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group Public discourse, Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra
Early on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the dispatch of Russian troops to the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Ukraine. This decision came two days after the Russian Federation officially recognized these self-proclaimed republics as independent states in 2014.
While Western and Ukrainian media emphasize the possibility of the outbreak of World War III and predict a humanitarian catastrophe, the Russian press is no less emotional sample and proudly reports its rapid advances on Ukrainian territory. In fact, it has already reached Kiev. Russian troops have met hardly any resistance in either the eastern or the central part of Ukraine.
Due to the affective charge of these publications it is practically impossible to understand what exactly is happening and what the consequences may be. To better understand the underlying reasons for these tragic events, we must go back to the history of relations between the two countries and look at the ethnic and religious composition of the Ukrainian state. For the sake of brevity, I will schematically mention a few salient milestones.
Kiev, the mother of Russian cities
For the East Slavs, consisting of several branches, Kiev is historically associated with the image of Mother Russia. This expression is first mentioned in The first Slavic chroniclesupposedly compiled in 1113 by Nestor, a monk from Kiev.
In this regard, it is important to mention that this capital is traditionally perceived in Russian culture as a kind of spiritual center. Prince Vladimir, who in 989 chose the Orthodox branch of Christianity and made the historic decision to baptize his subjects, was also from Kiev.
The city remained the center of the Russian lands until the 12th century, when it began to be divided into several independent states.
Bogdan Khmelnitsky: joining Russia
In the early 17th century, the Orthodox population of Ukraine, then the Cossack Brotherhood (present-day central Ukraine), suffered continuous oppression by the Polish-Lithuanian Catholic Commonwealth and Muslim Turkey. Bogdan Khmelnitsky tried to establish alliances with various European rulers, but realized that the only way out was to become part of the Russian state.
The signature of agreement in 1654, the Treaty of Pereyaslav, was the initiative of the Ukrainian side.
Obviously, incorporation into Russia brought considerable cultural influence. The Russian language spread and Moscow and later St. Petersburg became centers of attraction for many talented Ukrainians. It is no coincidence that several world-famous Ukrainian writers, such as Nikolai Gogol, Taras Shevchenko and Vladimir Korolenko, lived part of their lives in Russia and wrote on the Russian language .
The Soviet Union
Ukraine became part of the young state practically from the very beginning and was one of the founders of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era, Ukraine acquired its present geographical configuration.
At the end of this stage, Ukraine constituted a complex multicultural and multiethnic entity. On the one hand, the east and some central areas were predominantly Russian-speaking. Meanwhile, the west was very irregular: Ukrainian-speaking population in eastern Galicia (former Poland, ceded to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, SSR, in 1939), Hungarian-speaking (Zakarpattia region, ceded to the Ukrainian SSR in 1945), Romanian-speaking (Zakarpattia region, ceded to the USSR in 1945 and Bukovina, ceded to the Ukrainian SSR in 1940), as well as Russians, Jews, etc.
In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, then First Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, transferred the Crimean peninsula from the Russian Federation to the Ukrainian SSR through a special decree.
Another facet of this ethnic diversity is religious diversity. Eastern and central Ukraine are predominantly Orthodox and in the western part there are Orthodox, Catholics, Greek Catholics....
This irregular geopolitical composition explains the general trends of the post-Soviet Ukrainian state.
Unfortunately, none of the Ukrainian leaders - be it the pro-American Victor Yushenko, the pro-Russian Vitor Yanukovych, the pro-European Pyotr Poroschenko or the current Vladimir Zelenovsky - has been able to devise a successful strategy that brings together such diverse citizens.
These differences and disagreements have multiplied: Russian-speaking Ukraine began to feel disappointed by the Ukrainianization policy and leaned towards Russia, while Ukrainian-speakers in the West, in particular, Hungarians and Romanians (about 150 000 in each group), shared similar sentiments and formed alliances with their respective countries of origin.
Among the most prominent events showing the great divide is the recent conflict over the role of Moscow and the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine. In recent years, many Russians and Ukrainians have felt that the Orthodox faith is the only remaining connection between these two countries and that it is the reason they maintain cordiality.
However, in 2019, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople granted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the tomos, i.e. the right to full autonomy from the Moscow Patriarchate at subject religious. This fact stoked discord: while some Ukrainian Orthodox Churches joined the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, others refused and remained in the Moscow Patriarchate.
And now what?
It is quite possible that Ukraine will continue to disintegrate. The most likely scenario is that the Ukrainian-speaking part will lean even more towards Poland and Zakarpattie's will seek to move closer respectively to Hungary and Romania. On the other hand, the political crisis of the Ukrainian elites will lead to a changeover of power, which gives us hope for initiating a long-needed dialogue.