No one understands Russia apart from the Russians, if even they do. It is a land and nation many have tried to explain, but I cannot tell if they fail because there is too much to explain, or too little.
I have an old map of the world on my wall, and on it Russia (or rather the Soviet Union at that time) stretches almost half the width of the world, and almost half the height of the map, from the Oxus River to the Arctic – much of that enormity is the distortion of the Mercator projection, but it has impact. In all that space strewn across the map though, what and who are there, and how does this affect the world outside those millions of square miles? Must there really be a war over places we do not understand?
Russia has been described as being not so much a country as an archipelago; it is made up of towns and cities separated by vast, empty forest and steppe much like tiny islands dotted across a hostile sea. Its has a unique culture, not always a pleasant one, forged by the forest and steppe, the ice, Byzantine priests, Viking princes and Mongol khans; Asiatic, separate from Europe, the latter a very different culture swelling against them to the west.
If Russians see their soul in the empty wastes, there is no forgetting that the people are mainly in the western towns, closer to the influence of urban, European culture. Any Russian could be forgiven for a determination to draw a line of separation – or they might become no more than Poles.
In the south-west corner of the Russian-speaking landmass is the Ukraine. It seems small fry, but it has a population almost a third of that of vast Russia. Target or not, it is another place little understood. The very name ‘Ukraine’ means ‘borderland’, and that may be how it is thought of.
The Borderland only became independent by accident thirty years ago, and its separateness stands as an affront to resurgent Russian national ideology. It was always thought of as Russian and indeed Kiev was once the capital of Russia. The arguments for a distinction between Russian and the Ukraine seem odd for those of us brought up when the Ukraine was thought just a part of Russia not Europe . However there is no edge, no sharp line where Europe ends and Russia begins. Lvov in the west was once called Lemberg, and was in Austria. Perhaps parts of that land are indeed European.
Thirty years – that is a generation – and as each new day passes it seems more and more normal, and more Ukrainians grow up thinking their separation is normal, and each of those days the Russians know it will be harder to convince them it has been a regretful, unnatural, temporary separation. The whisper grows louder in the head that something must be done before it is too late.
As to Ukrainians looking west, it aims to seal a separation. Lemberg is an Austrian city anyway, in temperament perhaps, and was the first to rebel against Kiev when a Russian-favoured president was elected there. To get close to the enemy-culture of Europe and to seal a separation is to invite Russia to leap in before it is too late, just as they did in Georgia to stop it joining NATO.
The reason for separation may be habit, or inertia, resisting mechanically just because that is what you do, the way the princes of Tver or Suzdal shed others’ blood to resist being unified with Muscovy.
There is another reason though for Kiev to resist Moscow: who would want to be ruled by Vladimir Putin?
If the Ukraine can grow into a liberal version of Russia, making the best of the shared culture without the stifling tyranny, that would be an enlightening sight and a promise of prosperity. Ultimately it is a part of Russian culture and discarding that for western symbols would tear out the soul of the people. It needs an accommodation, not pretending to be separate from the great culture of the Russian people but finding a way for that culture to flower, to develop and be Rus’ who are better that those who still live in the oppressive lands to the north of them. I begin to doubt though that they will have a chance.
- By Mark Galeotti:
- Putin: Russia’s Choice by Chris Hutchins
- A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, Stephanie Sandler