Russia’s president thought Ukraine would fold when invaded. History shows its people come together in adversity - by Peter Pomerantsev for the Economist
Before the invasion, did you struggle to understand Ukraine? Could you place it on a map or picture its people? Perhaps it existed on the periphery of your imagination, a bleak suburb of Greater Russia, which Vladimir Putin claims doesn’t really exist. You wouldn’t be alone. Until recently I had little comprehension of the country – and I was born there.
It’s easy to see why Ukraine confuses people. To the uninformed outsider, it confounds all ideas of what makes a nation. Most people are casually bilingual. It contains many histories simultaneously: the Russian, Soviet and Austro-Hungarian empires, Poland, Romania and, of course, Ukraine itself. This lattice of historical narratives has made many in the West feel as though the country is not quite real.
Now people are more clued up. The world has found its hero nation. Its Jewish president, a one-time comedian who matured into a younger, more empathetic Churchill. The elderly women taunting Russian soldiers. The hipsters picking up machine guns. The distraught yet articulate mothers with their sparkling children sheltering underground. The beauty blogger on Instagram bombed in a maternity ward.
Ukrainians have reminded us what freedom means – a word that for many in rich democracies had long ago curdled into platitudes. The resilience of the population has impressed the West and surprised the Kremlin. It shouldn’t have. For the past few years I’ve been trying to unlock the secret of Ukrainian identity by talking to Ukrainians. Through my research project, Arena, based originally at the LSE and now at Johns Hopkins University, I’ve worked with Ukrainian journalists and sociologists to find ways of strengthening democracy. My team has interviewed thousands of adults across the country. Our fieldwork shows that the response to Russia’s invasion has deep roots in Ukrainian history.
I was born in Kyiv in 1977 to Ukrainian parents. My family was exiled from the Soviet Union when I was nine months old, after my father, a poet, was arrested by the KGB for the heinous crime of distributing copies of books by Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov to friends.
Yet I never thought of myself as particularly Ukrainian. I grew up in London speaking Russian and was regarded as “the Russian” by my schoolmates. I first visited Ukraine when I was 18, and I was astounded: the sweeping Soviet avenues backing into hills with wild woods; the smells of beer and pyrizhky (stuffed buns) wafting between pastel-coloured, art-nouveau apartment blocks; the river so broad it feels almost like a sea.
Kyiv is a city of shrugs that never takes itself too seriously. It is made for strolling through and kissing in. People switch languages so rhythmically your ears are lulled by sing-song waves of Russian and Ukrainian. When I visited in the fourth week of the war, the city was empty. The tension was occasionally torn by the scream of sirens. But it was more beautiful than ever. The elegant buildings were easier to see in absence of people and cars, and the threat of imminent destruction made the streets seem all the more precious.
For the full article in pdf, please click here:
ILLUSTRATIONS: NOMA BAR