How should I treat Russians?

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Feb. 4, 2009, 8:32 p.m. | Op-ed — by Yuriy Lukanov
Russian democracy ends where talks of Ukraine’s independence begin. Is this true? I caught myself thinking, after meeting some Russians at a resort in Egypt, that I transfer my negative attitude about their country leaders onto them. I kept feeling that I should tell them where to go, and do it in the most brutal way.

It wasn’t just because their high-ranking officials invented yet another gas war with Ukraine.

The matter is that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last year called a Communist-induced famine in Ukraine that starved millions of peasants, a “so-called” famine. He doubted its existence. Considering the touching closeness of the power duo in Moscow, the head of their government holds the same opinion. Moreover, a fund close to the Kremlin suggested that historians should consider Josef Stalin as the most successful Soviet manager.

In the meantime, my great-grandmother Mariya Tytarenko had six kids when the famine of 1932-1933 started. She ended up with just two. My grandfather, Pavlo Lukanov, was shot in 1937 as an "enemy of the people" for a non-existent crime. His wife, my grandmother Olga Volkovska, was sent to a camp in Siberia for eight years as a "family member of a traitor of the motherland". There she lost her mind and lived the rest of her life in an asylum.

Both sides of my family felt all the attractions of the regime they hail these days in Moscow. And I cannot help worrying how I should treat Russians.

Of course, one can always say that the simple people have nothing to do with it -- it’s the crazy politicians who behave this way. But I remember a telltale episode from 1989 or 1990 in the northern Russian town of Syktyvkar, where I went on business.

On the eve of that trip, I finished reading three-volume memoirs called “The revival of the nation.” The book’s author, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, was an activist of the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) that came into existence after the 1917 coup in Petrograd, the then-capital of the Russian empire. The UPR only existed for a short time before being destroyed by the Bolsheviks, and Ukraine was then forced to join the U.S.S.R. One of the points the author made was that Russia’s democracy ends when the issue of Ukraine’s independence is raised.

I had thought then that Vynnychenko, who was a literary writer as well as politician, perceived the reality too emotionally, and his description of reality was even more emotional. That’s why he should be taken with a grain of salt.

But then I realized it all made perfect sense. During my bus ride to the airport on the way back, I sat next to a person who looked like a typical Russian intellectual – a bespectacled good soul. We chatted for a while, and he asked me where I came from. When I said I was from Kyiv, he changed momentarily: his eyes became bigger than his glasses, his hair seemed to stick up, and he started screaming at the top of his voice: “We feed you, and you are so ungrateful you decided to separate! We’ll never let you do it!”

His indignation was caused by the moods prevailing in the Ukrainian society at that time to declare independence and quit the Soviet Union. His flaming anger went contrary to what the Russian newspapers were writing about freedom and democracy. I was watching him and thinking that it doesn’t dawn on this person that I, like the rest of Ukrainians, have rights and can use them.

In a recent article by Ukrainian writers Vitaly and Dmytro Kapranov, I read a real life story that explains a lot about today. One woman asked them “Why is it that you dislike the Russian language so much?” They were surprised and asked her why she thought so. “Because you write in Ukrainian,” she said.

The woman was not Russian, but had a post-Soviet mentality characteristic of many Russians. The very existence of something Ukrainian is perceived with hostility, as a challenge to their existence. That’s why measures to resurrect the Ukrainian language are perceived by the Kremlin as war against the Russian language. That’s why Russians consider a more objective portrayal of Ukrainian history to be nationalist-driven revisionism.

President Victor Yushchenko’s actions to condemn the Communist regime for the Holodomor, or death by famine, of 1932-1933 are perceived as a reproach to the Kremlin, even though the Ukrainian leader never once mentioned the Russian people.

There are even jokes going around the Internet: When a Russian loves Russia, he is considered a patriot. When a Ukrainian loves Ukraine, he is an incorrigible nationalist. If the Russian president talks to his American counterpart, he is developing a relationship. When the Ukrainian president does the same, they are plotting against Russia. If a Russian speaks the Russian language, he is just a Russian. When a Ukrainian speaks the Ukrainian language, then again he is a spiteful nationalist. And so it goes on.

It was a shock to realize that this state of affairs is accepted by the Russian artistic elite. The wonderful film director Nikita Mikhalkov recently made a flattering documentary about Vladimir Putin and declared that it was God that sent Putin to Russia.

This is the same director who made the brilliant 1994 movie “Burnt by the Sun” to show the tragedy of Russians destroyed by the Stalinist regime. I simply cannot grasp how the same person can be an outspoken critic of Stalinism and an apologist of someone who praises the Stalin regime.

About a year ago, I came across a book by Yelena Afanasieva, a Moscow political scientist, called “The state or revolution?” The author was trying to prove that Ukraine does nothing but dream to harm Russia’s state interests. She is pushing the idea that it’s necessary to send in the tanks to break down Ukraine.

Hypothetically, someone over here can also write the same nonsense about Russia, but they would be laughed at. In our neighboring state, the preface to the book was written by Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies-turned-Duma deputy. It’s indicative of the moods of the Russian elite.

There are people who say it cannot really happen because the brotherly nation will not attack us. But last year’s events in Georgia proved that what seemed like rants and raves from a book can come true. So, the question is, how should I treat Russians then?

Yuriy Lukanov, a freelance journalist in Kyiv, is a Kyiv Post columnist.
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