A month ago if someone asked me to tell them three things about Ukraine I would have said Andriy Shevchenko, Dynamo Kyiv, and chicken kiev. Now with the news coverage of the terrible fighting in Independence Square, I feel a little more educated, just enough, in fact, to ask some leading questions to my Ukrainian friend here in Oxford.
1. What’s your name? Where do you come from in Ukraine? What links do you have with Russia?
My name is Yegor Grebnev. I grew up in Kharkov, which is Ukraine’s second most populated city. It has a lot of fascinating architecture whose beauty I only started to fully appreciate after I have travelled around the globe. Kharkov is traditionally strong in higher education, R&D and heavy industry, although these industries have suffered much after the collapse of the USSR.
My parents are ethnic Russians, and I was born in the city of Sochi which does not seem to need much introduction these days. I lived in Kharkov since the age of 2 till 18 when I moved to Russia where I then spent about 10 years. I hold a bachelor’s and a master’s degrees from Moscow State University. As you can see, my formative years were spent in Ukraine, while most of my conscious life took place in Russia. Self-identification is not a very easy matter for me; I consider myself ethnically and culturally Russian, but I am glad to be a Ukrainian national.
2. Is the Ukrainian revolution a triumph of EU democracy over Russian puppeteering?
Ukraine suffers a lot from the lack of subjectivity in external relations. Western media tend to portray it as a pawn in East-and-West geopolitcal games, and Ukrainian politicians do have an objectionable habit of turning to European, American or Russian partners whenever there is an internal power struggle. However, we should not exaggerate the degree of Ukraine’s dependence on the global powers in the latest events. What is happening in the country today is a spontaneous and unpredictable development that, despite the active involvement of the EU and Russia, is most logically explained by the actions of Ukrainian politicians. Of course, the story of the Ukrainian crisis cannot be complete without the names of Putin and Ashton, but the central figure is undeniably Yanukovich.
3. Is the fleeing of Yanukovych cowardly? Does this act show his military decisions during the battle for Independence Square were wrong?
Of course, his behaviour is cowardly. However, technically speaking, Yanukovich did not make any military decisions as the internal troops that he used against the protesters are not part of the army but rather are controlled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is also in charge of police. There is an unhealthy tendency in the Russian and Western media to portray the Ukrainian events as either a civil war or a prelude to it. I would strongly disagree. The violent suppression of protesters was an extremely cruel and pointless step of a desperate selfish politician. But Ukraine is not having a civil war.
4. Do you think the Ukraine can or should exist as a separated country (East and West, or East ceding to Russia)?
I am quite disappointed with the development of the Russian state, and I do not want any part of my country to unite with Russia. This is perhaps a strange thing to hear from a person who identifies himself as Russian, but I do not think that political unity is an absolute necessity. As I do Chinese Studies, I often see parallels between my region and East Asia. In the 20th century, the Chinese have benefited a lot from having several competing political configurations (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, not to mention the countries with significant Chinese diaspora), and having multiple political layouts may, in the long run, be beneficial for Russians and Russian-speakers, too.
This brings us to the question of the place of Russians and the Russian culture in Ukraine. I think that one of the main problems of my country today is its unwillingness to acknowledge its own diversity. It occupies an area that has been a scene of important inter-cultural interactions throughout the whole of Eurasian history, and it would be extremely unnatural for this vast Eurasian bridge to be culturally uniform. However, Ukraine’s political configuration seems to presuppose a large degree of uniformity, which leads to never-ending inter-cultural and inter-regional tensions. These tensions have been a blessing for populist politicians who can always get sufficient votes for positioning themselves as either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian, while the economical issues equally important for speakers of any language are often left out of focus. I hope that Ukraine will eventually become a country where the cultural divisions will be mended by mutual respect and where the rich and diverse cultural legacy will be used for mutual benefit and growth. If this can be achieved with a different administrative layout, than I support this reform, but now is definitely not the right moment to come up with such propositions as it will only lead to more conflicts.
5. How much of this about a (a) religious divide, (b) economic partnership, (c) dominance of language, and (d) general cultural difference between East and West mentality?
I agree that the main reason of the Ukrainian revolution is the global economic crisis. Ukraine’s economy was quite heavily affected, and people there became more sensitive to corruption and poor governance than, for example, in Russia where the level of corruption is comparable but where its negative consequences are alleviated by a relatively favourable macro-economic environment. The irresponsible political decisions of Yanukovich further aggravated the situation as he attempted to strengthen his position by channelling the unrest along the historically shaped cultural “fold lines”. Western Ukraine has a large percentage of Ukrainian speakers and Catholic Christians, while Eastern Ukraine is predominantly Orthodox Christian and has a large number of Russian speakers. It is also important to point out that collective memories and shared historical narratives in East and West are very different, including such issues as the interpretation of the Soviet period and the outcomes of WWII.
6. How has this mentality divide come about?
Ukraine was only established in its modern borders as a result of WWII, and the Crimean peninsula was joined to it even later. As we can see it in Western and Eastern Germany, even several decades of a forced division of a previously united state are sufficient to engender long-term cultural and economic disbalance that is very difficult to overcome. In Ukraine, the problem is much more difficult because our territories have never really been united before the Second World War and because we have never really had a sustainable independent state until 1991. We are a very young nation.
7. What are the general thoughts of your friends and family in Ukraine regarding the revolution?
Most of my old school mates are now in Europe or in the US, and, judging from their Facebook posts, they support the revolution quite enthusiastically. However, my parents in Kharkov are suspicious of the protest movement because of its nationalist stance.
Many thanks to Yegor for taking the time away from his PhD to provide dual Russian-Ukrainian insight to current events.
So there are now three things I can mention should someone ask me about Ukraine that doesn’t involve football or poultry: 1. The revolution isn’t a civil war. 2. Ukrainian politicians position themselves at extreme ends of pro or anti Russia, which doesn’t help everyday cultural tolerance. 3. The cultural East-West conflict arose from the creation of modern day Ukraine post WWII and continued with different everyday experiences under Soviet rule.