Russia and Ukraine: Painful Rift With History

The summit in Minsk, which is due to bring together the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, as well as the EU’s commissioner for energy, in the capital of neutral Belarus, has an unhappy “pre-talk” history.

The summit in Minsk, which is due to bring together the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, as well as the EU’s commissioner for energy, in the capital of neutral Belarus, has an unhappy “pre-talk” history. The German chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in Kiev days before he left for Minsk, predicted an unsuccessful outcome for the summit, saying an agreement between Putin and Poroshenko was unlikely. Poroshenko himself also reduced the chance of a positive outcome by calling the ongoing punitive operation in the eastern part of the country “Ukraine’s Patriotic War” at a military parade the day before leaving for Minsk. For Russians, the name of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 against the Nazi Germany is sacred. The use of this sacred name for the indiscriminate, fratricidal killing of Ukrainians and Russians (mostly civilians) in the east of Ukraine is an insult to Russians by Poroshenko. Yet again, the new regime in Kiev has showed its lack of understanding for Ukraine’s and Russia’s common history.

This lack of sensitivity is not limited to the sphere of political declarations. It is reflected in life stories of real people.

"Most of my life I lived in Ukraine. Since as long as I can remember, there have always been tensions between the east and the west of Ukraine. But did I ever expect a war between western Ukrainians and eastern Ukrainians? No. I thought tensions would stay on the level of kitchen talks and verbal bickering at city markets or in commuter trains," says archpriest Andrei Tkachev, a native of Lviv, the hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism.

Just four months ago, Tkachev was the head priest at one of the most visited Orthodox Christian churches in Kiev. But during the Maidan protests he spoke out against the nationalistic enthusiasm, which then was engulfing many Ukrainians, including some residents of Kiev. After the protesters claimed victory on February 21 and the installment of the new regime in Kiev, some Orthodox priests quickly sided with the victors and suggested that the "church should raise itself to the spiritual level of Maidan." Not Tkachev. "I remembered the life stories of many priests who flirted with the revolutionary spirit of 1917 in the Russian empire and who ended up as historic non-entities, forgotten and despised. One of the biggest problems of modern Ukraine is that it does not want to learn from history, which it has shared with Russia for at least 300 years. Many Ukrainians think that this is not THEIR history, that it was forced on them, so one should not learn from it. This is a mistake," says Tkachev, who after the installment of the new regime moved from Kiev to Moscow and now serves in the Church of St. Tatyana, named after the "matron saint" of the 250 year old Moscow State University (MGU) and is located on MGU's premises.

Tkachev says his native tongue is Russian, but he can fluently speak and even officiate in Ukrainian — a common phenomenon among Ukrainians. In fact, almost all educated (and many uneducated) Russians can understand Ukrainian — another language of the East Slav cluster of languages, where Russian and Belarussian also belong. The word “Ukrainian” was seldom used in the Russian empire until 1917. Both Belarusians and Ukrainians were considered Russians — inhabitants of White Russia (future Belarus) and Little or South Russia (future Ukraine). During the Soviet period, the same kind of attitude prevailed. “You and us are the same, therefore you don't exist," as the former president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma put it ironically in his book "Ukraine is not Russia," published in the early 2000s.)

Wasn't it insensitive for the Russians to adhere to the formula "You and us are the same"? Of course it was. But the formula of the new "revolutionary" prime minister of Ukraine, Arseny Yatsenuk, who claims Russia has always been an alien state and is now conducting an "aggressive terrorist war against Ukraine", is much worse than insensitive.

In the view of Segey Sysoyev, a 58 years old native of Zhytomir (Central Ukraine), who also recently moved to Moscow, the attitude of Yatsenuk is not just wrong, it is unproductive. "Denying your own history, trying to start everything from scratch, from "tabula rasa" is very typical of both Ukraine and Russia, during their revolutionary upheavals," says Sysoyev. "The problem is, however, that denial is not a plan, it is an emotion. Various territories of Ukraine were parts of Russia for 350 years. The Soviet gas industry was created in Ukraine in the middle of the twentieth century. So, now when Yatsenuk threatens to cut the transit of Russian natural gas to the EU as a punishment to Moscow, this is a denial of both common sense and common past."

The Maidan revolution in Ukraine was depicted as a pro-European and anti-corruption movement in the Western media. To a certain extent, Maidan was that, but Maidan is a complex phenomenon, anti-Russian and anti-establishment elements co-exist inside it. In fact, anti-corruption actions continue in Kiev and other cities, but now they resemble simple mob riots, with ministries "occupied" and the premises of Russian banks ransacked for "usury". Complex phenomenons require complex treatments: in order to meet Maidan's expectations, the EU had to walk a tight rope, retaining the Russian energy lifeline for Ukraine's economy, while at the same time not disappointing the pro-European enthusiasts among the Ukrainian population by offering European perks such as opening EU markets for Ukrainian products, removing the visa barriers.

Now it appears that the EU and the US simply have no plan for the "new" Ukraine. Ukraine's contracts with Gazprom were canceled after the Ukrainian side refused to pay the debts which even the European Commission recognized that Kiev was due to pay. Russia no longer sells gas to Ukraine, it only pumps into the Ukrainian pipes the gas for the customers inside the EU. Ukraine stopped all contacts between Russia's and Ukraine's military industries, thus destroying millions of businesses inside Ukraine. Prime Minister Yatsenuk and President Poroshenko by series of orders and legislative initiatives (including economic sanctions against the "aggressor") have shut down the Russian market for Ukrainian products. How will Ukraine survive this winter? Where will it get the resources to remodel its industry to European standards? These are the questions which the EU has no answers to.

Right now, the answer from the EU is to put the blame for everything on Russia and Putin and to continue guessing "Putin's strategy" instead of doing something WITH Russia in order to save Ukraine from a disaster.  Kiev’s response to Russia so far has been the bombings of the "separatist" regions, lustration and arrests of people involved in the preparation of unrecognized "independence referendums".

"I don't rejoice when I hear the news about the "victories" of either the Ukrainian troops or the insurgents in the east, I feel terribly when either side announces that it inflicted further losses on its opponent," says archpriest Andrei Tkachev. "I grew up in Lviv, but I studied in Moscow, officiated in Kiev's churches, served in other cities of Ukraine. It is a very varied country with many faces and identities inside it. The right way was to smooth out these differences, but the politicians both inside and outside Ukraine did exactly the opposite exacerbating them. May be, it is a punishment for our sins. For a long time, we just lived too happily in Ukraine."

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Sputnik.

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