By Robert Pyrah
Untangling recent and still-unfolding events in Ukraine is not a simple task. The western news media has been reasonably successful in acquainting its consumers with events, from the fall of Yanukovich on the back of intensive protests in Kiev, by those angry at his venality and signing a pact with Russia over one with the EU, to the very recent moves by Russia to annex Crimea.
However, as is perhaps inevitable where space is compressed, messages brief and time short, a habit of talking about Ukraine in binaries seems to be prevalent. Superficially helpful, it actually hinders a deeper understanding of the issues at hand – and any potential resolution. Those binaries, encouraged to some extent by the nature of the protests themselves (‘pro-Russian’ or ‘pro-EU/Western’), belie complex and important heterogeneities.
Ironically, the country’s name, taken by many to mean ‘borderland’, is one such index of underlying complexity. Commentators outside the mainstream news, including specialists like Andrew Wilson, have long been vocal in pointing out that the East-West divide is by no means a straightforward geographic or linguistic diglossia, drawn with a compass or ruler down the map somewhere east of Kiev, with pro-Western versus pro-Russian sentiment ‘mapped’ accordingly. Being a Russian-speaker is not automatically coterminous with following a pro-Russian course for Ukraine; and the reverse is also sometimes true. In a country with complex legacies of ethnic composition and ruling regime (western regions, before incorporation into the USSR, were ruled at different times in the modern period by Poland, Romania and Austria-Hungary), local vectors of identity also matter, beyond (or indeed, within) the binary ethnolinguistic definition of nationality.
Just as slippery is the binary used in Russian media, which portrays the old regime as legitimately elected and the new one as basically fascist, owing to its incorporation of Ukrainian nationalists of different stripes. First, this narrative supposes that being legitimately elected negates Yanukovich’s anti-democratic behaviours since that election, including the imprisonment of his main political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko (whatever the ambivalence of her own standing in the politics of Ukraine). Second, the warnings about Ukrainian fascism call to mind George Bernard Shaw’s comment about half-truths as being especially dangerous. As well-informed Ukraine watchers like Andreas Umland and others have noted, overstating the presence of more extreme elements sets up another false binary as a way of deligitimising the new regime in toto. This is certainly not to say that Ukraine’s nationalist elements should escape scrutiny, and here we have yet another warning against false binaries: EU countries themselves may be manifestly less immune to voting in the far right at the fringes, but they still may want to keep eyes and ears open as to exactly what some of Ukraine’s coalition partners think and say about its history and heroes, the Jews, and much more.
So much for seeing the bigger picture, but events may well still take turns that few historians could predict with detailed accuracy. What we can see, at least, from the perspective of a maturing historiographic canon in the west, is that Ukraine is a country that demands a more sophisticated take on identity politics than the standard nationalist discourse allows – a discourse that has been in existence since at least the late nineteenth Century, and yet one which the now precarious-seeming European idea itself was set up to moderate.
Robert Pyrah is author of the recent review article, “From ‘Borderland’ via ‘Bloodlands’ to Heartland? Recent Western Historiography of Ukraine” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the English Historical Review. Robert Pyrah is a Member of the History Faculty and a Research Associate at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford
First published in January 1886, The English Historical Review (EHR) is the oldest journal of historical scholarship in the English-speaking world. It deals not only with British history, but also with almost all aspects of European and world history since the classical era.