The conflict is shaping new identities

The Guardian published a long article by Peter Pomerantsev on the Kremlin’s information warfare last week, along with a Russian translation. While it reads smoothly in English, the Russian version requires a little effort to take in, but I still hope it gets reprinted and discussed in Russia. (It has an odd word, блёф, in it, probably a typo: Russian borrowed “bluff” as блеф a century ago; changing е into ё makes it sound like a slang word for “vomiting.”)

The author’s father, Igor Pomerantsev, is a poet, essayist, Radio Liberty host, and a former Soviet dissident. He spent his late teens and early twenties in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz, Cernăuți) and graduated from the same university as Arseny Yatsenyuk – the same school where Schumpeter taught in the 1910s and Celan studied around 1940. (In the late 1960s, according to Igor P., very few people had heard of Celan in Chernivtsi.) Svyatoslav Pomerantsev, Igor’s nephew and, therefore, Peter’s cousin, is a native and resident of the city and president of the annual poetry festival, Meridian Czernowitz. The family connection to Ukraine continues.

However Peter P. is a Briton for all practical purposes: he arrived in the UK at the age of three. One more excerpt (see parts 1, 2) from his March 2015 interview with Ukrainska Pravda:

I am a little wary of talking about Ukraine because I don’t live here and don’t feel I have the right to speculate on this. But there are different angles to take on what’s going on.

It’s principally a geopolitical crisis, Russia’s war against Ukraine; a certain crisis within Ukraine – should Donbass be its part?

Besides, it’s a war of Russians against Russians. It’s a fight for a different future for Russian culture. My friend Oliver Carroll has seen a good Russian in the Donetsk airport, fighting on Ukraine’s side. It’s Whites vs. Reds again.

I think the Russian and Ukrainian cultures can coexist. The Maidan has broadened a potential Ukrainian identity.

Before the Maidan, it was a classical national project of the 21st century: language, blood, Kievan Rus, Vasyl Stus. I have an awful lot of respect for all that but what do I have to do with it? The Maidan has greatly expanded what it means to be Ukrainian. For example, it is now possible to be a “Jewish Banderite” [an absurd slur invented by Putinists and cheerfully adopted as a self-designation by some supporters of the Ukrainian revolution].

The Nestor Group, having undertaken a massive poll, has recently presented its report in London. According to them, the value system in Ukraine is southern, akin to the Italian one. My father, Igor Pomerantsev, has also written a good deal about Ukraine being part of a southern civilization. And now polls are supporting this.

I don’t really know what to make of the last paragraph (the next-to-last is important to me but I concur without comment). By the standards of core EU countries, the Italian state has been a failure but measured against the non-Baltic post-Soviet world, it must look a shining polity on seven hills.


  1. By the standards of core EU countries, the Italian state has been a failure but measured against the non-Baltic post-Soviet world, it must look a shining polity on seven hills.

    And your last paragraph strikes a chord with me. Having traveled through a few of the former Soviet republics I reached the conclusion that for most of them the Soviet experience must have been a case of weighing the pros against the cons. The exception, which you note, is the Baltic states: they must have attended the Soviet joint functions, looked around at the other attendees, turned to one another and asked “What the f*ck are we doing in with this lot?!” The post-Soviet development of their countries would tend to suggest this.

    • If you asked a random Soviet guy in the street about the Baltic SSRs, he’d tell you, “They don’t like us.” My pet theory is that shaking off Soviet legacy was easier if Communism could be linked to foreign occupation. Those countries also had 20 years of independence on the record (Lithuania had much more if one includes the Grandduchy), followed by a period of brutal Soviet repression (1940-41 and 1944-53): in Estonia, about 10% were killed, imprisoned and exiled. Then came 35 years of special status in the Soviet camp.

  2. The exception, which you note, is the Baltic states

    I think this has been mentioned before, but the Baltics spent the least time under Soviet rule. Much less time to absorb the Sovok mentality.

    • Sure, but not just that. They had been independent for 20 years before WWII. The pre-1920 upper classes in Estonia and Latvia were Swedish and German; Estonia is Protestant and Latvia is more Protestant than Catholic. Relative to its small size, there has been massive Scandinavian investment in Estonia. The EU promise played a huge role, too.

      Moldova and Western Ukraine were Soviet for about as long as the Baltics, and Galicia had never been part of Russia before 1939.

  3. True. The proximity of the successful Scandinavian states on the Baltic was a massive incentive.

    Some provisos:

    Moldova has always suffered from an identity crisis: should it be an independent state or part of Romania? This problem has been exacerbated by the breakaway republic of Transnistria (plus the side issue of Gagauzia).

    Again, Western Ukraine was a fragment rather than a complete state, unlike the Baltics. I think Andrew Wilson in his history of Ukraine says trying to absorb Western Ukraine after WWII was a big mistake by the Soviets because the empire could never really digest the region. Along with the Baltics, it was the most fiercely anti-Soviet in outlook. However, its impact was diluted by being mixed with the rest of Ukraine, where much of the intelligentsia had been killed off during the 1930s and replaced with Soviet apparatchik bozos. It was also counterbalanced by the addition of Crimea in 1954.

    As Pomerantsev says, what we’re seeing in Ukraine today is not the old nationalism of Lviv (“a classical national project of the 21st century: language, blood, Kievan Rus, Vasyl Stus”) but something much broader, with implications for the rest of the ex-USSR. This is why Putin can’t let Maidan succeed.

    • I suspect that a lot of Western Ukrainians, especially rural folk, made peace with the Soviets after WWII despite the brutal persecution of nationalists because Moscow succeeded where all the nationalists had failed: it drove out the Polish upper class, including Polish landowners. Following the Holocaust and the population exchanges with Poland and Romania, the area became about as monoethnic as Poltava (currently 95% Ukrainian). Rural Ukrainians filled up the upper-level slots in society left by Poles and Polish-speaking Jews.

      As the dissident Semyon Gluzman pointed out, some of Ukraine’s greatest post-WWII dissidents came from the East. Vasyl Stus’ was born in Vinnitsa but grew up in Donbass. Ivan Svetlichny grew up near Starobelsk in the north of the Lugansk oblast, a town founded in 1598 as a Russian frontier fortress and later settled by the Ostrogozh Cossack regiment, formerly Ukrainian Cossacks in Polish service. Ivan Dziuba grew up near Donetsk and went to college there. General Petr Grigorenko was born near Berdyansk (west of Mariupol) and worked in Donetsk as a young man.

      • Was agriculture in Western Ukraine collectivised after WWII? Unfortunately, I can’t find my copy of Wilson at the moment, so this is all from memory. I know that the Baltics were collectivised in the late 1940s, pretty brutally, with around 120,000 “kulaks” deported to Siberia.

        Later on, of course, the Ukrainian Communist leadership, especially under Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, feared “contamination” from Poland. Solidarity seems to have scared them the same way Maidan scares Putin.

        • Yes, the countryside was thoroughly collectivized in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the West of Ukraine and Belarus. Once Polish settlers and landowners had been pushed out and Ukrainian kulaks dispossessed and/or exiled, the Soviets sweetened the pill for the average surviving peasant somewhat. It provided better access to education and health care and a chance to move to the city, either at once into houses and flats vacated by Poles and Jews, or later as a result of massive Soviet investment into industry. The region is still more rural than the rest of Ukraine but its cities were industrialized enough in 1980 to be potentially “contaminated” by Polish trade unionism. Also, religion played a role in Western Ukraine, as in Poland.

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