From Borderlands to Bloodlands

September 2014
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Since the armed conflict in Donbas between the Kyiv government and pro-Russian separatists, the common discourse about "two Ukraines" separated by history and values looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Scepticism about the viability of Ukraine as a nation-state, shared by so many observers inside and outside the country, now appears well-founded. Yet the concentration of the conflict in Donbas and the decline of pro-Russian separatism in other regions in eastern and southern Ukraine also raises the question: what has happened to the East-West divide, and is Donbas all that is left of the "East" today?

In 2002 Transit published Mykola Riabchuk's article "Ukraine: One State, Two Countries" which was followed by a comment addressing the discourse of two Ukraines in a critical way.1 I argued that a schematic juxtaposition of a pro-European, Ukrainian speaking West and a still-Soviet, Russified East is highly ideological, that some elements of the Soviet legacy still hold Ukraine together rather than separate it, and that the Russian language and culture can be a legitimate part of Ukrainian national identity. I also argued that the "other Ukraine", i.e. the East, had no distinctive voice and that it lacked the symbolic resources necessary to construct its own version of a modern national identity. In subsequent years I returned repeatedly to these arguments in connection with my research on transformations, discourses and identities in the Ukrainian-Russian borderlands. Today, like many Ukrainian intellectuals, I ask how the country could have ended up in such a disastrous situation. What did we overlook? Why didn't we notice the obvious vulnerability of Ukraine's integrity? More worryingly still: did we ourselves contribute to the conflict with ideas and interpretations whose destructive potential has only now been revealed?

The Ukrainian historian and public intellectual Andriy Portnov recently criticized the popular discourse of "othering", in which Donbas is "orientalized" and turned into a negative archetype offering easy answers to questions of responsibility and guilt.2 Certainly, one danger of the current war is that it has encouraged the creation of "enemies" and "collaborators". Yet it has also cleared the intellectual atmosphere and put the debate on Ukrainian identity back to zero. Journalists, academics and writers from eastern Ukraine, many of them Russian speaking but Ukrainian patriots, have had a refreshing effect on the public discourse. Recent events have proved that there is no such entity as "the East" or "the South-East". In facing the separatist threat and Russian aggression, Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, Kharkiv and other big and small cities have rediscovered their "Ukrainianness" and are manifesting it in various ways. We don't know if Donetsk and Luhansk will remain part of Ukraine. Whether they do or not, the future of Ukraine as a nation is today being decided in the East.

In this article I shall reconsider some of my arguments from 2002 in light of the dramatic events that have meanwhile taken place in the Ukrainian-Russian borderlands. My questions are: why did the East of the country remain largely indifferent to the Euromaidan in Kyiv? What role did the legacy of Soviet modernization play in eastern Ukraine? How did the political and military crisis affect the traditional ambiguity of borderland identities? Why has the idea ofRusskiy mir (Russian world), which was marginal in the 1990s, become so appealing in eastern Ukraine in 2014? Lastly, could Donbas be reintegrated into Ukraine if the pro-Russian separatists were defeated?

1. Ukraine's eastern borderlands: The end of ambiguity

Contemporary cultural studies likes the concept of "borderlands" because it seems to fit our complex, interrelated and dynamic world and provides an alternative to the homogenizing logic of nationalism and the related ideal of mono-ethnicity. In recent decades, borderlands have been re-construed as contact zones, as systems of communication and as social networks. As geopolitically amorphous zones "in between", they generate hybrid identities and create political, economic and cultural practices that combine different, often mutually exclusive values. Moreover, borderlands are associated with multiculturalism, cultural authenticity and cosmopolitanism. Yet from the nation-building perspective, their ambiguity is nothing to be celebrated. Mixed and overlapping identities and multiple loyalties pose a challenge to the nationalizing agenda and potentially threaten the integrity of a nation-state.

These two approaches clashed over eastern Ukraine, a former Soviet heartland and since 1991 a new borderland. From the perspective of some Kyiv and Lviv intellectuals the Russian speaking population of eastern Ukraine – which voted for the Communists and for oligarchic parties and was indifferent and even hostile to the national idea – were post-Soviet "creoles" lacking Ukrainian identity. They appeared the main cause of Ukraine's troubled transition from communism, as they still mentally lived in the Soviet empire. "Soviet", industrialized Donbas was often viewed as the antipode of an "authentic", European Ukraine; Kharkiv's cultural ambiguity in particular was perceived as dangerous openness to Russia. From this perspective, Ukraine's eastern borderlands represented the weakness of national identity and a threat to the project of a truly independent Ukraine.

At the same time, the local political and intellectual elites of eastern Ukraine, above all in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk, reinvented their regions as borderlands, first of all in order to justify the close cultural ties and economic cross-border cooperation with Russia. Stressing cultural diversity, bilingualism and the de-politicization of ethnicity, the concept of borderlands also helped legitimize the lack of a strong national identity. The Kharkiv region, historically "Sloboda Ukraine" (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), was re-narrated as a zone of joint Ukrainian and Russian colonization, characterized by an absence of ethnic conflict and peaceful co-existence between the two languages and cultures. Similarly, references to Soviet internationalism and the preference of class over ethnic identity served to construe Donbas as a "special case" that escaped the logic of the nationalizing state. The rejection of ethnic categorization and the emphasis on local identity was a typical reaction to what was perceived as the "nationalism" of Kyiv and western Ukraine. This defensive borderlands discourse was linked to the trauma of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It evoked an undifferentiated, common cultural space with a local population that valued blurred or hybrid Ukrainian-Russian, eastern-Slavic, Orthodox or residual Soviet identities.

One can still debate whether it was the weakness of national identity in the East that paved the way to pro-Russian separatism and armed conflict, or whether the cause lies in the Ukrainian national idea was not sufficiently inclusive and failed to accommodate the eastern borderlands. The fact is that, with the annexation of Crimea and the military conflict in the East, the era of post-Soviet ambiguity and tolerance of blurred identities and multiple loyalties has ended. Borderlands have again turned into "bloodlands" (Timothy Snyder) and one can only guess what new constellations will emerge from this crisis.

Twelve years ago I wrote:

The Russian speaking Ukrainians and the Russians in eastern Ukraine are politically loyal to the Ukrainian state, but many of them do neither want to accept the imposition of a Ukrainian cultural identity based on ethnic/linguistic criteria combined with anti-Russian resentments, nor the opposition of a 'European Ukraine' to an "Asiatic Russia."3

In light of current events, every part of this sentence must be reconsidered. In fact, the loyalty of the Russian-speaking population to the Ukrainian state had never been tried. With the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the "Russian spring" inspired by Moscow, this brutal test has now come – not only for conscripts to the Ukrainian army, volunteers to the National Guard and those who care for wounded soldiers and refugees, but also for those who voted for the Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" and who raised arms against the Kyiv government. The majority opted for the Ukrainian state – some driven by considerations of safety and fear of violence, others inspired by a new sense of patriotism, by the pain of national humiliation and by solidarity with those fighting for the nation's territorial integrity. However, there were also those who did – and still do – sympathize with the separatists and with Russia. Some were seduced by promises of higher salaries and pensions, others rediscovered their Russian identity and had never felt at home in the Ukrainian state anyway. One of the difficult questions we will be confronted with after the war is how to live together again in one state.

At the same time, the Russian aggression has done what previous Ukrainian presidents from Kravchuk to Yanukovych had failed to achieve – catalyse the creation of a political nation. Ukrainian identity, which for so long had been associated with ethnicity, language and historical memory, suddenly has become territorial and political and thus inclusive for Russian speakers and Russians, as well as for Ukrainian citizens with other ethnic origins. A good example are the Crimean Tatars, who remained largely loyal to Kyiv after the Russian occupation of Crimea and are now perceived and celebrated as "true" Ukrainians. Moreover, cultural affiliation to the eastern neighbour felt by many Russian-speaking Ukrainians does not rule out anti-Russian sentiments. For the Russian-speaking urban middle class, along with small and medium-sized business owners and the intellectual elites in the East, Russia's antidemocratic tendencies, its self-isolation and its growing hostility to the West make it easier to identify with a (potentially) European Ukraine. However, there are still many for whom Russia is attractive: those who share anti-western attitudes, appreciate Putin's "strong hand" and are nostalgic for Russia's military glory. These people mainly belong to older generations and typically have lower levels of education. Yet the ugly face of pro-Russian separatism, the everyday terror and the anomy it has brought to Donbas, have had a sobering effect on many potential Russophiles. The Russian aggression, associated with the collective humiliation of the territorial loss of Crimea, has become a factor of national consolidation. According to several opinion polls conducted in March 2014, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian citizens (85 per cent) rejected the annexation of Crimea; even in the East, only 24 per cent approved of Russia's actions on the peninsula.4

Perhaps even more important than the shift in the public mood is the emergence of an active pro-Ukrainian minority in big Russian-speaking cities such as Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv. Former Euromaidan activists remain the motor of democratic change. Some have entered local government, others have created strong networks and grassroots groups that support the Ukrainian army, nurse the wounded and help refugees. Rather than focusing obsessively on language and historical memory, as was the case after the Orange Revolution, these groups are concentrating on the very practical issues of public safety, control of local authorities and humanitarian work. The Ukrainian identity they are performing is political and civic rather than ethnic and cultural. One indicator of this shift is that Ukrainian cultural symbols such as the vyshyvanka – the traditional embroidered shirt – have lost their ethnic particularity and become political symbols of resistance and national pride.

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