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Beauty and the beasts

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Dec. 31, 2012, 4:31 p.m. | Op-ed — by Mykola Riabchuk

Hanna Herman
© Courtesy

 In a recent interview with TVi – one of the few independent channels not yet completely domesticated by the authorities – Hanna Herman, the deputy head of the omnipotent presidential administration, recognized that Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians are, in fact, second-rate citizens in Ukraine, with a very weak social and economic position vis-à-vis the dominant Russophones and therefore with a structurally restrained ability to influence the political, economic, and cultural life of the country.

Here are her comments verbatim:

“Rich people are mostly Russian-speaking, while a great many citizens of Ukraine with Ukrainian mentality are poor people. This is the legacy of the first Ukrainian leaders. Whereas Vyacheslav Chornovil [a former political prisoner and one of the leaders of national-democratic movement during perestroika and the early years of Ukrainian independence] led us to meetings, where we sang Chervona kalyna [a patriotic song], the Komsomol functionaries have seized banks, privatized factories, and now they are wealthy, influential, and dictate fashions” http://ua.korrespondent.net/ukraine/1194816-german-ukrayinomovni-gromadyani-ne-mayut-finansovogo-vplivu-v-krayini.

Herman may know what she is talking about. As a journalist and democratic activist, she supported the anti-communist, pro-independence movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Eventually, she headed the Ukrainian service of the Radio Liberty in Kyiv, but unexpectedly switched sides in 2004 and became a close associate of Viktor Yanukovych – a presidential hopeful whose victory in the forthcoming elections looked, at the time, to have been firmly secured. Whether her choice was ideological, or purely mercantile, or, as some authors suggest, intimately personal, is not that important. What really matters is the fact that she is one of a very few intellectuals, liberals, and genuine Ukrainian-speakers within the profoundly illiberal, anti-intellectual, and predominantly anti-Ukrainophone team. Either by chance or choice or the party assignment, she serves as the human face of the rather ugly political-cum-economic group that runs the country.

As a person with some Ukrainophile and liberal-intellectual background, she who certainly cannot deny the conspicuous disparity between the two major ethno-linguistic groups in the country. Yet, as a person who switched sides and joined, to put it delicately, the dominant group, she tries to justify her dubious move with some rational statements. Ukrainophones, she implies, are in a backward position not because of colonial legacy and particular policies of tsars and commissars, and certainly not because of today’s policies of Viktor Yanukovych and his Ukrainophobic associates. Ukrainophones are socially handicapped, first and foremost, because they sang patriotic songs with their gullible leaders and cared too much about national symbolism, while the former Soviet nomenklatura seized power and property and effectively transformed the political dominance of the Russophone Soviet elite into an economic one.

Implicitly, this indulges Herman who was probably right to leave the national democrats since they were hopeless idealists who were unable to bring about any real changes, and to join the tough “pragmatists” from Donetsk who understand what real life means and who can, with her help, be cultured, enlightened and perhaps Ukrainized, at least politically, to comprehend the words “national interest” and launch ultimately the much-needed modernization/Westernization of the country.

One can only wish her good luck on her project, even though the idea of acculturating and gentrifying the tough guys from the Party of Regions looks nearly as utopian as singing “Chervona kalyna” with Vyacheslav Chornovil. Even should Hanna Herman, by mesmerizing, magic, or other means, succeed in transforming her patron-cum-pupil into a real gem (or, as she put it in an earlier interview, a “true diamond”), the Komsomol functionaries who captured the state and created, with criminals, today’s oligarchy, would not disappear. Nor is likely to disappear their profound contempt, even hatred for all those natives who are usually nicknamed “lokhi,” “byki,” “raguli,” “kuguty,” “zhloby,” “bandery,” or “svidomity” – in short, subhumans. Actually, it was Viktor Yanukovych himself who back in 2004 inflamed the xenophobic feelings of his Russian-speaking electorate by describing his political opponents as “goats who spoil our life” (“goats”, in Russian criminal argot, is a strong derogative like “assholes” or worse).

The contempt should not necessarily be interpreted as racial, or ethnic. It can be considered as merely the class superiority of haves over have-nots, advanced over backward, urbanized over rural, central over provincial. Yet, in Ukraine, these worlds and terms largely coincide. The two centuries of settler colonization resulted in thorough Russification of urban centers and complete marginalization of the Ukrainophone folk, primarily as kolkhoz slaves and unqualified workers — illegal migrants from the rural “third world” to the urban “first world,” in which “propiska” was institutionalized as the ersatz-visa system.

For most of Ukrainophones, the Russian language was the only vehicle for social advancement and higher cultural status. In many cases, they were forced to adopt not only the language of their colonizers but also their superior attitude towards uncultured “kolkhoz” aborigines; they internalized the negative self-image imposed upon them by the dominant group and contributed themselves to the further Russification of their defiant or less educated countrymen.

Herman revealed a profound truth – that there are no oligarchs, no “rich people” with Ukrainian identity (or, as she put it, “Ukrainian mentality”). And the problem is not only, and not so much, that they do not speak Ukrainian as their major language. There are quite a few Russophones in Ukraine who are politically Ukrainian and, vice-versa, but there are quite a few Ukrainophones who are politically Soviet or ambiguously “East Slavonic.” The main problem with the Ukrainian post-Soviet “elite” is that they are predominantly Soviet-speaking and their major identity is primarily off-shore.

Most of them live with their families in London, Monaco, or Geneva, and consider Ukraine just a place from which to extract money. Of course, since they have captured the state, they need to promote some statebuilding and to construct a nation with a rather Russophone or Ukrainophone cultural core. For years, as sheer opportunists, they had manipulated both groups and the overall project, until the vague balance of forces shifted dangerously during the Orange revolution toward the Ukrainian, i.e. anti-Eurasian/pro-European side. The prospect of Westernization, i.e., of real reforms, transparency, rule of law, and fair political and economic competition, frightened most Ukrainian oligarchs. They invested heavily in a counter-revolution and, after its victory, abandoned a middle-line policy of manipulation as just too risky and unpredictable. They gave up the traditional Kuchma-style “centrist” position between the two camps – the position of self-appointed peacekeepers and intermediaries. Instead, they placed their stakes on the Russophile side that had been traditionally more Sovietized, paternalistic and obedient, and therefore looked more likely to support or, at least, accept their thuggish rule. Indeed, this is largely the same core electorate that supports Vladimir Putin in Russia and Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. In Ukraine, however, the promotion of homo sovieticus requires the marginalization of homo anti-sovieticus, which is largely concentrated within the Ukrainophile camp and which significantly exceeds, in every respect, the similar anti-incumbent camps in Russia and Belarus.

Herman seems sincerely to support a centrist line aimed at engagement rather than containment of Ukrainophones, aimed at their political cooptation rather than marginalization. In the same TVi interview she defined her political mission as “to defend the interests of the people who did not vote for V.Yanukovych [...] because they merely did not know him well enough… Yushchenko failed to become a leader of the whole nation. And I would not like our current president to repeat this mistake” http://news.liga.net/news/N1107113.html.

This might be a good idea since Yanukovych was elected a president by only 49% of the voters, who make up just one-third of Ukraine’s adult population. The only problem is that this appealing notion is alien to the basic instincts and monopolistic habits of the ruling “elite” that not only despises Ukrainophones as an inferior race but also considers them, not unreasonably, as pro-Western agents and a major threat to their authoritarian dominance.

Herman is undoubtedly a worldly person, and she does her PR job pretty well:

“We need professionals, the so-called Harvard boys, those young Ukrainians who have received a good academic training. These well-educated Ukrainians with practical experience have a different vision of the world and Ukraine and Ukraine’s place it should come to power. I think that in the near future the president will introduce his new team” http://zik.com.ua/en/news/2011/01/06/265602.

Who knows? Miracles do happen. Maybe she has really discovered some hidden essence behind Yanukovych’s personality, a diamond that will emerge like a phoenix from ashes, at a secret time X, to usher in a truly new team and to build a really new country. Still, the question remains – what will he do with his old team? Or, if one dares to put it differently, what will the old team then do with the president himself and with his sweetheart, the well-meaning and delightful deputy head of his administration?

Mykola Riabchuk is a Ukrainian author and journalist. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission. It originally appeared in Current Politics in Ukraine, Stasiuk Program for the Study of Contemporary Ukraine, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

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