Birth of a nation. How Putin wanted to destroy the Ukrainian people, but in the end strengthened Ukrainian identity

Putin's Ukrainophobia

Putin has been preoccupied with questions of Ukrainian history and Ukrainian identity for many years. Few people paid attention then, but back in April 2008 (that is, even before the war with Georgia), at a closed meeting of the Russia-NATO Council in Bucharest, Putin said that he did not consider Ukraine a real state. Here is how one of the participants in the meeting retells Putin's speech:

“When it came to Ukraine, Putin flared up. Addressing Bush, he said: “You understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, and part, and a significant one, was donated by us!” And then he very transparently hinted that if Ukraine is still accepted into NATO, this state will simply cease to exist. That is, in fact, he threatened that Russia could start tearing away Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.”

For a while, Putin subdued his desire to rewrite Ukrainian history, but in 2021 he broke through again. In the summer of 2021, he published a giant article “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” (moreover, a version in Ukrainian was posted on the official website of the Kremlin), in which he exhaustively stated his views:

“Our spiritual, human, civilizational ties have been formed for centuries, go back to the same sources, tempered by common trials, achievements and victories. Our kinship is passed down from generation to generation. It is in the hearts, in the memory of people living in modern Russia and Ukraine, in blood ties that unite millions of our families. Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. After all, we are one people.”

In a text replete with manipulations and gross errors (a detailed analysis can be found, for example, here and here ), Putin not only denied the Ukrainians the right to national independence, but in fact announced plans to solve the “Ukrainian issue” with the help of force:

“We will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who make such an attempt, I want to say that in this way they will destroy their country.”

The main culprit of the unnatural emergence of Ukraine on the political map of the world, Putin called the founder of the Soviet state, Vladimir Lenin:

“As a result of the Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called “Ukraine named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.” He is its author and architect. This is fully confirmed by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh directives on the Donbass, which was literally squeezed into Ukraine.”

It is likely that the Russian leader sincerely believes that there are no Ukrainians in nature. Therefore, he gave the order to attack Ukraine on February 24, 2022, counting on the broad support of Ukrainian citizens who yearn for reunification with their Russian brothers. However, even the obvious failure of the swift special operation, which grew into a protracted and bloody war, had no effect on his rhetoric. On March 3, 2022, Putin, as if nothing had happened , said during a meeting with the permanent members of the Security Council:

“I will never give up my conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.”

Only now it is very likely that the result of Putin's military adventure will not be the restoration of the "historical unity" of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, but exactly the opposite - the final formation of the Ukrainian nation. And not just as an original ethno-cultural group, but as a political community welded together by the collective experience of mobilization to fight Russian aggression and, for this reason, unwilling to consider itself a part of the Russian cultural space.

New "national myth"

Any modern political nation has a pantheon of national heroes and key events in history that serve as the foundations of a common identity and a sense of civic solidarity. The so-called "national myth" does not necessarily reflect reliable or generally accepted historical facts. But for effective dissemination through the sphere of education, media and popular culture, it must be distinguished by its internal logic.

Post-Soviet Ukraine experienced serious problems with the "myth of foundation", since for different groups of the population, not just different, but directly contradictory historical narratives had symbolic value. In the most general form, they can be described as the Soviet (imperial) and anti-Soviet (anti-imperial) versions of the history of Ukraine.

The annexation of Crimea and the low-profile armed conflict in eastern Ukraine since 2014 provided an ideal setting for a nation-building project that alternates between the dichotomy of Soviet and anti-Soviet historical memory. Arguments about figures like Stepan Bandera or Symon Petliura have been overshadowed by the image of a cunning and powerful external enemy. This role was given to Russia, treacherously tearing away part of the Ukrainian territory and unleashing a civil war by supporting the separatists of Donbass.

Moreover, the experience of contact with the enemy turned out to be truly massive. More than 400,000 people passed through the zone of the Joint Forces Operation (formerly the Antiterrorist Operation, ATO) in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Together with family members, these are millions of Ukrainians with a personal negative attitude towards Russia.

The full-scale war that began on February 24, 2022 greatly increased the effect of alienation. According to the latest available opinion polls, 92% of Ukrainians have a generally bad or very bad attitude towards Russia.

Dynamics of good and bad attitude of the population of Ukraine towards Russia


Ukrainians have changed their attitude not only to Russia, but also to their own history. In the early 2010s, roughly comparable groups of Russians and Ukrainians lamented the collapse of the USSR. But if in Russia over the past 10 years nostalgia for the Soviet past has only increased, then in Ukraine there are almost no people who share this opinion.


Another example. If in April 2012, 74% of Ukrainians considered May 9, first of all, "Victory Day", then in April 2022, only 15% of such people remained. Now 80% of Ukrainian respondents call the sacred date for the Kremlin "the day of remembrance for the victims of World War II." Even among the Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine, 66% adhere to a completely blasphemous, from the point of view of Russian officialdom, interpretation.


Seizure of population groups disloyal to Ukraine

For a long time, Ukraine was considered a classic example of a divided society. In the 1990s and 2000s, each electoral cycle showed a split between the conditionally “pro-Russian” southeast and the conditionally “pro-Western” west and center of the country. Magazine "Kommersant. Power” in 2004 came out with a characteristic cover titled “Ukraine vs. Yakraina”, referring to the confrontation in the presidential elections between the “pro-Russian” candidate Viktor Yanukovych and the “pro-Western” Viktor Yushchenko. Then the fight between them ended with the first Maidan - the Orange Revolution, on the wave of which Yushchenko came to power.


The second Maidan in the winter of 2014 not only led to the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, who nevertheless managed to win the presidential election on his second attempt, but also became the reason for the forcible seizure of Crimea and the subsequent hybrid aggression in the Donbass. As a result, Russia withdrew 1.7 million voters from the Ukrainian political and electoral field in Crimea and Sevastopol and about 3.5 million voters from the territory of the “DNR” and “LNR”. Moreover, voters who had previously voted in a disciplined manner for political forces loyal to Moscow and generally rejected Ukrainian identity.

Without these votes, the electoral split in Ukraine came to naught . In 2014, Petro Poroshenko became the first Ukrainian president to win a majority in elections in all regions of Ukraine. In 2019, following the results of the second round, Vladimir Zelensky won in all regions except Lviv.

However, neither the annexation of Crimea, nor the conflict in Donbass, nor openly anti-Ukrainian propaganda on Russian state channels for the time being failed to shake the conviction of almost half of the inhabitants of Ukraine that Ukrainians and Russians are one people. In August 2021, 41% of respondents thought so. But after two months of the war, by April 2022, this figure had dropped to 8%. Relatively noticeable support for the thesis so dear to Vladimir Putin remained only among the older generation (13% among respondents over 50 years old) and in eastern Ukraine (23%).


Over the same period of time (from August 2021 to April 2022), the share of Ukrainians who define themselves as “citizens of Ukraine” (from 75% to 98%) and “Europeans” (from 27% to 57%) has grown significantly. Self-identification as "Soviet people", on the contrary, was rapidly losing popularity (from 21% to 7%). In other words, civic and civilizational identities have come to the fore, incompatible with the project of a “big Russian nation” that includes both Russians and Ukrainians.

De-Russification by the hands of Moscow

The protection of the Russian language on the territory of Ukraine is a favorite topic for attacks and high-profile information campaigns by the Russian authorities. At the same time, both before 2014 and after it, Ukraine remained a bilingual society with the dominance of the Russian language at the level of personal communications and in the public sphere.

For example, according to the social network VKontakte (before its blocking in Ukraine), the Ukrainian language certainly prevailed among users only in the west of the country. In January 2022, 50% of Instagram users from Ukraine spoke Russian, 46% Ukrainian, and 4% other languages.

The Russian attack overnight changed the position of the Russian language. As producer Alexander Rodnyansky noted , now the Russian language is associated with those who came to kill Ukrainians:

“If you read Ukrainian public pages, you will see a huge number of texts that will tell you the same thing: I used to be Russian-speaking or I spoke only Russian, but today I switched to Ukrainian, I want to be Ukrainian and speak the language , I want to forget Russian or not use it, because it is the language of those who came to our country with weapons and kill people.”

In just a few months of the war, the share of Russian-speakers in Ukraine fell from 18% to 15% (in 2012, there were 37% of them). True, the main flow occurs in the bilingual segment. But Ukrainian, apparently, has forever occupied a dominant position in the list of languages ​​spoken by the inhabitants of Ukraine at home.


Ukrainian nation named after Vladimir Putin

The Kremlin's policy in the Ukrainian direction, the crowning achievement of which was the military invasion, apparently forever discredited the concept of the "Russian world", dealt a crushing blow to Russia's ability to implement foreign policy tasks through the tools of "soft power" and, most importantly, created all the necessary conditions for the formation of a full-fledged civilian nation of Ukrainians.

With his own hands, Putin made a close-knit community of citizens out of an objectively heterogeneous mass of Ukrainians in terms of origin, language, religious affiliation and values. The Russian language and culture, the Orthodox Church, the memory of a common past - all this has turned from factors of mutual attraction into lines of tension and demarcation.

It is unlikely that future textbooks on the history of Ukrainian statehood will, as the Russian leader suggests, name Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. But the name of Vladimir Putin will almost certainly appear in the section devoted to the Ukrainian nation.

“De-Russification for modern Ukraine will be inevitable”

Andrey Zorin, Russian literary critic and historian, specialist in the history of Russian culture

I believe that Putin, indeed, unwittingly, made a significant contribution to the formation of post-Soviet Ukrainian culture, but still not decisive. It is obvious that the Ukrainian civil nation existed even before the war, otherwise such a level of national mobilization would have been impossible.
As for the cultural split, if it existed at all, then, apparently, it had already been overcome earlier, long before the war, and serious cultural differences will remain in any case. Ukrainian identity is largely based on regional diversity and internal differentiation. Only the components of this mosaic are not two, but much more. As for the language, the process of establishing the Ukrainian language as a universal means of communication for citizens of the country, of course, received a powerful impetus, but it started earlier and will not end soon - it will take a couple of generations.
If we are talking about the Russian language, then there is no special "imperial" in it. But if we are talking about culture, then it would be strange to assume that the culture of a huge empire could remain aloof from this issue - in Russian culture there are both imperial and anti-imperial components that are in very complex relationships with each other. However, I would not exaggerate the importance of both components. Any culture, if it is worth anything, first of all correlates human existence with the issues of life, death, love, suffering, mutual (mis)understanding, and only secondarily speaks of the empire, the state, the people and the like.

“There are both imperial and anti-imperial components in Russian culture, which are in very complex relations with each other”

As for "de-Russification", this is a natural component of any decolonization process. For modern Ukraine, it is not so much “necessary” as inevitable, and it has no special relation to the specifics of Russian culture, and even more so the language. For better or worse, this is the culture of the former metropolis, the influence of which must be and is being eliminated. Another thing is that this process could go smoothly and evolutionarily, but now it has received a sharp acceleration.
There is no doubt that this war will become a constitutive national “foundation myth”, a kind of basic one for a future more homogeneous nation and a more stable state, replacing the historical constructs and personalities of the First and Second World Wars that are controversial for many. And almost regardless of its outcome. The specific mythological narrative may change somewhat depending on how this war ends, but its "mythogenic" potential is enormous and will definitely be in demand. However, I am sure that the Russian language and culture will not become part of such a national myth and will not be included in the symbolic complex of the future Ukrainian nation. And it's not just the war, although it will definitely play its part. Post-colonial identity is built on repulsion from the former metropolis, so the process of removing, relatively speaking, monuments to Pushkin is natural and inevitable. If there had been no invasion, they might not have been demolished for the time being, but they would simply have stopped noticing and paying attention to them.
The entire ideology of the Putin regime was built on the cultivation of resentment about the image of the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” retrospectively imposed on the country – the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War, which should be followed by revival and revenge. The basis for this myth was the metaphor of the dismembered body of the Russian people, where Ukraine and Kyiv (“the mother of Russian cities”) were assigned the role of the main symbolic loss, which must be returned at any cost. In this context, the European choice of Ukraine was a serious threat to the regime - if one part of the once united people is able to build a European-style democracy, it is impossible to explain why Russia is doomed to a personalist dictatorship.
Sooner or later, Russians will begin to consider Ukrainians as an ethnic group separate from them, like Poles and other Slavs. This will happen inevitably. The only terrible thing is that tens of thousands of people will have to pay with their lives, and tens of millions with broken destinies, health and well-being of their own and loved ones for these lessons of history.

"Putin has strengthened Ukrainian political and cultural identity"

Georgy Kasyanov, Ukrainian historian, Doctor of Historical Sciences

I don't think that Putin made a decisive contribution to the formation of the Ukrainian nation, although I myself joked that he should be awarded some prestigious Ukrainian order for helping to do this. But seriously, one person cannot make a decisive contribution to such a complex process. Ukrainians became a nation because they themselves wanted it. He only helped them finally understand that Ukraine is not Russia.
The presence of the Russian army in Ukraine, its behavior, and the destruction it caused showed Ukrainians how different they are. And the awareness of this difference is not only political, but also much deeper - cultural and civilizational. Of course, there is a certain bitter irony of history in the fact that a person who does not recognize the right of Ukrainians to exist as an independent subject of history at least three times acted as a catalyst for the unity of Ukrainians in the fight against an external threat: in 2004, when he supported Yanukovych in the presidential elections, in 2014, when he annexed Crimea and staged a covert intervention in the Donbas that turned into a hybrid war, and in 2022.
Сейчас он перешел к наиболее радикальной тактике: военному уничтожению Украины как государства и геноцидоподобной политике в отношении украинцев. Конечно, так он только способствует мобилизации украинцев и усилению украинской политической и культурной идентичности, более того, усилению ее именно в смысле понимания, что Украина — не Россия, украинцы — не русские, а украинские русские (в этно-культурном отношении) — это совсем не то, что российские русские.
Никакого раскола между западом и центром, югом и востоком Украины не было. Были вполне ощутимые культурные, языковые, политические различия, разное отношение к прошлому. Тему раскола охотно эксплуатировали политики — как российские, так и некоторые украинские, ее интенсивно внедряли медиа. Но такие различия можно найти в любой стране и любом обществе, например, в Германии, или США. Различия не тождественны расколу.

«Тему раскола охотно эксплуатировали политики, но такие различия можно найти в любой стране, например, в Германии, или США»

Если рассматривать тему языка, то вся социология за последние 30 лет указывает на то, что «языковый вопрос» в рейтинге проблем стоит где-то в конце. Украина — функционально многоязычная страна, практически все население владеет украинским и русским, добавим сюда венгерский, румынский, польский и крымско-татарский. Другое дело — использование и политическая инструментализация этой темы политиками. И опять — как в России, так и в Украине. Тут мы наблюдаем трогательное единство наших ультрапатриотов и российских великодержавных шовинистов: и те, и другие используют тему языка именно для раскола Украины, но без особого успеха. Причем великодержавные шовинисты охотно используют эскапады украинских ультрапатриотов для обоснования своих параноидальных действий, а те, в свою очередь, подпитывают свои чадные хеппенинги ссылками на «проклятых москалей». Такой вот симбиоз.
Даже при нынешних событиях я не наблюдаю ускоренного процесса нацстроительства. Каких-то особых качественно новых действий государства, связанных со строительством нации, не происходит, да и до этого ли сейчас? Конечно, некоторые особо одаренные личности, обосновавшиеся в глубоком тылу, продуцируют некие дискурсы, но в них нет ничего нового, это все повторение старых форм, к тому же созданных не ими. Никаких новых смыслов в идею строительства нации не вносится. Нынешняя возня вокруг запрета «империалиста Пушкина», отмены русской культуры и очередных переименований — это проявление довольно архаических, вплоть до трайбалистских практик. Что на самом деле происходит из того, что имеет отношение к формированию гражданской нации, — это массовая консолидация перед лицом экзистенциальной угрозы: и тут все очень просто — нас или разрушат как сообщество граждан (пока что этого не удавалось), или мы выстоим и сохранимся как нация. И здесь эта угроза заставляет по-другому осознавать себя как общность, возможно, формирует более высокий уровень гражданской ответственности и солидарности.
Идеи о том, что русский язык и культура, по крайней мере те их инкарнации, которые сформировались на территории современной Украины — уникальны, и должны быть присвоены Украиной, — не новы. В Украине присутствует уникальная русская и русскоязычная культура, и ее нельзя ни отдавать в собственность кремлевским недотыкомкам, ни позволять ее растерзать нашим доморощенным блюстителям чистоты нации, пусть и малочисленным, но очень визгливым. Даже «украинский русский» язык достаточно выразительно отличается от «российского русского». Может, как австралийский английский от британского или американского. Это мое ощущение, основанное на личном и общественном опыте и на свидетельствах людей, в этом понимающих.
И напомню, что культура украинской нации — это и Малевич, и Булгаков, и Жаботинский (Зеев), и Гоголь, и Одесса со Львовом, и Днепр с Харьковом. По богатству и уровню взаимодействия и взаимопроникновения разных культур Украина — выдающаяся страна. Конечно, травма войны, преступная политика Путина и омерзительная личина мародерствующих, насилующих и убивающих «освободителей» провоцируют психологическое отторжение русской культуры как таковой и порождают экстремальные реакции, но уже сейчас нужно думать о более длительной перспективе, в которой по крайней мере русская культура украинского грунта должна рассматриваться как неотъемлемая часть национального коллективного самосознания.

«Культура украинской нации — это и Малевич, и Булгаков, и Жаботинский, и Гоголь»

Мировоззрение Путина и множества других его соотечественников — как в рядах правящего класса, так и в более широких слоях общества — не предполагает понимания и признания Украины и украинцев как культурного и цивилизационного Другого. Для них Украина и украинцы — это часть исторического тела русского народа. Правда, с некоторыми фольклорными особенностями: мелодичными песнями, салом, гопаком, особым наречием и борщом (правда, по поводу последнего, как я слышал, дипломаты высокого уровня высказывают особое, оригинальное мнение). Соответственно, если часть исторического тела вдруг претендует на самостоятельность и уникальность, отличную от русской, возникает что-то вроде когнитивного диссонанса, а далее — недоумение, раздражение, негодование и прочее. Разумеется, стремление украинцев жить самостоятельно, а не как часть России, традиционно объясняется не столько какими-то внутренними процессами в украинском обществе, сколько кознями Запада, мечтающего разрушить Россию. Это мировоззрение уходит корнями во вторую половину XIX века, и в сочетании с другим порождением длинного девятнадцатого столетия — геополитикой — сформировало ресентимент, вылившийся в агрессию и грязную агрессивную войну. А дальше — известный психологический феномен: ненавидеть тех, кому причинил боль и страдания.
Что касается украинской нации — если речь идет о наличии сообщества самобытной культуры, языка, общей истории и коллективного самосознания (идентичности), то есть того, что в науке называется этнической нацией, то факт наличия украинской нации можно зафиксировать уже в XIX столетии. Разумеется, это если рассматривать понятие «нация» в рамках модернистской теории. Есть и другой подход, когда признаки нации находят и в более древних временах, в Киевской Руси, например, или еще дальше — во временах Трипольской культуры. Я полагаю, что украинцы как этническая нация сформировались во второй половине XIX века.
Если же речь идет о политической (гражданской) нации — сообществе сограждан, объединенных принципом гражданской лояльности и рамками государства, которое они признают своим, независимо от этнической, религиозной, языковой и других форм идентичности, то этот процесс находится в финальной стадии, хотя и подвергается критическим внешним и жестким внутренним вызовам. Цель Путина — устранить украинцев именно как политическую нацию.

Текст подготовлен совместно Вячеславом Епуряну и Софьей Прясняковой

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