Europe needs deeper insights into its eastern frontier
On 14 July 2009, Russia’s leading daily newspaper Izvestiya began a report about then Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s visit to Crimea by describing an idyllic road-trip across the Russian countryside coming to an abrupt and painful end with the sighting of an “onion-reeking Ukrainian cop” at the border. It went downhill from there, saying that Ukrainian authorities “behave as unwanted occupiers” in Crimea, and have to shut the streets of Sebastopol, Crimea’s largest city and naval base, down, because “many patriots were ready to if not beat [the President], then at least to spit at his cheeky snout.” As Yushchenko arrives in Sebastopol, it starts to rain. As he leaves, the sun is shining again. “Sebastopol was and is a Russian city,” the article concludes.
The war in Ukraine begun on history books’ pages, poisoned people’s minds and gained support through media campaigns. It also became possible due to Europe’s vagueness about the identity and history of its eastern nations.
The orientalist rhetoric surrounds the Ukraine-Russia crisis. First conceptualized by Edward Said, “orientalism” refers to the representation of Asia in such a stereotyped way as to justify and encourage colonial rule. This concept has been adapted to studying Eastern Europe by scholars such as Norman Davies , Larry Wolf and Laimonas Briedis. The denial of a national identity to entire peoples is the hallmark of an imperialistic attitude, irrespective of geographic location. So what are the hallmarks of the Russian media’s portrayal of Ukraine?
One of the first orientalist arguments the imperial powers make towards their ‘little brothers’ is that they could never survive or succeed without guidance. The Russian narrative of Ukraine after the Euromaidan protests was fairly straightforward: it was run by a barely legitimate government after “a coup,” and the country was spiraling towards chaos as “unelected radicals, racists, and ordinary thugs have […] become important elements of the Ukrainian political landscape”.
This imagery has been built and supported by the Kremlin-controlled media for years. In my own study, I have analyzed the Russian media coverage of Ukraine during 2009: a few thousand articles from two widely read daily newspapers. Using the method of linguistic corpus analysis, I searched for words most often preceding or succeeding ‘Ukraine.’ I also looked at words most frequently used in the same text with the word ‘Ukraine.’
My study, which was published in the East-West academic journal in 2013, showed that most of the terms related to financial interests (“natural gas,” “dollars,” “money”), external actors (“EU,” “US”), followed by markers of cultural affinity (“Orthodox,” “language,” “Patriarch”). This clearly exposes a security-driven agenda obsessed with issues of cultural politics.
The inability of Ukrainians to act links to another fundamental orientalist tenet, which describes the dominant races as progressive, while the subject nations as incapable of progress, being stuck in the primitive past.
A trait of such “backwardness” has become immediately apparent in Russia’s coverage of recent events. It is closely linked to war-time mobilization: the portrayal of “Ukrainian fascists” comes straight from the Soviet propaganda featuring WWII Ukrainian nationalists as ruthless, xenophobic and sadistic. This frame dominates the report about the boy from Slovyansk crucified by Ukrainian soldiers, which has since been disproved by both Ukrainian and critical Russian journalists.
The assigned inability to act independently makes the Ukrainians into convenient henchmen for Russia’s real enemy, the West.
Since the Euromaidan and war, the “foreign hand” argument complemented and re-enforced the “failed state” argument. In a comprehensive attempt to reconstruct the history of conflict, everything from the 2004 Orange Revolution to Euromaidan has been portrayed by the Russian media as a string of White House/CIA/EU intrigues. Ukrainians are mere puppets, having no will of their own. President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine is very often portrayed as “the US-propelled vassal”. And when bad things happen “Ukraine and the rest of the world have Washington to thank for this sad state of affairs”.
Lazy and impotent otherwise, as the “manipulated subjects” Ukrainians may commit horrible atrocities.
Typical to such attitude is the Russian mainstream coverage of the tragic Odessa Trade Union’s fire where a number of pro-Russian activists lost their lives. The Russian narrative, as this analysis from a leading human rights group shows, is focused on a clear separation of the warring sides into victims and fascists who either deliberately set on fire or took pleasure in their opponents being burnt alive. A closer look at the events shows that despite the confrontation, the pro-Ukrainian activists tried to save trapped people, when the local rescue services did not show up to the scene.
Framing Ukrainians in a context of depraved violence is abundant on Russian television. The NTV channel broadcasted a story, subsequently also disproved, about a teenager drugged by the Ukrainian National Guard and stuffed with electronics to serve as a living shooting target. This story was also picked up by Lifenews TV. The state-run channel Rossiya showed a scene of a summary execution by the Ukrainian army but investigative journalists found that the video was actually shot by the channel’s crew in Chechnya in 2012, and shows Chechen militants being shot by Russian soldiers.
To reconcile the depiction of the Ukrainians as enemy pawns with them remaining a part of the pan-Russian community of people, Russian orientalism simply divides Ukrainians into two groups. On the sinister side are the irreversibly spoilt West Ukrainians (often referred to as Galicians), dismissed as an inauthentic product of the nationalist brainwashing and indoctrination. On the right side, “the real Ukrainians” from the central and eastern parts of the country, still a brotherly people under constant pressure by the West Ukrainian nationalists, and thus in need for protection from Russia. This discourse has found it expression in the Kremlin argument about Ukraine as a “divided nation”, which was trotted out during the start of armed hostilities in Donbass, Eastern Ukraine.
Western Europe needs its critical eye
Generations of European historians worked hard to unpack their colonialist past, often based on orientalist myths about the “third world” nations. The job is far from finished, and the colonial discourse often resurfaces – most recently in xenophobic attitudes towards refugees from Syria.
Yet, many western Europeans struggle to see Russia as a colonial empire. For one, formalistic reason, it is considered that the colonies are the lands typically situated in Asia and overseas, while the Russian empire was contiguous to the Russian frontier. Secondly, many western socialists and liberals have sympathized with Soviet Union’s anti-colonial agenda in 1960s, and still consider Soviet Union – and its heir Russia – as antithetic to colonialism.
For centuries, Western colonial nations have justified their expansion to the Levant by the idea of the Middle East as the birthplace of Christianity. President Vladimir Putin used similar discourse when presenting Crimea as a cradle of Russian Christianity, thus basing the annexation on both historical and religious claims. Russia is partly driven (and wants to be seen as driven) into Ukraine by historical roots and spiritual bonds or dukhovnye skrepy.
Brushing many a historical fact under the carpet, the Russian historiography has established as uncontestable the Russian claim to Kyiv as “mother of all Russian cities” as the cradle of Russian statehood. Medieval Kyiv’s multiethnic and multicultural character has been denied.
European historians have paid too little attention to complex histories of Eastern Europe. Ukrainian identity has been largely absent from the mind of European public, politicians and policymakers. This gives Russian interpretation of the events in Ukraine higher credibility, and has subjected the Ukrainian claims to much higher degree of skepticism.
The situation is changing, and Europe must help Ukrainians in their legitimate wish to be understood as something more than a funny, weird and somewhat historically disabled breed of Russians. That help should come through opening up discussions on Ukrainian history as seen through indigenous Ukrainian eyes, in helping Ukrainians to establish and assert their own agency on the European policy scene.
Researching Kyiv’s heritage as a meeting and melting pot of various European cultures may also help in re-conceptualizing Eastern European history, still too often relying on imperial imagery, where some nations have a stronger claim on history than others.
Roman Horbyk is a Doctoral Researcher at Södertörn University in Sweden