From Borderlands to Bloodlands

September 2014
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3. Collective memory and political culture

The popular discourse of "two Ukraines" assumes that the East and the West have different cultural identities based on distinctive historical memories and different, often mutually exclusive values. The East, so it goes, has no tradition of a Ukrainian nationalist movement, its population, unlike that of the West, has internalized Soviet identity and supressed the collective trauma of the Holodomor. What especially divides the East and West, according to this discourse, is the respective collective memories of World War II and the irreconcilable narratives of heroism and suffering. Indeed, while western Ukraine honours the heroes of the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought for an independent Ukraine against both Hitler and Stalin, eastern Ukraine shares with the Russia the heroic narrative of the Great Patriotic war.

Twelve years ago, to me and many others this discourse seemed potentially dangerous and threatening to Ukrainian integrity. However nobody had a premonition of how its results would finally materialize. History was exploited politically, particularly during the presidential campaign of 2004 and the Orange revolution. Both camps operated a detrimental identity politics that essentialized the East-West division of the country and turned it into a political weapon. Old clichés about "nationalist" Galicia and the "fascist threat" were re-heated and pitted against the stereotypes propagated by the other side about "rootless", "criminal" Donbas. This memory war poisoned the public discourse for years.

The Party of Regions, which had strengthened its position in the East and the South in the local elections of 2006, continued to label its opponents as "fascist" and to present itself as an "anti-fascist" force. The local identity politics pursued by the Party of Regions in their electoral fortresses of Donetsk and Luhansk drew on a mixed repertoire of neo-Soviet symbols and narratives (such as the Great Patriotic War) and conservative Russian Orthodox values. It evoked the ethos of a hardworking people who "feed the rest of Ukraine" and a legacy of Russian language and culture that allegedly needing "protection from the Ukrainian nationalists".

The election of Viktor Yanukovych as president in 2010 barely altered the situation. Because he had little to offer western and central Ukraine and had no coherent identity politics at the national level, he continued to concentrate on his clientele in eastern Ukraine. Hence, the identity of Donbas continued to be defined against the "alien" cultural and political values of western Ukraine.

The war of identities that for years had been smouldering beneath the surface finally erupted in the winter of 2013/14, when the Euromaidan provided a new source for eastern phobias about radical Ukrainian nationalism. Yet beyond this highly ideological East-West dichotomy, which draws on World War II and the Soviet Union's battle against Nazi Germany, there are other memories that actually matter more and explain better mass attitudes to the Euromaidan in the East. Both individual and collective, these are memories of perestroika and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter is remembered in the East not as a new beginning (the birth of an independent Ukraine) but as a rupture of the existing order, as an economic collapse and painful split with Russia. In eastern Ukrainian cities, where the Russian market matters a great deal for many big companies and small enterprises, fears of economic collapse resonated with the memories of the recession of the 1990s. As the violent confrontation in Kyiv escalated, parallels were evoked with Russia's constitutional crisis of 1993, when the political stand-off between president Yeltsyn and the parliament ended with street-fighting and the parliament building being stormed by the army. Despite national independence, many people in eastern and southern Ukraine experienced these events as part of their own history. Other, more recent memories of the Orange Revolution and Yushchenko's presidency also played a role in how the Euromaidan protests were perceived. Many eastern Ukrainians associate this period with the failure of local "Orange" politicians to fight corruption and carry out reforms, seeing it as a time of shrill and fruitless political conflict and endless intrigue. The relative stability that accompanied the consolidation of the Party of Regions was in fact welcomed by a "silent majority" in the East. Yet, while hundreds of pages have been written on the dividing memories of World War II in Ukraine, no research has so far been done on the collective memory of the recent past and its impact on local political culture and cultural identity.

Part of the political culture in eastern Ukraine is the conspiratorial mind-set that is also typical of post-Soviet Russia. Conspiracy theories attribute the collapse of the Soviet system to the secret operations of the CIA, western governments and the world Jewry. Similarly, the Orange Revolution was widely perceived as a western plot aimed against Russia and its geopolitical interests. Nine years on, the Euromaidan protests fell neatly into the same interpretative scheme. Widely disseminated by the Russian media in Ukraine, it affected the attitude of eastern Ukrainians to the events in Kyiv. Even those who refused to believe that the Euromaidan was the product of a US conspiracy found it difficult to accept that the protests came from below, rather than being orchestrated by powerful and clandestine actors. Behind this attitude was not just mistrust in public politics, but a firm conviction that action, whether individual or collective, cannot change anything. As the example of Kharkiv demonstrates this mixture of resignation and cynicism was cultivated by local political elites.

The last mass protests in Kharkiv were in the Summer of 2010, when citizens took to the streets against the privatization of the Gorky Park. It was the last sign of resistance to the hegemony of the Party of Regions, which was subsequently consolidated by the election of Hennadiy Kernes as mayor. During the time that opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was imprisoned in a local hospital, the inhabitants of Kharkiv learned to perceive politics as a never ending show. Every day, a group of ardent Tymoshenko supporters, accompanied by teams of bored journalists, gathered outside the court and the hospital in which their heroine was detained, in order to stage the latest episode of the soap opera named Julia. When the governor and the mayor of Kharkiv flew to Moscow at the end of February 2014, a call went out to hurry to the city zoo with food, since the animals were supposedly starving to death on account of the empty city coffers. It seems that sympathy for animals compensated for lack of confidence in politicians and solidarity between citizens.

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