There are many forms of Ukrainian identity. The svidomy believe that the Ukraine is a purely autochthonous entity, whose “Russian” achievements were stolen by Muscovy (Richard Sakwa, more politely, calls them “monists”). There are “pluralists” who believe that they share a common cultural and genetic ancestry with Russia and Belorussia in the medieval Rus state, which partially translates into integrationist sentiments. But there are also those who believe that the Ukraine is simply one particular local expression of Russianism. The latter were never anywhere near the majority on the ground, and after 2014, they are probably in the low single digits (e.g. as proxied by the percentage of Ukrainian citizens who now say they support union with Russia: Once around 15%-20%, now down to 4%). However, these people do exist, and some of them are willing to make the case publicly.
One example is Alexander Chalenko, a journalist who fled the Ukraine in 2014 ahead of politicized charges after the Maidan. Having been reasonably influential at one point – he has apparently hobnobbed with Poroshenko and several other Ukrainian bigwigs on at least a few occasions – he now lives in Moscow and writes columns for the Ukraina.ru project. This is despite the fact that he is an ethnic Ukrainian himself; as he said, his grandparents had “Ukrainian” stamped onto their passports.
To the extent that he identifies with his Ukrainian roots, he prefers to use the term “South Russian.” Even so, he is not quite a classical Russian nationalist either – or at least, not what is often associated with Russian nationalism. More on that later.
Anyhow, as part of my (strategically questionable?) project to acquaint Anglophones with actually-existing-Russian-nationalism beyond the Wikipedia entry on Foundations of Geopolitics, here is a detailed breakdown of Chalenko’s main theses/points:
1. Difference between Russians and Ukrainians? He recounts having an argument with a svidomy, in which he challenged his interlocutor to name one concrete difference between Russians and Ukrainians. After pondering, the svidomy replied, “The Ukrainians fry their potatoes in salo.”
2. The War in Donbass: Obviously, he said a lot about this, but it can be summarized thus:
- Smol brain: Russian-Ukrainian war [standard Western/Kiev narrative]
- Normal brain: Ukrainian civil war [after all, 80% of LDNR combatants even in 2014 were Ukrainian citizens]
- Galaxy brain: Russian civil war
(Someone should make this into a meme).
3. Little Russia is a peasant culture. But for that matter, so is Great Russia. In fact, he repeatedly stresses the viewpoint that the foundation of the Russian nation was only laid c.1800, above all by Alexander Pushkin. Moreover, Chalenko – despite his personal anti-Semitism – argues that this nation was only actualized under Stalin, as he defined a nation through urbanization, mass literacy, and mass culture, not ethnicity. Incidentally, he is obviously, he is a civic nationalist, not an ethnonationalist.
(While I don’t disagree with this 100%, I disagree more than I agree. I am very receptive to Azar Gat’s arguments that nations are not exclusively modern constructs, and consider the Russian nation to have emerged within the medieval Russian state. Certainly the people who wrote the chronicles wrote of the “Russian lands” as an ethnocultural whole, and there was at least the expectation that individual principalities owed some degree of loyalty to it. And while I am not into “hard” racialism, there do seem to be hard limits to the ethnic churn a nation can undergo before it phase transitions into something else. These are not fringe positions, and there was in fact plenty of both agreement and disagreement with Chalenko on that score from the other nationalists, conservatives, etc. assembled in the room. However, this does demonstrate the diversity of views that actually exist within the Russian nationalism.)
3. Vyshivanka. He dislikes both the Ukrainian vyshivanka and the Russian kosovorotka (incidentally, these are basically the same thing). And indeed made light fun of Kholmogorov and Dugin for their habit of indulging them. But note that the vyshivanka has only become a national symbol in the Ukraine, not in Russia. This sort of cultural parochialism doesn’t happen in real European countries. While I do like the aesthetics of the vyshivanka/kosovorotka, and wouldn’t even mind wearing one myself – why should the entire world dress like 19th century Brits? – the people who strut about in them are regarded as a bit weird in Russia. Not so in the Ukraine.
4. Galician separatism FTW! Russian nationalists used to have some counterintuitively nice relationships with Galician neo-Habsburgists, whose ambitions are largely limited to their own small shire. Not with Banderists, because Banderists want a *unitary* fascist Ukraine from the Carpathians to the Don – a project that became increasingly realistic after the Orange Revolution in 2004, and reached fruition a decade later. Neo-Habsburg larpers were good allies of convenience because they also want to dismantle the Ukrainian entity so as to not to have to associate with Donbass sovoks and assorted riffraff. I suspect that Chalenko would get along with our AP. Obviously that became irrelevant after 2014, since that was when getting the whole pie (or almost all of it, with the exception of Crimea and the Donbass) became possible and even probable.
5. Russia is a European nation. This also translates into Europhilia: He considers Russian propaganda against Europe and European values (e.g. “eurogays”) to be stupid and embarassing; village behavior. However, by dint of that same fact, Russia should act as the equals of the other European nations, informing the “Western partners” that Russia will be reunited regardless of their opinions on the matter. So I suppose you can interpret this post as spreading the message. 🙂 Indeed, he frames modern Russian irredentism as a classically European phenomenon, often comparing it to the Risorgimento and other 19th century “springtimes of peoples.” Quote: “You Russians don’t have the right to abandon us South Russians.”
6. You might like Europe, but Europe doesn’t much like you. This was my question/criticism addressed to him (1:48:30 on the video).
What to do about the ensuing total Western sanctions when he sends Russian tanks to Kiev?
There wasn’t, unfortunately, a clear answer to that question. Or how to resolve the contradiction between these geopolitical ambitions and maintaining a firm European orientation. (Like many liberal Russian nationalists, he is dismissive of China).
(a) Russia doesn’t do enough to fund/promote soft power, so things like the Ukraine debacle keep happening over and over again. This is something I have written much about myself and I see no need to repeat them again.
(b) The “authoritarian-bureaucratic system” that rules Russia (his words – but pretty accurate) isn’t responsive. Many Ukrainian political refugees have had difficulties getting Russian passports, and a few were even deported (e.g. Marina Menshikova; Olena Boyko would be a more recent example).
8. Russian passports in Donbass? One revelation for me was that there was some limited support within the Presidential Administration for handing out Russian passports en masse to LDNR residents in 2015, but it was vetoed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as it would violate Minsk II.
However, this idea is apparently getting resurrected. People close to Donbass affairs have been semi-publicly hinting at it for a few months, but with Chalenko also mentioning it, and now the Ukrainian media crawling all over it in the past days, my strong suspicion that this is for real. Now there were some fears in these circles that the kremlins may have wanted to postpone it again, in order to attempt a “reset” once Zelensky takes over from Poroshenko. However, a couple of days ago, Zelensky went on record against providing any special status to the LDNR or amnesty for the rebel leaders. This is completely incompatible with Minsk II, so there’s an excellent change that mass Russian passportization – the model used in Transnitria – really will go ahead this summer.