Where is Ukraine?

Peter Pomerantsev

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


  • 22 April 2015 at 7:15am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    And many people don't know what west Europeans are talking about when they speak of 'nationality.' Your post describes the dilemma very well. If I ask a Ukrainian where he lives, he can tell me, but when I ask about his nationality there is a long pause. Most Ukrainians speak Russian and Ukrainian almost interchangeably. They read Gorki and Tolstoy, love Russia but mistrust Putin, have many friends who speak Russian but have difficulty in coming to terms with the fact that they cannot visit family members in Simferopol. They also have difficulties in daily life - inflation, black market goods, finding the cash for the doctor, drumming up enough money for the university diploma, finding a job that pays a decent wage, dealing with the problems of living in a country which exists on maps but not in political reality.

  • 22 April 2015 at 5:29pm
    ykramerezha says:
    The Nestor Group is an insular group based with and identified with Lviv.

    It has no vision for Ukraine. It was not created for that purpose.

    The Nestor Group is based upon the idea of Lviv as a Central European city that has something to offer the world.

    The fact that its work identifies Lviv as neither Ukrainian nor Central European in telling. Lvivites and Galicians despise Central Europe.

    It was Lviv to a degree that started the Euromaidan in Kyiv in November 2013.

    It was Lviv's separatist mentality that led to its protests against President Yanukovych.

    The Donbass and Galicia in which Lviv is based are both Ukrainian in that they do not care for Kyiv. Lviv does not like Warsaw and Donetsk does not really like Moscow.

    Both Lviv and Donetsk need to find common ground and work on a synthetic future oriented common identity. It is there to be developed, but you have to be willing to do so.

    Both sides are Soviet in the sense that they are still focused on World War II and on the sides they took against each other.

    But they need each other more than they both realize.

    Galicia alone will be a second rate Slovakia at best or a Slavic Moldova. The Donbass has no real future in the Russian Federation.

  • 23 April 2015 at 8:00am
    Joseph Volgin says:
    "Ukrainians lean towards horizontal civil society bonds"

    Ukraine is a mafia state

  • 23 April 2015 at 12:20pm
    Voldemar says:
    Geographically Ukraine is between Russia and EU, or say NATO. Politically Ukraine is in a border of interests between USA and Russia.
    Ukraine had over 20 years to become modern country, but they spent time for promoting own difference to Russia, linguistically and historically. As result for now Ukraine is positioned at extreme opposition to Russia with no real need for it and no practical value. This is a dangerous situation for Russia, NATO could be on border soon, expanding towards Moscow.
    People of Ukraine should be considered now, but not a geography.

  • 23 April 2015 at 6:43pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Concerning Lviv (Lemberg, Lwow) the changing demographic-census data tell something of the older story that has a bearing on today. For Lemberg, a regional capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a population of 159,000, the 1900 census data can be confusing. E.G. By religious confession: Roman Catholic 52% Jewish 28% Greek Catholic (Uniate) 18%. However, by “daily language”: Polish 78% German or Yiddish 13% Ukrainian 9%

    This would indicate that Germans (the administrators and businessmen who lived there, and were Austrian Roman Catholics, rather than Prussian Lutherans or Evangelicals) and a large part of the Jewish population used German as their daily language. And that some Ukrainians used either German, or, far more likely, Polish as their daily language, as did some Jews (otherwise the gap between language and religion as census categories would not exist). In terms of religious affiliation, the remaining 2% were probably members of Orthodox Churches (Russian, Armenian, Greek, Romanian).

    Did the western Ukrainians who lived there consider themselves Ukrainians or as a distinct group, Ruthenians? Who knows? The Uniate Church consisted mostly of Ruthenians, but there was another distinct group of Ruthenians (the sub-Carpathian Ruthenians) who wound up as Czechoslovakian citizens during the interwar era, clustered in the easternmost part of Slovakia. They too were almost all Uniates, unlike the devoutly RC Slovaks.

    It was certainly a “cosmopolitan small city”, a word that appeals to those of liberal inclinations and is detested by nationalists (or chauvinists, if you wish). Even good old, irrationally Russophile, Polish-hating Dostoyevsky had Uniate clergymen in the family tree. Perhaps he was ashamed of them, given the Uniate Church’s formal affiliation with Rome.

    The 1921 census of 219,400, with the city now being Polish Lwow, shows only “nationality”: Poles 52% Jews 35% and Ukrainians 13%. Both sets of data make Lemberg/Lwow a Polish city with two significant other minorities up through the end of the interwar era. Which makes sense given that from the 14th century forward the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Republic) was the dominant political power in the region that contained the city.

    As far as the name Galicia goes, as an Austrian territory, it had a new western third or half added to it by the Habsburgs in the 19th century strictly for administrative reasons, now embracing Krakow and going as far west as Auschwitz/ Oswiecim. These folks had never considered themselves “Galicians” and really were not. The older Galicia started at the San River, went east, and had very large numbers of Ukrainians/Ruthenians and Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.

    Now look at today. In 2001 Ukrainian Lviv, a city of 725,000, had, according to the census: 88% Ukrainians 9% Russians and 1% Poles. Obviously WWII, and, for this region, its equally bloody immediate aftermath, totally rearranged the demographics so that Lviv is, in fact, a Ukrainian city.

    Any local sentiment in favor of considering Lviv to be Central European through political or cultural affiliation has to refer to the Habsburg era, and does so for purely sentimental reasons (and those reasons are not bad, merely irrelevant at the present time; life in Lemberg may have been better for its residents under the Habsburgs, though this idea would also distress some Poles and Ukrainians).

    But the idea that there is any basis for Russophilia in this part of the Ukraine is palpably absurd. The local rhetorical questions might be: Other than help us drive out the Poles after WWII, what have the Russians done for us lately? Answer: very little. And: How strong have the ties between Russia and us been during the last millennium? Answer: Not very strong, almost negligible.

    Some of the above might have something to do with a desire of western Ukrainians to have stronger ties with Europe, knowing that their immediate European neighbors are Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Romanians, with whom they have struggled in the past. In terms of any meaningful traffic and ties, they’re not going to be snuggling up with Czechs, Germans, or the French -- that particular array of nationalities/ethnicities is not going to change. So, if they “go Europe”, they’re going to also be going “Central Europe” due to the facts of geography (and history).

  • 26 April 2015 at 10:48pm
    rromanchuk says:
    Hromadske just broadcast a nice interview (in Russian and Ukrainian) with Igor Pomeranzev:
    Fortunate senex!

  • 27 April 2015 at 5:26pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    To Joseph Volgin: So what is their better choice, from a rational point of view? Under Don Putinello, Russia is a bigger, more powerful mafia state. Should they go to the gangster with more guns and more thugs?

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