Олексій Сокирко

Співробітник Центру ім. В. Липинського

«False narratives on Ukraine can be fatal for European security» – historian

28 Березня 2022, 14:12

This article by historian Oleksiy Sokyrko was published in the «Ukrainian Week» more than ten years ago, in May 2011. But today it has become even more relevant. Therefore, the editors invite our readers to turn again to this text, which in some respects turned out to be almost prophetic.


“Angola isn’t England |Anglia|, Russia isn’t the |Kyivan| Rus”

– a quote displayed on a poster by Ukrainian football fans which was then confiscated by Russian police.


Sceptical narratives on Ukraine’s European prospects have been quite common. In the past year, excluding from the anti-European steps from the new government, the West has also expressed some disapproval of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the absence of direct political action with regards to Ukraine by the west is not only caused by Ukrainian internal inaction but by a combination of geopolitical factors. In some part, this is due to the vision that the West has of Ukraine, which is largely based on several mythical perceptions. These myths are the basis for how the Western elites and their citizens envision Ukraine. In other words, the West has its own ‘mental’ map of Europe, where Ukraine is identical by colour to Russia.


Myth #1. A millennium of shared past with Ukraine and Russia

The most simple and generalised thesis of this myth: Ukraine and Russia are inseparable parts of Rus (Kyivan Rus) from the beginning of Slavic statehood, there fore Rus’ – is the old name of Russia, and Ukraine – is one of the Rus’ regions analogous to modern Siberia or the Volga Region. This myth has shaped a greater picture, offered to the West in the first half of the XIX century, when Russian historiography ‘privatised’ the history of Rus’ as per request by the Russian elite. The conversion from Muscovy (i.e. Russian) to Rus’ has thus been completed. Hence, the mediaeval history of Rus’ was falsely converted from a Muscovian form into a Ruthenian (Rus’) form in an imperial manner. The Ukrainian independence movement, which under the past historical alignment of Rus’ thus searched for a new common denominator, different to the old denominator appropriated by the Russo-centric propaganda machine. The search for a new common denominator ended up with the adoption of the name “Ukraine”, even though for the entirety of the mediaeval era, Ukrainian lands were associated with the names Rus’ and Ruthenian – including the inhabitants of these lands and their neighbours. This name labelled Ukrainian lands on all mediaeval European maps and one of the provinces of the kingdom of Poland was even named Rus’ (Ruthenian). After all, an attempt to form a new kingdom of Rus’ was made by Ivan Vyhovsky from the remnants of the Cossack Hetmanate in the mid-XVII century. Ukrainian lands constituted the ‘nucleus’ of mediaeval Kyivan Rus’ upon the lands of eastern Europe. A considerable part of this land was culturally and politically an integral part of European civilization.


“Holy Rus’” is falsely seen by the West as the ‘umbilical cord’ connecting Russia and Ukraine in terms of a common culture, language, statehood, and Christian Orthodoxy. This vision of the inseparability of Russia and Rus’ can be demonstrated on many levels of cultural exhibitions, conferences and other events that mention the history of Rus’. Most western historiographical conferences and exhibitions dedicated to the studying of Rus’ are dominated by Russian and Soviet cultural narratives. Later, In accordance to these narratives of Soviet imperialism, new elements were added – such as the “cradle of three brotherly nations”, orthodox-slavic world with its values as separate from the western world.


This myth in particular is the most revitalised and systematic, because it attempts to use the current similarities in the level of human development, ‘strong’ bilateral relations in Ukraine and Russia as an explanation of the alleged common beginnings of the two national. This narrative completely disregards the fact that the legacy of the Byzantine Empire had affected the two nations completely differently. In Russia it became a dogma of Orthodoxy which disconnected it from the rest of the world while in Ukraine (Rus’), it build a bridge to the rest of the world, with notable influences from the latin sphere. The west wishes to see the basis of a single and undivided ‘Old Russia’, but not an ‘Old Rus’’. Even the alleged ‘common’ Orthodoxy in the times of Rus’ had two different faces: one with a more western and open tilt (Kyivan) versus a close-minded, xenophobic and conservative Muscovian (Russian) Orthodoxy face. The evolution of elites and their political cultures also had two different faces: the face of Rus’ was based on the rule of law and regionalism, while the Muscovian face was characterised by autocracy and lack of political freedoms.


Myth #2. The victory of Ukrainian democracy will prevail over Russian Authoritarianism

This myth is sort of a “dream of Vira Pavlivna” (Ukrainian literary critic) of Russian dissidents, which view the victory of democracy in Ukraine not in terms of national interest, but as a triumph of civil rights in the biggest nation amongst the ex-Soviet republics (which in their eyes would bring the demise of communism). The current political opposition in Russia stands behind this rhetoric in the form of ‘psychological anaesthesia: for them, Ukraine remains a component of the ex-Soviet arena, from which ideas of freedom can still be projected.


This dream of a victorious democracy in Ukraine has been ingrained in the West’s vision so deeply that the Eastern Partnership Project of the mid 2000’s aimed at positioning Ukraine as a component of structural change in a new ‘Young Europe’ – simultaneously hinting at rapprochement with Russia. This was fundamentally cemented by the perception that political processes in Ukraine and Russia were synchronic. This was based on once again, the ‘common beginnings’ of their political cultures and statehood.


It is impossible to hide the truth that in both scenarios of a possible victory of democracy in Ukraine as well as a defeat both lead to disappointment from the West. At most, the triumph of democracy in Ukraine can slightly contribute to the establishment of the early stages of any ‘painful’ democratic developments in Russia. However, such a miraculous transformation is unlikely, because in such a large and unintegrated country like Russia, it is difficult to predict in which direction political mechanisms will head – catalysed by mass corruption, suttle chauvinism and an unbalanced economy. Hence, democracy and the construction of an effective government in Ukraine must be viewed not as an instrument, but as a goal of its own, which would aim to save the West from colliding with a so called Russian ‘icebreaker’.


Myth #3. Ukraine is safe from violent scenarios.


This myth is also an example of wishful thinking. From one side, the envisaged impossibility of conflict concerning Ukraine and its citizens may appear as an external weakness of Ukraine, spinelessness of its government and citizens, as part of a non-aggressive depiction of ‘Little Russians’. On the other hand, it may seem as 20 years of independence confirm this. A long-standing indecisiveness concerning the governance, development of the country and short-sightedness of the elite called for economic neutrality in the mid 90’s. This fluctuation depended on the aims brought about by the regime at the time. Insignificant territorial disputes (e.g. Snake Island) were always localised and temporary, never turning into large scale confrontations. Internal policy was always ‘soft’ – without any form of extremism and bloodshed. Even the Orange Revolution of 2004 was peaceful, accompanied by ceremonial music and concerts.


This distorted, optimistic view does not account for many potentially threatening variables. A variable that comes to mind is the potential for politically extremist conspiracies, which seem to be used by the current regime as a means of intimidation against political rivals. Turning Ukraine into an epicentre of turmoil is possible, depending on a few critical variables. The most important variable is the crossover of multiple integration processes, which Russia can use to its advantage if it sees as progress in Ukraine being unfavourable to its interest. To tackle such processes, Russia resorts to strengthening its grip on the relevant markets and economic systems as a political tool to engulf Ukraine, which then likely leads to violent confrontation. As the events of the summer of 2008 showed, when the Russo-Georgian war threatened to pull Ukraine into the mess as well.


Another probable variable concerning the external political instability of Ukraine, is the radicalisation of Ukrainian society, as a result of the stagnation of living standards, effectiveness and corruption of the regime as well as hopelessness of any future social policies. This variable may be the most important yet the least predictable with regards to a full-scale and lengthy conflict in Ukraine. Western economists never truly acknowledged that the development of Ukraine should rest upon the existence of a healthy middle class, which would signal the presence of individualistic freedoms and economic independence. The presence of such a middle class from a historical standpoint was the backbone of any resistance against external threats. Relevant examples are the Cossack era, the war for independence in 1917-1923 and the struggle of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Hence, the middle class was always targeted first by the opposing side when to subjugate Ukraine. However, even in the darkest times of domination by totalitarian regimes, this middle class was never fully liquidated. For example, after the genocide of Ukrainians in the Holodomor of 1932-33, the Ukrainian villager, as the main victim, brought about his ‘revenge’ by massive desertification in 1941.


The overcoming of myths is not always a matter of intellectuality, especially when some are encouraged by politicians themselves. It is apparent that the West’s distorted vision of Ukraine will only be reviewed when the West itself feels the consequences of its short-sightedness. To a large extent, the success of such a shift must be in consolidation with Ukrainian intellectuals and society.


“Eternal Russia”

The monumental art piece of well-known Ilya Glazunov (circa. 1988), created in the times of Perestroyka (Russian for ‘reconstruction’ – a time of Soviet back-tracking and easing of repression) which displayed the iconic figures of the pre and post-1917 eras, very well depicts the Russo-centric view of Russia and Ukraine, adopted by the West. In the first ‘row’ of ‘eternal Russians’ one can see the iconic figures of Kyivan Rus and early Ukraine: starting with Andrew the Apostle, Saint Borys and Hlib, Volodymyr I of Kyiv and Bogdan Khmelnytsky.

As a matter of fact, in 2009, Vladimir Putin visited the national gallery of Ilya Glazunov on the occasion of the painter’s 79th birthday. Putin looked at Glazunvo’s ‘Eternal Russia’ and was noted to remark – ‘Borys and Hlib are Saints but one must fight for his land, not simply give it away without putting up a fight’ and ‘This should not serve as an example – just waiting until you get killed’.