DUBAI: As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth week, any lingering penchant Russia may have had for shared ties of kinship and culture is now a thing of the past, replaced by resentments and l bitterness likely to last for generations.
Behind the current attempt to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold seems to be the belief that the two peoples are one – the product of a common history that spans centuries.
The Kremlin said its “special military operation” was aimed at protecting Russia’s security and that of Russian speakers in Ukraine’s Donbass region.
However, for many Ukrainians, especially those who came of age after 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine declared independence, the invasion only accentuated ethnic differences. , political and cultural relations between Russia and Ukraine to the detriment of their commonalities.
“My paternal grandparents are Ukrainians,” Eugene B. Kogan, a Harvard Business School scholar who emigrated to the United States from Russia in the 1990s, told Arab News. “The unexpected effect of this war is that I have a renewed interest in understanding where my ancestors came from and in my family history.”
Far from bringing Russians and Ukrainians closer together, the invasion, which began on February 24, appears to have driven a deeper wedge between the two peoples, while fanning the flames of Ukrainian nationalism and further cementing political and defense ties. that bind Ukraine to the West. Europe.
Regardless of the bubbling bitterness, even hatred, that consumes many Ukrainians as their cities are pulverized by the Russian military, the two peoples share undeniable ties, bound by a common thread of history in all walks of life. , from religion and writing to politics, geography, society. customs and gastronomy.
In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Alex Halberstadt, author of “Young Heroes of the Soviet Union”, said: “Ukrainians and Russians share much of their culture and history, and it is believed that 11 million Russians have Ukrainian relatives, and millions more have Ukrainian spouses and friends.
Both nations, alongside Belarus, can trace their cultural ancestry to the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus, whose 9th-century Grand Duke of kyiv Prince Vladimir I was baptized in Crimea after rejecting paganism. , becoming the first Christian ruler of all of Russia. In fact, in 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, he cited this moment in history to justify his actions.
Religious identity played a role in justifying the war on the grounds of defense of the Moscow Orthodox Christian population of Ukraine, divided between an independent-minded group based in kyiv and another loyal to its patriarch in Moscow.
Leaders of Ukraine’s two Orthodox communities, however, strongly denounced the invasion, as did Ukraine’s large Catholic minority.
Another factor is demographics. When Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, a policy of Ukrainian emigration and Russian immigration saw the ethnic Ukrainian share of the population drop from 77% in 1959 to 73% in 1991.
With Ukraine’s independence, however, this trend was reversed. At the turn of the 21st century, Ukrainians made up more than three-quarters of the population, while Russians were the largest minority.
Modern Ukraine shows influences from many other cultures in the post-Soviet neighborhood – not just Russia. Before joining the Soviet Union, the country was subject to long periods of domination by Poland and Lithuania. It experienced a brief period of independence between 1918 and 1920, during which several of its border regions were controlled by Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia, all of which left their mark.
We have always thought of each other as brothers and sisters. We have so many shared stories and seeing what happens is even more heartbreaking because of it.
The Russian and Ukrainian languages, although from the same branch of the Slavic language family, have their own characteristics. The Ukrainian language shares many similarities with Polish.
Although Russian is the most widely spoken minority language in Ukraine, a significant number of people in the country also speak Yiddish, Polish, Belarusian, Romanian, Moldovan, Bulgarian, Crimean Turkish, and Hungarian.
Russia nevertheless left an indelible mark. During the Tsarist and Soviet periods, Russian was the common language of government administration and public life in Ukraine, with the native language of the local population reduced to a secondary status.
In the decade following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Ukrainian language was first granted equal status with Russian. But, during the 1930s, a policy of Russification was put in place, and it was not until 1989 that Ukrainian once again became the official language of the country, its status confirmed in the 1996 constitution.
Many of the current commonalities between the two cultures are actually the result of long periods of Russification, first under the Romanovs and later under Joseph Stalin when the Soviet dictator unleashed his disastrous policy of collectivizing the Ukrainian population.
Nadia Kaabi-Linke, a Ukrainian-Arab artist based in Berlin, was due to open a solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kyiv on March 4, but has now returned to Berlin to help Ukrainian refugees.
She told Arab News: “I would not put the relationship between Ukraine and Russia in terms of similarities at the moment because after the invasion a lot of things changed in my mind and in the core of my being.
“I started to question my mother tongue – my Ukrainian mother spoke to me in Russian – and I had never done that before. I even speak Russian to my two children.
“I won’t discuss the differences and similarities, but I will present it in a way I might never have done before the invasion. Now I think it’s appropriate to say it’s from colonization,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, it is not just people of Ukrainian descent who feel that the rhetoric of nationalism has poisoned a once close relationship, driving the two peoples apart.
Russian-born Tanya Kronfli, who has lived in the Gulf for almost 10 years, told Arab News: “I feel heartbroken, sad, angry and helpless. We have always thought of each other as brothers and sisters. We have so many shared stories and seeing what happens is even more heartbreaking because of it.
Kronfli pointed out that Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are “from different countries but are the same people. Our languages are almost the same and many families have married. It’s such a mix with a lot of similarities.
The Kremlin has repeatedly said that NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and Ukraine’s ambition to join the alliance create a security dilemma for Russia. He continued to demand Ukraine’s disarmament and guarantees that it would never join NATO – conditions that kyiv and NATO have waived.
Kogan said: “Another security analysis is that the Kremlin felt uncomfortable with the western leanings and democratic aspirations of Ukrainians, thanks recently to the efforts of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Past color revolutions (Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, Kyrgyzstan in 2005) and Zelensky’s Western ambitions deeply concern the Kremlin’s sense of control over Russia’s near abroad.”
Eager to stop Ukraine’s drift to the West, Moscow has rejected the idea of a Ukrainian national identity, saying that Russia’s Ukrainian brothers and sisters have been held hostage by a Western-backed Nazi cabal and that Russian troops would be welcome as liberators.
“An oft-heard argument is that post-Soviet Russian leaders never accepted Ukraine as a nation and Ukrainians as a distinct people requiring a geopolitically viable nation-state within the international system,” Kogan added.
In a speech a few days before the start of the invasion, Putin defended his official recognition of the breakaway people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk by saying that Ukraine was an invention of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, who he said had to wrongly endowed Ukraine with a sense of statehood by allowing it to enjoy autonomy within the Soviet Union.
“Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, specifically Bolshevik and communist Russia,” Putin said in a televised address.
“This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the most sloppy way in relation to Russia – by dividing, tearing away pieces of its own historical territory. “
It remains unclear whether all Russians believe this interpretation of history or see it as a plausible moral justification for the invasion.
It is true that through wars, disasters and Soviet tyranny, Russians and Ukrainians, living side by side as neighbors or compatriots, have been able to preserve their kinship.
Nevertheless, for many Ukrainians, their distinctive history, identity and sovereign right to choose their own destiny are obviously not up for debate.