Most recent analytical studies relating to contemporary Ukrainian history are set within the context of East-West relations or within the history or geopolitics of the region. Missing so far is a more profound insight into the internal dynamics of contemporary Ukrainian history. Many Western historians, unfortunately, have little background knowledge to present this kind of history.
In the absence of firm grounding in the history and language of the USSR’s successor states, some political scientists are left to base their information on second-hand sources. Unaccounted are the underlying tenets that motivate today’s Ukrainians. In explaining developments in Ukraine, they depend on English-language press reports, missing some crucial parts in the evolving story, as in the case of the “ousting of Yanukovych,” when opposition politicians had actually come to an agreement with him on the very day he fled. This puts a different hue on the so-called “coup” that supposedly took place and hints at a well-prepared plan.
Reliance on historical myths rather than documented facts also is tempting; stereotyping or making quick off-the-cuff assumptions is yet another trap. An often-repeated argument is that the conflict in Ukraine is between Ukrainian and Russian speakers or simply Orthodox believers defending their faith and values against NATO and the European Union. Taras Kuzio dispels these arguments quite successfully through his very good background knowledge and historical approach.
Since 1991, Ukraine has striven for sovereignty and democratic values, but so far these values have put down very shallow roots. Totalitarianism, as Prof. Alexander Motyl has pointed out, has left a deep-seated legacy impervious to change. (The failure to introduce land reform is a good example of how Soviet thinking still prevails in Ukraine.) The danger to democratic institutions, such as Parliament, is evident. In the eyes of the average Ukrainian, the Verkhovna Rada is being seen more and more as a place of self-enrichment, realization of personal ambition and corruption, rather than a place where democratic values are enshrined.
The idealism that brought about the Orange Revolution, or the Revolution of Dignity, is in danger of being dashed when promises given by self-serving politicians are not realized (e.g., judicial reform, the prosecution of individuals responsible for violent acts against Maidan supporters). Politicians are more prone to conclude back-room deals than to follow the law through to the end; anything has its price and can be bought. Without rooting out corruption in the uppermost echelons of power, real justice or democracy will never prevail elsewhere.
As Dr. Kuzio puts it, there is a lack of understanding across the political spectrum in Ukraine of the law as a central component of democracy and the market economy. There is much truth in the statement that Ukrainians are good at conducting revolutions but bad at building a state that caters to all its citizens. One saving grace, however, is that though civil society might still be in its infancy in Ukraine, its critical voice is getting stronger, and hopefully will strengthen attitudes advocating reform. Where the state has failed to care for its citizens, volunteerism has stepped in and has, as Dr. Kuzio points out, done a most remarkable job.
One of the main tenets of Dr. Kuzio’s book is that national identity is constantly in flux. Western Ukraine has been quite fortunate in its history to develop an exclusive Ukrainian national identity within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But this has been possible to a lesser degree in Zakarpattia and certainly not in Ukrainian lands in the Russian or Soviet empires where the tsarist and Soviet authorities expressed an all-embracing hostility to a Ukrainian identity, thus conserving the existence of multiple identities.
The author uses the idea of seven competing cycles from 1953 to the present day (both pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian) in order to bring these interrelating historical strands together and to provide a fresh perspective on Ukrainian contemporary history. Each turn of the cycle represents a potential change in Ukraine’s orientation toward the East or the West.
But now the events of the Maidan in 2014 have completely discredited Viktor Yanukovych’s policies, placing Ukraine firmly on the road to Europe, a process which, hopefully, will be irreversible. Dr. Kuzio argues that during Leonid Kuchma’s rule in the early 1990s, an equilibrium was achieved in East-West views that was able to satisfy people both in both western and eastern Ukraine, and that a return to this “centrist” policy is now needed. The question remains: is this possible? Also, will the ruling coalition hold together without major upheavals and not allow itself to be compromised by both internal and external hostile forces? The main difference in this turn of the cycle is the war in the Donbas that is fomented by Vladimir Putin and his ideology of Eurasianism. What is important for Ukraine, is reaching the point in the cycle when full Ukrainian integration is possible and successful.
Will the Ukrainian political elites consolidate to work in Ukraine’s interests, or will self-interest win the day? There is much evidence to suggest that the oligarchs are still pursuing self-advantageous deals using business and politics as they see fit. They have made little effort to change, even during the war. Russian remains the language of the business elites, while the English-speaking world remains foreign to them. In effect, as Dr. Kuzio writes, they remain provincial in outlook. Trade with Russia precludes any need for modernization or industrial reform. Oligarchs control monopolies, as they have done in the past, preventing any healthy competition in industry from developing.
Dr. Kuzio’s use of historical cycles brings clarity and perspective into the narrative. Can one detect any change of attitudes among the people today? Radio Svoboda has recently reported that 92 percent of the citizens of Ukraine (not including those territories under occupation) now identify themselves as Ukrainians by nationality, as compared to 2015, when the figure stood at 86 percent. Also, Euro-integration is now a more acceptable concept throughout Ukraine. The Revolution of Dignity has galvanized attitudes among Ukrainians in favor of a common national stance. Mr. Putin’s plan for the creation of “Novorossiya” has failed, and the process of decommunization has made headway. However, the government still fails in its obligations to eastern Ukrainians.
So, the question remains: Will the day that Ukrainians identify with common national interests come sooner rather than later? Dr. Kuzio remains optimistic in this regard.
Jaroslaw Wasyluk holds an M.A. in Slavic studies from the University of Manitoba.