Perspective 67. Ukrainians and Russians: Separate Identities?
Vladimir Putin claims that "Ukrainians and Russians are one people." To his dismay, most Ukrainians insist on their own identity. Do the Ukrainians, despite linguistic and cultural similarity, have a case?
Yes. Most of present-day Ukraine was ruled from Moscow, as part of Russia, only since the late eighteenth century. And thanks to Russian heavy-handedness, the Ukrainian drive to separate from Moscow has flourished over most of this period.
In perspective, it is true that the first state labeled as Russian -- Kievan Rus -- centered in Ukraine, from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. But the entire region then fell to the Mongols, who dominated from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. By this time the designation of "Ukraine" for the southern regions was common.
As the far-away Duchy of Muscovy emerged from Mongol rule, it adopted the earlier designation of "Rus" (and eventually rulers took the title of Tsar, from Caesar, since it claimed to be the Third Rome). Most of Ukraine fell under the rule of Poland or Lithuania, who combined in a Commonwealth in 1569. Much of Ukraine achieved independence in 1654, but became increasingly dependent on protection by the Russian Tsar.
Catherine the Great completed the process of annexing most of Ukraine during the Polish partitions at the end of the eighteenth century. But the Tsars had a problem with Ukrainian nationalism during the following century, leading to programs of Russification, including bans on teaching Ukrainian.
Ukrainians attempted to revive their independence following the 1917 Revolutions, but the Red Army managed to bring the region back into the fold -- albeit as a separate republic of the Soviet Union (a step that still moves Putin to fits).
Under Stalin an estimated 7 million Ukrainians starved to death during the forced collectivization of the 1930s. Russians were moved in to bolster the depleted agricultural population.
Not surprisingly, when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Ukrainians voted by 92 percent for independence from Russia. Even in Russian-speaking areas there was a clear majority for separation from Russia.
So Ukrainians have a solid case for their own identity, stretching back centuries. But actually, despite all this history, it shouldn't even matter. Any people has the natural right to claim whatever identity it chooses, even if is something just invented.
I have often encountered the argument that Palestinian identity as Palestinian is illegitimate because It is of recent vintage. One hundred years ago there were no Palestinians, say the grouches.
My answer is that one hundred years ago there were no Israelis either. But Israelis have a right to define themselves, as do all peoples, whether with historical roots or not.
Including the Ukrainians, who as it happens do also have history on their side.