Before drawing conclusions and interpretations about the still ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, it is important to look at what precedes this situation. It is fundamental to know a little more about the history and culture of these peoples.
The following article briefly describes the historical and cultural context of the countries involved in the conflict and deepens the understanding of the situation with the interview of professor Svetlana Ruseishvili (Migration and Human mobility consultant).
By Mona Perlingeiro | YPA Brazil
On February 24 2022, the current Russian president Vladimir Putin began attacks against the Ukrainian territory. Since then, several media have published news about the possible causes of this war. This article will seek to bring an affective look at Ukraine and its ancestral links with Russia, and among other countries that once belonged to the Soviet Union.
It is important to clarify that, under no circumstances, can war bring a solution to political conflicts.
The results of military interventions always cause trauma, mass deaths and political, economic and social destabilization for the civilian population of the countries involved. In this specific case, these results have reached the population of Ukraine even more.
But what precedes this situation and what is important to understand before starting to reflect on the consequences of this war?
During the period from 1546 to 1917 the Tsars2 ruled over what was called the Russian Empire. Before the fall of the Romanov dynasty3 (last tsars) at the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian population was going through a very serious social situation and political movements began to gain strength, especially among the members of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDRP). This party later split between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, the latter supporters of Vladimir Lenin. And it was the Bolsheviks who overthrew the Romanov dynasty, with the event that became known as the 1917 Russian Revolution.
After Lenin’s death in 1924, Josef Stalin took over. Of Georgian origin and Leon Trotsky4’s rival, Stalin gained power gradually until he had full domination in 1928, starting one of the most troubled periods in Russian history. Times were particularly rough for for the countries annexed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)5, formed by the 15 Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Moldova, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Estonia.
The Soviet Union led the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Already in the 1970s, the country showed signs of a strong economic crisis that would culminate in a recession and a political crisis, contributing to its dissolution in 1991, when Ukraine became independent.
The region of the former USSR has enormous ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity.
Finally, although the imaginary about a communist Russia prevails in the West, the current government does not have this characteristic and demonstrates a high degree of conservatism.
It is with this introduction that the Youth Press Agency invites Svetlana Ruseishvili6, a Russian teacher born in Georgia and raised in Kiev, to emotionally bring us closer to Ukraine and also to Russian and Georgian culture.
Lana, could you tell us a little about your history and how you arrived in Brazil?
I am a person from the Russian diaspora. I was born in Georgia into a Russian-speaking family that has Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian roots. My family left Georgia in the Nineties after the end of the Soviet Union and settled in Kiev, Ukraine, which is the city where I grew up. And I left there when I was 16 years old and went to Moscow to go to college. Then I did a master’s degree in France and now I’ve been in Brazil for over 10 years. I arrived in Brazil after doing my master’s and I was already married to my Brazilian husband and then we decided to come to Brazil. He decided to come back and we made this decision together and in Brazil I did my PhD at the University of São Paulo and I’m still here today.
Could you share your memories and current connection with Ukraine and Russia?
Well, being from a Russian-speaking family, I was raised as a Russian. Even though I had a Georgian father and grandfather, and our ethnicity passed through the paternal line, we are identified by blood, not by where we were born, but even my Georgian relatives, like my father and my grandfather also spoke Russian, so I was raised as a Russian person, although I was not born in Russia and I only set foot there for the first time at a certain age, but this is a characteristic of people who are born in the diaspora.
When my family settled in Kiev, Ukraine, I was about six years old I think… around six, seven years old, and I went to a Russian school, because my mother insisted on finding a school that spoke Russian in Kiev, because at that time they had reduced the number of schools with full teaching in Russian, since Ukraine had become an independent country and the official language there is Ukrainian, but I studied in the Russian school. However, obviously, I had subjects related to Ukrainian history, culture, geography and literature, in Ukrainian as well. So I learned a lot more about Ukraine in school than I did about Russia.
And then when I went to Moscow I felt like another colonial. I mean, after a lot of reading, I met authors who studied colonialism and today I understand myself as another colonial. Why? Because I had a Georgian surname and I was raised in Ukraine. I basically grew up in Ukraine, I had a Ukrainian accent, I had Ukrainian memories, and when I went to Moscow I found myself in the metropolis of a great empire, a country with a history of empire and I was seen as another colonial by Russian-born nationals. It was at this moment that I discovered myself as another colonial. Something I had never discovered living in Kiev, because that feeling didn’t exist in the city I grew up in.
In Kiev, Georgians, Armenians, Russians, Ukrainians and Jews lived with peace and equality. I didn’t have that superior relationship that the people of Moscow had over the people of the colonies, and this I discovered when I was in Moscow. But at the same time, I always felt Russian because I was raised as such, and I present myself as Russian to this day. At the same time, I know that in Moscow I was a Russian, but not as Russian as those who lived in Russia, right? At least I felt it.
Over time and with a lot of reading, I understood that this is all about coloniality, and I also realized that I have much greater ties to Ukraine than I thought. Why? Because when the colonial subject goes to the metropolis (in this case, Moscow) he wants to be more national than the nationals themselves, you know? So I always wanted to be more Russian than the Russians themselves to show that I was just like them. This is what Frantz Fanon writes: when he went to France and discovered himself as a colonial subject, he also observed other Martinicans, and he realized that his countrymen wanted to be more French than the French themselves, and that happened to me too. So, with time and reading, I understood that I have much deeper emotional connections with Ukraine, you know? I have childhood memories, connections with the city… It is in the city of Kiev that I discovered myself as a person interested in social relations in the metropolis, in big cities. The theme of cities has always attracted me, and I became what I am today thanks to my experience in Kiev, because this city is my place of heart. I deeply love Kiev, it’s a city that shaped me as a person.
How do you understand the war initiated by Russia inside the Ukrainian territories?
I understand that this war initiated by Russia in the Ukrainian territories is an expansionist, imperialist war. Why? Because as I said, Ukraine has always had unequal power relations with Moscow. Moscow has always exercised power and dominion over Ukrainian territories and over Ukrainian culture, so in this colonial relationship, of coloniality, of asymmetry of colonial power, we perceive these historical traits in the current conflict. Russia, being a country historically oppressor of its colonies, much stronger and much bigger than Ukraine, shows that invading Ukrainian territory means an imperialist act, right? An act of expansionism that disrespects the territorial integrity of a sovereign country that is Ukraine. Therefore, my reading of this conflict is through the colonial lens: a Russian neocolonialism with a strong messianic charge, because Vladimir Putin has an established ideology that makes a historical review, both from the Russian Empire and from the Soviet Union, and exerts a manipulation of this historical past to justify an idea of expansion, a nationalist chauvinist idea of expansion from Russia into non-Russian territories.
What are the possible consequences of this war for the world, especially for the Ukrainian people?
The consequences of this war for the world and for the Ukrainian people are terrible. First, we see the increase in the number of refugees in Europe. Today there are two million Ukrainian refugees, right? People who are leaving their countries and seeking shelter and reception in European countries. The second serious consequence that worries me a lot is this aggression by the Russians… of course, by the Russian government, but also Russians who are largely supporting the actions of their government, of course there are Russians who do not support, who are opposed to the war, and they are repressed, right? Who are persecuted by the government itself. But in the context of this invasion, this occupation, I’m afraid that Ukraine will also create and develop xenophobic nationalism. A reactionary nationalism that will banish from the public space everything Russian, everything connected with Russia. And Ukraine, we must remember, is a country that has always been at least bilingual. And as I said, being a Russian speaker in Ukraine, I had an extremely happy childhood and I never even understood myself, nor did I ever realize that I was different precisely because Ukraine has always been this country with a civic nationalism, and I’m afraid that this invasion Russian as a reaction will have the strengthening in Ukraine of an ethnic nationalism and an exclusive nationalism, which will exclude Russians, and not only Russians, but also Russian speakers from their territories, and that is a harmful consequence for that society .
Another consequence that we are already witnessing, perhaps it would have to be mentioned before talking about the development of reactionary nationalism, is the national unity of the Ukrainian people, which is a positive point around this idea of resistance to the invasion. Today the Ukrainian people are extremely united, including those people who formerly insisted on declaring themselves ethnically Russians, despite having Ukrainian nationality, today many of them position themselves as Ukrainian people and even stop speaking Russian on a daily basis and adopt Ukrainian as their own, as an everyday language. This is just a positive point, but as I said there is also another side of the coin, which is being xenophobic and exclusionary, right? I think that’s a point that we need to be careful about.
Well, finally, if this war doesn’t end soon and if it ends with the victory of the Russian government, and if he (Vladimir Putin) manages to achieve the goals that are to end Ukraine as a nation-state, the consequences for the Ukrainian people will be terrible! The Ukrainian people will live in exile and form one of the biggest diasporas in the world, just like the Palestinians and just like the Jews were before the creation of the State of Israel. A huge population without a Nation-State, and in the 21st century, which is a really sad situation, isn’t it? As with the Palestinians who have been in this situation for many decades, and on the other hand, if Ukraine wins this war, it will still have a great challenge ahead of rebuilding its city, society, democratic institutions. This democratic reconstruction in the context of post-war reconstruction is also difficult, because society has gone through the war, many extremist groups are armed and have had access to weapons and military training, so this can also strengthen extremist and radical groups, and this Ukrainian democracy after the war will need to combat these extremisms as well.
Does Brazil have any historical and cultural connection with Ukraine and Russia?
Brazil has important historical connections with both Ukraine and Russia. The first connection came through migrants, from the Russian and Ukrainian diaspora, who are currently living in Brazil.
The Ukrainian diaspora in Brazil is one of the largest in the world, it was formed through the migration of Ukrainians from the western regions of the country that at that time were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Poland, Romania and who came to Brazil in passage from the 19th to the 20th century, and also after World War II as displaced persons who were accepted by the Brazilian government in the second half of the 1940s. The Russians also have an important diaspora. There was a large diaspora in Brazil closely linked to the Russian diasporas in all other countries, especially in France, the United States, Germany, which were centers of the Russian diaspora after the Bolshevik Revolution. And that was formed mainly in this period, after World War II. So Brazil has important links with these two countries.
The Ukrainian diaspora in Brazil took a strong stance against this Russian invasion, and the Russian diaspora in some of its segments also took a stand against this invasion.
Today I am proud to say that we have demonstrations almost every week in São Paulo, and also in other cities in Brazil such as Brasília, Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, in which Russians, Ukrainians, descendants of Russians and descendants of Ukrainians are protesting together against this situation, showing that solidarity is possible in this difficult time of war.
Could you give tips on literature, music and art from Ukraine, Russia and Georgia?
Music and Dance
Learn about the history and culture of these countries
- The image in the header represents pysanky by Sofika Zielyk. It is a photo taken by Agnieszka Krawczyk. Pêssanka or Pysanka, is a hand-colored egg, of Slavic origin and tradition. Its name is derived from the verb pysaty and symbolizes life, health and prosperity. This traditional art of Ukrainians dates back to very ancient times, when they were prepared to give gifts to the deities in early spring.
- Title used by monarchs. The series “The Last Czars”, available on Netflix, narrates a little about the fall of the tsars’ regime, when the Romanov dynasty of Nicolai II was removed from power due to the Russian Revolution (2017) and executed in 2018.
- The Bolsheviks emerged victorious in 1917, but the Mensheviks played a key role during the Russian Revolution.
- Marxist and Bolshevik revolutionary who was killed at the behest of Josef Stalin in Coyoacán, Mexico City in 1940.
- The USSR was created on December 30, 1922 and dissolved on December 26, 1991. Svetlana Ruseishvili holds a PhD in sociology from the University of São Paulo (2016), a master’s degree in social sciences from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales -EHESS- in Paris (2010) and a degree in sociology from the Lomonossov University of Moscow (2008). In her doctoral thesis, she researched Russian immigration in Brazil after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, having addressed topics such as the creation of the “refugee” category, Slavic colonization of the interior of São Paulo, national identity and ethnic relations in São Paulo in the 1920s-1940s. reception of Russian refugees by Brazil after the Second World War.
Mona Perlingeiro is a Migration and Human Mobility Consultant, postgraduate student in Globalization, Power and Society at the Fundação Escola de Sociologia e Política de São Paulo (FESPSP). Graduated in Social Sciences from the Federal University of São Paulo, volunteer researcher at the Migration Observatory in São Paulo (NEPO-Unicamp) and at ProMigra (USP). She was a volunteer intern at Jordan Valley Solidarity by the Educational Network for Human Rights in Palestine/Israel (FFIPP/2015).