Historical footage of Zakarpattia from the Czech National Film Archive

In a “sequel” to my earlier overview on the Carpatho-Rusyns and the Zakarpattia oblast of Ukraine, below are some glimpses of life in the Zakarpattia/Carpathian Rus’ region during the interwar period, when the area was formally part of Czechoslovakia. I came across this footage from 1922-1930 online which comes the Czech National Film Archive in Prague. Enjoy!:

 

 

 

 

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Who Are the Rusyns?

In the midst of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, one region of the country has been obscured from the spotlight. This is the westernmost Zakarpattia oblast, a mountainous region that shares four international boundaries with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Located at the center of Europe, its capital is Uzhgorod, a city located literally on the border with Slovakia and which, architecturally, shares much in common with neighboring locales across the border such as Prešov and Košice. The majority of the local population is comprised of a group known as the Rusyns, a distinct East Slavic people. Most significantly, it is through this region that major energy pipelines pass from Russia, through Ukraine, and into the EU.

Location of the Zakarpattia Oblast within Ukraine.

Location of the Zakarpattia Oblast within Ukraine.

Church of Archangel Michael in the wooden style commonly seen in Zakarpattia (Sobory.ru)

Church of Archangel Michael in the wooden style commonly seen in Zakarpattia. (Sobory.ru)

Language, faith, and identity

The Rusyns derive their name from their self-designation “Rusyni” indicating “people of the Rus’ as in the old “Kievan Rus’.” At one point, the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians all self-identified as “Rusyni” until they adopted their respective ethnonyms over time. In some cases, the residual use of the self-designation “Rusyni” in both Ukraine and Belarus lasted well into the early 20th century. The Rusyns are also known by other names too such as “Ruthenians,” a term which is also used to apply generally to all East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians). Indeed, “Ruthenia” is merely a Latin rendering of the name “Rus’,” though today it almost exclusively applies to Zakarpattia as a distinct region. More specific names for the people of this region include “Carpatho-Rusyns” or “Carpathian Ruthenians,” both of which designate the specific area in which these people live – the Carpathian Mountains. There are subgroups of Rusyns as well such as the Lemkos, Hutsuls, and Boykos.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Uzhgorod

Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Uzhgorod (Ukraine Trek)

In terms of faith, the Rusyns are largely members of the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church (distinct from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church). In recent years, some Rusyns have also been gravitating toward Orthodox Christianity of the Moscow Patriarchate. In 2000, the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior was inaugurated in Uzhgorod. The church reflects common architectural styles found in much of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Yet the more prominent architectural style that one finds throughout Zakarpattia is the simple, wooden church style.  Indeed, wood churches are a major art in this region and comprise an important part of the Rusyn culture, heritage, and identity.

The Rusyn homeland is primarily centered on the Zakarpattia Oblast of Ukraine, which encompasses the bulk of it. However, Rusyns also inhabit a few adjoining areas, notably portions of eastern Slovakia and southeastern border areas of Poland (particularly in the Subcarpathian Voivodeship). Geography is key here for it was the mountains that isolated the Rusyns from the other East Slavs and allowed them to develop their own unique culture and East Slavic language.

Map showing the full geographic extent of the Rusyn people in Central Europe. (carpathorusynsociety.org)

Map showing the full geographic extent of the Rusyn people in Central Europe, prior to World War I. (carpathorusynsociety.org)

In fact, it is interesting to observe precisely where the Rusyn language stands within the geographic and linguistic position of the Slavic languages. In the Czech Republic, one finds the West Slavic Czech language. When one reaches the eastern fringes of the historical Czech region of Moravia, the Moravian dialect gradually begins to transition into Slovak, a language that shares many affinities with Czech. The further east one travels in Slovakia, the more divergent the Slovak dialects become from the standard language. By the time one reaches the mountainous regions of Prešov and Košice, the eastern dialects of Slovak gradually begin to blend into an East Slavic language: Rusyn.

Rusyn is the linguistically dominant language of Ukraine’s Zakarpattia oblast. From Zakarpattia, Rusyn gradually transitions into standard Ukrainian in Galicia and Volhynia. However, by the time one reaches the Khmelnytskyi oblast, Ukrainian begins to change into Surzhyk, a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language. Then, as one moves further east to the Sumy and Kharkov oblasti, Surzhyk begins to blend into Russian, specifically the southern dialect of Russian. By the time one reaches Moscow, the language has evolved into standard Russian.

The Rusyn Elite Society in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929, one of many Rusyn immigrant associations in the United States. (Cleveland Cultural Gardens)

The Rusyn Elite Society in Cleveland, Ohio in 1929, one of many Rusyn immigrant associations in the United States. (Cleveland Cultural Gardens)

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

In the 19th century, significant numbers of Rusyns also moved further south from their historic homeland into the region of Pannonia. Their descendents are today the Rusyn minority in the former Yugoslavia, primarily Vojvodina, the autonomous region of northern Serbia where Rusyn is a co-official language, and in Slavonia and other regions of Croatia. Still more Rusyns emigrated to the United States and Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries, settling in New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis, as well as parts of southern Connecticut and the coalmining towns of western Pennsylvania. One of the most prominent Rusyn-Americans who is always mentioned in discussions on Rusyns is the eccentric pop artist Andy Warhol.

Historical overview

The origins of the Rusyns can be partially traced to the White Croats, an early Slavic tribe distantly related to the modern Croats of the former Yugoslavia.   The historical Rusyn homeland in Zakarpattia existed as a disputed borderland area between the Kievan Rus’ and the medieval Kingdom of Hungary.  Hungary’s administration of the region strengthened following the downfall of the Rus’ state.

For many subsequent centuries, Zakarpattia remained under Hungarian rule. Thus, within Austria-Hungary, the people here were ruled by the Hungarian monarchy, in contrast to their neighbors in Galicia who were ruled directly by the Austrians in Vienna. Under Hungarian influence, the locals adopted some Hungarian cultural attributes. For example, Hungarian Bogrács Gulyás is a staple of Rusyn cuisine. The Rusyns also adopted the Catholicism of their Hungarian and Slovak neighbors. In 1646, at the Union of Uzhgorod, the largely Orthodox Rusyns formally joined the Catholic Church under the Byzantine rite, forming the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church.

St. Petersburg-born Rusyn-Russian playwright Nestor Kukolnik (portrait by Karl Bryullov, 1836)

St. Petersburg-born Rusyn-Russian playwright Nestor Kukolnik (portrait by Karl Bryullov, 1836)

However, the Rusyns were far less receptive to being forcibly assimilated by the Hungarians. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a significant Russophile movement emerged in Zakarpattia in response to Hungarian cultural suppression and Magyarization. The great Rusyn writer and theologian Aleksandr Dukhnovich was active in this movement. Another was the academic Vasily Kukolnik whose St. Petersburg-born son, Nestor Kukolnik, would later become a prominent romantic Russian playwright. Russophile sentiment also existed in Galicia, though it was later supplemented by Ukrainian nationalism. By contrast, in Zakarpattia, the Russophile movement persisted even to the present-day. Indeed, many in the region still harbor affinities for Russia as evidenced by the closeness of elections here between pro-Russian and pro-Western candidates.

With the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy at the end of World War I, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic sought to claim Zakarpattia as part of its territory. However, it remained under Hungarian rule until 1919 when the Paris Peace Conference assigned it to Czechoslovakia. This was the result of a National Council led by Rusyn-American leader Grigory Žatkovich. Given the instability of Russia and Ukraine at the time, Žatkovich was advised by the Wilson administration that a Rusyn union with Czechoslovakia would be the only viable option for the territory’s future. Consequently, in 1918 Žatkovich signed the Philadelphia Agreement with Tomáš Masaryk, ensuring Rusyn autonomy in a future Czechoslovak state. The Treaty of St. Germain in 1919 reaffirmed this. However, actual political autonomy of the region proved to be less than that desired by the Rusyns of Zakarpattia, largely due to the inefficiency and bureaucracy in Prague. Žatkovich, who Masaryk appointed as governor to the region, eventually resigned in frustration.

Map of interwar Czechoslovakia in 1935 with

Map of interwar Czechoslovakia in 1935 with “Podkarpatská Rus” (“Subcarpathian Rus”), the present-day Zakarpattia Oblast.

Another significant aspect of Zakarpattia’s union with Czechslovakia was the precise determination of the borders. The frontiers of Zakarpattia, as determined at the Paris Peace Conference and later at the Treaty of Trianon also included a substantial Hungarian minority in the southernmost portion of the region. Most of these Hungarians did not want to separate from Hungary nor were they interested in joining the new Czechoslovak state.

Following Hitler’s annexation of the German-inhabited Sudetenland in 1938, the remainder of Czechoslovakia was slowly dismembered. Germany moved to snatch the rest of the Czech lands while Slovakia became a German fascist puppet state ruled by the collaborator Jozef Tiso. Horthy’s Hungary then was given permission by Hitler to annex the Hungarian-inhabited areas of southern Slovakia in the First Vienna Award. The Nazis also granted Zakarpattia to Budapest as well. This left the region with no choice but to declare its independence. On March 15, 1939, the Rusyns moved to declare a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. Within one day, it was crushed by Horthy’s invading army and declared part of Hungary. Under Hungarian rule, the Rusyns were allowed to continue reading and writing in their language as long as it was pro-Hungarian in orientation. Those opposed to Hungarian rule sought to flee Zakarpattia across the mountains into Soviet Ukraine. Hoping to be welcomed by the Soviets, they were instead arrested by the NKVD for “illegally crossing into Soviet territory” and sent to Gulag labor camps. Meanwhile, during the war, Zakarpattia’s historic Jewish community suffered greatly. Most were deported to Nazi death camps and perished in the Holocaust.

A Soviet-era stamp celebrating the 20th anniversary of Zakarpattia's 'reunification' with Soviet Ukraine.

A Soviet-era stamp celebrating the 20th anniversary of Zakarpattia’s “reunification” with Soviet Ukraine.

Zakarpattia remained part of Hungary for much of the war until it was liberated by Soviet troops in 1944. Throughout the war, Moscow promised the Western allies that it would restore Czechoslovakia’s pre-1938 borders. However, after the liberation of Zakarpattia, new considerations were drawn up and it was decided to incorporate the region into Soviet Ukraine instead. The decision was informed by both ethnic-historical and geopolitical considerations. With the Soviet incorporation of the region, all of the historic East Slav lands were now under the jurisdiction of a single state for the first time since the Kievan Rus’. Geopolitically, the region was also strategically significant, as it gave the Soviet Union a direct land boundary with Hungary. The cession was officially acknowledged by Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš in June 1945. The borders of Zakarpattia remained virtually unchanged except for the new addition of the border city of Chop, an important railway juncture.

The incorporation of Zakarpattia into the Soviet Union brought about significant changes. The Soviets attempted to modernize the economy and to bring collectivization to the countryside. The Soviets also attempted to suppress the native Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church. Though instead of moving to repress religion, they sought to bring this church under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. This was met with limited success, though Orthodoxy in Zakarpattia has arguably experienced some activity since Ukraine’s independence.

The Soviets also inherited Zakarpattia’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the result of missionary work in interwar Czechoslovakia.  The Soviets distrusted the Witnesses as a “non-traditional sect” and thus sought to limit their activities.  Yet, the Witnesses continued to pursue their beliefs regardless and earned a degree of respect in Soviet society for their “dissident” and “anti-Soviet” approach.

A still from Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

A still from Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.

Meanwhile, education and literacy were also promoted as was Russian-language instruction. Ethnic Russian teachers, workers, and supervisors from Moscow descended on the new region, creating a new Russian minority. They also were genuinely astounded by this unique and mountainous “lost province” that, in their view had been separated for so long from the “Russian motherland.” The fascination with Zakarpattia continued for much of the Soviet era and was even the subject of films and popular media. The great Soviet Armenian filmmaker Sergei Parajanov even made a film about Zakarpattia called Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors that met with critical acclaim internationally.

The Soviet nationalities’ policy also sought to promote the “Ukrainian” ethnonym among the Rusyn people of this region. The ethnonym has been largely adopted by the people, though most still speak the Rusyn language and adhere to their own cultural norms. The sense of uniqueness also persisted, though any debate about the Rusyn question was banned in the Soviet Union until glasnost. Under Gorbachev, discussion of the “Rusyn question” began to re-emerge and the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Church was rehabilitated. In 1991, voters in Zakarpattia overwhelmingly backed Gorbachev’s New Union Treaty. Later that year, Ukraine’s Kravchuk proposed a ballot on state sovereignty in Ukraine. This too was approved by voters in the region. However, more significantly, another provision on the ballot promising local autonomy passed by an even wider margin. Despite this vote, autonomy for the region was never granted.

Fr. Dmitro Sydor

Fr. Dmitro Sydor

In 2008, some activists unsuccessfully attempted to declare a “Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia.” Those involved were later sent in for questioning by the Security Service of Ukraine for challenging “state integrity.” They included Fr. Dmitro Sydor, a Mukachevo-born priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and chairman of the Congress of Carpathian Ruthenians. The main goal of the Congress is to achieve autonomy for the region. In March 2012, Sydor was found guilty for violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment with a suspended sentence of two years.

Politically, the region’s leanings have been mixed. As referenced earlier, Zakarpattia’s electoral politics is more like that of a Central Ukrainian than a Western Ukrainian region. The Party of Regions managed to carry Zakarpattia in the 2012 Ukrainian parliamentary election, contesting it heavily with Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party and the centrist United Center Party which draws its main base of voters from this region. In the 2010 presidential election, Tymoshenko won Zakarpattia, but by a very narrow margin against Yanukovych.

Meanwhile, the substantial Hungarian minority of Zakarpattia remains at a crossroads. Successive Hungarian governments have made a point to defend Magyar minority rights in neighboring countries. The Hungarians of Zakarpattia were no exception, and to this end, Hungary’s Viktor Orban supported of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych who placed great emphasis on protecting linguistic rights.

Since the Euromaidan revolution, the local Hungarian community has been uneasy and has viewed the influence of the far-right in the government as a serious concern. Among other things, local Hungarians were concerned about the initiative by the government (since abandoned) to scrap Ukraine’s regional language law.  Fortunately, in the wake of the unrest in Eastern Ukraine, the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government has announced that it will allow for enhanced linguistic rights in the various oblasti.  Also, the Orban government in Budapest has opened the door in recent years for Hungarians abroad to receive Hungarian passports. This has been very significant for Hungarians in Zakarpattia, wary of nationalism in Ukraine and eager for jobs in the EU.

It is still unclear what full impact the Maidan revolution will have on the Rusyns. The region is currently governed by a member of the Batkivshchyna party appointed by the Turchynov-Yatsenyuk government. However, there is uncertainty with regard to how influential Kiev is in this region and how much support it has. It is very likely that most of the people here would favor a new federal constitution for Ukraine which would finally give them their long-desired autonomy. Yet, as always, what happens next remains to be seen.

UPDATE (13 June 2014): Watch rare footage of life in Zakarpattia/Carpathian Rus’ in interwar Czechoslovakia from the Czech National Film Archive here!

How the West Got Moscow’s Eurasian Union Wrong

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers (Biography)

Will Rogers, the noted American entertainer and radio personality, once famously joked that “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it’s true.” This holds true today, especially in the Western press.

One example of this is the Russian initiative to form the Eurasian Union, a supranational union comprised of former Soviet republics. This has been largely criticized in the West as either a “New Russian Empire” or a “New Soviet Union.” In 2012, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to the project as a “move to re-Sovietise the region.” While acknowledging that the Eurasian Union will not be called “the Soviet Union,” she also stressed “let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.” Timothy Synder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, went even further in his denunciation of the concept, referring to it as the realization of the anti-liberal neo-fascist Eurasianist schemes of Aleksandr Dugin. He specifically cited Dugin as “the ideological source of the Eurasian Union” and that his work constitutes “the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration.”

Beyond the headlines, though, what exactly is the Eurasian Union? Is it truly an anti-Western conspiracy of neo-fascists, Bolsheviks, and boogie men opposing liberal ideals worldwide which, like Soviet communism, needs to be “contained?” Or rather is it a supranational liberal economic union promoting free trade and open borders with the former Soviet republics who already share close historical, economic, and cultural links with Russia? For the answer to this question, one must turn to the history of the Eurasian Union idea. Indeed, if one explores the history of the Eurasian Union concept, one discovers that its originator was not Aleksandr Dugin, but in fact, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

As the Soviet system and Soviet communism was collapsing in the early 1990s, then-Soviet President Gorbachev took a bold step that is often overlooked: he proposed the basic framework for a reformed Soviet state. The new state would be a non-communist democratic federation (under Gorbachev, the Communist Party already began to lose its monopoly on power in 1989, a fact that became official with his creation of the Soviet Presidency in March 1990).

Gorbachev anticipated a referendum in which Soviet voters would be given the choice to vote on the establishment of this new state in March 1991. This referendum on a New Union Treaty was approved by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, including those in then-Soviet Ukraine, who favored it by 82%. It should be noted that a significant number of West Ukrainian activists had boycotted Gorbachev’s referendum, but even if one were to include the boycotted votes as “no” votes, then the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians still favored Gorbachev’s new union by a wide margin. Additionally, the only other Soviet republics that boycotted the referendum were the three Baltic states (which sought independence), Moldova (which sought to reunify with Romania), Armenia (which was frustrated with Moscow over its indecision on Nagorny Karabakh), and Georgia (under the influence of nationalist dissident leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia). Other than this, the referendum passed overwhelmingly.

Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin

Despite the fact that the referendum was favored by the vast majority of Soviet citizens, it was never implemented. In August 1991, communist hardliners, who bristled at Gorbachev’s glasnost, put the Soviet leader under house arrest in Crimea. In the end, the putschists were faced down by the leader of the then-Soviet Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin and the coup collapsed. Following the coup, Gorbachev sought to pursue the establishment of the new union that the majority of Soviet citizens favored in the March referendum. However, Yeltsin insisted on a confederation of states as opposed to a state federation. Gorbachev was initially opposed, fearing that a confederation would lead to disaster. However, in the end, Gorbachev relented and backed the confederation proposal.

However, even the idea of a confederation was not realized. Without Gorbachev, Yeltsin, along with Ukraine’s Lenoid Kravchuk and Belarus’ Stanislav Shushkevich, formally dissolved the Soviet state at meeting in the Belavezha Forest. Gorbachev lost his position and the 15 Soviet republics were now formally independent states, with some, like the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia, proposing independence referendums earlier. However, Yeltsin apparently did not want to totally severe Russia’s ties with the other former Soviet states (now known as the “near abroad”). Indeed, the Belavezha Accords also gave birth to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose association of 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics (understandably, the Baltics for historical reasons did not participate).

Nursultan Nazarbayev

Nursultan Nazarbayev

During his administration, Yeltsin never formally lost sight of maintaining Russia’s links with the former Soviet states, despite major problems in Russia itself (most of which were arguably the result of his own policies). In 1992, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was formed, initiating a sort of military alliance among the various ex-Soviet states. Two years later in 1994, in an address to a Moscow university, Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed an early concept for an EU-style supranational union of the ex-Soviet states. Then in 1996, this idea evolved into the Treaty on Increased Integration in the Economic and Humanitarian Fields signed by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.  This was followed by the Treaty on the Customs Union and the Single Economic Space in 1999 signed by the same countries along with Tajikistan.  Finally, in 2000, the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC) was formed.

Again, I have cited three individuals in this historical overview: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Nazarbayev.  All three favored some sort of integration and association among the former Soviet states prior to the major writings of Aleksandr Dugin in 1997, including his controversial fascist-Eurasianist work The Foundations of Geopolitics. The assertions that the Eurasian Union, at its heart, is a Duginist scheme do not take into account the integration processes that were already in progress within the former Soviet Union and therefore are both incorrect and anachronistic.

It can likewise be definitively concluded that, given the fact that organizations like the EurAsEC serve as a direct predecessor to today’s Eurasian Customs Union, the ideology and political philosophy of Moscow’s present-day post-Soviet integration effort is not intended to be a conspiratorial neo-fascist or anti-Western coalition. Rather, it is at its core a liberal idea, intended to promote open borders, free trade, and economic and cultural exchange among the ex-Soviet states, who already share much culture with Russia. In the words of fellow Russia watcher and commentator Mark Adomanis:

Without lapsing into cartoonish Kremlinology, I do think it’s noteworthy and important that Putin is so publicly and forcefully going on the record advancing a broad program of technocratic neoliberalism: harmonizing regulations, lowering barriers to trade, reducing tariffs, eliminating unnecessary border controls, driving efficiency, and generally fostering the free movement of people and goods. Even if not fully sincere, an embrace of these policies is healthy.

…Anything that makes Russia more open to people and commerce is positive and can only serve, in the long-term, to weaken the foundations of its current hyper-centralized system.

Efforts toward Eurasian integration continued apace under the Putin presidency. According to Mikhail Gorbachev in a 2009 interview with the Moscow-backed network RT, Ukraine seemed to have expressed interest in the project as well:

We were close to creating a common economic zone, when Kuchma was still in power. These four countries – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan had 80% of the potential of the whole Soviet Union. It was a great force. And if you look at all the natural resources… But then many things got in the way of this process – Caucasus, Ukraine.

US President George W. Bush with Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili

US President George W. Bush with Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili

The “things” to which Gorbachev referred were efforts by the United States to expand its geopolitical sphere of influence deep into post-Soviet territory, particularly in Ukraine and Georgia. The US administration of George W. Bush, with the aid of Western NGOs and both major American political parties, sought to promote pro-Western “color revolutions” in the ex-Soviet states. They aggressively focused particularly on Georgia, which was Moscow’s historic “center” in the Caucasus, and Ukraine, a country with which Russia shares deep historical, cultural, economic, and even personal ties. The spread of such revolutions also happily, and not coincidentally, intersected with American and Western energy interests in the region. American oil companies showed particular interest in resource-rich states like Azerbaijan and the “stans” of Central Asia.

George F. Kennan

George F. Kennan

The new leaderships of both Ukraine and Georgia also set an overtly pro-Western course to join both the EU and NATO, much to the Kremlin’s annoyance. In the early 1990s, the administration of US President George H. W. Bush squarely promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would “not move one inch eastward” beyond East Germany as a means to ensure Soviet support for German reunification. However in 1997, under the Clinton administration, the United States backpedaled on its promise to Moscow by inviting several former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO and also intimating the promise of EU membership. Though accepted by Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO by Washington annoyed and antagonized Moscow. In this regard, the words of the great diplomat, George F. Kennan in February 1997 were especially prophetic:

Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold war era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.

Gorbachev echoed this sentiment in his 1999 book On My Country and the World:

The danger of a new division of the continent has arisen with NATO’s expansion to the East, which will inevitably encourage military preparations in a number of countries on the continent.

Václav Havel

Václav Havel

However, neither Kennan’s nor Gorbachev’s words were ever heeded by Washington policymakers. Eventually, both NATO and the EU expanded to include virtually all of the former Warsaw Pact states in Central-Eastern Europe as well as the three former Soviet Baltic states. The late Czech President Václav Havel likewise observed that while the Kremlin was annoyed by NATO expansion in Central-Eastern Europe, the expansion into the three Baltic states caused even greater concern to them. Now NATO was on the very doorstep of St. Petersburg. Havel specifically recalled in his 2007 memoir To the Castle and Back:

It was no longer just a small compromise, but a clear indication that the spheres of interest once defined by the Iron Curtain had come to an end. Yeltsin had generously supported Czech membership in NATO, but the Baltic republics must have been very hard for Putin to swallow.

Feeling threatened by the prospect of further NATO expansion and by the provocative behavior of the new “color revolution” governments in Kiev, and especially Tbilisi (with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili being especially antagonistic), Moscow redoubled its post-Soviet integration efforts. The groundwork for the present-day Eurasian Customs Union was first laid in August 2006 at an informal EurAsEC summit meeting in Sochi between Putin, Nazarbayev, and Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Efforts toward forming the actual Customs Union intensified in 2008, the year of the NATO Bucharest Summit, the South Ossetian war, and the start of the Eurozone crisis.  They intensified even more the following year, especially after the official formation of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program to bring ex-Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia into the EU. In November 2009, the Presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia officially agreed to form the customs union in Minsk. On 1 January 2010, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia (today the Eurasian Economic Community Customs Union) was officially launched. In November 2011, the leaders of the three countries met and set 2015 as the target date for establishing the new supranational union. It also recognized the Eurasian Economic Commission, paving the way for the Eurasian economic space in 2012.

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

Mikhail Gorbachev (NBC)

The primary Russian motive behind the establishment of the Eurasian Union is not historic imperial ambition. In fact, from a Russian perspective, some of the ex-Soviet countries can be viewed as a liability. However, for economic, historic, geopolitical, and security reasons, they are viewed as essential. For Moscow, their necessity has been even more pronounced in light of recent American and Western efforts to aggressively expand NATO into the post-Soviet space, despite earlier promises to the contrary. Yet none of this changes the fact that the prevailing popular perception of the Eurasian Union in the West and among some in the former Soviet countries is that it is a “new Russian empire,” a sad commentary on that which is a falsely propagated historical perspective. In his 2009 interview with RT, Gorbachev, referring to the US-backed “color revolution” governments, stated that “they keep thinking that Russia wants to create a new empire.” When asked whether or not this was the case, he immediately responded:

Not at all. Putin was giving an interview to Le Figaro. He got the same question about imperial ambitions. His answer was a definite no. Russia’s position [by Yeltsin] defined the fall of the Soviet Union. If it were not for Russia, the Soviet Union would still exist. This was the first time I heard this revelation from Putin. I think we need economic co-operation [in the former USSR].

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev expressed the same opinion in an interview with Georgian television in August 2013 where he stated that the CU “is not about restoring the Soviet Union. Who needs the restoration of the Soviet Union? We live in the 21st century.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The perception of the CU as a “new Russian empire” happily coincides with Western geopolitical distrust of Russia and with prevailing narratives in the Western media that Russia is engaging in “19th century diplomacy” and that Putin has “neo-Soviet” ambitions (which is a misnomer because Putin is a moderate nationalist, not a communist). Further, in April 2005, Putin himself publicly lamented the breakup of the USSR as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In that quote, Putin was referring to the conglomerate of republics (USSR), not communism. Though this sentiment is widespread in the former USSR and has been even endorsed by Mikhail Gorbachev, many in the West have taken this quote as evidence of Putin’s clandestine neo-imperial agenda. The same quote has only heightened suspicions toward the CU among many in the former Soviet republics as to the real intentions of the Kremlin-backed geopolitical project. Also, a month later, Putin even clarified his remarks in an interview with German television by stating:

Germany reunites, and the Soviet Union breaks up, and this surprises you. That’s strange.

I think you’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater – that’s the problem. Liberation from dictatorship should not necessarily be accompanied by the collapse of the state.

As for the tragedy that I talked about, it is obvious. Imagine that one morning people woke up and discovered that from now on they did not live in a common nation, but outside the borders of the Russian Federation, although they always identified themselves as a part of the Russian people. And there are not five, ten or even a thousand of these people, and not just a million. There are 25 million of them. Just think about this figure! This is the obvious tragedy, which was accompanied with the severance of family and economic ties, with the loss of all the money people had saved in the bank accounts their entire lives, along with other difficult consequences. Is this not a tragedy for individual people? Of course it’s a tragedy!

People in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain. We do not regret this, we simply state the fact and know that we need to look ahead, not backwards. We will not allow the past to drag us down and stop us from moving ahead. We understand where we should move. But we must act based on a clear understanding of what happened.

Overall, the Eurasian Union concept is not new.  It is not a Russian imperial conspiracy rooted in Duginist neo-fascist tracts, but rather a liberal pro-market project aimed at opening borders and encouraging economic development among the former Soviet states.  It is this reality that the West should fundamentally understand when analyzing Russia’s Eurasian Union initiative.

Why Ukraine is Not Czechoslovakia

Map of Czechoslovakia in 1980, showing the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic.

Map of the former Czechoslovakia in 1980, showing the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic.

With regard to Ukraine’s social and cultural divisions, commentators have rushed to speculate that the country may very well split into even East and West halves in the manner of Czechoslovakia in 1993. However, such commentaries fail to understand the genuine dynamics of Ukraine today or indeed, the dynamics of the historical entity of Czechoslovakia.

Primarily, throughout their history, the Czechs and the Slovaks viewed themselves as two distinct, though closely related, ethnic groups who speak two distinct, though mutually intelligible West Slavic languages. During the communist era and specifically beginning in 1969, Czechoslovakia existed as a federation comprised of two states: the Czech Socialist Republic and the Slovak Socialist Republic. With the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, this internal administrative boundary, defined by geography, history, and language, became an international boundary.

By contrast, while there are strong regional divisions within Ukraine, the vast majority of the people in the country self-identify as “Ukrainians.” The only exceptions to this would be the Carpatho-Ukrainians (also known as the Carpathian Ruthenians or Rusyns) of the far-west Zakarpattia Oblast who speak their own distinct East Slavic language, and ethnic minorities like Russians, Romanians, Belarusians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and others.

Therefore, if the people in Lviv have anything in common with the people of Donetsk, it is that the majority of the population still self-identifies as being ethnic Ukrainian. Certainly, the concept of what it means to be Ukrainian would vary from Lviv to Donetsk. At the end of the day though, neither would identify as being part of a “Galician” or “Donbasian” ethnic group. They would regard themselves as “Ukrainians.”

Further complicating the overly-simplistic “East” vs. “West” narrative is the added presence of Central Ukraine. As I have reported in my earlier analysis, the people here are not strictly Ukrainian or Russian speakers. Rather, they speak Surzhyk, a mixed Russian-Ukrainian language, in the countryside and Russian in urban areas. Consequently, it is Central Ukraine that forms the point at which the Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine gradually blends into the Russian-speaking East. Politically, the people here are more moderate and navigate between the two extremes of Lviv and Donetsk. In some respects, the region acts much like a “swing state” in the American Midwest.

Linguistic Map of Ukraine

Linguistic Map of Ukraine, utilizing 2009 information from the Kiev National Linguistic University and data from the 2001 Ukrainian Census. Note that Ukrainian is highlighted in yellow. The mixed Russian-Ukrainian language Surzhyk is in orange. Russian is in red. Carpathian Ruthenian (spoken in Zakarpattia) is in the red-violet color. The Bulgarian, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, Tatar, and Trasianka (Belarusian) minorities are also highlighted.

Further, there are also interesting cases in oblasts like Sumy and Kirovohrad. In both of these regions Russian is linguistically dominant, but politically, historically, and socially these regions are considered part of Central Ukraine. Western commentators who impose strict East-West divides onto Ukraine often include Sumy and Kirovohrad in the “West” simply because the Central Ukrainian oblasts have been voting for more pro-Western politicians since the 2004 Orange Revolution. In fact, in the case of regions like Kirovohrad, the pro-Western candidate just happened to get a slight electoral edge over their pro-Moscow competitor. Yet to define the people of Central Ukraine as being definitively part of Western Ukraine would be an oversimplification and would ignore the historical fact that the people of Central Ukraine have been largely part of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union for the bulk of their modern history.

Thus, unlike the case of the Czechs and Slovaks in the former Czechoslovakia, the divide between what is “Eastern Ukraine” and what is “Western Ukraine” is unclear. This makes any effort at partitioning Ukraine into precise “East” and “West” halves impossible, thus ruling out any sort of “Velvet Divorce” Czechoslovak-style breakup. It also makes the overall situation in Ukraine potentially more dangerous, especially since the government in Kiev has been seized by mostly West Ukrainian activists. Indeed, if one observes the composition of the current Yatsenyuk government, one will find a preponderance of individuals from all political strands (from the pro-EU liberals to the far-right fascists) who can trace their origins back to the oblasts of Western Ukraine.