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Ukrainians and Russians

Ukrainians are sensitive about their new independence, their place in Europe, and how others see them. An old nation but a new state, they are a proud people who want the world to acknowledge their existence, to take them seriously, to recognize them as a European nation, albeit a middle-sized one (like France, they say), and to know their blue and yellow flag and their national anthem. Above all, Ukrainians want the world to know that they are not Russians.

The second sensitivity of Ukrainians, after nationalism, is their relationship to Russians. The two languages are closely related (like Spanish and Portuguese or German and Dutch), the lifestyles are similar, the histories are intertwined, and they can truly be called Slavic cousins. But Ukrainians are culturally distinct from Russians, and the two peoples should not be equated. Moreover, the relationship has been that of an imperial power and its colony. The result, as Ukraine's national poet Taras Shevchenko has implied, is a love-hate relationship.

Kyiv is traditionally regarded by Russians as the "mother of all Russian cities”. (Ukrainians jokingly counter that the father is not yet known.) But that mother is more gentle and has less bustle and fewer hassles than Moscow. It is, moreover, cleaner, neater, and more pleasant, with tree-lined boulevards, stately statues, and green parks. Above the Dnipro River stand gold-domed churches, baroque buildings, scholarly institutes and universities, museums, and theaters.

Khreshchatyk Boulevard, the main shopping street, is lined with chestnut trees and is a sight to see in spring. The Golden Gate of Kyiv, the formal entrance to the Old City memorialized in Mussorgsky's symphonic poem Pictures at an Exhibition, has been restored to its former splendor. Wealth differentiation is less visible in Kyiv than in Moscow; Ukrainians are less showy than Russians about their successes.

Ukrainian villages also differ from Russian. The Ukrainian villages are more tidy and orderly. The simplest peasant cottages are decorated on the outside with elaborate wood carvings and on the inside with colorful embroidered pillows and kylyms (wall hangings). Floors are spotless, and unclean shoes should be removed before entering. As a Ukrainian proverb cautions, "Don't enter another's house with dirty shoes or dirty words”.

Folk art is distinguished by bright colors, ornamental design, and great attention to detail in the embroidery of women and the wood carving of men. In the countryside, common agricultural tools such as straw rakes and horse yokes are painstakingly carved with cross-hatching. Those ornamental Easter eggs that Americans know are Ukrainian, not Russian. In contrast to Russians, Ukrainians are not seekers of great-power status and have no need to impress others. Behavior is marked by moderation and caution. Patriots and nationalists have a "live and let live" outlook but no "God-given mission" that Russians seem to have as protectors of other Slavs and Orthodoxy. Rather, Ukrainians see themselves as a mid-level European power to be included in all European organizations. Relatively few Ukrainians, however, have traveled abroad, and they are less knowledgeable than Russians about the outside world.

Ukrainians also have a reputation for being more sensitive and gracious than Russians. The warm Ukrainian sense (heart) is often contrasted with the troubled Russian dusha (soul). The great Russian writer Gogol was Ukrainian, and his stories of Ukraine are lighter and have more color than his Petersburg stories.

One explanation for Ukrainian sensitivity has been provided by M. P. Drahomanov, a Ukrainian historian and political activist of the nineteenth century. Russians and Ukrainians, he wrote, have a basic difference in understanding the word Boh (God). For Russians, wrote Drahomanov, religion contains elements of fear and awe. Ukrainians, in describing their God, will use such terms as "merciful" and "kind". Moreover, as Hrushevsky has noted, in pagan times when the original Ukrainians worshipped several gods, each of their gods was called boh, which means "good" or "weal" and bestower of welfare.

The culture of Ukrainians has also been shaped by their historic form of agricultural production. In Ukraine, the traditional agricultural unit was the hromada, a loose and voluntary association of peasants, and later the khutir (homestead), a privately owned farm. Moreover, much of southern Ukraine, after its recovery from the Turks, was settled and farmed by free men. The Russian agricultural unit, by contrast, was the obshchina, a commune in which peasants lived in small villages and farmed communal land together. To survive in their harsher, northern climate, Russians became more collectivist and more submissive to authority.

Ukrainians, with more favorable climatic conditions and the freedom of the open steppe, were less ready to submit to authority. They became more individualistic and developed an ethic of hard work, since, in their warmer climate, they were able to work the year round in agriculture. They respected private property and were economical and cautious about using their financial assets. These traits typify the kurkuls (kulaks in Russian), the more successful and wealthy peasants, as they were called before the Soviet collectivization of agriculture.

Ukraine was also less influenced by Asia than was Russia. The Mongol-Tatars ruled Russia for some two hundred years, intermarried with Russians, and left a lasting Tatar legacy in the development of Russian social life and governmental institutions. Ukrainians were under Mongol rule for a much shorter period of time and were less influenced by them. Serfdom, moreover, was imposed in Ukraine in the middle of the eighteenth century, much later than in Russia, and for a relatively short time, less than one hundred years.

And Ukrainians are not puzzled by that great Russian question, "Are we Asian or European?" For Ukrainians, especially in the western part of the country, the question does not exist. They have always known that they are European.

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Page last modified: 23-09-2012 17:48:37 ZULU