The Land that Came out of the Footnotes

Ukraine was recognized too late and at too high a price. And the account is still not final.
Mykola Riabchuk

In the early days of March 2022, as the Russian troops were approaching the outskirts of Kyiv and international media were focused primarily on the Ukrainian frontlines, an informal meeting of the EU leaders at Versailles did not attract much attention of journalists, nor was the document they adopted carefully scrutinized. The insipid language of the Versailles declaration did not differ much from the past EU statements about Ukraine, reduced essentially to non-binding ‘acknowledgement’ of Ukraine’s “European aspirations and European choice” and vague promises to “further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path”. This time, however, a short phrase was added to the ritualistic curtseys to mark a genuine breakthrough in long and ambiguous EU – Ukraine relations. Seemingly simple and ordinary, it was absolutely unfathomable just a few weeks before. “Ukraine”, the document stated, “belongs to our European family.”

This might be too obvious, even trivial, unless we remember that throughout the past decades the official language of the EU had been watchfully cleansed of any wording that may have hinted at Ukraine’s Europeanness. This was because such a hint, the EU officials believed, may have implied, at least theoretically, Ukraine’s eligibility for membership. And this was a real nightmare for the EU, as a French diplomat once told me, comparable only to the possible accession of Turkey. This is why not a single EU document has ever referred to Ukraine as to a “European state”, but employed instead tricky euphemisms like a “partner country”, or “neighboring country”, and cautiously pushed it on mental maps into a safe distance, within a nebulous space called “western NIS”, “western CIS”, or “western Eurasia”. This is why all Ukraine’s overtures vis-à-vis the EU were met with a polite ‘acknowledgement’ of its European aspirations – a frustrating catch-phrase that meant something like “give me your phone number, I’ll call you later”.

The actual meaning of this politeness was revealed in less formal statements by many EU officials. It is sufficient to mention Romano Prodi’s notorious remark that Ukraine “has as much reason to be in the EU as New Zealand” (because New Zealanders, in his words, also have a European identity).[1] Or, the even more scornful quip by Günter Verheugen that “anybody who thinks Ukraine should be taken into the EU should perhaps come along with the argument that Mexico should be taken into the U.S.”[2] For many Ukrainians who overwhelmingly, under all governments, supported the EU accession, it was truly a cold shower. This was especially the case for those who stood with the blue EU flags in Maidan under the police batons and sniper bullets in 2014, and who cherished their “European belonging” as a key element of their Ukrainian identity.

Two Denials

The persistent Western denial of Ukraine’s Europeanness went hand-in-hand with the Russian denial of Ukraine’s existence. Politically, these two denials were framed differently and had incomparably different consequences – purely institutional in one case and military-genocidal in the other case. (To what degree the first denial contributed to or facilitated the second, is another matter). Epistemologically, however, both denials stemmed from the same root that can be defined, after Michel Foucault and Edward Said, and certainly after Ewa Thompson, as the “imperial knowledge” – a system of narratives that any empire develops about itself and the colonies to strengthen and legitimize its hegemony. In both cases, it was the Russian imperial knowledge that informed both the Russian and Western view of Ukraine, although in the latter case it was supplemented, of course, with some local experience and ideological-cum-ethical constraints.

Russian “Ukraine denial” has much deeper ontological roots, being strongly connected to the way in which Russian imperial identity was constructed – by appropriation of Ukrainian (and Belarusian) history, territory and identity, and placing Ukraine/Kyiv in the very center of the imperial myth of origin. Independent Ukraine, by its very existence, undermines that mythology and challenges the foundations of Russian (imperial) identity. Ukraine as a sovereign nation-state provokes, within the imperial Russians, ontological insecurity and anxiety. Putin, who calls independent Ukraine “anti-Russia” and defines it as an “existential threat” to his country, is correct in a way – with due caveats.

Ukraine is, indeed, “anti-Russia” inasmuch as its national identity is incompatible with Russian imperial identity. And it is, indeed, an “existential threat” for Russia as an empire, although it is also a chance for the emergence of Russia as a nation – as Brzezinski aptly remarked long ago.

Western nations who uncritically accepted and normalized, since the eighteenth century, Russian imperial knowledge, also largely accepted “Ukraine denial” as part of it. The Westerners shared that ‘knowledge’ through the 1990s and many still share, but their “Ukraine denial” has not been driven by any kind of ontological insecurity and anxiety. It simply mirrored the Russian mythology that suited perfectly their own cynical, a.k.a. ‘realist’, policies vis-à-vis both Russia and Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they accepted Ukraine’s independence as a fait accompli, buttressed by legal norms and procedures rather than cultural and historical arguments (so valuable, in a perverse form, for Putin and his acolytes).

Ukraine’s pronounced desire to “return to Europe”, i.e., to join Euro-Atlantic institutions, was a different story. One may argue, more generally, that the desire of East Europeans (and Ukraine in particular) to join the EU and NATO had challenged the established notions of ‘Europeanness’ and provoked, in a way, some sort of ontological turmoil. While Russians’ anxiety stemmed from the feeling that their imperial identity without Ukraine is incomplete, Europeans’ anxiety stemmed from the opposite feeling – that their identity (not only well-being) would be threatened by a dubious, alien body. It was quite natural for them to re-adapt the old, epistemologically induced “Ukraine denial” into a more suitable denial of Ukraine’s European identity and belonging.

To support this new, essentially anti-Ukrainian narrative, some elements of Russian imperial knowledge (that had never been properly revised and dismissed in the West) were employed once again. One of them, perhaps the most important under the new circumstances, was the overblown narrative about primordial Russian-Ukrainian closeness, proximity, affinity, interconnectedness and their virtual inability to exist without each other. This argument was also beneficial in practical terms since it justified a cynical ‘Russia-first’ policy at the cost of its former satellites, assigned tacitly into the Russian “legitimate sphere of influence”, a.k.a. the Russian ‘backyard’.

The former US ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock explained to the readers of the reputable New York Review of Books that Ukraine was a “Nowhere Nation” and its language was derived from Russian [sic] in the sixteenth century;[3] the German and French foreign ministries concluded in a joint classified report that “the admission of Ukraine [to the EU] would imply the isolation of Russia”, so “it is sufficient to content oneself with close cooperation with Kiev”;[4] the former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing argued that only “a part of Ukraine has a European character” while the other part has “a Russian character”, so that other part “cannot belong to the European Union as long as Russia is not admitted to the EU”;[5] and his German colleague, former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt assured readers that “as late as 1990, nobody in the West doubted that Ukraine had for centuries belonged to Russia. Since then, Ukraine has become an independent state, but it is not a nation-state”.[6] (Fans of critical discourse analysis would certainly appreciate the latest manipulative twist: rhetorical transformation of a dubious common wisdom – “nobody doubted” – into a proven fact: “Ukraine [still] is not a nation-state”).

In a recently published article, Timothy Garton Ash recollects how in 2004, after the spectacular Orange Revolution, he urged the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to state publicly that the European Union wanted Ukraine one day to become a member. “If I did that,” Barroso replied, “I would immediately be slapped down by two major member states [France and Germany].” “There will first have to be a discussion of whether a country is European”, a spokeswoman for the EU external-relations commissioner candidly clarified the issue.[7]

Unrequited Love

Only within this context one may properly appreciate the tectonic change in the EU attitude toward Ukraine, indicated in passim, in a short phrase of the Versailles Declaration. It came too late, however, and at too high a price: vast swaths of the Ukrainian territory were occupied, cities destroyed and thousands of citizens killed. Ukrainians may have good reasons for anti-Western (re)sentiments since they had been more betrayed and neglected than recognized and supported by fellow Westerners throughout all their history. The only alternative was Russia, however, a rogue autocratic state, determined to either assimilate Ukrainians or physically destroy them. Ukrainian national identity was fundamentally incompatible with the Russian imperial one.

Ukrainians nation-builders of different colors perfectly understood this and leaned to the West, despite the fact that their desperate love remained unrequited. They saw there at least a chance, however small and improbable, while no chances remained whatsoever on the opposite side. Ukraine’s pro-Western orientation was its modus vivendi, its sine qua non for survival vis-à-vis a hostile neighbor who made the “Ukraine denial” into an imperial creed.

One may argue that Ukrainians became “Westerners by default”: they had little choice but to accept Western values and discourses, even though they did not always feel comfortable with them.

This may be traced since the mid-nineteenth century when Shevchenko and his fellow Ukrainophiles, from the SS. Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood, broke the ranks of imperial Slavophiles with the subversive ideas of federalism and republicanism. This can be found in the official documents of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic (1918-1920) and the programmatic articles of its head Mykhailo Hrushevsky, one of which was titled remarkably “Our Western Orientation”. One may discern the same rationales and imperatives in the pro-Western positions of Ukrainian dissidents of the 1960s and 1970s, and in the predominant stance of Ukrainian politicians and the population at large since independence.

It was not mythical nationalists (or ‘Nazis’, in Putin’s parlance) but the postcommunist President Leonid Kravchuk and the communist-dominated parliament who rejected Ukraine’s full membership in the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States in the early 1990s, and eventually fenced off  many other integration initiatives promoted by Moscow. It was another post-communist President (and a Russian-speaker, if anyone cares, from the south-eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk) Leonid Kuchma who, in 1998, signed the decree “On Reaffirming the Strategy of Ukraine’s Integration into the European Union” and, five years later, signed the law “On the Fundamentals of Ukraine’s National Security”. Article 6 of that law, inter alia, stated that Ukraine “strives for integration into the European political, economic and legal space with the goal of membership in the European Union, as well as into the Euro-Atlantic security space with the goal of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization”. Remarkably, Kuchma’s Prime Minister at the time was the former Donetsk governor Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually himself, as President, mused on the Association Agreement with the EU and only shelved the idea after strong pressure from Moscow (this provoked mass protests and ultimately Yanukovych’s downfall).

Contrary to the commonly mediatized Western wisdom, some consensus about Ukraine’s “European integration” had existed in Ukrainian society long before the “Euromaidan revolution” of 2013-14, even though many people hoped (rather naively) to combine Ukraine’s westward drift with good relations with Russia. They did not support Ukraine’s tentative membership in NATO, being fully aware of the sensitive nature of that issue for Moscow, but they did not expect at the time that the purely economic agreement with the EU would evoke a similar wrath. To placate Moscow, President Yanukovych adopted an officially non-allied status for Ukraine in 2012 and extended the rent of the Sevastopol naval base to Russia for another 25 years but to no avail. In 2014, Russian forces occupied Crimea and staged a fake ‘rebellion’ in Donbas.

The Russian invasion did not change Ukrainians’ predisposition toward the EU all that much since it had always been positive, but radically improved their attitude toward NATO – as all the opinion polls since 2014 confirm.

This reflects, to a certain degree, the exclusion of a substantial portion of the Sovietophile population of the Crimea and Donbas from surveying (and from voting in the national elections), but first and foremost this is reflected in radicalization of the remaining part of the population. Moscow brutally taught Ukrainians that neither a non-allied status or remaining out of NATO would provide them security vis-à-vis the rogue neighbor.

Shortly after the Euromaidan, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology carried out a nationwide survey, asking the people which values Ukrainians, in their opinion, share with Russians and which with Europeans. In both cases, the respondents were allowed to pick up three of the most applicable features from the list. It appeared that Ukrainians believed that they shared the following with Russia: ‘history and traditions’ (46%), ‘culture’ (26%), ‘ethnicity’ (18%), ‘religion’ (15%), and ‘language’ (12%). This was in 2015; today they would probably not even bother to consider this question. Remarkably, however, they compiled a fundamentally different list of values they presumably shared (or, rather, would like to share) with the West: ‘rights and liberties’ (28%), ‘democracy’ (27%), ‘rule of law’ (14%), ‘respect for the people’ (14%), ‘economic development’ (12%). (The last rather than the first place of economic prosperity on the list is also remarkable).[8] All in all, the results clearly indicate that Ukrainians perceive their real or mythical closeness to Russians as determined exclusively by the past, while their proximity to the West is seen as desirable for the future.

Kundera’s Playbook

The Versailles Declaration of 2022, which has finally recognized Ukraine’s belonging to “our European family” and opened a thorny way to its eventual EU membership, has brought Ukrainian “European dreams” as close to reality as ever before. In the same year, however, with the Russian all-out invasion, the Ukrainian “Eurasian nightmares” also became as real as ever before. This enormously raises the stakes of the current struggle, making the need for mobilization of all the resources, including the symbolic, highly important.

Public opinion is certainly such a resource, both domestically and internationally. At home, it is easier to exploit this resource since Ukrainians are well aware of what the war is about and what they are fighting for; with the past few years, they have lost whatever ambivalence they used to have vis-à-vis Russia, the West, or national independence. They know today that this is a war of national survival – an existential war, and they do not use lofty words to express their feelings – like freedom, dignity, sovereignty; it is rather intellectuals’ business to discuss these things, while common people articulate the war in mundane categories of ‘our land’, ‘our country’, ‘just-unjust’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘true’ or ‘false’. Or, as the Mayor of Kryvyi Rih Oleksandr Vilkul (one of many Ukrainian politicians and Ukrainians in general who were labeled ‘pro-Russian’ but fight today for Ukraine) explained his choice: “We were born here. The graves of our relatives are here. We have nowhere to go.”[9]

Ukrainians simply feel it and do not need many words to be persuaded and mobilized. International opinion is, however, a different matter. Milan Kundera’s seminal essay may provide here some lessons on which rhetorical strategies can be employed and which probably should not, which effects can be achieved and which side-effects should be avoided.

Throughout his essay, Kundera pursues two clear goals: first, to persuade Western readers that so-called “Central Europe” (essentially, only three nations from the former Habsburg empire occupied eventually by the Soviets) shares a common culture and history with the West to such a degree that Western Europe (= Europe in general) without them remains incomplete and ontologically insecure. And secondly, to remind the Westerners of their debts and sins vis-à-vis “Central Europe”, primarily the sins of neglect and betrayal, to evoke the feeling of guilt and empathy, and to channel it into a higher public awareness of Central Europe and stronger support for its ‘European’, effectively anti-Soviet/anti-communist aspirations.

There was also the third, supplementary narrative that supported the main two discursive lines. It was a recurrent reference to Russia and/or the Soviet Union that provided, as a dark ‘Asiatic’ force, a suitable contrast to the impeccable Europeanness of Kundera’s three chosen nations, and, on the other hand, reminded implicitly about the Yalta betrayal and other Western misdeeds, contributing thus to the blame-game and the Western feeling of guilt.

There is no clear proof, however, that Kundera’s essay had a significant impact on Western readers beyond a narrow circle of intellectuals who knew something, indeed, and cared a bit about the East European matters. Some of them ran in defense of the sacred cow called “Great Russian Culture” allegedly undermined by Kundera, while some pointed out numerous overstatements, mistakes and manipulations in his text, and some aptly discerned in his essay a courageous challenge to the post-Yalta discursive conventions and the cold-war status quo.

Timothy Garton Ash, one of the most committed and perspicacious observers of Central East Europe, valued Kundera’s concept as a timely reminder to the Westerners that the region is something more than the “footnotes to Sovietology”. “East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest”, he wrote, “are not quite in the same position as Kiev or Vladivostok”, and “Siberia does not begin at Checkpoint Charlie”.[10] (Whether Siberia really begins in Kyiv and whether Ukraine’s capital is exactly “in the same position as Vladivostok” was not discussed at the time, with some dramatic consequences apparent today).

In Eastern Europe, Kundera’s essay, transmitted illegally, in all probability played a much more powerful mobilizing role at the time than in the West. It was broadly perceived as an argument for the region’s “European belonging” and a passionate claim for “a return to Europe”, to ‘normalcy’, for liberation from Soviet dominance. In Ukraine, I remember, we read the text typically in Polish translation (the Ukrainian translation was less accessible since it was published in Canada, in a diasporan journal “Dialog”), and we did not pay much attention to its exclusivist character at the time, noticed eventually by many critics. Kundera wrote off Ukraine from history as an exemplary case of a disappearing nation and downgraded it to the footnotes, but we had no hard feelings against the author: the threat of a complete disappearance was quite real. We celebrated the essay as a manifesto of freedom, and a call for emancipations, a roadmap to the West, away from Moscow.

The exclusivist essence of Kundera’s concept came to the fore much later, in the 1990s, when the notion was instrumentalized by the chosen “Central European” nations to elbow their ways to the elite clubs of the EU and NATO, bypassing less ‘Central’ and less ‘European’ co-prisoners from the same Soviet camp. As a Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko noticed bitterly, “the idea of the ‘stolen West’ may have been liberating for Central Europe, but for the Europe situated further east it was disastrous. Instead of breaking down the wall between East and West, it simply shifted it further eastwards. The idea should have been used to fight totalitarianism everywhere, but was instead localized geographically in the territories of the former USSR, thereby placing a permanent ‘curse’ on our East European lands… Instead of remaining faithful to his own dictum and seeing just how much diversity there is on the whole of the European continent, [Kundera] chose to split it into two parts, in opposition to each other — the humanist West versus the demonic East that had stolen [the Central European] part of the West.”[11]

Today, in their messages to the West, Ukrainians employ all the narratives once used by Kundera. They emphasize their ‘Europeanness’, their cultural affinity and historical interconnection. They remind Westerners of their faults and blunders vis-à-vis both Ukraine and Russia, their long-time appeasement of the rogue regime, their betrayal of the Budapest memorandum and many other wrongdoings, striving apparently to wake up the guilty consciousness of their interlocutors. They construct Ukraine’s image as thoroughly opposite to demonic Russia, and argue that nowadays this is a country of liars and killers rather than great composers and writers, as too many gullible Westerners still prefer to conveniently believe. And last but not least, Ukrainians use one more argument that Kundera mentioned only once, at the very beginning of his essay, when referring to the last words of the Hungarian broadcaster during the 1956 Budapest uprising: “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.” The phrase is seeming to become the main Ukrainian message now: “We are dying for your security, your freedom, your values. We are dying for international order, principles, justice”.

With all this rhetorical similarity, there is also a profound difference. Ukrainians today can rely on arguments that were not available for Kundera at that time. Since the Cold War order was based on the Yalta agreements reaffirmed by Helsinki accords that stipulated, as Przemysław Czapliński aptly remarked, “nienaruszalność granic, a więc – nienaruszalność narracji” (“inviolability of borders, and therefore – inviolability of the narrative”).[12] Ukrainians can now employ legal arguments which are fully on their, not Moscow’s, side. The cultural and historical and even moral arguments (especially in politics) are disputable while written rules and agreements are much more clear-cut. Whatever Putin may fantasize about Ukraine’s ‘artificialness’ and Russia’s special entitlement to destroy it, there is the undeniable fact of aggression against a sovereign state, there is a blatant violation of the UN charter and bi-lateral and multilateral documents, there is an apparent crime of war and an increasingly obvious crime of genocide. This does not make historical, cultural and other arguments irrelevant or redundant but inevitably relegates them to a secondary, auxiliary role.

Ukrainians may have the same illusions about the West that Kundera and his generation had, but they certainly have more self-confidence stemming from the newly acquired historical agency. This was famously expressed by the Ukrainian President on the first day of the war – in his alleged response to American diplomats who proposed to him evacuation from Kyiv to a safer place: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

The real tragedy of the new “Central Europe” that shifted eastward, is that it was recognized too late and at too high a price. And the account is still not final.

Mykola Riabchuk is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Studies in Kyiv and a Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris. His latest books (in English) are Eastern Europe since 1989: Between the Loosened Authoritarianism and Unconsolidated Democracy (Warsaw, 2020), and At the Fence of Metternich’s Garden. Essays on Europe, Ukraine, and Europeanization (Stuttgart, 2021). His last collection of essays Nationalist’s Lexicon (in Ukrainian) won the Taras Shevchenko National Prize in arts in literature in 2022.



[2] As reported by Oleg Varfolomeyev, “The EU’s Unwanted Stranger?” Transitions Online, 12 July 2002


[4] Quoted in “New Neighbourhood – New Association. Ukraine and the European Union at the Beginning of the 21st century,” Policy Papers 6 (Warsaw: Stefan Batory Foundation, March 2002), p.11.


[6] Quoted in Timothy Garton Ash, Ukraine in Our Future. New York Review of Books, February 23, 2023,




[10] Timothy Garton Ash, Does Central Europe Exist? New York Review of Books, 9 October 1986.



Mykola Riabchuk

is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Studies in Kyiv and a Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris. His latest books (in English) are Eastern Europe since 1989: Between the Loosened Authoritarianism and Unconsolidated Democracy (Warsaw, 2020), and At the Fence of Metternich’s Garden. Essays on Europe, Ukraine, and Europeanization (Stuttgart, 2021). His last collection of essays Nationalist’s Lexicon (in Ukrainian) won the Taras Shevchenko National Prize in arts in literature in 2022.

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