The Cultural Dilemmas Russia Needs to Solve
Frank E. Sysyn 14 February 2022

We frequently talk about the Ukraine crisis, and I think I shall instead talk about the Russia crisis, because that’s the core, I believe, of the problem. Here, I agree with Ostap Kushnir that we are going through a period of neo-imperialism in the Russian case, that Russia never came to terms with, for example, its settler colonialism in the areas to the east and the south and did not go through what France or Britain or other settler societies went through in dealing with the colonial legacy. At the same time, we are going through a crisis close to the Eurasian discussions of the past: is Russia a civilization apart, or is it part of the European civilization? And we are also dealing with questions of nationhood, can there be a Russian nation apart from empire? And if so, what will constitute this nation?

Here I would turn always to the book of Andreas Kappeler “Die ungleiche Brüder” – this wonderful study of Ukraine and Russia as they related as unequal brothers. Many reacted strongly among Ukrainians, not wanting to hear this word “brother” anymore, since brotherhood seems to be a burden more than a plus. Remember that almost consistently in any Russian discussion, any group that wants to have a separate or independent Ukraine or struggle for it is by its very nature psychotic. And all of these movements can only be organized by people abroad, whether it be the Poles, the Austro-Hungarians, or now the Americans organizing Ukraine. What I am struck with is that in 1954 the Soviet Union put out a text on the 300th anniversary of the purported reunification of Ukraine with Russia. I now look back at that text almost longingly as something of much higher historical quality in the theses that it forced on Soviet historiography compared to the Putin text. It also illustrated to what degree Ukraine was central to what would be the Soviet Union’s Russia and that it remains so for Putin today.

We talked about this early period of medieval Rus’. We can argue incessantly about these sources. Mykhailo Hrushevsky showed how diverse all these territories were really in the 11th and 12th centuries. We have no idea really how people spoke, how these groups related – and so this question then becomes a mythology that goes on in various discussions. Where we really can talk about in questions of national relations is the 19th century, when the project to create a general or All-Russian nation composed of Little Russians (Ukrainians), Great Russians and White Russians (Belarusians) failed, and the attempt to nationalize the Russian empire didn’t work out. We live with the consequences of that failure and the success of the Ukrainian national movement to this day. We are seeing from 1991 the emergence of a modern Ukraine and Russia, and we have thought of them as two separate states that would accept the idea that statehood also conveyed the possibilities of civic nationhood. Now we certainly see that possibility failing in Russia, and I think succeeding to some degree in Ukraine.

In practice, from the Soviet Union we have witnessed in Russia the emergence of something called the Russian world, in which Russia wants to be a civilization apart, but also wants to have control over Russian speakers and people it labels Russians outside of the territories of the Russian Federation. I think with this construct, we see the continuation of neo-imperialism. And while Russia accepts the idea that Ukrainians living in Russia can russify, it does not accept the idea that Russians or people who speak Russian in Ukraine may now choose a Ukrainian identity, whether civic or cultural or national. But I also think Putin constantly concentrates on Orthodoxy in these various discussions. And we know that the level of religious practice is very low in Russia and that there are as many Orthodox churches in Ukraine as in Russia, though Ukraine has less than one third of the population. And yet religion is essential to this attempt now to create a new Russian world based on what also is attached in the international context to various fundamentalist populist and religious groups. And of course, this program causes a schism in the entire Orthodox world as the Patriarchate of Constantinople struggles against the program of the Kremlin and the Patriarchate of Moscow

From my point of view, to understand the Russian crisis we should also look at the demographic situation and its relation to Putin’s agenda. When we look at Russia today, we find that 81% of its population calls itself Russians and the future portends a shrinking of the population of the Russian Federation. But at the same time, if when Russia became independent in 1991 9% of the population were Muslims, today 13% are Muslims, and by 2030 16% will be Muslims. A civic nation state that treats all of its groups and religions equally can accommodate such changes; this for a state that declares itself a bastion of Christianity and of Slavdom and of the Russian world is very troublesome. And why does this situation affect Ukraine and the possibilities of Russia ceasing to negate the existence of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian state? I think that the demographic situation of the Russian Federation makes Ukraine so crucial now for Putin’s plan of neo-imperialism and the Russian world: Ukraine is a country overwhelmingly Slavic in its population, overwhelmingly Christian and more religious in practice than Russia is – indeed its loss of control of Crimea has removed its major substantial number of Muslims. So possibly this situation is why the Ukrainian issue, which many of the commentators have called an obsession in Putin, is something that we have to look at rationally when we deal with Putin’s statements and policies toward Ukraine and Ukrainians.

Now can there then come to be an accommodation? Can one move from the Putin’s views of his very chaotic and, I view, really inferior text on the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples to a Russian policy that accepts that Ukraine can be a state – that it can be if not an equal brother, because it’s not as large in size and doesn’t have nuclear weapons, but at least a sovereign entity, and independent from Russia? Can Russia accept that Ukraine can have an Orthodox church, which is separate from the Russian Orthodox church? These are all steps which would have to move forward to establish proper relations between Russia and Ukraine. At the moment – and I left Ukraine out of this discussion – Ukraine has chosen a Western vector and a civic nation vector, and seems to be moving in this direction. It can only do so if it strengthens its ties with Europe, and it sees itself without NATO as having no security.

So how does one move this situation forward? At least at the level of scholars and cultural leaders and people in the humanities, I think that by calling out some of the Russian mythology, and as well by educating both statesmen and publics and to look at really what is a Russian crisis as well, at least in Europe and the United States, we will be able to deal from a more factual basis with this crisis. In this way, a future without crisis can be built for Russia and Ukraine.


Frank E. Sysyn is director of the Peter Jacyk Centre for Ukrainian Historical Research at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) and professor in the Department of History, Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.


Cover Photo: Alexey Nikolski (Sputnik / AFP).

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