This much is clear: there are parts of Russia that don’t belong in Russia (e.g. the Caucasus, Kaliningrad) and there are parts of the rest of the world that do. The reason the mild-mannered people of the Ukraine are currently behaving like a Middle Eastern mob is because their territory cuts right across the essence of that dictum. The Russians, of course, with their geopolitical sense of things – their Eurasianism, which they oppose to what they perceive as the Atlantean octopus – want the whole country in their orbit, as well as quite a few other countries. This is all justified for wider consumption by the fact that the Octopus (some would say Squid) continues to have hundreds of bases around the world. The real reason, however, is that Russia, even without the threat of the Octopus’s tentacles, is – and always has been – an empire.
Some insight into this mindset can be gleamed from the quotes of the Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) recently translated by Mark Hackard at Soul of the East. In addition to his poetic duties, Tyutchev was also a professional diplomat and something of a geopolitical visionary. The quotes come from notes for what would have been the sixth chapter of his unfinished 1849 treatise, Russia and the West.
“Russia is much more Orthodox than Slavic. As an Orthodox culture, she is the guarantor of the Empire…meanwhile, the idea of Empire has been the soul of the entire history of the West. Charlemagne. Charles V. Louis XIV. Napoleon. The Revolution murdered this idea, and from that point began the disintegration of the West. But Empire in the West has never been anything more than usurpation. It was the spoils that the Popes divided with the Kaisers of Germany (and from this came their disputes). Lawful Empire remained bound to the heritage of Constantine. The historical reality of all this is to be shown and proved. Regarding the Turks – they occupied the Orthodox East to shield it from the Western peoples until a legitimate Empire had been created… If Russia had not come to Empire, she would have withered. This is Russia in her definitive form: an Empire of the East.”
Thoughts like these are the DNA of the Russian state and the voice that constantly whispers in Putin’s ear. Empires, it must be remembered, are not interested in clearly defined ethnic and cultural boundaries, but in transcending them, even if this involves the state in certain dangerous contradictions. Rather than seeking a justifiable Sudetenland-style reunion with those parts of the Ukraine that are most obviously Russian, the Kremlin is hoping for the whole caboodle; the West, of course, the same.
It is this sense that the whole country must either swing one way or the other, rather than being divided or left alone, that is driving the violence in the Ukraine. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was relatively weak, and the US-dominated global system represented in Europe by the EU had still to expand to Poland (2004), Slovakia (2004), and Rumania (2007). The Ukraine was a backwater and so its inherent divisions – between Russian and Ukrainian speakers, Catholics and Orthodox, ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, between the West of the country and the South and East, could lie relatively dormant. But now Russia is strong again and the EU is lapping at the Ukraine’s borders, so the moment has come for decision rather than sleepy coexistence.
We should remember at this point that the struggle in the Ukraine at the moment is between two groups of people who are only marginally different – Christian Slavs with a lot in common and with an extremely blurred margin between their minor differences. This is also partly the problem: the slightness and vagueness of the divisions raises the possibility of carrying off the whole prize.
- “Why shouldn’t all Ukrainians come back into the Russian empire?” the Eurasianists and their allies in the Ukraine think. “We are not that different!”
- “Why shouldn’t all Ukrainians enjoy the benefits of the EU and the West?” think the Atlanticists and their allies in the Ukraine. “We are not that different!”
In this way, such similarity breeds strife. Strife is like stress, a condition of the unknown, a question of ambiguity, and the Ukraine is the embodiment of geopolitical ambiguity. It has divisions – and, whether deep or not, they are at least felt deeply – but these divisions remain imprecise, with no clear natural boundaries or no real logic as in a clear majority with definite majority interests or a minority with unmistakable minority interests.
The Ukraine is, like so many African countries, an ill-grown entity, the product of hot house conditions, tended by others, grown into vastness without the efforts of its own historical mission – a province of empire, an administrative abstraction more than an actual organic nation or state that defined itself, suddenly thrust into a nationhood that it never earned.
In short, the country suffers from a deficit of its own history. History, as it has happened in the Ukraine, has largely been the history of others. The allegiances and occasional rebellions of the Cossacks, the Crimean Tartars, the Holodomor, the German invasions, etc., all fit into the grand narratives of the surrounding powers. The riots in Kiev may be spectacular, but they are still a poor substitute for a real history. Indeed, the only reason they are happening is because once again the grand narratives of others with much more powerful histories are rubbing up against each other.
What needs to happen is that a true sense of Ukrainian identity and history has to emerge, one that doesn’t rely on and isn’t a reaction to the strings being pulled from Moscow, Brussels, and Washington. While the rest of the world wrestles with the End of History, the Ukraine struggles with the Start of History.