While joining the Customs Union would ‘cement’ the country’s communist past, one historian says, Ukraine is not rich enough to ignore basic reforms. From The Ukrainian Week.by Alla Lazareva 2 December 2013
This interview with historian Stanislav Kulchytsky was published in the 19 November issue of The Ukrainian Week. It has been edited for clarity and style.
The uncertainty around the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU generated significant anxiety in Ukrainian political circles. What would happen if Brussels failed to come to an agreement with Kyiv? Would the door to fruitful cooperation with Ukraine’s western neighbors be closed? Would it open to Russian ambitions, by joining the Customs Union?
UW: Quite a few researchers stand by the view that according to its social structure, as well as the logic of its economic and historic development, Ukraine is an authentic European country. Do you agree?
Stanislav Kulchytsky: Geographically, Ukraine is in Europe. Beginning with Arnold Toynbee and ending with Ivan Lysiak-Rudnytsky, not one historian has questioned the fact that it has an intermediary position between East and West. Over the centuries, our land has experienced political influence from both sides. Having said that, the eastern influence was caused by Ukraine becoming part of the Russian Empire, which actually emerged in the process of swallowing Ukraine.
The “reunification of Ukraine with Russia,” which was how the process was described at the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1954, significantly increased the possibility of tsarism in further expansionist policy. But what did Ukraine gain from it? Not only isolation from Europe, a continent with the greatest historic progress in the 18th and 19th centuries, but also the revival of serfdom. If, in the mid-17th century peasants were freed from the oppression of Polish and Ukrainian landowners and most had become Cossacks, under the Russian Empire, they became serfs once more.
Did Ukrainians lose their identity, which was formed in the previous centuries, having become part of the Russian Empire?
No, they remained true to themselves, although the empire put pressure on them, generating a maloros – “Little Russian” syndrome among the proprietary and educated categories of the population. The Cossack leadership transformed into the nobility, doing military service to the state. What else could they do to protect their wealth? Intellectuals with a European education, such as Theophan Prokopovich, the man behind Peter the Great’s reform of the Russian Orthodox Church, found arguments to substantiate tsarist autocracy. In truth, the empire not only made serfs of the Ukrainian peasantry but also allowed them to avoid serfdom by moving to new lands. By 1917 the territory populated by the Ukrainian nation doubled, compared with the mid-17th century.
The North Caucasus was a different issue. This area was part of the Russian SSR, but half of its regions were Ukrainianized in 1928–1932. On the territory where most of the population was Ukrainian, state entities, mass media, and educational institutions operated in its native language – Ukrainian. This gave rise to the issue of the reunification of Soviet Ukraine with this other Ukraine emerging in the North Caucasus. Stalin eliminated this issue from the agenda by organizing famines in both regions.
So the famine was created to “put to rest” Ukrainians’ unification frame of mind?
No, this was viewed as an auxiliary purpose. The famine is related to the collectivization of farming, with Stalin’s intent to get rid of the economic exchange between the city and the village based on market principles, striving to achieve the direct allocation of material welfare between the workers and the peasantry with the aid of state institutions, not via trade-monetary relations.
The peasantry did not agree with this form for building socialism. At the time, Stalin transferred the task of liquidating these relations and the market to a different, completely utopian phase of communism – the allocation of material welfare based on need. After this, in the mid-1930s, he announced the victory of socialism. Meanwhile, 1929 to 1932 was a period of ruthless struggle between the state and the peasantry. The greatest resistance to the communization of farming came from the Ukrainians. They refused to become engrafted in the collective farms of the Soviet Union. But they were forced to take the main burden of pressure of Stalin’s regime upon themselves until the famine.
By the way, the Ukrainian peasantry in western oblasts also decisively resisted collective farms (even in the form of cooperatives) in the postwar years. It is true, however, that the resistance in central Ukraine was largely passive (the steppe, lack of weapons), but it was very active in western regions for many years (thanks to forests, mountains, and the existence of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army).
Is it right to say that it actually proved impossible to reformat Ukraine, because its European essence turned out to be stronger than external pressure?
It held out because the USSR collapsed. But the current generation cannot take any credit for this. Soviet people gained independence because communism self-destructed without the interference of any internal or external forces. The number of dissidents – citizens who did not agree with the government’s policies – was minor, only several thousand. The external threat to the Soviet Union was ruled out, because no one wanted to go to war with a country that had nuclear weapons.
It can be put as follows: Ukraine’s independence was won by the representatives of previous generations: those who created the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1917-1920, those who fought against collectivization in the 1930s or Socialization in the postwar period in western Ukraine. But I would not compare our society with current European society. Why? In a moment of frankness, Gorbachev once said, “It’s terrible that 75 years, three quarters of a century, have amounted to nothing,” meaning everything that happened after 1917. Meanwhile, Western European countries developed. At the same time, Soviet people in the 1960 to 1980s felt that they lived in a socialist state, while everyone outside the USSR lived in capitalist countries. This was far from the case. Communal socialism degraded in the Soviet Union, while in Western Europe, countries with a market economy (in the Soviet interpretation – capitalist) evolved in the direction of socialism. In it, a class war takes place in a civilized form and is of secondary importance, while cooperation between the classes is of the essence.
Why are we striving for EU membership? There are various answers, because people have different interests, but there is still a common denominator for these views: escape from the communist past, which is still with us, in our heads and habits, in the orientation toward the paternal role of the state and the reluctance to exert all forces to achieve a set goal in a competition with rivals. If we end up in the Customs Union, we will cement our communist past. If we become associated members of the EU, we will most likely rid ourselves of this. Russia will only free itself of its Bolshevik mentality slowly, because it has cash and natural resources, which allow it to live without any transformations. We don’t have oil and gas in such quantities that would hold back reform. The tense situation with the financing of social needs will ultimately force our government to undertake reform, regardless of its stand on its Soviet past.
What do you think will happen if Ukraine does not sign the Association Agreement with the EU this month?
I think the current situation will continue. Europe is interested in Ukraine and Ukraine is interested in Europe. The pendulum will continue to swing between East and West but the cycle will be shortened. Those who are currently in power and consider themselves to be victorious are ultimately afraid of a social uprising, since they will have nowhere to go, other than the Russian Federation. But there, a social cataclysm can occur at any time – all it will take is a fall in world prices for fuels.
In our society, gravitation toward Russia remains. This is partially caused by the desire to return to the past. I would like to stress once more that communism is not a social order that is abhorrent to everyone – this is definitely not the case. This is not just a lack of freedom for people, it is also paternalism. When this order was formed in the USSR, the leadership of the Bolshevik Party tried to give something that would confirm the promise that we would soon live under communism, everything would be distributed according to needs. Residential construction was financed by the budget, apartments were allocated free of charge, communal services were also supported at the expense of the state, as was health care.
One more reason why communism could have been convenient is human nature: some want to develop and achieve something, while others are happy with what they have. This is not about communism or capitalism, but human nature. In the United States, millions of people live off social benefits. It’s minimal, but they are happy with it and dependent on the state. I also think that we have many people that are psychologically bound to such aid. There is also another category of citizens; older people who have worked in the West and young people who have been molded now, since Ukrainian independence. Part of society is self-sufficient and it ensures Ukraine’s prospects.