Coffee break conversations with Professor Jeremy Smith

“Red nations struggle between East, West and global”

By Tiina Soininen

You have just published a book called Red Nations: the nationalities experience in and after the USSR and, as it turned out, the historical understanding that it provides us with became extremely important in the face of the current events in Ukraine. How would you see the situation in Ukraine in the light of history?

"There is a geographical divide in Ukraine, going back at least to 1945 when the western lands largely populated by Ukrainians but previously ruled by Poland and Romania were transferred to the Soviet Union. Crimea was part of the Russian republic inside the Soviet Union up until 1954, when it was transferred to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Thus these three parts of Ukraine had very different experiences of the inter-War years, with different beliefs and values as a result."

"But there are more complex divisions in Ukraine – the Western part of Ukraine which has consistently voted for more pro-European politicians is much bigger than just the part that was added in 1945. As well as the geographical position, this part of Ukraine has had less industry and more rural positions, as well as being more closely associated with Ukrainian national intellectual life. During World War Two, during the Russian Civil War, going even further back in history we can see all kinds of political, ideological, social, as well as ethnic divisions."

"Its position between East and West has made for these positions becoming more polarised and harder to achieve reconciliation than might be the case in other similar countries."

How are these latest events linked to nationalism?

"Actually, the nationalization project that we understand as taking place when particular societies aim at recognizing themselves as nations (flags, languages, legends) took place in western Europe in the 19th century, but in most post- Soviet States it was happening later, during the 20th century. Especially in the 1920s the Soviet states set up many of what are nowadays known as nations, like Uzbekistan. There was no real notion of Uzbekistan as a nation or even a language before the Soviet policy created one, but people regarded themselves as tribe members or as Muslims."

"The Soviet policy encouraged the idea of nationhood in order to develop socialist countries which then would be the units for providing education in different languages, and a functioning national economy and, thus, they would create the conditions where a socialist ideology could flourish. The central authorities put some nationally known and influential leaders in charge and, in many ways, allowed nationalistic ideas to grow. In effect it was the practicalities of ordering and ruling which were the driving forces of nationalism.

However, these policies were changing. Especially after Stalin died, in 1953, the nationalists were maybe starting to take up too much nationalist ideas and the Soviet republics started to build up their own national politics. This then turned into more restricted nationalisms and strict guidance by the central power of the Soviet state."

So, what does this mean in the case of Ukraine?

"Ukraine was different from the other Soviet republics in that it was so important to the overall Soviet economy, and it had such a large population of Russians as well as Ukrainians. So the policies of nation-building were also pursued in Ukraine in the 1920s and again from the 1950s to 1972, but this was more effective around Kiev and in the West of the republic, while the Eastern part was developing more industry and attracting more Russian workers. So after the end of the Soviet Union Ukrainian nationalism and culture was quite strong, but it also divided the country. Crimea was never really integrated into this system and most of its population did not feel attached to Ukrainian identity and culture, and we are seeing the results of this today."

These events in Ukraine seem to have exploded after Yanukovich turned down the negotiations with the European Union for neighborhood status. Is it then a European state that the Ukrainians want to be? Or what kind of European nation might they be? What is actually Europe now?

"You may think of Europe as a set of institutions, like the European Union, in which the Ukrainians wanted to join and which then resulted in the recent happenings. But, I think and the Ukrainians also argue this them selves, that on the other hand, there are European values that somehow are seen to be differing from the Eastern values. The Ukrainians are saying that they want to maintain their European values. However, there are profoundly different understandings about the values – for example the value of democracy. For the Eastern world it is very much linked with collective well-being whereas in the West we tend to put emphasis on individual freedom. Or when it comes to the very notion of the national, primordial conceptions  are commonplace in the East."

What does it mean?

"It is a conception that nations are by nature differing from each other and they can not somehow mix together or change in character. They need to have their own regional areas to live in and also, ethnicity often is linked with citizenship. This mixing of institutions and values is then problematic."

"You can see both with Yanukovich and even more so with the new leaders in Kiev, the notion that the people of Ukraine face a choice between the East and the West. This has been encouraged by both the European Union and Russia, which have forced a choice to be made between the European Union and the Eurasian Customs Union. Probably it is too late now to talk about Russia and the EU getting together and working out some system which would be in the best interests of Ukraine and would allow it to trade in both directions, but that should have happened in the past. Ukraine has too many traditions, too great a mixture of values to be tied into any international institutions which insists on uniformity of values. It is best to accept that Ukraine is never going to be a country speaking with one voice and to find a way of managing difference rather than trying to achieve uniformity. This has never worked in the past for Ukraine, and we can see from recent events that it will not work in the present or the near future."

For more knowledge

Professor Jeremy Smith: Red nations: the nationalities experience in and after the USSR. Cambridge; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2013.

JeremySmith is Professor  in University of Eastern Finland, Karelian Institute.  He is an expert of Soviet Union and national development of the non-Russian peoples.

Coffee break conversations’ is a series introduces research done in the Karelian Institute.

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