the western world is worthy of that yearning in the first place. In the meantime, however, the Ukrainian people are in the characteristic but unenviable position of wondering, as did the Galician Jewish poet Mordechai Gebirtig, whether they must bid farewell to their country, for

The harnessed cart is waiting outside.
The wild enemy
Is driving me out like a dog
To destinies unknown.

For the Ukrainians, history never ended, pace Francis Fukuyama, nor did it return, pace Robert Kagan. It has always been acting on their country, with forces positively geological in scale, sometimes glacial and almost suspended, and sometimes volcanic and liable to unleash deadly flows across the steppes. The natural result is widespread uncertainty and skepticism about any kind of national destiny, but due to the movement that began in Kyiv’s Independence Square, there is a chance that history, as in other countries, can be used in the service of the future, and not as a perpetual millstone around a young nation’s neck. Only then can that selfsame stone, to borrow Kostomarov’s phrase, become the cornerstone of Ukraine’s future.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.