The Jordan Center welcomed Ukrainian historian Andrii Portnov on Tuesday, April 15th for a discussion of the dominant media and political narrative which has emerged to describe the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Portnov presented his observation about “Two Ukraines,” a story that divides the country into halves, with a pro-Russian East, and European-aligned West.
Director of the Jordan Center Yanni Kotsonis welcomed Portnov. “NYU doesn’t teach Ukrainian history,” he said, and then joked it’s a shame an international crisis is what it took to put it on the agenda. Kotsonis said he hoped Portnov would inject some much needed historical and geographical perspective into the conversation about Ukraine.
Portnov thanked Kotsonis, and introduced his presentation as one that would focus on what he calls the “mental mapping” of two Ukraines, something he argued has been overused in the absence of any real explanation. Portnov explained that “Eastern Ukraine” is itself a construct which grew out of the lack of public consensus on the Soviet past. He said the view of a split Ukraine is “more of a stabilizing factor in a state characterized by so much diversity.” A vastly different case than what is found in Russia, Ukraine has four separate churches competing for the title of “national church.”
“I believe that it’s this lack of consensus that has caused what’s happening now,” Portnov said. “It’s not a crisis, it’s a war.”
He attributed the current instability to “Russian aggression,” but said this contributed to another factor which exacerbates the situation even further– the increasing polarization of Ukrainian politicians to extremist ends of the political spectrum.
The problem with the concept of two Ukraines is the story they perpetuate, which “denies Ukraine’s subjectivity,” Portnov said. He pointed to several voting maps that are often used to illustrate a precise border between the East and Western halves of the country. He explained these fail to reflect the nuances of these elections and do not prove there is a clear ideological divide.
Another factor contributing to the confusion in Ukraine is the fluidity of the country’s borders, which have been in near constant flux, and were defined by political circumstances which are no longer relevant. For example, he said the borders of post-Soviet Ukraine are the result of Soviet politics. Crimea became part of Ukraine when Khrushchev gifted it to the Soviet Republic in 1954, which is thought to have been a symbolic gesture of goodwill. Portnov also pointed out that parts of Western Ukraine, including L’viv, which is thought to be the most “Ukrainian” of cities in Ukraine, were a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And just prior to World War II, “Western Ukraine” extended to parts of what are today Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.
Portnov then moved to describe the construct of “Eastern Ukraine,” a region which is the victim of “internal Orientalist discourse.” The leadership in Kyiv regularly espouses a discriminatory attitude toward the population of Russian-speaking Ukrainians in this region. Portnov argued this othering demonstrates “a failure of the post-Soviet Ukrainian project.” Emphasizing this difference contributes to a greater divide.
Yet there’s also a lack of consensus amongst Eastern Ukrainians — in cities like Donetsk and Luhansk — regarding the historical narrative of the Soviet era. Portnov said that, as a result, identity is based on negation. “That’s why it’s easy for Putin to say that these are the Russians.”
Portnov challenged the idea there is a large population of Russians in Eastern Ukraine. Firstly, he said the region is not home to “high Russian,” instead people speak a dialect which is a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. He also pointed out that identifying as a Russian-speaker doesn’t automatically equate to being “pro-Russian,” or “pro-Putin,” as the dominant media narrative would have it.
The Western media is not the only establishment guilty of exploiting the simplistic narrative of two Ukraines. It’s also used by Ukrainophone intellectuals, who point to the relatively brief period in which a small chunk of Western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “This is very important in the Ukrainian imagination today,” he said, which emphasizes the Europeanness of Ukraine. This narrative, “a safe, domesticated European” history, provides a sharp contrast to the Soviet past, which is fraught with negative associations. In this particular view, Portnov said, “any attempt to call on the Russian Imperial history is still seen as a threat to Ukrainian identity, and to the current political project.”
This isn’t just about geography, it’s about ideology as well, Portnov argued. The idea of “East-Central Europe” was first imagined by Oscar Helecki. This concept drew a clear line between the constitutional governments of places like Poland, and the more autocratic regimes of the East. “It’s amazing how much this is used in current media,” Portnov said. This dichotomy is very similar to the “clash of civilizations” model. It also rationalizes and legitimates the two Ukraines model. Portnov added–“and that’s a very dramatic picture.”
History defined as it is now in Ukraine, “serves as a means of division rather than shared experience,” Portnov argued. A major shortcoming of this narrative is the missing center. “Sometimes we feel like there is only West, East, and Kyiv,” Portnov said. The center is left out, overwhelmed by the polarized political discourse. Portnov listed a variety of terms which he finds to be contributing further to this polarization, including “nationalism,” “nationalizing state,” and “post-colonial.” He argued all of these terms are too extreme, and don’t accurately portray what’s happening in Ukraine. “We still need to find a more nuanced and proper term for what’s going on.”
For one, Russian-speaking Ukrainians need to be more clearly defined as a group. Portnov explained that a large proportion of young people who speak Russian, write the language very poorly because Russian isn’t taught in schools, which creates a uniquely challenging rift between many people’s primary spoken language and written language. “We need a new language to describe what’s going on,” Portnov said. He also argued for Ukrainian historians to be more inclusive of a variety of groups, Poles, Jews, and the Ottoman population, as well as Russians.
At the presentation’s conclusion, Kotsonis thanked Portnov. “It’s nice to hear subtlety when it comes to Ukraine,” he said, before inviting the audience to participate in the discussion.
Larry Wolff, Professor of History at NYU, suggested that Portnov’s presentation overlooked the difference between lived memory of the 20th-century, which includes the experiences of one’s grandparents, and more remote historical circumstances. He said that perhaps looking at more recent historical developments would make for a stronger argument.
Portnov thanked Wolff for his response and said he was, “absolutely right about living memory,” but explained there are formidable obstacles to research. He pointed to World War II, an historical event for which there are competing narratives in Ukraine. Portnov argued the story of the anti-Soviet nationalist underground contradicts the late-Soviet Brezhnev version of events. He also argued that living memory of the Soviet Union, “was absolutely taboo until the 90s,” and even so, these memories “are not so important to the anti-Soviet narrative.”
Professor Stephen Holmes from NYU Law School admitted he didn’t quite understand the motives behind the “two Ukraines” narrative.
Portnov explained that political elites, who have been “amazingly populistic until now,” will exploit historical narratives as a marker of political difference. As an example, he said the Party of Regents would claim to be defending the rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, whereas the National Democrats’ rhetoric was about protecting Ukrainian identity and language against Russian influence. He argued that a “new discourse” which foregrounds a symbolic central Ukraine would shed light on complexities. For example, Portnov said that it’s common to speak both Ukrainian and Russian, and enjoy Russian pop-culture immensely while despising Vladimir Putin.
Kotsonis pointed out the problem here, “is the entire Soviet past is becoming conflated with the Russian past,” though, in many ways, it was a period of advancement for Ukraine itself, as well as Ukrainian language and culture.
Portnov agreed, but said that it’s important to remember “cultural identity doesn’t necessarily correspond to the political identity in the post-Soviet space.” He also argued that too many people in Ukraine have unrealistic expectations about the European Union. “For present day Ukraine, there is no positive alternative to the EU, and this is why the debate is somewhat locked. I’m very uncertain about the future of Ukraine in its present form.”
Kotsonis provided closing remarks. “What you’re presenting is a much more interesting Ukraine,” he said. “It’s complicated, it’s rich in its multifacetedness, and it’s unfortunate that outside forces are insisting on a dual Ukraine […] we are grateful for the nuance.”