Ukraine as Russia: What some Russians think

25. 4. 2022 / Andrej Rogačevskij

čas čtení 5 minut

In his July 2021 article “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” President Putin made a claim that raised quite a few brows. He said: “Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same nation” and “it is precisely its partnership with Russia that makes Ukraine’s genuine sovereignty possible”. The world has witnessed how he has moved from words to action in February 2022 and what has happened in Ukraine since. It was as if Denmark would assert that Danes and Norwegians were the same, and invaded Norway under this pretext. Yet how novel is Putin’s statement and where does it originate from? I shall attempt a very brief historical overview of the concept that twins Russia and Ukraine, from a distinctly Russian perspective.


Before 1917, parts of today’s Ukraine were for centuries referred to in Russia officially as Malorossiya, or Lesser Russia. This reflected the patronizing Russian attitude to Ukrainians as smaller family relatives, whose language and culture were close to Russian but somewhat inferior by comparison. After the 1917 Russian revolution, the declared equality of all the peoples in the former Russian empire has led to the name change for Lesser Russians, from now on referred to as Ukrainians. From the etymological viewpoint, the patronizing attitude has persisted, as the word “Ukraine” stems from the Russian root for “margin”. “Lesser Russians” have been turned into “marginals”, all 44 million of them (according to the 1989 census).

In 1991, the fast-approaching collapse of the USSR has resulted in the “marginals”’ desire to become their own bosses and break away from “Larger Russians” (who formed the imperial and Soviet “core”), in order to develop Ukrainian identity and statehood independently. By the same token, many Russians in the Russian Federation (the most important part of the Soviet Union at the time) were apprehensive of losing substantial parts of the Union and clung to the hope of keeping at least what they thought of as their nearest and dearest. Ukrainians topped their wish list.

A corresponding collective view was expressed by the author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Prize winner and a moral authority. In his treatise “Rebuilding Russia” (1990) he chastised “the temptation of an all-Ukrainian separatism […] to chop Ukraine off [from Russia proper] including the territories which had never belonged to Old Ukraine, such as […] Novorossiya, Crimea and Donbass”. He appealed to Ukrainians: “Brothers, don’t go for such a cruel partition!”

Still, in December 1991, a 90% of Ukrainians (or almost 29 million people) voted in favour of the Act of Ukrainian Independence within the borders that did include the above-mentioned territories, where the majority for self-government ranged from 54% in the Crimea and 57% in Sebastopol (this city held its own vote count) to almost 84% in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Another Russia-born Nobel Prize winning author, Joseph Brodsky, summed up the resulting Russian popular mood in a poem which warned its readers: “time will tell [that Ukrainian separation from Russia was a grave mistake] by bringing on ruins and bones of posthumous joy with a Ukrainian aftertaste”.

Fast-forward to 2020, when Putin’s influential assistant and long-term special envoy in Ukraine Vladislav Surkov gave an interview to formulate, among other things, the outcome of Ukraine’s thirty years of freedom, encumbered by the corrupt and inefficient authorities. In this interview, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Russia also suffered from corruption and inefficiency (and for the past five years has been below Ukraine in the Corruption Perceptions Index), Surkov claimed: “There is no Ukraine. What exists is Ukrainianness, i.e. a specific mental disorder which takes dabbling in ethnography to extremes. […] There’s borsht, bandura [Ukraine’s national musical instrument] and Bandera [a notorious nationalist politician from Western Ukraine, who collaborated with the Nazis] – but no nation”. In the same interview, Surkov suggested a solution to Ukrainian problems, namely, the country’s return to Russia’s fold – against Ukraine’s will if necessary: “Coercion to brotherly relations is the only method that has historically proven its efficiency in [Russia’s] dealings with Ukraine”.

On 3 April 2022, when the brotherly coercion in the form of the so-called special military operation was in full swing, Timofei Sergeitsev, an electoral campaign manager from Russia whose customers included the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovich, issued a kind of manifesto entitled “What Russia Should Do with Ukraine” (that is, if and when the “military operation” succeeds). The manifesto appeared on the website of the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti and therefore likely represents much more than merely Sergeitsev’s personal opinion. In the manifesto, Sergeitsev equals Ukrainianess with neo-Nazism, partly because of Bandera (Ukrainian nationalists are often referred to as Banderites), and partly, one may surmise, in accordance with Godwin’s Law, which posits that if a debate goes on for a long time, an opponent’s likening to Nazis is to be expected.

In case of Russia’s military victory over Ukraine (which he does not doubt), Sergeitsev anticipates a reincorporation of much of Ukraine’s territory into the Russian Federation after what he calls a necessary de-Nazification process: “A de-Nazified country cannot retain sovereignty”. In Sergeitsev’s view, even “the word ‘Ukraine’ cannot be preserved […] in the designation of any fully de-Nazified state-like entity on the territory freed from the Nazi regime. […] The de-Nazification process would inevitably involve de-Ukrainisation. […] History has shown that Ukraine is unworkable as a nation-state”.

Assuming that at the end of its military campaign against Ukraine Russia does retain control of at least some of Ukrainian land (in addition to Crimea absorbed by Russia in 2014), will things really happen the way Sergeitsev describes? The answer to a significant degree depends on President Putin. After all, Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn (whom Putin met on several occasions) are mere opinion reflectors if not opinion formers. As for Surkov and Sergeitsev, by the nature of their occupation they are opinion decoders and opinion manipulators. Only Putin is the ultimate opinion enforcer, no matter how wrong his opinion may be.



Obsah vydání | 28. 4. 2022