This Country Which Is Not One

The most notorious dismissal of Ukraine’s reality is an oft-cited quote attributed to Putin himself by an unnamed source in 2008.  According to Kommersant,  Putin told then-president Bush: “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.” Gordon M. Hahn argues that, in the absence of a named source, this quote can only be taken seriously as a piece of anti-Putin propaganda.  If so, it nicely bookends the fake Madeleine Albright quote I discussed here. Albright allegedly lamented that Russia’s control of Siberia’s natural resources is unfair.  Putin's assessment of this fake quote could apply equally to the comments about Ukraine attributed to him (“I’m not familiar with this quote […]., but I know that such thoughts wander through the minds of certain politicians”).  Even if Putin never told W. that Ukraine wasn’t a “real” country, the quote itself represents a casual dismissiveness that should be familiar to anyone who has spent much time in Russia in the past decade.

But what does it mean to be a  “real” country?  In relation to Ukraine, this question has nothing to do with international recognition, established currencies, or membership in the United Nations. Nor is it a matter of being a “failed state,” a phrase that may have gained some currency the aftermath of the Maidan, but was rarely part of the dismissiveness toward Ukraine that preceded it.  Certainly, there is the postcolonial assumption that the power to take a state seriously rests with those in charge of the Russian Federation.  The country’s juridical status as “successor” to the Soviet Union, which was crucial to questions of national debt, nuclear nonproliferation, and UN Security Council membership, structurally reinforces the identification of Russia with the authority that prevented the other Soviet republics from going their own way. 

For those who grew up in the United States or Canada, countries whose histories are a mere blip in comparison to the far older lineages of the average European nation (let alone China), the casual dismissal of “younger” states may be hard to fathom.  Russia in particular has a long cultural tradition of establishing the country’s “greatness” firmly in the realm of historical longue durée and high cultural accomplishment (seen as contributions or gifts to world culture and civilization).  Russia, a country whose lack of a national epic was so troubling to 18th century neoclassicists, has turned its history into the equivalent of that missing epic.   For a country to be “real,” it must have something to offer that is in some way comparable.  The end of the Cold War led to the establishment of 25 new states out of the ruins of three (the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia). Some of these countries could lay claim to a long and storied history--after all, the Russian Federation is one of them.  But even the Soviet recognition of “nationality” as a meaningful category was based on a clear hierarchy, a family of “little brothers” aligned with its eldest sibling, Russia. 

The problem is further complicated by the rise of quack historiography and garbled metaphysical ethnography discussed in a previous chapter.  Unsatisfied with Russia’s already impressive lifespan, Fomenko’s New Chronography  is dedicated to the proposition that virtually every great accomplishment and event in the world’s past can be understood as Russian or proto-Russian.  Even more insidious is Gumilev’s theory of ethnogenesis, which insists that nations are, rather than contingent historical constructs, virtually biological entities that result from understandable physical laws (based on astonishingly bad pseudoscience).  Gumilev, whose ideas have become mainstream since the final days of the Soviet Union, transforms Romantic notions of nationhood into “scientific” fact, complete with “greatness” as an important historical force.  Conveniently, he also put forward the “superethnos” as an ethnic group so great and so large as to encompass smaller, contiguous or overlapping ethnicities.  Such as, for example, Ukrainians. 

Sergei Belyakov ended his recent, prize-winning biography of Gumilev with a lament that Western “conformism” leaves no place for ethnogenesis:  “Gumilev will be of interest to Western scholars only after the Western world itself changes to the point of being unrecognizable.”  This certainly holds true for the Western scholarly world.  From the point of view most common in Western academia,  all nations are consensual fantasies.  The denial of Ukrainian sovereignty breaks the laws of the fantasy genre by refusing to suspend disbelief.

A doctrine of primordial nationhood implicitly disadvantages former imperial holdings, and even more so when the colonized resemble the colonizer.  Once conflicts break out into the open, even foreign commentators (who presumably have less of an emotional investment) can find themselves trapped in an essentialist rhetoric of nationhood. Probably the best known post-Cold War examples would be Robert D. Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, which, by advancing “ancient hatreds” as an explanation of the Yugoslav collapse, recapitulates the makeshift, opportunistic, and proto-fascist nationalisms of Slobodan Milosevic (Serbia) and Franjo Tudjman (Croatia).  In the case of Ukraine and Russia, even a scholar as eminent and well-versed as Stephen F. Cohen repeatedly calls for understanding Ukraine as “two Ukraines,” a formulation that implies permanent conflict and even rupture (even if rupture is not what he advocates).   Tatiana Zhurzhenko, in response to an earlier articulation of the “Two Ukraines” thesis by Mykola Riabchuk, calls this approach the “Huntingtonization  of the Ukrainian political discourse), referring to The Clash of Civilizations, a book that has found a comfortable fit in post-Soviet formulations of geopolitics. 

Ukraine’s identity is a math problem based on dodgy accounting.  Mathematically, identity means numerical equality (“1=1”); here it is denied by the assertion that 1=0 (“There is no real Ukraine”) or that 1=2 (“There are two Ukraines”).  Accountants have a name for this sort of thing: cooking the books. 

On Monday:  Small Differences, High Stakes