“You understand, George, Ukraine is not even a nation,” then-Russian President Vladimir Putin was reported as saying to then-U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008. The statement embodies a sentiment that permeates much of the recent hostility between the two neighbors: Russian pomposity. Russia seems to think it runs things around here. It therefore seems pertinent to evaluate this attitude; does Russia have a right to be arrogant? Which, put tongue-in-cheek, is the better nation, Russia or Ukraine?
Putin’s superciliousness is not an aberration, it is echoed by public opinion: a recent poll conducted by the Russian Levada Centre found that 49 percent of Russians view Ukraine in a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way. Ukrainians, according to a concomitant survey, have vastly diverging views; 91 percent perceive their Slavic cousins in a kind light. What is it that provokes indignation in Russians; what has Ukraine – a sovereign nation, free to conduct policy at home and abroad - done to beget such hostility? Jealousy?
Putin recently stoked the political fire by echoing the words of a famous Russian general, Anton Denikin “…no on should be allowed to interfere in relations between us; they have always been the business of Russia itself”. Putin’s sortie into historiography garnered him the title “Vladimir the Historian” in a recent Kyiv Post editorial; yet history can be seen through many prisms; it can be read and, indeed, rewritten to pander to the interests of the historian. What does a different glance through a different prism have to tell us about the two countries?
There have been many historical cataclysms in Ukraine and Russia. Both have endured great hardship. Yet, a country that more readily accepts history for what it is, ‘faces up to history’; tries to right passed wrongs and not just bury embarrassing skeletons, stands today as a greater beacon for good.
Russia’s stance in this respect is beguilingly bad. Put Putin’s reading of history to bed, please: Russia to the day denigrates the Holodomor – the Stalin-induced famine which hued whole swathes of the Ukrainian population – as a “brazen [Ukrainian] attempt to falsify history". The same state recently introduced a law forbidding the denial of national victory in the Great Fatherland War (World War II) – a ‘triumph’ that counted circa 27 million ‘victors’ dead. How can a ‘good’ country legislate this as a victory, further, how can you attempt to rehabilitate the leader that presided over the catastrophe: how dare Putin call Stalin ‘efficient’?
Argument rages in Ukraine. History here is, understandably, a sensitive subject. Though most of the 8 million perished in World War II fell fighting for the hammer and sickle, a good number fell for the Fascists. The SS Galicia division comprised 20,000 Ukrainian volunteers who fought against the Communists. Whether they patriotic martyrs or abject traitors is not the point: their existence is admitted, debated and hence the individual can make his own mind up – the lessons of the past can be learnt. A society that permits open discourse on the past is a society that looks to the future.
Back then to the future. “I believe you have no moral right to run in the presidential election” – Victor Baloha’s farewell swipe at Victor Yushenko, current President of Ukraine and the aforementioned’s former boss. The statement characterizes much of what is wrong with Ukrainian democracy: back-stabbers, cronies, partisans, robber-barons, self-seekers, truth-tweekers – in short, chaos. But the statement has one redeeming feature: it could never appear in Russia. Just as the Orwellian ‘big brother’ kept a beady eye or two on minds that might dare speak up in defense of anything as seditious as a different point of view, so the Kremlin today gives short shrift to dissidents.
The Associated Press but days ago reported on another protest ruthlessly repelled by the (Edinaya) Russia. Why is it the Kremlin cannot permit even a hint of public dissatisfaction? And, conversely, why is it that public demonstrations are the ‘joie de vivre’ for Ukrainians? The answer is simple: the countries differ vastly in their respect for plurality – the voicing of different opinions. In Russia, the Kremlin’s line is the line. Russia must be a ‘managed democracy’ with a ‘dictatorship of the law’, to quote some of Putin’s well-known slogans. Russia can’t be run any other way, they might well say; it’s too big, too wild. Yet if this was the case, why does Nicholas Eberstadt, in his essay for World Affairs, proclaim that “[Russia] has pioneered a unique new profile of mass debilitation and foreshortened life previously unknown in all of human history.” Managed democracy is failing; the future looks bleak for Russia.
Though Ukraine doesn’t fair much better when considering demographic trends – a life expectancy of 67.8 compared to Russia’s 65.8, the bigger neighbor is endowed with vastly more natural resources; it shouldn’t be in the mess it finds itself in. The distinction is clear: Russian managed democracy leaves little room for maneuver, Russians don’t have any other option but to stand behind the ruling elite whilst the country rots itself towards extinction.
The Ukrainian electorate, on the other hand, has the opportunity to collectively voice its dissatisfaction at the next presidential election. If Ukrainian voters don’t lose faith in democracy, don’t lose faith in the power of the plurality to – in the end – reveal the truth, to sort the weed from the chaff and find a leader who has their best interests at heart, Ukraine will one day break free from the shadow of the autarchic neighbor. The seeds of the open society have been sown: nuture them, Ukraine. Perhaps one day, a Ukrainian president, basking in the European Union sunshine might quip, “You understand, Mr. EU President, Russia is not even a nation.”