I’ve been living in United States for almost 24 years, and I’ve been writing for various Chicago-area media outlets, including Growing Community Media newspapers, for 10 of those years. And I am a Russian, of Russian/Belarusian/Jewish/Polish descent.
My Jewish great-grandmother was born in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire, but she left when she was still young, and she passed away long before I was born. But even if I didn’t have this tenuous connection, it would be impossible for me not to take the invasion personally.
It feels like a lot of people living in the United States don’t understand the cultural connection between Russia and Ukraine and, just importantly, the role Ukraine plays in the popular Russian conception of its national identity. Belarus, Russia and Ukraine all trace their roots to the country historians call the Kievan Rus. There is a great deal of debate about where the commonalities end, each of the distinct national identities begin, and a lot of it is unfortunately caught up in politics. But the story I, and a lot of other Russian kids, were told went something like this:
Once upon a time, there was the great Rus. Mongol conquest split the Rus apart, and western portions of it fell under the sway of Poland. But eventually, Russia threw off the Mongol yoke. The Ukrainians asked the Russians to free them and take them back into the great nation, and Russia gladly agreed. Belarus joined in somewhere, but childhood lessons tended to gloss over that part.
Under this conception, only Russia is the pure inheritor of the legacy of Rus. Ukrainians and Belarusians are Russians corrupted by Polish conquest. And it’s really too bad that the Soviet Union fell apart and they became independent.
Now, I might have accepted all of this without question if one of my classmates, a Ukrainian kid named Kolya, didn’t forcefully push back on this. “Who says we wanted to join you?” he would ask. What about the Ukrainian People’s Republic? What about all the times the Soviet Union tried to repress Ukrainian culture?
I still believed a lot of what I was told — but Kolya was my friend. And my mom, whom I loved a great deal, didn’t challenge any of this, but encouraged me to listen to other perspectives, saying that I wouldn’t be a well-rounded individual if I didn’t. This was enough to plant the seeds of doubt that would blossom after my family immigrated to the U.S.
Here I was forced, for the first time, to see Ukrainians and other people whose lands Russian Empire conquered, as equals. I learned a lot more about Ukrainian history, and Russian history in general. My views changed — but I think a lot of what I grew up with explains not just Vladimir Putin’s thinking, but the thinking of a lot of Russians who support him.
While concerns about NATO expansion play a part of it, the main issue is what he sees as the cradle of the Russian civilization drifting into the Western sphere of influence.
I think that blinded him to the fact that Ukrainians are a distinct people, who will defend their Motherland from invaders as fiercely as Russians would defend theirs.
And there is the other side of that coin: When you are taught that Russians and Ukrainians are intrinsically linked, that we are brother-people, an invasion feels like a profound violation. And besides, it’s not unusual for Russians and Ukrainians to have relatives on both sides of the border. It’s not unusual for Russians and Ukrainians to be friends, and build families. There are people who earnestly support the war, but I’m not surprised to see Russians protesting every single day since the war started, even as thousands of people keep getting detained.
I hope that, someday, Russians can truly see Belarusians and Ukrainians as equals, as the people worthy of equal respect. But that seems a long way off.
Before any of that could happen, we Russians would need to sincerely apologize and make amends for what we’ve done.
Igor Studenkov is a Chicago resident and regular contributor to Wednesday Journal.