From Borderlands to Bloodlands

September 2014
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4. Exporting the "Russkiy mir"

The discourse of "two Ukraines" always found an echo on the pro-Russian side of the political spectrum and was shared and amplified by numerous politicians and journalists in Russia itself. In my commentary of 2002, I cited a Ukrainian politician who had argued that Ukraine essentially belongs to the "Slavic-Orthodox civilization" and therefore has a natural commitment to Russian cultural values, while Ukrainian nationalism, especially in its most radical and traditionally anti-Russian, Galician form, serves as a tool of the West to destroy this civilization. At the time, this view seemed politically marginal and not really dangerous; apart for the Ukrainian Communist Party, which remained openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union, no serious political force in Ukraine supported re-unification with Russia. The state of the Russian economy was no less dire than the Ukrainian one, while the war in Chechnya and the series of terrorist attacks in Russian cities made Ukrainians appreciate the peace and relative stability at home. In the 1990s, Russia's ruling elites had other worries than Ukrainian independence. Humiliated by defeat in the Cold War, proponents of Russian messianism remained marginal, while Russian nationalists, despite some of them having fought in Abkhazia, Transdniestria and Yugoslavia, had little influence on mainstream politics in Russia.

The Orange Revolution and Moscow's failure to ensure the victory of the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych radically changed Moscow's perspective on Ukraine. The revolution was seen as a western coup aimed at undermining Russia's influence in its legitimate sphere of geopolitical interest. The pro-western Ukrainian elites were perceived as "traitors" of Slavic-Orthodox civilization, and associations were evoked with the Ukrainian national heroes Ivan Mazepa and Stepan Bandera, both of whom had turned against the Russian / Soviet state. Russian media presented the Orange government in Kyiv as a direct heir to the "Banderists", the Ukrainian nationalists who had "shot Soviet soldiers in the back". Moscow thus drew on old patterns of Soviet propaganda about Ukrainian nationalism and the black and white narrative of the "Great Patriotic War". The aim was to discredit pro-western Ukrainian elites as archaic nationalists and to present even moderate and democratic Ukrainian nationalism as "fascism" threatening Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine. As one can see, the rhetoric of the Kremlin was more or less congruent with the identity politics of the Party of Regions.

After the Orange Revolution, Moscow increased its support for pro-Russian groups and organizations in Ukraine, especially those who actively opposed the pro-western course of the Ukrainian government and defended the rights of Russian speakers against "Ukrainization". Protests in support of the Russian language, against NATO and against the glorification of Bandera and the UPA were organized along with the vandalization of "nationalist" monuments. The aim was not so much to impress the local public and the Ukrainian authorities as to create media events that gave the impression of strong opposition to Yushchenko's politics in Ukrainian society. United by an "anti-Orange" agenda, various actors – ranging from pro-Russian political parties (the Communists and Natalia Vitrenko's populist Progressive Socialist Party) to Soviet veterans' associations, Russian Cossacks and Orthodox brotherhoods – created a heterogeneous yet active, even aggressive milieu. In 2014, this became the breeding ground for pro-Russian separatism.

Denying Ukraine its distinctive national identity, Russia suggested alternative identities instead. They were largely based on the concept of Russkiy mir(Russian world), which during the 2000s advanced rapidly from being a marginal intellectual discourse to a new state ideology supported by the Russian authorities and the Russian Orthodox Church.8 Russkiy mir is an ambiguous and open concept that initially signified "Russia" beyond its state borders, but that later became a synonym for the construct of an Russian-Orthodox-Slavic civilization. Broadly speaking, Russkiy mir refers to a supranational community united by Russian culture and language, by historical memory and traditional values, by the Orthodox faith and loyalty to the Russian state (which includes the Russian Empire as well as the USSR). Depending on the context, Russkiy mir has various connotations, ranging from the neutral ethno-cultural to the imperial and explicitly revanchist. In the interpretation of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is prominently represented in the Russian media, the three eastern Slavic nations – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – constitute the core of Russkiy mir, with a spiritual and cultural fundament going back to prince Vladimir's baptism of Kyiv in 988. Ukraine (with the exception of Greek Catholic Galicia) is thus represented as part of a thousand year-old Russian civilization. These ties allegedly run far deeper than any recent, "artificial" construction of national identity. The Russian Orthodox Church is not the only institution spreading the ideology of Russkiy mir beyond Russia's borders. Another one is the Russkiy Mir Foundation which is a state sponsored organization created in 2007 by the Russian foreign ministry and ministry of culture. It has branches in several Ukrainian cities, mainly in the East and South and actively cooperates with Russian language schools. Formally focusing its activities on the support of Russian language and culture, the foundation also promotes the Russian narrative of imperial history and Russia's interpretation of World War II. Similarly, Russian universities and institutions of higher education have branches in Ukraine (mostly in Crimea) that promote Russian ideas and cultural values. Not least, Russian cultural products (especially works of popular literature, films and television serials) dominate the Ukrainian market and serve to export Russian imperial history and Russian patriotism, to glorify the Russian and Soviet army and security services, and to excite anti-westernism.

After the annexation of Crimea, many commentators noted a new tone in the official Russian rhetoric. Appealing to Ukrainian citizens of ethnic Russian origin, Vladimir Putin legitimized his actions on the grounds that it had been necessary to protect his "compatriots while simply ignoring the new Kyiv government. Russkiy mir was thus reduced to ethnic Russian nationalism that bluntly equates Russians and Russian-speakers and denies the very existence of Ukraine – at least to the east of Dnieper. To re-identify this "other Ukraine", Russian media at first used the geographic designation "Yugo-Vostok" (south-East), which was still Kyiv-centred. Later, the much more powerful, geo-historical concept Novorossiya was coined which reduces several Ukrainian oblasts (Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv) to an "historical" region attributed to Russia.9 Far from harmless territorial branding, the creators of the concept of Novorossiya intend to constitute a new (geo)political reality.10 Meanwhile, some sort of alternative nation-building is underway, including the foundation of formal state structures. A "Donetsk People's Republic" has been proclaimed along with a "Luhansk People's Republic", while other "republics", for example in Odessa and Kharkiv, may emerge any time. These entities cherish their own collective mythology, their heroes and martyrs (mainly invented by Russian media), and even have their own national mission: anti-fascism.


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