Ukraine: between East and West

As the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian militias continues in the East of Ukraine, it is tempting to accept that ethnic and linguistic divisions between Eastern and Western Ukraine are behind the unrest, or that the conflict is between a fascist government in Kiev and anti-fascist forces in the East. Both approaches are too simplistic to seriously engage with the complexities of the current situation and the turbulent history of Ukrainian nationalism and statehood.
Jan LadziÅ„ski examines the history of Ukraine, the nature of the East-West divide, and the role and significance of Ukrainian nationalism.


Part One: national divisions and nationalism today

Fascism, anti-fascism and the political nature of post-Yanukovych Ukraine

The narrative of the ‘anti-fascist’ uprising in the East should be tackled first, before we examine the wider question of the East-West divide. The anti-fascist credentials of the Eastern Ukrainian militias are particularly suspect. Despite the vocal outrage of officials representing the Peoples’ Republics in the East over the inclusion of Right Sector and Svoboda activists in the new government, they proved at best unwilling to protect the minorities of Eastern Ukraine from violence and oppression. Jews, Roma, and LGBT people are under threat in the ‘anti-fascist’ East. The Donetsk People’s Republic, however eager to denounce Svoboda and include some Communist Party members, is not a left alternative for Ukraine. One of its leaders, Pavel Gubarev, used to be an activist for the fascist Russian National Unity. The symbolism of the new entities in the East is full of references to the imperial past of tsarist Russia.

In Russian-occupied Crimea the prospects for minorities are not much better. Tatar film-maker Oleg Sentsov has been missing since May, when he was arrested at a demonstration against the Russian intervention. A Tatar mosque in Simferopol was attacked on 13 June. It is becoming clear that the early anxieties of the inhabitants of the Eastern regions over the change of leadership in Kiev has been subsequently hijacked by political leaders and groups whose agenda is far more sinister than a defense of the cultural rights of the Russian speakers. Their anti-fascist slogans are not a conscious political stand but merely an instrument subordinate to nationalist goals defined, in contrast to Western Ukraine, by Slavic bonds with Russia.

The claim that the Kiev government has fascist tendencies appears to have more evidence to support it but even in this case the label is unhelpful. Although a number of posts, including that of General Prosecutor, have been given to Svoboda members, the government is not dominated by the far right. Faced with the conflict in Crimea the elites had to quickly consolidate around the established political class and exclude the inconvenient radicals.

The leader of the Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, eventually failed to take up a government post despite earlier promises. The 25 May presidential elections confirmed that facing the insurgency in the East and the Russian occupation of Crimea the majority of people rallied around moderate candidates. Svoboda and Right Sector candidates won only 2.3% of the votes between them. Compared with some Western European countries the far-right is doing relatively poorly at the ballot box. Most importantly, the basic freedoms of assembly and political organisation are maintained in areas under the rule of Kiev government. May Day was celebrated by the social-democratic SPU and by anarchists in Kiev and Kharkiv. The events in Odessa the following day certainly showed that the Right Sector have become a threat to the stability of the new government, not its cornerstone.

Ultimately the narrative of fascists in Kiev and anti-fascists in the East does not explain the conflict in Ukraine. Nationalist and the far-right elements are present both in the Kiev government and Donetsk People’s Republic and the conflict is clearly defined by both sides in national (and not economic or social) terms, with ‘true Ukrainians’ on the one hand and ‘Novorossiya’ on the other. In reality, it is primarily a conflict between sections of the Ukrainian oligarchic elite, which depending on their product and the market it needs, look towards East or West.

A genuine ceasefire is a necessary precondition for the Left to shift the public debate away from the war rhetoric and patriotic slogans, back to the focus on corruption and lack of democracy and finally towards the consequences of EU-imposed austerity and a need for deeper economic changes. Such a ceasefire must involve Russia, which currently provides recruits and equipment for the insurgents in the East and continually fuels the conflict in pursuit of its imperialist interests. The left in Russia and Western Europe should support peace by opposing all forms of intervention, whether by Russian tanks or Western banks, and campain for cancellation of the Ukrainian debt.

The East-West divide

Labeling the Kiev government as inherently fascist and the insurgents in the East as anti-fascist leads to no useful explanation of the Ukrainian conflict and is largely a result of Moscow’s propaganda offensive. Focusing on divisions between the East and West of the country might be more helpful, as it forces us to consider the complicated historic and economic experience of the region. However, just like the anti-fascism narrative is overplayed by the Russian media, the vision of a pro-European West and pro-Russian East has been overemphasised in Europe. In fact, the linguistic division in Ukraine is more complicated than that between Russian speakers in the East and Ukrainian speakers in the West, and looks more like this:

Ukrainian is spoken mainly in Western regions, Russian in the East, South-East and large urban centers in Central Ukraine. The main language of the Central regions is Surzhyk, an informal mixture of Ukrainian and Russian. This divide has played an important part in Ukrainian politics for years and it is enough to look at the results of any Ukrainian election to see that political divides reflect linguistic and cultural difference. This map of the results of the 2004 presidential election illustrate the point:


Initially, it seemed reasonable to assume that linguistic divisions would circumscribe the extent of anti-Yanukovych protests and the Maidan movement. To some extent this was, and remains, the case. The westernmost regions are the main power base of the new government in Kiev, while the two easternmost regions of Donetsk and Lugansk (Yanukovych’s traditional strongholds) are the areas under control of the anti-Kiev insurgency. The new government transferred ministries of justice, finance, healthcare and education away from politician with origins in the easternmost provinces and gave it to people born and/or educated in the Western Ukraine, often in its cultural capital Lviv.

Thus, the transfer of power meant not only a change in terms of leading political parties but also a geographic transfer of influence over government from Eastern to Western provinces. Having said that, it is important to remember that Maidan as a mass movement was to some extent successful in defying the traditional divisions in Ukraine. While the protests were certainly stronger in the West, by late January much of the East saw an emergence of Maidan protests too. Maidan was more than just an affair in Kiev and its demands for greater democracy and denunciation of the corrupted oligarchy resonated strongly across the country. It was the explicit commitment to integration with the EU, stressed most in the Western Ukraine, that proved divisive, as industry in the East is oriented towards the Russian market and would likely collapse faced with EU competition and enforced austerity.

Anti-government protests on 25 January
Anti-government protests on 26 January

Having recognised the East-West divide as an important factor in Ukraine, we should explore its historical origins. A look at Ukrainian history can also shed light on the different currents of nationalism in the country and the origins of the Ukrainian position between Western and Russian imperialism.


Part Two: historical origins of national divisions and nationalism

The emergence of the European periphery and the conquest of Ukraine

The process of carving up Ukraine and placing it in the wider European system began in the 16th century, following the early emergence of two other important modern phenomena – capitalism and what Eric Hobsbawm called ‘nationalism of the nobility’. Prior to that, Kiev had been an important European centre of trade. The state of Rus, an ancient predecessor of modern-day Russia emerged in 882 when prince Oleg of the northern city of Novgorod captured Kiev. The need to unite the numerous Slavic holdings into one state arose primarily out of external factors. By the 9th century two main economic zones emerged, one in northern Europe, dominated by the Vikings and another around the Mediterranean Sea dominated by Byzantium.

Russian rivers provided the shortest route between the Black Sea and the Baltic and the need to impose order across this vast network of riverine trade was most likely the main economic motivation for establishment of Rus. Kiev’s fortunes changed by the 13th century. The Crusades provided a stimulus for Italian merchants in the Mediterranean to eventually displace Rus from the Black Sea trade with Byzantium. In the North, the Germans established themselves in the Baltic and the Mongol invasion sealed the fate of the Kievan Rus. The center of gravity in the Russian lands shifted towards agriculture-oriented Muscovy, which eventually began collecting tribute from other Russian states on behalf of the Tatar dynasties in the East.

However, the economic, and most importantly, mercantile rise of Western Europe would eventually bring the Ukrainian lands into focus again. The 16th century saw the rise of cereals as a commodity to be traded no longer between the town and surrounding villages but internationally. The rise of cities and manufacturing in Western Europe increased the demand for wheat which could no longer be met by local production. Simultaneously, the price of manufactured goods was in decline and currency depreciated rapidly. In Poland, the nascent bourgeoisie was hit particularly hard while the medium- and small-size nobility, able to produce cereals without the use of money by forcing the serfs to do unpaid labour, gradually gained economic and political power at the expense of the townspeople and the central government. The politics evolved into a unique system of nobles’ democracy with limited influence of the monarch and the power to raise taxes and armies delegated to parliament, in which every noble (no matter how poor) had the power of veto.

One of the results of this development was to maintain Poland as an open economy entirely dependent on Western Europe. In this sense, the 16th century saw emergence of Poland as peripheral to Europe rather than one of its core nations. More importantly, the economy oriented towards the export of agricultural products would eventually transform the fertile Ukrainian lands into the ‘bread basket of Europe.’ In 1569, most of today’s Ukraine was transferred to Poland as a part of negotiations on a union between Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A long process of colonisation and Polonisation of Rus followed.

Russia managed to narrowly escape the kind of economic dependence experienced by Poland. One reason was that it was able to trade with the East as well as with the West. Another one was the fact that the state was needed to facilitate economic integration with the West, as the trade route to Moscow (‘discovered’ by English merchants) was dangerous and costly, going around Scandinavia and via Arkhangelsk (Muscovy had no access to the Baltic at the time). Finally the goods traded were not staples, as in the case of Poland, but furs, wax, timber and ropes. Unlike in the case of wheat, the production of these goods required a degree of cooperation between the state, the cities and the nobility. The rope-making works in Kholmogory and industrial center in Vologda, both created around 1560, are prime examples of enterprises set up by the English capital with support of Ivan the Terrible’s state administration and employing Russian wage labourers. Thus, Russia was incorporated into the European economic system, albeit on the periphery, with a strong state and a monopoly of the English Muscovy Company, rather than as a completely open economy.

Still, the need to search for new land remained and forced Muscovy to expand to the South, North and East. By the 17th century Muscovy pushed westwards and into Ukraine. Aided by the uprising of the Cossacks, who resented Polish settlers and the refusal of Polish nobility to incorporate them into the political system as equals, the Russians were able to defeat Poland and partition Ukraine with the so-called Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686. The land east of the Dnieper River, including Kiev, became part of the Russian Empire, the lands to the West continued to be a part of Poland and most of southern Ukraine remained under the rule of the Crimean Khanate. The greatest losers were perhaps the Cossacks, who allied with Russia in 1654 hoping for an autonomous state under Russian protection and ended up with the tsarist autocracy embarking on a project of Russification of Ukraine even more intense than the Polonisation efforts in the west of the country.

The earliest origin of the East-West divide in Ukraine can be traced to the turbulent period between the 15th and 16th centuries, when the country was divided between Poland and Russia or, if you like, the European periphery and the periphery of Russia’s empire. The latter would push its borders further West as the Polish state disintegrated. The effects of centuries of Russification can be seen today in the mixture of Russian and Ukrainian spoken in what is now central Ukraine. In the South, annexation of the Crimean Khanate in the 18th century resulted in an influx of Russian settlers and further Russification. The majority of Ukrainian lands followed the rest of Russia in the efforts to industrialise and ‘catch up’ with the West in the 19th century, with the steel and coal of the Donbass fueling industry in Petersburg and Moscow.

In the westernmost part of Ukraine the story was quite different. Following the collapse of Poland in late 18th century, three of Ukraine’s modern provinces – Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk – were incorporated into the Habsburg Empire and together with Polish Cracow and Lublin became known as Galicia. The Habsburg Monarchy quickly abandoned plans to industrialise the Ukrainian lands and continued to exploit the region as a source of agricultural products, much like Poland had done for centuries. This led to another aspect of the East-West division in the contemporary Ukraine. While the industries in the East, oriented towards Russian markets, fear the effects of integration with the EU, the predominantly agricultural West sees the EU as a chance not only to emigrate in search of work but also to increase the exports of foodstuffs. Of course, the policies of the Soviet Union and inter-war Poland contributed greatly to this division, but its origin can be found already in the 18th century partition of Ukrainian lands between Russian and Austrian empires. Finally, it was in this context of imperialism that Ukrainian nationalism and the “Ukrainian question” first emerged.

The rise of Ukrainian nationalism

By late 19th century there were some four million Ukrainians living in the Habsburg Empire and twenty four million in tsarist Russia. Ukrainian national consciousness emerged on both sides of the border but it manifested itself in very different ways. In tsarist Ukraine, severe limitations on the use of the Ukrainian language and repression of any form of political activity led to a development of conspiratorial politics and close cooperation with Russian revolutionaries of all kinds. However, this heavy-handed approach did not halt the growth of Ukrainian culture. Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), a Ukrainian peasant from the Kiev province who was bought out of serfdom by a professor of arts, laid foundations of the modern Ukrainian language with his poetry. Mykhailo Drahomanov (1841-1895) introduced radical anarchist ideas onto Ukrainian soil and influenced the first Ukrainian political organisations. A mixture of moderate nationalism and a socialist programme was introduced in 1891 by the Taras Brotherhood and inspired first the Revolutionary Ukrainian Party in 1900, and later the Ukrainian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party.

The First World War helped to spread Ukrainian national identity among thousands of peasants conscripted into the Russian army who had been isolated from the political ferment in Kiev and Kharkiv. Furthermore, those who took part in the early offensive against Austria in Galicia came into contact with Ukrainian schools, public organisations and a more nationally conscious Ukrainian population. The February Revolution had even more profound consequences, leading to the formation of Central Rada in March 1917 (comprised of deputies representing most social groups in Ukraine and eventually including representatives of national minorities) and the constituent All-Ukrainian National Congress in April. Inclusion of relatively conservative parties and growing nationalism placed the Rada on a collision course with the Bolsheviks, who were unwilling to see the Ukrainian Revolution as anything but an expression of chauvinism.

By early 1918 the Soviet military advance into Ukraine exposed the weakness of the government triggering a counter-revolutionary coup by General Skoropadsky. The general was deposed by two Social-Democratic leaders of the Central Rada – Petliura and Vynnychenko – in November 1918, who briefly enjoyed the support of the radicalised population. They offered a chance for reconciliation with the Bolsheviks and extensive social reforms. However, nationalist Petliura eventually won the internal power struggle against Vynnychenko, who argued for the introduction of Soviet policies in Ukraine and dialogue with the Bolsheviks. In January 1919 Petliura officially declared war on the Soviet Russia, but military setbacks soon forced him to abandon the Ukrainians fighting against Poles over Galicia and conclude an alliance with Poland. The Polish military intervention proved insufficient to save the increasingly unpopular regime of Petliura, who was unable to prevent the rise of Bolshevik popularity among the local population and some of his own units. By the summer of 1920 the Red Army advanced across the whole of Ukraine and deep into Poland.

In Western Ukraine, ruled by Vienna, the rise of national identity in the 19th century was even more dynamic. The Habsburgs supported Ukrainian national aspirations as a counterbalance to Poles seeking greater influence and autonomy for the ethnically mixed Galicia. Ukrainian education flourished, at least in comparison to the East, and Ukrainian students in Lviv, Cracow and Prague were at the forefront of political movements. In 1890 the Radical Party was formed and its socialist ideas influenced the Ukrainian students grouped around the Young Ukraine journal in early 1900s. In 1906, 1907 and 1910 the university in Lviv saw demonstrations of Ukrainian students. However, the core of Ukrainian political life in the West subscribed to the conservative politics of the Viennese parliament adopted by the Ukrainian National Democratic Party. Simultaneously, a vast array of public organisations emerged, including the educational society Prosvita and the sport societies Sich and Sokil, which later became the basis for Ukrainian military and paramilitary groups.

The First World War resulted in intensified attempts to create a Ukrainian state in the West. The Ukrainian movement had already adopted an increasingly militaristic outlook before 1914, but following the outbreak of the war the Austrian government agreed to form a legion of Ukrainian Sich Sharpshooters in August 1914. The military and administrative cooperation between Ukrainian institutions in Galicia and the Habsburgs allowed the former to gain influence and eventually assert their independence. On 1 November 1918 the Austrian administration in Lviv was replaced by a West Ukrainian People’s Republic. The new entity envisaged unification with the Ukrainian state in the East but it remained under control of the National Council in Lviv and there was little coordination with Kiev. In fact, the government in the East resented the dictatorial practices of the West, while Western Ukrainians feared socialist tendencies in the East and supported the anti-socialist opposition in Kiev.

Furthermore, immediately after its creation the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic had to face an armed uprising by the Poles seeking to unite Galicia with the newly independent Polish state. In the spring of 1919 regular Polish units entered Galicia and destroyed the Western Ukrainian state within two months. Following the collapse of Petliura’s regime in the East, the Ukrainian state-building efforts drew near collapse and the country was partitioned between Poland and Soviet Russia by the 1921 Treaty of Riga.

Interwar Poland and Soviet policies in Ukraine

Following the Treaty of Riga, Ukrainians became the biggest national minority in Poland. The new Polish state ruled over not only the former Habsburg territories of Lviv, Tarnopil and Ivano-Frankivsk but also over Volhynia which had previously been part of the Russian Empire. The pressure from the Polish National Democrats led to the  adoption of the centralised nation-state model in Poland and the concept of a federalist state of Eastern European nations was quickly abandoned. Some right-wing Polish politicians, such as Grabski, the prime minister in 1924, went as far as denying the existence of a Ukrainian nation and promoting national assimilation of the Ukrainians. Ukrainian schools, educational societies and cooperatives were heavily repressed and most of them were forced to close down by the early 1930s. The Ukrainian parties in Galicia, well established under the Habsburgs, refused to take part in the 1922 parliamentary elections, justifying their boycott on the grounds that the legality of the Polish annexation of Eastern Galicia was still debated by the League of Nations.

As a result of the Polish repressions and electoral boycott the conservative Ukrainian parties in Galicia were gradually marginalised and replaced by radical nationalists on one hand and moderate socialists seeking to cooperate with left-wing Ukrainian MPs elected in Volhynia on the other. The former did particularly well and established a number of organisations. Ukrainian Military Organisation (UWO) was founded in 1920 by Ukrainian veterans of the First World War. The group adopted a strategy seeking to fight against the Polish state and accepted extensive support from the German secret service. By 1925 UWO’s headquarters were relocated to Berlin. In 1929, UWO became the foundation for a new group – Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Just like UWO, the OUN was hostile towards both Poland and USSR, thus seeking close ties with Germany. OUN emphasised direct action and conspiratorial tactics, organising a series of assassinations of high-ranking Polish officials, including the Interior Minister Pieracki in 1934. Stepan Bandera, whose faction of OUN was responsible for mass murders of Poles in 1943-1944, came to prominence already in the 1930s and was the highest ranking OUN member put on trial for Pieracki’s assassination.

In contrast to the triumphant march of Ukrainian nationalism (and in the case of OUN, of clearly fascist tendencies) in Eastern Galicia, Ukrainian politics in Volhynia offered a left-wing answer to the repression of the Polish administration. The Ukrainians in Volhynia did not boycott the 1922 elections and despite the lack of resources, their independent list won all twelve seats in the province. The electoral victory provided a stimulus to engage in building mass Ukrainian political movement to oppose the Polish policies. The Ukrainian parliamentary representation quickly abandoned their critical support for the Polish government and moved towards the left opposition becoming a basis for the Ukrainian Socialist Unity (Sel-Sojuz) founded in 1924 and cooperation with Galician People’s Will populists. By 1927, Sel-Sojuz was transformed into Sel-Rob (Ukrainian Peasant-Workers Socialist Unity), while heavy repression, including arrests of Ukrainian MPs, forced the new group to work closely with the Western Ukrainian Communist Party (KPZU). As a result, Sel-Rob became a kind of a front organisation for the illegal KPZU with leading activists holding positions of leadership in both groups.

Confronted with an overwhelmingly rural character of Volhynia (almost 88% of the population lived outside cities) and poor communications, Sel-Rob focused on organising in the Ukrainian co-operative movement and educational societies using these institutions’ meetings and libraries to agitate among the peasants. By the early 1930s Sel-Rob became a mass party with as many as 12,000 members in Volhynia alone. However, as repression intensified the reliance on legal institutions and open political activity proved disastrous. The co-operatives and educational organisations were targeted first and most of them were forced to shut down or accept control of the local administration by the mid-1930s. Sel-Rob itself was delegalised in 1932 with hundreds of arrests effectively destroying the organisation. The political vacuum was eagerly filled by OUN activists who fared much better in the conditions of intense repression, relying on small, secretive cells and direct action rather than legal institutions and mass organisation.

The decline of the left-wing current in Western Ukraine was a result of not only state repression in Poland but also the developments in the East. As discussed before, the rise of the Soviet Ukraine at the expense of the Central Rada was initially opposed by sections of the Ukrainian left and the population rallied behind it. The military confrontation with the Soviets also provoked a shift to the right with Petliura ousting the more internationalist Vynnychenko. However, once the conflict had ended, the Soviet rule in the East soon proved preferable to the Polish policies in the West. While in Poland the cultural freedoms and Ukrainian education established by the Habsburgs were repressed, the Soviet government abandoned the earlier policies of Russification and supported the Ukrainian national revival. Thus, it could be said that in the 1920s the earlier imperial policies were reversed on both sides of the border.

In the Soviet Ukraine this meant replacing Russian with Ukrainian language in schools, government agencies and public organisations. The “Ukrainisation” of Soviet Ukraine was not only a result of Lenin’s support for national self-determination (and his view that in nationalism of oppressed nations “there is a general democratic content directed against oppression”) but also an attempt to prevent an outburst of popular resentment over centralist tendencies, already visible among some leading members of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Thus, by October 1923 61% of schools in Soviet Ukraine were teaching solely in Ukrainian, courses in Ukrainian were organised for officials and clerks and new stamps and forms were printed. The extension of cultural freedom into arts and academia led a number of Ukrainian Social Revolutionaries, including Mykhailo Hrushevsky, to return from political exile and continue their intellectual work. Unsurprisingly, increasing numbers of Ukrainians living in Poland, and especially in Volhynia, accepted Soviet Ukraine as the expression of Ukrainian national aspirations and the KPZU as its representative in Poland.

This all changed dramatically with Stalin’s rise to power and the abandonment of the Ukrainisation programme. Between 1927 and 1929 the drive to centralise economic activity in the Soviet Union led to the destruction of Ukrainian institutions, such as republic commissariats for agriculture and increasing subordination to Union Commissariats in Moscow. Ukrainian leaders and the general population resisted and by 1930 peasants refused to join the collective farms en masse. Despite falling output the Soviet officials continued to extort grain quotas, thus aggravating the situation. This, in combination with rural unrest and bad weather led to a disastrous famine which eventually killed millions.

Faced with opposition from the masses and harsh methods of Moscow the Ukrainian Communist Party disintegrated and the Ukrainisation of the Party in the 1920s was reversed with an influx of loyal functionaries from central Russia. Waves of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Eastern Poland during the famine discredited the KPZU and seemed to confirm the anti-communist propaganda of the nationalists. Furthermore, Stalin’s heavy-handed approach led to a conflict with the Polish Communist Party and placed the KPZU in an uncomfortable position between the loyalty to Moscow and to Warsaw. Ultimately, the KPZU became paralysed and together with Sel-Rob succumbed to state repression, opening the way for the OUN political hegemony in Western Ukraine. In the East, the newly asserted Russian dominance manifested itself in the Stalinist terror forcing Ukraine into political and economic submission with the needs of Russian industrialisation taking priority over local considerations. Attempts to Russify Ukraine (or “merge” the two nations) continued long after the end of Stalinism by Brezhnev and still impact Ukraine today.

Looking ahead

The long view of Ukrainian history allows us to see beyond the narratives focused on contemporary problems with the government in Kiev, the role of the EU and Russian intervention and understand them as manifestations of much older trends and tensions. A broad historical perspective suggests at least two important answers to the questions about the East-West divide and the role of nationalism in Ukraine.

The first answer is that the primary aspect of the East-West division in Ukraine is the economic relationship between the Ukrainian periphery and the centre of the European capitalist system. The linguistic and cultural differences are important but only secondary factors arising directly from the struggle between two forms of economic exploitation of the region by the centre. The West of the country had experienced a direct relationship with the Western European markets for centuries as an agricultural producer for Poland and the Austrian Empire. The East was for most of its history economically dependent on the Russian “core” which itself was a semi-periphery exporting goods to the Western European markets and importing capital.

Each position had its drawbacks. Western Ukraine remained economically undeveloped right until the 20th century but usually enjoyed more autonomy either due to the weakness of the state (as in the case of Poland) or a conscious policy of concessions (under the Habsburg monarchy). In the East, the relationship with the Russian core brought limited modernisation and industrialisation but it benefitted primarily the Russian elites and bureaucracy and in many cases Western capital as well. The price paid was the political domination of Russia over Ukraine with the notable exception of the period 1921-27 when the Communist leadership consciously tried to restrict Great-Russian chauvinism and tolerate the self-determination of oppressed nations.

Today, the conflict between the East and West of the country is largely a conflict of competing sections of the elites who seek economic ties with Western Europe or Russia depending on what is in their best interest. Ultimately, however the spoils of this conflict will end up in the Western Europe and the USA, no matter what the outcome is. Nominally Russian-owned companies such as EVRAZ, which operates the coal mines in Kryvyi Rih, still uses the financial services of the City of London. Without changing the the fundaments of this economic system Ukraine will remain a periphery exploited to the core via Berlin or Moscow.

The conflict in the East of the country and the Russian intervention allowed the politicians in Kiev to avoid the debates about the nature of the relationship with the EU, the effects of the austerity programme and political role of the oligarchs by simply calling for national unity to confront an external threat. The election of the billionaire Poroshenko by an overwhelming majority confirmed that slogans of the Maidan had been laid aside by voters seeking political stability. National unity, however, cannot be sustained if inspired solely by an external threat. The government will be eventually forced to either accept the divisions or reconsider the terms of engagement with the Russian and Western European cores in a way that would take into accounts the interests of all Ukrainians, whether they fight to defend their industries in the East or hope to emigrate in search of employment. The claims that Ukraine can exist as a united country and simply disregard either Russia or the European Union are nothing more than wishful thinking of the nationalists in the West and East. As long as the global economic system forces Ukraine into its peripheral position, the best the country can hope for is to assert its sovereignty in relation to both the West and Russia, while trying to engage and negotiate with both.

The second answer is about the nature of Ukrainian nationalism. It was born out of the oppression of the Ukrainian nation, directed primarily against the oppressors and present among virtually all political movements. In most cases it took moderate forms as in the case of Ukrainian Social-Democrats in the East, National-Democrats in the West and populists on both sides of the border and was simply a political expression of the problem of economic dependency. Such dependence was to an extent a national problem, but nationalism always coexisted with other narratives focusing on its socioeconomic aspects and widely employed in Ukrainian politics.

Whenever nationalism came to the fore and took more extreme forms, it was in reaction to increased repression and threats to Ukrainian autonomy. That was the case with the shift to the right in the leadership of the Ukrainian People’s Republic when Soviet Russia established a rival Ukrainian government in Kharkiv and advanced into the country. The most extreme form of Ukrainian nationalism promoted by the fascist OUN became prominent mostly due to the combination of repression by the Polish government in the West and the Stalinist terror in the East. The rise of OUN-inspired Svoboda and Right Sector in the Western regions of contemporary Ukraine was similarly a result of the perception (correct in many respects) that Russian-speaking oligarchy from the East dominated the country politically. The nationalists in the East, although in a different Greater-Russian flavour, similarly gained momentum once it became clear that the new government in Kiev represents interests of the Western Ukraine.

As long as the conflict is decided by military means and foreign intervention nationalism will dominate. The far-right seem to have lost ground in the efforts to create a certain national unity but a collapse of the Kiev government due to Russian intervention, be it a direct military one or through withholding the supply of gas, would likely lead to a nationalist fervour in the West. Western intervention, again either a direct one or through an austerity programme, will continue to inspire the Great-Russian nationalism in the East. For this reason it is crucial to oppose all forms of intervention in Ukraine and campaign for the abolition of Ukrainian debts which are used by both the West and Russia to exert pressure on the country. Once some stability returns to Ukraine and the external threats are no longer immediate people across Ukraine will have a better chance of challenging the government over corruption, poverty and austerity policies and organise freely around issues important for both East and West.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here