Tested by the Donbas

"Запевнення Хоми". Караваджо, 1600-1602 р.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic have held “elections”, but Ukraine has officially cut off financing to the territories. And yet the Donbas question comes up when considering the issue of contemporary Ukrainian identity. Indeed, a range of views on the future of the country are concealed across the spectrum of perception of the Ukrainian east.

Maidan Measured

The 94 days of Maidan are difficult to reduce to a common denominator or characterize with one or even a handful of terms. It is impossible to determine which was the prima causa of the revolution. For some it was primarily about European values, for others a protest against the corrupt Yanukovych regime, what still others most resented was the anti-Ukrainian policy of the erstwhile government. Overall, the strongest motives held by individual activist were often entirely personal.
Maidan was a communication and co-habitation space of a wide variety of individuals. Ukrainians quickly learned how to arrive at a single focus from a breadth of private interests. To debate and contend for a common purpose.
Katerina Sergatskova, a co-author of the book “Euromaidan: History in the Making”, ideological differences between protesters disappeared as soon as blood was shed. All were then united around the urge to survive: “From the outside Maidan sometimes resembled a medieval castle with knights, but in fact it was rather like a peaceful Babylon in which a broad range of people coexisted.” This is where the idea formed of Ukraine as a political entity capable of uniting into a completely different identity.”

Non-radical Nationalism

It is very difficult to assess objectively the role of the nationalist dimension on Maidan, present there in a variety of forms. In the article “A Revolution of Values” included in the collection “Euromaidan: History in the Making”, a staunch critic of Ukrainian nationalism, historian Jaroslav Gritsak observes: “Nationalism and extremist nationalism has little chance of prevailing in a democratic revolution, but the Ukrainian revolution could hardly have been won without it.” Maidan united residents from different regions, ethnic groups, and who spoke different languages. The tragic course of the revolution energized the traditional Ukrainian Insurgent Army greeting “Glory to the Heroes” with renewed significance for the majority of Ukrainians. In the active phase of the confrontation the national discourse had coalesced into a formidable impetus for public self-organization on the largest possible scale. In this way, Ukrainians were made conscious of the necessity of distancing themselves from Russian influence.

Today the accent is on the marginalization of the right-wing forces, evidence of which was seen in the results of their poor showing in both presidential and parliamentary elections. And yet, this does not refute the fact that they actively pushed the radicalization of society, joining armed combat to politics. Nationalism was often a reliable retreat for populist views, and exercised very little influence over the reform of government institutions. It is impossible to say, however, whether these events would have taken place at all had it not been for the annexation of the Crimea and the rumblings of separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine.

Lesser Maidans in the East

It was the brutal beating of social critic and poet Serhiy Zhadan on March 1st by separatist thugs from the east which effectively shifted the focus of the Maidan protests from Kyiv to Kharkiv. Zhadan had long been the mouthpiece for the Ukrainian east. The day of the attack raised fears that he would be overpowered by the cacophony sounding from the neighboring nation to the east.
The revolution saw “Maidans” arise in any number of eastern Ukrainian cities: in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Odessa, and smaller towns dozens to several hundred activists gathered and fell victim to aggression from their ideological opponents. Zhadan was among the leaders of the Kharkiv Maidan during this highly volatile period. Zhadan differed from many other writers, distancing himself from the spirit of revolutionary romanticism and focusing on challenges which Ukrainian society was not ready to confront. His emphasis then was for the need of east and west of the country to find common ground.

But Maidan never took root with a significant portion of eastern Ukrainians. Quite the reverse, there is the certainty that Maidan was a central contributing factor in the separatist uprising. Yet despite the difficult political situation and attempted acts of terrorism, Kharkiv remained Ukrainian, and Zhadan became an active and sought for commentator on socio-political events in the Ukrainian east.

What the East Wasn’t Saying

“The separatist movement in the East should be viewed in terms of counter-revolution”, says Oksana Mikheieva, a Donetsk historian and sociologist. She left the city in July and is teaching at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. In contrast to local conventional wisdom, she rejects the idea that Maidan provoked the Donbas crisis.
“There was nothing to elevate society – neither for the poor nor the rich. Dissatisfaction with the situation had reached a critical point, which was bound to explode. Sadly, the situation coincided with Maidan and got caught up in it and directed its force against it. But all this could have happened without the Kyiv revolution.”

A recent survey of public sentiment in Donetsk, conducted by Vladimir Kipnem prior to the war showed that the percentage of the population willing to give their full support to either the Ukrainian or the Russian Army was virtually the same: 20.9% to 21.5%. Conversely, 42.9% of the population favored restraint and the rejection of active support for both parties.
It is evident that the so-called “voice of Donbas” was, in fact, silence: an inability or unwillingness to articulate its own vision of the future. And a readiness to capitulate to pressure.
What is also evident is that criminal agencies played the leading role in the events in Donetsk and Luhansk. Even prior the war, 16.8% of Donetsk residents cited local criminal environment as a realistic threat to stability.

The Past that Won’t Let Go

“… a constant backward glance, an attempt to freeze time, and the fear of moving forward. Maybe this, this backward view, has always been a bit too strong, maybe it’s really something that is intrinsically, exclusively local, ours, that distinguished us, that guided us, and that toyed with us, and was finally, just a bad joke”, wrote Zhadan in his “Happiness” column on the tsn.ua website. He’s also convinced, however, that Easterners don’t deserve this war any more than others.
It may indeed seem that in large part residents of Lugansk and Donetsk exist in a unique time and place. Oksana Mikheieva has noted that 70% of Donetsk residents have never traveled outside the area, preparing them to believe anything about the rest of Ukraine: “Regional identity is everything to them. This was brought about by the arrive of all those people in the 1960s and 70s sent to work the mines and plants and promulgate all the constructs associated with the victory in World War II. This generated a complex of a sense of destiny, a singular territory unlike any other.” She adds that this type of isolationism is not unique to Donetsk and Lugansk, but is common throughout the country. The isolationism of these regions is distinctive in that it was a historical construct, the result of scientifically developed identity.
Even more categorical in his evaluation was Alexander Boychenko who wrote in his column on zbruc.eu that the “representatives of this human subspecies, the homo sovieticus that overrun the place (and/or were settled here) and that Zhadan waxes lyrical about – this Donbas” must be eliminated. Simply put, the soviet reality that brought them into existence is long gone, but they simply haven’t noticed it yet.”

Wild Wild East

Statistics show that the perception of the eastern regions as a distinct entity bear little resemblance to reality. Last spring, 60% of Donetsk residents expressed their desire to live in Ukraine – under one form of administrative structure or another. Those who were “actively nostalgic” for the Soviet Union numbered just over 20% of respondent.
Yet the strident tone of Boychenko is symptomatic of the long-standing phenomenon of the “otherness” of the east. The identification for the necessity of a Russian-speaking administrative structure for the sovietized Donbas has been sounded for years by public figures like writer Yuri Andrukhovych. Prior to the onset of war, support for the idea was growing. An article found on historians.in.ua Andriy Portnov provides a careful analysis of the nature of similar appeals, linking them to the ideal of homogenous nation. He considers that despite the pro-European inclination of western Ukrainian writers and essayists, (who, as expected, would gravitate toward pluralism and multiculturalism), their position “weakens the plurality of the Ukrainian project and enhances the exclusionary nationalist discourse, even as it posits its opposition to it.”
And as we can see, the stigmatization of the Donbas has gone mainstream in the Ukrainian media. One may easily negate an element of accountability of local and political elites in order to justify any action in relation to the east.

Will That Which Divides Us Save Us?

This problem of the Donbas’s “otherness”, this alienation, is connected to the a more universal and longstanding issue of the absence of insufficient representation of varying regions in the Ukrainian public space. Following the political manipulations of 2004, the Ukrainian identity consisted entirely of what was processed through the prism of confrontation between east and west. This confrontation served only to play into the hands of the politicians, providing them with a convenient electoral split.
Oksana Mikheieva recently took part in the “Donkult – the Depths of Art” festival. She was outraged that an event like this is only taking place now when war has engulfed the area. “There is no representation of the outlying regions at the national level. In the academic environment regional scholarly research has remained a taboo topic for a long time – it’s immediately identified along separatist lines and tendencies. ”
This kind of situation points to the need for shifting the focus of a Ukrainian national identity from the uniform to the diverse. There is no point in trying to force a country of such variation into a one-dimensional cultural paradigm of historical memory, sharing one and the same myths.

It was during the Maidan protests that Serhiy Zhadan wrote that what will save Ukrainians is that which now most divides them: “it seems to me that the reason for so much misunderstanding between us (that is, between the east and the west) is that fatal inaptitude for finding the right tone for the discourse; we’re ill-prepared to talk about what we have in common, not disregarding our distinctions, and a lack of ability to lay the stress on our unity in diversity.”

Test of Our Dignity

The revolution has to know how to defend itself. Not merely from the enemy, but also from a self-imposed impotence and oblivion. Zhadan: “when, in fact, the question arises whether our country will continue to exist or not, there has to arise another question: what kind of country will it be”. Maidan has not concluded – we continue to shape Ukraine.
The situation in the east is a serious challenge for Ukraine not only because of the issue of sovereignty. The State must demonstrate its ability to attend to its citizens. It is vital not to sacrifice compassion for those who’ve left the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, or for those who’ve, for reasons of their own, stayed.

Katerina Sergatskova writes: “if the state is unable to administer social payments of the citizens of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics then it must, at the very least, organize their evacuation to a secure area and provide everything for their relocation. She did a great deal of journalistic work in the occupied territories, developing good relations with Ukrainian volunteers working under great duress to aid locals leaving for unoccupied Ukraine. She is convinced that this is a task for the government – helping those who’ve ended up caught in this disaster, regardless of their nationality, language, or political views. Maidan activists fought against the limitation of their rights. No one must be resigned to a disenfranchised minority.

Our past continually divides us. Yet each is entitled to his own memory, and his own vision of the future. So to discuss and envision an inviolable mix of all these identities into a single political project is set before us as job number one.


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