Ukraine: Different from Russia

13 april 2004

Leonid Kuchma

Resume: Any debate that attempts to determine whose grief in the world is the most painful would be senseless: every country has its share of skeletons in the closet. How can the bleeding wound of Chechnya be compared with the Tibetans’ tragedy, or the simmering tensions in the Chu valley with the Kosovo impasse?

Any debate that attempts to determine whose grief in the world is the most painful would be senseless: every country has its share of skeletons in the closet. How can the bleeding wound of Chechnya be compared with the Tibetans’ tragedy, or the simmering tensions in the Chu valley with the Kosovo impasse?

In his book, Ukraine: Different from Russia, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has attempted to identify his country’s most acute problems with sincerity unusual for a politician. Among other things, the author discusses the persisting problems of a former province which has yet failed to develop a new national consciousness and recognize its national language. He looks at the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the continued attempts to discern the country’s own past, the standoff between the followers of the Greek Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, combined with the split within Ukrainian Orthodoxy itself. Finally, Kuchma analyzes more particular problems affecting his country such as the sharp contrast between the eastern and western regions of Ukraine, the veterans of the so-called Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and its dependence on imports of energy resources.

Kuchma’s bulky work is entirely focused on the search for solutions to these problems. As the author is trying to answer these numerous questions, he analyzes Ukraine’s experience as an independent country. Unlike many politicians and researchers, he believes that the Ukraine of the past was not a colony but, rather, an integral part of metropolitan Russia with all of the advantages and disadvantages inherent in such a position.

The author lives up to his promise: the book does not contain any anti-Russian motives, but it prompts the reader to consider the potential for protest that the Ukrainian people have accumulated over their centuries-long affiliation with the Russian Empire, as well as their decades-long experience as a Soviet Republic. On the one hand, this is also indicative of a subconscious national sentiment that can be easily dismissed as a parochial complex; on the other hand, it cannot be ignored in specific interstate relations.

In the preface to the book, Kuchma stresses that the most difficult problem is shaping a Ukrainian identification and psychology, as well as developing a realization that “the nation’s values stand above material and social interests.” (p. 21)

The president expounds on the idea that because of Ukraine’s territory, the size and density of its population, and, most importantly, its national mentality, it is a more  European country than Russia. According to the author, this is manifest, in particular, in the absence of “a type of relations based on land regulation” within the Ukrainian communities. This factor gave rise to an individualistic sort of character trait. “Ukrainians are predisposed toward saving,” he indicates (p. 95).

Kuchma believes that the Ukrainian people, as well as the people in other countries of Eastern and Central Europe, have experienced different types of psychological problems in the transition period than the Russians, who, he believes, were free from the so-called “existential fear” for their future (p. 210). On the whole, the author makes many shrewd observations while discussing the Russian and Ukrainian national characters, but his main conclusion – that the Russian and Ukrainian mentalities differ dramatically – seems disputable and requiring more argumentation.

Kuchma surmises that all of the contradictions between Russia and Ukraine will disappear when the latter fully recognizes itself as a nation. “I don’t rule out a situation in the future… where a bridge will stretch across the Kerch Strait, and all material barriers between our two countries will disappear,” he maintains (p. 34). However, this line was written before the Tuzla spit in the fall of 2003.

As for now, many impediments to progress in these matters are firmly in place, and many of them are rooted in political history. This is partly due to the national-territorial delineation of the two former Soviet Republics which was imposed by the Communist Party in the 1920s. Kuchma believes the assessment of that event should be left to historians and geographers. At the same time, a significant number of Ukrainians now live in the southern Russian regions of Kursk and Voronezh, as well as the former territory of the Cossack Troop near the Don – a fact that permits Kuchma to speak of lost opportunities. At this point, he makes reference to the authorities of the former Byelorussian Soviet Republic who succeeded in fully integrating all of the Byelorussian lands within the borders of the Soviet Union (p. 450).

Kuchma draws the conclusion that the handover of the Crimean Peninsula was not an adequate compensation for the Kursk, Voronezh, and Don lands. He claims that the initiative for repatriating Crimea back to Ukraine in 1954 originated from the party bosses of the region, who were guided by purely practical considerations. At the time of the hand-over of the peninsula it was impossible (just as it is now) for the Crimean population to live without water from the Dnieper and coal from the Donetsk coalfields. Furthermore, the regional Communist Party and administrative officials found it much more convenient to find solutions to the Crimean economic issues in Kiev rather than in Moscow.

He praises former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who thwarted the attempts of the Communist nationalists in the Russian State Duma and beyond to turn the controversy surrounding the Crimean issue into an all-out political confrontation. On the whole, Kuchma displays warmth and sincerity toward Yeltsin that are rather untypical of a president of a foreign nation. He acknowledges Yeltsin’s historic role as a personality who, guided by an inherent feeling of justice, made it possible for the former Soviet republics to dissolve peacefully (pp. 437-445). On the other hand, he often argues with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who, as Kuchma believes, called for the use of force in solving the Crimea dispute.

In terms of the controversies between Ukraine and Russia in the cultural sphere, Kuchma notes there is a significant imbalance of information between the two countries. He indicates, for example, that the appearance of anti-Russian printed material in the Ukrainian mass media produced a rather weak response in Russia, while anti-Ukrainian publications in the Russian mass media annoyed many Ukrainians (p. 205). The celebration of the tenth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence went virtually unnoticed by the Russian media. Kuchma turns sarcastic when he writes about the Russian nationalists and chauvinists who disguise themselves under liberal banners; he refers to such individuals as ‘obrazovantsy’ (Russian term denoting people who have a higher education, but are void of the traditions of genuine intellectualism).

Kuchma puts forth ideas about “compiling an inventory list” of Ukraine’s cultural heritage; this is a rather interesting idea, however questionable. He believes that drafting some sort of an agreement between Ukraine, Russia and Belarus (p. 323) concerning the joint ownership of cultural assets, accumulated over the centuries of their co-existence as a single state could serve as a psychological landmark or a pivotal point in relations among the three nations. This suggestion could spark questions involving the intellectual property rights of ethnic Germans, Poles and other nationalities who at one time lived in the Russian Empire and took an active part in creating its cultural and intellectual values.

Kuchma was born in a region of Ukraine where the local population speaks a dialect that he describes as a “Russo-Ukrainian-Belarusian blend.” This fact, no doubt, explains the broadness of his approaches toward the Slav brothers, on the one hand, and a somewhat narrow vision of the role of ethnic minorities in the country’s history, on the other (the reader may arrive at such a conclusion due to the absence of relevant references in his book). Meanwhile, those minorities greatly contributed to both the economic and spiritual life of Ukraine.

Chapter VIII of the book, titled “On National Heroes,” recounts the life stories of the Grand Dukes of Kiev Vladimir I and Yaroslav the Wise (the author is prepared to regard the latter as a Russian prince), as well as some other historical figures. Kuchma gives special attention to hetman Bogdan Khmelnitsky as the creator of the Ukrainian statehood. He calls the decision of the 1654 Pereyaslav Rada (Assembly of the People of Ukraine) on the reunification of the Ukrainian territory on the left bank of the Dnieper with Russia, a forced and necessary compromise. Speaking of hetman Mazepa, Kuchma describes him as a Ukrainian patriot and an advocate of national independence – an assessment that proves the validity of the author’s own remark that both Russian and Ukrainian experts should establish politically correct approaches to disputable issues. On the whole, the style of this particular chapter is reminiscent of particular reader books for children, and falls short of expert political and economic analysis that the author offers in other parts of the book.

As he continues with the analysis of his nation’s history, Kuchma dwells on the policy of ‘Ukrainization.’ He discusses three forms of statehood – the Central Rada (March-December 1917 and January-April 1918), Skoropadsky’s Hetmanate (1917 to 1918), and the Ukrainian Directorate (November 1918 - November 1920). He compares these forms with later practices of the victorious Bolsheviks, of whom he singles out Lazar Kaganovich, Secretary-General of the Ukrainian Communist Party after spring 1925. Kuchma says Kaganovich’s ‘Ukrainization,” carried out in a Stalinist fashion, “strangely enough” played a positive role in the country.

The author also speaks about “the agents of Russian influence” – Georgy Pyatakov, Dmitry Manuilsky, Vlas Chubar and Emmanuil Kviring – whom he calls “internationalists in inverted commas.” At the same time, those in the second echelon of power – Nikolai Skrypnik and Grigory Grinko – were, in Kuchma’s opinion, the pillars of solid national consciousness and responsibility before the nation.

Kuchma persistently denies the conviction that is popular among Ukrainians that their country was subject to colonial exploitation and national oppression. At the same time, he claims that from the very beginning Moscow maintained a policy of suppressing any manifestation of Ukrainian self-consciousness. As an example, he recalls the 1757 work by Grigory Poletika titled “On the Origins, Restoration and Proliferation of Schools and Education in Russia.” Kuchma says the work was never published because of Mikhail Lomonosov who thwarted the attempts, “since it only mentioned Kievan schools and not Moscow schools before the 17th century.”

Kuchma dwells in detail on the issue that is apparently both close and painful to him – the development of the missile and nuclear industry. He discusses the correlation between its “Soviet elements” on the one side, and the “Russian and Ukrainian elements” on the other; the latter include an impressive list of cosmonauts and rocket/missile technology designers of Ukrainian origin. The author’s position on this issue is indicative of the many lingering inferiority complexes – side-effects of the turbulent period in the formation of the Ukrainian nation-state.

Much space in Kuchma’s book is devoted to the defense industry, and Chapter XI, where he declares his views on Ukraine’s chances for joining the ranks of the rich nations, provides a clue to the author’s conceptions in this field. With all of the pride of a former industrial CEO, he recalls his former activities at the Yuzhnoye design bureau and the Yuzhmash machine-building plant. He describes the two hi-tech companies as examples of the huge potential of the defense industry, while lamenting over the destructive impact of the hasty and ill-conceived policy for converting the defense industry enterprises to civilian production. As a national leader and a professional in the defense industry, Kuchma insists that the fields of “space technology, aircraft-building and weapon design are areas where Ukraine and Russia could do much better by working together” (p. 357).

Chapter VI, titled “A Painful Road from the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to Ukraine,” reveals Kuchma’s vision of the transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy, which has thus far impoverished his country. (It is noteworthy that the problems borne out of that transformation remain dominant within the entire post-socialist space.)

Kuchma assumes that one of the factors behind Ukraine’s current status as one of the poor countries was due to the financial crisis of 1997-1998. However, several pages prior to this assumption, he blames the erroneous strategy of economic and social reforms which the leadership of sovereign Ukraine adopted by its own free will, without any pressure from abroad. The author believes that that choice was quite in line with the Ukrainian “romantic” nature, which differs from the Russian national character.

Kuchma admits to the low competitiveness of the Ukrainian economy, and blames the decline of the machine-building sector from 30.7 percent in 1990 to 13.8 percent in 1999 on “the pessimists” and “the defeatists.” The former term refers to the Western experts, while the latter to their Ukrainian adherents (p. 178).

Kuchma sounds an air of resentment when he mentions the lifting of liquefied gas prices by Russian companies in 1998 following the jumps in world crude oil prices. As a way out of the situation, Kuchma names “the scaling down at least by half of the trade barriers in the developed countries” (p. 179). Kuchma’s hurt pride is hardly understandable, especially since he concedes in another passage that the free market never makes concessions to anyone. It seems that in this situation, as on many other occasions, Kuchma is caught in his own trap: he appears to be treating Russia not as an equal partner, but as a former metropolitan country that owes a debt to Kiev.

How does the president view the federal structure of the Ukrainian state? Today, this issue is being broadly discussed in Ukrainian society, yet few dare write about it. The author insists that turning Ukraine into a federation is impossible, since it might trigger territorial disputes with neighboring countries. Romania, Turkey, Poland, Hungary and the Slovak Republic are making claims for Ukrainian territories already, although so far these ideas have only been voiced by radical newspapers and political organizations. Kuchma also mentions in this connection the May 21, 1992 resolution by the Supreme Soviet of Russia which acknowledged the 1954 decision to hand over the Crimea to Ukraine to be unconstitutional, and the July 9, 1993 resolution on the Russian status of Sevastopol.

The author offers a detailed analysis of Ukraine’s bilingualism, and forwards numerous arguments to support his thesis that giving an official status to the Russian language would be an untimely decision.

Naturally, the author is forced to consider the complicated relations between the various religious denominations in Ukraine. He avoids an assessment of the activities of the Uniat Church [which combines Eastern Orthodox rites with subordination to the Vatican – Ed.] during World War II, but mentions the Council of Bishops, convened in 1946, to revoke the Brest unification agreement of 1596 and the events that occurred after the Council meeting. Kuchma’s presidential status implies that he should meet with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church more often than with the heads of the other confessions – which he actually does since this is the most populous of all Ukrainian religious denominations. Yet he cherishes the hope to see the rise of a national Ukrainian Orthodox Church at some early date (p. 491).

The reader may be surprised to learn that the Vatican maintains relations with the Orthodox Church which reports to the Moscow Patriarchate, and does not recognize the breakaway Orthodox Church of Metropolitan Philaretos or the Church of Halichina. One can only agree with Kuchma’s declaration that “whatever the reasons for the amicability and tactfulness in these relations, be it in the clerical, secular or government spheres, it is much more desirable than pressure and offensiveness” (p. 492).

Kuchma insists on proceeding from the reality of the present, as opposed to the practices from the past, as “the latter approach may lead us into a deadlock” (p. 464). Although the author prefers “to close up the issue of the historical debt,” he says that Russia has debts to Ukraine.

Specifically, he raises the issue of overseas property of the former Soviet Union, “the return of cultural values” (it remains unclear how this claim corresponds with his own idea of Russia’s and Ukraine’s “joint cultural ownership”), and, most importantly, the repayment of the deposits which the Ukrainian people held in the Soviet Union Savings Bank; this figure totaled 83.4 billion Soviet rubles as of December 31, 1991.

In conclusion, Kuchma repeats that the Ukrainian people and the Russian people have followed different historic paths, and have different ethnic experiences and self-identifications. There is also a great difference in their culture and language, their relationships with the geographic and geopolitical environment, resource reserves, overall weight in international politics, and opportunities for mutual influences (p. 507).

This book could be the basis for a profound discussion on the highly sensitive issue of the ethnic component in international relations.

Mark Shkundin

Last updated 13 april 2004, 20:30

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