Linguistic concessions as a guarantee of occupation
Could ukrainization have prevented the current occupation of the East of Ukraine?
The processes that took place in the Donetsk Region during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Ukraine's independence were very varied and diverse. In some places there were miners' rallies attended by thousands, in others the death throes of communism continued long after the fall of the empire. However, the specifics of the Donetsk Region meant that the changes were much more social than national. Even active and progressive citizens were then convinced that it was not the right time for Ukrainization and that these issues should be solved gradually, without touching the region's sore spots.
"At that time, I was studying in Kyiv, and it could already be felt on a physical level that Soviet Union was no longer viable and doomed. Young people willingly joined the People's Movement of Ukraine, walked the streets chanting slogans, participated in events and rallies, and it was possible to buy books – samizdat with anti-communist articles – in underground passageways," journalist Tetiana Chuchko from Toretsk remembers. "But when I returned home to my mining town on the cusp of 1991, this inspiration gradually disappeared. There was a catastrophically small number of people who wanted real change. Especially when it comes to national consciousness, which was supported here solely by the actions of certain individuals. I remember rejoicing when a Ukrainian mural appeared in our House of Culture on the eve of the first presidential election – it was ordered by the then-director who supported national ideas. You see, this was like the first realisation that we were no longer Soviet, but Ukrainian".
Nevertheless, the Donetsk Region apparently expected changes no less than other Ukrainian regions. A resident of the village of Novhorodske near Horlivka, Aryna Radionova believes that from the very beginning it was necessary to present Ukrainization not as a process of bringing something new, but as a restoration of the Ukrainian roots that are ample in that area. "Even in the mid-1950s, more than half of the schools in the Donetsk Region taught in the Ukrainian language, because people spoke Ukrainian. This is especially true of, for example, the old part of our industrial area – the Cossack settlement of Zalizne or Shcherbynivka, where people still speak the language. I know that Prosvita [society supporting the development of Ukrainian culture] was active in the city in the 1990s, but our local authorities did not let its representatives into schools and universities to give lectures on the history of Ukraine."
Volodymyr Berezin, one of the members of the Poshuk [Search] political club that was formed at the start of the Perestroika era in Bakhmut, says that Prosvita was active across the Donetsk Region. (At that time, Bakhmut was still called Artemivsk, but activists from the political club initiated the first local referendum in Ukraine in order to rename it, which, unfortunately, showed the unpreparedness of local residents to bid farewell to the communist past.) He says that the club was created in 1989 as a base for the social movement and nurtured members of the local Prosvita and Ukrainian Language Community. But unfortunately, it was not possible to combine forces for total change: "The originators were workers at the local Victory of Labour factory, Konstiantyn Chaikin, Mykola Tkachenko and Volodymyr Isayev, as well as Oleksandr Labenskyi and the brothers Serhiy and Oleksiy Honcharov, who have already left us. Among the activists were Viktor Shendrik, now a rather well-known writer, and teacher Serhiy Chechui, who later moved to Canada. The People's Movement and Prosvita were represented in the political club by Ivan Birchak, a candidate for the Verkhovna Rada at the first elections, and geologist Vasyl Suyarko. They had a clear goal and worked towards it. For example, when we campaigned to rename the city, Prosvita made a lot of leaflets with a Cossack on them. The slogan of the time was ‘If Ukraine, then Bakhmut!’ When war broke out in our region, I called Vasyl, who now teaches in Kharkiv, to tell him how right they were when they argued that it was necessary to work on the Ukrainization of the region from the start. But we split up: I went into ecology, some people got involved in regional studies, others in culture, others still in business or solving the social problems of Chernobyl victims. Had we been more active then and achieved meaningful results, it is likely that this war would have been avoided."
I also heard from my father that the children of these activists now have to pay for what their parents did not finish in the 1990s by living through war. Once we attended a city demonstration together in Bakhmut, when the Ukrainian flag was carried through the streets for the first time in recent history. In recent years, as a volunteer, he sincerely apologised to the lads from the army, thinking that he did not do his best to neutralise the conditions for the declaration of the "Russian world" here. One of his friends also told me about the causes and consequences of the "unfinished" Ukrainization of the Donetsk Region. That friend was the aforementioned professor at Karazin Kharkiv National University, Vasyl Suyarko, a public and political figure in the Donetsk Region and one of the signatories of the Manifesto of the Democratic Party of Ukraine. He says that at the time he tried to convey the message about the need for the Ukrainization of Russified regions as a guarantee of the existence of Ukraine. But even those who were elected to Parliament did not understand the importance and urgency of this.
Suyarko believes that Ukraine missed its chance to implement a national idea with an "iron fist": "Historical experience shows that reborn states start with nationalistic authoritarianism. Do not forget that our country is not an ordinary piece of the Soviet empire, but a descendant of the Ukrainian People's Republic. I was present when Mykola Plaviuk, the last president of Ukraine in exile, handed his mandate, presidential attributes, documents and flag to Leonid Kravchuk, which confirms direct succession – that is the heart of the matter. The nationalist approach has positive effects: General Mannerheim in Finland and Piłsudski in Poland clearly demonstrated that this was the only way to not only form a national idea, but also successfully counteract military intervention by the former metropolis. People wanted a strongman, but the unformed post-totalitarian society was offered a parody of democracy instead. What we have now is a direct consequence of this. In 1991-1993, I wrote an article entitled The Donbas Will Be the Vendée of Ukraine, in which even then I predicted the events in the East that ended in war."
Vasyl recounts the steps that were not taken by the authorities when construction of the restored Ukraine began, which created the right conditions for the invasion and imposition of the "Russian world" by the aggressor country. Firstly, ignoring the creation of a Ukrainian church at the local level, because the Moscow Patriarchate has become a powerful weapon in the Donetsk Region during this war. Secondly, at the beginning of our independence, there were no facilities for learning the language, although people needed them. Only later did they realise this was not a necessary condition for existence in the country. It is even worse that the issue of language has become a source of hostility for various political purposes. "I often spoke at the miners' rallies that preceded the collapse of the empire. Anti-communist slogans were heard at the rallies in Donetsk and Makiyivka that were attended by tens of thousands – people pulled down the Soviet flags from the mines and raised Ukrainian ones. They would often ask where they could learn the language. But unlike the Baltic countries, we did not immediately create a system for protecting the national language. It was impossible for conscious citizens to do this without state support. Now history shows us that consciousness is linked to words. This is your territory, land and language. Even those who do not speak Ukrainian should understand that it is the main national language. This identification has been broken inside us. Another culture, history and language mean another mentality. You know, even when someone in their daily life gives a price in "roubles" [instead of hryvnias] it means they live within a different, foreign mentality, because they do not respect the symbols of the state. And it is very easy to make them into a traitor."
Suyarko regards another factor behind the failure of real Ukrainization to be superficial decommunisation, especially in the eastern regions of the country, which basically made it impossible to build a new state. Communist ideology is undoubtedly a tool for the destruction of the Ukrainian nation, culture and history. Therefore, without destroying it, it was naive to try to build a country: all its symbols, ideological postulates and even figures were against Ukraine as an independent state. "Compromises are possible, but there cannot be concessions. In this case, the abandonment of genuine, high-quality and ideological Ukrainization was a fatal concession. This can only lead to defeat. Therefore, we unfortunately lost the battle at that time, and now we have to do it under completely different conditions," Vasyl Suyarko admits.