Of the many sad peculiarities surrounding 2014’s coup d’état in Kiev, one of the oddest is that it shows that it is possible to have nationalism without a nation.
As a city and region Kiev has long been at the heart of Russian civilisation. It was there in the 9th century that the first Russian state was declared, and where the spiritual journey for Russian unity began.
This makes recent events all the more sad, and makes the fascist coup which happened in Kiev in 2014 more like a 21st century version of the Mongol invasion which in 1240 led to the sack of Kiev, which forced many Russians to move north-east, so that the capital of the Russian people became Moscow.
Thus begins the tale of the Three Russia’s: Great, Little and White.
Whilst Moscow formally established itself as a Tsardom in the 16th century, the western Russian lands were occupied by the then mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. An official policy of Polonisation saw the imposition of Roman Catholicism over Orthodox people.
The infusion of Polish culture led to the development of a dialect which combined elements of the Russian and Polish languages. This dialect was the linguistic precursor to what is now referred to as Ukrainian.
Not all the Russians in the region took this well. One distinct Russian subculture developed partly in reaction.
The Cossacks were people who initially rebelled against Polish-Lithuanian rule, and who gained an increasingly autonomous status known as the Cossack Hetmanate.
Acting as mercenary fighters for (at various times) the rulers of Poland, Russia and Ottoman Turkey, they were not an easy group to control.
Ultimately in 1654 the Cossacks committed themselves to Russia and against the Poles, beginning the process of reuniting what came to be known as Little Russia to Great Russia.
The new accord between the Cossacks and the Tsardom of Russia was known as the Treaty of Pereyaslav. The full evolution of the former Polish-Lithuanian territories into Little Russia was confirmed by a treaty between Moscow and the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Truce of Andrusovo, signed in 1667.
This re-united eastern Slav people brought together with Moscow the territories of Little Russia, corresponding to modern day central Ukraine, and White Russia, corresponding to much of modern Belarus.
Parts of what is today western Ukraine eventually passed to Austria, as Poland lost its empire. In Austria the Slavs speaking a language in part Russian and in part Polish came to be called Ruthenians.
In the later days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire this however changed. The intelligentsia of the Austro-Hungarian Empire actively encouraged – some would say invented – the idea of a distinct national identity for the Ruthenian peasants. So began the concept of ‘Ukrainianism’.
Linguistically, Ukraine is a term which when etymologically analysed, does not directly imply an ethnic group. It merely means ‘on the border’ or ‘borderland’, which is where these people were, the border in question being the one between the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian empires (previously the border between Russia and Poland, and the border of Russia and Poland again during most of the 20th century).
Austria encouraged this movement as part of its long standing policy of keeping the Slavs divided. A pan-Slavic Congress held in Prague (then part of the Austrian empire) in 1848 threatened the integrity of Austria’s empire, and the Hapsburg rulers responded accordingly.
If Vienna behaved predictably, the true originator of today’s conflict, and the man who turned a fraternal and united people into a nationalistic and divided people, was Lenin.
Lenin’s strange sense of geography and his perverse relationship with nationalism have done more to sow the seeds of today’s conflict than the works and deeds of any living politician.
When drawing the internal map of the Soviet Union, The Bolsheviks erased the lines of Tsarist regional units – the gubernias – and replaced them with a vastly more complex system of Soviet republics.
Where the gubernias generally accurately reflected the vast swaths of regional identities across Russia, the Soviet Republics did not, and nowhere was this truer than in the case of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Lenin took the territories of Little Russia and lumped them together with an area called Novorossiya, which was territory captured by Russia from the Ottomans in 1774.
This area was never part of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, and far more ethnically diverse. Not only were Russian and Turkic peoples there but so were Romanians, Germans, Serbs, European and Eastern Jews, Albanians, Greeks, Ruthenians, Armenians and others.
Interestingly, the ethnic diversity of Novorossiya made integration into the Russian state easier as Russian became the lingua-franca.
These areas correspond to what is today Eastern Ukraine, including not only Donbass but also the regions around Mariupol and Odessa.
Lenin’s geographical error was one of his biggest mistakes, and there was no reason for it. A map after all does not know whether it is communist or tsarist.
But if Lenin’s poor sense of geography was an error, what happened next was tantamount to treason.
Whilst communism is generally seen as antithetical to nationalism, in many ways it was Bolshevism in its early days, which actively encouraged regional nationalisms throughout Russia in order to demonstrate that the Bolsheviks stood up not only for the economically oppressed but for the ethnically disenfranchised as well.
The result was that where defined ethnicities did not exist the communists simply invented them.
Lenin filled the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic with propaganda turning brother against brother. Calling Russia a ‘prison of nations’, filling textbooks with made up history about divisions between Russians and Ukrainians, and forcing a foreign dialect upon people, were all part of Lenin’s plan to weaken the structures of the old Tsarist Russia.
Even though policies after Lenin’s death sought to control the damage, much of it became engrained.
The Soviet famine of the 1930s was a consequence of Stalin’s policy of forcibly establishing kolkhozy (collective farming). It affected many Soviet republics and the majority of the victims were ethnic Russians. If Lenin’s Soviet map was his lowest ebb, Stalin’s forced collectivisation was his. But in modern Ukrainian textbooks, it is blamed on the Russians and made into a conspiracy by the Russians to starve Ukrainians even though Ukrainians, Russians and others suffered equally. The fact that Stalin was not actually Russian is an irony left unmentioned.
The bitter seeds which Lenin sowed have allowed a narrative of Ukrainian nationalism to spread, and the results are poverty, war, terrorism and suffering in today’s Ukraine.
The fact that many fascists in Ukraine are destroying Lenin monuments is a testament to how poor education can result in devastating consequences.
The truth is that the violence in Ukraine is a product of nationalism without a nation. This adds an element of tragedy to what is actually a deeply unnecessary situation.
Ultimately the only solution is for referenda to be held throughout every region of modern Ukraine, where by people can decide which country best represents their identity and interests.
After all the people of Odessa and Rostov have far more in common with each other than the people of Milan do with those in Palermo.
This would be the only democratic solution. Let the people determine their destiny, not an outdated Bolshevik map which has perversely been co-opted by outright fascists.
The fact that the results of the referenda might surprise many in the West is another matter entirely.