Plokhii: Ukraine is 'still trying to figure out its identity'

18.07.2012, 16:06
Serhii Plokhii is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. He taught in Ukraine, Canada and the U.S. He won the first prize of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies in 2009 and was honored with the Early Slavic Studies Association Distinguished Scholarship Award. In this Kyiv Post interview, Plokhii explains the development of Ukraine’s international relations and Ukraine’s search for its identity.

Serhii Plokhii is a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. He taught in Ukraine, Canada and the U.S. He won the first prize of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies in 2009 and was honored with the Early Slavic Studies Association Distinguished Scholarship Award. In this Kyiv Post interview, Plokhii explains the development of Ukraine’s international relations and Ukraine’s search for its identity.

Kyiv Post: In your article The New Eastern Europe you have mentioned that post-Soviet Eastern Europe has been trying to find its identity after many years of suppression. What exact unification are you describing: a regional integration of these economies or possibly something more intimate? 

Serhii Plokhii: I tried to look at the new political map of Europe and the way it evolved in the last 20 years. Today Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova ended up in this “no-man’s” land between the expanding East and the non-expanding West. I asked whether there was anything more in this situation or if it is mere coincidence and whether these countries had something in common. History demonstrates that for centuries these regions were a civilizational borderland between Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity. These are areas that were always characterized by the multiplicity of ethnic and cultural communities that lived in that area. Thus, it’s not simply by chance that these countries are where they are today. In today’s political circumstances they often face the same kind of problems. Thinking about them as a group would actually help better understand Ukrainian problems and the roots of these problems. This is not about any specific project of creating a new commonwealth of three states or other form of integration. This is about the lenses that can be used for the analysis of current situation.  That’s something that can be useful for political scientists and for politicians in general. 

Kyiv Post: What do you think are the political, economic and cultural implications/consequences of this type of “unification”?

SP: In terms of economic and foreign policy, cooperation among these countries is essential. What will happen with these countries depends not only on the individual leaders, their sympathies and the policies that they adopt but on the political and cultural tradition that the population of that region inherited. Ukraine is destined to play a special role in this emerging region. Depending on the position that Ukraine will take a lot will change or remain the same in this region. 

Kyiv Post: Why do you think that in the process of Ukraine’s nation-building it is more complaisant to the West and is growing in opposition to its eastern neighbor Russia? In your opinion, what is necessary for Ukraine’s identity to flourish?

SP: From the very beginning of Ukraine’s independence you see the rise of competition between two different orientations of Ukrainian national identity—toward East and toward West. Given that the main threat of the existence of independent Ukraine and exclusivist Ukrainian identity comes from the desire of the Russian government to expand its sphere of influence, a significant part of Ukrainian political and cultural elites counterbalances these influences by stressing Ukraine’s Western roots and connections. One should be careful not to overstate that case. Ukraine is a country that is still trying to figure out its identity. However, the basic mix of its identity components is already there, which history provided in terms of tradition and ideas. If the Ukrainian identity of pre-modern era was taking shape in the opposition of the Polish models, the Ukrainian identity of the 19th and 20th centuries developed in opposition to the all-Russian project. Today Ukraine’s relations with the West continue to stress its independence from Russia. 

Kyiv Post: What significance does the Pereyaslav Council have for Ukrainians as for nation-building and its international relations?

SP: The Pereyaslav agreement will likely remain among the key issues of Ukrainian historical identity for generations to come. There are many ways to assess its importance. Some people see in it a manifestation of Ukrainian-Russian friendship and argue that the real heritage of Khmelnitsky is closer Russian integration. Others look at Pereiaslav as the great point of Khmelnitsky's nation-building where he is getting a much better deal negotiating with Russians than he ever got with the Poles. In this approach Khmelnitsky becomes a big hero. How the council was treated before and how it is treated now depends on what kind of future one wants to see for Ukraine. 

Kyiv Post: Your collection of essays “Religion and Nation in Modern Ukraine” co-authored with Frank Sysyn gives a detailed layout of the history of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. In the title, religion and nation are together, seemingly in a holistic manner. What concluded you to such a decision?

SP: We tried to fill a gap in today’s English-language literature on religious life in Ukraine. Despite the importance of religion for Ukraine’s history and current life, very little is known about Ukraine’s experience in the West. For example, few people know, that: Ukraine was the Bible belt of the Soviet Union; two thirds of all Orthodox parishes in the Soviet Union were in Ukraine; today there are four Orthodox Christian jurisdictions. This situation is very different from Ukraine’s neighbors. What went into that title was the view that major changes in institutional religion of the 20th century came as a result of religious communities and leaders trying to react to the challenges of nationalism. Thus, the essays have one common theme of nationalization of the Ukrainian religious life and what that really means. 

Kyiv Post: What do you particularly think of the Moscow Patriarchate?

SP: The Moscow Patriarchate is a very interesting phenomenon when you look at it in terms of interaction between religion and nationalism. Its view of Ukraine is very imperial in its foundation. It basically sticks to a pre-modern 19th century notion of the existence of the One Russian Nation, which includes Great Russians, Little Russians and White Russians. Any church is a very conservative institution; but in Moscow they are probably more conservative than in other places. They try to preserve this imperial thinking and understanding. It doesn’t reflect a postmodern vision of nationality but rather a pre-modern view, when nationality was not yet as big of a factor as it is now. 

Kyiv Post: How do you think the US/EU and Eastern European countries can benefit from each other? Do you see Ukraine having a key element in developing international relations?

SP: Whatever happens in the “New Eastern Europe” will very much influence the security and political-business climate in Europe. The West should be interested in maintaining its ties with the region. Even though Ukraine may be moving away from democracy at this point, in its 20 years of independence it surprised the world by the fact that it is a very tolerant society. In that sense it is different from some of its neighbors. It is a society where many people of different backgrounds and political persuasions can live together. I think that will continue despite the latest developments. 

Kyiv Post: What do you think of Ukraine being the bridge between the East and the West? What do you think could be the cultural effect in Ukraine with this cultural integration?

SP: Ukraine has to find a place not just in its traditional historical/geographical environment but in the global world as well. This not only means more people moving from Ukraine abroad, but more foreigners moving to Ukraine. People that come to Ukraine from the Middle East or Asia are human capital that Ukraine should tap in. This is an opportunity to develop relations with those places. That’s in your reality and the sooner you embrace it the more you can benefit from it.

Kyiv Post: It seems that compared to some of its neighbors Ukraine is more open to cultural integration and new ideas. Would you agree?

SP: People in Ukraine traditionally lived in this multiethnic and multicultural environment. Today’s exclusivist dominance of Ukrainian and Russian cultures is an abnormality compared to the past. It is difficult to imagine today how multiethnic and multicultural Ukraine was throughout its history. World War II resulted in complete destruction or resettlement of numerous Jewish, Polish and German communities. However, I think what is happening in Ukraine today in terms of its tolerance toward minorities is a reflection of a genetic code that was acquired by the society over a long period of time, which witnessed not only numerous massacres, but also prolonged periods of cooperation and coexistence of different ethnic and cultural groups. 

Kyiv Post: The historian Andrew Wilson seems to have more of a neutral perspective on Ukraine, writing in his book “Ukrainians: The Unexpected Nation” that Ukraine occurred by chance. 

SP: It is true and not true. It is true if you compare the Ukrainian situation with what was happening in the Baltic republics during the fall of the Soviet Union. But if you compare it to Belarusian, Kazakh or even Russian developments, Ukrainian independence will be less of a surprise. If you interpret Ukrainian independence narrowly as a desire of political groups promoting ethnic nationalism to acquire independence then you get a distorted picture.  The independence came as a result of the entire political elite of the country coming together to create an independent Ukrainian State. The unity of elites at that point brought about the unity of society, when more than 90 percent voted for independence in the referendum in 1991.

Kyiv Post: Are you currently writing another book? 

SP: I just finished The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires, which should be released on Aug.  1. It is a detective story mixed with intellectual history based on the “IstoriyaRusov” manuscript which appeared out of nowhere in early 19th century. For 200 years there was a historical debate on who wrote this work, under what circumstances. I am trying to figure out what happened, what was the message and how the historical mythology of the Cossacks developed during these 200 years. 


17 July 2012 KyivPost