In the drama of impeachment Ukraine is both a central and passive protagonist. It is the character onto which others project their hopes and fantasies: there’s Trump’s nutty theory that it was actually Ukraine that hacked the DNC and then pinned it on Russia, and his belief that Ukraine is where a story could be found, or at least concocted, that makes his Presidential rival look corrupt. Then for the Democrats there’s the hope that Ukraine is the place where Trump’s corruption can be proven—a belief based on facts, to be sure, but one that still feeds the fantasy that he will ever be removed via impeachment.
Ukraine has always been a receptacle for others’ stories. A colony of various great powers over many centuries (Polish and Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German and Soviet), the expanse of steppe above the Black Sea has always been a space into which outsiders project their fantasies, a narratological colonization that tends to go hand in hand with territorial subjugation. The Russian tsars saw Kiev as their connection to Byzantium, and declared Kiev the “mother of all Russian cities.” Hitler fantasized that Ukraine’s ultra-fertile “black soil” would be the bread basket for his Reich, and concentrated his invasion of the USSR to the south. Stalin, meanwhile, tried to stuff Ukraine into a Marxist-Leninist idea of historical progress as class warfare, and when landowning Ukrainian peasants resisted, some 4 million of them were murdered through enforced starvation in what is now known as the Holodomor. Today, Russian propaganda simultaneously describes the country as a fascist state and a puppet of globalist forces. Inside Russia, it is often characterized as a prostitute: If Kiev refuses to be Moscow’s mother, pace the tsars, then it must be castigated as a whore.
A more high-minded way of objectifying Ukraine comes from policy experts—from both Russia and the thing once known as “the West”—who describe Ukraine as a “buffer,” a “bridge,” a “cushion,” a “grey zone” between Russia and the rest. “Is it logical to call the second biggest country in Europe a buffer zone?” asks the security analyst Hanna Shelest. Describing Ukraine as a “buffer” is a narrative sleight of hand that leads to stripping the country of the right to decide its own destiny: Cushions don’t get to choose.
Shelest is a contributor to a new volume—Ukraine in Histories and Stories: Essays by Ukrainian Intellectuals—which includes everyone from internationally renowned academics like Harvard’s Serhii Plokhiy to never-before-translated poets, that seeks to articulate Ukraine to the wider world. (I had the honour of writing a brief preface.) The book gives Ukrainians a chance to articulate their country themselves, and the Ukraine that emerges is uncannily relevant at a time when so many countries are undergoing identity crises—not least the United States.
Ukraine doesn’t only have narratives about who and what it is imposed from abroad; some have been generated domestically in order to resist colonialism—though they still tend to be communicated top-down. One pervasive Ukrainian origin-myth traces the country’s roots to the Cossacks, the militarized nomadic groups who have roamed the steppe since the middle ages. It’s a trope present in the 19th-century, romantic verse of the national poet Shevchenko, who was imprisoned by the Russian tsar for his insistence on writing in the Ukrainian language, and is alluded to in the Ukrainian anthem. But, as Serhii Plokhy explains, almost as soon as the Cossack-as-true-Ukrainians myth emerged in the 19th century, important Ukrainian thinkers, including the country’s premier historian and first head of state, criticized the Cossacks as a marauding elite who oppressed the common people. Ukraine is a culture that deconstructs its own myths even as it creates them. “In second half of 19th century, [there were] attempts to build a new Ukrainian unity through the idea of Ukrainian autonimism, liberalism, socialism and anarchism . . . [the] belief in educating the people in [the] idea of enlightenment progress. . . . [E]ach attempt to create it would lead to another catastrophe,” writes the novelist and translator Andriy Bondar. “We have never seen development. We have only formed and been deformed chaotically.”
Every powerful political and intellectual group tries to impose their own version of right history, of correct identity, which buckles and breaks when it collides with messy, multifaceted Ukrainian reality. Ukraine can be seen as a sort of graveyard for existing concepts of identity. It is too multilingual and too multi-faith to fit with a Herderian concept of nationality as defined by language and religion, as the last President Petro Poroshenko found when his electoral slogan of “Language, Army, Faith” was destroyed at the polls—hardly a surprising outcome, when only 55 percent of the population speak Ukrainian at home. But neither can one ignore the fact that the flame of national emancipation was kept flickering over centuries of colonialism through a self-sacrificing devotion to the Ukrainian language, and that this devotion helped resist subjugation to Russian, Polish, and then Soviet power.
But simply basing identity on resistance to imperial projects misses how people were caught up inside them. “This is like having a bipolar disorder, an illness that we all seem to suffer from” writes the lawyer and novelist Larysa Denysenko.
Suddenly an executor during Stalin’s enforced famine or World War II who was a completely Soviet person became a Ukrainian . . . on the other hand a Ukrainian hero from Ukraine’s resistance movement was killing Soviet people who were ethnic Ukrainians—so how can we say he or she is a hero?
People were destroyed and humiliated, dissidents crippled their lungs in the pine forests of Siberia attempting to keep freedom in their minds. But righteous people and great martyrs live hand in hand with executioners, accomplices, traitors, and those who remain indifferent. All this hides a terrible trauma that we are not ready to discuss because almost every one of us is fighting a silent, internal war.
The word “trauma” echoes throughout the volume. We hear at one point about the “trauma” of growing up in a country (the USSR) which one despises, and that Ukraine was “born of violence and trauma.” “Where is that place on the maps of our psychology, geography and traumatology, at which we begin?” asks Bondar. Denysenko’s use of “trauma,” meanwhile, sometimes seems to align with the Yale sociologist Jeffrey Alexander’s description of cultural trauma—distressing collective experiences that a culture hasn’t found ways to articulate or assign responsibility for. Ukraine’s “silence,” argues Denysenko, is “why the Holodomor has not been recognized as genocide, and Ukrainians are more easily associated with collaborators in World War II than with the Righteous Among The Nations. We are reminded of pogroms, massacres, xenophobic sentiments.”
So those who aim to tell Ukraine’s real histories and stories seem to be in a bind. On the one hand, there is the fear that if one were to start articulating the “silent, internal war” of people’s experiences, it would render existing projects to forge a common Ukrainian identity meaningless; on the other, this lack of articulation means Ukraine is vulnerable to objectification by others.
But could one think about the process of confronting traumas in a different way? After all, it is the very prevalence of such experiences that all Ukrainians have in common. Denysenko gives the example of language, a subject that is so often used to try to divide Ukrainians: one of the “reasons” Russia gave for its recent invasion of Ukraine was to defend Russian speakers. “I think all of us have, in one way or another, a language trauma . . . both those who speak Ukrainian and Russian,” she writes. Ukrainian language has been suppressed for centuries. Under the tsars it was illegal to print Ukrainian language books or, at certain times, to even speak the language. During the Soviet period, a carefully controlled amount of state-sanctioned printing and education was permitted, but any Ukrainian writers or intellectuals deemed too desirous of emancipation were shot or jailed, while Ukrainian was looked down on as a second-tier language. One had to speak Russian in order to succeed. Meanwhile those parts of Ukraine that were under Polish control in the early 20th century saw the language intermittently outlawed and dismissed as a mere set of regional micro-dialects. It is this legacy that explains why Ukrainian speakers (those who primarily speak Ukrainian in a bilingual culture) still feel that they are a threatened minority, even though Ukrainian is now the country’s official language and the language of the majority.
But Denysenko understands that “Russian speaking people also have their traumas. We were all trained to think that the language of a Soviet person was Russian. . . . [W]hen the same legislative norms were introduced in Ukrainian, it was difficult for people to switch over. You were suddenly deprived of this majority status, and it became very painful.”
Both experiences need to be articulated, and the very trauma that both involved is a potential way into a common conversation. Until that happens, Russian propaganda will keep nibbling away at the language-identity dialectic.
In some ways, Ukrainians already find flexible ways to negotiate language and status. The political scientists Olga Onuch, Henry Hale, and Volodymyr Kulyk have all shown how Ukrainian people increasingly identify themselves as Ukrainian speakers in surveys, even if they then proceed to answer questions in Russian or speak Russian at home. When people define themselves as Ukrainian speakers they may be signifying their allegiance to the Ukrainian project of national emancipation, recognizing the important role language has played in it, and showing they support that project irrespective of whether they are more comfortable speaking Russian. It seems to me an ingenuous way of recognizing the uniqueness of a culture’s history while practicing multiculturalism, a balancing act between patriotism and tolerance many countries would benefit from mastering.
Indeed, the closer one looks at Ukraine, the less polarizing the issue of language seems to be. Russian was a common language among those who took part in the revolution of dignity that opposed Kremlin domination over Ukraine in 2014, and has been the working language for many soldiers fighting in the war against Russia ever since. The election of 2018 saw the East Ukrainian, primarily Russian-speaking comedian Volodomyr Zelensky triumph on both sides of the supposedly essential East-West divide. Even in Donetsk, the region occupied by Moscow-run insurgents who claim to be defending Russian language rights, the actual situation was less polarized than the propaganda suggests. ‘There was never any abyss between them, between these two languages” remembers the novelist and poet Volodymyr Rafeenko, “because Russian spoken in Donbas differs significantly from the language spoken in Russia, while Ukrainian, in this Donbas time and space, was transformed under the influence of Russian into its Eastern dialect. In a certain sense, this was one Eastern-Ukrainian language that had two wings: as wild steppe birds, abundant in the suburb where I grew up.”
But while language is a surmountable cleavage, mass murder can be more difficult—especially when it comes to recognizing one’s own culpability. The 1943 Volyn massacre, in which Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered countless Poles, is a familiar theme in Russian propaganda, used to incite divisions between Ukraine and Poland, its closest current ally.
In Histories and Stories, the Polish-Ukrainian academic Olha Hnatiuk argues the lack of honest, public conversation about Volyn in both Ukraine and Poland has made it a cause of contention, with scholars unable to agree on the basic facts:
Historians now behave as if they were crouched in the trenches. More and more pointed accusations are being voiced from one and the other side. While one (Polish) side calls the developments in Volyn in 1943 genocide, the other side calls them the Polish-Ukrainian war. On the other (Polish) side for killings of the Ukrainian population, a euphemism is used: “retaliatory actions”. It means: “evil was done to us, so there were retaliations from our side”. But those retaliatory actions killed women, elderly people, newborn infants, everyone. And this was done only on the basis of their ethnic origin.
Polish and Ukrainian historians, Hnatiuk continues, need to “get out of their trenches. Just like for the Ukrainians, it is hard for the Poles to admit they were not only victims but killers as well. And this martyr mentality in both nations has played a bad trick on us.”
In the case of Volyn we see how identity constructions get in the way of exploring facts, taking responsibility, and ultimately reconciling. “Who is not with us is against us” is a phrase attributed to Lenin, and it’s the sort of thinking that cripples a country like Ukraine, with its history of ever-shifting, multiple perspectives. But the spectre of binary thinking haunts Ukrainian public discourse: One is either pro-Russian or pro-European; a Soviet-era conformist or a dissident; a Nazi collaborator or a partisan; pro-Soviet or pro-Ukrainian.
Volodomyr Yermolenko, the philosopher and editor of Ukraine in Histories and Stories, sees the tension of such binaries as a Ukrainian constant: between the nomads of the steppe, such as the Turcic peoples and the Cossacks, and those who worked the land; between different Empires; between Catholicism, Byzantine, and Russian Orthodox Christianity. But Ukraine is also the place where these binaries break down, where conflict is dissolved into cohabitation, and where that dissolution is essential for survival.
Oh destiny of Ukraine—perhaps not so different from your own.