The crisis in eastern Ukraine (and whether or not you include the Crimea as still part of Ukraine or now part of Russia depends upon your perspective) continues to fascinate me, since it places so much pressure on the unique, entropic force of ethnicity. While ethnic identity often helps bind a nation, it can also—especially when it is brought into the foreground of practical decisions about which loyalties matter more—fracture a national community. It is striking to me how complex the stories of assertions of difference be between neighbors—and a conflict such as this makes me wonder if those populations who are most alike end up, due to the intense work required to distinguish themselves, channeling the most intense sorts of differentiating energy. Linguistic difference (as I discuss here) has been appealed to—yet the very smallness of difference can simply illuminate much shared history, such as Ukrainians and Russians each looking back for their origins in the medieval world of , Kievan Rus, the medieval, Viking-inflected Slavic kingdom (on which see this fine Wikipedia article).
This recent analysis by Steve Rosenberg on the motivations for those seeking to carve out a new sovereign state, the Donetsk People’s Republic, makes me realize that a yearning for an empire that can subsume ethnic differences is also a key factor in this conflict: for many, there is currently an intense stream of nostalgic desire for the past days of a Soviet greatness that transcended ethnic distinction. While ethnic differences were a major factor in the Soviet Union, with perceptions of Russian domination constantly countering the sense of a national identity that would supersede ethnic identity when it comes to questions of loyalties, it is striking to think that much of the separatist activity in the Ukraine is less about Russian ethnicity as about a yearning for the Russian-led imperial super-state. Many, of course, assume that Putin is seeking to revive a Soviet-style empire, as Oliver Bullough explains, and indeed recent economic alliances lend credence to this regional ambition. Reading Rosenberg’s article, I was struck by the combination of nostalgia for imperial togetherness with the obviously violent, if quixotic effort to carve out an autonomous territorial nation-state: two modes of state-consolidation sit explosively side by side. And as a medievalist, I remain focused on the fascinating conceptual questions that have been triggered by this conflict.
Since I have, in preparation for a Fall class on Arthurian romance, been doing a lot of re-reading of Arthurian chronicles, I have been thinking a lot about both continuities and differences in the ways in which medieval and modern challenges to territorial control were encoded. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Arthurian power is its profoundly imperial nature: though it is always easy to see similarities with ethnic identity in the way Arthurian empires coalesce, it always seems to me to be alien to the nature of Arthurian power. Arthur’s court would always grow by bringing in knights from all over the place, and the Arthur who enters into literary history through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain is one who both aims for, and largely succeeds in putting together a massive, transnational, and emphatically multiethnic empire. In my mind, Putin’s imperial ambitions are analogous to Arthur’s—and very much approximate the successful strategies of regional super-powers such as the United States and China, who have each expanded by first militarily defeating and then by assimilating various populations.
Reading about many separatists’ yearning for the Soviet umbrella that bound together Russia and Ukraine, I am very intrigued about whether the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is much more fraught than has been reported by news media for whom ethnic difference is usually, reductively seen as total. Arthur’s empire, grand in its scale, brought together individuals from many different ethnic backgrounds— and eventually dissolved due to internal strife. For some reason, I keep thinking about this imperial Arthurian experiment as I read about the larger context for the crisis currently wracking Eastern Ukraine, with its combination of a vague desire for grand empire and a practical focus on militarily securing a sovereign territory with emphatically modern, stable borders.