Putin loves to evoke the family to describe the relationship between our countries. But we have always known our identities are quite distinct
Recently, as someone born in Belarus who has lived in Russia, I have often been asked the same question: why did Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, nations so closely related to each other, develop in such different ways? My answer is very simple: this closeness has been greatly exaggerated by Moscow, and in fact we are all quite different.
I am the last Soviet first-former. My parents took me to school on 1 September 1991, just a few days after the empire essentially disappeared. My father filmed that day’s events with a camcorder, and today we have in our family archive a quite remarkable document: in the video schoolchildren and their parents listen to the teacher’s introduction, getting ready for a new, ordinary Soviet school year, still completely unaware of the fact that the Soviet Union is no more. They are now citizens of a new country, one which will have to start everything from scratch and fight for its own independence, struggling every day to break free from the Kremlin’s clutches.
My mum is Russian; my father, Ukrainian. I have Russian, Belarusian and Tartar roots, and my surname is Ukrainian. I am a product of the Soviet Union and of the 20th century.
But I’ve never queried my own identity: I’ve always known I am Belarusian. If someone told me I was Russian because I wrote in Russian, I would be perplexed. I firmly believe that the Russian language is not Russia’s property; for me it’s merely a means of communication. Speaking French in Geneva doesn’t make you French, speaking German in Zurich doesn’t make you German – you remain Swiss, just as I, while speaking Russian, remain Belarusian.
I’ve understood this very well since I was a child, but my country’s problem – a problem also faced by Ukraine – is that Moscow fails to understand it. In the eyes of the Kremlin, anyone who speaks Russian is a potential taxpayer. Belarus and Ukraine tried to solve this problem in different ways. The Ukrainians broke free from the tight family embrace with resolve, slamming the door behind them, while the Belarusians reckoned that if you keep living with your parents, you don’t have to pay the rent.
After a short spell as one of the last Soviet children, I readily became a schoolboy of the new Belarus; a transformation that, because of my age, happened remarkably easily, something that couldn’t be said of my parents. Decades after the collapse of the USSR, like many other Belarusians, they turned to the Russian media for information every day; it was like a resident of Belgium trying to find out what was going on in their country by watching French state TV each evening. Saying farewell to the old country was quite a difficult process for my parents and when Lukashenko came to power in 1994 he understood that well. Not a bright person but a real political animal, he decided to build his career on Soviet nostalgia. While Ukrainian politicians played on their electorate’s hopes, Lukashenko preferred to work with fear. Hope allows one to stay in power for one term; fear, for five. Since 1991, we have been looking in different directions.
For several decades, while Ukraine saw a succession of presidents replacing one another, Lukashenko repeated the same mantra to the Belarusians: “While I am your president, there will be no war in Belarus.” In a country that for its entire history had suffered as a result of someone else’s conflicts, this promise became an efficient spell. But in 2022, paying his debts to Putin, Lukashenko turned Belarus into an aggressor, leaving his own people completely bewildered. It’s a good lesson: the dictator never thinks about you, the dictator only ever thinks about himself. If you make an unspoken agreement with him and keep silent for decades, whatever happens, one day he’ll dupe you.
Had it been up to him, Lukashenko would have definitely restored a mini Soviet Union a long time ago, but given the circumstances of the new world, even he sometimes had to think of the country’s finances and budget. That forced him to keep paying court to two capitals: sometimes Brussels, sometimes Moscow. This strategy allowed him to stay in power for nearly 30 years, and it is this strategy that is about to become his undoing. After supporting Lukashenko during the post-election protests in 2020 and letting him stay in charge, Putin demanded he finally demonstrate his loyalty by opening the country to the Russian troops, so they could attack Ukraine.
While Ukraine did its best to escape the Soviet Union, Lukashenko deliberately returned to it. While Ukraine wanted to travel to the future, Lukashenko dreamed of going back to the past. For many years, Putin stayed somewhere in between, flirting with liberal values, with Europe, but eventually he understood: if the choice is between his country’s freedom and his own personal power, he will choose the latter.
For both Putin and Lukashenko this is a question of survival. Both old men understand that there is no place for them in the future. In a free country, Putin wouldn’t have been able to stay at the top for so long. It is impossible to imagine a candidate who never talks to their opponents becoming the president of Ukraine. That’s exactly what we see today: Zelenskiy proposes a dialogue, but Putin can’t listen to anyone else’s point of view. This is the difference between our countries: Russia likes monologue, Ukraine likes argument and Belarus likes silence.
Different worldviews, different tactics and strategies. The only thing that does unite Russia, Belarus and Ukraine seems to be their geographic proximity. It’s not about a family, which Putin loves evoking, for some reason calling himself its head; it’s about – let me repeat – something as elementary as living in a communal space. If Ukraine and Belarus were able to split the continent, believe me, they would happily do it, separating themselves from Russia with seas and oceans.
So why has Ukraine, unlike Belarus, always been more radical in its desire to split up from Russia? Countries are like people, and people are all different; everyone struggles in their own way, based on their life experience. Unlike western Ukraine, for instance, Belarus has never experienced a relatively liberal life. Throughout most of its history, it was occupied by other countries, occasionally enjoying formal independence for brief periods.
Despite all our differences, in 2022 Putin still rejects the idea that our national identities have any distinguishing features. He doesn’t feel what I’ve always felt: that we are separate. Whenever I happened to be in Russia, speaking the Russian language, I would immediately come across petty everyday racism, little jokes about Belarusians, which only emphasised the fact that I came to Russia from a different country. They call you their brothers in the Kremlin – only when they want to occupy you.
Putin relies on Ukraine, Belarus and Russia all having their origins in a great ancient state, Kievan Rus, but that’s precisely where the schism begins: the Ukrainians see those times in a radically different way, rightly pointing out that it is their country that can claim its descent from Kievan Rus, since its capital was in what is now Ukraine. Putin calls everyone around him little brothers, not really understanding that no one wants to be a little brother. Putin insists on the fact that in the Russian empire, the Ukrainians and the Belarusians were not seen as separate peoples, and that’s where he makes a basic mistake, neglecting to ask whether they themselves saw themselves as such. Ukraine declared independence in 1917, but Putin isn’t bothered about that: his memory is selective, allowing him to remember just one thing: that Stalin got rid of Ukrainian national leaders.
Every child asks at some point, are my parents really my parents? Are we really a family? Could I in fact be a foundling, an adopted child? You could say that both Belarus and Ukraine, having once been adopted by Russia, perceived this adoption differently for a long time, longing to move out of the toxic parents’ home. Moscow didn’t want to let its “children” go, perhaps unable to fully understand that those it had adopted many years ago weren’t even teenagers – they were grownups. But now, the Kremlin will never again be able to claim it is the head of the family. You can just about imagine that half a century from today, the Russians and the Ukrainians might be able to establish some kind of dialogue and talk to each other, coldly yet with respect; but it’s absolutely impossible to imagine them becoming a single state by mutual consent. The iron curtain, having crashed down once again, has severed those old Soviet family ties for good.
Translated from Russian by Anna Aslanyan.

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