An important point in Peter Hitchens reflections on Russia and Ukraine (p. 20) is that Russia has never taken Ukrainian nationalism very seriously and certainly not enough ever to regard the Ukrainians as a separate people. In the 19th century, Tsarist policy was to cruelly suppress all manifestations of Ukrainianness (much of it coming into its own in neighboring areas under Habsburg and Polish control). Under Soviet control, that policy continued even more brutally, though at the same time, given that under Communism certain progressive gestures were in order, some lip service was at least paid to Ukrainian separateness—the Ukrainian SSR even came to enjoy its own voting status at the UN (which of course only gave Moscow an extra vote).
I saw how the game was played during my graduate school years, which included a three-month say in Kiev in 1977. Street signs were in Ukrainian, subway announcements too, even some movie and theater posters—though once you attended the performances they turned out to be in Russian. (To be fair, the opera performance I attended of Faust was sung in Ukrainian. Under Soviet cultural policy singing in French was not allowed.) Most everyone in the street spoke Russian and thus seemed Russian—until you got to know them.
Bookstore offerings of Ukrainian imprints were skimpy. More typical was a picture book history of Kiev (in Russian) filled with the usual photos of heroic factories and workers, along with a few takes of the city’s prettier sites, including the Khreshchatyk, the lovely main street, most of which was reduced to rubble during World War II. Not a word in the book—or anywhere else at that time—about how the withdrawing Soviet secret police forces in 1941 mined the Khreshchatyk’s buildings and set them off by remote control shortly after the Germans rolled in. Residents of the city would pay dearly for that farewell gesture.
We all know that Russia traces its roots to medieval Kievan Rus’, a claim of convenience ever since the small principality of Moscow rose by the 15th century to take control of what was left of areas controlled by the Mongols for well over a century. But Kiev itself didn’t fall to Russian control until the later 17th century. For their trouble, Ukrainians gathered in by Moscow would come to be referred to as the “younger brothers” of their “older” Russian brothers. That formulation always seemed absurd on its face. After all, Muscovy came along much later than Kiev. It was by definition younger. That never fazed it, of course. Few things do. For all we know, Michael Corleone’s relationship with Fredo is modeled on this example.
Early during the Crimea crisis, German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Vladimir Putin by phone. According to reports, Putin struck Merkel as being “out of touch with reality.” Others put it as “in another world.” These nuances matter. The former would make sense if, as Helen Rittelmeyer documents (p. 57), Putin were simply behaving like your traditional Russian male, downing bottles of vodka the way we do plastic bottles of water. We have to assume that Putin learned from Boris Yeltsin, the man who foolishly made him his successor, not to emulate him on that score. So we’re left with something even more dangerous. Putin is indeed in another world, and it’s one we can’t enter. Nor the Ukrainians ever really escape.