The empire cannot die!
I know that the soul does not die.
From one end to another, the empire
Lives, truncated by a third.
– Russian national anthem 1833-1917
As the situation in Crimea continues, there have been countless explanations for Putin´s ´irrational´ behavior. The typical Western line is that Putin is an opportunistic, authoritarian leader who is pushing for strategic imperial ideals, rather than humanitarian or ethno-national considerations. On one hand, the US, EU and NATO have questioned the legitimacy of the incursion, but on the other, Russia and many in Crimea consider it an overdue historical corrective. In addition to being mere analysis, these interpretations will undoubtedly affect the range of policy outcomes. Layered on top of this, these events in seem like a stage of a geopolitical struggle for control in a multi-polar world.
What I want to provide is some context, in essence, to make sense of the modern Russia – Ukraine – Crimea triad, through understandings of the nation.
From the 17th century the people of the border region of Russia, in modern day Ukraine were known as ´Little Russians´ dating back to the Pereyaslav/Pereiaslav treaty of 1654. And even though they were separate nations, neither Russian historians nor officials would admit that Ukraine was a separate nation. The Russian minister of Internal Affairs of 1863 wrote that the Ukrainian language “never existed, does not exist and shall not exist”.
The people of Ukraine mostly belonged to the same church as the Russians, and even called themselves by the same names – Rus and Russkii. Their language was essentially a combination of Russian dialects, and there was no united Ukrainian language until well into the 19th century. Ukraine was part of a multi-national empire of Russia, with the typical Russian nationalist viewing Ukrainian independence in 1991 as a historical aberration.
However, where they differed was in their social institutions. Their legal and cultural traditions were influenced by Poland and the West. The conditions for a separate nation have always been there, but they were not realized until much later. But this somewhat gaze towards the west has always meant that Ukrainian nationalism has at least been, in part, anti-Russian.
The real flowering of Ukrainian nationalism happened after the Russian Revolution of 1917, with a development of Ukrainian language and culture, supported by the Bolsheviks. This was a culmination of a spreading movement within Ukraine for national liberation. However, this would be crushed under Stalin and not be revived until the Khrushchev era.
Internally in Ukraine, nationalist forces are driven by an anti-Russian oligarchy. As Sławomir Matuszak’s study shows, Ukraine is distinguished by having probably the highest level of direct oligarch control over the government. These oligarchs are driving Ukrainian nationalism, knowing too well that if Putin has a strong hand in Ukraine, he may do what he did in Russia and strip Russian oligarchs of their political power.
Hence, after the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine´s nationalist push appears to be a mixture of anti-Russian ethnic fundamentalism and liberal capitalism.
But the area of Crimea has always been contested. After the death of Stalin, Khrushchev re-allocated the administration of the peninsula in 1954, with little consultation of those living in Crimea. And since then, there has been continued push for Crimean secession after the breakup of the Soviet Union. There was a referendum in 1991, 7 months before Ukrainian independence, which Crimea voted for autonomy. A year later, the Crimean parliament scheduled another referendum, but this was annulled the Ukrainian government in Kiev. In 1994 the first president of the Crimean autonomous republic called again for a referendum, but the leader of Ukraine at the time Leonid Kuchma abolished his post and put Crimea under direct presidential rule.
In addition to the internal Crimean separatist movement, Crimea is rooted in the Russian imagination. Russia’s loss of this territory in 1954 was neither intended nor interpreted as a ceding of sovereignty because Ukraine was then so firmly under the Soviet heel as to be essentially a Russian possession. This is in addition to the large majority of Crimea speaking Russian and identifying with their larger neighbor.
Since the collapse of the USSR, the forces and new effects of Russian nationalism have been reconfigured to more traditional lines. Russian nationalism differs from French, British or United States nationalism, in that it is rooted in a folk ethnic identity.
Some observers have argued that the modern Russian nationalist ideal is ideologically empty, with the increasing corporatism of the Russian state, along with continual profit drives being of central importance. Yet it would be a mistake to overlook the role that nationalism plays in the Kremlin’s strategy of building popular support for its geopolitical aims. In fact, there has been a noticeable attempt by the government to make modern Russia the focus of patriotic sentiment in the national consciousness.
One small example of this is the introduction of a new holiday, the Day of People’s Unity, first celebrated in 2005, to replace the official commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolution. Meant as a celebration of the expulsion of Polish-Lithuanian forces from Moscow in 1612, its patriotic message of homeland resiliency against foreign antagonists has allowed far right-wing organizations to appropriate it for their own cause. During the first year of celebration, some thousand members of these groups rallied in Moscow, chanting “Russia for Russians!” and “Russia against occupiers!” The following year the Mayor of Moscow Luzhkov banned such demonstrations, showing that the government’s top priority regarding nationalist sentiment is to cultivate it through its own official means, not to condone radical groups that could potentially challenge its rule.
This creates a nationalist love triangle between Ukraine, a state that is developing its own separate nationalism from Russia, Crimea the home of an ethnic minority with attachments to its neighbor, and Russia, the external national homeland for the Crimean Russians. This dynamic triadic nexus is the contextual background to the current tense situation.
Putin falls firmly into the schema of a traditional Russian nationalist. This is after the many years of Yeltsin in many ways being an anti-Russian nationalist, following the line of Western interests. Some of Putin´s preferred includes Russian nationalist philosophers of Berdyaev, Solovyev, Ilyin, and he assigned Russia´s regional governors to read the works of these thinkers. The line is to continue Russia´s messianic role in the world. As Ilyin wrote:
We know that Western nations don’t understand and don’t tolerate Russian identity… They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break these twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their civilization. They need to partition Russia to equate it with the West, and thus destroy it: a plan of hatred and lust for power. (Ivan Ilyin’s 1950 ‘What Does Russia’s Partitioning Mean to the World?’)
As Ilyin argues, nationalist identity nearly always has to have an “other” in which to contrast and blame. For Putin and Russia, the West has fulfilled this role wonderfully, especially by continuing its Cold War interventionist line. The latest Levada-Center data shows that the substantial proportions of Russians believe that the events in Ukraine were a violent state coup inspired by the West aiming to bring the Ukraine into line with its interests. This data clearly reveal that the concept of cultural clash has been deeply ingrained in the minds of today’s Russians.
The Putin nationalist attachment to Crimea can therefore not only be seen in terms of geopolitical strategy, but also as a sentiment. The Ukrainians have developed their own nationalist agenda as one free from the Russian yoke, but the deep connections between the two, especially in Crimea are at the forefront of Russian national identity. It is a case of multiple nationalisms, multiple histories of the same events. For both Russians and Ukrainians, the interpretation of Ukrainian history is personal. This opens up multiple interpretations of the same event, interpretations which cannot be reconciled.
The role of the West
The current western interpretation follows that of the Ukrainian liberal right, that its sovereignty away from Russian power is more important than anything, including democracy. But no amount of dissembling and nationalist rhetoric can alter the fact that a democratically elected government was overturned by an armed mob, with fascists and neo-Nazis playing a key role, thus revealing that where the West is concerned democracy is not an end but merely a means continuing its support of right-wing groups. The goal is more than clear, to have governments compliant to the greater interests of the west, regardless of how they get there.
Also apparent is the geopolitical context to these events. The unipolar United States hegemony is under some threat, with the multipolar emergence of Russia, China and other rapidly emerging economies such as Brazil. Crimea is a simply one flash point of these larger, shifting international relations.
The hegemonic Western liberal conclusions that are drawn about the Ukrainian crisis coincide with the modern Ukrainian nationalism, and tie into the long history of anti-Russian sentiment. Yet what is missed is the long story of the relations between the two in which it cannot be divided into two easy good and bad camps. Yet for the West, all sits in place, with the Ukrainian Euro push and the West on the side of good, liberal goals, and Russia as the nasty, backward anti-liberal aggressor. The reality is far messier than it appears, and the West should reevaluate its role.