By Walter Derzko
Political scientist and Ukraine-watcher Anne Applebaum recently expressed her view of what’s wrong with Ukraine and Ukrainians. “Nationalism is exactly what Ukraine needs” she proclaims. But reluctantly she concludes that this is what Ukraine sadly lacks: “The result can be seen right now in Eastern Ukraine” says Applebaum. She states: “For this—Donetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk—is what a land without nationalism actually looks like: corrupt, anarchic, full of rent-a-mobs and mercenaries. For the most part, the men in balaclavas who have assaulted Ukrainian state institutions under the leadership of Russian commandos are not nationalists; they are people who will do the bidding of whichever political force pays the best or promises the most. And although they are a small minority, the majority does not oppose them. On the contrary, the majority is watching the battle passively and seems prepared to take whichever government they get. These are people who live where they do by accident, whose parents or grandparents arrived by the whim of a Soviet bureaucrat, who have no attachment to any nation or any state at all.”
Here is where we part company. In part, I disagree with her blanket conclusion that Ukrainians even in the east feel “stateless”, based on what I saw and heard in Kyiv, Lviv and Kharkiv in December 2013. I contend that a new nationalism or patriotism is now sprouting, not just in the traditional Western cradle of Ukrainian loyalty –in Lviv and Ternopil but in Kyiv and slowly spreading into the east, thanks largely to Putin’s aggression in the past six months.
The Heavenly Hundred or “Nebesna Sotnyja” who gave their lives for Ukraine and the thousands that were injured or who disappeared off Maidan are no doubt true patriots, who made the ultimate sacrifice and will never be forgotten by this and future generations.
I even had to change some of my own convictions and stereotypes about Eastern Ukraine based on my trip from Kyiv to Kharkiv on the Sunday afternoon express train on Dec 1, 2013, two days after Berkut riot police viciously beat scores of students on Maidan. Most of the young people in our train car–I’d say about 80% spoke Ukrainian and not Russian to each other. I was pleasantly surprised.
A sign of a growing national backbone was expressed by His Beatitude, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk, when he spoke at a press conference in Toronto recently with community leaders and the media. He recounted a story that many people in Canada may not be aware of. The newly constructed Sobor or Cathedral of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church on the Left bank of Kyiv, right from the first week opened its doors and became a daily sanctuary to hundreds of Ukrainians from Maidan, who needed a meal, shelter from the cold and a place to sleep. “Tytushky” or hired thugs financed by Yanukovych were ready to attack the church to disrupt this holy Maidan sanctuary and damage the church possibly killing the occupants. But church neighbours got wind of this and decided to voluntarily surround the church and protect this building and the people inside from these hired bandits. These good neighbors, many of whom were not even parishioners, claims Patriarch Sviatoslav, felt that this church was part of their local community and needed protection. Is this simply an example of an ordinary neighborhood watch, God’s protective hand or a sign of growing patriotism and a national backbone?
When it comes to the east and south the situation becomes more complex. First we must tackle a persistent myth proposed by Vladimir Putin and Serhij Lavrov that Ukraine needs federalization and more autonomy from Kyiv for the East. More autonomy for Donetsk is totally unfounded say two former Ukrainian presidents –Kravchuk and Kuchma: Kyiv never ruled Donetsk. It was always controlled and ruled by Ukraine’s richest oligarch Renat Akhmetov, the “hospodar” or the host, master or ruler of Donetsk, as he is called.
In his televised speech last week, Akhmetov said: “People are tired of living in fear and terror. They are tired of going out to streets and coming under gunfire. There are people walking around with guns and grenade launchers. Cities are witnessing banditry and looting. Is this a peaceful life? Is this a strong economy? No! I will not let Donbas be destroyed. I was born and I am living here. That is why I am calling on everyone to unite in our fight: for Donbas without weapons! for Donbas without masks! for Donbas with a peaceful sky above! Today representatives of the so-called DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic-now officially a terrorist organization) seized the railway. They didn’t just stop the railway, they stopped the heart of Donbas because the industry of Donbas will die without the railway. It means that Donbas, our region of hard-working people, will die!”
Whether this is simply selfish, business self-preservation from the Donbas “hospodar” or signs of growing Ukrainian nationalism in the East, it’s hard to tell so far. Historians will have to make this call, but I feel we are at a turning point. Thankfully, the situation before the presidential elections is moving in the right direction.
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