Does Ukraine Have a Future?

David Marples

Ukraine is currently undergoing a crisis, according to several of its leading intellectuals. It is not an economic quandary, but rather one of self-perception and future path. Six years after the Orange Revolution had appeared to put an end to a neo-Soviet leadership, the country has yet to establish a national identity and a clear direction. One of its leading writers comments that although Ukraine is celebrating its 20th year of independence, it will cease to exist in 20 years’ time.

Are such statements credible? Why is there such a crisis of identity today?

In terms of politics, there is no question that the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych has reversed some of the gains made in 2004-05. Both Western analyst Alexander Motyl and Ukrainian writer Mykola Riabchuk have highlighted the cronyism and corruption of the Yanukovych team.

But it was author and poet Yuri Andrukhovych who expressed the “doomsday scenario” in an interview on the website (Ukrainian Politics) on April 5. Noting that Ukraine is divided today between “Soviet Russians and Ukrainians,” he maintained that opponents of the country’s independence are as numerous as its supporters. In this situation normal development is impossible. Instead Ukraine is being dragged into what Andrukhovych calls “the Russian world” under the leadership of its East Ukrainian clan.

Writing on March 18 on the website “Current Politics in Ukraine” (, Riabchuk observes that the leading Ukrainian oligarchs are afraid of a pro-Western policy, open competition, and the rule of law and thus abandoned the more moderate and centrist position they had held under the presidency of Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) and opted instead to back the Russophile group that is currently in power, which relies on tight control and brutal crackdowns against opponents in the best of Soviet traditions.

Regarding the pro-Ukraine policies heralded by the Orange Revolution, Kyrylo Halushko, a sociologist from the Drahomaniv National University in Kyiv, speaking at the University of Alberta on April 7, commented that they were identified closely with the personal fortunes of President Viktor Yushchenko and thus disappeared from view once the latter”s popularity began to drop sharply. Thus national symbols such as Ivan Mazepa, Symon Petlyura, and the Famine-Holodomor of 1933 are barely recognized in contemporary school textbooks.

An additional problem has been the figure responsible for those textbooks, Dmytro Tabachnyk, Ukraine’s Minister of Education and Science, Youth and Sports. In fact Tabachnyk, who has even been chided by Ukraine’s Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov for antagonizing teachers, symbolizes what critics perceive as the fundamentally anti-Ukrainian nature of the Yanukovych Cabinet.

How can Ukraine attain a national identity if its national leaders deny that one exists?

A study conducted several years ago by scholar Yaroslav Hrytsak contrasted popular opinion in two antithetical cities, namely Hrytsak’s native L’viv and Donetsk; one Ukrainian-speaking, Europe-oriented and pressing hard for recognition of nationalist heroes; the other Russian-speaking, Sovietized, and supportive of the Red Army heroes of the “Great Patriotic War.”

The point, however, is not that both identities exist—they surely do—but that they represent the extremities. Most Ukrainians are not interested in going back to the Soviet Union and the younger generation cannot even remember it.

Moreover, even the Yanukovych government wishes to join the Free Trade Area of the European Union. It is not yet confined within what Andrukhovych calls “the Russian space.” It has not even joined the Common Economic Space with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrivesvisited in Kyiv in April 2011, with a mission to coax Yanukovych to integrate the Ukrainian economy more closely with Moscow. Economic pressure is today’s substitute for the more forcible methods of the Soviet era. Already there is talk that the agreement on gas prices might be waived, and Ukraine could pay $US 350 per 1,000 cubic meters rather than its current $260.

Ukraine’s situation admittedly is troubling, but even the Donetsk group currently in control has its own priorities, and these are national by default. They have no wish to be subsumed to the interests of their larger neighbor.

Ultimately then, Ukraine may be defined not for what it is, but what it is not. And the key goal for Ukrainian intellectuals should be to find issues of common consent to identify what is Ukraine without alienating a large portion of the population. The recent past remains too divisive to be used as a basis.

The first task is to build up a strong opposition force that embraces democracy and the centrism of the Kuchma era without the corruption. The removal of Tabachnyk should be the first task. And focus should be on the parliamentary election set for October 28, 2012. Given the growing unpopularity of the government, there is a real opportunity to bring change.

The response to Andrukhovych is encapsulated by the title of Ukraine’s national anthem: Ukraine is not yet dead!

This article first appeared in the Edmonton Journal, 13 April 2011. Copyright David Marples.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta


  1. Pavlo Bakhmut

    At the same time, another study on social trust that Hrytsak often mentions revealed that Lviv was more similar to Donetsk than to Wroclaw. I think results like this contain the argument that could be used against Andrukhovych-minded creators of “Two Ukraines”. If I wanted to challenge his message, I would’ve gone about it like that:

    Unfortunately, Ukraine is not divided anyhow. Corruption in Lviv National University is not different from corruption in Donetsk National University. Bus drivers in Lviv do not seem to be aware of schedules just as in Donetsk, and the population of both cities does not bother to clean up after their doggies. There is no split between “antagonistic political nations” that Andrukhovych is talking about. The real gap separates Lviv and Przemysl, not Lviv and Donetsk.

    A “divide” Andrukhovych describes could be called a debate over language between Ukrainian-speaking Soviets and Russian-speaking Soviets. A series of insolvable questions include:

    – Who will occupy the position of autocratic head of the centralized state?
    – Which version of xenophobic collectivism will dominate?
    – Which part of Ukraine will get more welfare?
    – Which version of Eastern Orthodox Christianity should be given privileges?
    – Who will regulate the market and exploit the productive forces, Tymoshenko or Yanukovych?

    Two political nations? Give me a break.

  2. nhm

    to Pavlo Bakhmut: Interesting observations. I hope you read Mykola Rybchak’s Beauty and the Beasts in the March 18 wordpress blog. I think there is no question that Ukraine’s mindset as a nation is divided; whether it’s a two political nation or 3 (east/west/south)is of significance. Yes, corruption,banditry and lack of civic responsibilities invades all spheres but those who “pull the strings” overall matters. In response to the 3rd question somehow I think the Orthodox Moscow patriarchy already has that privileged hand.

    • Pavlo Bakhmut

      Of course, I read Riabchuk’s article. The mindset is divided and I was not trying to argue against that. However, it seems to me that both available choices are pretty much the same things. It does matter who “pulls the strings”. But it is of more importance if you’re taking sides in this debate.

      I was just trying to point out that the number of choices is quite limited. There is no debate, for example, whether Ukraine should have an official language or not. You can only choose which language group will be subject to coercion. Another example is the choice between “Stalinist” and “Banderian” historical discourses. I agree that they are incompatible. Still, they’re both a choice of a version of totalitarianism.

      My point was that no matter how incompatible the two choices are, they are both similar in their essence (normally statist, socialist, collectivist).

      It is not only a question of number of voters at any given election. The very way these questions are formulated make “Ukrainian” choices less attractive. Most of Ukrainian “alternatives” developed in Russian Empire/USSR ghetto and aren’t that different. It’s like “oh, you’re using Russification? We’re gonna have our own version of it, Ukrainization. A totalitarian ruthless dictator? What if we find a similar guy in our history?” This is all pathetic. If you don’t like Stalin, why would you make a hero out of some handicapped version of it? Real alternatives are not yet there.

  3. Amaro

    Well… As any nation breaking/trying to break away from oppression or better say “oppression” (does Quebec rings the bell), Catalunia (Spain), Pais Bascos (Spain), etc. The sole idea lifted to the highs of the political agenda – separation as an apex of objectives, it has destructive nature. Ukraine is no different in this respect. Незалежнiсть…. Yahoo! But what the next steps to take? Hm… There is no plan. No ideology. Democracy a la Orange revolution? Short lived spark of foreign involvement into internal affairs? We all now know how this turned out to be – further destabilization of Ukrainian economy which is ready to default any day now. So brave tone of the article is notably pale today. It is actually a striking attempt to measure a totally foreign to the author mentality against its own, quiet limited I admit, concepts. “Build democracy. Stop corruption”! What a universally short-minded generalized advice to the country which was robbed of its riches by going into independence process. I lived the process of separation on my own skin and didn’t watch it on TV. I saw faces of the people who lost their jobs in a matter of few month. Old woman selling their possessions to buy bread. Homeless children which appeared on the streets of Kiev. This was result of independence and democratization of Ukraine. Author should look at the demographic charts of Ukraine’s population first to understand the depth of the tragedy which was evolving there for the last 20 years. I would vote for any totalitarian or democratic agenda which would return my country to the level of 1991. Speak any language which would guaranty normal life for its children. But it is all but impossible now – it is all in ruins. Just come and watch for your self. Clock is already ticking. The most plausible scenario for the future of Ukraine is further disintegration.

    • YB

      To Amaro:

      Full support to what you mentioned about the year 1991. I am also among those who would vote for any agenda to pull the country out of the total and ultimate disaster. The country is definately collapsing in all aspects.

      The author simplified awfully the entire situation in the country. It is not black and white. It is not even white, grey and black. Things are even more complicated. Never ending story – the Famine-Holodomor of 1933 (just one of many things from the article). Sure, it is a moral obligation to remember the past, but it is not an excuse not to care about the present day. It should not be a kind of a substitution of the real today. Finally consequences of what is going on in the country within the last 20 years would turn one day worse compared to 1933 or something …

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