THE BLOG

Ukraine: Europe's Terra Malecognita

06/07/2012 15:00 | Updated 05 September 2012

The cheers have subsided. The Euro 2012 football championship ended on Sunday night, and by all accounts co-hosts Poland and Ukraine acquitted themselves well. The stadiums were state of the art, the hospitality warm, the competition fierce and thrilling. In the words of UEFA President Michel Platini, the tournament was a 'fantastic' event certain to 'remain in our memories'.

What a difference a month makes. At the beginning of June, Poland and Ukraine were rocked by accusations of anti-Semitism and racism in the BBC Panorama documentary 'Stadiums of Hate'. Shocking video of violence in Ukrainian football stands frightened away thousands of European fans and tourists. The situation was dire. Reporting from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, one journalist on the BBC Breakfast programme even went so far as to ask, 'Are Ukrainians dangerous racists?'

Yet with its blemishes under a microscope, Ukraine succeeded in 'surprising' the football world. Small minorities of Croatian, German, Russian and Spanish fans were condemned by UEFA for incidents of racist behaviour, but Ukrainians defied their caricature and won praise for their 'magnanimity', especially in defeat. Some even organised grassroots initiatives that offered free accommodation, free transportation and free assistance to visitors to the country.

So was the British press unfair? Sensationalist? Greater context and circumspection were indeed needed in Panorama's report, but the footage of violence in Kharkiv - and of ineffective authorities in the stands - was unquestionably damning. Ultimately, the problem was less media sensationalism than public knowledge about Ukraine. Reports of racism in the country were essentially made in a vacuum, with precious little beyond stories of made-man famines, environmental catastrophes, and feuding politicians to help frame them constructively. Ukraine is the largest country within the European continent, a democracy of over 45million occupying a critical geopolitical position between the European Union and the Russian Federation. Yet after 20 years of independence, Ukraine remains badly known and poorly understood. It is Europe's perennial terra malecognita.

Rarely is a country represented in the media as so ontologically dependent on others and so dismissive of its own national interests. Pick up an article about Ukraine, and you are likely to find reference to a Ukrainian politician or civic figure as 'pro-EU' or 'pro-Russia' - but never 'pro-Ukraine'. Analysts and journalists miss a trick in resorting to simplistic interpretations of the country as divided according to 'East' and 'West' dichotomies. Ukrainian society is complex and fluid, but it is also more cohesive than advertised. A majority of Ukrainians across the country, for instance, consider the controversial proposed language reform, which is now igniting sustained public unrest in Kyiv, little more than a 'campaign stunt' in advance of parliamentary elections in October.

Rarely is a country's national culture, moreover, so casually overlooked or widely disregarded. Last year, for instance, the British Film Institute prominently featured in a festival of 'Russian film pioneers' the works of Soviet Ukrainian director Oleksandr Dovzhenko, who fought on behalf of the Ukrainian People's Republic in 1919. Such (frequent) errors are not a matter of political correctness; they are a matter of simple accuracy. The Soviet Union was not Russia, just as Great Britain is not England. Conflating one with the other is a needless reduction of cultural and ethnic diversity.

More recently, in the midst of the furore over the Euro 2012 tournament, The Guardian endeavoured to list Ukraine's 'positives', giving three names as evidence of its 'rich literary heritage': Mikhail Bulgakov, Anton Chekhov, and Konstantin Paustovsky. All of them are canonical Russian writers. Is Ukrainian culture really so elusive, or are we just too blind to discover it? Not one mention was made in the article, for instance, of Taras Shevchenko (1814-61), the poet and artist to whom monuments stand in nearly every Ukrainian city, as well as in Rome, Buenos Aires, Paris, Washington DC, and New York. Without him, today's Ukraine would simply not exist. In his verse, Shevchenko defended the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus against colonization and imperial aggression; in his public activism, he spoke out against racism and anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire. Other national heroes named Shevchenko only stand in his shadow.

Of course, no country or national community can be perfectly known. No country or national community is exempt from mischaracterisation in media discourse. Yet at a certain point a failure to know and a tendency to mischaracterize can signify sanctioned ignorance. Ukraine is simply too large and too strategically significant to remain Europe's terra malecognita. Its historical emergence out of the peripheries of empires has defied conventional wisdom. It will undoubtedly continue to surprise. What Euro 2012 has revealed is a real and immediate need for us to study Ukraine on its own terms and to engage the country more directly as an object of knowledge, if only to see how its problems are dwarfed by its hard-won achievements and promising possibilities.