I was one of the few walking down Lenina Avenue this past Saturday, the rest of the city was running. It was the day of the Kharkiv Marathon, and as I walked past on the sidewalk I couldn’t help but summon to mind the images that had flashed across our TV sets two years ago at that year’s Boston Marathon. With the state of unrest that has overtaken Eastern Ukraine this past year, a bombing at a relatively popular event did not seem outside the realm of possibility. The sparse number of onlookers along the street seemed to testify that I wasn’t the only one to think so.
The Warrior Liberator Monument, a towering statue of a Soviet soldier standing in testament to the Red Army’s liberation of Kharkiv in the final year of the Second World War, has a new addition attached to the gun the soldier holds defiantly aloft – a Ukrainian flag. Indeed, nearly every one of Kharkiv’s monuments that hasn’t been torn down (see the single boot that remains from the Lenin statue once standing proudly over Freedom Square) has been gifted with a Ukrainian flag. A stroll down any street in the city will find flags hung over balconies and painted on walls alongside patriotic slogans.
Of all the things to come out of last year’s Maidan protests, a newfound Ukrainian patriotism is one of the most noticeable. It’s a remarkable contrast to the gloomy Soviet hangover the country was still coming off of as recently as a year and a half ago. In those days it was all that people could do to restrain themselves from rushing Europe’s borders in hope of escape. That sentiment hasn’t disappeared as much as it has come with a newfound hope that rather than cross into Europe it might now be possible to bring Europe here, in the form of EU membership or, at the very least, the possibility of a free movement agreement like that given to Moldova and other newly liberated Soviet states still struggling to stand on their own two feet.
After all, as was demonstrated in formerly war torn countries like Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States, it seems that what has to come before liberation from imposed Russian influence is patriotism. This is what Ukraine has finally started to get right. Rather than tremble in adoration at the mere mention of countries like the U.S. and Canada, Ukraine has finally started to take pride in its own accomplishments, buried under the excrement of Soviet communism though they might be.
If I paint a rosy picture, I don’t mean to. Ukraine still has more problems than 50 Cent, it’s just that lack of nationalism now isn’t one of them. Ukrainian nationalism does differ from those found in dying number in the West and the more rabid Russian strain in that Ukrainian nationalists are still the first to plead for help from other states. Whether arms from the U.S. or funding from the IMF, Ukrainians in the know are not ignorant to the predicament they face if the international community leaves them to the mercy of Russia’s wolves.
The irony is in the sprint that countries like Greece, the United Kingdom, and even France are in to renew efforts to leave the EU while countries like Ukraine and other of its Slavic neighbors cling to the idea of membership like an infant to a milky teat. To confound the international menagerie further, the route the majority of Western Europe’s right (and left) wing parties have taken in their renewed attempts to distance themselves from the EU is through partnership with Russia- the same Russia that the better half of Ukraine is running the opposite way from.
The leader of France’s rejuvenated National Front, Marine Le Pen, has called EU politicians in Brussels “American lackeys” for their tepid support of American efforts to sanction Russia following its seizure of the Crimean Peninsula, which Le Pen further says ought to be officially recognized as Russian territory. Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K.’s rabidly anti-EU Independence Party, would seem to agree, commenting that Vladimir Putin is the world leader he “admires the most” and that Russia and the West are ultimately “on the same side.” Greece’s newly elected left-wing Syriza party has additionally made efforts to create closer ties with Russia, including watering down an EU statement to remove any threats of further sanctions if Putin expands his military ventures in Ukraine.
One wonders whether politicians such as these, once relegated to the fringe, would garner so much support if Greece, France, and the U.K. had been geographically close enough to see Stalin’s tanks rolling across their soil in his quest to expand the Soviet Empire. It is not a surprise then that the countries most weary of Putin’s recent military ventures all have in common the aforementioned track marks.
Is the future European Union then to be a Union consisting overwhelmingly of the formerly Soviet West? Current signs would seem to indicate the answer to be yes. But if so, what further incentive will Eastern Europeans eager to escape to the West have, being that countries departing from the EU will surely amend their immigration policies as a result? They will then only have traded one master (Russia) for another (Brussels). Though this doesn’t come without its problems, it still represents a marked improvement over the past and present situation. Certainly the EU’s current ruling coalition of Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Martin Schultz are better alternatives than Vladimir Putin.
Of course, Ukraine must first meet the requirements set forth by Brussels before even being considered for membership; requirements that most Ukrainians seem to think are far too stringent.
Chocolatier and current President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, dangles the promise and benefits of EU membership to Ukrainians on a regular basis. Several of the Ukrainians I’ve spoken to are even under the illusion that a free movement agreement with Europe is imminent and will be signed before the year is out. Clearly, their expectations for Europe are already quite far from the reality.
While Europe is in the awkward position of needing to condemn Russian actions in order to save face, it’s clear Europe is as divided as Ukraine about the direction it wants the country to head. Granting Ukraine’s 45 million citizens free movement across the rest of the continent will only amplify already popular calls to curb immigration, never mind the cost of absorbing a notoriously corrupt, financially troubled country.
In any case, it would seem that those who are nostalgic may have reason to look to the future after all, and a Europe dominated by Germany and Russia once again. Countries are already well on their way to picking sides.
For now the battle, quite literally, takes place in Ukraine, where the population is left to choose between patriotism and expatriation.