The crisis in Ukraine has been endlessly interpreted in ethnic, linguistic and geographic terms. But for all the undeniable rifts between the country’s pro-EU West and the industrial, Russian-speaking South and East, this is at bottom a conflict over the unresolved legacy and meaning of the Soviet Union, masterfully exploited by Russia for its own purposes.
While Western powers consistently failed to understand or even acknowledge the extent of Soviet nostalgia among ordinary people throughout the former USSR, it has not escaped Russian president Vladimir Putin. Taking over the Soviet brand, he has spent the last decade positioning Russia under his leadership as the reincarnation of the old superpower. By reintroducing the Soviet national anthem and famously declaring the fall of the USSR the world’s largest geopolitical catastrophe, Putin has exploited people’s emotional attachment to Soviet symbols in order to legitimate his own corrupt and authoritarian agenda.
The invasion of the Crimea was just the latest such Trojan horse: a cynical case of aggression sold not as Russian expansionism but the restoration of the Soviet Union of collective memory: a return to the “good old days” when most Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians lived in harmony in a strong, orderly and prosperous superpower of which they could be proud.
In this, Putin knew that he could count on the support of sizeable numbers of both Ukrainians and Russians. As recently as last summer, a Gallup poll found that 56 per cent of Ukrainians and 55 per cent of Russians believed that the breakup of the Soviet Union did “more harm than good”. Fewer than a quarter of Russian and a fifth of Ukrainian respondents felt otherwise.
Cannily, Moscow has couched the invasion in the same vocabulary of fraternal assistance that the USSR deployed in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, while Russian sympathisers in Sevastopol have been photographed waving Soviet naval flags and throwing around accusations of fascism and Western aggression.
Feelings about the USSR have been as strong a predictor of which side of the conflict Ukrainians take as their linguistic and geographical profiles. Like almost every country in Eastern Europe, Ukraine remains divided between those who celebrate and those who mourn the demise of the USSR. But unlike in other Eastern European countries, where the biggest predictor of attitudes to the USSR is age, in Ukraine it is equally strongly correlated with geography.
The Western part of the country that produced the most vociferously pro-Western and anti-Russian citizens was cleaved from Poland in the aftermath of the Second World War and attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic formed three decades earlier. After the death of Stalin, the flowering of ideas under Khrushchev followed by the relative affluence of the Brezhnev years helped to temper the memories of the violence of collectivisation and Red Terror of the 1920s and 30s. But in Western Ukraine, the purges of nationalist freedom fighters and violent break-up of smallholdings and family businesses that had survived in pre-Communist Poland only began in the late 1940s and continued well into the 1970s.
As a result, while the majority of Russians and Eastern Ukrainians regard the post-war Soviet years as a time of peace, stability and rising living standards, there are still people alive in Western Ukraine who remember very clearly the kind of Soviet brutality that, elsewhere in the USSR, had ended with the death of Stalin; who remember their relatives defending family land and businesses against Soviet requisitioning.
Their historical memory of Communism is deeply at odds with that of the rest of Ukraine and has more in common with the bitter experience of other more recent additions such as the Baltic states. It’s no surprise that pro-EU protesters have been tearing down statues of Lenin that had peacefully outlived the fall of the Soviet Union by a quarter century while their opponents have been organising to defend the remaining ones.
Influenced by a vocal and sizeable Ukrainian diaspora made up largely of anti-Soviet refugees, Western governments fatally underestimated the pain felt by so many Ukrainians at the collapse of the USSR. It is the West's very tone-deafness to post-Communist suffering that allowed Putin to so successfully use Soviet nostalgia as a cover for aggression.
Promised a European panacea by the West and the return to a mythical Soviet past by Russia, Ukraine is a country torn between two hopeless utopias, neither of which are capable of delivering the prosperity and stability its people crave and deserve.
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