What’s in a Name? The Paradox of Ukraine as a Borderland

To its inhabitants, China is the ‘Middle Kingdom’, situated in the middle of the earth and surrounded by barbarians. Ukraine sits at the opposite side of etymology, meaning literally the ‘periphery’ or ‘borderland’. It came to be known so in the late sixteenth century when the Ukrainian lands of Volhynia, Podolia, and Kyiv were incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, separating it from the Russian lands. But in truth, its roots go much further back in time. For much of its history, Ukraine has represented a three-way cultural borderland between Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam (Yekelchyk, 2007).


The origin story of the Eastern Slav is recounted in the Tale of Bygone Years (also known as the Russian Primary Chronicle or Nestor’s Chronicle, from the name of the monk to whom the original compilation is attributed). According to the Tale, by the year 862 AD (but the timeline is questioned due to the poorly kept records), lawless Slav tribes sought out a prince to rule over them and to judge them according to Law. They selected three brothers – Rurik, Sineus, and Truvor – among the Varangian (i.e. Vikings) Russes. After Sineus and Truvor died, Rurik became the sole authority, establishing rule in Novgorod, the current St. Petersburg’s region. In 880-882, his son, Oleg, began an expedition southward, first capturing the Russian city of Smolensk (near present-day Belarus) and then setting himself up as the prince of Kyiv, declaring that is should be the ‘mother of Russian cities.’ (see Cross & Sherbowitz-Wetzor, 1953 for an English translation). The tale continued for another 200-odd years, following the ensuing unification of the Eastern Slavs under Varangian rule, leading to the creation of the Kyivan Rus’, an immense state covering, by the XI century, present-day Western Ukraine, Belarus, and much of Russia West of the Urals (Yekelchyk, 2007).


Despite its extension, the Kyivan Rus’ had a troubled history. Its strategic positioning for trade routes and its richness in natural resources made it an important target for enemies. It was plundered and sacked multiple times by neighbouring Russians and Mongol empires, and it battled with the Turkic Tatars of Crimea. After its dissolution in 1240, the territory was contested by the European – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Austria-Hungary – and Russian empires, before being swallowed up by the Soviet Union, until Ukraine, as we know it today, was formally recognised as an independent state in 1991 (Yekelchyk, 2007). Over the course of the centuries, then, Ukraine’s history has been intertwined with Russia’s, but also Poland’s, the Greek Orthodox Church’s and the Turkic people’s. As such, and despite the strong imaginary created by the Tale, there is no continuous line that can be traced from Kyivan Rus’ to either the Ukrainian or Russian nations today (Newscenter, 2022).


Figure 1: Kyivan Rus' in 1000AD. Source: WikiMedia Commons

The history of these two nations seems to be one of two interrelated paradoxes. The first one is that Russia cannot feel ‘complete’ without Ukraine. The second is that Ukrainian nationalism could never fully be defined in virtue of their being a borderland without one single language, ethnicity or religion. Ukrainians for centuries never seem to have quite grasped who they were fighting against, nor what they were fighting for – until very recently.


The first paradox was highlighted by the Polish-American diplomat and political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard. The fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent creation of the independent state of Ukraine represented ‘a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard.’ Without Ukraine, he wrote, ‘Russia ceases to be an Eurasian empire.’ It could still be an empire, but it would be a ‘predominantly Asian one,’ more likely to expand towards central Asia and China than influence its Eastern European neighbours (Brzezinski, 1997: 46). This was a sentiment that was shared among the Russian élite, who saw the Central Asian Republics and the Caucasus as colonies, but Belarus and Ukraine as part of the metropolitan core (The Economist, 2021).


Ukraine, then, becomes a necessary piece of the new Russian empire, functioning quite literally as a borderland between its European ambitions and its Asian realities. Russia, in its quest to maintain its great-power status, will then pursue an aggressive, or at least close-watch, approach towards its neighbour (Mearsheimer, 2014). From Russia’s point of view, then, any support for Ukraine’s integration in the Western sphere (whether NATO or the EU), becomes immoral. As Eric Levitz recently put it in his Intelligencer article, ‘[s]upporting Ukraine’s assertion of independence from Moscow was an imperial act of aggression against Russia’ (Intelligencer, 2022, my emphasis).


Figure 2: Geopolitics as a chessboard game. Drawing by Ewan White. Source: Financial Times

The second paradox has very profound roots. As Furtado (1994: 87) writes, ‘[n]ationalism revolves around the belief that nationality is the most fundamental social identity and as such should be enshrined in political form through the nation-state.’ But what kind of nationalism could Ukraine aspire to? Ukraine has seen its steppes traversed by Vikings, Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, Tatars and Mongols alike – not to mention the strong influence from the Byzantine Church, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Soviet Union. What kind of identity should it reflect?


Under the Romanovs, Ukrainians were seen as nothing more than the ‘little Russian tribe of the Russian people,’ and their language a ‘mere dialect of Russian’ (Yekelchyk, 2007). In the 1840s, the poet Taras Shevchenko attempted to portray a sense of Ukrainian nationality in his works, using elements of folk songs, the peasant vernacular, and the bookish language of older writers to paint Ukraine as an independent nation, subjugated first by Polish and, later, Russian masters (Yekelchyk, 2007). But a hundred years later, Stepan Bandera and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet regime. Both are – in very different ways – symbols of Ukrainian nationalism. To overcome this paradox, post-Soviet Ukraine had to strive for a particular type of nationalism that could reflect its essence of a borderland, while at the same time uniting the Ukrainian people under one banner.


Furtado (1994) builds on earlier work by James Kellas to identify four general types of nationalism: official, social, ethnic, and integral. These are not mutually exclusive but can co-exist, overlapping one another. Official nationalism is ‘the nationalism of the state,’ encompassing ‘all those legally entitled to be citizens, irrespective of their ethnicity, national identity, and culture’ (Furtado, 1994: 87-8). Due to its institutional character, it very rarely stands on its own. Social nationalism, for its part, is defined ‘by social ties and culture rather than by common descent,’ and ‘permits outsiders to join the nation if they identify with it and adopt its social characteristics’ (p. 89). Ethnic nationalism is instead the most exclusive type of nationalism, defined mainly ‘on the basis of common descent’ (p. 90). In its more extreme version, ethnic nationalism becomes integral nationalism, characterised by the belief that ‘one’s nation is superior to all others,’ very much in the mien of totalitarian states (p. 90).


Figure 3: Protesters gather at the Zhovtneva Revolution Square (now Independence Square) to support Ukraine's independence in Kyiv on Aug. 24, 1991. The sign says "Ukraine leaves the USSR.". Photo by UNIAN. Source: Kyiv Post

Upon becoming independent in December 1991, Ukrainian leaders had to choose on what basis it would become a nation-state. It was obvious that official nationalism by itself would have been insufficient given the troubled history of Ukraine and its people. It was likewise clear that neither integral nor ethnic nationalism could be the defining characteristic of the new state. On the one hand, President George H. W. Bush made, a few months before, a very cautious address before the Supreme Rada (the Parliament). In his address, which the Western media dubbed as the ‘Chicken Kiev speech’ for its excess of precaution, Bush warned Ukrainians against pursuing the ‘hopeless course of isolation’ (Yekelchyk, 2007). On the other hand, ethnic-based or integral nationalisms would have been at odds with Russian and Romanian claims over some Ukrainian territories (Blaj, 2013). Thus, in order to accommodate both internal and external pressures, the new leaders could only abide by social nationalism.


But this weak form of nationalism, coupled with the troubled history of Ukraine, meant that the new nation-state was born with a sort of identity crisis unable to abandon its ties with Russia on the one hand and the West on the other or to provide a clear direction to its people. This is perhaps best reflected in the figures of its Presidents. The first President, Leonid Kravchuk (1991-1994) wanted to establish the firm separateness of the newborn country from the Russian Federation. His successor, Leonid Kuchma (1994-2005), engaged in a so-called ‘multi-vector’ strategy. On the one hand, he wanted to restore economic relations with Russia and even went so far as to refer to Russian as an ‘official language.’ At the same time, however, he wanted to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in 2002, hoping to meet all requirements for membership within the following decade (The Ukrainian Week, 2013).


This strategy was continued by his successor Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), who came to power following the famous Orange Revolution (on this, see Wilson, 2005). Among other things, Yushchenko advocated for NATO and repudiated the Russian language as official (Kyiv Post, 2009). Nevertheless, the following President, Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014) was unabashedly pro-Russia. He rejected the Ukraine-European Association Agreement and aligned himself with Putin’s policies, before falling in disgrace following the 2014 Euromaidan protests, with a sentence in absentia for high treason in 2019 (Kuzio, 2012; Reuters, 2019). Since then, Ukraine has been engaged in a difficult civil war with Russia-backed separatists from Donbass. Further, it had to deal with the unlawful annexation of Crimea (see Kuzio, 2014), which the international community has yet to recognise (fewer than twenty countries took Russia’s side). In both cases, curiously, Russia pursued a strategy of ethnic nationalism where Ukraine dared not. It goes without saying, the relationship with Russia has soured beyond reparability.


Figure 4: Photo from the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Source: Atlantic Council

Ukraine’s careful attempt to craft a national identity that could balance its history as a borderland with the need to secure its borders from its big sister nation has faltered in the face of the latter’s ambition. The irreconcilable differences in nationalism, and the different positions they occupy on the grand geopolitical chessboard, have strengthened the paradoxes characterising these two countries. In a recent essay, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (2021) suggested that no such paradox exists. The Russians and the Ukrainians are ‘one people’, sharing the legacy of Kyivan Rus’. But that would be an unfair characterisation of the complicated borderland that is Ukraine, and of the intricate networks it weaved between the West (exemplified by cities such as Lviv) and the East (of which Donetsk is the foremost example). The recent events certainly do not seem to suggest that Ukrainians share this sentiment.


To be sure, much has been left out in this essay. The focus has been primarily on why Ukraine was forced to build a certain style of nationalism for its internal and foreign affairs, shaped by a complicated past. Never meant to be a ‘middle kingdom’, Ukraine was seemingly destined to fulfil the role of the name it was given. But today, Ukraine and its people are also at the centre of attention of the whole world. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to change the course of their destiny and break the spell of their name – not to be someone else’s periphery but to become their own centre.


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Marco Schito

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