December 13, 2013
Imagine the following: the American Ambassador to France goes on French television and declares, “Americans and Canadians are one nation. It’s like the Bretons and the Normans in France. You can’t separate them.” The ambassador would be summoned to Washington and, from that moment forward, Americans would be reminded of the foolish incident every time they set foot in France. After all, diplomats don’t usually go around claiming that neighboring nations don’t exist.
Yet that is exactly what the Russian Ambassador to France, Alexander Orlov, did a few days ago. Pressed on the political turmoil in Ukraine by leading French television journalist Jean-Pierre Elkabbach, Orlov declared: “Russians and Ukrainians are one nation. It’s like the Bretons and the Normans in France. You can’t separate them.”
It is hard to know how to evaluate a claim so oddly distant from normal diplomatic protocol. Since this statement was made in French, perhaps we could apply a couple of French tests.
Let us imagine that I tell you, “Juliette Binoche and I are soulmates. It’s like the closest love affair of all time. You can’t separate us.” Now, is this true? The only way to know would be to ask Juliette Binoche. Because if we shared a single soul and all the rest, she would know about it.
Ambassador Orlov’s claim fails the Juliette Binoche test. He may think that Russia and Ukraine are one nation. But Ukrainians do not.
Now let’s put on our berets and try the Jean-Paul Sartre test. A central idea of Sartre’s philosophy was authenticity. In a dark world a man must take risks for the values he asserts. Can we imagine large numbers of people spending cold nights in a tent for the idea that Russia and Ukraine are one nation? Confronting policemen? Getting beaten by clubs? Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in Kiev and throughout the country are spending nights in the cold and risking arrest and pain to show that they care about Ukraine and its distinct future. But they hope it will be a European one, not a Russian one. At the moment no one is going out on the streets and taking risks for the ambassador’s idea.
So Ambassador Orlov’s claim also fails the Jean-Paul Sartre test.
Sadly, the distance between odd ideas and bloodshed is much shorter than we might wish. Ambassador Orlov was not expressing a quaint private opinion when he denied the existence of a Ukrainian nation; he was following the line of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a similar setting a few weeks ago, also speaking to western journalists, Putin made exactly the same claim: that Russians and Ukrainians “are one nation.” Thus no matter what happens in Ukraine, there can be, logically speaking, no Russian intervention.
It is difficult to judge whether Putin actually believes this. What is worrying is the lack of alternative views in Russian discussion of the overwhelming protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. At first Russian television simply denied that there were any protests. As recently as December 8, Channel 1 was claiming that only a “few hundred” people were protesting in Kiev. When the existence of protests could no longer be denied, they were presented as a foreign plot. On television and on the Internet, two themes dominate: the Europeans want our historic territory, and the Europeans are gay. Fantasies of sex and domination displace description and analysis.
In one view from Moscow, the European Union is trying to revive the Kingdom of Sweden of the eighteenth century, with Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt standing in for King Karl XII and the protests as a replay of the Great Northern War. On television (and also, with distressing regularity, in the discussion forums of Russian-language news sites) one sees the fruits of President Putin’s campaign against gays. German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle’s visit to Kiev is held up as proof that the Ukrainian demonstrations are all about the spread of same-sex marriage into the Christian slavic homeland. The leading Russian anchorman, Dmitry Kiselyov, claimed on television this week that Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight champion and Ukrainian opposition politician who was photographed with Westerwelle, should be dismissed as a gay icon. Kiselyov has also claimed that Swedes practice “sex from the age of nine.”
Although there are plenty of individual Russians and Russian organizations who have issued statements in support of the Ukrainian protest movement, they are exceptions to the pervasive discourse. It would be very difficult, if you were getting your information from the Russian media, to have any idea of what was actually happening in Kiev.
Ukraine is different. Russia is something close to an autocracy, lacking freedom of the press. Ukraine is an oligarchy, and there is a good deal of press freedom. In Russia the oligarchs are loyal or in prison; in Ukraine they have not only wealth but independence and a certain amount of power. Some of them, like Dmytro Firtash, own rival media empires, which provide competing views of their country’s politics; and in the case of the recent protests, the Ukrainian media has shown, to a surprising extent, a willingness to report the truth, providing visual evidence of government violence and quoting the demonstrators about their own motives.
This means that Yanukovych and Putin are not presented in the best of lights in Ukraine itself. But it also suggests a deeper problem for Yanukovych.
No doubt Yanukovych would happily surrender some of Ukraine’s independence to Russia if it would bring an end to the huge protests now filling his streets. He and his son Oleksandr seem to have amassed a great deal of wealth and could presumably then just keep it. But the Ukrainian oligarchs who are not blood relatives of Yanukovych have no interest in the end of Ukraine, because then they would face Putin’s version of justice.
During the Ukrainian crisis Russia announced the third trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who challenged Putin. It now seems unlikely that he will leave prison while Putin is still alive. It is hard to imagine that the Ukrainian oligarchs did not get this message, although of course it simply reaffirmed what they already knew: they can flourish only within a sovereign Ukrainian state. Beyond this basic question of personal freedom, the Ukrainian oligarchs have actual business interests in Europe, and seem to support the trade agreement with the EU. The company owned by the most important of them, Rinat Akhmetov, issued a press release intoning its allegiance to “European values.”
So any deal that Yanukovych makes with Moscow will anger not just the men and women who are out protesting, but work against the basic interests of some of the people who hold power in the country. Yanukovych has tried and failed multiple times to clear the streets. One can imagine that this could become a pretext for more direct Russian intervention. But in a still darker possibility, Yanukovych might need Russian force to fend off what would then be not only an aggrieved population but also a hostile group of oligarchs. The Ukrainian president’s source of support would then be the people in Moscow who say that the Ukrainian nation does not exist.
Timothy Snyder is Bird White Housum Professor of History at Yale University and IWM Permanent Fellow.
First published in The New York Review of Books, December 13, 2013.
© The New York Review of Books