by Andrew Fedynsky

Ukraine is not Russia: the latest version

Leonid Kuchma has written a new book, "Ukraine is not Russia." You'd think that issue was resolved once and for all in December 1991 when Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence, but apparently not. Written with the help of a team of historians, President Kuchma describes his 513-page book as "explanatory for those millions of people in Ukraine and Russia who do not understand this simple truth."

Mr. Kuchma is to be commended for writing his book, but I must say he's not the first Ukrainian leader to do so and not even the first to have written Ukraine is not Russia. At least three others authored the same book, albeit with different titles.

Mykhailo Hrushevsky, wrote his own version of "Ukraine is not Russia" with the 10-volume History of Ukraine-Rus'. When he first started it in the 1890s, Ukraine was "Little Russia," a region of "Greater" Russia; the Ukrainian language a mere dialect. Kyiv was identified as the cradle of Russian civilization; modern Russia as the only descendant of Kyivan Rus'.

Hrushevsky disagreed fundamentally with that historical interpretation. Working out of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia (Halychyna) where Ukrainian culture could develop freely, he tapped into a wealth of geological, archeological and archival sources to demonstrate how the Ukrainian nation developed independently of any other and showed the continuity between Kyivan Rus' and modern Ukraine.

Hrushevsky's thesis, of course, conflicted not only with Russian historiography, but with Russian imperial policy as well. In less than a generation, history itself confirmed its soundness when the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917 and Ukrainians rallied to a state of their own, electing Hrushevsky as its president.

Hobbled by the accumulated weight of serfdom, illiteracy and Russification that had oppressed Ukrainians for centuries, Hrushevsky's republic soon succumbed to multiple invasions and revolutionary chaos. Still, the view that Ukraine is a separate political entity with a distinct language and culture had become widely accepted and Lenin's Bolsheviks were forced to accept a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Led by Education Commissar Mykola Skrypnyk, Ukrainians embraced Lenin's stated nationality policies with unbridled enthusiasm. Pent up for generations, Ukrainian culture in the 1920s erupted in a multifarious renaissance of every art form: theater, literature, cinema, painting, radio, dance, music. In short order, the country was transformed: writing in 1927, an American reporter noted how "[in 1924] Russian still held its own as a dual language. But today one could almost walk the streets of Kiev, or Kiiv, as the Ukrainians insist on calling it, without realizing the city has any connection with Russia." Skrypnyk, who spoke fluent Russian, went so far as to communicate with Joseph Stalin through an interpreter to underscore the principle of equality between the Ukrainian and Russian languages.

During the height of the cultural revival in 1929-1930, Skrypnyk published four volumes of his speeches, brochures and articles. His basic message? Ukraine is not Russia. As for Hrushevsky, he took a position at the Academy of Sciences in Kyiv and quietly resumed work on his History.

The Renaissance of the 1920s, we know, ended with the Famine and Terror of the '30s followed by World War II in the '40s. It wasn't until 1970 that another Ukrainian leader, Communist Party Secretary Petro Shelest, published a version of "Ukraine is not Russia," calling it "Oh Ukraine, Our Soviet Land!"

Taken at face value, Shelest doesn't say anything earth shattering. Ukrainians, he wrote, had finally achieved a "national state [that was] a powerful industrial country with a highly developed agricultural sector..." As for Ukraine's culture? "Despite the burden of national oppression throughout the centuries, the Ukrainian people have been able to preserve and develop their language, wonderful national traditions, above all the tradition of the struggle for freedom and created classic Ukrainian literature." Who could object to that? As Kuchma says in his own book, this is a simple truth.

Still, asserting that Ukraine is a separate country with its own language and culture has always seemed to bother a lot of Russians who saw the mere existence of the Ukrainian nation as an affront and a threat. In 1863, for example, Russia's Internal Affairs Minister decreed, "a Little Russian language has not, does not and cannot exist" and banned the publication of books in Ukrainian, a language he insisted did not exist in the first place.

If Skrypnyk's policy was a reaction to Tsarist Russification, then Stalin's Terror and Famine in Ukraine were a reaction to Ukrainianization. Soviet propaganda condemned Skrypnyk for promoting "counter-revolutionary nationalistic rubbish," and "alienating the Ukrainian language from Russian." With torture and a show trial looming, Skrypnyk committed suicide in 1933.

For his part, the 65-year-old Hrushevsky was attacked as "the ideologist of the Ukrainian counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie," and "the untamed enemy of Soviet rule." Arrested and exiled, he died under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the result of an operation.

The Ukrainian Renaissance ended with the destruction of nearly 80 percent of Ukraine's cultural elite and 7 million farmers, their wives and children starved to death.

Against that ghastly backdrop, the Kremlin perceived Shelest's book 37 years later as yet another threat. Moscow rolled out the tired charge of "national narrow-mindedness" and purged the author. Shelest was allowed to live, but ended up in exile.

Although, Mr. Kuchma is careful to explain that he doesn't intend for his book to pit Ukrainians against Russians, implicit in his decision to publish is the charge that for many Russians, nothing's changed. They're still unwilling to accept Ukraine's legitimacy. Some Ukrainians question that as well. On the other hand, there's no denying that indeed a great deal has changed. Besides independence and the bureaucratic infrastructure that goes with it, Ukraine has an army and police force, nation-building tools that Hrushevsky, Skrypnyk and Shelest never had.

So what do I think of Kuchma's book? Since he wrote it in Russian, a language I don't understand, I can't comment until I get a Ukrainian (or English) translation. In the meantime, I'm waiting to hear what Russian President Putin thinks of it. Maybe he'll be inspired to write a book of his own. I have the perfect title: Ukraine is not Russia.

Andrew Fedynsky's e-mail address is:

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, September 21, 2003, No. 38, Vol. LXXI

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