Saturday, September 21, 2019

‘In Ukraine, a Putin is Impossible,’ Gritsak Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 17 – The increasing authoritarianism of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky have led some to conclude that he or his successor might become a ruler something like Vladimir Putin is in Russia (

            But Jaroslav Gritsak, a historian at the Ukrainian Catholic University, dismisses such suggestions. Whenever he is asked “how Ukraine differs from Russia,” the professor writes, he “always responds that in Ukraine, a Putin is impossible” (

That isn’t because Ukrainian leaders lack authoritarian inclinations – both Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovich displayed them – but rather because when they went too far in the eyes of the Ukrainian people, their time in office was ended by mass protests often identified as Maidans.

            The reasons for this popular resistance lie in history, not that of the last 30 years or even the last 100 but deeper into the Ukrainian past and into the past of Catholic Europe going back nearly a millennium, Gritsak says, to the events of 1077 when Henry IV humbled himself before the pope to have his excommunication lifted in an event known since as “going to Canossa.” 

That event, the historian continues, “lay down the foundations of the division of religious and secular power. But wherever two contest, a third appears. The third involved institutions with independent resources and independent power: self-administrating cities, autonomous universities, worker artels, and church brotherhoods.”

            In sum, all that today “we call ‘civil society.” 

            No other tradition besides that of old Europe allowed for such things, and “the idea that a Muscovite tsar, a Byzantine or an Ottoman emperor could seek such atonement borders on the absurd,” the Ukrainian historian says.

            “Despite the fact that Kievan princes adopted the Christianity of Byzantium and not Rome, Rus up to the Mongol conquest remained a full part of Europe,” Gritsak says. That is, “if under Europe one understands not what it is now but what it was then, a medieval Christian community.”

            That is clearly shown in the geography of princely marriages, three quarters of which involved the Holy Roman Empire and neighboring Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary, and “least of all Byzantium.” 

            “There were many reasons why the roads of Catholic and Orthodox Europe diverged, but one of the primary ones was that in the struggle for power it was the Muscovite stardom that came out on top, having destroyed European outposts like Novgorod and united under its rule Kyiv.

            “The political traditions of the Muscovite stardom and later of the Russian Empire and the USSR were far from the idea of the division of powers,” Gritsak says. “On the contrary, the power of any ruler be he a Muscovite tsar, a Russian emperor or a general secretary of the communist party, was autocratic.” 

And from this it follows, he continues, that “the great geopolitical catastrophe was not the collapse of the USSR as Putin thinks. For our region, the catastrophe was the victory of the Muscovite tsardom without which Putin would hardly be possible in Russia now.”

“Ukrainian and Russian historians dispute whose state was Rus, Ukraine’s or Russia’s. But there is just as little sense in this as in discussing whether the Holy Roman Empire and its predecessor, the empire of Charlemagne, was German or French.” In fact, this distracts attention from “the main difference” between Ukraine and Russia today.

That difference is not about language or religion, but rather “in a different balance of relations between state and society. And it was formed thanks to the fac that Ukrainian lands continued to preserve their links with Catholic Europe” when thanks to the Mongols and Muscovites, Russians lost theirs.

All the features of medieval Europe – self-governing cities, artel organizations, and church brotherhoods – “were part of the Ukrainian historical tradition,” even at times when the Muscovite state attacked them most horrifically as at the time of collectivization and hunger in 1932-1933.

“The chances of any society to conduct successful reforms depends on the number of institutions fee to live and flourish without the state,” Gritsak argues. “They are becoming ever more numerous and this now is the main worldwide trend. But it doesn’t happen automatically. Much depends on circumstances, including historical ones.”

“In other words,” he concludes, “the chances for success depend on our history, and not only on real history but on how we think about it and what we remember from it in the first instance.”  That history, he says, makes a Putin in Ukraine impossible regardless of what many fear or suggest.

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