As a young poet in the Soviet Union, Joseph Brodsky was persecuted by the authorities before he fled to the United States in 1972 and goes on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In Soviet-era Kyiv, Ukrainian intelligentsia used to circulate coveted samizdat versions of Brodsky’s poems, reciting them at secret gatherings.
But the passion was not mutual. In a 1992 reading, less than a year after Ukraine existed as an independent country, Brodsky introduced a new poem, “To the Independence of Ukraine.” “Goodbye khokhols,” he sang, using a racial slur for Ukrainians. “We lived together, enough now. I wish I could spit in the Dnipro, it might now flow backwards.” Brodsky went on to predict that when the grateful Ukrainians were on their deathbeds, they would surely return to reciting the poetry of the classic Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, rather than the “lies” of their national poet Taras Shevchenko.
“President Vladimir Putin’s views on Ukraine are not unusual.“
The idea that Ukrainians are not a real people and that the Ukrainian nation is an artificial construct has long been prevalent in Russian culture, literature, and politics—including among prominent liberal figures such as Brodsky, who died in 1996. President
Russian President Vladimir PutinHis views on Ukraine, which he explained in an article last year read to Russian soldiers preparing for invasion, are no exception. They follow a long tradition that helps explain the constant support for the war among Russian citizens.
This blind spot dates back to the beginnings of the modern Ukrainian quest for sovereignty more than a century ago. “The Russian democrat ends where the Ukrainian question begins,” said Ukrainian writer and playwright Volodymyr Venichenko, who served as prime minister of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic from 1917 to 1818. It has become one of the most famous phrases in Ukrainian politics.
In the historical narratives and literary traditions of Russia, Ukrainians are often portrayed as foolish but kind peasants with a humorous tone, and their search for an independent future can only be the product of foreign intrigues. Mikhail Bulgakov, born in Kyiv to parents who moved from Russia, mocked the Ukrainian language in his novels, with one character saying that Ukrainians could not have a word for a whale because Ukraine, unlike Russia, had no oceans. The indigenous people of Ukraine with undisputed artistic or scientific success, from the painter Kazimir Malevich to the father of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, are dedicated to Russia.
“Many of those in Russia who pretend to be the intelligentsia have a condescending attitude toward Ukrainians, and this includes many opponents who now support Ukraine,” said Russian politician Ilya Ponomarev, the only Russian lawmaker to have voted against Ukraine. Ukraine’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. “They see Ukrainians as a little brother, a brother who still needs to grow up.”
Mr. Ponomarev added that every Russian instinctively feels the legacy of the old Russian state when he rejects Ukraine as a modern invention. It is a view that Mr. Ponomarev himself says he had to re-evaluate after emigrating to Ukraine, where he learned that historical figures whom Russians view as the founders of their nation were in fact ruling from Kyiv centuries before the rise of Moscow. One such example is Prince Vladimir the Great, the 10th century ruler who brought Christianity to the kingdom then known as Kievan Rus’. Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky are named after him.
The tradition of Russian hostility to Ukrainian aspirations comes in two parts. One simply denies the existence of the Ukrainians as a different people from the Russians. This was the line adopted by the Russian Empire for most of the 19th century, when it banned books in the Ukrainian language and the term Ukraine itself, describing the region as “Little Russia” instead. Another aspect is that while Ukrainians in fact have their own identity and speak their own language, at least half of the territory of present-day Ukraine really belongs to Russia and was unfairly looted by the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin.
This was the view of the Russian novelist and former political prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn, another Nobel Prize winner, who was exiled by the Soviets in 1974 and returned to Russia in 1994. He initially expressed understanding for the suffering of Ukrainians. He wrote in his 1968 classic, “The Gulag Archipelago,” describing confrontations with Ukrainian political prisoners.
But after Ukraine’s independence from a distant and unlikely perspective turned into a reality, Solzhenitsyn adopted a different tone, one that Putin repeated in his article last year. In a 2006 interview with Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper, Solzhenitsyn argued that southern and eastern Ukraine, Crimea and Donbass never belonged to historical Ukraine, and that the country was being dragged into NATO against the will of the inhabitants of these regions. “Under all these circumstances, under no circumstances could Russia dare to betray the millions of Russian residents of Ukraine, and to abandon our unity with them,” he said.
Mr. Putin paid a visit to Solzhenitsyn at his home in 2007, a year before the novelist’s death, awarding him one of Russia’s highest awards. Putin said at the time that some of the Kremlin’s policies were inspired by the writer.
In 2014, Putin seized Crimea after Ukrainian protesters ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, who overturned the country’s old policy toward integration with the European Union and sought a customs union with Russia. Mr. Putin also promoted the concept of Novorossiya, a “new Russia”, for regions of southern and eastern Ukraine that he said rightly belong to Moscow.
The annexation of Crimea was almost universally acclaimed in Russia. Even imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is now protesting vigorously against Mr. Putin’s war on Ukraine, said at the time that Crimea should remain part of Russia. “Crimea is not a sausage sandwich that should be returned,” he said in a radio interview.
Until the invasion began on February 24, the Kremlin’s statements challenged Ukraine’s right to rule what Putin called the historic Russian lands in so-called Novorossiya, but reluctantly acknowledged the existence of a Ukrainian state. According to Russian propaganda, the problem was a Western-backed clique that supposedly seized power in 2014, whose removal would be welcomed by ordinary Ukrainians eager to resume their brotherly relationship with Russia.
“Now, official rhetoric and Russian state media argue that Ukraine and its culture must simply be eradicated.“
As soon as the fierce Ukrainian resistance showed that hardly any Ukrainians received Russian soldiers as liberators, the tone changed. Now official Russian discourse and media argue that Ukraine and its culture should simply be wiped out – an idea that explains the killing spree in cities like Bucha during the Russian occupation.
A commentary published by the official Russian news agency RIA on April 3 under the title “What Russia should do with Ukraine” said that ordinary Ukrainians should be atone for their guilt of hostility to Moscow, and Ukraine’s name should be repealed. The country was divided into several parts. Ukrainian elites must be physically liquidated, re-education of the remaining population and “get rid of Ukrainian”.
The former Russian president and current deputy head of national security, Dmitry Medvedev, outlined a similar vision for Ukraine’s future days later, writing that after the Russian victory, the Ukrainian state would disappear just like the Nazi Third Reich. As for Ukrainians’ deep sense of their separate nation-state, Mr. Medvedev explained, “It is a great fake fueled by anti-Russian poison and a blanket lie about their identity. It did not exist in history and does not exist today.”
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