Saturday 6 October 2012

Why I'm not a nationalist

Most people in Scotland have little or no experience of what happens when nationalism develops and independence is achieved. It might therefore be worthwhile to describe a modern example of a split, which has turned out to be less than amicable. It is one the main reasons why I am not a nationalist. 

Growing up in Scotland under the shadow of the Cold war, we all kept hearing of the Soviet Union, but few of us had really heard of the republics, which made up this union. If a Scot had heard of Kiev and if he were asked where it was, he would have replied in the Soviet Union or often simply in Russia. We all used the word Russia to refer to the whole country. Incidentally this is exactly how Russians describe the UK. In common Russian usage, someone from Edinburgh is from England and he is English. Russians are aware of something called Scotland, though they are frequently hazy about just quite where it is, but they find it strange and pedantic if a person insists on being called Scottish.

Ukraine had been part of the Russian Empire for centuries. At times various parts of Ukraine had been part of Poland or part of the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires, but despite shifting boundaries no one much thought of Ukraine as anything other than a part of Russia. Up until the end of the 19th century it was often known in Russian as  Little Russia. There were some differences between Ukrainians and Russians and there was a branch of the East Slavic language, which had developed in parts of the Ukraine, spoken usually by peasants, partly owing to the fact that in these regions there had been foreign rule.

This Ukrainian language has much in common with Scots. Indeed one of the best parallels between Scots and English is that of the parallel between Ukrainian and Russian. When growing up in rural Aberdeenshire I spoke Doric, the local form of Scots, and this language really was very different from English, so much so that at times people even in Aberdeen would struggle to understand what I said, let alone in other parts of Scotland. English people, of course, could barely understand Doric at all. In growing up I learned really three languages. Doric which I used exclusively with people from Aberdeenshire, Scots, which was really English with an accent and a few extra words and slight grammar changes, which I used with other Scots and English, which I used in writing and in communicating with anyone who might struggle with Scots. 

This situation is very similar to what happened in the Ukraine. People in the western parts of the Ukraine often spoke pure Ukrainian, while they nearly all could  speak pure Russian as well, people in the east of Ukraine spoke mainly Russian with a Ukrainian accent with a few extra words and slight changes in grammar, some others spoke a sort of mixture of Russian and Ukrainian. Everyone adapted to the linguistic environment they were in modifying their speech so as to be understood.
Russians can understand Ukrainian, about as well as someone from southern England can understand very broad Scots, like Doric. Until relatively recently Ukrainian was rarely written. The greatest writer born in what is now Ukraine, Gogol’,  for instance, wrote in Russian while using some Ukrainian words, rather like Walter Scott wrote in English, but allowed characters to use Scots words.  

During the Soviet Union Russians and Ukrainians would travel to each others’ republics, without particularly thinking that they were going anywhere foreign. There had been historical tensions between these peoples, but no one much thought of each other as being particularly different. This all changed in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine unilaterally declared independence. 

What happened next is an object lesson for Scotland. During the Soviet Union, no one ever expected that the three core republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus’ would ever split. These places had been united for centuries. They were known as “Brother peoples” to all Soviet citizens. Everyone could speak Russian in all three of these republics, yet suddenly a Muscovite found himself in a foreign country when he visited Minsk or Kiev.

In Ukraine, Ukrainian nationalism began to be felt very strongly. One result of this was a change in education policy so that Ukrainian history was emphasised, and with it came the development of a brand of history which tended to blame Russia for everything. Tragic events  that occurred in the Soviet Union, were blamed on Russia. It was forgotten that there were Ukrainians who had been enthusiastic about the Soviet Union, it was forgotten that Ukrainians had fulfilled the orders of the party, it was forgotten that everyone suffered under the Soviet regime including Russians. Naturally this retelling of history by Ukrainians angered Russians, leading to Russians emphasising  history in such a way that it was negative about Ukrainians, remembering, for example how many Ukrainians fought as allies with the Germans during World War II.

The Ukrainian language was made the national language of Ukraine, even though it is spoken exclusively only really in the west of the Ukraine and that in vast areas east of the Dnepr river and in the south and in Crimea, Russian is almost exclusively spoken. This meant that huge numbers of Russian speakers living in the Ukraine found, that their children were being sent to schools where only Ukrainian would be taught, found that jobs and promotions depended on knowledge of a language they barely knew. 

The consequence of these divisive nationalistic policies, was enmity between Ukraine and Russia, which led to Russia deciding not to treat Ukraine as a friend, thus deciding not to give friends’ rates for gas and oil supplies. Moreover, when Ukraine sided with Georgia in the short war, which happened in 2008, Ukraine found itself isolated, its friends in Western Europe deserting it, and for one horrible moment it looked as if Russia and Ukraine might go to war. Many Ukrainians and Russians now look at each other with contempt. Russians are often made to feel unwelcome in Ukraine. It is not unknown for some Ukrainians to demand that a Russian speaks Ukrainian, or that Ukrainians carry on speaking Ukrainian even if a Russian is struggling to understand. Ukrainians are now treated as foreigners in Russia, and vice versa, having to obtain a work permit and residence permit to live and work there. 

Worst of all within Ukraine there is something akin to civil war. The eastern half of Ukraine is the blue side, Russian speaking and largely with a Russian identity. The western half is the orange side, largely Ukrainian speaking and looking westwards, hoping to be a part of Europe and the EU. The Orange Revolution of 2004/2005 was really a sort of civil war between these parts. It still continues with the blue half now in the ascendancy, the leader of the orange half in prison.

Ukrainian independence, did not bring what the nationalists promised. Ukraine is impoverished, and isolated diplomatically. It is divided amongst itself and its nationalism has led to a deterioration of its relationship with Russia, to such an extent that many Russians refuse to visit some parts of the Ukraine for fear of what might happen if their accents are heard there. 

Scotland is not Ukraine of course, but it would not be hard to imagine a new curriculum being introduced which emphasised Scottish history and did so by blaming England for everything. Indeed this is already happening. It would not be difficult to imagine an independent Scotland making Gaelic and Scots the national languages of Scotland, teaching them in schools, teaching the literature at the expense of the foreign English literature. Indeed, this is already beginning to happen. It is not difficult under these circumstances to imagine relations between England and Scotland deteriorating as those between Russia and Ukraine have deteriorated. Indeed, this is already happening, with English people showing increased enmity to Scots.

The reason why I’m not a nationalist is that I have seen what it has done to Russia and the Ukraine. It is because I believe that all nationalisms sow seeds of division and discord and because, as someone who feels both Scottish and British, I don’t want the same sort of strife to happen here.