Central to this blog’s philosophy is uncovering the hidden driving forces behind the world’s headlines. One story that has captured global attention is the situation unfolding between Russia and Ukraine. The events in Ukraine surely can be interpreted through an economic and political lens, but a deeper explanation lies in an understanding of the national cultures of both Ukraine and Russia. A political interpretation of the dispute in the Crimea says Russia needs to maintain its naval access to the Mediterranean through its Black Sea port located in the Crimea. An economic interpretation says Russia needs to control the oil, gas and wheat flows – from Ukraine to both Western Europe and the other central Asian republics – in order to secure its political sphere of influence. But, a cultural interpretation sees Russia behaving according to its deeper cultural norms. Even if Russia’s naval fleet was not based in Crimea, and even if Russia had no influence over its central Asian neighbors, it would still be flexing its muscles today in response to the turmoil because of its cultural requirements to do so. Let’s take a closer look at those central Russian cultural elements driving this behavior.
Analyzing Russia’s cultural traits there are three in particular that can explain their current actions: the importance of protecting the “mir,” their preference for centralized power over messy democracy, and an inferiority/superiority complex with relation to the West. Looking at the first trait, protecting the “mir,” or the village, is a central archetype in Russian culture. The “Russian bear” – portrayed as so cute and cuddly during the Sochi Olympics – is the symbol of an innate impulse to protect the country against foreign intrusions and invasions, real or perceived. The Russian psyche is always on the lookout for threats from beyond the mir, and if those threats have even a shred of reality to them, as in the events in Ukraine, it will stir the Russian bear and justify Russian paranoia.
The next on that Russian cultural trait list is their preference for centralized power. Czars (feudalism), commissars (communism), thugs (today’s plutocrats and autocrats): that’s the history of the Russian leadership. Nowhere in that history is there anything resembling the republican revolutions of the West or the establishment of democratic institutions. In Russia, the bullet is always chosen over the ballot.
The third Russian cultural trait to analyze here is their inferiority/superiority complex when it comes to the West. St. Petersburgh itself was built to impress the West with how modern and Western Russia could be, proving the nation’s eternal eye on their Western neighbors. There is a sense of inferiority to the West which aggravates and justifies Russian grandiosity – any opportunity to flex muscles in the face of the West is seized upon. The fact that many in the Ukraine are interested in strengthening ties with the West to move away from Russia is undoubtedly rattling these old complexes to life, especially in these days of post-Soviet collapse and attempted resurrection.
Ukraine has cultural elements at play in this dynamic as well, notably an inferiority complex to Russia, weak ties that bond the country and the preference for negotiation and compromise over conflict. Speaking to the inferiority aspect of the dynamic, Ukrainians resist being labeled as cultural “Russia-light” and chafe at being seen as the breadbasket of Russia. i.e. the warmer, southern part of “Russia” where Russians go to winter. Whether Russians like to admit it or not, Ukraine has a unique language and culture – one that may share some resemblance to but which is not at all Russian. They share similarities but because Ukrainians have so long been treated as less than Russians, a complicated dynamic is present.
This feeds into the equally complicated dynamics within the country itself. The unity of Ukraine is weak, with eastern Ukraine heavily populated by Russians during the Soviet era and many in the region sharing an ideological alignment with Moscow and its allies. In western Ukraine, the allegiance tends to be with Europe. In the east, Ukrainians speak and act Russian while west of the Dneiper River (which divides Ukraine into east and west) they speak Ukrainian, follow the Uniate Church (an orthodox church different from the Russian orthodox church followed in the east). The tension between these two groups has historically produced massacres and genocides and today’s tension is just a replay of this ancient historical divide.
The final piece in understanding this Russian-Ukrainian puzzle is the fact that Ukrainians use the tools of negotiation and compromise – accommodation must be a part of daily life when the country is so divided. This is the exact opposite methodology to Russia, which opts for force over negotiation. Another hint as to why the two countries are so at odds.
Understanding these cultural divides and ingredients proves that this squabble over the Crimea is far more than mere superficial politics of the moment, and it can’t be solely blamed on Putin and his personality, and his drive to resurrect Russia from post-Soviet collapse. These tensions have deeper historical and cultural roots.