I have always admired the expressiveness of the Russian language. Popular turns of phrase that have become enshrined in everyday language reveal quite colourfully Russians’ attitudes towards themselves and ongoing events. In particular I am struck by the way Russians reflect on failure with easy humour, as captured in the phrase ‘they hoped for better, but it turned out as usual’.
This particular phrase keeps coming to mind when thinking about the Ukraine crisis. Europeans, Russians and Americans alike all meant well, but what we got was something quite different.
This light hearted, rather sarcastic expression carries much meaning. It is an optimistic supposition that we will go on wanting things to be better, but then, it's not the end of the world if things turn out as usual. The important thing is the intention for the best, less the path we need to tread to achieve it, nor the outcome itself, nor any unintended consequences.
With regard to Ukraine, we all turned out to be Russians in this respect. Anyone who can write is writing about the crisis and its repercussions, but, unfortunately, not many manage to make sense of it. Observing the escalation of the crisis from the very beginning I see many clichés both in the Russian and in the western media. The vast majority present the conflict in black and white, or worse, as a struggle between good and evil. These narratives effectively create a new informational reality, making the conflict in and around Ukraine more multi-coloured, multifaceted and confused than it could be and is in reality.
With different forms of media so much more accessible than in the past, narratives evolve much faster, often disseminated at lightning speed. The constant stream of up-to-date crisis information mixes with historical narratives, which are then given a new lease of life. In societies where the historical narratives carry conflict narratives, these narratives are reinterpreted in the societal consciousness, thus influencing the evolution and even escalation of the current day conflict.
Thus we see how in this crisis, historical memory has played a particularly significant role in forming public consciousness. For Ukrainians, the memory of Holodomor – the famine resulting from the early Soviet-era expropriation of Ukrainian peasant agricultural reserves, which according to various sources cost the lives of 4-6 million people – is still acute and painful to this day.
Russian popular narratives are imbued with nostalgia for a Soviet empire, a common identity with Ukrainians, and an ‘elder brother’ syndrome, whose duty is to take care of his reckless younger brother. It is not surprising that this type of thinking results in attempts to restore historical justice and preserve the old order. For example, Russian narratives ascribing nationalist tendencies of Ukrainians are widespread and stories abound about the collaboration between western Ukrainian Banderites (the faction of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stepan Bandera) with the Nazis during the Second World War. Meanwhile, Russia forgets too easily its own problem with nationalism in the current day, which at the extreme end has produced public statements from characters such as the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party calling for restricting the birth rate of Muslim North Caucasians to no more than two children per family.
The decision on the accession of Crimea and the Kremlin’s course to keep Ukraine under its control has been welcomed by the overwhelming majority of people in Russia with enthusiasm and surprising vigour. It is so unusual for the Russian ruling elite to engage its people in public action, one can’t help thinking about how narratives are being abused to manipulate public opinion and justify risky political decisions.
The effect of stirring Russian society from its characteristic political sluggishness into such heated activism has been quite remarkable: on the whole, the public accepts and feels complete ownership of the decision to intervene in Ukraine, and is ready in future to accept the economic and other negative consequences.
However, there is hope that this newfound belief within Russian society of their potential to influence global decision-making could grow in future into an idea that bringing about other much needed changes may also be within their power.
Last but not least, it is not only Russian and Ukrainian narratives that have dominated this conflict, but also potent European and American narratives of European and NATO enlargement, which speak of the benefits for new members and even greater advantages for the old members.
Thanks to the deliberations of so many clever pundits, information about which political and social processes should be, or are actually, taking place has infiltrated the wider public consciousness and taken on a life of its own. We are all stakeholders, and regardless of whether we are in the midst of the conflict zone or we are merely concerned observers from a distance, we find ourselves caught up in this mythologising, which becomes our reality as we consume and reproduce the narratives – whether deliberately or inadvertently – according to our affiliation, sympathies, past experience, elementary awareness and our capacity for critical inquiry.
As the Ukraine crisis continues, other aspiring new member states from the former Soviet Union are also standing in line for the European Union and NATO, full of anticipation, anxiety and hope. The question remains, can we see beyond the narratives and learn the lessons from Ukraine? Or are we just going to go on hoping for the best?
This blog was amended on 2 June 2014 in order to clarify the writer's argument. The original headline was 'How narratives are blurring the facts on Ukraine'.