Can Europe Make It?

From the Baltic to the Black Sea: things get out of control

Watching the exit polls on the Crimea referendum in Moscow, Iannis Carras contemplates the implications for a Europe that has shown little morality or competence in this affair, of a Russian nationalism turned irredentist.

Iannis Carras
18 March 2014

“What really scares us is the prospect of civil war”… Father Iuri, tonsured in the 1970s and Abbot of the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, took another sip. The eighteenth century monastery of Saints Peter and Paul is in Nezhin (Nizhyn) on the river Oster, a town of approximately one-hundred thousand inhabitants a few hours by train east of Kiev (Kyiv). Nezhin itself is something of a Cambridge for the Left-Bank of the Ukraine with its elegant eighteenth and early nineteenth century architecture and a university established by Prince Bezborodko, one of Catherine II’s chancellors, who was a native of the town. Nikolai Gogol was educated here, and it was in this town that he burnt his first manuscripts, including a satirical description of the mores of the local merchant bourgeoisie.

A few words with the Monastery’s congregation following vespers revealed sentiments that are not exactly pro-European. “The westerners are trying to uproot us from our traditions” explains a young woman. Such attitudes are perhaps unsurprising given that the Monastery belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Though Nezhin is mainly Ukrainian speaking, and elections here usually produce a relative majority for independently minded but broadly pro-western candidates, the churches loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate (Patriarch Kyril today) have a larger flock than those loyal to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (Philaret).

A lecture I delivered at Nezhin University on the War of Independence and the construction of a Greek nation ended with a comment by one student: “here in Ukraine we have no national idea”. My conversation with the Abbot and his flock occurred in 2004, that with the student shortly thereafter; needless to say, the Abbot and the student’s views should not be considered typical. I can however count many similar conversations with Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine over the course of the last decade.  

It is such conversations that come to mind as I watch the exit polls on Russian television tonight, 16 March 2014. The percentage of voters participating in the referendum over the future status of Crimea, estimated at over 80%, took me by surprise (participation being the significant measure). If these exit-polls are broadly accurate, they are indicative of the strength of pro-Russian feelings in Crimea, though not necessarily of other parts of eastern Ukraine. Following on from the annexation of key strategic points on the peninsula, such results signal a de-facto (though not legal) end to the Ukraine as a unitary state. In this context, it is worth asking, what went wrong? And what happens next?


A few hundred meters from the Monastery of Saints Peter and Paul stands the neo-classical façade of the Church of All the Saints (Philaret), a church constructed by merchants from the Ottoman Balkans who settled in Nezhin during the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The parish priest, Father Alexander (or Oleksandr in Ukrainian), is a somewhat Byronic figure, a young historian deeply influenced by the writings of Archbishop Anthony Bloom of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain. Oleksandr’s home is overflowing with books and maps of Ukrainian history. “Without Ukraine, Russia cannot be – cannot even consider itself to be – an Empire” he explained “in fact, the future of Russia depends on the future of Ukraine”. For as long as I have known him, Father Oleksandr has been an advocate for democracy, and an organiser of pro-democracy demonstrations in Nezhin. Russian is his mother tongue, yet he makes a point of speaking with his children in Ukrainian. Though deeply Orthodox, Father Oleksandr both looks – and directs his flock – westwards.

Yet the romanticism with which the western media has reported on and (in many cases justifiably) lauded protesters such as Father Oleksandr has not – thus far – served the interests of Ukraine as a whole. In marginalising dissenting voices from eastern and southern Ukraine, the western media played directly into Russia’s hands.

The errors that have contributed to the current impasse include the premature deposition of Viktor Yanukovich. If one of the principle aims of the protesters was to strengthen democracy, then it is surprising that they ended up undermining the fundamental principle that power changes hands through elections. Arguments that Yanukovich fled Kiev are deficient, because a power sharing agreement was on offer at least from the resignation of Nikolai Azarov as Prime Minister on 28 January, Presidential elections being due in any case in March 2015.

Arguments that the EU could not rein in the Maidan raise a number of questions: why did the EU accord legitimacy to the new government when its first acts were to annul the agreement that served as the basis for the transition (intended to prevent civil war), to exclude eastern and southern Ukrainians from the cabinet, to ban MPs from an opposing party, to impeach the President without due constitutional process, to press on with the Association Agreement without a democratic mandate and to abolish a reasonable language law (subsequently corrected following an international outcry)? The list could go on, but the question-marks over the competence and morality of EU policies remain.

The result of EU (and, to a lesser extent, US) policies has been to leave Ukraine needlessly vulnerable to its neighbour: without an unquestioned chain of command, without an adequate military (EU funds will now have to be diverted in this direction) and with the allegiance of many of its citizens ambivalent. When the US and the EU argue – with some justification – that the referendum in Crimea is illegitimate according to the Ukrainian constitution, the Russians can argue back – with partial justification also – that the new authorities in Kiev are illegitimate according to the Ukrainian constitution. Legitimacy, it would appear, is in the eye of the beholder.


The Empress Catherine II passed through Nezhin at the end of January 1787 on her excursion from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In Nezhin she was greeted with a newly constructed triumphal arch on which this German Empress was depicted as a “sun” and “mother” to her people. Joseph II of Austria joined Catherine II’s tour shortly before its arrival in the Crimea, disguised as the Caliph Haroun al Rashid of the Arabian Nights, commemorating, in this idiosyncratic way, the submission of the Scythian Tatars “once the dominators of Russia” to “the yoke of a woman” and hence to the wonders of European civilisation.

Portrait of Catherine II of Russia

Portrait of Catherine II of Russia. Wikimedia/Klaus Graf. Some rights reserved.

Yet the conquest of Crimea was more than that: for Crimea was not only portrayed as the land of the ferocious Tatars, but also of the Armenians and the Greeks, who remained a significant percentage of the population up until their deportation by Stalin. These Greeks were imagined as the font of Christian enlightenment for Russia (Vladimir was baptised in the Crimean Chersonesus in the 980s), and, thanks to their ancient namesakes, as a font for the Enlightenment in Europe as a whole. In conquering Crimea, Catherine II was thus claiming a new status for Russia, a Russia that was not peripheral but central to the idea of Europe. While François-Marie Arouet Voltaire was toying in his correspondence with the settlement of Swiss watchmakers in these newly conquered lands, Catherine II dispatched a gift of a fur coat to the elderly philosophe, designed in the style of the Greek furriers of the region.

In vigorous debates that have been taking place through the Russian internet and in the Russian press over the annexation of Crimea, it is this connection between the Crimea and Russia’s future orientation that has taken pride of place. Over four hundred icons from the world of the arts have supported the policy of annexation on cultural and historic grounds.’s influential columnist Aleksander Baunov represents a different view: “the annexation of the Crimea would be the most effective injection against the westernisation and liberalisation of Russia […]. Crimea could become the hump that will prevent Russia’s European course towards western civilisation, the global contemporary world, indeed the future.” The debate over Russia’s future orientation has cut across the tattered dividing lines between liberals and state-conservatives. The dignified and large demonstrations on Prospekt Sakharova reveal that many Russians understand the nature of the crisis. It is not only the future of Crimea and Ukraine that is at stake, but the future of Russia itself.

A further aspect is, if anything, even more surprising. Up till now Russia has been a firm adherent for the principle of state sovereignty, a principle that makes sense given the diverse populations of the Russian Federation. The attempt to control Ukraine through a network of elite Ukrainians with close contacts to Russia has a long imperial pedigree, and was seen (by Russia) as consistent with such sovereignty. It would be tempting to claim that in incorporating parts of Ukraine into Russia proper, Russia is acting against its own self-interest. But as self-interest is primarily an extension of ideology, the claim would be misleading. Rather, what seems to be changing under the influence of events in Ukraine is the nature of Russian nationalism.

The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states by the Russian Federation already represented steps in this direction. As I write, Rossiia 1 TV is broadcasting an extensive report on the precedents for Russia’s annexation of Crimea: Newfoundland to Canada in 1949, the Saarland to Germany in 1957 and, most significantly, Kosovo in 1990 and 2008. Of these, Kosovo is the more interesting. Like Crimea, Kosovo was an autonomous area with a predominantly alien population. But Kosovo’s bid was for independence, not union with Albania, and Russia itself has not recognised Kosovo as an independent state. In fact, Russia is using an argument directly from the West’s tool-book, and both China and other potential allies cannot understand the niceties of Russia’s stance.

In a word, Russian nationalism has now become irredentist. And this irredentism will result in Russia’s forfeiting its capacity to influence events in Ukraine proper through elections, and weaken Russia’s position in other post-Soviet states. Ukrainian and Russian nationalisms are feeding off each other, but as is evident from the rhetoric on Russian state television and events in Donetsk it is the Russian variety that has the potential to cause the greater turbulence. And this represents the greatest challenge facing the EU: for the system of European governance, and the EU as a whole, represent an attempt to prevent irredentism and to contain the destructive consequences of nationalism. So far, EU policy makers have proved singularly inept in facing up to the current challenge. How, given the circumstances, should the EU act? 

Things get out of control

From the mid-19th century on, following a series of migrations from Polish territories annexed by the Russian Empire, Nezhin with its eight synagogues became increasingly Jewish. Most of those who survived the Second World War emigrated to the United States and Israel in the 1990s, but there is still a small Jewish community, organized around a synagogue. A steady pilgrimage of Israelis come to pay their respects to Tzadik Dov Ber of Lubavich, the “middle rabbi” of Chabad Hasidism, who died in Nezhin in 1827. “I feel Ukrainian” explains Mark Lipkovich president of the Jewish community, “but I’m very proud to be a Jewish Ukrainian”. Sitting around the same table, Larissa Milova, president of the even smaller Greek community, concurs “we do not belong to a diaspora. We are Ukrainians, but we are also proud to be Greeks”. Both take me round their respective cemeteries… such cemeteries proving a celebration of Ukrainian diversity.

Following events in Ukraine over the last month, I have found it difficult to fit the stories in the media to my experience of talking to people throughout Ukraine. Ukraine does not feel like a multi-communal state, the boundaries between the various communities in Nezhin and most other regions are too porous, for the moment at least. Yet every party to the struggle seems to have constructed their own Ukraine, a Ukraine which excludes so much, too much, of the rest… The countless maps we have been fed over the last few weeks showing (often inaccurate and always simplified) data for ethnic and linguistic identity are part of a process that recalls the empire-building of the eighteenth century and the nation-state building of the nineteenth. Territories are desired, and claimed for one or another sphere, as our west is differentiated from their alien east.

“We here need the Greeks” Father Vitalii, another Nezhinite who traces his forefathers to the Balkans, told me. “The Greeks connect us to Europe”. But the Balkan merchants of Nezhin also connected Ukraine to the Russian Empire with which they were trading and whose interests they frequently served. Thus the many tactical errors made by the West over the last month or so stem from a more serious strategic error. For from the call for Ukraine to join NATO through to the proposed Association Agreement, western powers have viewed Ukraine in zero sum terms, Russia being an all too willing accomplice in this game of chess.

In forcing the issue of Ukraine’s geographical orientation, the EU’s Association Agreement (in conjunction with Yanukovich’s corruption) precipitated a crisis, whereas every crisis-free year was a year gained for Ukrainian statehood. Further, in forcing the issue of Ukraine’s western orientation, the EU has undermined its own founding principle: that of reconciliation, a reconciliation that for the EU has followed on from the events of the Second World War. In Ukraine’s case this must mean not only reconciliation with Poland and Germany, but particularly with Russia, both as a neighbouring power and as the lived experience of so many Ukrainians both in their pasts and in their present.

Father Oleksandr was and is correct: the future of Russia does depend on the future of Ukraine. “We want democracy both for ourselves and for Russians” he emphasises. But Ukraine is very seriously threatened by a combination of nationalisms, Ukrainian and Russian. It is these nationalisms, rather than the fascism that has been the focus of so many reports in the press, that constitute the clearest danger for a peaceful and united Ukraine.

“Things get out of control” is a phrase from the Island of Crimea, a classic by Vasilii Aksenov that is frequently mentioned in the press as a prophetic work given the current crisis in Crimea. Things are, in fact, getting out of control. Constitutional measures including devolution may help reduce the dangers and prevent any further escalation of the conflict into other areas of eastern Ukraine. Such measures should now become a focus for EU diplomacy. But there should be little doubt: for better and for worse, the future of Ukraine also depends on Russia.


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