During the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938, with Nazi Germany pushing for the annexation of the Sudetenland, UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke of “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. Today our world is a much smaller place (figuratively speaking) there are no more people of whom we know nothing. Every evening our television screens are filled with images of conflict in Syria, Iraq & lately, in Eastern Ukraine. Why should Ulster Loyalists care about that “far away country”? For me it is very simple, we should care because the Russian people of Eastern Ukraine have much in common with the British people of Northern Ireland. Both are much maligned by the BBC! That should have alarm bells ringing for a start!
The Russian people in Eastern (& parts of South-Western) Ukraine constitute the largest number of ethnic Russians outside of the Russian Federation, numbering 8.5 million, according to the last census there in 2001. Much of Eastern Ukraine has an ethnic Russian majority. They speak Russian (although Russian & Ukrainian are mutually intelligible languages anyway, in the same way as English & Ulster-Scots), they are culturally Russian, they are Russian in their outlook & way of life. In fact, they are Russian in every way, except by citizenship. They are not Ukrainian, they do not identify themselves with Ukrainian culture, they do not view themselves as being Ukrainian & they are prepared to fight to defend themselves, their culture, their heritage & their way of life. Remind you of anyone?
A LONG HISTORY
Russians have been settling in Ukraine (or rather, in what is today considered Ukraine) since medieval times, when the Goriun peoples settled in Putivl. The first new waves of Russian settlers onto Ukrainian territory came in the late 16th century, to the uninhabited lands of Slobozhanschyna, in what is now Northeastern Ukraine. More Russians came to settle in those lands in the late 17th century, at the same time as the Williamite Wars were being fought in the British Isles. At the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire captured large swathes of territory from the former Crimean Khanate & the systematic colonization of lands in what became known as ‘New Russia’ (Novo Rossiya) began. Officially, the Russian Empire regarded ethnic Ukrainians as being Russian, belonging to a single Russian nation, the descendants of the people of the Rus’. In fact, until the end of the 19th century, Ukraine did not really exist, even as a concept, let alone as nation.
After the October revolution (1917) several Soviet Republics were formed by the Bolsheviks of the region, later, due in large part to pressure from Lenin & other Bolshevik leaders, a single unified Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. The Ukrainian SSR was de jure a separate state until the formation of the USSR in 1922 & survived until the breakup of the USSR. Lenin insisted that ignoring the national question in Ukraine would endanger the support of the Revolution among Ukrainians & thus the new borders of the Ukrainian SSR were established. These new borders included all of Novorossiya & other neighboring provinces, which contained a substantial number of ethnic Russians. In 1954, the Supreme Soviet issued the decree on the transfer of the Crimea from the Russian SFSR to the Ukrainian SSR. Thus increasing the ethnic Russian population of Ukraine by almost a million people. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991 the Russian people of Ukraine have felt increasingly isolated & marginalised. Many Russian language schools have been closed, Russian culture has been attacked & cultural activities curtailed (again, sound familiar?) When the far-right ‘European Movement’ seized power in the so-called ‘2014 Ukrainian Revolution’, ousting democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian people of Crimea & Eastern Ukraine decided that enough was enough & took up arms to defend themselves from the illegitimate new regime in Kiev. The ‘Crimean Crisis’ resulted in that region declaring independence on the 17th of March this year, with Crimea applying to join the Russian Federation soon after. A referendum on the issue was called & 96% of Crimeans supported joining Russia. In the East however, things are more complex. Crimea is a relatively small peninsula on the Black Sea, even if the far-right junta in Kiev were to bow to inevitability & recognise it’s new status as a part of Russia, Ukraine could continue much as it has done since 1991, but to accede to the demands of the Russian people in the Donbas & other Eastern areas means relinquishing control of a large (& lucrative) portion of the country. Ukraine will not let the coal miners of Donetsk, or the metal workers of Luhansk, break away from Ukrainian domination without a fight.
THE PARALLELS ARE DRAWN
A people whose culture is threatened & attacked, whose language is denied legitimacy, whose schools are closed, whose way of life is denigrated & who are condemned by the media. Am I talking about Russians in Eastern Ukraine or the Ulster-Scots people of Northern Ireland? Clearly both face the same problems. We both face an implacable enemy, driven by a sense of self-righteousness & a swivel eyed fanaticism rarely found in most modern European nations. We are both vilified & demonised by the politically motivated & morally repugnant BBC. We are both accused of being ‘planted’ into our native lands, of being ‘invaders’ or ‘immigrants’ (a favourite slur of the more racist element within republicanism). We both face an enemy with a murky & disreputable history, for Ukrainian nationalists, just like Irish nationalists, supported the Nazi war machine in WWII, whilst Ulstermen fought against Fascism in every corner of the globe & Russians made the ultimate sacrifice in their tens of millions to rid the world of the genocidal Nazis. The Russian people of Eastern Ukraine & the Loyalist people of Ulster have much in common. Loyalists should be proud to support those in Ukraine who are fighting to free themselves from the grasp of a monocultural state, a state that is as foreign & as artificial to them as an all-island republic would be to us. Ulster Loyalism as always had an international dimension. Loyalists are not parochial or insular. International affairs have always had a special significance for us here in Ulster. The history of the Ulster-Scots as a people is invariably tied to the history of Western Europe & beyond, after all, The Boyne was not an Irish battle but a European one, as were the battles of both world wars. Loyalists & Unionists have never been predisposed to think that the world revolves around this one small island, nor content to stay within these shores & plead for help from our diaspora, or anyone else. Loyalists & Unionists have gone out into the wider world, as soldiers, as statesmen, as pioneers & frontiersmen. I hope that Loyalists/Unionists never become political introverts. That we never become as obsessional about this one little patch of Earth as our fanatical & xenophobic enemies within Irish nationalism. Let us never be afraid of reaching out to those with whom we feel a strong affinity. Especially when there are such striking similarities, such strong parallels, between ourselves & those in “far away lands”.
A LESSON FOR IRISH REPUBLICANS
Kiev cannot make the Russian people of Eastern Ukraine be Ukrainian. They cannot force Russian culture out of the heads of those who feel themselves to be Russians. If they ratchet up the violence in the East of the country even more, they will either be beaten or they will have to ‘ethnically cleanse’ those loyal to Russia & leave huge swathes of the country as wasteland (although Russia will never tolerate that). There is clearly a lesson there for Irish nationalists & republicans. A culture cannot be destroyed unless you destroy the people that carry that culture in their hearts. A people cannot be made to feel that they are something they’re not. A national identity cannot be forced onto people. You may be as Irish as you like but you will never force that sense of ‘Irishness’ onto me, nor supplant my identity for any other. Just as the Russian people in Eastern Ukraine are prepared to fight, to kill & to die for their national identity, culture & way of life, we Ulster Loyalists are prepared to do the same. We have been compelled to do so before. We will have no compunction about doing so again. We should stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of the Donetsk Peoples Republic & those Russians fighting for their very existence in Ukraine. We should tell the world that we support them. For just like us they have been pushed down & vilified for too long. Their culture has been criminalised. Their heritage threatened. Kiev has tried to take the very language from out of their mouths. But no more. The Russian people of Eastern Ukraine have risen against their oppressors & I salute them for it!
If you agree with me about the situation in Eastern Ukraine, please show your support for the Donetsk People’s Republic, give this Facebook page a like- https://ru-ru.facebook.com/stopukrainianarmy & use the hashtags- #SaveDonbassPeopleFromUkrainianArmy
#SaveDonbassFromArmyUkraine when tweeting, thank you.