Ukraine 'r' Us?

The Russia/Ukraine identity question is a poor fit for the most common Western model of ethnic and international conflict, in which the enemy group is systematically portrayed as a dangerous Other. It might seem to resemble the suppression of Kurdish identity in Turkey, or Turkish identity in communist Bulgaria, but these comparisons quickly fall apart. First of all, the official national/ethnic designation “Ukrainian,” recognized by the Soviet Union, remains legitimate in the Russian Federation, and second, at issue is not so much an internal minority as a neighboring state.

The underlying psychodrama of Russian-Ukrainian relations rests on a frequent assertion that Ukraine is not at all Other, but instead simply a variation on “Russia” that has no legitimate reason for existence.  After all, both countries look to Kievan Rus’ as their point of origin—can it really belong to each? This question, while much debated, is far too abstract to serve as a basis for Russian aggression.  Though Kiev/Kyiv is claimed as the cradle of both Russian and Ukrainian civilization(s), it is not an East Slavic Jerusalem, at least not in the current political sense. [1]  Russia does not need actual possession of Ukraine’s capital city to bolster its own claims of legitimacy or selfhood. If Moscow is the Third Rome, Kiev was never even Rome 2.5. 

Fear-mongering to the contrary, the Russian Federation has not been pursuing a plan to conquer Ukraine as a sovereign state; even if it were possible, it would cause more trouble than it could be worth, and in any case, few of the military actions by Russia or by separatists would point to such a goal.  What makes the actions of Russia-aligned interests in Ukraine legible, tolerable, and even desirable to a significant portion of the Russian population is a disbelief in Ukraine as a concept: as a sovereign entity, it has no place in the popular imagination or Symbolic geography.  From this point of view, Ukraine is not simply a failed or failing state; it is a state whose very existence is something of a historical joke. 

In the propaganda campaign against Ukraine, then, the Russian media have an unusually complex task:  maintaining the sense of Ukraine as “self” (that is, not really different from Russia) while demonizing the opposition as “other.” The conflict cannot be dismissed by an appeal to Freud’s famous formulation of the “narcissism of small differences” or Jonathan Swift’s send-up of rival Lilliputian factions who cannot agree on the proper ways to eat a boiled egg.  Though one might argue that it is this very type of dismissal that characterizes the popular Russian disdain for Ukrainian sovereignty:  any emphasis on “Ukrainianness” is simply magnifying a small distinction in order to drive a wedge between Ukrainians and Russians.  On the Russian side, the underlying problem with Ukraine could be summed up as follows:  “Who do you think you are?  How can you say you are not us?  You are us; we are the same.” The assertion to the contrary is tantamount to betrayal.  Clearly, the population of “Ukraine” is being duped by enemies both internal and external, hell-bent on weakening Russia through the assertion of false nationalisms.  Ukrainians have somehow been brainwashed into thinking they exist.

One consequence of this insistence that the Ukrainian other is simply another variety of self is the automatic assumption that events in Ukraine are, first and foremost, about Russia.  No doubt there are geographic, economic, and strategic reasons for Russia to be vigilant about the political development and international ties of its closest Western neighbor, but the intensity of the identification with Ukraine goes beyond political pragmatism.  

Mama Dramas

Even some of the most incisive critics of Russia’s actions in Crimea, Donets, and Luhansk tacitly accept Russia’s precedence and priority. In July 2014, Vladimir Sorokin, one of the most critically acclaimed living Russian writers, published an essay in The New York Review of Books under the eye-catching title, “Russia Is Pregnant with Ukraine.” According to Sorokin, the Euromaidan’s “yellow and blue sperm…did its manly job under the colorful fireworks of granddads, the flares of Molotov cocktails, and the whistle of sniper’s bullets.”  Russia, staring dumbly at its television set, found that a “new life stirred in her enormous womb: Free Ukraine.”

Papa don't preach!

Papa don't preach!

The object of Sorokin’s satire is the Russian state (along with its media apparatus), so perhaps he should be forgiven for looking at Ukrainian political life entirely through the lens of Russian interests (a forgiveness that I am asking on my own behalf as well).   His pregnancy metaphor could hardly surprise those familiar with his fiction; after Blue Lard's infamous anal sex scene involving clones of Khrushchev and Stalin, a couch potato Mother Russia knocking up her neighbor’s (possibly premature) patriotic exuberance looks positively tame. Sorokin dispenses with the  illusions of the primordial state in an efficient flattening of the Oedipal romance.  Ukraine is both inseminator and offspring; the child truly is father to the man.  

Claude Levi-Strauss argues that the varieties of the Oedipus myth (Freud's included) play out the tension between sexual reproduction (the icky origins of us all) and autochthony (self-generation from the soil itself, free of parents but always yielding monsters).   The theory of ethnogenesis (which, given Gumilev's complicated relationship with both his famous parents, begs for a psychoanalytic reading) has a strong autochthonous component, but Sorokin refuses to allow for the birth of a nation that doesn’t involve pain, bodily fluids, and inadmissible desire. 

Sorokin’s portrayal of Free Ukraine’s birth is traumatic to the Russian maternal body.  Craving meat, it gobbles up Crimea, while all its population can seem to talk about is its neighbor/fetus.  His essay ends:

Russia is pregnant with Ukraine. Birth is inevitable. There is more to come: the intensifying labor pains, the tearing of the umbilical cord, the newborn’s first cries… The infant’s name will be beautiful: Farewell to Empire. Will it have a happy childhood? We don’t know yet. Many people sincerely hope it will grow up strong and healthy. But what of the mother? The coming labor will be difficult, and there will certainly be complications. Will she survive? And what about the rest of the world?

Sorokin transforms the problem of Russian and Ukrainian identity into a more familiar biological drama of nurturing and separation. Make no mistake: nothing about this metaphor suggests an actual Ukrainian perspective, but it does posit a future in which such a perspective is inevitable. Given the bizarre temporal mechanics of Ukraine as both father and child, a “future” Ukrainian perspective is not proleptic.  On its own terms, it already exists, having impregnated Russia with the seed of her own transformation or (imperial) demise.  

Next: Undead Ukrainian Nazis (and the Americans Who Love Them)


[1] No matter how enamored seventeenth-century Ruthenians may have been of the idea that Kiev was the “New Jerusalem”, the idea did not gain a great deal of currency (Berezhnaya).  Similarly, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church’s declaration in July 2010 that the Ukraininan capital is the “New Jerusalem” has yet to make much of a ripple


Berezhnaya, Liliya “Topography of Salvation. ‘Kyiv-the New Jerusalem’ in the Ruthenian Literary Polemics (end of the 16th-beginning of the 17th century” . Das Grossfürstentum Litauen und die östlichen Gebiete der polnischen Krone als interkulturelle Kommunikationsregion (15.-18. Jh.). Passau: Dr. des. Stefan Rohdewald, 10.03.2005-12.03.2005.