A Borderland on the Edge

The West still sees Ukraine through Russia’s eyes

Eastern Europe Features
Multicultural metropolis: Sevastopol in the 1890s

A reporter shouts into a microphone, finger pressed to his ear. “Here in Sevastopol, Banderovtsy [far-right Ukrainian nationalists] have set fire to a library! They’re burning books — Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Lermontov! And now they’re firing on a Russian school!” Smoke drifts across shot; bangs and sirens sound in the background. Take over, the camera pans back. Beside him an assistant is letting off firecrackers, while another stamps on a disposable barbecue.

A reporter shouts into a microphone, finger pressed to his ear. “Here in Sevastopol, Banderovtsy [far-right Ukrainian nationalists] have set fire to a library! They’re burning books — Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Lermontov! And now they’re firing on a Russian school!” Smoke drifts across shot; bangs and sirens sound in the background. Take over, the camera pans back. Beside him an assistant is letting off firecrackers, while another stamps on a disposable barbecue.

As the spoof suggests, Ukraine is locked in two parallel conflicts. One, between Russia and Ukraine’s allies in the West, is over the status of Crimea. The other, waged on the airwaves and the internet, is between Russia’s version of the Ukrainian revolution according to which foreign-backed fascists staged a coup, leaving lynch-mobs to rule the streets and reality, which is that mass protests toppled a grotesquely corrupt president, and that a broad-based interim government is peacefully preparing for new elections. In Kiev, police cars are back on patrol, the piles of cobblestones used to repel riot police have been replaced by flowers and candles for the dead, and shops and public services are operating normally as they have done almost throughout. For many Kievans, the biggest upset of the crisis was a two-day metro stoppage, forcing them to walk to work.

Ukraine’s revolution has caught the West on the hop. The tendency, ever since Ukraine won independence 23 years ago, has been to see the country through Russian eyes. On the rare occasions when the country hits the news it is former Moscow ambassadors who opine on television, and Moscow bureau chiefs who write the op-eds. Even William Hague talks about “the Ukraine”, as though it were still a region of Russia, rather than a fully-fledged state.

Another mistake is to see Ukraine too much in terms of its past. In the Slav languages krai means “edge”, so Ukraina is literally translated as “on the edge” or “borderland”. Over the past thousand years its rolling plains have indeed come under the sway of a bewildering series of foreign rulers. Centre of a magnificent Byzantine civilisation in the early Middle Ages (the mosaics in Kiev’s 11th-century cathedral Santa Sofia rival Hagia Sofia’s in what was then Constantinople), Ukraine fell briefly to Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, then to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, then, by dynastic marriage, to Poland.

Weakened by Ukrainian peasant rebellions, Poland ceded Kiev and lands east of the Dnieper to Russia in the 1680s, before being itself partitioned between Russia, Prussia and Austria. At the same time, Russia drove the Ottoman Turks out of the southern steppe and Crimea. Reconstituted at the Treaty of Versailles, Poland regained western Ukraine, with small slices going to Romania and the brand-new state of Czechoslovakia. Finally, in 1944, the whole territory was overrun by the Red Army. It was thus possible, until quite recently, to find elderly residents of the western city of Lviv who had lived in four different countries Austria-Hungary, Poland, the Soviet Union and independent Ukraine without ever moving house.

What this tangled and often bloody history has produced, though, isn’t a non-country, but one with a pragmatic, polyglot identity of its own. The maps showing sharp east-west language and voting divides disguise the fact that the large majority of Ukrainians are of richly mixed ancestry and bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian. In Kiev, people commonly switch from one language to the other depending on the context, or dip for fun into surzhik, a gritty working-class dialect that combines the two. Quite typical is my former interpreter, now a professor of English at one of Kiev’s universities. Though he would probably call himself ethnic Russian if pressed, his family has lived in the city for generations, he has a deep love and knowledge of Ukraine’s history and archaeology, and his daughter is married to a Ukrainian. Parallels with the Anglo-Irish are inexact, but give something of the idea.

Ukraine’s comfortably multicultural nature is reflected in the make-up of its new interim government. The acting president is a Baptist from the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk; the prime minister comes from famously mongrel (Ukrainain/Russian/Moldovan/Polish/Jewish) Chernivtsi, on the Romanian border. The interior minister’s background is Armenian, and a deputy prime ministership has gone to the popular young Jewish mayor of Vinnitsya. The inclusion of four far-right ministers appointed in deference to their followers’ fierce defence of Kiev’s Maidan far overstates the movement’s weight. When the leader of the larger of the two far-right parties stood in the presidential elections of 2010 he won only 1.4 per cent of the vote. Support may have risen since May’s presidential election will tell but to nothing like the levels enjoyed by Hungary’s Jobbik or Greece’s Golden Dawn. As an open letter by Ukraine’s leading Jewish association, rejecting Putin’s claims of anti-Semitic violence, points out, Russia itself has far more neo-Nazis, and “they are encouraged by your own security services”.

Less photogenic than the nationalists’ balaclavas and insignia, but far more characteristic, are grassroots gestures of solidarity across the ethnic spectrum. One such, in response to the interim government’s foolish but quickly rescinded removal of Russian’s status as an official language, was Lviv’s Speak Russian Day, during which city hall and local radio and TV stations all switched languages for 24 hours. For the amused contempt with which most Russian-speakers treat Putin’s attempts to stir up ethnic hatred, take a look at the YouTube videos coming out of Odessa. In one, ordinary Odessans call up Putin in a spirit of grumbling neighbourliness, ending each comic monologue with the exasperated entreaty, “Vladimir Vladimirovich, go home.” In another, an interviewer earnestly asks passers-by if they have spotted any Banderovtsy, and is met with incredulous laughter. If Putin really believes that Russian-speakers like these are poised to rally to the Motherland, he has read them very wrong indeed.

None of which is to understate Ukraine’s present fix. Crimea is lost. Putin has already sent murderous skinheads, and may yet send tanks, to Kharkiv and Donetsk. The economy is in its habitual state of near-collapse. Not least, the political class needs a thorough clean-out. Bail-out should be on condition that new local and parliamentary elections, as well as presidential ones, are held in May.

Appalled by the outcome of once-inspiring revolutions in Syria and Egypt, the West is understandably cynical about Ukraine. We shouldn’t be, because longer-term things look brighter. A sensible size (population 46m, land area slightly larger than France) and unburdened by ex-great power chippiness or economy-distorting oil wealth, Ukraine has the potential to become a normal European country. Losing Crimea the only region with an ethnic-Russian majority, and a thorn in Kiev’s side ever since independence might actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Rescuing Ukraine might even help turn things around in Russia. For all his bluster, Putin is not as strong as he looks. Russia’s own pro-democracy protestors are down but not out (tens of thousands marched in Moscow on March 16, waving banners reading “Putin is afraid of the Maidan.”) Even the elite, as his foreign policy grows more reckless and his propaganda more fantastical, must surely be pausing for thought. (“I’ve seen ten people from the Forbes list in recent days,” the London-based oligarch Aleksandr Lebedev told the New York Times. “They’re pale, they don’t understand.”) Though the Crimea fait accompli has boosted Putin’s approval ratings for now, they are likely to dip once the initial excitement has worn off, and more so if and when a fall in the oil price forces cuts in government spending.

A last reason to care about Ukraine is simply because it’s a lovely place. Kiev has rattling trams, sweet-smelling lime trees, Belle Époque mansions, two great monasteries (one demolished by Stalin, but reconstructed), and the mighty Dnieper. Lviv has Baroque churches, a swooningly mournful Polish cemetery, a splendidly pompous opera house, and not far off, the blue-green Carpathians. All over, at the end of dirt roads that snake through unenclosed, wildflower-filled fields, villages carry on a dreamlike life of their own,straight out of the pages of Gogol (a Ukrainian who wrote in Russian). Go, and while you’re there, add a candle to the Maidan.