Uncharted Territory


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if you won’t be my brother, I’ll beat your skull in.



But is it all strategic?  Last July, President Putin published a strange missive about Ukraine and Russia and their historical relationship.  It present the kind of argument that makes historians wince.  The basic idea is that a thousand years ago there was a country called Rus, the most important city in Rus was Kyiv, and now a thousand years later Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine, and therefore Ukraine cannot be a real country, and everyone involved and their descendants must be Russians or a brotherly nation to Russians.  A historian confronted with this sort of mess is in the same unhappy situation as a zoologist in a slaughterhouse.  You do have expertise, and feel you have to say something, and so: oh yes, that is clearly a femur, and that cartilage was probably from a snout, and that there is a bit of liver; but this isn't your job, and you wish profoundly that you were somewhere else.  So I could say: Rus' was founded by Vikings, Moscow did not exist at the time, Kyiv was not ruled from Moscow until late in its history, the story of the brotherly nations is recent, as for that matter is national identity in the modern sense.  But you can't really engage in historical argument with people who are set on believing a myth, let alone with presidents who believe that the past is just there to confirm their present prejudices.

What is most striking about Putin’s essay is the underlying uncertainty about Russian identity. When you claim that your neighbors are your brothers you are having an identity crisis. There is a nice German saying about this: “Und willst Du nicht mein Bruder sein, so schlag' ich Dir den Schädel ein”: if you won’t be my brother, I’ll beat your skull in. That is Putin’s posture. In his essay, what Russia lacks is a future, and the nation is much more about the future than it is about the past.

Nationality is about the way that people in the present think about the what is to come.  If Ukrainians regard themselves as a national community with a future together in a state, then the issue is settled.  Historically speaking, the idea that a dictator in another country decides who is a nation and who is not is known as imperialism. 


Unlike Russia, Ukraine is a democracy.  Unlike Putin, Zelens'kyi came to office in a credible election where opposing candidates (one of them was the sitting president) had access to media and were able to compete.  (That is a fundamental difference between Ukraine and Russia: in Ukraine, presidents have lost elections and left office. That has not yet happened in Russia.) One of the central elements of Russia's traditional attacks on Ukraine has been that "Russian speakers" in Ukraine are subject to oppression.  This is conceptually misleading, in that most Ukrainians are bilingual in Ukrainian and Russian to one degree or another, and in that language does not determine identity (if it did, I'd be English).  But insofar as it is reasonable to talk about "Russian speakers" in Ukraine, the Ukrainian president himself is certainly one of them.  Zelens’kyi is from eastern Ukraine, and his dominant language is Russian.  So a "Russian speaker" in Ukraine can be elected president.  Indeed, "Russian speakers" in Ukraine are far more free in Ukraine in this respect than are "Russian speakers" in Russia.  In Russia, there is no democracy for anyone. 

Another line of Russian propaganda has been that Ukraine is uninhabitable for Jews.  Zelens'kyi is Jewish.  Incidentally, the prime minister when Zelens'kyi took office was also Jewish.  For several months in 2019, Ukraine was the only country (beyond Israel) to have a Jewish head of state and a Jewish head of government.  In Putin's essay, and more directly in a more recent article by his onetime political partner Dmitri Medvedev, this state of affairs is presented as evidence of Ukraine's lack of sovereignty and dependence on the West.  Medvedev's language crossed into antisemitic territory.