On invading Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that Ukrainians did not exist, that the Ukrainian state was a historical mistake and that he was simply taking back what was Russia’s. Putin sought to justify his war as necessary to protect Russian speakers, particularly those in Donbas, in Ukraine’s east.
Ukrainian socialist Hanna Perekhoda was born and raised in Donbas. She is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and is active in the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine.
Green Left’s Federico Fuentes interviewed Perekhoda about Russia’s relationship with Ukraine, the role of language in the conflict and the realities of the Donbas.
Could you explain the nature of relations between Russia and Ukraine?
To understand the war that Putin is waging against Ukraine, it is necessary to consider the self-perception and perception of the world forged within the Russian political class, and the place they reserve for Ukraine within it.
For Putin, Ukrainians and Russians are “one and the same people”, while the distinct national identity of Ukrainians is a conspiracy plotted by those who want to weaken Russia. Tsarist elites also believed rival powers fueled Ukrainian national sentiment.
There is a well-known expression: “Russia did not have an empire, it was an empire.” Its colonies were neither geographically nor politically separated from the imperial core. Control over Ukraine is a cornerstone of the project of the Russian Empire, but also — and above all — of the project of the Russian Nation.
Without Ukraine, Russia would never have become an imperial power that stretched across Europe and Asia; at the same time, for Russian nationalist elites, their nation is incomplete, if not impossible, without Ukrainians within it.
Putin sees the separate existence of Ukrainians as leading to an inevitable destruction of the Russian nation. The national narratives of Ukraine and Russia are in total contradiction: Ukraine as a political community can only survive outside of Russia, because Russia denies its right to exist.
The current Russian war in Ukraine can be seen as an extreme manifestation of the struggle that Russian nationalists are waging to reconnect with their past in order to gain a foothold in the present and project themselves into the future.
But while I want to emphasise that this history is important, it cannot fully explain the reasons for this invasion. Contrary to what Putin believes, history is not a fate. Putinism and his invasion of Ukraine is not the simple product of some historical inertia.
The ideas of Putin and the Russian ruling classes may be a product of the past centuries, but Putin’s political regime, which enabled these ideas to be reactivated, is a product of the past 20 years.
An often repeated claim is that Russian-speakers are discriminated against and the Russian language banned in Ukraine. How accurate are such statements?
With Stalinism’s imperial turn, Russian became the dominant language in all areas of Soviet public life. Soviet Russian and Russified citizens were also guaranteed privileged social positions in the peripheral republics. During this process, more and more Ukrainians abandoned their language and culture, which became markers of cultural inferiority that hindered social mobility.
Soviet modernisation was accompanied by a strengthening of the dominant imperial culture that perpetuated significant structural inequalities between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. The post-Soviet Ukrainian elite has neither the will nor means to correct these deficiencies. Instead, their opportunist policies have sought to preserve the status quo.
From 2004 onwards, various oligarchic clans artificially fed the socio-linguistic divide to mobilise their electorates around questions of identity.
In 2012, pro-Russian political forces passed a law to supposedly ensure the protection of minority languages. But their campaign in reality sought to “defend the Russian tongue”.
When President Viktor Yanukovych was impeached in 2014, parliament tried to repeal the law. Although this decision was never ratified, Russia took the opportunity to express concern about discrimination against Russians by what it called the “fascist junta” in Ukraine and justify Russian interference in Crimea and Donbas.
In 2018, parliament adopted a law requiring that Ukrainian be used in most aspects of public life and obliging state officials and public sector employees to speak Ukrainian when engaging with the public.
This may seem surprising to people in Western Europe. But the situation of Ukraine, having obtained independence only thirty years ago and having remained under Russian political and cultural domination until 2014, cannot be compared with nations that have had their own state since at least the 19th century.
Now, faced with Russia’s invasion, inhabitants feel first and foremost Ukrainian, including those who speak Russian. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers defending their country are Russian speakers.
The impression is that Putin’s invasion has created an understandable hatred of all things Russian in Ukraine. How do you see this?
Even before the war, Putin’s state claimed an absolute monopoly on Russian language and culture, and considered use of the Russian language and connection to its “civilisational space” as one and the same thing.
Since the early 2000s, Russia has promoted the conception of the “Russian world” and used the medium of Russian culture to spread conservative, irredentist and Russian nationalist ideology.
But, if in the 2000s, the “Russian world” was a tool of soft power, from 2014 it became the engine of Russian military aggression, whose objective is to erase Ukraine from the world map.
Perhaps investing the imperial language and culture with a decolonial content could be a solution for Ukrainian society. But such a scenario will only be possible once Russia stops imposing its power over the Russian language spoken by millions who do not see themselves reflected in Putin’s political project.
It is very difficult to argue in favour of protecting Russian culture in Ukraine when Russian political elites deny nothing less than the right of Ukrainians to exist. Ukrainians are subject to bombings, rape and murder, perpetuated not by Putin but by Russian soldiers. This will leave an open wound between the two peoples for years to come.
As for attitudes towards Russians, most Ukrainians accept and respect Russians fighting against Putin’s regime. We know of numerous Russian and Belorussian political activists and intellectuals who are now in Ukraine contributing to its victory in different ways. The only problem they face is the bureaucratic Ukrainian state machinery that prevents them from quickly obtaining a Ukrainian passport or legal status in the country.
Could you give us a sense of attitudes in the Donbas since independence? How do you envisage the situation there being resolved?
The Donbas industrial region began to be actively populated from the late 19th century. The majority of the population, however, settled there more recently, as the artificial famine of 1932–33 depopulated rural areas. After World War II, people came to the Donbas from all over the Soviet Union, but mostly from Russia, for coal mining jobs.
During the 1980s, the accumulation of economic deficiencies in the Soviet economy and the threat of losing their privileged status led locals to support Ukrainian independence, hoping that Donbas would become the dominant region in the economy and politics of Ukraine.
However, as post-Soviet states fell prey to wild capitalism, the population lost even the symbolic privilege it felt it held from belonging to the vanguard of a Soviet nation, and found themselves a minority inside a country whose culture was until then perceived as “backward”. Civil society was weak and the population was radically paternalistic and nostalgic of the glory days of the Soviet past.
This situation was fertile ground for local mafias who not only took over control of politics, the economy and the media in the region, but sought to take over political power in Kyiv. They persuaded locals that “the Donbas feeds Ukraine” and that it was exploited by western Ukrainians in order to conceal the fact that it was locals — the Yanukovych clan and allied oligarchs — who were their real exploiters.
Resentment, anti-Western discourse and demonisation of everything Ukrainian were used to divide and rule. Donbas became increasingly isolated from the rest of the country politically, economically, and culturally.
Starting in 2009, the Donbas mafia began running Ukraine. The popular Maidan uprising of 2014 put their rule under threat. In response, Yanukovych and his clan provided key resources for the separatist movement in Donbas, hoping to at least preserve power over their stronghold.
But separatist desires were extremely marginal and there was minimal evidence of support for an armed uprising. In April 2014, amid a background of general apathy and disorientation, a Russian ex-FSB [Federal Security Service] officer Igor Girkin-Strelkov, together with several dozen armed people began taking control of local institutions and asked Moscow to send “volunteers” to sustain the “rebellion”.
Existing tensions and grievances were manipulated for a long time by both Ukrainian and Russian elites, but it is unlikely that war in Donbas would have happened without Russian military intervention.
The separatist republics in Donbas have become zones of corruption, impunity, violence and widespread injustice, where the population faces uncertainty, extreme poverty, repression and physical abuse.
Ukraine has repeatedly promoted the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to these territories. I think there is a chance that the Donbas could one day return to a peaceful life. But in my opinion, this will only be possible after a complete withdrawal of Russian armed forces and subsequent demilitarisation of Russia.
An economic and environmental reconstruction, along with the creation of the necessary conditions for democratic expression, could probably be achieved under a long-term international mandate of peacekeeping forces.
[This is an abridged and edited version of a longer interview published at links.org.au.]