Identity Theft? An Exploration of Ukrainian National Identity in the Conflict with Russia


Interview with Alexander J Motyl Alexander J. Motyl is a Ukrainian-American historian, political scientist, poet, writer, translator and artist. He is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and specializes in the history of Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR. His recent piece “Is Russia Artificial?” published last November in the Foreign Policy Journal, responds to statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Ukraine’s historical artificiality—an interpretation that Putin uses as justification for the seizure of Crimea and ongoing conflict. He writes “The fact is that the Russian state is completely artificial, while the Russian nation is completely fragmented. Both are historically contingent. They’re as real—or unreal—as any non-Russian nation or state or as any recently constructed post-colonial state.” Referencing many historical examples of the composite nature of Russia as the nation grew from the Medieval Grand Duchy of Muskovy to the current Federation, Motyl makes a bold argument on the artificiality of Russia and the hypocrisy of Putin’s claims.

AP: In what key historical examples do you base your assertion that Russia, in addition to Ukraine, is an artificial state?

AJM: Every state is artificial, in the sense that every state—from ancient Athens to the USA—is a human construction. Moreover, every state—with the exception of a few small island polities—consists of disparate regions, disparate economies, and disparate populations. No boundaries have ever been historically fixed or predetermined; they always ebb and flow through time. Being so enormous, Russia is especially “artificial,” consisting of hugely disparate regions, economies, and populations, and having emerged as a result of imperial expansion over centuries. Ukraine is actually “less” artificial, inasmuch as it incorporates territories that were overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Ukrainians in the early 20th century. By definition, all empires, such as Russia and the Ottoman, British, Spanish, Portuguese, or French empires, are “more” artificial than non-imperial states, such as Ukraine.

AP: Russia may be an artificial state, but a sovereign political entity called Russia has existed for centuries. The territorial entity of Ukraine, though, has only existed in its current form since the creation of the Soviet Republic in 1922. Should this difference in historical time affect how the artificiality of each state is understood?

AJM: The length of time a state has existed may say something about its stability, but it has nothing to do with its artificiality or “naturalness.” If anything, the fact that the size of “Russia” changed continually over centuries could be said to demonstrate that there is nothing stable about something called “Russia,” and that “Russia” is, in fact, a fluid, unstable, and utterly artificial historical entity. After all, where would one locate “Russia”? In the area around Moscow? Novgorod? In the area east of the Baltic and north of Ukraine? West of the Urals? East of the Urals, and if so, how far east? Including the North Caucasus? Including Central Asia? Some of the above? All of the above?

AP: What about the principle of self-determination? How should the dual move over the last century towards the stasis of international borders under the UN system, and the rise of ethnic homelands following the breakup of empires be understood in relation to the Ukrainian conflict and arguments of self-determination in Crimea?

AJM: The USSR was the world’s last empire, and its end in 1989-1991 was a classic instance of imperial “collapse”—the sudden, rapid, and comprehensive dismantling of the imperial system. Ukraine, like the other non-Russian states, was thus a Russian colony that became independent largely because the USSR fell apart into its constituent units. Ukraine’s post-independence attempt at state-building, like the attempts of the other non-Russians, is identical to the state building efforts of former British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies after World War II—and suffers from all the pathologies and difficulties of building states in former colonies still dominated by former imperial metropoles.

Although some Ukrainians invoked the right to self-determination before the USSR collapsed, that right, and its practical application, had little or nothing to do with the actual emergence of an independent Ukraine and the other non-Russian states. The USSR, like all other empires, fell apart as a result of its own internal weaknesses. In some empires, lost wars serve as triggers or accelerators. No such war brought down the USSR. Indeed, if anything served as a trigger, it was Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of perestroika.

Former empires that experience collapse often try to reestablish their empires. That happened in Germany after the Reich collapsed in World War I; that is currently happening in Russia. Unsurprisingly, both Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia invoked the right of nations to self-determination in their seizures of territory—Austria and the Sudetenland, the Crimea and eastern Ukraine. In fact, they were reviving empires. Both Nazi Germany and Putin’s Russia also claimed that their ethnic brethren were being cruelly oppressed in Czechoslovakia and Ukraine, whereas the exact opposite was true. Czechoslovakia was Eastern Europe’s only functioning democracy, while eastern Ukraine’s Donbas and the Crimea enjoyed de facto or de jure autonomy with all possible rights for the use and development of Russian language and culture.

AP: How do you see Putins ethnic justifications for seizing Crimea influencing ethnic nationalist movements in other regions of the Russian Federation?

AJM: In invoking self-determination and challenging existing state boundaries, Putin has triggered a time bomb that will ultimately destroy the “artificial” Russian state. After all, the country that is most vulnerable to boundary challenges and claims of self-determination is the world’s largest, and most artificial, state—Russia. Unfortunately, as with Nazi Germany, the ultimate decline and possible collapse of Russia will be accompanied by enormous bloodshed within Russia and between Russia and its neighbors.•

Image by Khrushchev

Interview with Yuri Shevchuk

AP: How do you believe videos, the Internet, and other new media have influenced the coverage of the Ukrainian conflict?

YS: Well, number one, you mean coverage in the West. This is probably the first time a big social upheaval in the center of Kiev has been live-streamed to the West. And for the first time it became a very effective tool for countering the huge propagandistic machine that Russia has deployed against Ukraine. Russia had to convince their own public opinion, Ukrainian public opinion, and world public opinion that what they are dealing with in Ukraine are Nazis, right-wing anti-Semites, Russophobes—anything but a people who rose up en masse to defend their human rights. For the first time the Kremlin had difficulties transmitting that message because people actually located in the Maidan Square in Kiev were able to live-stream eye-witness accounts of what was going on…exposing how many “Nazis” were in the Maidan versus how many common Ukrainian people you could easily identify with. The role of easily available tools of video streaming can not be overestimated—it was huge—setting a new paradigm for the entire conversation. The matter of fact is that those people in the street were basically going against a repressive apparatus of a repressive puppet government, openly supported by Russia, with their bare hands, and they could hardly win other than by mobilizing others in the provinces, as well as world public opinion, without these new media technologies.

AP: In what ways are the shared identities of Russia and Ukraine portrayed in film? How do directors and screenwriters deal with questions of Ukrainian identity?

YS: In the strict sense of the word, we don’t have a Ukrainian national film. We don’t have what other national films do in respect to their cultural and political communities, namely being a reflection of their identity: what they think they are, what they want to be, how they view themselves, their culture, their language, their history, their past, their commonly shared experience, and how they relate to others. Using that understanding of a national film, Ukrainian national film doesn’t even exist. What exists is basically the inertia of Soviet informed, colonial representation of Ukrainian-ness which is completely distorted. What we have seen over the 24 plus years of Ukrainian independence is basically the kind of a Ukrainian identity that says that you can be Ukrainian without actually feeling part of your people, without speaking their language, without knowing their culture, their literature, or their historical experience. It is simply a parody of the distorted image of Ukrainian-ness from Russian and Soviet propaganda: namely, that Ukrainians are a lesser version of great Russia, they all are dying to be Russian, that the kind of language they are speaking is not really a language and is instead a dialect, funny distortion of the great Russian language. Ukrainians are chaotic; they sing, they dance, and they drink vodka. They are inherently incapable of ruling themselves. That kind of an identity was instilled in generations of Ukrainians to the effect that a young person finding themselves born in Ukraine would want to have nothing to do with that kind of identity. He would want to be Russian because Russian is modern, and Ukrainian is provincial. Russian is cosmopolitan, and Ukrainian is narrow-minded. Recently, a Ukrainian television station produced a brand new series called “The Last Muscovite.” It is billed as a “fine Ukrainian patriotic series.” It’s about a painfully modern and cool young Russian from Moscow fleeing to the Carpathian region in Ukraine from some Moscow mafia and he finds himself surrounded by these Ukrainian “savages.” They are all nitwits. They are all invariably dumb, thick, funny, and anything they do is infantile.

The Ukrainian cultural sphere and information space are solidly dominated by Russian interests. Major television channels and production studios are run by people who sympathize with the Kremlin and therefore these types of shows are the kind of cultural product they produce. In Ukraine, the free paper on the metro in Kiev called Vesti (New) is in the Russian Language only and expresses Russian imperialist points of view. Nobody does anything about that. No one does anything about Russian propagandistic films being broadcast with no competition from other foreign or Ukrainian productions. If Ukrainians have no money to produce their own films, they could use American films, Bulgarian films, or anything! Just dub them over into Ukrainian. So people in Ukraine are left with no choice; they are offered almost exclusively the cultural product that peddles Kremlin’s message, variously packaged, but invariably anti-Ukrainian.

Where language is concerned, Ukraine has something that no other modern country, to my knowledge, practices. They deliberately and consistently mix two languages in all television and radio broadcasts, so that a Ukrainian who wants their children to learn Ukrainian can’t do that because you always hear, at the same time, Ukrainian and Russian. Russian: refined, nice, educated; Ukrainian: uneducated, translated, stilted. You can tell that the TV anchor who is speaking such “Ukrainian” on air is frantically translating from Russian because that’s their mother tongue. So you end up with the entire country of 44 million people viewing their language as some sort of auxiliary or add-on attachment to the great powerful Russian language. As someone who teaches Ukrainian to American students, I am hard pressed to recommend to a student a speech sample or a television program that is only in Ukrainian because there are no such things. Over a stretch of time of 5 minutes you will hear Ukrainian and Russian together—it’s absolutely schizophrenic. Any kind of national identity creation in the arts is made impossible. This is how “shared Ukrainian identity with Russia” occurs: it’s the kind of identity that Ukrainians are compelled to share with Russians. […] This is so called asymmetric linguistic dualism, whereby every Ukrainian speaker can and does speak Russian, whereas ninety-plus percent of Russian-speakers cannot and will not speak Ukrainian. It’s a colonial relationship and in the cultural sphere nothing has changed. So the situation is very interesting—there is real war going on with people being killed, and in this sphere the frontlines are distinct and clear but in the cultural war there is no telling who is on which side: they use labels like “truly patriotic Ukrainian series” behind which they propound patently racist views of Ukrainians.

AP: Do you believe there has been a shift in orientation and focus in the filmmaking and larger art community in Ukraine away from Russian influences to more Western European and American ones?

YS: Yes and no. There are films that are dying to be, or to feel at one with, the rest of the world or to treat their own identities and communities the way American film treats Americans, French the French, and so on.

The matter of language is an entirely different matter. Most Ukrainian filmmakers feel noticeably uncomfortable […] with Ukrainian, because they don’t know it. So they choose either Russian or Surzhyk—the macaronic mixture of two that you hear spoken in the streets and aggressively promoted on TV. Their justification is that “this is people’s reality, I can’t construct something that doesn’t exist in real life, I have to reflect facts on the ground.” It means that there is very little film created in the standard Ukrainian language. This one film called Tribe, though, does something brilliant. It’s about a mute and deaf boarding school so there is no talking. The film is very well-done (it was shown at MoMA) but it also reflects the predicament facing Ukrainian filmmakers to answer questions about whether what they are doing fits into their sense of Ukrainian identity, about why someone should make a Ukrainian film instead of a Russian one, and about why a Ukrainian film is not simply a bad knock-off of what is Russian. So to say that no, there has not been a shift in orientation in the filmmaking and larger art community in Ukraine away from purely Russian to more diverse Western influences would not be correct. Despite the puny budgeting that is available, there still are rays of Ukrainian cinematographic self-expression that reaches the public, but the majority of the television stations with the greatest amount of money still produce the cultural product that is more reflective of Russia, its culture, and identity to the exclusion of Ukrainian culture and identity. •

Prof. Yuri Shevchuk is a lecturer in the Columbia University Department of Slavic Languages and the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies, specializing in Ukrainian language and culture. He is founder and director of the Ukrainian Film Club at Columbia University.


Student Voice: Zoryana Melesh

I recently sat in Professor Richard Betts’ lecture in his “War, Peace and Strategy” class and was astonished by one the statements he made: “Wars are not started by those who invade, but by those who are invaded.” It is the act of responding to an outside aggressor that marks the beginning of a war, which directly explains the current events in my home country, Ukraine: the annexation of Crimea, followed by Russia’s invasion.

I was born in L’viv in 1990, one year before the Soviet Union collapsed, in a city that was and arguably still is the core of the Ukrainian language and culture. I moved to Kyiv at the age of five. At that time, Kyiv had only been capital of the new independent Ukraine for four years—a country that many people didn’t very much identify with yet. Eighty years of oppression had been aimed against anyone opposing the government and quelled any cultural identity that wasn’t Russian. In one example, the 1932 genocide in Ukraine, my grandfather who was then seven-years-old lost nine of his siblings who starved to death in a year-long campaign by Stalin that saw nearly ten million people killed, and to this day isn’t acknowledged by Russia. Today, though, a whole generation in Russia and Ukraine exists that no longer remembers the tyranny, the genocides and “trips” to Siberia—forgetting their forefathers whose identity was forged through fear and repression by the Russian State.

Back then, my family and I could be recognized as outsiders by one key feature—we spoke Ukrainian, and the treatment we received was shocking. The assumption was that we came from Western Ukraine and that we must be poor. The challenges I faced were difficult to deal with, especially at the age of seven when you begin to almost feel humiliated for not blending in with your peers. It was a big change when, at the age of eleven, I moved to Vienna, Austria and began attending an American International School there. In some ways it was harder than in Ukraine, as I had to adjust to the larger Austrian culture and the American and international culture within the school. Who I am today is a result of these experiences. I am a person who identifies with many different cultures and feels at home in three different cities, but no one place in particular. They call people like me “third-culture kids.”

For better or worse, living abroad has made me immune to the Russian propaganda at home and gave me a fresh outlook on the situation. In the meantime, Ukraine has gone through two revolutionary waves– the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, a revolution that arguably is not over yet. And I was there for both of them.

In 2004, in Kyiv, the atmosphere was different from even back in 2001 when I left the country. People were different. There was hope in the air, for the first time since possibly the 1940s could you see a person holding up a Ukrainian flag, and you could see pride in her eyes. It was truly magical. And here’s why: Ukrainian identity was beginning to find its roots in society. The revolution ended in what seemed to be a success at the time, but now is seen to have given the country no real progress. That is why the Revolution of Dignity is so important; it’s not even a revolution you can put a date on. It has begun, but it hasn’t yet finished. It is not about the EU, Russia or the United States. It is in a way about them all, but at the same time isn’t about none of them. It is about a way of thinking, it is about forging a new identity and one that is truly Ukrainian. If identity is born when we begin to define what we are not, to understand what we are, then that is what I think was and is taking place in Ukraine. And a Ukrainian identity is not one that speaks only Ukrainian or goes to Church. It is Christian and Jewish, it speaks Ukrainian and Russian, and it believes truly in freedom—political and personal. Freedom to believe, freedom to choose, freedom to travel, freedom to speak and freedom to think. And that is why this revolution is remarkably different from any other. It was not divisive in any way; on the contrary, it united a country that might have been more divided than even I could see. It united the country under one flag and with a belief that seems in the present-day largely Western European and American, and extremely anti-Russian.

That is why it has come to be called a Revolution of Dignity, because it is dignity that has been denied to us for so long by Russia. Dignity of simple things: the ability to speak your language, believe not in Lenin but in God, and the dignity of being recognized as a individual with his or her own ideas, beliefs and identity. The only reason it is anti-Russian is because both the Russian government and its people have a strong belief in freedom being defined in a very fluid way: either it isn’t spoken of or it is merely granted, by Lenin, Stalin, or Putin. No reason to even talk about it or mention it. Talk of personal freedoms and human rights in the Soviet Union and Russia today is viewed by the majority as nothing more than a corruption of the Russian blood by evil American propaganda. So for Russia to say Ukraine’s revolution is the work of the CIA, and for the West to try understanding the Russian side, with typical remarks like “the Cold War is over, we can’t act as if Russia is evil” is to, in effect, deny the Ukrainian people the dignity to choose their own path. It is to say that some people deserve freedom less than you do, and there is no other side to this story. The Cold War in its actual definition might be over, but there surely is another war going on. It is taking place in people’s minds and it is a war of ideas. It might have been Russia that sent its tanks and soldiers, but it began with us, when we chose freedom over repression and dignity over subordination. •

Zoryana Melesh is a senior in GS majoring in Political Science. She is the current president of Ukrainian Students Society at Columbia University and will be starting at SIPA this coming fall concentrating in International Economic Policy and International Security Policy. Her interests include American and international law, political theory, economics and security policy.