MOSCOW — The dials of the propaganda machine were never properly calibrated. Instead of talking about fighting Ukrainian nationalists, who like nationalists anywhere are dangerous and unsavory, it was simply Ukrainians and Ukraine that Russians were fighting.
Less than a year later, this indiscriminate approach has had identifable results. In an October survey of Russian public opinion, the Levada Center found that most Russians believed Ukrainians to be two-faced, jealous and crafty. By contrast, Russians regarded themselves as hospitable, peace-loving and reliable.
Sociologists noticed that negative feelings that had previously been reserved for Asians and people from the Caucasus had now been directed above all at Ukrainians. Countries always must have an enemy, or at least some sources of fear, from the outside. Now, due to the events of the past year, the central source has become Ukraine.
One of the local newspapers in St. Petersburg surveyed local Ukrainians (there are 350,000 in St. Petersburg) about how they were doing, considering the situation. "I don't know what I'll do in the future," said one man, who works for a major machine operator. "I think about it every day. I have a family, a child. Someone might come tomorrow and shoot my child because he's Ukrainian. I have been threatened many times, both online and to my face. My neighbors say I'm a Banderite [Ukrainian nationalist], but I don't belong to any such organization. I don't answer. It's a waste of time. I turn around and leave silently."
Millions of mixed marriages
There has been so much movement between Russia and Ukraine over the centuries that it seemed like the only difference was in national dances. Nearly ever Soviet settlement, in both Ukraine and Russia, had both Ukrainian and Russian residents. There are millions of children of mixed marriages, fast friendships formed from building the Metro system to settling Siberia. If you listen to people talk, almost everyone has a grandmother near Kiev or Mariupol or spent their summers in Ukraine as a child. And now they have all become "separatists" and "fascists?" Are we all really hard-working and hospitable, while they are evil hypocrites?
All propaganda is infectious, and when the Kiev-based singer Anastacia Prikhodko, who recently performed in Russia, yelled into the microphone that all Russians are bloodthirsty, insidious villains, one more person lost her immunity to the virus.
There are a huge number of people touched by this change. There are two million people living in Russia who consider themselves Ukrainian and probably many more who work here but aren't permanent residents or who are half-Ukrainian. In Ukraine, eight million people (17% of the population) consider themselves Russian.
It would be nice to understand why so many people were made victims, just because they consider themselves Ukrainian, or, like me, have a strong connection to Ukraine. Could the situation become such that I wouldn't be able to visit the graves of my mother and father, both of whom are buried in Ukraine?
Jan. 1 procession by Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev — Photo: Igor Golovniov/ZUMA
Nationalistic ambitions and contradictions are probably the worst forces coming out of the pandora's box that opened after Soviet power ended. Moscow had always managed to hold back this dirty wave, but now it's starting to overwhelm us. It's interesting, though, that our propaganda doesn't really grasp the nuances of many terms. It has started calling the Ukrainian government a "junta," completely forgetting that whatever problems the Ukrainian government might have, it does not have a single military officer or general in it.
There are more vocabulary problems. Since we were all told that we had to believe in the Orthodox Church to be Russian, it's hard to say how most people would actually identify themselves. Boris Yeltsin once tried to coin a new word to identify all those who live in the Russian Federation, but it never caught on. Now the word is only used in parodies of the country's first president.
In a December survey, 59% of Russians said they had a negative view of Ukraine. That's an increase of 33% in a single year. Almost half of those asked would consider open Russian involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine appropriate. Yet it is notable that 68% of those asked said they would try to dissuade their own son from going to fight in such a war.
A fifth column?
I'm afraid that if we start thinking about the different sides in the war there, many would become confused. Why, again, are we fighting with Ukrainians, so recently our brothers? A recently published essay by the writer and philosopher Maxim Kantor noted, "There are two contradictory ideas being spread at the same time:
a) Ukrainians and Russians are one people, therefore Russia has the right to decide the fate of Ukraine;
b) Ukrainians are fascists who have to be punished for betraying the Russian world."
It would seem that Russia has decided to protect this "Russian world," but no one can explain its borders or under what circumstances we should protect it through political means, and when we should send in tanks.
As for those Ukrainians and half-Ukrainians who live in Russia, are they part of the "Russian world" or are they a "fifth column?"
One well-known magazine recently put the knife to the government's throat, bluntly asking what this "Russian world" is, but the magazine got a very evasive answer. It turns out this world isn't geographical at all, but rather a socio-cultural idea. "It isn't just those Russians who live in southeastern Ukraine, but also the enormous diaspora of Russians in Europe and the USA."
If we follow that logic, though, our own country is full of other people's worlds. Azerbaijani, Ukrainian, Armenian, Tajik, Moldovan and even German. What if all those people were to come to a revolutionary self-awareness, which might then turn into a "Russian spring"?
The problem is that however the flames of hate were ignited between Russians and Ukrainians, geography can't be changed. The two peoples have to live next door to each other. The question is how will they live: with contempt, or is there still a chance for us to trust each other?