The Nowhere Nation

Anatol Lieven’s Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry is concise and clear. It is full of insight and its judgments are well balanced. By all odds it is the place to start if you are confused about what is going on in today’s Ukraine, or are inclined to blame its problems on Russia. Lieven, the author of an excellent book on the Baltic campaign for independence and the best single study of the 1994-1996 war in Chechnya, provides a clear introduction to the fundamental question of the relations between Ukraine and Ukrainians and Russia and Russians.

Jack F. Matlock Jr., New York Review of Books

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About the Author

Anatol Lieven is a professor in Georgetown University in Qatar. He is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC and a member of the academic board of the Valdai discussion club in Russia. He also serves on the advisory committee of the South Asia Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He holds a BA and PhD from Cambridge University in England.

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This book is based on my travels in Ukraine as a correspondent for The Times (London) between 1993 and 1995, during which I visited all the different parts of the country. It was written while I was a visiting fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC – and its contents were clearly very unwelcome to them. I remain grateful that despite this, they nevertheless eventually published it.

My work had four main goals: to describe the differing identities of Ukraine’s regions, and their differing attitudes to relations with Russia and the West; to report the views of a range of ordinary Ukrainians, whose voices were so often ignored by the Western media and think tanks in favour of parroting those of opposing elites; to bring out the depth and complexity of the historical, political, social and emotional relationship between Russia and Ukraine; and to warn policymakers in both Russia and the West against trying to bring Ukraine into full alliance with either of them, as this was bound to tear the country apart. I suggested that for Ukraine “Finlandisation” really was the best available option.

During my travels, I spent time both in Galicia, in the highly nationalist far West of Ukraine, and the pro-Russian Donbas mining region of the East. In a journalistic career in the former USSR not free of extreme alcoholic experiences, being offered Italian chocolate liqueur spiked with homemade vodka for breakfast after a trip down a coal mine still ranks as one of the most notable.

Most of my time however was spent in the central region of the country on either side of the Dnieper River. In the cities of this region, I found that the intermingling of Ukrainians and Russians, and of Ukrainian and Russian culture was so great that many people were unable to say which they were. It was common to hear responses like “Well, I have a Ukrainian surname, but I was brought up by my Armenian mother who spoke Russian and has family in Moscow, so I consider myself Russian”; or “I have a Russian surname but my father ran off when I was a baby and I was brought up by my stepfather to think of myself as Ukrainian.”

Concerning Ukrainian identity and Ukraine’s geopolitical position, I found and reported a number of characteristic responses from a majority of the people I interviewed:

  • A strong desire to have good relations both with the West and with Russia;
  • Opposition to NATO membership, which they saw as inevitably leading to conflict with Russia (indeed, every Ukrainian opinion poll prior to 2014 showed more than two thirds of Ukrainians as opposed to NATO membership – a fact studiously ignored by Western propaganda and most of the Western media);
  • Desire for membership of the European Union, but opposition to being held indefinitely in an EU waiting room, like Turkey;
  • Attachment to Russian language and culture that did not preclude attachment to the Ukrainian state, and a strong desire not to be subordinate to Moscow (incidentally, that was also the attitude of most ordinary Belarusians);
  • Opposition to compulsory ukrainianisation;
  • Bitter disappointment with the economic and social consequences of Ukrainian independence;
  • Considerable nostalgia for the USSR, not as an ideological state or a superpower, but as a system that guaranteed secure employment and state services;
  • A sense that both Ukrainians and Russians had benefited from Soviet rule and suffered from Soviet repression;
  • Contempt for all politicians.

In my description of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship, I tried to bring out (for British readers or those who know British history) both its “Scottish” and its “Irish” aspects. On the one hand, just as John Buchan or Sir Walter Scott could be both proud Scots and deeply attached to the English connection and the British Empire, so Nikolai Gogol (Hohol in Ukrainian) could be both a  proud Ukrainian and devoted to the Russian Empire. Like the Scots in the British Empire, Ukrainians rose to the top of the imperial system, intermarried with Russians, and played a leading part in settling newly conquered territories. Just as you will find more Scottish than English names in much of Canada, so you will find more Ukrainian than Russian names in much of the Russian Far East.

On the other hand, like Ireland in the British Empire (though not to nearly the same extent) Ukraine – and especially Western Ukraine – had suffered intermittent episodes of extreme repression, and systematic attempts to eliminate the Ukrainian language. As in Ireland, greatest of all crimes was Stalin’s collectivization and the consequent dreadful famine in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the Cossack areas of Russia. However, I must say that in the mid-1990s most of the people I interviewed in central Ukraine did not see this as a “Russian” crime against “Ukrainians”, but rather a disaster that in the mixed areas of Ukraine did not discriminate between different nationalities.

In my analysis of Russian attitudes to Ukraine I tried to evoke Russian feelings of patronizing “elder-brotherly” affection (which of course many Ukrainians found more infuriating than outright hostility). I warned that while Russians had accepted Ukrainian independence as such, this was subject to certain constraints – not altogether unlike American attitudes to Canada. This meant that Russia would not seek exclusive rights in Ukraine, but would oppose at almost any cost Ukraine joining a hostile alliance; that in all circumstances Russia would maintain control of Sevastopol, even at the risk of war; and that a majority of the inhabitants of the Donbas would insist on maintaining close links with Russia whatever the rest of Ukraine did.

On the other hand, I also warned that by the same token, any Russian attempt to bring Ukraine into a full union with Russia would provoke a furious mass response from huge numbers of Ukrainians – including many who otherwise wanted good relations with Russia.

It goes without saying that these warnings fell on completely deaf ears in Washington, Brussels and Moscow.

I describe this in British terms as a curious mixture of the English historical relationship with Ireland and that with Scotland: that is to say, on the one hand, Ukrainians have always been treated by Russians as younger brothers, and have been able to advance to the highest ranks of the Russian and Soviet state. On the other, this relationship has also been characterized by intermittent episodes of ferocious repression.