Rostislav Ishchenko: The Russian World and the Ukrainian Question

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


During 2017 the tendency of awakening inside Ukrainian politicians, experts, businessmen, journalists, art critics, and ordinary citizens who supported Maidan started to be outlined. Even Mikhail Antonovich Denisenko, calling himself the Patriarch of Kiev and All Rus’-Ukraine, tried to begin to see clearly. In 2018, this tendency threatens to become a political trend. Those who “begun to see clearly” will form a line outside the Kremlin’s offices, demanding the recognition of their “enlightenment”, the absolution of sins, and admission for service. At the same time, in the internecine struggle for the favor of Russian officials who will try to determine the fate of the remnants of Ukraine, those who “begun to see clearly” will trample on and strangle their accomplices more than the latter will suffer from a fair trial and the people’s wrath.

People who hated and cursed their politicians for all the years of independence, and who hate and curse them now, will hate and curse them until the very end of Ukrainian statehood. And the more this end gets closer, the more frenzied the people will be in their desire to get rid of the guardianship of their own elites in order to tie their fate to its neighbouring States unhindered. Moreover, the choice of country with which the population of a concrete region would like to integrate itself together with its territories, or at least in an individual order, will depend not on today’s ideological preferences, but on tomorrow’s economic realities. People will aspire to go where there is work and/or to that State with which their region is connected to at least by some economic interests (even if these interests are smuggling, like Transcarpathia with Hungary).

The radical contradiction between the elite and the people now lies in the fact that the elite doesn’t need the people, because they prevent it from absorbing the remains of the State resource. No matter how much the elite reduces the items of social expenditure in the budget, it is obliged all the same to spend too much money on the education and healthcare of these unneeded people, as well as the maintenance of the infrastructure that provides their vital activity. In turn, the people still need the elite, since it provides the preservation of the remains of the State – which the people aren’t yet ready to leave – and also represents the interests of the people in the international arena (providing a visa-free regime that allows to go to earn money in Poland).

Soon the situation must flip upside-down. The people will completely lose the need for a State, which not only doesn’t provide the means necessary for their elementary survival, but, on the contrary, oppresses the remains of their vital forces. The need of the people for an elite will also disappear together with this. This elite will only impede its people – who try to attach themselves to other States – by trying in new conditions to keep its status, which is inseparably linked with its fulfilment of State functions.

But the people will become necessary for the elite. Trying to sell itself and Ukraine – or to be more exact: itself at the head of Ukraine – to the new owner, the Ukrainian elite will be obliged to put on the table not only territories, but also a population that is ready to accept and share the choice of the elite.

In general, now we are at a bifurcation point. After it is passed, it will become beneficial for the population to leave the dying State to the mercy of fate and to save itself as much as is independently possible, while the elite will feel a growing need to thrust this Statehood upon someone, practically on any terms (providing the preservation of status and the dominance of the current ruling class).

It repeatedly happened like this in Ukrainian history. And it will be like this also now.

I recall that Bogdan Khmelnytsky, who “reunited” Ukraine with Russia, at first simply tried to raise his status and the status of the Cossacks who he leaned on as a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He even came to an understanding with the King Vladislav IV (who was able to work in 1610-1613 as the titular Russian Tsar). But Vladislav died at the wrong time, in 1648, and John Casimir wasn’t inclined to flirt with the Cossacks. However, Khmelnytsky repeatedly conducted negotiations with him also over the recognition by Warsaw of the autonomy of the Hetmanate. Then Khmelnytsky asked the Turkish Sultan for vassal dependence, and he received consent.

Only having exhausted all other opportunities did the Starshyna Cossacks [military elite – ed] led by Khmelnytsky reach an agreement with the Russian Tsar. And nevertheless, they desperately bargained, demanding from the Tsar, to who they swore the oath of allegiance, to give a reciprocal oath. If, at the time, the Poles, using their military successes, didn’t put the Hetmanate on the brink of catastrophe, then it’s not a fact that the Cossacks would’ve reached an agreement with Moscow, and that’s why they had to show compliance [towards the Russian Tsar – ed].

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However, before his death in 1657, Khmelnytsky managed (contrary to the Pereyaslav oath) to enter into an alliance with the Swedish King with who at this moment (1656-1658) Russia was at war. And this a Hetman who is honoured as nearly the most faithful and pro-Moscow of all the leaders of the Hetmanate, before and including Mazepa.

The questions that follow from what was mentioned above:

• why did it happen in this way?

• are we one nation, or two close, but different ones?

These questions are not otiose. It is necessary to answer them also so that when the Russian policy in the Ukrainian direction is being developed, it should be, imagined, at least approximately, what could be received in reply and in which circumstances.

It’s not a coincidence that people argue about whether Ukrainians are indeed Russians who are periodically unfaithful to the Russian cause, or rather that they long ago branched off from the all-Russian massif and already completely turned themselves into a nation. If to reject the obviously speculative statement that “Russia lost Ukraine and for the last twenty years (why not earlier?) the Ukrainian nation – an alternative to the Russian one – was formed”, then we will be obliged to recognise that a paradoxical situation developed in Ukraine.

On the one hand, the population of this territory possesses all signs of an independent nation. On the another hand, what Ukrainian nation can we speak of if millions of Ukrainians move to Russia and become absolutely Russian, and millions of Russians moving to Ukraine manage to become not only Ukrainians, but also russophobes?

Here are a few examples lying on the surface. There isn’t a drop of Ukrainian blood in Yulia Tymoshenko, who called to “bomb Russians with nuclear weapons”. She is “Tymoshenko” [a Ukrainian surname – ed] only by the surname of her husband (who, by the way, is also very distant from Ukrainian culture), while by her mother she is Telegina [a Russian surname – ed] and she has enough Russian blood. The last legitimate Prime Minister of Ukraine Nikolay Azarov – who was actively helping Yanukovych to push forward the agreement on association, contrary to the Russian offers for entrance into the Customs Union – was born, grew up, and, up to his very mature years lives in Russia. The current Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine Klimkin, who was born in Kursk and graduated from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, is also Russian. And the second wife of Klimkin – his marriage with who was registered in 2015 (when Ukraine already “was very much at war” with Russia) – is also Russian — the daughter of a General awarded with a medal “For Returning Crimea”. And Petro Poroshenko’s daughter-in-law is also Russian.

This is only what lies on the surface. Moreover, here I didn’t even mention the Ukrainian politicians and statesmen who, being Russians, didn’t try, unlike their colleagues, to become more of a Ukrainian and more of a russophobe than Bandera. In reality, there are no fewer Russians (who came from Russia or were born in Ukraine to parents who arrived from Russia) in Ukrainian politics than there are absolute autochthons. And this is without mentioning the Armenians (Avakov), Georgians (Saakashvili), Buryats (Ekhanurov), and other representatives of former multi-national Soviet people.

The term judeobanderist, which was introduced to the masses by the PR managers of Kolomoisky, and which was picked up by the Jews of Ukraine – who indeed in their majority supported Maidan, can be adapted with success for other nationalities.

At the same time, if the autochthonic (living in Ukraine for at least three generations) population wasn’t divided in half in relation to Ukrainian nationalism, there wouldn’t be a civil war. Thus, most Ukrainians who oppose Ukrainian Nazism are “patriots of Ukraine” who consider Russia as a friendly, but nevertheless separate State, and who are fighting for the independent State development of Ukraine. Only a handful in all of Ukraine, perhaps hundreds in Donetsk and Lugansk, and a considerable percentage in Crimea for all these years considered Russia as their true Motherland.

There is the impression that the very air of Ukraine is infected with a certain bacillus, which when inhaled turns the most Russian person or even a Yakut into a Ukrainian nationalist. And as soon as the person leaves the infected territory, they start to quickly recover. Only certain people possess the congenital or acquired immunity to this bacillus, but they never determined, don’t determine, and will never determine the aims, views, and interests of Ukrainian society.

So what it this bacillus?

In reality, this is the normal condition of a society living on the border territory. Since the 15th century, from the first Cossack communities – which the Zaporizhian Sich later grew from, the runaway peasants, steppe robbers who broke free from Crimea, Tatar slaves, declassed representatives of noble families — people of all neighbouring tribes started to settle on the unoccupied borders of Lithuania and Crimea, which later became a border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire.

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Owing to a number of historical accidents, these communities began to expand quickly and defined themselves as Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, they continued to accept everyone who declared their Orthodoxy. It was enough to show a cross worn around the neck and to cross oneself correctly – from right to left.

Thus, on the territory of modern Ukraine a community appeared and started to expand, which lived off robbery, plunder, and requisitions (passage duties). It couldn’t live in a different way because it was constantly under the threat of attack. Cossacks rather quickly understood that instead of defending their freedom at their own risk against encroachments of neighbouring States, it makes more sense to enter into alliances with these States, receiving from them political, financial, material (gunpowder, lead, guns), and sometimes also diplomatic and even military support.

Cossacks alternated between being on friendly terms with all neighboring possessors and being at war with them (the Polish King, the Russian Tsar, the Turkish Sultan, the Crimean Khan and Moldavian ruler).

With the creation of a Hetmanate, these border outlaws, firstly, spread their power to an essential part of future “Ukrainian”, but at that time Russian lands, and secondly, found themselves under the subjection of the Russian Tsar. But as the Russian Tsar was an Orthodox Christian, unlike other neighbouring possessors, treason against him was considered not only as a political crime, but also as a crime against faith, which at the time was much more essential.

And it is precisely for this reason and only for this reason that we know everything about the treason of Hetmens against the Russian Tsars and almost don’t pay attention to similar treason against Polish Kings and Turkish Sultans, in an extreme case treating them as people’s liberation revolts. In reality all border communities behaved in this way. During this period the Don Cossacks also sided against Moscow more than once, and in fact they did it also as a part of the armies of interventionists.

The problem of such border communities is that they are always at the intersection of the possessions of large empires whose limits had not yet lost mobility. While the empire is strong and able to defend this border community, the latter serves the former faithfully. As soon as the empire weakens, or it just seems like this to the border inhabitants, or when strategic interests force them for some time to abandon an active policy in this direction, they immediately start looking for a new patron. For them it not a question of treachery, but a solution to the problem of survival. The people who found themselves in such a border community either accept its rules of the game or are torn away from it (“suitcase-station-Russia” [“pack your luggage and get a train to Russia”; what Ukrainians say today to pro-Russian elements inside Ukraine – ed]).

When such border communities, due to the expansion of imperial frontiers, become inhabitants of the central regions, they become ordinary imperial subjects, and in this case – it means Russian people. It happened in this way with the Don and then the Ural Cossacks. And it also happened in such a way in Ukraine, which since the beginning of the 19th century stopped being subjected to invasions. The enemy didn’t put its feet on their land for more than 100 years. Inhabitants got used to the measured life of a layperson for who “even if they jumped around for a year, they won’t hop towards any border”, and they regularly supplied field marshals, chancellors, and smaller high-ranking people for imperial service. In the 19th century as a part of the Russian Empire Ukraine was exactly the same “reserve of stagnation” that it was at the end of the 20th century as a part of the USSR.

And it is in the same way that the fidelity of the Ukrainian elite to the [Russian – ed] empire evaporated together with its [the empire’s – ed] disintegration following the results of 1917 that the fidelity of the Ukrainian communist elite dissolved in time and space at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moreover, both times this elite didn’t simply declare independence, but immediately went to search for a new master. The instincts of a border community needing a strong patron were immediately awakened.

By the way, this is also how the Don Cossacks behaved already on May 4th, 1918, (just 4 months after the declaration of independence of the UPR and five days after Skoropadsky’s coup), who declared the independence of Vsevelikoye Voysko Donskoye, and who also rushed to search for a foreign patron. And also in the dashing 90’s the idea that “Cossacks are not Russians” was widely adopted among the Cossacks. Fidelity and Russianness woke up in them at the time of the strengthening of Russia. This is the normal behavior of a border community. It is not able to do things in any other way, because the instincts that allow survival in an extremely hostile environment were formed over centuries.

And it is precisely this that allows me to affirm that in the next months and years, the Ukrainian elite will feel an inflow of love and fidelity towards Russia as to the only neighbor capable of preserving their territories of their behalf and to restore their productivity (of their territories). The inflow of love will mainly be absolutely sincere – sincere in the same way that the many-year paroxysm of unification with NATO and the EU was. If the ancestors of these people didn’t learn back then to sincerely believe in what only yesterday they cursed and to idolise those who only yesterday they were ready to tear apart, then they wouldn’t survive and wouldn’t give progeny. For today’s Ukrainians this is a formed instinct.

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At the same time, the people at large also have a strategy of survival during periods when the situation sharply deteriorates long-term. They migrate to neighboring territories. Thus, it is precisely in this way that, with the permission of Aleksey Mikhaylovich, the inhabitants of the Hetmanate running from the “ruins” of the 17th century occupied Sloboda Ukraine, with the center in Kharkov. Hereinafter, the settling of lands that (at the time) bordered the Russian state by natives from the Hetmanate continued up to the Don and even the Volga, and the land crisis of the second half of the 19th century led to a compact settling of Ukrainians (back then – still Malorossiyans) even in the Far East.

Even now we start to observe this same strategy of survival. About a half of the existing population of Ukraine are located abroad in order to earn money. From them, no less than a third already processed documents, or are in the registration process, allowing them to be legalised on a constant basis in the relevant State. Thus, it must be kept in mind that the most terrible for Ukraine hasn’t yet come. In Ukraine there are still five-six rather safe cities. Also it is still possible to find work in some regions.

Once again, such a strategy of survival is peculiar to the inhabitants of all border regions. In hard times they become empty, and the surviving population flees to the land of neighboring States. But when the situation starts to become favourable, the adventurous mobile beings who feel restricted in regular society again rush towards the borderland’s absolute or relative freedom and chances to easily make profit.

Hence all the strangenesses of Ukrainian society. Like any border inhabitant during an era of prosperity, Ukrainians said that these are our lands, we mastered and soaked them with our blood and sweat, and that there is no need to come to us with your Moscow advisors. But as soon as problems stemming from a civil standoff appeared, one part of society rushed to the West for the help, and another part rushed to Russia.

This is also a scheme classical for border societies. As neighbors are interested in these societies’ loyalty, the oppositional internal political forces are always divided by their foreign policy orientation. If the authorities are orientated towards the West, it means that the opposition will be orientated to the East (and vice versa). As neighboring States always defend first of all their national interests, a phenomenon of “betrayal” appears. When some shout that “Russia betrayed Russians”, others no less tragically reproach the West for “treachery of the European aspirations of Ukrainians”.

In general, paraphrasing the known thesis “in a country of Sumerians, anyone can become a Sumerian” – in a country of betrayers, everyone is betrayed.

As soon as we understand that in Ukraine a border society – with all its merits and demerits – was created, developed, and that it died and was recreated again, we will then be able to read its politics and politicians like an open book, knowing what they will do and how they will do it five to ten years before Ukrainians even have time to think about it.

But if you know how processes will develop, they can be controlled with high precision. In order to adequately plan your actions, there is a need to competently calculate the possible reaction to them.

Judging by the fact that the familiar-to-me Russian deputies, diplomats, and senators – who dutifully communicate with Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians – in the past few months told me that for the first time in four years the non-public assessment by the Ukrainian elite of the situation in the country became much more pessimistic than is described in my articles, in the not too distant future we will see a miraculous instant change of values, views, and priorities. Turchynov – who accuses Yanukovych of showing permissiveness towards the coup – or Tyagnybok – who demands to dismiss Symonenko from the Communist Party of Ukraine for revisionism – are not the most exotic of possible metamorphoses. It is necessary not simply to be ready for this. It is necessary also to understand what should be done with this love that is unneeded and uninvited and also already ready to fall head over heels.

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