In Background, Feature Articles, Ukraine

By Professor Vladislav Bugera (Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russian Federation), published on the website of Stephen Shenfield, Oct 27, 2014

What is ethnic identity? As soon as you start to ponder this question, you discover that you are dealing with a tangle of paradoxes that radically conflict with philistine “commonsense” and that are nonetheless objective expressions of quite real social relations. These paradoxical social relations impel people to define themselves and one another in terms of ethnic affiliation, constantly get lost in their own definitions – and shed a sea of blood in hopeless attempts to cut through at least some of the knots in the interlacing of ethnic affiliations in which people thrash about like flies caught in a spider’s web.

One of the many Gordian knots of ethnic self-determination has arisen in Ukraine. The current war in that country looks from the outside like a struggle between Ukrainian and Russian nationalists. In fact, Russian nationalists constitute only one part of the opposition to Kiev. The other part consists of people who do not and do not wish to make a choice between Ukrainian and Russian identity, feeling themselves to be Ukrainians and Russians at the same time. Such people were very numerous in Ukraine both at the start of the twentieth century and during the Soviet period; today too they are very numerous. The further a region of Ukraine is to the east, the more numerous such people are. No one has ever tried to calculate exactly how many there are. However, anyone who knows Ukraine well and is willing to take an unprejudiced view will agree that even today Russo-Ukrainians constitute at least 20% of the country’s population (true, during the Soviet period the proportion was higher still).

In Donbas Russo-Ukrainians constitute a majority, and it is primarily thanks to the support of this majority (and only secondarily thanks to support from Russia) that the militias of “New Russia” for several months already have put up successful resistance to the Ukrainian army and the stormtroopers of the “National Guard.” And although the militias often complain that the people of Donbas do not give them enough support without this support no “hand of Moscow” would enable the opponents of the Kiev junta to hold their own in the fight against the Ukrainian chauvinists.

As an aside, let me note that Russo-Ukrainians live not only in Ukraine but also in Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union. I am one of them myself. I have spent a considerable portion of my life in Ukraine, and my soul is tied to Ukraine no less than to Russia.

Part of the membership of the militias of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics consists precisely of Russo-Ukrainians who have never believed in the idea of “Great Russia” in any form, including that of a restored Soviet Union, who do not support the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, but who simply do not want to be forced to define themselves solely in terms of one of their two beloved ethnic identities. They are fighting against only one of their two native languages being recognized as a state language because this means turning the image of the nation associated with this language into the image of a god that all citizens of the state are obliged to worship. It means that the state language becomes a sacred language, the language of the god-nation, while all other languages and the ethnic groups and identities associated with them are reduced to profane, lowly, second-class status. And Russo-Ukrainians do not want to counterpose their “sacred” Ukrainian identity to their “profane” Russian identity. They want to play freely with two equal identities and face the world as Ukrainians and Russians simultaneously.

However, the anti-Soviet variant of the religion of Ukrainian nationalism that seized the plenitude of power in Kiev in February 2014 is based on the principle of disentangling and distancing Ukrainian ethnic identity from everything that is Russian. You are either a Ukrainian or a moskal (“Muscovite”). If you do not want to make a choice between these two identities then your Ukrainian identity is erased against your will and you are labeled a moskal.

Russian nationalists take advantage of this predicament by offering Russo-Ukrainians a construct of the Russian nation to which they can adhere without renouncing their Ukrainian identity. Two variants of this construct both allow for the legal equality of the Ukrainian and Russian languages.

In the first variant “Russian” is presented as a supposedly supra-ethnic identity that incorporates several formally equal ethnic identities. In reality this is not so: Great Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians may be proclaimed equally “Russian,” but Great Russians turn out to be a little bit “more equal” than the others. The second variant is Soviet patriotism, based on the slogan of restoring the Soviet Union. Here it is the “Soviet people” that plays the role of the supposedly supra-ethnic community, although in reality it too is an expanded variant of the Russian nation.

Thanks to these cunning variants, Russian nationalists have not just formed an alliance with the Russo-Ukrainians but established control over them. In this way the champions of equal rights for ethnic identities have been placed at the service of the Kremlin and turned into an instrument of the Russian capitalists in their struggle for a redivision of the world against the capitalists of Ukraine, Western Europe, and the United States.

This is certainly a most unfortunate development. It is tempting to denounce both of the warring sides in Ukraine out of hand and say: “A plague on both your houses!” Nevertheless, leftists should acknowledge that the cause that originally inspired the Russo-Ukrainians is a just cause – and in its own way an internationalist cause, one whose relevance extends far beyond Ukraine or even the former Soviet Union.

As a result of large-scale migration, intermarriage, and other contemporary processes there are an enormous number of people throughout the world who possess and value two or even more ethnic identities at the same time. It is a human right of these people to be allowed free play with their various ethnic identities and not to be harassed, regimented, or insulted simply for being their own complicated and ambiguous selves. Due recognition of this right will help blunt the sharp edge of ethnic nationalism and contribute to strengthening other non-ethnic identities that are urgently needed today – the class identity of the world working class and the species identity of the human race.

This article was translated and edited by Stephen D. Shenfield.

Vladislav Bugera was born in 1971 in Ufa, Bashkortostan, Russian Federation. His Ukrainian father and Russian mother taught him to be equally familiar with Ukrainian, Russia, and Jewish culture. He studied philosophy at Kiev State (now National) University and later at Moscow State University. He currently lectures at the Ufa State Oil University of Technology. He is a Doctor of Philosophical Sciences.


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