“Historical claims—and, in the context of central and eastern Europe, this means claims based upon medieval and feudal pretensions—have no relevance to the twentieth century. It is one of the great tragedies of Europe that peoples of central and eastern Europe, with long historical memories and little historical sense, cling so obstinately to these illusions of vanished grandeur.”
Pounds, Norman J.G. Poland Between East and West. D. Van Nostrand, Inc. Princeton, NJ, 1964.
Ukrainians and Russians
At the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, in order to emphasize the difference between the Ukrainians and the Ukrainians, news organizations divided the residents of that country into “Ukrainian Speakers” and “Russian Speakers,” and produced maps showing in which district (by default district is a political creation) each group held majority.
These were not people-perceived (vernacular) regions; that is, people who resided within them did not just declare who they were based on the language they spoke. They spoke both and dialectical differences are minimal. Rather, this was unrelated census information later used to show spatial clusters as a definitive proof of a complete ethno-linguistic dichotomy and polarization, as in the 2013 Washington Post article interestingly titled “This one map helps explain Ukraine’s protests.”
The above map was supposed to explain the unbridgeable divisions, followed by the commentary that also included this paragraph:
“Ukraine’s ethno-lingistic [sic] political division is sort of like the United States’ ‘red America’ and ‘blue America’ divide, but in many ways much deeper — imagine if red and blue America literally spoke different languages. The current political conflict, which at its most basic level is over whether the country will lean toward Europe or toward Russia, is like the Ukrainian equivalent of gun control, abortion and same-sex marriage all rolled into one.”
Absent from discussion in this and similar articles was a greater elaboration on the concept of the attachment to the living place of the local residents, and their socioeconomic interaction within their own living space. Never was a question asked about how they perceive their living environment when not using the arbitrarily-created local and national political boundaries as anything other than lines on maps.
In 2014 my colleagues and I created a set of maps to illustrate how, when political boundaries are temporarily removed from maps, we can see other important factors involved in the concept of the attachment to place. The following example, illustrated with two simple maps of Ukraine and surrounding area, emphasizes population distribution, urban population size, movement of people and goods (railroad network), and cross-border interaction. The only difference is the addition of the Ukraine’s boundary on the second map.
In the narrative that accompanied the maps I wrote the following words, behind which I still stand:
“Ukraine is a country with a short historical continuum as a nation state. The West views Ukraine as an independent state—a place with firm political boundaries—while the Russians’ counterpoint is that Ukraine is a part of Russians’ own historical homeland—living space without boundaries between Russia and Ukraine. Its political boundaries are the result of geopolitics and the Former Soviet Union’s leadership’s engineering of administrative boundaries. Both have little to do with economic functionality….Political boundaries mean little when the local population ignores them for sake of immediate economic need.”
The long history of Russian peoples’ fear of strangers and invasions is not unfounded and irrational. Concerns about the invasion of their motherland—one which, others would argue, is much larger to that of the Russians’ concern for the nations the Russian empire has occupied—have always been present among the people and their leaders. Collective memory of Ukraine as a part of Russian historical homeland is a much older cultural trait than the establishment of the Soviet Union’s internal boundaries or the post-1991 internationally recognized boundaries. It is this aspect that must be included in understanding why “the Russians are coming” and their perspective in the misalignment of political and vernacular boundaries.
Washington Post’s article “3 maps that show how Russia and NATO might accidentally escalate into war” displays a map of recent military drills conducted by both sides. In the commentary the following statement caught my attention:
“Russian leaders, meanwhile, have long complained of NATO’s expansion to their borders and say that it is a threat to Russia’s own security interests. Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the risk of NATO expansion into Ukraine as one of the reasons last year that he annexed the Crimean Peninsula, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. They, too, may be seeking to deter what they see as an increasingly active alliance – although it did not spark back into life in eastern Europe until after the Russian takeover of Crimea.”
That fear of the “threat to Russia’s own security interests” is the integral cultural fear that strangers are at the gate. In the absence of a physical buffer zone to protect them from perceived invaders, the Russians’ degree of fear increases. It is a cultural trait that should not be excluded from discourse about Russia’s geopolitical goals and how to prevent escalation into an open war. This trait perhaps also explains why the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union have never, in peacetime, invaded and occupied a country with which they did not share a border.