While the Russian army is shelling Ukrainian cities, destroying apartments, schools, hospitals, churches and nurseries, somewhere in a parallel reality – and in much of the media – Russians and Ukrainians are described as practically the same nation. They are spoken of as “brother nations”, speaking similar languages and sharing a “common history”.
In this artificial world it can seem as if these two nations are close and friendly, with only one person standing between them – Vladimir Putin. Everything that’s happened in Ukraine since 24 February is called “Putin’s war”.
But it’s worse than that, and I will tell you why.
It’s not just Putin who orders the Russian army to shell Ukrainian cities and villages. It’s not just because of him and his inner circle that Russian soldiers are shelling blocks of flats. It’s not Putin who shot civilians trying to flee Irpin – the town near Kyiv almost completely destroyed this week by Russian missiles. There are hundreds of Russian soldiers doing this, and many more Russian citizens who support it.
Sixty-five per cent of Russians support their “military operation” against Ukraine, polls show. During the first week of the war, public support for Putin in Russia grew from 60 to 71 per cent. It’s not unreasonable to draw the conclusion that most ordinary Russians approve of whatever it is they think their soldiers are doing on our land.
I could not understand this until I saw a news bulletin on a liberal Russian TV station that has since been closed. It showed that the vast majority of people in cities across Russia consider this operation an appropriate step to “strengthen peace”. One older woman said she was ready to send her son to Ukraine because otherwise the “khokhols” (a humiliating name for Ukrainians used in Russia) would come and kill us here”. This video is not available on YouTube anymore, but the people are still there, and their views are still the same.
Of course, when sanctions against Russia get even tougher, fewer people will support this war that they are not allowed to call a war. But this would not be because of what they believe. It would be because of sanctions.
The other narrative spread by Putin and parroted by much of the liberal Western media – that we are “same nation”, or “brother nations” – is even more dangerous, and is also untrue. We do share roots, in Kyivan Rus. But we went in different directions more than a thousand years ago. And all our periods of “common history” were periods of war, betrayal and Russian colonisation of Ukraine or its parts.
Ukraine was never an equal partner of Russia. Under Katherine II, the Ukrainian language was forbidden in all press and books. A more recent period of “shared history”, the Soviet one, followed a hard fight between Ukraine and Soviet Russia and forced on Ukraine the hell of collectivisation, dispossession and artificial famine. Thousands of writers and scientists lucky enough to survive that were imprisoned and killed as “borzois nationalists”.
Quite a few people in Ukraine still speak Russian and say Russian is their native language. But it is crucial to understand that this is not because they are ethnic Russians but rather because of Stalin-era russification. At that time, higher education, office jobs and state and regional government were all conducted in Russian.
A lot of Ukrainians understand Russian – because a lot of us went to Russian-language schools in russified cities, and even in Ukrainian schools Russian was compulsory. So a lot of us understand Russian very well – but not vice versa. Russians usually do not understand Ukrainian, because it is quite different.
Linguistically our languages are quite distant from each other. Ukrainian is much closer to Slovak and Polish than to Russian, and, linguists say, Russian is much closer to Bulgarian. So when you hear Russian spoken in Ukraine, it probably means you’ve met a Ukrainian from a Russified part of the country. In Ukraine, speaking Russian does not automatically make you Russian or supportive ofRussians, so the idea of “liberating Russians living in Ukraine” is crazy, like the idea of invading Canada to liberate French-speaking Canadians.
Why all these narratives about fraternal nations, similar languages” and shared history” are so harmful is that if taken at face value they support the idea that Ukraine and Russia really were unified – and that all of a sudden Ukraine decided inexplicably to separate. And this is simply not the case.
Just look at the crowd of people in Zaporizhya − an industrial city, Russified and colonised by the Russian empire and, later, by the USSR – but historically never itself Russian. On the contrary, this was a place of Ukrainian Cossacks, described by Mykola Hogol in his novel Taras Bulba, and it is their descendants who have taken up arms to defend their city against the Russian army. And if you look at footage of the shelling of Kharkiv – another big industrial city, also with a lot of Russian-speaking people before the war – you will understand why. There is nothing brotherly about it.
Nina Kuryata is a freelance journalist in Ukraine and former editor of the BBC’s Ukrainian service
Photograph by Roman Pilipey/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock