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Is There One Ukraine?
ORLANDO FIGES is Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London. His latest book is Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag and his next book, Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991, will be published in April 2014.See more by this author
Images of toppled statues notwithstanding, “revolution” has never been the right word to describe recent events in Kiev. Ukraine, after all, has been here before. At the heart of the country’s present struggle is its resistance to any "strategic partnership" with Russia and its understanding of Europe as a potential economic and political savior from corrupt government. But the tensions between East and West -- both psychological and geographic -- are deeply rooted in Ukraine's national identity. Those Ukrainians most concerned about their country’s future would do well to recognize that identity’s inherent fragility. The original generation of Ukrainian nationalists suffered precisely for their failure to do so.
Prior to the twentieth century, there were no “Ukrainians” to speak of -- at least not in an official sense. Tsarist Russia built its national identity on the idea of Slavic unity, of which Ukraine was a fundamental and inseparable part. Russia still traces its Orthodox inheritance to Kievan Rus, the loose confederation of Slavic principalities that fell to the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Dominated by the Lithuanians and the Poles from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, and overrun by Cossacks in the seventeenth, most of the area was integrated into the emerging Russian Empire after 30 years of fighting among Russia, Poland, Turks and Cossacks for control of its fertile lands. But the region to the west of the Dnieper River (which runs through Kiev) remained with the Poles. Upon Poland's partition in the final decades of the eighteenth century, these western lands (where Catholicism had gained some foothold) were divided between Russia and Austria.