struggled to be acknowledged as a country, being dismissed as ‘Little Russia’
On the 22nd September 1896 the Russian imperial yacht docked in some ceremony at Leith. Disembarking was Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Empress Alexandra (Queen Victoria’s granddaughter), and their 10-month-old daughter, Olga. From Leith they travelled to Balmoral, purportedly for a family reunion, but the prime minister Lord Salisbury was there too.
The real agenda being, of course, discussions on the true nature of Russia’s intentions in the Balkans. Not for the last time was the world to be twitchy about Russian manoeuvres beyond their own borders.
Eighteen years later Britain was at war, this time with Imperial Russia on our side. When the armistice was declared in 1918 most of our troops were heading home, but not the 10th battalion of the Royal Scots, in their ranks many Leithers. Their destination: Archangel, deep in the freezing north of Russia. Their mission: to fight the Bolsheviks and halt the spread of the Soviet communism in its tracks, following the revolution of 1917. And so, to the present day and a new crisis sees Russia mobilising its troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.
Ukraine, as a name on the map is not to be found in any atlas until the 20th century. The etymology of the word ‘Ukraine’ comes from old Slavic meaning ‘borderlands’ and referred historically to the southern frontiers of Poland and Russia. Ukraine to this day still struggles to be acknowledged as a proper country with Russia dismissing it as ‘Little Russia’ (a term harking back to ancient ‘Rus’, the forerunner of the Russian empire) and sums up the Ukrainian language as ‘Russian with a Polish accent’. Such disregard, inevitably, fuels the present conflict, further legitimised by the inconvenient truth that many in eastern Ukraine and of course Crimea, do regard themselves as Russian.
Living in this archipelago off the north-western coast of Europe we tend not to appreciate just how movable borders can be. England and Scotland have maintained a relatively settled border for a thousand years. We have had our battles and a tug of war over Berwick in the 14th and 15th centuries, but the line on the map has been consistent. By contrast it is only in the second half of the 20th century when mainland European borders began to settle down into the map we know today.
Over the centuries virtually every country in mainland Europe has ceded and conquered lands off each other. In eastern Europe the borders changed back and forth more than anywhere else, with multiple protagonists and countless blood baths. The big beasts: Russia, Prussia, Sweden, Austria, and the Mongols roved at will over these lands trampling long forgotten peoples like the Ruthenians, the Tartars and the Cossacks out of existence. And let’s not forget the Ottoman empire where for centuries they were seen as the Muslim threat at the eastern gates of Christendom. Surprisingly they were, as empires go, a relatively benign autocracy where slaves could become Sultans and all faiths, including the Jews, were tolerated.
One surprising big beast was the vast Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, lasting nearly 300 years and covering a land mass stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. This was a relatively equal and democratic partnership between two neighbours that puts our supposed Anglo-Scots ‘British partnership’ to shame. But they had their dark side too, with Poland enslaving the lands of western Ukraine whilst Lithuania did the same to Belarus. Eventually Russia, Austria and Prussia conspired to put an end to these uppity rivals and in the 18thcentury carved up their Commonwealth between them and wiped both Poland and Lithuania off the map of Europe, never to return until the 20thcentury.
When a Polish state finally re-emerged, hewn from swathes of the defeated German and Russian empires after the First World War, the eastern half of their new country was a powder keg of rival ethnicities and religions: Orthodox Christian Ukrainians and Belarusians’, Catholic Poles and Lithuanians, and of course the Jews, interspersed with pockets of Germans harbouring dreams of a reborn third Reich.
Although the history of these lands was already a bloody one, what came next was to plummet new depths of inhumanity. When Hitler turned on the Soviet Union in 1941 his armies headed not just towards Moscow and Leningrad, but south into the ‘breadbasket of Europe’, the rich farmlands of the Ukraine. All too many Ukrainian nationalists seized their opportunity to free themselves from the joint oppressions of Polish and Soviet rule and took up arms on the side of the perceived liberator - the Nazis.
For a people struggling to prove their national legitimacy, the Nazi ideology of racial purity was attractive to many. This was their chance to rid themselves of the Poles and the Jews once and for all. Dreams of an ethnically pure independent Ukraine allied to a protector from the west, Germany, seemed within reach. Between 1941 and 1944, one and a half million Ukrainian Jews (a quarter of the holocaust total) were bundled onto trains heading for Auschwitz and Treblinka, often rounded up or finished off by the UPA, the Ukrainian nationalist paramilitaries whose banners are to be seen sported by some of the Ukrainian ‘volunteers’ facing Putin’s troops over their eastern border today.
The above may well read like a treatise against nationalism; it most certainly is a warning against a ‘blood and soil’ ethnic version of nationalism. What it also shines a light on is Great Power Nationalism. In Ukraine’s 2004 elections, shortly after their independence in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a 50/50 split between those in eastern Ukraine where the current stand-off is focused, who look to Russia, and those in the western half bordering Poland, who see their future in Europe.
Great Powers have historically exported their own people to colonise other territories, who then put down roots and remain as a vocal ethnic minority with political loyalties for their motherland: the French in Algeria, the Han Chinese in Tibet, the Castilian Spanish in Catalonia, and of course, the British in Ireland. They also have form in insisting that those dependencies seeking their independence are now a natural part of the centralised state. Paris viewed Algeria as an integral part of ‘Metropolitan France’; Spain’s oneness is written into its constitution and any movement for self-determination is therefore illegal; the ‘One China Policy’ is sacrosanct, apparently legitimising the Han Chinese claim to absolute rule over Taiwan, Tibet, and the Uighurs – who are not even named as such but lumped into a made-up official category: Turkic. And, as Loyalists in the north of Ireland are keen to remind us – ‘Ulster is British’.
The thing about these big beasts is that they are always looking beyond their natural borders. Expansionism is in their DNA. England, since the days of William the Conqueror, has viewed our entire archipelago as its rightful domain. Ireland, on the other hand, has never harboured any ambitions to colonise England; they just wanted the English out. Some, like the Netherlands, Portugal, and even Germany have learned from the errors of their imperial pasts; but others, like England, China, and Russia, can’t shake off their old habits. Such remaining big beasts have never actually been self-contained nation-states; they have always been avaricious. Is it not time for this legacy of inherent superiority to end? After all, self-determination is as natural as a teenager’s yearnings to break free from parental control. ■
Tsar Nicholas II disembarking from the Imperial Yacht
Standart at Leith on 22nd September 1896 and at sea