This is another guest post, this time from the blogger I know only as Ivan, and from his blog, Ivan’s Shady Existence. It’s not often you find a fan of existentialism written in English when English is not that writer’s first language, which makes this all the more pleasurable a find. I have to say at the outset that I love this guy’s writing – existentialism is a niche field, and about half of what passes for it within that field is stuffy, pretentious, self-absorbed twaddle from people who are trying too hard. Existentialism at its best is about discovery, surprise – epiphany. There are few secrets really left in our world and fewer still in human behavior, which is tiresomely the same over and over, allowing for slight generational shifts in values and morals. But is that exciting? It certainly is not. It takes a great writer to tell an old story and make it seem new again; to talk about ordinary reality so that you feel it, and write so that by the time you reach the end of the piece, you have lost all the spare room you had in your head for all the great phrases you told yourself you would have to remember, and make you wish you had written them down, convinced that using them on your own audience will cause them to reach out with the same impact they did to you.
Not all his stuff is existentialist in flavour, and this piece is a straightforward analysis of yet another in the west’s quiver-full of blunders; the failure to deal honestly with the complaints of the easterners in Ukraine and the preference for characterizing them all as insurgents who lack the imagination to grab the brass ring and ride the EU carousel. They can’t call them “rebels”, because western backing for dour religious ascetics and fundamentalist hoodlums in Libya and Syria has invested the term with romance and adventurism. So the chosen course seems to be to ignore them unless and until there is a skirmish between them and government forces – when the course of action which might have saved national unity, at a point which passed some time back, would have been to listen. But it’s hard to be a good listener when you’re a talker. Without further ado;
Ukraine’s Invisible People
Ukraine is a riddle to Westerners and Russians alike.
The Russian nationalist is befuddled by the Russian-speaking citizens of Kiev –seemingly tied to Russia by their language, culture, history and religion- taking to the streets with the EU flag, condemning Moscow’s influence in their country.
In the eyes of many Russian nationalists, post-Soviet Ukraine is the perpetual Fredo of Godfather fame – always breaking Michael Corleone’s heart with his disloyalty and overall goofiness- the older brother to a greater man who sees no dignity in submission and holds no potential for real independence.
But Ukraine also has people who warm Russia’s imperial heart, the thousands of people in the eastern parts of the country, guarding the statue of Lenin, waving the Russian flag; a few weary grandmas even pleading for the Russian military to rescue them from the “fascist regime” in Kiev.
These people are a mystery to the West. They are the invisible people of Ukraine, often omitted from Western news coverage altogether or –if noticed at all- presented only as gullible pawns of the Kremlin.
They don’t fit into the Westerner’s understanding of the post-Soviet narrative: the collapse of a sinister, totalitarian regime, the advance of freedom, a patchwork of liberated nations emerging from the inglorious fall of a flawed behemoth. It’s one thing for a Russian to reminisce about the Soviet empire, for he was its ruler. But how can a subject nation – a colony – harbor any nostalgia for the old order: a freed slave mourning the legacy of communist chains?
And yet this nostalgia is not a freak occurrence; in many former Soviet republics this sentiment is close to the norm.
A Gallup poll conducted in December of last year found that, “residents in seven out of 11 countries that were part of the union are more likely to believe its collapse harmed their countries than benefited them.”
Ukraine clocked in at 56% saying more harm than good has come from the Soviet collapse. The people who compose that majority were unlikely to be spotted among the protesters in Kiev. In fact they were the same people who elected the overthrown president, Victor Yanukovich, a man with all the charisma of a Soviet-era bedroom closet who was despised in Western Ukraine as an incompetent autocrat ever since he was on the losing end of the Orange Revolution in 2004.
Today the invisible people’s alienation and even hatred for the revolutionary government in Kiev has the potential to break Ukraine apart.
Since the coming of the new government the people in Eastern Ukraine saw a near collapse of the economy, chaos in the street and the deterioration of law and order in the country, a threat to the official status of the Russian language as one of the first acts of the new parliament, worsening relation with their giant neighbor to the east, Russian’s military incursion into Crimea and oligarchs appointed as unelected governors of eastern regions to “pacify the situation.”
Since these oligarchs control all major industry that dominates the economies of these regions, any person who might want to go to the street protesting the new government now faces the risk of losing their job. Eastern Ukrainians lost an unpopular, corrupt president they had elected, only for him to be replaced by oligarchic rule and forces they view as radical issuing orders from the capital.
For the invisible people this new, revolutionary Ukraine is not a winning proposition. Now billions of dollars in natural gas subsidies and aid that Russia has offered to the previous government are swiftly withdrawn. And for all the talk from EU leaders about Ukraine being a part of the European family, their offers of aid are unlikely to match what Russia will take away.
Instead the West appears to offer a familiar prescription of austerity in exchange for limited aid. Austerity destabilized poor nations within the EU; think what it can do to a country with an unelected government that may be on the brink of a civil war.
Tough talk about Russian influence – as good as it may feel in the aftermath of Crimea’s annexation – isn’t going to solve Ukraine’s problems. Unless the West is willing to offer billions of aid with few strings attached, the current government faces a total collapse of legitimacy in the eastern parts of the country.
Although there was no shortage of platitudes about the independence of Ukraine and the rights of her freedom-loving people, it appears that from the very beginning the struggle in Ukraine was all about Russia in the eyes of the West. Ukraine itself was only a gray battlefield where giants wrestle for dominance. Ukraine in and of itself always held little value; the prime objective was to keep it from falling under the Russian sphere of influence.
In that country’s recent history this is the second occasion when the Western horseman of freedom and democracy rides in on his white animal into a Kiev rocked by enthusiastic protests. The previous pro-Western government’s conflicts with Russia triggered an economic downturn and a culture war over language, identity and history. In this round of festivities, the value of the national currency has collapsed and the economy isn’t far behind. Kiev lost Crimea to the Kremlin and now is sending the military into the Eastern provinces to combat the “terrorists” who are employing the exact same tactics as Maidan’s heroes whose spilled blood painted the red carpet to the halls of power for the current rulers.
The cherished Ukrainian goal of becoming a “normal country” where people can live happily seems to be tragically far from sight as each round of news makes the land look less and less normal. It is sweet and easy to believe that all protesters in Kiev are cuddly democrats and all the mutineers in the east are Russian-paid trolls and God-forsaken drunks in for a separatist adventure. This way they can be dismissed once again and the only answer to their quarrelsome pleas that need be contemplated is the degree of blunt force trauma. For the man in power to entertain this view, to indulge this perspective, is to play with fire.
To see Ukraine for what it really is means moving beyond viewing it from the familiar perspective of the pro-Western protesters in Kiev- the narrative of liberation from Russian influence as a path to progress. That view of Ukraine’s historic path is wrathful, present and powerful, yet far from universal.
Putin’s greatest lever of power in Ukraine isn’t natural gas, military force or economic interdependence between the two countries. His influence stems from the fact – inconvenient to the West and Ukrainian ultra-nationalists – that the line separating Russia from Eastern Ukraine is blurry, familial and negated by a mutual history of unity. There is a line of state sovereignty but no firm line demarcates the spot where the Russian soul ends and the Ukrainian one begins.
For thousands in Donetsk who cheered the raising of the Russian flag above their government buildings, liberation from Russia is not a cherished goal. The invisible people have to be recognized by the west and Kiev, or else the Ukraine we know today may fall into the ash-bin of history, and the long-simmering cultural divisions between the Eastern and Western parts of the country will be cemented as new state lines on the map of Europe – drawn with a quivering hand of discontent and rage by the people who were overlooked, condescended to and dismissed one too many times.