British historian Anne Reid: “The Russian version of Ukraine’s history has prevailed” | International
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Anna Reid, a 56-year-old British journalist and historian, lived between 1993 and 1995 in Ukraine as a correspondent for The Economist and The Daily Telegraph and has never stopped returning to that country. Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (“Land of the border: a journey through the history of Ukraine”, without a Spanish edition) summarizes his profound knowledge of this state. It is a book that mixes history with travel chronicles and that reality has forced him to update several times (the last edition came out in 2015). He has just published in Spanish an essay that has become a classic on the Second World War, Leningrad (Debate, translation by Raquel Marqués). This conversation took place over the phone last Wednesday.
Ask. In his book, he argues that being Ukrainian has nothing to do with a surname or the language spoken, but rather it is a moral choice.
Answer. Historians have greatly exaggerated the idea of border identity when referring to Ukraine, and I am the first to blame because I gave my book that title. But [el presidente ruso Vladímir] Putin has seized on this idea and many Western commentators repeat it without even being pro-Russian. However, the Russian version has prevailed that Ukraine has always been invaded by other countries, that it has always been internally divided, something that Russia especially emphasizes since 2014 when Crimea was annexed. And, therefore, it has always been condemned to be a failed state, a kind of land of blood. But it is not true at all. For long periods of its history, Ukraine has been a prosperous and peaceful territory, which has also been totally transformed since its independence in 1991. We cannot forget that kyiv and Odessa were two very rich cities and the third and fourth in importance during the old Russian empire.
P. In his book, written in the 1990s, he already claims that the Kremlin was trying to destabilize Ukraine. Did he ever think that he would go so far, that he would destroy entire cities?
R. I think that many observers, both Ukrainian and international, were unable to interpret Putin. They thought that he would settle for maintaining a low-intensity war in the east of the country, as if he had dropped a poisonous pill against Ukraine because, as long as that conflict existed, he would not be able to enter either the EU or NATO. Some believed that he might try to create a land corridor linking Donbas with Crimea. But even for me, who has studied that part of the world for a long time, it was inconceivable that he would launch his tanks against kyiv.
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P. Is it an exaggeration to say that Ukraine looks like a country cursed by history? He suffered the First World War; the civil war after the Revolution, which took place mostly in its territory; the mass deportation of kulaks, small farmers with land; the famine organized by Stalin that killed millions of people between 1932 and 1933; the Second World War; the Holocaust; the deportations of entire peoples after the conflict such as the Tartars; the 2014 war in Donbas and the current invasion…
R. I think that in the first half of the 20th century, Ukraine suffered more than any other European country if you look at the percentage of deaths over the population as a whole. But this was not always the case: it experienced a great boom during the second half of the 19th century, also at the end of the Soviet Union and after independence.
P. Why Ukraine, despite feeling like a nation for centuries, did not achieve independence until 1991? Why, unlike other nations that managed to become states after World War I on the ashes of defunct empires, Ukraine did not?
R. Ukraine has been home to a nationalist movement since the middle of the 19th century, which put a lot of emphasis on language, folklore, literature or sports clubs. Lacking political power, many civic institutions were built. It is true that other peoples achieved states after the First World War after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, it cannot be forgotten that two thirds of the current Ukrainian territory was dominated by Russia. And despite the fact that the Ukrainians sent representatives to the 1919 Paris peace conference, that contacts multiplied, and that there were embryonic Ukrainian governments in 1918 and 1919, they failed to persuade the victorious powers. And, in any case, any independence of the Ukraine would have been annihilated by Stalin, who did not hesitate to starve almost four million people and to deport and murder a large part of the Ukrainian intellectuals.
P. What does it say about Ukraine that such famous writers as Joseph Conrad, Gregor von Rezzori, Joseph Roth, Bruno Schulz, Paul Celan and even Leopold von Sacher-Masoch were born in present-day Ukraine, but wrote in other languages and hardly anyone identifies them as Ukrainian? ?
R. It means that it is a multi-ethnic country, much less than it was because Stalin deported or killed millions of people. Ukraine has always been an ethnically mixed country in which Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Romanians lived… A huge mix of peoples speaking different languages. This is something that defines Ukraine, that it is such a mixed and hybrid country and that it is a wonderful babel where different languages were spoken in the streets. Nikolai Gogol used both languages, depending on the audience he was addressing. Ukrainians could also lay claim to Anna Akhmatova, the great poetess of the Stalinist purges, who was born near Odessa, although she spent most of her life in St. Petersburg.
P. How is it possible that Putin managed to identify Nazism with Ukraine?
R. Ukraine was fully occupied by Germany from 1941 to 1944 and it was a brutal occupation. It is true that Germany organized two Ukrainian battalions numbering about 12,000 troops and that under the occupation the Nazis recruited Ukrainians for different tasks. Also that there were Ukrainians who were guards of extermination camps and who were part of the death squads that participated in the Holocaust of bullets. It was deliberate: the Nazis recruited Slavs for what they considered dirty jobs. But exactly the same thing happened in the Nazi-occupied parts of Russia. And it cannot be forgotten that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fought in the Red Army, that many were heroes of the Soviet Union.
P. Is history, or rather, the manipulation of history, one of the fronts of this war?
R. Yes, definitely. The first sign that the Kremlin was up to something against Ukraine was Putin’s long essay published in July last year. It was 7,000 words long and entitled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. It is a long text, beginning in the 10th century with Kievan Rus’ and reaching the present. It is quite factual, it does not tell many lies, although it is very biased. For example, when it comes to the Stalinist period it is pure post-truth. He does not mention that Stalin and Hitler divided Poland between them and then he talks about the liberation of territories that were never Russian and he barely refers to the Great Famine and only to define it as “a shared tragedy”. Western Ukraine’s concept of it is that it is a land stripped of its authentic Slavic Orthodox spirit by evil Westerners. Yes, I believe that history is one of the fronts of this war. I’ve spent years answering questions like do all Ukrainians speak Russian and explaining that most of them speak Russian, even though in the west they speak mostly Ukrainian and in the east mostly Russian. And that, in any case, the language you speak has nothing to do with your political allegiance. But it is a message that has not fully penetrated. Many of the soldiers who are fighting the invasion speak Russian and we have seen videos of Ukrainians insulting the occupiers in Russian.
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