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“The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”?

It has been a while since I have seen anything in current events that sparked in me a recollection of the Peace of Westphalia. That ended this week when I learned of Vladimir Putin’s article from last July, The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.

The first connection to Westphalia is the historical proximity of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s rebellion, the event that prompted the modern union of Ukraine and Russia, with Westphalia: 1649, just a year later. That was actually a continuation of events that had been unravelling since the death of Wladislaw IV in 1648.

The second connection relates to my research into the transfer of Alsace to France at Westphalia. (The actual territory transferred in the Peace of Westphalia is ambiguous, but it is usually summarized as Alsace.) At that time, there was no ambiguity about the fact that France was acquiring German territory, but in the late 19th century this became a matter of hot debate because the German Empire annexed Alsace and Lorraine from France in 1871 after the Franco-Prussian War. Between that time and the end of World War I, when France regained the lost provinces, scholars argued over the legality of the terms of the 1648 treaty, but also over the nature of Alsace as inherently French or German. I remember one book in particular, called “L’Alsace est française par ses origines, sa race, son passé” (“Alsace is French by its origins, its race, and its history”) by Louis Battifol. The French have always been peeved that the imperial crown of Charlemagne ended up in a German-speaking territory, and they didn’t hesitate in the 17th century to use evidence from prior to the Capetian dynasty (which began in 987 AD) for why they should be the real emperors; nor did they hesitate to use equally old evidence in the early 20th century to lay claim to Alsace.

But I am not here to replay the arguments on whether Alsace is French or German. Rather, I want to discuss what it means for a territory to “be” of a certain type, with reference to Putin’s article, and particularly to the historical arguments.

Battifol didn’t mention one of the central features of national identity, language, because the Alsatians were undoubtedly German speakers in 1648. Putin, however, emphasizes the common language of Russia and Ukraine quite a bit. The two languages of Russian and Ukrainian (a/k/a “Ruthenian”) are distinct although quite similar. Putin doesn’t insist that Ukrainian is the same as Russian, but calls attention to their derivation (along with Belorussian) from a common origin and their continued similarity. He also mentions the common Orthodox faith of Russia and the Ukraine (another point against Battifol, since much of Alsace had adopted Protestantism by the time it was incorporated into France). Putin is at pains to claim that the Russian state that included Belorussia and the Ukraine “was not merely the result of political and diplomatic decisions” but “was underlain by the common faith, shared cultural traditions, and – I would like to emphasize it once again – language similarity.”

It makes sense for him to make this claim, because people tend to assume that governments should be formed by those who share a culture. Although the left-wing ideal of a “multicultural” society is accepted by many in the West, its lessons are mainly applied to the United States and Western Europe. Few people, I suspect, think that Yugoslavia was a good idea because it combined many cultures. I have written elsewhere of the importance of a shared culture to a stable political unit, but language and religion are only two elements of culture and are not always decisive. The Middle East is full of Islamic, Arabic-speaking countries that have quite distinct histories even since the adoption of Islam. Repeated attempts to unify, or re-unify, under a new caliphate have failed for the good reason that people in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, and Morocco have as many differences as similarities.

Still, Putin has some foundation for calling out the similarity of Russia and the Ukraine, because they are a lot more closely related historically than, say, Egypt and Yemen. But what role should that play in the political independence of Ukraine from Russia? The fact that Russian and Ukrainian are derived from a single common linguistic ancestor carries little weight, as far as I am concerned. Anything that happened a millennium ago is completely irrelevant, and even events of 100 years ago are virtually outside the relevance of any discussion of current political arrangements. The reason is simply that those people aren’t around any more. What happened then was relevant to them, but not to today. When people say that Ireland was united until the Scots settled Ulster starting in the 17th century, I find that no more convincing (or not much more convincing) that someone who would expel the Gaelic Scots from Scotland in favour of their Pictish predecessors. Israel was a controversial country in 1948, but now that several generations have been born and grown up there, I consider those people as indigenous as any of the Palestinians.

What makes these cases difficult is not the lineage of the current inhabitants, but the existence of people who continue to identify as part of the non-dominant society: Irish in Northern Ireland, Arabs in Israel, and Russians in the Ukraine. Obviously these people have rights that should be respected. If what Putin says about the persecution of Russians in Ukraine is true, it makes a good case for foreign intervention on their behalf. The crux of the matter lies in the truth of the allegations, not in whether Ukraine has a common history with Russia. The only thing that matters in that regard (to me, anyway) is the opinion of people currently living in the Ukraine. The fact that there is a minority population is inevitable, and people who say that Catalonia shouldn’t secede from Spain because there are people in the province who disagree with the decision are making a spurious distinction.

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