The Russian war against Ukraine initiated by Vladimir Putin is not only about the possession of territories or about brutal military and political power.It is also a war about the interpretation of history and culture. It is a conflict that has its roots deep down in the past of both nations. Russia is waging a total war against Ukraine and its people, including the whole population (women, children, and the elderly), and infrastructure (nurseries, schools, and hospitals). The military, political and cultural motifs of the war are intertwined. Vladimir Putin has tried to justify his war by claiming that historically Ukraine has always been a part of Russia.
To have a Ukrainian view on this claim, I interviewed Oleh Yaskiv for Vartija. Yaskiv is Vice-rector for science at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and Director of the Sheptytsky Cultural Center. He is the president of the think tank ”European dialogue”, and he has also been active as a movie director and a film expert.
In Ukraine, it is nowadays customary to write the name of the Russian dictator without initial capital letters, because he has dehumanized himself with his war crimes. Furthermore, Oleh uses the expressions Russia and Russians in contexts related to the past, while talking about russia and russians for the present context, that is, the Putin era. As the interviewer, I still refer to Russia and Russians, but Oleh told me: “I suppose if russia would invade Finland, burn Helsinki and rape your women, your reporters would start to write their names as we do.” Point taken.
In this interview, Oleh is the interpreter of the Ukrainian historical and cultural experience. His views run seriously counter to what we Finns have learned to think about Russia. Over decades after the war against Soviet Union, we have imagined we have built trust and mutual understanding. Was it all an illusion? If Oleh is right, it was nothing more than that.
Vartija: Which are the historically essential points of contact between Ukrainians and Russians?
Oleh Yaskiv (OY): Historically, Ukrainians are an older nation than Russians. The colonization of Ukrainians to the East in the medieval centuries, on the lands of modern Muscovy, on the territory of the Ugric and Turkic tribes, laid the foundations of the Moscow principalities in the late Middle Ages.
In the following centuries, the interaction of Ukrainians with Russians was minimal and primarily hostile, as we were part of the Ukrainian-Polish-Lithuanian State, which waged frequent wars with Muscovy. Only after the unification of Cossack Ukraine with the Moscow Kingdom in 1654, the role of Ukrainians in the creation of Russian history starts rising increasingly. They became the creators of the so-called “European” Russia by creating the first universities in Moscow, writing the first primers, establishing the Russian Academy of Sciences, organizing the foremost court chamber orchestras, and even proposing the political idea to transform the Moscow Kingdom into the Russian Empire. And further, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ukrainians played a significant role in developing Russian culture, imperialism, and militarism.
Ukraine also played an essential role in forming the Soviet Union and has been the core part of the soviet nuclear and material science, agricultural, metal industry, and military companies. And globally, the role of the center of Eastern Christianity is played by Kyiv, which is the capital of Ukraine. The Russians have always been annoying and sought to dominate Kyiv and considered themselves the third Rome.
Russians are thus aware that without Ukraine and its intellectual and industrial potential, Russia would never have become a global power and a modern kind of empire. Without Ukraine, Russia will not get the status of a respected country.
Russians are subconsciously aware of this but do not want to acknowledge such a significant role for Ukrainians in their history. Therefore, they can’t revive the Empire and build the so-called ”russian world” without Ukraine with its intellectual and industrial resources. Russia will always feel like an inferior empire without Ukraine’s academic and industrial potential. And with Ukraine, russia, as a global power, will be able to think again about the conquest of the whole of Europe. Therefore, if Ukraine falls under the political influence of russia, there will be no doubt that russia will go further in the conquest of European countries. The Baltic states and Poland will follow. Finland will be next because after joining NATO, Finland will pose an “existential threat” to the russians, as they call it, and this will be a pretext for aggression.
Finally, it can be said that the scientific, industrial and military infrastructure left in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union can be considered a factor that unites us. Even today, the Ukrainian and russian armies are fighting mostly with Soviet weapons, which they used to make together.
Vartija: How did the tensions between the two nations arise and which are the most notable turning points in your common history?
OY: As I mentioned earlier, Ukrainians have been at war with Moscovites (the historical name of russians) since the Middle Ages, being part of various principalities. Later, the confrontation intensified in Cossack times, when Ukrainians and Poles, Belarusians, and Lithuanians fought against the Moscovites. However, conflicts between nations intensified during the reign of Russian Tsar Peter the First and Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa, who sided with King Charles XII’s Swedish troops during the Great Northern War. He planned to secede from the Moskow Kingdom for violating the Moscow-Kyiv treaty signed by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky.
Further tensions were associated with the period of national revolutions of the early twentieth century when Ukrainians wanted to become independent after the collapse of the Russian Empire and its defeat in the First World War. Shortly after it, the civil war began, in which national forces were defeated, and the communist party – so-called Bolsheviks – seized power in Ukraine. During Stalin’s rule, they carried out unprecedented terror against Ukrainians through famine and repression to destroy Ukrainian identity and culture. We lost at least seven million people from 1933 till 1937. It increased the russification of Eastern Ukraine’s population, whereas Russians inhabited Donbas and Crimea after the genocide by famine. It created the preconditions for the current war, which had continued since 2014 when russia occupied Crimea and part of the Donbas region.
Vartija: What happened when Vladimir Putin entered the stage? When and how did Ukrainians see that his ideology is a real physical threat to Ukraine?
OY: In the early 2000s, putin declared the policy that ”Russia will start to rise from its knees”. It was a signal of imminent escalation and military invasions in the near future. The major mistake of the West was underestimating putin’s words and, later, his first steps. I believe that the lack of reaction of the West and the United States to the two wars in Chechnya and the lack of response to the armed annexation of part of the territory of Georgia have unleashed putin’s hands to further escalation. He sees himself as the restorer of the great russian empire in the form of a hybrid of the Soviet Union and the tsarist empire. In this empire, there was no place for self-determination of other nations but only the conquest and recognition of the supremacy of russia.
Ukrainians have always felt threatened by russia, even under the rule of the weak and democratically-minded President Yeltsin. Putin has become a collective ego of the entire russian people. Therefore, another colossal mistake of Western politicians and analysts is to make a difference between the guilt of putin on the one hand and the russian people on the other. The russian people are largely chauvinistic and full of hatred for America, the West, and Ukraine. Ukraine is in this group because it is increasingly becoming close to the West.
Having seen the West’s weak reaction to the expansion actions of russia in Chechnya and Georgia, Ukrainians are very disappointed with the limited attention of Western countries to the danger posed by russia. Their indifference over the last decades, especially after 2014, when russia launched a hybrid war in Ukraine, has enabled russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine to begin. I am not sure that some European leaders are aware that russia seeks to achieve hegemony, at least in Central Europe. After Ukraine, the Baltic states, Poland, and Moldova will follow. And then it will be the turn of Finland if there is no united military and economic response. Ukraine will not be able to defend Europe on its own. Especially with weak military aid and sanctions that do not affect the russian economy quickly and effectively. Russia has been preparing for war for twenty years, and the West has been sleeping and trading with russia all this time, allowing it to militarize and develop propaganda. As a result of this propaganda, russians hate Europeans, Western Christianity and its values, and dream of destroying them. Not only Ukrainians but nations of most European countries. And please, don’t trust their culture, which is also responsible for the war criminals and their promises. Trust only their actions.
Vartija: In the West, scholars have for decades tried to understand how the Germans voted the Nazis to power and supported Hitler’s senseless war from the beginning to its bitter end. They have often emphasized that many Germans were driven by fear, conformity, disinformation, and other motifs closer to weakness and dumbness than arrogance and hatred. Quite similarly, educated Westerners are not willing to see that 85 percent of the Russians – that is what the recent polls tell us – support Putin’s war because of outright arrogance and hatred against the Ukrainians. Facing this challenge, how do you interpret the polls and the other data that we have?
OY: I think there is a significant difference between the attitude of Germans towards the Nazi regime and russians towards the putin regime. The Germans are deeply cultured, and cruelty is not inherent in their culture. Therefore, their acceptance of Nazism was mixed with fear.
In the case of russians, we have the inherent cruelty of ordinary russians. This cruelty and arrogance were manifested even a hundred years ago during the first world war when they briefly captured Western Ukraine. They immediately began with the repression of priests and intellectuals and deportation to Siberia. It was a hundred years before putin.
During the Soviet era, we lived alongside Russians, and I well remember the contempt they expressed for Ukrainians. It never stopped. They stubbornly refused to learn the Ukrainian language and called Ukrainians a faked, not-true nation. Putin is useless here. Putin is a product of the collective subconscious of russians.
To better understand, imagine that, for example, Sweden, with whom you have a long history, will tell you and the entire world that there are no Finns, that they are only “little Swedes” who speak a wild dialect of the Swedish language. That all Finnish literature is Swedish literature, Finnish cinema is Swedish cinema, and so on. All Finnish folklore is East Swedish folklore, and Kalevala is a Swedish epos. Or for another example, the Germans will claim that there are no Dutch, only northern Germans, that Rembrandt, van Gogh, and Paul Verhoeven are Germans, and that the Dutch language is a dialect of the German language. We have heard such things for centuries from russians.
It is hard to understand for Europeans, but it is critically necessary to approve that russians are mentally quite different from Europeans and Ukrainians. The nature of their hate of Europeans is their Asian origins and the deep-seated influence of the Mongol Horde and non-Slavic tribes. They are neither Europeans in folklore traditions nor ”high” culture. Just believe, in intercepted records of the russian soldiers, they communicate with their mothers through obscene slang. Their wives advise them to rape Ukrainian women but with condoms. The mothers agree that their sons will die in combat captivity because they will receive monetary compensation.
It is an entirely different world – a world of evil and hatred. I understand that for European intellectuals, it is difficult to accept after decades of conformism and worship of russian cultural fakes. But this is the bitter truth. And without this re-evaluation of the russians, the world will not be cleansed of their hatred.
Vartija: In the West, it is customary to avoid drawing ultimate conclusions about the basic character of nationalities and cultures. In the case of Russians, where do you find the ordinary people who just want to live in peace, to live and let others live? What kind of minority do the Ukrainians see here? Based on the polls, I assume that many young Russians do not approve Putin’s regime and his war against your country.
OY: The West lives with sweet democratic illusions, which it invented for its complacency. When applied to russia these illusions do not work correctly and are very harmful to the West for a realistic assessment of the actual political situation.
There are currently discussions in Ukraine about the so-called ”good Russians”. It answers your question: where to look for them, how many of them are there and whether they exist at all?
Many Ukrainians no longer believe in ”good Russians”. I still believe, but I’m sure there are very few. The reason for this is a system of education prevailing in russia for many decades and even centuries. Every generation of russians believed that there were no Ukrainians and Belarusians. They cannot exist. It means that a full-independent state of Ukraine and a full-independent state of Belarus cannot be allowed to exist. It was an axiom for them. And it remains an axiom. That is the answer to what they mean by saying “denazification”. For russians, the so-called Ukrainian “Nazi” is anyone who calls himself Ukrainian and speaks Ukrainian, not russian. Therefore, regardless of age, most russians believe in these conclusions and build their system of values based on them. Even higher education will not rectify it. For example, according to the latest polls, most rectors of russian universities believe in these fake ideas. Most young russian students also believe in these ideas. Fascism has prevailed in russia for a long time and still exists. And it is very aggressive fascism. However, they don’t call it that. They called it the “russia idea”.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of Russians spread throughout all russian territory do not support fascist and chauvinistic ideas and consider putin a war criminal. But they are very few, and the repressive system is so brutal and intense that they have no chance of protesting. A new democratic Russia needs to be built abroad, by those who left it because of political dissent, by young IT specialists, artists, and scientists working in Western universities and companies. But at the same time, putin’s old fascist russia must meet the military and economic defeat. And this defeat of russia should become the main idea and the main issue on the agenda for the West. Not the pandemic nor global climate problems, but the political destruction of the last evil empire that threatens all humanity with ruin through nuclear war.
Before 24 February 2022, educated people living in the Western democracies would have regarded this Ukrainian view as heavily biased or exaggerated. One month before the barbaric Russian attack, the Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin found it unlikely that Finland should join NATO. We are still perplexed to see how drastically everything has changed. The masks have fallen, and we do not know what is going to happen in the months to come. One thing is clear: Ukraine needs our help to win this war and to protect Europe and European democracies. As time goes by, we slowly start to rethink the relations between Europe and Russia, and Europeans and Russians.
Mikko Ketola, The War and churches in Ukraine. Vartija 20.3.2022.
Priit Rohtmets, The two Estonian Orthodox Churches and the war in Ukraine. Vartija 17.4.2022.
Article illustration: Azovstal in Mariupol.