‘Ukrainian’ Now a Synonym for ‘A Free Individual’ in the Post-Soviet Space, Portnikov Says

November 2, 2014
Ukrainian protesters wave EU flags on Maidan Square in December 2013. Photo by Genya Savilov/ AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

Staunton, November 1 – “A Ukrainian political nation has been formed,” Vitaly Portnikov says, something that has been noticed not only by those “who love and support it” but also by “those who hate it.” As a result, on the post-Soviet space, it has become “a synonym for a free individual,” and its hymn “the Marseillaise” of today.

The Kyiv commentator writes that this dawned on him when he recently heard a Russian rant against the supposed “terrors of Ukrainian fascism, the Right Sector, which is hunting for Jews … that Ukrainians were invented by the Americans to anger Putin,” and that “Ukraine is in fact Russia.”

After listening to this outburst, Portnikov says that he pointed out to the speaker that he “himself lives in Kyiv, has not encountered any fascists, that the Right Sector hasn’t been hunting [him] even though [he] is a Jew, and that [he] had seen the well-known Yarosh only once” and then only because of his journalistic work.

To this, the Russian responded that Portnikov was clearly himself a khokhol, using a derogatory term for Ukrainians and that it was better if they just drank.

Portnikov says he was shocked. “For the first time in his almost 50 years of life, he was being viewed as an ethnic Ukrainian,” and this despite the fact that he had told “this self-satisfied individual who didn’t want to know anything except the amount of money that had been stolen” that he was a Jew, and thus in the Russian’s understanding “a kike not a khokhol.”

“For the first time,” the Kyiv commentator continued, he felt himself to be a Ukrainian, and that transformation from an ethnic to a political identity is “more dangerous” to Putin and his regime “than any anti-Semitism or hatred toward Caucasians or xenophobia toward labor migrants from Central Asia, hated and xenophobia having become the essence of the existence of the Russian people in recent decades.”

That is because, Portnikov continues, “when a Russian calls a Jew ‘a kike’ or a Caucasian ‘a black,’ he knows that he has offended someone personally. But when he calls a Ukrainian ‘a khokhol,’” it has an entirely different meaning because Ukrainians do not see it as necessarily derogatory but rather as simply one label of many.

And that sense in turn mean, Portnikov says, that he had “no choice” but “to defend the honor of the people among whom [he] had grown up and lives” by explaining to his interlocutor that he had “offended not [him alone] but millions of people,” and that he felt as a result a Ukrainian as well.

The Kyiv commentator continues by saying that he is “happy because it is possible to repeat again and again at meetings and in articles that ‘we are all Ukrainians’ and not believe it is true for oneself.” But comments like this from the Russian show that Ukrainians now are “a political nation” and that it is based “not on blood and soil but on a common love for the motherland.”

A few days later when he was back in Kyiv, Portnikov says he heard an elderly intellectual woman talk about what her sister in Kemerovo had said. According to the woman, her sister had told her that everyone in Ukraine was a fascist and suggested that all of them “should kiss Putin’s feet because he has not thrown an atomic bomb at [them] for not wanting to speak Russian.”

The Kyiv lady said she had only called to send her sister birthday greetings, and here her sister wanted to send back an atomic bomb. And then turning to Portnikov, she observed that this was shameful especially as both she and her sister were ethnic Russians and wondered whether she herself should give up her Russian nationality.

Portnikov said that there was no reason for her to do so. “You are a real Russian simply because you are a Ukrainian, because you are free, because you wanted to greet your sister on her birthday and not throw a bomb at her.” Perhaps her sister should give up being Russian given what her remarks.

“In order to be a Russian or indeed a Ukrainian, a Jew or anything else, one must first be a human being and not a beast,” Portnikov concludes, adding sadly that “this is the greatest state secret of contemporary Russia.”