I’ve never been to Ukraine - though for reasons that will become apparent below I’ve long wanted to go - and I have no particular Ukrainian friends. And yet, this is not the first time I have found myself observing a shocking world crisis in a Ukrainian frame of mind.
I’d like to take you to a time 20 years ago and to a place 8000 miles away from Ukraine and offer you a slightly different take on the national destiny of Ukraine. Sometimes if you want to understand the particular historical characteristics of a culture, you have to step out of the country and observe how its people fare when placed in completely alien cultures.
If you want to understand Ireland and the Irish psyche of the 19th century - the obsession with land and festering sense of grievance - then observe what happened to the Irish in North America. No more insightful work on Ireland has ever been written than Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind”. You can also understand a lot about Ukraine by looking at the fate of Ukrainians in the Americas.
In the late summer of 2001, I was in Winnipeg, Canada for a couple of weeks and became quite fascinated by the large Ukrainian communities who had settled in Manitoba from the 1890s onwards. Over 180,000 people in Manitoba are of Ukrainian descent - they are one of the biggest ethnic groups of that vast, beautiful, under-visited province of Canada - and their influence is everywhere felt.
There are Manitoban country towns with onion domed churches and perogies - Ukrainian potato dumplings - are a preeminent part of Manitoban cuisine. In downtown Winnipeg, you can even find a Ukrainian Cultural Centre, which despite its relatively modest size, is the largest in Canada.
If you ask what so many Ukrainians were doing in the wilds of mid Canada, then the answer is that they were specifically targeted as an ethnic group, inured to the harshness of Ukrainian winters, and therefore considered best suited to be the hardy pioneers who would cultivate the remote wastes of Canada. Some of the Ukrainian villages in Canada attest to the fact that the settlers in the late 19th century were dropped down in the freezing middle of nowhere, provided with little in the way of tools or supplies, and asked to fill the prairies with wheat.
The casualty rate was predictably high. I seem to recall staring at a photo in one of those Manitoban villages that showed a picture of Ukrainian settlers who had no contact at all with the outside world for the first three years of their settlement.
All of these things greatly excited my interest. Manitoba is such a fascinating smorgasbord of diverse, isolated communities - of Mennonites, Icelanders, Metis and Native American tribes - that I felt that, in another life, like another Grey Owl (pictured right, aka Archibald Belaney from Sussex who disguised himself as a Native American) I could spend many years wandering amongst its moose, forests and spectacular prairie sunsets.
Once I visited a summerhouse on the shores of Lake Winnipeg and discovered a residence filled with research books on Native American customs and artifacts, and recognized within myself a pull to retire into such a place of worldly retreat.
But I soon discovered that my fascination with the Ukrainian settlers was not generally shared by the Manitobans, not even by those many people who were themselves of Ukrainian descent. Many of the Ukrainian villages of the prairies spoke only Ukrainian, but the common pattern seemed to be that the children raised in such places shed both Ukrainian language and identity as soon as they found their way to the big city.
That made a certain sense of course. The Ukrainian villages of Canada were associated with a primitiveness and backwardness, and harking back beyond them - to the Ukraine of the nineteenth century and twentieth century - was a land associated with pogroms, famines, warfare and genoicide. Why wouldn’t you wish to discreetly shed that identity and embrace instead the life of a cultivated, urbane Canadian?
And yet I felt acutely the contrast with my own ancestors, the Irish - a worldwide diaspora who had themselves escaped a land of grim poverty, famine and civil strife - but who tenaciously held on with the utmost pride to an Irish identity for many, many generations after their last ancestor had pushed off in rags from an Irish quayside. In the immortal words of Shane MacGowan,
Where e’er we go, we celebrate
The land that made us refugees
While not quite sharing my enthusiasm, my Manitoban friends indulged my fascination with everything Ukrainian and took me to both the settler villages and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Winnipeg (pictured left), where I purchased an 800 page “History of Ukraine” and some items of Ukrainian folk dress.
(Until at least my mid thirties, my daily, hippyish apparel was enlivened by traditional clothing from around the world - the colourful garments of the hill tribes of Vietnam was a particular favourite. And so it seemed not in slightest bit strange for me to start walking round Winnipeg in a Ukrainian folk shirt, causing my more fashion-conscious friends to wince and cover their eyes. This was an era before the sin of “cultural appropriation” became a prime social media offence.)
Then, whilst I was soaking myself in everything Ukrainian in Manitoba - an idyll far away from my usual existence - I awoke one morning to the news that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. The outer world had noisily broken into the quietude of my Canadian summer and suddenly the world began to change. I had been due to fly to Chicago and spend a few days there on the way home, but now all flights were grounded and so instead I moved into a room at the Fort Garry Hotel (pictured right), the city’s most famous historic hotel, and waited to see how things played out.
I was sitting up in a room looking out over the infinite expanse of the prairies, with my Ukrainian folk shirt and my thick volume of “The History of Ukraine” on the bed. On the rolling news of television, world events were all concerned with a shaken, newly paranoid and apoplectic United States and its relationship with Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel. There was talk of a new Pearl Harbour: this was the axis on which the world turned.
Long-forgotten Ukrainian settlers in Manitoba were my backwater of a backwater, as far away from the then fastly unfolding news feed of world history as you could possibly imagine. My Ukrainian themed bedroom of the Fort Garry hotel was I suppose my equivalent of the lakeside summerhouse devoted to Native American culture, a kind of mental retreat from the world. It never occurred to me then that the axis of world history would turn once more and the time would yet come when the position of Ukraine would focus the world’s interest.
I passed some very happy days at the Fort Garry Hotel and my Manitoban friends continued to keep me entertained and one night took me to the cinema. I can’t recall now what movie we saw, but what stays vividly in my mind is that an advert ran in French and the girl next to me suddenly began reciting something in beautiful French. It is of course part of Canada’s cultural settlement and constitutional arrangement that the nation is bilingual and to succeed in many civil service careers in Canada, being bilingual in French and English is considered essential.
Yet what struck me was that here we were in the prairies of central Canada, a long, long way from Quebec, in a place where Francophone speakers were very small in number (about 3% of the population of Manitoba speak French) and yet the French language was being enthusiastically promoted and embraced, even as the Ukrainian language was left to quietly wither and die.
This thought returned to me last week when I saw images of President Putin at the head of his long table with the French President Macron at the other end, discussing the future of Ukraine. The French and the Russians were it seemed the “alpha” cultures that were going to decide the fate of a “beta” culture like Ukraine. Macron meant well of course, but there seems something deeply wrong about a world that treats a nation like Ukraine as second rate in this way.
Yet it also occurred to me, when I spent time in Canada 20 years ago, that there was something peculiar about a nation that promoted one minority language over another in this way. Walking around Winnipeg, I found myself at one point in the French Quarter where an elderly lady immediately greeted me with a “Bonjour” on the street.
The Quebecois pride in their Francophone culture is famous the world over - despite the fact that they have been divorced from France for over 250 years. The French themselves meanwhile are well known for their insistence that the French language and culture must be preserved to the nth degree, setting up academies to police foreign intrusions into the French language, demanding that all EU papers be published in French, and delighting in the fact that population growth in Africa may yet make French the most spoken second language in the world.
I couldn’t help contrasting during my sojourn in Winnipeg how the Francophones sit proud and noisy at the head table of world culture, while the Ukrainians have quietly made themselves invisible and kept their heads down.
I guess the Ukrainians have been the way they are because of the centuries of cultural suppression they received from the Russians, both under the Czars and the Communists. When flights eventually resumed in 2001 and I, with regret, quit the Fort Garry and returned to the UK, I wondered if I would ever get round to reading my doorstop “History of the Ukraine”. But as chance would have it, I fell badly ill and was bedridden for a few weeks and ended up reading every last page of it.
I wish I could tell you now I can recall much of what I read, but nearly all of it has long since drifted out of my head. The chief thing I recall are the debates that raged in the 19th century about whether Ukrainian was actually a separate language to Russian, or merely a form of Russian. In turn, this debate over language had great significance when it came to determining whether the Ukrainians were actually a separate nation or not to the Russians - a subject now of monumental importance to world security.
There has been a long history of the Russians attempting to suppress by whatever means at their disposal - from intellectual sophistry to campaigns of terror by famine and sword - Ukrainian national ambitions. But that suppression of cultural and linguistic pride seems to me to also be in evidence if you examine the psyche of the Ukrainian descendants of Canada.
I’ve read over the last few weeks many analyses of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that regret that NATO was so provocative towards Russia as it expanded its borders, instigating a siege mentality and sense of existential angst in the Russians. “Don’t we remember the Cuban missile crisis? Would America like to see Russian or Chinese missiles arraigned against it on its very border?”
I take on board those arguments, but I don’t agree with them. People who talk about having Ukraine as a useful “buffer state” with Russia seem to me to fall into a 19th century mentality of believing there are God-given “great powers” and then a variety of minor states that don’t count for much. Russia might have the forest of nuclear missiles and an unhinged belligerence - granted a very significant consideration - but I don’t see why Russia should be treated as a nation of far greater importance than Ukraine, just as I don’t see why the Ukrainian language is in some way intrinsically less important than French.
The world has been awash for years now with black-and-white ideas about “privilege” and “race” as if the world can be reduced to facile simplicities, ignoring the complexities of geography, culture, history, language and individual personality.
But in reality, relatively forgotten peoples like the Ukrainians of Manitoba, while not banging the drum of victimhood, demonstrate the nuances and considerable psychological complexities of a particular cultural inheritance.
I’m often a sceptic of so-called “multi-culturalism”, especially when it seeks to undermine existing cultures and historical traditions. But in certain contexts, it is welcome. Although I’ve not been back to Canada in the last 20 years - and some of the nation’s lurches under Trudeau into woke celebrations of “peoplekind” are excruciating - the shift from a bicultural and bilingual sensibility into a more multifaceted “multi-culturalism” seem overdue.
One way of perceiving the current Ukrainian War is of Russia facing up to its own long overdue reckoning with a modern world that is not going to put up with monocultural bullying any more.
The resolution of the current crisis in Ukraine can not just be a return to the Old Order where Russian security concerns are considered paramount and the Ukrainians must quietly acquiesce. It’s high time that the Russians yielded some of their seats at the high table of world culture and found a space for the Ukrainians as well.
I want to see the Ukrainians sitting at the end of a long table making decisions on their own cultural destiny…I for one am quite prepared to seat myself at the end of that long table and have that discusssion with them. And I still have the Ukrainian folk shirt to wear for the occasion.