The “Russian threat” – the notion which would have sounded totally oxymoronic to a Ukrainian only a few weeks ago – is now the big headline in world news.
While the Kremlin invents "enemies" in the best traditions of the Soviet times, Ukrainians have to deal with an enemy that is more than real. Provocations leading to a military invasion by Russian troops and an increasing exploitation of the energy dependency for destabilizing the situation in Ukraine are constantly taking place.
Implanting the image of the enemy works very effectively in the country dealing with losses and dramatic changes, public pain and internal struggle, especially since the ground for cultivating the image of the enemy is more than favourable. The idea of the Russian state as a protector and the image of the “true” and patriotic Ukrainians as violent nationalists has many reasons to be persistent.
Many Ukrainian citizens living in Eastern Ukraine have close family ties in Russia – extended families, close relatives, friends. This makes perceptions of events much more complicated – once one has a strong personal attachment, it is very difficult to see the picture objectively, in a detached way.
Furthermore, Eastern Ukrainians were in fact forced to think that Viktor Yanukovych was their representative, as they simply had no alternative. How? Through identification of political parties with certain regions of Ukraine and constant contrasting of these regions based on conflict between their political representatives. What was the alternative to Yanukovych for Eastern Ukrainians? Viktor Yushchenko`s party almost openly claimed that the Eastern regions of Ukraine are populated by bandits.
So, Ukrainians of Eastern regions HAD to identify themselves with the party and political force that not only refuted their image as that of bandits, but made them feel empowered in a way. Has Viktor Yanukovych's presidency truly empowered the people of the Ukrainian East? Hardly. Nevertheless, under the influence of anti-Maidan propaganda, these people now forget that by the time Yanukovych was ousted, they had already been bitterly disappointed with what he had done and even more importantly – had not done.
Stereotypes also come into play. There is still an amazingly die-hard stereotype of people from Western Ukraine as extreme nationalists, aggressive and ready to attack any Russian-speaking creature.
Interestingly, anyone from Eastern Ukraine who visits Lviv, the key outpost of Western Ukraine, is amazed and astonished by the Lviv hospitality, as well as by the general kindness and openness of Western Ukrainians.
Why then do such stereotypes and prejudices still persist? Many of them truly have historical basis and wounds, which, if touched, bleed painfully. But these wounds were made deeper exactly because Ukraine was constantly a victim of the influence and power of stronger countries and empires. Ukraine was unable to get itself together in the face of common danger. Hoping to win something better, believing in someone else's capability in making things better, Ukraine kept on losing itself together with its sovereignty. Now these wounds of the past are being again exploited and those stereotypes now help bring Ukraine down again. Do Eastern Ukrainians think Russia and Putin will manage everything better? Thinking like this, Ukrainians are falling in the same trap that once brought the Cossacks and Bohdan Khmelnytskyi down, who believed that Moscovia will manage everything better with Ukrainians being too weak to manage themselves; the same trap that allowed Bolsheviks to take over Ukraine as a result of the Russian Revolution and Civil War of 1917-1921. One just needs to open a textbook in history – as simple as that – to see how many times Ukraine stumbled against itself and, not knowing what to do, fell into the hands of the enemy at the gates.
THE LANGUAGE ISSUE
There is also the language question, which upon closer examination looks like self-deception.
As if the situation with the language has really changed when Viktor Yanukovych had been elected the President! Yes, the regional status of the Russian language was proclaimed, yes, language policies benevolent to Russian language, were part of his pre-election campaign, but what more? With Yanukovych the President, films in cinemas were still dubbed in Ukrainian, diploma works at universities were still written and defended in Ukrainian, because even Yanukovych understood that Ukrainian language is the language of the Ukrainian state. Why are the Eastern Ukrainians alarmed? The panic created was a reply to a potential danger, rather than real one.
And last but not least – conspiracy theories. Somehow, conspiracy theories are extremely popular in Russia. Exemplified by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in the Russian Empire at the very beginning of the 20th or to create an outside and basically unreachable enemy, it looks like it is mainly employed for the purpose of putting one's responsibility on someone else's shoulders. The revolution of 1917 can thus be explained by the British conspiracy (Britain being the Russian empire's main rival in the Middle East) or rather, Jewish conspiracy – with Bolsheviks being all Jews. Now, the events of the Maidan are shown as the conspiracy of the West against Russia. Of course, it is difficult to admit the responsibility for the eruption of the mounting tensions, because we have been unable to achieve any considerable progress in the past decades – it is easier to say that someone wanted revolutionary Ukraine to destabilize Russia.
Will all this being said, I refuse to believe that people in Eastern Ukraine are somehow qualitatively different from Ukrainians in the rest of the country. There are always those which do not care and those which are ready to even risk their lives to achieve what they see as the right thing, no matter which region they are from. And I hope that the blindfold will fall for those Ukrainians who refuse to see how Ukraine needs its citizens now – especially from Eastern Ukraine – to drive the enemy out and to be able to stand against the enemy at its gates.