Lost in Transition: Struggles over Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine and Belarus

15. 3. 2017

The year 1989, marked by the fall of the communist regimes in East Central Europe, has meanwhile become a new lieu de mémoire. But it does not work for the whole of Eastern Europe.

In Ukraine and Belarus, as in other former Soviet republics, it was only in 1991 that the end of communist rule finally arrived hand in hand with national independence. This delay is not just a matter of the commemorative calendar. Being part of the same chain reaction, political changes in Ukraine and Belarus differed from the “Velvet Revolutions” in East Central Europe at least in one crucial point: they were not a home-grown phenomenon, but rather a result of the collapse of the imperial center.

With the exception of Western Ukraine, there was no mass opposition movement in these countries and the end of the communist rule brought no change of the ruling elites. Hopes for democracy, freedom and prosperity soon drowned in a wave of Soviet nostalgia. Even if the declaration of state independence in 1991 entered the official calendars, the myth of a national revolution that would be comparable to the “Velvet Revolutions” in East Central Europe is largely lacking. Moreover, in Belarus the Lukashenka regime is stressing its continuity with the Soviet era, while in Ukraine the “national democratic” opposition to president Yanukovych denies the post-Soviet Ukrainian state any national character, as it is allegedly captured by pro-Russian oligarchs and the former communist nomenclatura.

Divided Societies

That Ukraine is divided into East and West has become a commonplace knowledge to everybody who reads newspapers. Indeed, the religious and cultural peculiarities, the heritage of the Russian and Habsburg empires, the different mass experiences of World War II and other events of the 20th century are reflected in the political attitudes and electoral preferences of the Ukrainians in the respective regions. The discourse of “two Ukraines” (Mykola Riabchuk), so popular among Ukrainian cultural elites, reflects and at the same time perpetuates this division opposing the pro-European, national-minded West and the pro-Russian, denationalized, still- Soviet East. This cultural and political cleavage is often essentialized as a clash of two different civilizations in one country. Although “East and West together!” was one of the slogans of the Orange Revolution, it unfortunately strengthened the discourse of “two Ukraines” and further polarized the Ukrainian society. Playing “West” against “East,” “Galicia” against “Donbas”—and vice versa—has become a universal electoral strategy in absence of new ideas and political projects. Frustrated by Yanukovych’s politics, even prominent Ukrainian intellectuals do not hesitate to speak about a “civilized divorce” as the best solution for the divided country.

At first glance Belarus, united by the authoritarian hold of Lukashenka, seems to be rather different in this respect. Rather than being a divided nation, Belarus appears as a “denationalized nation” (David Marples): the weakness of the Belarusian national self-awareness is usually seen as the main reason for the failure of democratization in the 1990s. However, according to Belorusian scholar Nelly Bekus post-Soviet Belarus is not about failed nation building but about the ambiguities of the Belarusian national identity. In her recent book, Bekus focuses on the ongoing “struggle over identity” between the authoritarian state and the marginalized political opposition. She demonstrates how the different concepts and visions of Belarusianness, promoted by the official authorities and represented by the political and intellectual opposition, compete for the souls and minds of the Belarusians. This competition is by no means fair, however: The state tries to monopolize the public sphere and denies the opposition the very right to use the word “Belarusian”; in turn, the marginalized opposition considers the current political regime not only anti-democratic but also anti-national. The opposing sides do not seek dialogue and use different national symbols, historical narratives and systems of cultural references. And as opinion polls show, at least half of the population supports nation building a la Lukashenka and has already internalized the symbols and narratives of official “Belarusianness.” The “de-nationalized nation” appears rather as a divided nation, in some ways similar to Ukraine. From the Ukrainian perspective, this diagnosis does not leave much hope for a happy end to the Belarusian identity troubles even after the collapse of the authoritarian regime.

Upsurge in Memory

In the late 1980s the “right to memory” claimed by writers, journalists and public activists undermined the ideological monopoly of the Soviet regime. But the society’s hunger for truth about the recent past did not transform into a public demand for historical justice. In Belarus, some kind of selective amnesia has been imposed by the Lukashenka’s regime, which builds on symbols and narratives of Soviet Belarussia. Moreover, some dubious memorial projects are officially supported in Belarus. One of them is the reconstruction of the so-called “Stalin line,” a fortification line that had been built before WWII and is now reconstructed and turned into an amusement park. Lukashenka is still drawing on the Soviet myth of Belarus as a “partisan republic,” which heroically resisted Nazi occupation, but today even an autocratic regime does not possess an ideological monopoly. The alternative narrative, supported by the Belarusian oppositional intellectuals, uses the language of postcolonialiy and presents the nation as a victim of both Hitler and Stalin.

In Ukraine, the narrative of collective victimhood has meanwhile become the mainstream. Recent opinion polls show that more than half of the population considers the famine of 1933–34 a genocide of the Ukrainian nation deliberately organized by the Bolshevik regime in Moscow. At the same time, the notion of the famine as genocide is denied by the ruling Party of Regions, and still not popular in the East and South of the country. Even more controversial is the new heroic narrative of the OUN-UPA, which presents the Ukrainian nationalist underground and anti- Soviet armed resistance as the only legitimate national heroes. This narrative is eagerly instrumentalized by the right wing nationalists of the “Svoboda” party, which is meanwhile represented in the Ukrainian parliament. Banners with the portrait of Stepan Bandera, the icon of Ukrainian nationalism, and the red-black flags of the UPA can be often seen on the tribunes of football stadiums along with neo-Nazi and extremist symbols. On the other extreme of the political spectrum, portraits of Josef Stalin are used in public by Communists and Soviet war veterans, sometimes also during official commemorations.

A Borderland Identity

Belarus and Ukraine, however in different ways, demonstrate the limits of the concept of “post-communist transition.” After more than twenty years of reforms, they have not arrived at the final destination—Western-style liberal democracy, the rule of law and well functioning market institutions. It has become increasingly difficult to speak about these countries as “post-Soviet” and “transitional”: The transition seems to be over, but it has ended in the nowhere land and the reasons for this failure cannot be reduced to Soviet heritage only. Instead of temporal categories of transition, we are inclined now to use spatial ones, such as marginality, periphery or borderlands.

In Ukraine, the “borderlands” discourse is omnipresent, and it is easy to see why. Most territories of contemporary Ukraine belonged over centuries to the historical borderlands of Poland, the Muscovite state, the Russian and the Ottoman Empires; moreover, the very term “borderlands” actually constitutes the name of the country. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union independent Ukraine found itself in the borderlands again—this time between the enlarged EU and post-Soviet Russia. After the hopes connected to the Orange Revolution had faded away, it became clear that Ukraine had failed to escape its geopolitical fate and will not join the EU and even NATO in the midterm future. A part of the Ukrainian society and the political class perceives this situation as a geopolitical marginalization, an exclusion or even isolation from Europe, which might result in an increasing political and economic dependency on Russia. Moreover, the lack of consensus on such issues as language and history exposes Ukraine to Russian cultural influences: its unfinished nation building perpetuates the country’s “borderlands” status. These tendencies are experienced and perceived differently in the different parts of Ukraine: while in the West the feeling of marginality is related to the failed EU membership aspirations and the new Schengen border, in the East it is caused by the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

At the same time, re-imagined in post-colonial terms the concept of “borderlands” turns emancipatory and even affirmative. Polish sociologist Tomasz Zarycki pointed to the fact that the new paradigm of “borderlands” so popular today in cultural studies tends to ignore power relations and the centre-periphery hierarchy and that the borderlands are idealized as a free space, where traditions of various cultures meet and subjects have freedom to choose their identity. Even more so, conceptualizing a region in terms of borderlands, ascribing it multiculturalism, diversity and hybridism often leads to its exotization and orientalization. This discourse plays a compensatory role, as it promises symbolic and moral advantages in compensation for geographic and economic marginality. A Belarus reinvented as “borderlands” by local intellectuals such as Vladimir Abushenko and Igar Babkov evades strict definitions imposed from outside, be it from the West or from Russia. The “borderlands” discourse represents a new politics of identity, alternative to traditional nation building which seems to have failed in Belarus.

A European Future?

While I am finishing this article, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are rallying in the center of Kyiv and in other cities protesting against the government’s decision to suspend the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU. The protests increasingly turn against the corrupted government and a president safeguarding the interests of his family and a few oligarchs. At the moment, the European idea seems to represent a real alternative to the Ukrainian society which is frustrated, demotivated and divided by the failure of the Orange Revolution. For the first time in Ukrainian history, EU flags dominate square and streets along with the national blue-yellow flags. It seems that both the Ukrainian government and the EU politicians have been surprised by such an outbreak of the pro-European feelings.

In the last years, Lukashenka’s anti-Westernism and Yanukovych’s manipulative oscillation between the EU and Russia gave little hope that the political elites in Belarus and Ukraine will embrace European values. It seemed that the EU’s transformative power, which worked so well in East Central Europe, has come to its limits in the “Eastern neighborhood.” However, the current events in Ukraine show that the European integration can become a mobilizing or even a consolidating idea and that society and especially the younger generation can exercise significant pressure on the corrupted elites forcing them to democratic changes. If this pro-European enthusiasm in Ukraine is simply situational or if it testifies some deeper societal shifts is still an open question.

Tatiana Zhurzhenko

Tatiana Zhurzhenko is a political scientist at the University of Vienna and currently a Research Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki. Her most recent book is Borderlands into Bordered Lands: Geopolitics of Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine, Stuttgart 2010.

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