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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Russia’s claims ignore the truth that Ukraine has its own identity
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Russia’s claims ignore the truth that Ukraine has its own identity

Interactions with Ukrainians make it clear that Ukraine was its own country even in Soviet times

National Guard servicemen stand guard outside the Ukrainian Parliament during it's sitting in Kyiv on February 23, 2022 (Photo: AFP)Premium
National Guard servicemen stand guard outside the Ukrainian Parliament during it's sitting in Kyiv on February 23, 2022 (Photo: AFP)

When I reached Lviv, the city of many names because of the vagaries of nationalism and realpolitik, there were banners across the town saying simple, indisputable things, such as two plus two equalling four. The Ukrainian writers and poets I met felt rather intensely about it. Two plus two was, of course, four, so why did one need to state it?

It was prosaic, but its intent was poetic. Ukraine was Ukraine, not Russia. That was the message within.

Over the week I spent in Lviv, I understood why it was important to continue to stress what’s true, what’s not, what’s fact and what isn’t, and why lies must be resisted. I was there during the autumn of 2017. Ukrainian writers and journalists I met at the time kept telling me why they feared Russian hegemony. They insisted they were not Russian, and of course they weren’t.

We knew of the Cold war; but that had blurred maps. We knew of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics—do note the ‘s’ at the end of ‘Republic’, a fig leaf connoting equality that was implied but never intended. Growing up in India, as I did, I assumed that the USSR and Russia were the same thing. How foolish of me; Ukraine was distinct, of course it was, and who was I to dispute it? And the collapse and disintegration of what used to be known as the Soviet Union confirmed as much, even if it annoyed putative czars such as Vladimir Putin.

When Boris Yeltsin agreed to the fragmentation of what used to be the USSR, he did the world a favour, even if Putin and other nationalists in Russia seethed in anger. Putin wanted to remake the map, it seems, and that’s exactly what he appears to be trying now.

To keep so many nationalities together as one, and to smother nations which were independent countries in living memory but were swallowed by the Soviet empire, as with the Baltic Republics—Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia—at the end of World War II because the West was too exhausted not to comply with Joseph Stalin’s grand ambitions, was one thing. But to accept it as a fait accompli was not. Travel across the former Soviet republics, and you will find that other than those seeking to curry favour with Putin and his accomplices, nobody wants to get back to Soviet days. Nobody, not even the Beatles, wants to “get back" to the USSR. We do know how lucky we are.

When I was in Lviv in 2017, I not only met Ukrainian writers who were intent on asserting their individuality and independence, I also learned what it meant to live in the shadow of a large country that could smother your sovereignty in a flash. Who but an accountant would say ‘it depends’ when asked what two and two add up to? Who would say, with Orwellian certainty, that war was peace, freedom was slavery and ignorance strength? But Ukrainians, attacked constantly through cyberwarfare, needed to be reminded of the truth. They were Ukrainians. Maps changed, not because they wanted them to, but because stronger powers decreed so. But, one day, they would overcome.

The Ukrainians I met wanted certainty. They wanted clarity. Those conversations took me back to my time as a graduate student in America during the mid-80s. I remember asking a classmate if he was Russian when he said he was Ukrainian, but he angrily said he was Ukrainian, though he was a Canadian citizen, and he told me why Ukraine was not Russia. That was a chastening lesson for me. Never assume nationalities, nor political boundaries, and never think that big powers can dictate what ought to be a national boundary.

Putin’s speech this week made it clear he did not like the shrinking of Russia, even if it is the largest country in the world. He apparently wants to go back to a time when Russian nationalism ruled over other nationalities without their consent, and wants the world as it existed between 1945-1991, when the ‘West’ dealt with the ‘USSR’. But that USSR no longer exists. Former Soviet Republics are now independent and unwilling to rejoin a Moscow-led ‘bloc’. Former Warsaw Pact nations are now in Nato. This may upset Putin, but the world should not indulge him.

This is not to suggest that Ukrainian culture is pristine. A bar we visited one night was intended to ridicule Ukrainian anti-semitism, but came close to being anti-semitic itself in requiring patrons to haggle over the price of a bottle of beer (Jews love to bargain, went the stereotype). It was a sad night, enlivened only by the conversations that followed elsewhere: with Paul Auster, Larry Siems, Ganesh Devy and Madeleine Thien, with whom we discussed literature. But Ukraine deserves to remain as Ukraine.

We were in Lviv, the city which was home to Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who gave us the language, the vocabulary and the meaning of confronting evil. My good friend Philippe Sands wrote about these two individuals in his magnificent book, East West Street, which not only took us to the geographic space they inhabited, but also to the intellectual climate they were part of. For Lemkin helped us define what ‘genocide’ meant and Lauterpacht helped the world make sense of crimes against humanity.

Those are not terms that realpolitik likes. Two men from Lviv helped us understand evil; the world must not let Ukraine down.
 

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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Published: 23 Feb 2022, 10:41 PM IST
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