The Asian Card in Ukrainian History

Ukrainian map

The event has a certain novelty. Quite a few Ukrainians have traditionally looked at Asians with apprehension and might stress the “Asian” nature of Ukraine’s Eastern neighbors to show their difference from European Ukraine. But the present Tatar emphasis is intended not to “Asiatize” Ukraine but to underscore its Western/European characteristics. Striving to be part of the West, NATO, and the European Union, Ukraine is well aware of the importance of benign treatment as an essential aspect of being regarded as a Western power. Ukraine‘s substantial Tatar minority in the Crimea is an additional reason to emphasize the battle of Konotop as a joint Ukrainian-Tatar venture.

The Russians see this Ukrainian/Tatar symbiosis as a sign not of benign Ukrainian multiculturalism but of a potent threat. This becomes clear if we remember the relationship between ethnic Russian and the numerous, mostly Muslim minorities in the state.

The relationship between Orthodox Russians and Muslims is hardly harmonious. The last few years have been punctuated by increasing cases of ethnic violence, some of which, such as Kondopoga and Stavropol (both in 2007), have involve several hundred people. The authorities’ attempt to decrease the numbers of Muslim minorities under the excuse of fighting “illegal” immigration has led to nothing, and Russian markets, where the numbers of newcomers should have been reduced following the recent government decree, have seen no decline. The Russian Northern Caucasus continues to be a trouble spot. Ramzan Kadyrov, supposedly a loyal Moscow viceroy, openly attacked the Vostok battalion, formally under the direct command of the Russian Minister of Defense. The terrorist threat from Islamic extremism also has not disappeared.

This troubling relationship with the Muslim and implicitly Asian—at least in the minds of Russians—people has led to a sharp reconstruction of the past. Throughout the late Yeltsin and most of the Putin era, Eurasianism, the doctrine that emerged in the 1920s among Russian émigrés, was quite popular. Proponents of the creed emphasized that Russia is a unique blend of Russian Orthodox and Muslim, mostly  Turkic people. The Mongols were credited with forging Russian unity, the blend of Russians and Asians in a unique civilization where tolerance to all creeds and ethnicity was one of the major reasons for the empire’s stability and expansion. Eurasianism has currently become marginalized or actually disappeared as a mainstream trend in public discourse. And this has led to the new construction of the past. From providing Russians with tough but quite useful medicine, the Mongols have been transformed into a great evil, all their contributions to Russian statehood notwithstanding. There was no “symbiosis,” and Russia’s liberation from the Mongol/Tatar yoke was a great feat. Not Karakorum—the Mongol empire capital—but the Orthodox Byzantine Empire emerges as the true mother of the Russian state and culture. It is from here that Russians received Orthodoxy. The role of Kievan Rus’, which pre-revolutionary and Soviet historians regarded as the 988 beginning of the Christianization (Eastern Orthodox) of Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians, is conveniently overlooked or marginalized.

The stress on the importance of Orthodoxy does not imply anti-Westernism, as was often the case in modern Russian history, but, to the contrary, underscores that Russia is historically a part of the Christian civilization of the West. Still, while the growing middle class is increasingly Western- or at least, Europe-oriented by its movies and outlook, the West does not reciprocate Russia’s love. The explanation of this phenomenon among Russian intellectuals varies. Some see the reason is Europeans’ inability to understand Russia’s European roots. For others, European unwillingness to embrace Russia is part of a sinister plot by various dark forces. They not only alienate Europe from Russia but connive with Asiatics to undo the ”Third Rome.”

Ukrainian cultureThis idea can be easily noted in the popular movie The Death of the Byzantine Empire, produced by the priest Tikhon Shevkunov (according to rumors, Putin’s confessor). The great Orthodox empire was corrupted by the Catholic West, with Muslims inflicting the coup de grace. Other movies shown recently on Russian TV focused on the conniving Poles, who throughout the twentieth century worked with Muslim minorities in Russia to undo the state. These minorities were seen as so dangerous that the producers of the movie were even ready to support Stalin’s terror, whereas in other historical movies about Stalin, this terror is presented as a sign of the tyrant’s brutality.

This fear of Asians, especially Muslims and even more their alliance with the West, is one reason the Russian Foreign Ministry reacted so sharply to the celebration of an event from a bygone era. The Russians see not just a sign of ongoing Ukraine “betrayal” but the continuation of a plan to encircle Russia. This often irrational fear is reflected in the real geopolitical squeeze between West and East, which increasingly pushes Russia to the gates of Europe, mostly closed to Russia except for Russian oil and gas.

Dmitry Shlapentokh,

Associate Professor of History

Indiana University South Bend

Department of History