Conflict Uncovers a Ukrainian Identity Crisis Over Deep Russian Roots

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Conflict Uncovers a Ukrainian Identity Crisis Over Deep Russian Roots
Published 21-10-2014, 04:39

Neil MacFarquhar


KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainians have long endured a tormented relationship with the novelist Mikhail Bulgakov — a native son who extolled this city’s beauty even while mocking the very idea of a Ukraine independent fromRussia.

"We call him the Great Kiev Citizen,” said the director of the Bulgakov museum here, Ludmila V. Gubiauri. Yet she helped bring about the recent, extraordinary government decision to ban as "Russian propaganda” a new mini-series of "The White Guard,” his most important work set in Kiev.

While some Ukrainians are implacably hostile toward Russia, many others are experiencing an identity crisis kindled by the confrontation with Moscow, and the contradiction embodied by Mr. Bulgakov reflects their inner turmoil.

Even among those Ukrainians pleased with the current turn to the West, many are grappling with the almost inconceivable idea that Russia has become a mortal enemy, forcing Ukrainians to draw a line between themselves and what has long been their cultural motherland.

"I considered myself part of the Russian culture — my mother is Russian, my father is Ukrainian,” said Aleksey Ryabchyn, a young economist and journalist from Donetsk who is running for Parliament. "I have lots of Russian friends; I like books in Russian; I speak Russian at home. So I am asking myself, ‘Who am I?’ ”

For many, a mental switch was flipped six months ago when the Federation Council in Moscow voted to give President Vladimir V. Putin an open mandate to invade Russia’s smaller neighbor.

"The Russian part of me died on March 1 when I saw the Russian senate allowed Putin to send troops into Ukraine,” Mr. Ryabchyn said. "It was the biggest shock in my life.”

The ties binding the two countries form a complex weave — personal, historical, religious, geographical — that stretches back more than a millennium. Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University, argues that much of the history was manipulated in modern times to create links where none existed. But myths endure.

The Russian Orthodox Church traces its origins to mass conversions purportedly forced by Vladimir, the grand prince of Kiev, in 988. The name Russia, adopted by Peter the Great for the empire in the early 18th century, was rooted in Kievan Rus, a medieval state that included lands that became Ukraine.

"They stole our church; they stole our name,” said Andrii Bychenko, who runs the sociology program at the Razumkov Center, a think tank here.

Catherine the Great conquered much of what is now Ukraine for Russia in 1795. In Soviet times, key leaders emerged from here. Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet ruler from 1964 to 1982, was born in what is now Dnepropetrovsk. Nikita Khrushchev, his predecessor, grew up in the now embattled Donbass region.

Kiev feels like a Russian city, architecturally and linguistically. Check into a hotel, signal a waiter, enter a shop, and chances are you will be addressed in Russian. Television talk shows are bilingual — guests speak the language in which they are most comfortable. Taxi drivers still listen to "Russky Chanson,” Russian prison ballads that are something of a cross between gangsta rap and country and western music.

But recent months brought subtle changes. The young consider speaking Ukrainian cool. Some older Ukrainians have adopted the attitude that Russia does not own the culture.

"Some of my friends think that real patriots of Ukraine should not speak Russian because they are enemies,” said Irina Bekeshkina, a sociologist who specializes in political polling. "Why should we identify Putin with the Russian language? Russian language and culture has been around a lot longer than Putin.”

In some ways, the language issue precipitated the entire crisis with Moscow. In February, when hard-line members of Ukraine’s Parliament tried but failed to annul a law that endorsed using Russian as a second official language, the Kremlin seized on the attempt as evidence that Russian speakers needed protection.

Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and unleashed a relentless propaganda campaign painting the Kiev government as Nazi-inspired fascists bent on killing Russians.

People on both sides of the border say that families and friends experienced the sharpest rift. Entire clans living on opposite sides have stopped speaking to each other.

Many Ukrainians describe how their Russian relatives, watching TV, frantically called to tell them: "We will save you! Come to Russia!” The Ukrainians said they responded with some version of: "What do you mean, save us? You are killing us and stealing our land.” The ensuing breach has rarely been repaired.

The arts remain a minefield.

The writers Nikolai Gogol and Mr. Bulgakov, best known for "The Master and Margarita,” are universally acknowledged titans of Russian literature. Since they were born in Ukraine, however, locals try to claim some reflected glory, even if neither was terribly complimentary.

In "The White Guard,” Mr. Bulgakov chronicled the trials of a middle-class family of White Russians in 1918 as the czarist order collapsed around them. (Many suggest the book echoes current Russian sentiment toward Ukraine.)

The protagonist, Alexei Turbin, is considered an alter ego for Mr. Bulgakov, a doctor who worked as a military medic. Dr. Turbin, a loyal son of empire, is as hostile toward the Bolsheviks as toward the Ukrainians. The book underscores the revulsion of the urban elite as rural Ukrainian peasants rise up to seize Kiev.

Their leaders are depicted as cowardly, cruel, anti-Semitic and treacherous.

As for the Ukrainian language, Mr. Bulgakov wrote in the novel that it was only understood in the docklands where "ragged men unload watermelons from barges.”

Yet the author found his native city enchanting, calling St. Vladimir’s Hill, for example, "the most beautiful spot on earth.”

So it was almost unprecedented for the state film agency to ban the latest Russian-made "White Guard” mini-series, saying that it "demonstrates contempt for Ukrainian language, people and statehood.” In September, the agency also warned that all Russian movies and TV series that denigrated Ukraine would suffer a similar fate.

The Bulgakov museum is a two-story, mustard-colored house that was the family’s last residence in Kiev and was the model for the Turbin family home in "The White Guard.” A small sign by the front door reads, "People who support the military occupation of Ukraine are not welcome in our museum.”

Ms. Gubiauri, the director, was one of the people asked to review the mini-series. "I don’t see it as a piece of art; it is basically propaganda,” she said, with everything Ukrainian cast negatively.

She noted that for many Ukrainians, Mr. Bulgakov had never been an easy read. "For me as a Ukrainian, it hurts to read his work,” she said. "He did not recognize Ukraine as an independent state.”

Volodymyr Fedorin, the Moscow-educated former editor of Forbes Ukraine, found the series even more pro-Russian than the book. "For Bulgakov, Ukrainian independence was something between a joke and a tragedy,” he said.

Many here are dismayed by the current jingoism in Russia, Mr. Fedorin said. "We have got big problems with the current version of Russian culture; there is a big chunk of imperialistic, chauvinistic feelings toward other countries,” he said. "Too many of my former friends and colleagues turned out to be jingoists and fools.”

Mr. Fedorin also suggested that the cultural links could be overestimated. While the older, Soviet-born generation might identify closely with Russia, those in their early 20s, who grew up in an independent Ukraine, would likely prefer HBO to a Russian mini-series, he said.

Geography plays a role, too. While eastern and central Ukraine have long cleaved to Russia, people in the west, ruled by the Austro-Hungarian empire or Poland in recent centuries, tend to be less Russophile than hostile.

In and around Kiev, the struggle to change is perceived as much harder for people over 40, who have long viewed Russia and particularly Moscow as their lodestar. "There was that dream to succeed in Moscow,” said Savik Shuster, Ukraine’s most prominent talk show host. He moved here a decade ago after being barred from Russian TV.

"It is very difficult for them to admit that they have to look for another identity,” he said. "For those in their 20s it is different; for them Moscow is just another city.”

Many do not want to erase the links entirely; Russia is too big and too important a neighbor. Instead, members of that older generation try to distinguish between prose and politics. "You have Pushkin’s Russia and you have Putin’s Russia,” Mr. Shuster said. "Nobody wants to deal with Putin’s Russia.”

Ms. Bekeshkina, the sociologist, noted that Ukrainian independence came virtually overnight 23 years ago, so it took the conflict with Russia for people here to grasp its importance. "People are now deciding who they are as a people,” she said.

It takes a moment for the difference to shine through.

Back at the Bulgakov museum, the tour guide, Tatiana Y. Shetko, was asked if the writer was Russian or Ukrainian.

"You cannot divide him between Ukraine and Russia; he is a global writer,” she said, before adding, "I want you to remember when you leave this house that everything Bulgakov wrote in Moscow came from Kiev.”


The New York Times

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