Monday, December 29, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘Ukraine is the Poland of the 21st Century,’ Portnikov Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, December 28 – Just as Poles were able to exploit the collapse of the Russian state a century ago to become independent countries and part of Europe, so too now Ukraine has the chance to exploit another round of the collapse of the Russian imperial project and become “the Poland of the 21st century,” according to Vitaly Portnikov.


            “Ukraine must use this chance,” one purchased in blood “and forever become part of the European world,” the commentator says; but if it is to do so, Ukrainians must understand the full implications of three things, none of which is likely to be entirely pleasant for many of them (


            First, they must recognize that “the main challenges of 2014” despite the dizzying events of the last months “not only have not been overcome but on the contrary are becoming the main content of [Ukrainian] life and the life of the world surrounding us” for the coming year and possibly years.


            Second, they must understand that they now find themselves in a situation much as the Poles and Finns did a century ago when the Russian Empire experienced a failed revolution, a patriotic boom, a collapse into despair in the course of a war, and a revolution that allowed some but now all of its parts to escape.


            And third, and most important, Ukrainians must face the fact that “now everything depends on us and only on us. The occupiers may commit diversions, think up new adventures, and impose dangerous deals but all this in no way will be able to change either our choice or our future.”


            As amazing as the events of 2014 have been, Portnikov argues, it seems destined to become “only a shocking prelude to real changes” in 2015 or even later given the ways in which Ukraine “has become the generator of a cycle of imperial modernization which the Russian Empire experienced already a century ago.”


             Ukrainians should remember that “the first clear push to changes in Russia then was the 1905 revolution, whose participants demanded the democratization of the country” and whose energy derived in the first instance from the non-Russian borderlands and only later the Russian provinces, just as appears to be the case in the Russian Federation today.


            “The increasingly harsh policies of the [Russian] regime in both cases led to the intensification of the inadequateness of the first person [in the state], the artificial selection of idiots and fools in power, and a complete lack of understanding by them of the logic of the development of economic and political processes in the contemporary world.”


            Ukraine’s Maidan and the ensuing events only add to these parallels, Portnikov says. In many ways, they can be “compared with the shooting” of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarayevo in 1914.  Both then and now, Russia wanted the course of events that followed “considering that this untied its hands,” a position that was idiotic but reflected that in both it was made by idiots.


            “The single chance for preserving the Russian regime in 1914,” Portnikov argues, required that the regime engage in economic reforms “and careful democratization. But Petersburg wanted to take part in a war for the re-division of the world” even though it had no understanding of its lack of capacity to do so successfully.


            As Portnikov says, “at the end of 1914, patriotism and enthusiasm in the Russian Empire were at the highest pitch, the year seemed a turning point, and the coming year victorious and happy.” But then these feelings dissipated in disappointment. Now, at the end of 2014, Russian emotions have been on an even more rapid rollercoaster ride up and then down.


            At the end of this year, he continues, “Russia society is both demoralized and confused, but the chief disappointments, the nightmares of 1915-1916 are still ahead” for them. And only the future will tell whether this will be a democratic February or a tragic October, “the disintegration of Russia and civil war” and exactly when these events will happen.


            “What does this mean for Ukraine?” Portnikov asks rhetorically. Before the Maidan, Ukraine “remained part of the empire in the form of an economic protectorate with an imitation of an independent state.” But now “the fate of ‘the Kingdom of Poland or ‘the Grand Duchy of Finland’ awaits us” if Ukrainians use “the collapse of the metropolitan center and forever become part of the European world.”


            Ukrainians “will enter the world without Russia. And next year, this will be finally understood even by the Russians themselves.” That is “the main result of 2014.”


            But history isn’t ending  with the last days of this year, Portnikov says, and just as with Poland after 1917, Ukrainian faces a future filled “with all the ensuring consequences” of its decision. “Now,” the commentator says, “everything depends on us and only on us.”


If Ukraine makes its Western choice stick, he suggests, in a few years, people will ask “who was Lenin?” rather than conclude that his statues must come down.


            But if Ukraine doesn’t make its decision to join Europe stick, then Ukrainians will remain hanging “between the civilized world and the disintegrating pseudo-empire, having neither the will to go forward nor the desire to go back to the past.”




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