Where is Ukraine?
One of the problems with Ukraine is that no one really knows where it is. For many people, not least Vladimir Putin, it’s an extension of neo-tsarist Russia. For others it’s a Central European state of frustrated blood-and-language nationalism which just needs the chance to build strong institutions to express its essence. The Nestor Group, a collection of Ukrainian thinktanks and intellectuals, has meanwhile concluded that Ukrainian value systems reject both the Russian model (deification of paternalistic authority) and the language-and-bureaucracy-makes-a-state logic of Central Europe. Instead, Ukrainians lean towards horizontal civil society bonds: the 'sotni' who made up the revolution on the Maidan, the volunteers who fund and feed the army, church congregations and small business associations, criminal gangs and football hooligans. According to Yevhen Hlibovitsky, a member of the Nestor Group who was involved in both the Orange Revolution in 2004 and Maidan in 2014, this puts Ukraine in the same bracket as Mediterranean countries such as Italy or Greece.
This has policy implications. As Viktor Yanukovych found to his doom, attempts to impose a neo-tsarist model in Ukraine fail. Even the Ukrainian attitude towards corruption, Hlibovitsky argues, is different from Russia’s: in Russia, corruption is a way to self-enrichment; in Ukraine it is about buying security. ‘Ukrainians have... little affection for the rules and institutions that govern them,’ he says, ‘traditionally treating them as imposed from outside.’ Corruption is viewed as a way of tailoring unfair rules ‘to suit the needs of the individual’.
Attempts to cut-and-paste the ‘development’ formulas that were applied in Central Europe won’t work either. Police reform, one of the big test cases for whether Ukraine can make it, ought not to be run from the top down, Hlibovitsky says, but instead should use local civic groups to create and control the police.
Language may define identity in Latvia or Estonia, creating a distinct ‘Russian speaking minority’, but Ukraine is more at ease with being bilingual or even, in areas such as Transcarpathia, where people switch between Hungarian, Slovak, German and Romanian as well as Ukrainian and Russian, multilingual.
Hlibovitsky’s re-envisioning of Ukraine as a Mediterranean culture seems strikingly original, but as I listened to him present his findings last month I had the odd feeling I’d encountered the idea before. Suddenly I realised it was a theme in the writings of my father, Igor Pomeranzev, a Russian-language Ukrainian poet and essayist who was raised in Czernowitz and grew up in Kiev before leaving the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
‘I am not a cosmopolitan, I am a patriot,’ he said in an interview a couple of years ago.
But I have a different patria. I feel a sense of home in Istanbul cemeteries, Rome, Czernivtsi, London, Sergeev Posad. Scandinavia is not a home for me – it is not part of the greater Mediterranean. When I’m asked whether I’m a Russian or Ukrainian writer I find the distinction irrelevant – the only thing that matters is whether you are a talented writer. But my perceptions are Southern – does that mean the same as Ukrainian?
In 1976, when he was in his twenties, he wrote:
On a map for fingers
is somewhere near