Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 11

By Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Shiroky

In August this year one of the authors of this article, a Russian national, was preparing for a trip to Lviv. He gradually began to get the impression that he was going to a war-zone: All his Russian friends saw it as their duty to warn him that he would find himself in a place where simply using the Russian language in conversation with local people would put his life in serious danger. This was not just the opinion of the man in the street. Those issuing these warnings included people who consider themselves political scientists and journalists. The reality belied their general belief. During his sojourn in Western Ukraine, the author did not encounter one single manifestation of anti-Russian feeling in everyday life. People were quite friendly to him, even though he used Russian only on principle.

His interlocutors, however, almost invariably answered him in Ukrainian. Moreover, he heard almost nothing from local Russians to suggest that there was ill-feeling towards them. Yet he did come across one interesting fact. Several of those he talked to directly were convinced that it was only in the area where they lived that there was no anti-Russian feeling, but that it certainly existed in neighboring districts. These people based this belief on information gleaned from the Russian media they had access to, principally ORT television.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine are indeed transfused with nationalist myths cultivated by both sides; myths which offer a terribly exaggerated impression of the hostility between the two peoples, who are so closely related that that they can understand each other’s language without a translation. These myths are extremely persistent, and paint extremely negative images of these closely related peoples. It should be borne in mind here that Ukrainians’ and Russians’ perceptions of each other since the break-up of the Soviet Union have become extremely jaundiced. Both sides zealously monitor each other’s progress and will not miss a single blunder made by their neighbor. A huge role is played by the media, which not only exaggerate those blunders that actually took place, but blatantly dream up imaginary ones. Thanks to their efforts, Russian-Ukrainian mythology is now so deeply rooted in the mindset of the inhabitants of the two countries that it has become part of their personal convictions, lying beyond the bounds of critical perception and unshakable even in the face of the evidence of eye-witnesses.

So what image of Ukraine has taken root in the mass consciousness of the Russians? No doubt about it, this is a country where the rights of the Russian population are forever being infringed, particularly as regards the free use of their native language. Not only does it not have official status, it is almost impossible to gain an education in it. It is dangerous to speak Russian in many places. The Russian-language media are persecuted.

Poverty reigns in Ukraine; in comparison even Russia looks relatively well off. For this reason Ukrainians are forced to travel to Russia, where they work for a pittance, taking work away from the local population. Ukraine is basically a parasite on the Russian economy (for example, it steals the Russian gas transported across its territory), and the achievements of its own economy can be put down to the time when it was part of the Soviet Union. The same thing can be said about Ukrainian culture, or to be more precise, nothing can be said about it because it doesn’t really exist. Nevertheless, even this non-existent culture is foisted on people, especially in Eastern Ukraine that is predominantly peopled by Russians. Basically, Ukraine is split into the East, which gravitates towards Russia, and the anti-Russian West, where powerful memories still persist of Stepan Bander’s army which dealt so harshly with the “Russkies” and their supporters. These two parts of Ukraine are hostile towards each other. And finally, because of a misunderstanding Ukraine owns a primordial part of Russia–the Crimea, which in Soviet times was “given” to Ukraine by the most odious General Secretary of all, Nikita Khrushchev (under whom the Crimea was transferred from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR). The Crimea is a land where Russian blood was spilt in many wars; here lies the town of Sevastopol, associated with the glories of the Russian navy, and home to the Black Sea fleet. The town and the fleet belong to Russia by rights, although Ukraine unjustifiably tried to take them over. As a result all it did was damage Russia’s naval might; its own aspirations to the status of a sea power are laughable.

There is a similar set of Ukrainian myths describing Russia. No doubt about it, this is a country which views Ukraine simply as part of its own territory, acknowledging it as nothing more than “Little Russia” (the old name for the territory of modern Ukraine which now has a very pejorative ring to it). In its treatment of Ukraine Russia is at best a cunning exploiter and will never consider it an equal partner. The communist regime in the USSR was an extreme expression of Russia’s imperialist ambitions. Now these ambitions have blossomed anew, a clear example of this being the war in Chechnya. Ukrainians in Russia can expect to be treated as second-class citizens. There is a good chance that they will face blatant harassment (especially at the hands of law enforcement officers). Russians are by nature lazy, but aggressive.

Unfortunately they are themselves inept, so they have to rely on the hard-working Ukrainians, who built up the lion’s share of the heritage of the USSR. Russia constantly and gratuitously exploits the natural resources of Ukraine and the talents of its people, and is a parasite on Ukraine’s age-old culture, cynically describing it as part of its own culture. Deprived of Ukrainian talent, so-called “Russian culture” becomes kitsch and has no meaning. Russia also steals Ukrainian history, groundlessly tracing its own history back to Kievan Rus, although the regime in Moscow is a direct descendant of Mongol-Tatar henchmen. The “Russkies” are a volatile Asiatic mix with the totalitarian traditions of the Mongol horde. They will stop at nothing to subjugate the Ukrainians again. For example, Russia is now trying to suffocate Ukraine with an oil blockade, although even if it reduced the price of oil it would only compensate for a tiny part of the losses it inflicted on Ukraine: For years the Russians destroyed the Ukrainian economy with hopeless management. Exploiting the high degree of Russification in eastern parts of Ukraine, Russia is using propaganda to try and divide the ancient and united Ukrainian people for the purposes of future enslavement.

Naturally, the development of both of these sets of myths has some connection with actual circumstances. However, it is clear that they are not so much based on these circumstances, but use them for their own reinforcement, completely ignoring those that do not fit the pattern of interethnic confrontation. And all of this is given a final air of surrealism by the official rhetoric of the “brotherhood of two Slavic peoples”.

It cannot be denied that there are real problems in relations between the Russians and the Ukrainians. Indeed, there are plenty of problems, but a completely different language is required to describe them–one that differs fundamentally from the language of opposites in which the above mythology is written. However, for the time being, in the minds of the public and even of the politicians these problems are only comprehended to the extent to which they can be adapted to the general myth. And sadly, measures taken ostensibly to resolve these problems are in fact often dictated not by the logic of the actual situation, but by myth-logic.

A clear example of how myth-logic subjugates not only how events are perceived by those who participate in them or observe them, but also the very logic of these events, is provided by the story of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict which blew up this summer in Lviv. In describing this conflict, the Russian media first used the expression “Russian pogrom;” information was intensively disseminated about direct legislative bans on the use of the Russian language–for example, on the ban placed by the Lviv city authorities on performing or broadcasting Russian pop songs in public places. It should be borne in mind that Ukrainians have a very idiosyncratic attitude to the national problem because of contradictions in the new national mythology. This is not characteristic to the Russians. There are many inconsistencies:

–between the desire to create an autonomous and competitive culture, and the fact that the whole cultural tradition which goes beyond the bounds of ethnography was cultivated on the field of the Russian language and “imperial cosmopolitanism”;

–between the declared aims of building a society which enjoys freedom of speech, and the desire to protect their new perception of the world from the cultural expansion of their neighbors (Russia and the West);

–between the real bilingualism of the population and the fact that it is actively exploited in anti-Ukrainian propaganda; and

–between human rights in the state, and the rights of the state.

In such conditions, on the one hand any incident that has even a hint of national coloring is turned into a political spectacle, and on the other hand nothing is fundamentally able to move beyond the bounds of this spectacle. The events in Lviv confirm this thesis.

On the night of May 8-9, in a scuffle near the Tsesarska Kava cafe in Lviv, Igor Bilozir, who was well known in Soviet times as singer-songwriter with a group called Vatra, was seriously injured. He died in the intensive care unit of Lviv accident and emergency hospital on the night of 2728 May. Despite the erstwhile popularity of Vatra, just 45 hryvnya was paid into an emergency account opened for Bilozir in a Lviv bank.

During the first few days after the composer’s death, nobody was suggesting that what had happened was the result of interethnic conflict. Newspaper articles concentrated on corruption in the police force (the guilty man was the son of the first deputy head of the Lviv city police, Dmitry Voronov, and the local authorities tried to protect him from trouble). At the time the Lviv newspaper Vysoky Zamok wrote: “It took the prosecutor’s office two weeks to realize that the law is written for everybody, even the children of high-ranking officials.” The reason for the scuffle was described in initial reports with no particular slant: Voronov’s well-oiled party complained that the people at Bilozir’s table were singing Ukrainian songs, and they couldn’t hear their Russian pop music. In other words, the Ukrainian language of the songs was not the reason for the tragedy. It was just that they couldn’t hear their own songs. Then national-based explanations began to appear not in the form of anti-Russian tirades, but concentrating on the problem of the neglect of Ukraine’s own pop culture.

It was at the composer’s funeral that events took an anti-Russian turn.