Re: Ukraine

Ukraine Research Group Blog

Olena Podolian reviews recent Anders Åslund’s book

Review by Olena Podolian

Author & Title: Åslund, Anders, Ukraine. What Went Wrong and How to Fix It. Washington, DC: Peterson Institute for International Economics, 2015, xix + 273pp., £22.95/$25.95 p/b.

The book is written on the premise that urgent and fundamental reform is needed for the national security and very survival of Ukraine as an independent state. It stays true to this throughout and lives up to the promise in its title. Ukraine’s and Central and Eastern European political and economic developments are meticulously narrated and thoroughly explained. The focus is on the ongoing fight against corruption and decentralization in Ukraine, along with relations with the EU and Russian Federation, including the latter’s military aggression.
Current political events and the economic situation in Ukraine underline the timeliness and empirical value of the book. In particular, the dramatic resignation by the Minister for Economic Development and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius, on 3 February 2016, which provoked outrage at home and concern abroad among Ukraine’s Western partners due to the practice being exposed of appointing ministers’ deputies in an underhand way. Although that resignation happened almost a year after the book’s publication, Åslund documents the case of Mr Abromavicius’ predecessor, the Minister of the Economy Pavlo Sheremeta, who resigned for similar reasons on 20 August 2014 (p. 111).This reveals the analytical insight of the book. (more…)

Being different against the wind: a crash course in the history of Ukrainian classical music

“For God’s sake, put on your сuffs, they are asking whether we have a culture!”, Ukrainian modernist poet Pavlo Tycyna famously exclaimed in 1920 when the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic was clearly losing its struggle for existence. As always in the Ukrainian case, the political recognition of the country went hand in hand with the question of its cultural recognition. Ukraine was often relegated to the status of a “peasant culture” in teh shadow of more powerful Russian and Polish legacies. However, this is not completely true.

Even today people who are familiar with things Ukrainian – let alone members of wider public – feel they are in an uncharted territory when topic shifts to Ukrainian culture. Hardly any writers or painters can be named (unless the person is a narrow expert). We intend to publish concise overviews of Ukrainian culture in our blog, and we do start with Ukrainian classical music.

Professional Ukrainian music originated in the 18th century on the ground of the local tradition which merged folk, church and court music under significant influence of the Western European musical culture (first Italian, later, in the 19th century, also German). It shared a lot of features common for the professional music of other Slavic nations (such as political implications and involvement in struggle for independence, extensive use of folk music material, non-standard harmonic consequences, changing meter, asymmetrical music phrases and periods, unusual modes such as “Roma” minor or Dorian mode etc). And yet at the same time it is highly specific and original even against the showy Slavic background. (more…)

What are the origins of the modern Ukraine?

We are happy to share, with the permission of the producers and special thanks to Prof Marko Robert Stech, a concise and wonderfully clear piece on Mykhailo Drahomanov (1841-1895) Old Hromada movement that pretty much laid out the foundations of the modern Ukrainian political project.

If you want to know where Ukraine comes from and have only 8 minutes, this video is a must!

A conspiracy or the first Ukrainian political party? Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood in context

When Ukraine was imagined as the centre of a huge Slavonic empire… No, we are not kidding. Arguably the first modern attempt at thinking Ukraine politically dates back to the 1840s and is linked to the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood who had exactly this plan for Ukraine in mind. Check out this short and informative video from our colleagues from Kontakt TV who explain the Ukrainian movement of the early 1800s in less than 10 minutes!

Les’ Kurbas: the high point of Ukrainian modernism

Ukraine Research Group has an ambition to post more information about Ukrainian culture within its blog, which we feel is an important task. Unfortunately, three decades into Ukraine’s independence, the culture of the country is hardly well known around the world. We have reached an agreement with our colleagues in Canada who produce extremely well-researched and understandable videos clarifying some aspects of Ukrainian culture and history. With their kind permission, we are going to share some of their admirable and much needed work. We are especially grateful to Prof Marko Robert Stech who is one of the key people in the project and has kindly authorized the publication of the videos in our blog.

One year after Maidan, Ukraine needs empathy more than weapons

It’s been a year since Ukrainians took to the streets to protest, fight and die under the European flags alongside their national banners. The protest won. But the more time passes, the more it becomes obvious just how much trauma was inflicted on these people by violence during the later stages of Maidan, by loss of the established borders of the country and by war in two Eastern regions. So it makes sense to check up the current situation in the relations between Ukraine and Europe from the perspective of psychology and emotions.

I don’t mean any kind of systematic research or scientific psychology – they are yet to pay their attention to Maidan, and I’m no psychologist myself. I mean very practical, very common, very everyday kind of psychology that lay people enjoy so much (including myself). Let’s look at the current feeling between Ukraine and Europe as if this is a popular magazine rather than a research blog. (more…)

Crimea: mediatisations

By Roman Horbyk

Some time ago I wrote about the media aspect of Crimea annexation. I argued that its key developments were shaped by the overwhelming presence of the media on the ground and, even more so, by both sides’ awareness they were surrounded by millions of watching eyes. In other words, the conflict was shaped by the media. It was mediatised.

Yet Sonia Livingstone reminded us about another, more historical meaning of this term.

The so-called “German mediatisation” took place in the early 1800s without Twitter and Instagram. It was a juridical rather than informational process.

By 1803 the Holy Roman Empire, the German state at the time, comprised over 200 partly sovereign domains. Many princes, counts, electors and bishops who ruled over them were subordinated immediately to the emperor, enjoyed full authority in their internal affairs and even the right to external relations not contrary to the Empire’s alliances.

But the Empire lost some of its possessions during the war against the revolutionary French republic. In particular, Napoleon annexed the left bank of Rhine. In order to compensate the losses of those German noblemen who were deprived of their lands as well as under the pressure from French foreign minister Talleyrand, the Holy Roman Empire eliminated most of these nearly sovereign states for the benefit of larger entities and victims of the French annexation. Previous rulers lost their land but not their titles and formal standing. Those who gained lands had to guarantee their loyalty to France.

This was eventually called “media-tisation” so as to underline the loss of imperial im-media-cy by the formations that until then had been subjects only to supreme authority “im-media-tely”.

The recent Russian moves in Crimea and Donbas are both mediatisation and de-mediatisation. Especially ironic is the contrast between the revolutionary France that destroyed by then a rigid and lifeless form and gave way to a more effective one. Unlike that, Russia is a reactionary agent in the current situation; its task is precisely to undermine, dissolute and devaluate the progressive aspects of the Ukrainian revolution. Even the de-facto organisation of the Russian Federation is reminiscent of a feudal empire very much in the spirit of the Holy Roman.

Through the annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Russia diminished the real sovereignty it had within Ukraine (which is comparatively more limited now).

Crimea was mediatised.

What the Kremlin wants now is to de-mediatise Ukraine’s other regions, to incline them to a union with Russia after their sovereignty is thus extended, and then whether to re-mediatise them within Russia after the Crimean model (less likely outcome given the financial cost of supporting 6 mln citizens more in Donbas alone) or to enjoy their puppet-state status. The maximum long-standing objective is of course to strip the entire country of its sovereignty, carve it and realign all but perhaps the westernmost regions of Ukraine in a union with Moscow. As such, this might never happen or take relatively long time; but for Donbas, it’s a possible scenario.

Just as the meditised German aristocracy of the 19th century, the local elites will retain their formal statuses. And, unlike some Kurfürst in A.D. 1803, they will preserve even their access to the means of enrichment and some degree of administrative independence that the Kremlin and the newly acquired federative subjects / mediatised satellites would be permanently negotiating ad-hoc.

The condition of the citizens in the territories occupied in such way is also similar to that of a mediatised king without kingdom. All will retain their formal status but won’t be able to utilise it fully. Those who’ll keep the Ukrainian passport won’t be able to enjoy all the rights that ensue. Those who opt for the Russian passport won’t have all the rights entitled to it (such as travels abroad or exercising their citizen rights elsewhere in Russia; media reports confirm this is indeed happening).

Of course, this is not about the precise repetition of the 200-year-old events. Rather, the comparison of their similarities and differences allows understanding where we are now. Russia, the ardent defender of the legitimacy, sovereignty and political and legal forms of the past, is freely playing with one such form, constructing and deconstructing it on demand, and the fulfillment of the perceived egotist “stately” interests is the only rule of this game and the only content of this form.

The case of Donbas slightly differs from that of Crimea. It’s dubious if Russia really wants its full absorption. The logic remains the same however: the game with sovereignty that should lead to an outcome of a weaker / more controllable Ukraine and Russia having sovereignty on Ukrainian territory through the extended sovereignty of the local authority. A game of mediatisation.

And, surely, mediatisation in the more usual meaning is a factor in the game, even though slightly differently than in Crimea. The regular troops can’t be shown, visibility is only permitted for the local-looking paramilitaries, to keep the options open for Russia that otherwise would be unavailable to a state in a state of an open war.

In need of new language or challenges for area studies

Last six months in Ukraine have been demonstrating an unprecedented mixture of human solidarity in time of social turmoil and the potential of unrestricted violence to be unleashed with unbelievable speed. The comments from experts evaluating the events in Ukraine often demonstrate pitfalls of the “expert” language established in the area studies. More adequate and nuanced analysis requires from the scholars to think on new concepts and theoretical schemes which could help better describe and understand the societies under question.

Starting from November 2013, when mass protests later to be called Euromaidan began in Kyiv,  many commentators kept warning their audiences of high popularity of nationalists in Ukraine. The fact that protesters on Euromaidan used symbols of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists made it easy for some area experts to label the whole protest as “nationalist”. In the elections for the Ukrainian presidency that took place last Sunday, 25th May, won Petro Poroshenko, the candidate that ran on a pro-EU platform. The far-right candidates (Oleg Tyahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh) got about 2 percent. Results of the elections considerably undermined statements of those commentators who failed to see more nuances of the protests than the presence of  nationalist symbols and the presence of Oleg Tyahnybok, the leader of far-right Svoboda party, on the scene.
It is not the first time in history of Eastern Europe that specialists got in the trap of categorizing grassroots people’s protests as “nationalist”.

Indeed, “antitotalitarian dissidence in east-central Europe was much too often treated in the west as framed within right-wing politics ” (Kolodiejczyk and Sandru 2012: 113). The emancipating element of the protests gets lost as soon as it is typified as nationalist. Such oversimplification blurs the picture of the society which is much more complex than pro- or anti-nationalist, or pro-European and pro-Russian. In his lecture in Berlin Ukrainian historian Andriy Portnov drew attention to obvious drawbacks of evaluation of Ukraine as “nationalizing” state and called for sensitivity to the inherent hybridity that has to be taken into account in its wholeness.

Anti-communist politics of national democrats in Ukraine in early 1990s were also often misread as right-wing, although it went hand in hand with the ideas of European integration, liberalization of market economy and protection human rights. Indeed, the national democratic movement of 1980s and early 1990s takes their roots in human right movement that included many dissidents representing the generation of 1960s (shestydesiatnyky).
At the same time, scholars have to be very careful and not underestimate the role of far-right parties, rise of populist politics and their public support. Rodger Brubaker speaks about the need to differentiate between nationalism as a category that works in exclusivist way aiming to challenge the political order by claiming a polity of and for the distinguished ethno-cultural group from nationalism as a category that can work in inclusive way aiming to create a sense of national unity in states whose populations are divided along regional, ethnic, linguistic, and religious lines (Brubaker 2004: 117) . The nationalism in such an inclusive sense has mobilizing and integrating potential. It can be called patriotism or national allegiance, the feeling that reveals one’s attachment to Ukrainian state, that in view of Anne Applebaum may be “country’s only hope of escaping apathy, rapacious corruption, and, eventually, dismemberment” .

Besides the need of re-evaluation of established analytic language area studies face structural challenge. No multi-faceted analysis is possible without expertise in one specific locality in relation to bigger contexts. It is not enough to be expert in one country and claim expertise in a neighboring country without deep understanding of local specificity. Only in this way, the society can be studied as an agent of its own history not as a mere object in the game of “superpowers”.


Works mentioned:

Dorota Kolodiejczyk and Cristina Sandru (2012) Introduction: On colonialism, communism and east-central Europe – some reflections, Kołodziejczyk, Sandru, eds.: Postcolonialism/ Postcommunism: confluences, intersections and discontents special issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 48 no 2, Routledge.

Rogers Brubaker (2004) In the name of the nation: reflections on nationalism and patriotism, Citizenship Studies, 8:2, 115-127

Andriy Portnov’s lecture:

Anne Applebaum’s article:

Games from the past: the continuity and change of the identity dynamic in Donbas from a historical perspective

Commentary by Roman Horbyk, for “Baltic Worlds”

In January 1929 Kharkiv-based illustrated magazine Vsesvit reported on a delegation from Donbas visiting the capital of the Soviet Ukraine. Over 300 workers from Artemivsk, the journalists wrote, wanted to “familiarise themselves with Ukrainian culture, see the proletarian capital and its achievements”. The workers toured museums, exhibitions, “zoological garden”, newspapers and radio newsrooms, met a bunch of writers and attended an avant-garde operetta. Some of them were given an honour of hearing a speech by Mykola Skrypnyk, narkom of education and the promoter of Ukrainianization. “Ukrainian proletariat, largely Russified in the times of tsarism, will gradually re-appropriate its national culture”, he was quoted by Vsevsit as saying.

Read more from “Baltic Worlds”

The annexation of Crimea is a blueprint for mediatised warfare

By Roman Horbyk

Mediatisation is among the trendiest concepts in today’s media studies. By it, we usually mean the dependence of our societies on the media in virtually all spheres of life.

The press was once a key actor in all processes from politics to culture. But now the very politics and culture are happening in the media and have to adopt their requirements and logic.

The March annexation of Crimea and the on-going unrest in Eastern Ukraine will be in media studies handbooks as the first truly mediatised wars in history. The outcome of the conflict was determined by the value both sides attributed to their media-constructed images.

Unlike the participants of other recent media-saturated conflicts, Kyiv and Moscow based all their tactical actions on the awareness of being tweeted, posted on Facebook and live broadcast 24/7.

We can try to imagine how the situation would have developed in a less globalised and informationally dense world. Well, there’s even no need to imagine: this is how things unfolded in all armed conflicts between Ukraine and Russia in the past, most notably in 1917 – 1921, when Ukrainian People’s Republic fought for independence desperately against all Russian armies, “red” and “white”. It was all about war as continuation of politics by another means, direct and open use of force, and conventional warfare as we know it.

In 2014, unlike almost 100 years ago, the presence of local and international media created a surveillance effect very much in the style of Michel Foucault. How you are seen is what matters most in the global Panopticon. And both sides put all effort to avoid the story where they would be seen as the initiating side in an all-out war.

The question remains, of course, whether Ukraine could afford acting differently given the combat, material and moral weakness of its force in Crimea. But both states dashed aside from “the first shot” just because they were watched. That’s why the first shot was never fired. That’s why everything happened the way it did.

Actually, the most important thing was perhaps not only the presence of a watching eye, but also the message transmission speed and the time needed to make sense of it.

High transmission and reaction velocity makes events more fast-paced, but it also complicates the work of propagandists who always counted on the belated reaction to manipulation that wouldn’t matter anyway when the manipulation was revealed.

Yet it’s also important to perceive this condition critically. The increased visibility prevented hypothetical casualties and made conventional propaganda less effective. At the same time, Russia managed to utilise it to its own ends.

Russia fully exploited the disadvantaged position of the defending side which was almost forced to assume the role and responsibility of a military aggressor on its own ground. This has all the chances to become a blueprint for future conflicts as the world gets ever more mediatised.

The annexation of Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea is the most mediatised war to date itself. Previously this title was contested by both Gulf Wars and perhaps every other visible armed conflict. But their claims were rather based on the extended and thereto unseen presence of the media on the battlefield.

In Crimea, however, the media became the battlefield. Information warfare was the principal part of it, whereas the use of force by the warring sides was, in their own unwritten agreement, restricted to the forms of a mediatised social movement with its repertoire of spectacle techniques: blockings and takeovers, protest as well as military occupations at once – a sarcastic aftertaste of “Occupy Wall Street”.