Vitaly Portnikov: History has struck a heavy blow at people in the "What's the difference?" camp

Ukrainian Statehood Day was ushered in on 28 July 2021. What does this date signify? Is it needed in the Ukrainian calendar? What are the attributes of this statehood? What is the current developmental level of the Ukrainian political nation? Why does the public still not understand the concept of "political Ukrainian but Jewish by background"? 

We discussed these issues on the Encounters program with the journalist Vitaly Portnikov.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Statehood Day was inaugurated only in 2021, and I would like to know your attitude to this day. I remember that a year ago, there were discussions about whether it was needed and why this date had to be marked.

Vitaly Portnikov: I think that today all of us are living in a state where citizens are definitely too busy with other things to be preoccupied with symbolic holidays. Obviously, the big holiday for all of us is 24 August, the day marking the proclamation — and I would even say the restoration — of our independence. Symbolic holidays, such as Statehood Day, must first pass the test of time. Today, as the Ukrainian people fight against the Russian invaders, we must think about survival in and of the state during this brutal war. When the war ends, it will be possible to make political assessments of both the authorities' actions and decisions during previous periods, both in peacetime and wartime, and to comprehend the appropriateness of one decision or another with regard to the realities.

The role of Ukraine's ethnic communities in the creation of the contemporary country

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: When I speak with representatives of Ukraine's national minorities or with the Kırımlı — the Crimeans, an aboriginal people of Ukraine, I often hear the following formula: I am Ukrainian but of Kırımlı, Hungarian, or Jewish background. In your opinion, what role do the people from these communities play in creating the modern state of Ukraine?

Vitaly Portnikov: I think it's not about the role of various ethnic communities but about the immaturity of the Ukrainian political nation, which was held back in its development over centuries of imperial rule. In civilized states, this question is not even raised. The former president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, is half-Jewish and half-Hungarian. The former prime minister of the French Republic, Pierre Bérégovoy [Ukr. Berehovy] was an ethnic Ukrainian. Many such examples from any European state can be cited.

People can be part of their national communities; they can practice a religion that differs from the religion of the majority of their countrymen; they can respect their own national traditions and know the language of their ancestors, but they are part of a political nation — French, German, Italian, and others. The political nation was formed quite a long time ago, and the question of what it is disappeared from the daily agenda a long time ago.

In Ukraine, a political nation is taking shape in front of our very eyes; therefore, we are still amazed when a person who is not an ethnic Ukrainian is part of the Ukrainian political nation. At the same time, we are not in the least surprised when people are ethnic Ukrainians and simultaneously part of other political nations in many countries worldwide. We are not astonished to see an ethnic Ukrainian, Dmitry Kozak, holding the position of deputy head of the Presidential Administration of Russia, being in charge of the Ukrainian course in this administration, and bearing responsibility for the liquidation of Ukrainian statehood, because we understand that Mr. Kozak is part of the Russian political nation.

We are not surprised when Sergey Korniienko, whose background is half-Ukrainian and half-Jewish, arrives in occupied Mariupol in order to oversee the annexation of this city to the Russian Federation because we realize that he is part of the Russian political nation. Or when Valentina Matviyenko, an ethnic Ukrainian and the Chairwoman of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation, ensures the positive vote on Russia's annexation of the Crimea because she is part of the Russian political nation.

But for some reason, we are taken aback when, in our circumstances, an ethnic Russian, Jew, or Armenian is part of the Ukrainian nation, even though the president of our country is an ethnic Jew. Not so long ago, an ethnic Jew was the prime minister of our country. This list of people from various ethnic backgrounds is quite long. Former prime minister Yuriy Yekhanurov is half-Buryat and half-Ukrainian, while Ukraine's former interior minister, Arsen Avakov, is an ethnic Armenian. In other words, from this standpoint, we are no different from other political nations, but in our country, this continues to elicit surprise, which is incomprehensible to me.

The formation of a political nation during the war

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In your opinion, will the formation of the Ukrainian political nation speed up or become different during this war? Will it be completed? How do you view these processes? 

Vitaly Portnikov: Without a doubt, this formation will accelerate. But, to draw final conclusions, we must live to see the end of hostilities; to know on which territories the Ukrainian state will be located, which territories will be controlled by our government; to know what the state's socioeconomic condition will be; the number of people who will leave Ukraine, never to return, and how these people, who will become the great Ukrainian diaspora, will preserve their connection to Ukraine or become parts of other political nations. During the current war, which is quite serious, grueling, and, I would say, existential for our people, it is quite a thankless task to make prognostications. All I can say is that postwar Ukrainian society will not resemble that of the prewar and wartime periods. But right now, no one can imagine what it will be like because we can't even imagine the borders of this society. It will be different depending on whether Ukraine regains control over all the Ukrainian territories. Regaining control over all the Ukrainian territories will slow down the process of creating the Ukrainian political nation because we will need to enlist people who did not experience, together with us, the period after 2014, when this nation was being formed in a real way — as the nation of independent Ukraine, not as the nation of the Ukrainian SSR or a renamed Ukrainian SSR. If the borders are different, this will be a different history.

The formation of the Ukrainian political nation

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: We have talked about our political awareness and the political nation. Do you recall the moment that something began changing in the formation of this awareness?

Vitaly Portnikov: I think that the actual moment when we were able to talk about the fact that Ukrainians of various nationalities began to form a single political nation was during the Maidan of 2013–2014. This political nation took shape incrementally. The Maidan itself encompassed, first and foremost, Ukrainians from the central and western regions. Russia's occupation of the Crimea undoubtedly helped marshal Ukrainians from the eastern regions, and the events unfolding in the Donbas contributed greatly to drawing in Ukrainians from the southern regions to the Ukrainian political nation.

Yes, this was quite a reactive response on the part of our compatriots living in the east and south of the country. However, what we are speaking about is not its origins but the extent to which citizen awareness has become shared. There is a certain danger in this: A political nation in the process of formation stemming from indignation, so to speak, and provoked by a state that is seeking to humiliate it or to question its very existence may set its political priorities incorrectly and approve decisions that later may become fatal to it and bring about incredible suffering.

However, with the onset of the war, at the heart of which lies the Ukrainian state's very existence on the political map of the world, the Ukrainian political nation will now be formed out of resistance rather than indignation. Today the inhabitants of the southern and eastern regions of the country, who had not fully comprehended the crux of the Kremlin's plans, are now much more aware of them, and they are not thinking so much about putting distance between themselves and Russia as about building Ukraine.

Still and all, right now, I cannot offer any clear-cut projections because I don't know what Ukrainian society's reaction will be to the tribulations connected with concluding the war. This will depend greatly on the political, combat, social, and economic results of this war and on the ability of Ukrainian society in principle to draw adequate conclusions. Ukrainian society has not always demonstrated this capacity, and I don't know whether it will be capable of displaying it after the war. So far, we have been developing as a state in which part of society — not very large but willing to make political sacrifices — defends statehood, saving Ukraine as a democratic state. Afterwards, a strong electoral retaliation occurs, negating all the achievements of this passionate segment of society. I do not rule out the possibility that we might face this kind of scenario after the war.

A "world citizen" or a member of a single nation?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: On the subject of becoming aware of belonging to a particular nation, being a citizen of some country: In your opinion, is such a process taking place because of the war in Ukraine, now that we are becoming aware of how important it is? Previously, before the full-scale invasion, there were many debates about the changed world, the lack of borders; you are a "citizen of the world," you can be born in one state but work in another, visit a third one, etc. And this is normal because borders have been erased. Is this issue characteristic only of our country right now, inasmuch as we are mounting this resistance and it is a guarantee of our physical existence? Or is the world community flirting somewhat when it says that there is such a notion as "citizen of the world" and that nations, backgrounds, and states are no longer so influential?

Vitaly Portnikov: No, it is not flirting. Obviously, people in civilized countries are becoming "citizens of the world." The European Union project is connected with the notion that you can be born in the Netherlands, have an apartment in Germany, and work in Belgium. But this is a question of connection. We always underestimate the question of an individual's connection with his/her native land in the broad sense of the word — of the entire cultural and civilizational process. For example, the Ukrainian population was always divided into three obvious groups of people. The first group possessed classic European national awareness that differed in no way from the awareness of people who live, say, in France and consider themselves French people — beyond their ethnic background, because they are connected to the state by a civilizational and cultural narrative. The second group of people, also quite considerable, considered Ukraine part of the "Russian world" and an indissoluble part of the Russian civilization; in other words, Little Russia.

But the majority of the Ukrainian population lived according to the paradigm of "What's the difference?" "What's the difference which language we speak, as long as life is good here?" These people were struck a heavy blow by history itself, a strong message that, of course, they did not deserve because no one deserves bombings, suffering, and death. And it was these very people who had tried to replace their indifference to their native land with the narrative that they were "citizens of the world." They were not "citizens of the world"; they were people without real roots and indifferent to a civilizational narrative.

Strange as it may sound, such people always pay the price for their reluctance to realize this connection and make up their minds. I very much hope that this category of people — and to a great degree, it set the priorities of the Ukrainian state, especially after 2019 — will now reassess their priorities. Although, again, it may not turn out like this at all after the war. I am not a big optimist in this regard because I recognize that this indifference is part of the identity of millions of our fellow citizens.

Grasping the scale of Russian crimes against Ukrainians

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In your column of March 2022, you write that you see parallels between what Russia is doing to Ukraine today and what Hitler did to the Jews during the Second World War — that this is a very clear-cut and conspicuous parallel. Does the world, Europe, the West understand what is going on right now?

Vitaly Portnikov: Not fully, I think. But I would like to hark back to the period of the Holocaust when not everyone fully understood this until they arrived in the territories where all this was taking place. Furthermore, if they had not come, they would not have fully understood. After all, we learned what we know about the Holocaust after some force arrived and revealed the results of those crimes. That's how it was with the Holocaust, which the Nazis orchestrated in Europe, and that's how it was with the destruction of the Khmers by the Pol Pot regime. Had the Vietnamese army not come to Cambodia, it is more than likely that we would not have learned much about this or had an idea of the scale of this destruction of people. To a certain degree, that's how it was with the Stalinist genocide in the Soviet Union. Only de-Stalinization revealed the true scale of the repressions. Until that moment, there was an understanding that people were being killed, that many were in prisons and camps, but no one, not even those who were living in the Soviet Union, not to mention people living abroad, was aware that the scale of the Stalinist repressions was no different from Hitler's scale. So, this depends on a lot of factors.

Today, on the one hand, we have seen what happened in Bucha. On the other, it is hardly likely that in the foreseeable future, we will grasp the scale of what happened in Mariupol. In the West, people may think that this is Russia's struggle for its foreign territories — from the standpoint of Putin and Co. — but they cannot understand that the issue is the so-called "final solution of the Ukrainian question."

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: How important is the task of conveying this real picture to the West? Will it guarantee our victory if the West understands what it means to "solve the Ukrainian question"?

Vitaly Portnikov: The guarantee of our victory is military aid from the West, along with the readiness of our Ukrainian armed forces to defend the country. It is difficult to determine how much the scale of crimes influences this. The question is not just this but also the restoration of the justice of international law, without which Europe itself will not feel secure. Of course, when we talk about crimes in this situation, this is also a crucial point, if only because the people living in the civilized world should have an idea about the magnitude of the danger.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.

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