The editors of n+1 write: There’s a reason Ukraine is at the heart of the most significant geopolitical crisis yet to appear in the post-Soviet space. There is no post-Soviet state like it. Unlike the Baltic states, it does not have a recent (interwar) memory of statehood. Nor, unlike every other post-Soviet state aside from Belarus, does the majority population have a radically different language and culture from the Russians. In many cases, for these countries, the traditional language suggests a natural political ally—Finland for the Estonians, Turkey for the Azeris, Romania for the Moldovans. These linguistic and cultural affinities are not without their difficulties, but they do give a long-term geopolitical orientation to these countries.
Ukraine has this to some extent in its western part, formerly known as Galicia, which has cultural and linguistic affinities with Poland. But the country’s capital, Kyiv, has much stronger ties to Russia: Russians consider Kievan Rus, which lasted from the 9th to the 13th century (when it was sacked and burned by the Mongols), to be the first Russian civilization. Russian Orthodoxy was first proclaimed there. Most people in Kyiv speak Russian, rather than Ukrainian, and in any case the languages are quite close (about as close as Spanish and Portuguese). On television, it is typical for any live broadcast—whether it’s news, sports, or a reality-TV show—to go back and forth seamlessly between Russian and Ukrainian, with the understanding that most people know both. Russians all too often assume that these cultural affinities mean that there is no such thing as a separate Ukrainian people. There is. But the closeness of the two peoples makes forging an independent path for Ukraine extraordinarily difficult.
Adding to this difficulty has been the Soviet legacy, which in Ukraine as everywhere else is always and everywhere visible. The Ukrainian historian Giorgy Kasianov has written that Ukrainians are forced to exist in several historical and semantic fields simultaneously: the roads they drive on, the factories they work at, the social relations they engage in—all are part of the Soviet heritage. As in the rest of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, this heritage is crumbling, but in Ukraine in particular it remains formidable.
As a result, Ukraine has essentially been frozen in time since independence. Nationalist and pro-Russian political parties (each bankrolled by a handful of oligarchs) have passed the presidency back and forth between them, neither getting much done while they ruled. The country’s two countervailing forces—Ukrainian-language nationalists in the west, and Russian-language nationalists in the east and Crimea—have ensured that neither maintains the upper hand. Because of this, Ukraine has consistently had a better, more lively public sphere than most of its neighbors—more freedom of speech, more freedom of assembly, more diverse political actors. Ukraine was also distinguished by the repeated, and usually peaceful, transfer of power from one party to another (something that post-Soviet Russia has still not achieved more than two decades in). And yet these positive democratic indicators did not, as contemporary dogma would predict, lead to positive economic results. Instead, Ukraine, a country that in 1991 had hope that, left to its own devices, it could flourish—with its highly educated workforce, proximity to Europe in the west and the Black Sea to the south, and many industrial enterprises inherited from the USSR—has instead lagged miserably behind its neighbors. Its per capita GDP is half of Russia’s, one fifth that of the US. Its economic performance is worse than that of its authoritarian neighbors Kazakhstan and Belarus. It is a country about as poor as El Salvador. And the poorest regions are in the west, which sends many undocumented migrant workers farther west, to Europe, and north to Russia. It is the disjuncture between Ukraine’s solid democratic performance and its miserable economic one that provided the protests with much of their pathos and durability. [Continue reading…]