20
Jul

Ukraine is Russia’s identity test

Written on July 20, 2015 by Waya Quiviger in Culture & Society, Europe, Foreign Policy, Op Ed

Ukraine, which has long existed in the shadow of Russia, is sometimes compared to Ireland, which had a similar relationship with England, except scaled down to reflect their relative size.

Both Ireland and Ukraine were for many centuries colonized by their larger, more powerful neighbors. The Irish and the Ukrainians provided the manpower for various wars as well as for settling new colonial territories. The Irish diaspora numbers around 70 million people across the English-speaking world, while Ukrainians live in every part of Russia, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, having been either given land to move on their own initiative or transported there under guard during Stalin’s terror.

At different times, England and Russia engineered massive famines in Ireland and Ukraine, respectively, from which those countries are yet to recover demographically, physically and psychologically. In the 20th century, as European empires crumbled, Ireland and Ukraine finally won their freedom. Even the dates of their independence are symmetrical: the Irish declared it in 1919, while Ukraine, along with most other ex-Soviet republics, became a sovereign country with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

And now, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, both former colonial powers are holding on to a piece of territory which belongs to their former subjects.

And yet, one thing is very different. Unlike the Russians, who still claim that Ukrainians are not a nation, the Brits never actually tried to deny a separate ethnic and cultural identity to the Irish – or, for that matter, to the Scots or the Welsh, even though they all speak English and to a casual visitor not attuned to various accents in English, telling them all apart is next to impossible.

The English are highly individualistic. They all but invented individualism, becoming, in effect, a nation of strangers. Modern English is the only European languages not to use a familiar form: lovers, schoolmates and even parents addressing their young kids use the formal you, whereas the personal pronoun I is always capitalized. Britain has a deeply ingrained tradition of eccentricity, in which individuals are allowed to act as they see fit, without conforming to the prevailing notions of “normal” behavior. Even on the crowded London tube, passengers manage to carve out a private space.

Russia, by way of contrast, has always been collectivist. The individual has never meant a thing; he or she is completely insignificant in relation to the state. Those who assert their difference from the crowd, or proclaimed their individuality typically risked expulsion from the community. Why this is the case has been extensively studied and there are plenty of explanations based on history, culture, geography, etc. Be that as it may, collectivism is evident in everyday life – you always see Russians stand on top of each other when they cue up, even if there is plenty of room on the sidewalk – as well as in major historical events, such as Russia’s embrace of communism. On the other hand, eighty years of communist rule, when being a cog in the great machinery of state was proclaimed a huge virtue, reinforced the nation’s natural collectivist tendencies.

To an individualist, the question of identity is pretty straightforward: it is always I. A collective “we” is trickier. You first have to define who else is included into this universe – and, equally important, who is not.

Historically, it has always been difficult for the Russians to define themselves, and the experience of “communist internationalism” made it next to impossible. Early Bolsheviks wanted the collective “we” to be all the workers of the world, then, when world revolution failed to materialize, it became the “Soviet people”, officially consisting of a “fraternal family of Soviet nationalities”. In reality, this collective identity was rife with ethnic enmities and prejudice.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, the Russian Federation attempted to create a new national identity. A new term appeared – rossiyanin – meaning a citizen of the Russian Federation, as opposed to russky, which denotes more narrowly an ethnic Russian. Creating a collective WE of the rossiyanins has not so far been especially successful, and the search for Russian self-identification is ongoing. Read more…

Posted on July 19th in http://www.kyivpost.com/

Alexei Bayer is a New York-based economist and writer. HIs new detective novel, “Latchkey Murders”, set in Moscow in the early 1960s, is coming out in English in early July.

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