Empire? Nation state? It doesn’t matter

Bucha, Ukraine, 2022

The ongoing war in the Ukraine has inspired commentary by the tonne. Thousands of trees have had to be felled to produce the requisite amount of paper, but they’ve died in vain. Overall clarity remains elusive.

Some particulars, however, are clear enough. There is no doubt, for example, that Russia is committing a crime against humanity, which in the end may endanger humanity’s survival. Hence all decent people, a category that doesn’t seem to include certain columnists and politicians, must do what they can to defeat the Russian aggression.

The Ukraine’s cause is just and in this conflict she represents the forces of good fighting against evil. Those pundits who dispute this binary assessment show a lamentable lapse of logic, and that’s before we even mention their moral sense.

Their most typical arguments are that the 2014 revolution deposed Putin’s puppet Yanukovych in an undemocratic fashion (true), that there’s much corruption in the Ukraine (true), and that some Ukrainians are unreconstructed Nazis (also true). One may get the impression that Putin attacked the Ukraine as part of an anti-corruption and pro-democracy drive, not to stamp out her statehood and wipe out her culture.

It’s possible to object that the puppet Yanukovych regime had legal but not moral legitimacy, that the Ukraine is no more, indeed much less, corrupt than Russia herself, or that there are more Russians than Ukrainians voting for neo-fascist parties by an order of magnitude – and that’s even if we don’t list Putin’s party as fascist. And every Ukrainian election since 2014 has been free and fair, something Russia has never had in her entire history.

But any such objection would miss the point in a classic example of a non sequitur. It doesn’t matter whether the Ukraine is good, bad or indifferent. What matters is that she is a sovereign nation and as such has a right to conduct her internal affairs in any manner she sees fit.

Therein lies the crux of the matter or rather the whole matter. Many commentators, including quite a few anti-Putin ones, refuse to see the Ukraine as a sovereign nation, one boasting its own history, culture, language and unquenchable thirst for freedom.

Even most ‘liberals’ forced to flee Russia on pain of arrest still describe the conflict as a civil war, one between two brotherly peoples within the same traditional empire, whether tsarist, Soviet or post-Soviet.

Such would have been Solzhenitsyn’s view, had he lived to see the day. He always insisted that, unlike all the other constituent republics of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine was not just Russia’s brother but her Siamese twin that could only be detached by life-threatening surgery.

Judging by the ferocity with which the Ukrainians are fighting against Russian invaders, they don’t share that view. They insist, rightly, that their own history has produced a civilisation distinct from the Russian one, and they are prepared to die defending it. I’d suggest that anyone with any knowledge of history – and of the thoroughly evil nature of Putin’s Russia – has no choice but to root for the Ukraine. That to me goes without saying.

Yet whenever the debate veers into the area of political theory, my interest is piqued. Because again I think that both sides, the imperialists and the self-determinators, miss at least some of the point by a large margin.

The idea of ethnic self-determination is relatively recent. The empire was the dominant political arrangement throughout most of Western history. Some empires, such as the Carolingian and Holy Roman, were rather loose; others, such as the Russian and Austro-Hungarian more close-knit. The British Empire is difficult to pigeonhole because since the Hundred Years’ War it had no possessions in Europe worth mentioning.

In the Middle Ages ethnic differences existed linguistically, culturally and folklorically, but not politically, and wars were strictly dynastic affairs. All such differences were minor compared to the overarching unity in religion. I often cite Thomas Aquinas in this context. He was born in Aquino (Italian?), his family was closely related to the Holy Roman Emperor (German?), he lived most of his life in Paris (French?).

The idea that every ethnic group is entitled to its own statehood is a child of the Enlightenment, and the inspiration behind it was destructive. That great misnomer, the Enlightenment, was animated by an expertly fomented hatred of Christianity and the desire to annihilate the civilisation it created, Christendom.

The break-up of traditional empires and their replacement with ethnically defined nations, whatever its intrinsic merits, was part of this systematic frontal assault, and it can only be properly assessed in that context. Victorious Modern Man didn’t rank various traditional empires by their qualities. They were all equally abhorrent to him specifically because they were traditional.

Modern man had to wait until the mid-20th century for the last European empires to bite the dust. A few decades later the semi-Asian Soviet empire vindicated the laws of thermodynamics by rechannelling its evil energy into the conduit of Putin fascism.

These days the idea of every nation being entitled to self-determination can’t even be discussed, and it certainly can’t be disputed. Water is wet, table wine is dry, every ethnic group is entitled to its own state – such is life.

We have lost the art of moral differentiation and dispassionate analysis, having abandoned it in favour of generalised convictions or, worse still, ideologies. Like Orwell’s animals, we bleat “Nation state good, empire bad”. We just can’t agree on the number of legs.

In fact, there have been good and bad empires, and likewise good and bad nation states. The Habsburgs had their empire, and Hitler had his – but what a difference. Mussolini’s Italy was one kind of nation state, contemporaneous Norway another.

Some empires treat their constituent nations as equals, some as inferiors, some as slaves. For example, Finns did much better culturally within the Russian Empire than within the Swedish one. Having been added to the Empire, Finland became such a small part of it that Russia felt secure enough to allow the Finns to develop their own ethnic culture based on the Finnish language, a leniency Sweden hadn’t shown. In fact, a Norwegian historian once accused the Russians of having manufactured the entire Finnish culture, including its great epic poem Kalevala.

Some other parts of the Russian Empire didn’t do as well, and the Ukraine is definitely one of them. That’s partly why the desire for independence always smouldered there and sometimes flashed into a bright flame.

The Russians have always treated Ukrainians with paternal condescension, like an ever so slightly retarded stepson. The Ukrainian language was regarded as a Russian dialect; Ukrainian culture as strictly inferior. Ukrainian schools, publications and theatres were routinely suppressed, the way their Finnish equivalents weren’t.

The general feeling among the Russians was that the Ukraine was a backward place. In fact, the Ukraine is the most eastern of European nations, whereas Russia is the most western of Asian ones.

Ukrainians have always been independent-minded people, largely devoid of the Russians’ slavish meekness. Ukrainian agriculture resembled European farms more than it did Russian peasant communes. Ukrainians were always more industrious and thrifty than Russians, and their villages were seldom as dirty and dilapidated as Russian villages are even today.

It’s true that the Ukrainians haven’t produced vernacular writers of the calibre of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (Gogol, Ukrainian by birth, became a great Russian writer because his mother tongue was suppressed). However, the Kiev-Mohyla Academy was producing great religious thinkers and reformers long before such institutions even existed in Russia.

When Peter I decided to westernise the Orthodox Church, he had to import Ukrainian  theologians and clergy to do so. The most prominent of them were Theophan Prokopovich and Stefan Yavorsky, who were followed by crowds of priests. By the middle of the 18th century the Russian Orthodox Church was mostly headed by people from the Ukraine.

I’d suggest that until the 19th century the Ukraine had been culturally superior to Russia, mainly because it was more European. That’s why Russian rulers treated the Ukraine with remarkable cruelty: European meant dangerously alien to them.

When most of the Ukraine was incorporated into Russia after the partition of Poland, Catherine II introduced serfdom there, something that went against the grain of the national character.

And when the Bolsheviks took over, enslavement was augmented with mass murder, including the infamous punitive famine of 1931-1932, when millions were didactically and deliberately starved to death. That was the punishment for the Ukraine having used the Civil War to declare independence and fight all foreign invaders, including the Russians.

The Soviets went even further than their predecessors in suppressing Ukrainian culture where it existed and nipping it in the bud where it was just being born. That’s why during the Second World War Ukrainian nationalists fought against their Soviet oppressors and continued to do it heroically well into the 1950s, dying in their thousands with the words “Glory to the Ukraine” on their lips.   

Putin’s savagery is a continuation of that Russian policy by brutal means, approaching in that regard the Soviets and outdoing the tsars. The upshot of it is that all this talk about the relative merits of empires and nation states is pointless in the Ukrainian context.

A world of nation states is a reality, and it can’t be changed – for all the attempts by the EU. If any nation in the world deserves her sovereignty, it’s the Ukraine. And if any empire in the world doesn’t deserve her imperial privileges, it’s Russia.

Let’s leave political scientists to argue about the generalities. It’s not that empires are bad and nation states good or vice versa. It’s just that the Ukrainian nation state is good and the empire Putin wants to create is evil. Simple, isn’t it?  

2 thoughts on “Empire? Nation state? It doesn’t matter”

  1. It is simple. I do not understand why so many cannot see that. Another excellent article.

    I find it interesting that in spite of the modern idea that “every ethnic group is entitled to its own statehood”, the one state that was constructed entirely on that basis – Israel – is in constant threat of annihilation and endures constant verbal assault from voices in every Western nation.

  2. On the one hand, the Schleswig-Holstein Question was finally and simply settled by plebiscite. On the other hand, the Irish Question is still being asked and grows ever more complicated. Which kind of question is the Ukrainian Question?

    One form of the Ukrainian Question has a simple answer: Is the existing Ukrainian state right to resist Putin? Yes. But other forms of the Question are more complicated: Is the Crimea part of the Ukraine? Are the EU and NATO good organisations to belong to? And is there not a long-term problem in the difference of religion between Habsburg Ukraine and Romanov Ukraine?

    Meanwhile, we must support the Ukraine, not because it’s good but because it’s less evil than the alternative. It’s like supporting Sunak and Trump. Hold your nose against the stench and work hard on behalf of the lesser evil.

    By the way, speaking as a philologist I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Ukrainian is a dialect of Russian – in the same way that Russian is a dialect of Bulgarian!

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