As a young poet in the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky was persecuted by the authorities before escaping to the US in 1972 and going on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In Soviet-era Kyiv, Ukrainian intellectuals used to trade coveted samizdat reprints of Brodsky’s poems, reciting them at clandestine gatherings.
But the affection wasn’t mutual. At a reading in 1992, less than a year into Ukraine’s existence as an independent nation, Brodsky offered a new poem titled “To the Independence of Ukraine.” “Farewell khokhols,” he intoned, using a racial slur for Ukrainians. “We’ve lived together, now enough. Wish I could spit into the Dnipro river, perhaps it would now flow backwards. ” Brodsky went on to predict that when the ungrateful Ukrainians were wheezing on their deathbeds, they would surely revert to reciting the verse of the classic Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, rather than the “lies” of their own national poet, Taras Shevchenko.
“President Vladimir Putin’s views on Ukraine are no outlier.”
The idea that Ukrainians aren’t a real people and that Ukrainian nationhood is an artificial construct has long been mainstream in Russian culture, literature and politics — including among liberal luminaries like Brodsky, who died in 1996. President Vladimir Putin’s views on Ukraine, which he expounded in an essay last year that was read to Russian soldiers preparing for the invasion, are no outlier. They follow a lengthy tradition that helps to explain the continuing support for the war among Russia’s citizens.
This blind spot dates to the beginnings of the modern Ukrainian quest for sovereignty more than a century ago. “The Russian democrat ends where the Ukrainian question begins,” said Ukrainian writer and playwright Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who served as prime minister of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic in 1917-18. It has become one of the best-known phrases in Ukrainian politics.
In Russia’s historical narrative and literary tradition, Ukrainians have often been depicted as dimwitted but good-natured peasants who speak with a funny accent, and whose quest for an independent future can only be the product of foreign intrigues. Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kyiv to parents who had moved from Russia, mocked the Ukrainian language in his novels, with one character arguing that Ukrainians can’t have a word for whale because, unlike Russia, Ukraine doesn’t have oceans. Natives of Ukraine who achieved undisputed artistic or scientific success, from the painter Kazimir Malevich to the father of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolyov, have been appropriated as Russian.
“Many of those in Russia who pretend to be an intellectual elite have a condescending attitude to Ukrainians, and this includes many of those in the opposition who are supporting Ukraine now,” said Russian politician Ilya Ponomarev, the only Russian lawmaker to vote against the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014. “They look at the Ukrainians as a little brother, a brother who still needs to grow up.”
Every Russian, Mr. Ponomarev added, instinctively feels the heritage of the ancient Russian state when dismissing Ukraine as a recent invention. It’s a view that Mr. Ponomarev himself says he had to reassess after emigrating to Ukraine, where he learned that historical figures viewed by Russians as the founders of their nation were in fact ruling from Kyiv centuries before Moscow came into existence. One example is Prince Vladimir the Great, the 10th-century ruler who brought Christianity to the realm then known as the Kyivan Rus. Both Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are named after him.
The tradition of Russian hostility to Ukrainian aspirations comes in two strands. One simply denies the existence of Ukrainians as a people distinct from Russians. That was the line adopted by the Russian Empire for much of the 19th century, when it banned books in Ukrainian and the very term Ukraine, calling the region “Little Russia” instead. Another strand holds that while Ukrainians do in fact have their own identity and speak their own language, at least half the territory of present-day Ukraine really belongs to Russia and was unfairly pried away by the Soviet Union’s founder Vladimir Lenin.
That was the view of the Russian novelist and former political prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another Nobel laureate, who was exiled by the Soviets in 1974 and returned to Russia in 1994. He initially expressed understanding of Ukrainian suffering. “We should prove the greatness of our nation not by the sheer size of our territory and the number of peoples in our care, but by the greatness of our actions,” he wrote in his 1968 classic, “The Gulag Archipelago,” describing encounters with Ukrainian political prisoners.
But after Ukraine’s independence turned from a distant and unlikely prospect to reality, Solzhenitsyn adopted a different tone, one that Mr. Putin replicated in his essay last year. In a 2006 interview with Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper, Solzhenitsyn argued that southern and eastern Ukraine, the Crimea and Donbas have never belonged to historical Ukraine, and that the country was being dragged into NATO against the will of the inhabitants of these areas. “Under all these conditions, Russia can under no circumstances dare to betray the multimillion Russian population of Ukraine, renounce our unity with them,” he said.
Mr. Putin paid a visit to Solzhenitsyn in his country home in 2007, a year before the novelist’s death, and gave him one of Russia’s highest prizes. Some of the Kremlin’s policies, Mr. Putin said at the time, were inspired by the writer.
In 2014, Mr. Putin seized Crimea after Ukrainian protesters ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who had reversed the country’s longstanding policy toward integration with the European Union and sought a customs union with Russia. Mr. Putin also promoted the concept of Novorossiya, “New Russia,” for the regions of southern and eastern Ukraine that he said rightfully belong to Moscow.
The annexation of Crimea was almost universally applauded in Russia. Even the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is now protesting vociferously against Mr. Putin’s war on Ukraine, said at the time that Crimea should remain part of Russia. “Crimea is not a sausage sandwich to be given back,” he told a radio interview.
Until the invasion began on Feb. 24, Kremlin statements challenged Ukraine’s right to govern what Mr. Putin described as historic Russian lands in so-called Novorossiya but grudgingly acknowledged the existence of a Ukrainian state. According to Russian propaganda, the problem was a Western-installed clique that supposedly seized power in 2014, and whose removal would be welcomed by ordinary Ukrainians yearning to resume their brotherly kinship with Russia.
“Now Russian state media and official discourse argue that Ukraine and its culture must be simply wiped out.”
Once the fierce Ukrainian resistance showed that hardly any Ukrainians greeted Russian soldiers as liberators, the tone shifted. Now Russian state media and official discourse argue that Ukraine and its culture must be simply wiped out — an idea that explains the killing spree in towns like Bucha during the Russian occupation.
A commentary published by Russia’s RIA state news agency on April 3 under the title “What Russia Must Do to Ukraine” argued that ordinary Ukrainians must be made to “atone for the guilt” of hostility to Moscow, the name Ukraine should be abolished once again and the country split into several pieces. Ukrainian elites should be physically liquidated and the remaining population re-educated and “de-Ukrainized.”
Russia’s former president and current deputy national security chief, Dmitry Medvedev, outlined a similar vision for the future of Ukraine days later, writing that after the Russian victory, the Ukrainian state will disappear just like the Nazi Third Reich. As for the Ukrainians’ deep sense of their own separate nationhood, Mr. Medvedev explained, “It’s a great fake fed by anti-Russian venom and an all-encompassing lie about their own identity. It never existed in history and doesn’t exist today. ”
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org
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