Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Real ‘Wedge’ Issue – Ukrainian Regions in the Russian Federation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 9 – Even though Moscow officials feel perfectly free to talk about ethnic Russian communities in other countries and the need to bring them under Russia’s umbrella one way or another, Moscow politicians and commentators are outraged that a Ukrainian official says Kyiv has a legitimate interest in Ukrainian communities inside the borders of Russia.

            Last week, Pavel Zhebrivsky, the head of Ukrainian controlled Donetsk’s oblast civil-military administration, said that Kyiv should seek the return of “’immemorial’” areas now within Russia, including Rostov, Bryansk, Kursk, and Voronezh oblasts and Krasnodar kray because the people there are Ukrainian in mentality and spirit.

            The Russian reaction was quick to follow and had the unintended effect of highlighting the existence of Ukrainian communities in far more parts of the Russian Federation, communities Ukrainians have always called “klins” or “wedges,” thus making this back and forth into far more of a “wedge” issue than Moscow may like.

            The first Russian politician out of the starting gates on this was Sergy Obukhov, a Duma deputy from Kuban. He called for Russian prosecutors to look into Zhebritsky’s remarks and noted that because of his own position, he could not fail to “react to the extremist statements of officials of a neighboring state who continue to say that Kuban is Ukrainian territory.”

            In an article entitled “Ukraine from the Dnepr to the Amur,” Moscow journalist Andrey Ivanov interviews Bogdan Bezpalko, the deputy director of Moscow State University’s Center for Ukrainian and Belarusian Studies about Zhebritsky’s statement. What the scholar said will only add fuel to the fire (

            “The conception of ‘greater Ukraine’ isn’t new,” Bezpalko says. “It was formed already by the first chairman of the Central Rada of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic, Mikhail Grushevsky.”  Its core idea is “so-called ‘ethnicity’” which involves “cultural signs” like language, dress and customs.”

            Zhebrivsky, the Moscow scholar continues, has simply developed notions of Ukrainian historians who confuse such cultural signs with political identity and loyalty.  There were many such people “even in Soviet times,” and they “determined where people who in correspondence with Soviet nationality policy identified as Ukrainians.”

            And from that, Bezpalko says, some of them argued that there where such Ukrainians lived are lands that “immemorially” are Ukrainian – even though these Ukrainians in most cases, he argues, never viewed where they lived as part of Ukraine and were loyal instead to the Russian Empire, the USSR, and now the Russian Federation.

            “In the 1990s,” he continues, “many Ukrainian nationalists pushed such ideas. They published various maps showing Russia as a country which had fallen apart into several states.” They published books and “pseudo-scientific works.”  But in doing so, they forgot that Ukraine had not always been “an indestructible whole.”  

                Bezpalko says he is “surprised” that Zhebrivsky “did not include in the Ukrainian land the Gray Wedge and the Green Wedge,” the first of which is what Ukrainians who live in the Middle Volga call their region and the second is what some call Ukrainian settlements in the Russian Far East.

            The notion that such places could be combined with Ukraine proper is “absolutely unrealistic,” he continues, and any talk about such things is only intended to encourage Ukrainians in Ukraine at what is a difficult time for them.

            Like most Moscow people now, Bezpalko says that “Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians are one large people” and that today “Ukrainian identity has shifted from one based on blood or even culture” to one based on “ideology” alone. You are a Ukrainian if you support Ukraine regardless of your family background; you aren’t if you don’t.

            “Today,” he says, “a struggle for the hearts and minds of people is going on so that they will choose this or that ideology.”  And in that regard, Bezpalko says, Zhebrivsky’s words constitute “a small dollop of danger.”  Ukraine isn’t going to conquer any Russian territory, but such ideas sow “the seeds of doubt” among some.

            That “ideological danger” must be fought, “above all by reviving our common Russian ideology,” one that “in contrast to Ukrainian nationalism,” the Moscow writer says, we base on genuine values and real heroes.” Ukrainians don’t have any and that is something Russia should constantly point out.

            Russians should also point out that Ukrainian culture “has rural roots” and that whatever urban culture there was on the territory of the former Ukrainian SSR had “Russian, German or Polish roots.” Ukrainians refuse to see this and thus “Ukrainianism is like Russophobia” rather than a genuine national identity.

            If one substitutes the word Russian for where Bezpalko uses the word Ukrainian, one can see how quickly his argument and that of the Kremlin collapses – and also how talk about Ukrainians and Ukrainian lands inside the current borders of the Russian Federation really can become a “wedge” issue after all.

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