Competing Narratives in Ukraine

The conflict narratives prevailing in eastern Ukraine obscure the likely “ground truth” at the center of the conflict. Russia’s and Ukraine’s press releases and official commentary are political statements; statements that contain elements of truth bent towards justifying (or legitimizing) certain political actions. Geographically, these narratives center on eastern Ukraine and its people. With the start of Ukrainian military action in the east, the critical factor is which identity the eastern Ukrainians emphasize – are they primarily cultural Ukrainians? Or Russian speakers? The answer to this question will have repercussions for the rest of Ukraine.

note: this post draws on information from a useful BBC report (here).

For Russia the conflict is about protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, specifically eastern Ukraine at the moment. As the BBC observes, most of these Russian-speakers are “ethnic Ukrainians”. This unhelpful phrase is probably meant to convey that these communities of individuals are “culturally Ukrainian”. Ethnic groups, like nations, are an imagined community; a community often based on: 1) culture, 2) language, 3) religion, et cetera. This seemingly minor details carries important weight – first, a person’s identity has multiple faces. An individual living in Donetsk is probably, at once a Russian-speaker who consider herself Ukrainian. Perhaps next door neighbor, similar in all respects, considers themselves Russian. In the Russian narrative, Putin aims to protect both groups, Russian-speaking cultural Russians and Russian-speaking cultural Ukrainians from Ukrainian-speaking government oppressing this group from Kiev.

For Ukraine the conflict is about maintaining territorial cohesion and its cultural identity. The government argues that Russia sparked the unrest in the east, insinuating that these problems occurred at foreign behest; moreover, it has labelled the pro-Russia groups as “terrorists.” Kiev’s argument is that Ukraine is a country for cultural Ukrainians, whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian. Unsurprisingly given this position, it has wholly dismissed the demands of the pro-Russia group, marking them as illegitimate.

Taken together, the conflict is about two competing nation/state narratives – a Russia seeking to assert itself abroad as the protector of Russian-speakers worldwide and a Ukraine seeking to maintain its identity as the abode of cultural Ukrainians. The problem, of course, is what the Ukrainian-passport holders (i.e. the official Ukrainian public) consider themselves. As the BBC article notes, many people in the east are angry with a government in Kiev that see is dominated by politicians from the central and western oblasts. Further, they believe that the interim government has simply appointed oligarchs as governors, similarly corrupt individuals from Yanukovich’s tenure. Besides the international community, the Ukrainian and Russian governments are also attempting to influence these locals – labeling pro-Russia groups as “terrorists” and advocating the defense of “Russian speakers.”

With the Ukrainian military undertaking an “anti-terrorism” operation in the country’s east – the government risks pushing the resident cultural Ukrainians, who have a legitimate gripe with the government – poor representation and corruption, into the waiting arms of Russia. This risk would grow even more likely, and dangerous, should the operation negatively impact local residents. By prompting local Ukrainians to switch allegiance, Kiev would ultimately be challenging its own identity – is Ukraine for cultural Ukrainians, regardless of language or is the vision much more limited a state only for Ukrainian-speaking cultural Ukrainians in the west and central oblasts? If the latter is the case, what happens to the Hungarians, Poles, and Romanian speakers?

Appendix:

The CIA’s World Factbook also illustrates the religious aspect of Ukrainian identity, although it the data is only provided a the countrywide-level.

Of 44.2 million estimated Ukrainian citizens:

  • 67% speak Ukrainian
  • 24% speak Russian
  • 9% speak other languages (including Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian)
  • 50% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate)
  • 26% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate)
  • 8% practice Ukrainian Greek Catholic
  • 7% practice Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox

According to its Wikipedia page, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is primarily located in eastern Ukraine. The other two Ukrainian Orthodox churches are mostly located in the west and center.

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National Myth Making and Geography: Tarle-who?

Geographers, like Historians, sometimes have the unenviable task of informing the general public that their field of study is beyond the question of “What?” Upon learning we’re Geographers, a common question posed is “How interesting! What’s the capital of ______?” Often, we smile, nod, and either a.) answer the question b.) politely inform our questioner that there is more to the social science than where things are located or c.) roll our eyes and walk away. Historians, undoubtedly, are probably asked all manners of questions – “Hey! Do you know about the French Revolution?” or “Hey! What year did America declare its independence?!”

To be sure, the question of “WHERE?!” is central to geo-graphy (writing about the world). But that’s only the first step. “Real” Geography, if I may be so bold, involves deriving knowledge and information from this raw data. Why is it data? And who cares that it’s there anyway? In other words, what does it mean – why does it matter? Below is a graphic illustrating these ideas, via Z Geography’s world map!

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

A bit of boring background on the genesis of this post. I’ve been wanting to write it for some time, not only is it Z Geography’s first foray into field research (!!!) but it’s also a wonderful topic to illustrate these geographic knowledge and education arguments.

National myth making, short-hand for the process in which the imagined community (hat tip to Anderson) is created, is also a geographic process. The objective, of course, is to create and solidify “the nation”. That community of individuals, whom you will never meet everyone, but with whom you share an identity, perhaps you’ll join the military and protect them, or you’ll head over to the pub in the expatriate district of Minsk for a quick drink in familiar surroundings. The “nation” is not only socially defined by geographically, there are places, boundaries, and areas more “sacred” than others. In the United States, we have our own.

A few weeks ago Z Geography popped on south to visit the Yorktown battlefield near Yorktown, VA, site of a British surrender to an allied American-French army in 1781. General Cornwallis’ surrender eventually led to the Treaty of Paris and the attainment of the colonies’ independence (huzzah!).

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

As we can see from the above the battlefield is well maintained. The siege lines, which the Americans and French used to creep closer to the British defensive positions at Yorktown come complete with cannon and mortars. The formerly British redoubts are also maintained though the timber “stakes” have a steel rebar center. The more interesting noteworthy item is the location of the visitor’s center. Smack in the middle of the British defensive lines. Take that lobsterbacks! Not only did you surrender but our tourists can now saunter through your lines!

In effect, the public preservation of the battlefield at Yorktown protects and bolsters the national story – and the myth. The place of Yorktown is commemorated and preserved so that all Americans (and other tourists) can see the place where our independence was won. That Cornwallis surrendered here is well known, less well known is the second garrison, across the York River at Gloucester Point.

The British position at Gloucester Point was commanded by none other than Banastre Tarleton. Depending on your depth of knowledge (and your location) you may have had one of three reactions, 1.) Tarle-who? 2.) ah ok, I know him or 3.) that bastard! Tarleton is a controversial historical figure (as noted in his Wikipedia page). For Z Geography’s purposes, it is sufficient to know that he was an effective commander, accused of atrocities at the Battle of Waxhaws, and absolutely despised by a number of Colonial Americans (particularly Virginians). These accusations persist to the present. What is most interesting is that Tarleton’s command was not at risk of falling to the Americans and French, who were mostly across the river at Yorktown, besieging the main British army under Cornwallis. As pointed out in 1781: The decisive year of the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis had earlier intended on sneaking across to Gloucester Point and attempting a breakout and that most of the remaining British naval assets were on the Gloucester side of the river.

Regardless, Cornwallis included the Gloucester Point garrison within the terms of surrender. Noting that the garrison wasn’t about to fall, Tarleton’s troops were permitted to march out with drawn sabers before being disarmed.

With Clinton sailing from New York to Yorktown a week before Cornwallis surrendered, Tarleton’s continued garrison of Gloucester Point is an interesting “what-if” scenario. Thus, while the victory at Yorktown was complete in the sense that Cornwallis surrendered both positions, Gloucester Point is somewhat, hollow. The surrender terms acknowledge this, Tarleton was permitted to march with saber drawn. In this way, Tarleton maintained his status as the British equivalent to Francis Marion, a perpetual thorn in the side of the colonials.

From a geographic perspective, the national myth is seen in comparing the pristine condition of the Yorktown Historical Battlefield with the town across the river. In contrast, Gloucester Point offers no acknowledgement that Banastre Tarleton bested the rebels one final time, save one:

Tarleton Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Tarleton/O’Hara Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Incidentally, Z Geography is fairly certain that O Hara road is named for Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’ second-in-command. O’Hara officially surrendered the British Army at Yorktown to Benjamin Lincoln (Washington’s second-in-command).

Safe and Sound: a Carolinian Salamander!

The last few weeks I’ve devoted my time to a new geographic and cartographic project.

The project’s objective is to identify characteristics of “safe” districts for the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. There are two sub-questions: where are these safe districts located (if they exist at all) and; what are their significant characteristics? In terms of parameters for the study. I shall only be using results from the 2010 Congressional election (for the 112th Congress, 2010-2012), though I’d prefer a longitudinal approach – digitizing the necessary data from the one election took some time. Within that election, I will be examining results for the House of Representatives, since this body (theoretically) rolls over every two years and the seats are proportional representations of population. My hope is that the results are more applicable to district characteristics than a similar study of the Senate, since that chamber’s seats are tied to perspectives and politics at a state-level rather than a more local level. To be explicit this is the previous Congress, which sat from 2010 to 2012.

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Results for the 2010 election to the House of Representatives (via ME!)

The map above is one depiction of the House results from the 2010 election. It shows potentially “safe” districts (which I defined as over 70% of the available votes going to either the Republican or Democratic party) in the darkest colors, green for Republican, purple for Democratic. It also shows “strong” districts (defined as over 60% of the vote) in a lighter tone of the same colors. By the numbers: 51 districts were “safe” Democratic and 51 were “strong” Democratic. 56 were “safe” Republican and 94 were “strong” Republican. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the House of Representatives is a proportional body based on population. Though the Republican safe districts are geographically larger, the districts more (or less) contain the same numbers of people. Thus giving rise to the common observation that urban areas vote Democratic and more rural locales (with their more diffuse across geographic space populations) vote Republican. That is common knowledge… right?

No? Well, a cursory map analysis elicits a few observations. First, the Democratic Party is hardly a “coastal” phenomenon and Republican strongholds are hardly limited to the American South and Midwest. While this isn’t news to anyone who 1) lives in these areas, 2) has a brain, 3) is a Geographer, one would be surprised by the number generalities made by U.S. media outlets, so-called pundits, and others. Second, some of us thought (myself included) that gerrymandering was dead. I’m happy (because it gives me something to write about) and sad (for the same reason) that its not.

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Meet North Carolina’s 12th Congressional district or the Carolinian Salamander (Caroliander?). Over 60% of the voters in this Congressional district voted for the Democratic Party candidate in the 2010 election. Without a map this statistics does not mean much. We see that four strongly Republican districts on the border (two of which voted over 70% for Republican candidates) and the, rather odd, shape of the district itself is… telling.

Initially I was going to report some demographic characteristics of these districts but since I’ve only done a very limited, cursory analysis (commonly referred to as “eye-balling”) I shall spare you my musings. Suffice to say though, with the appropriate caveats, that there is likely to be some interaction between race/ethnicity and income with the House of Representative electoral outcomes (in North Carolina) in 2010. More explicitly, I think that these districts are shaped to promote these electoral outcomes. Of course, much more research needs to be done on the method and manner in which electoral districts are demarcated in North Carolina.

The above should serve to dispel some misconceptions about U.S. politics. First, there’s really no red-state/blue-state binary. Most states include areas considered strong or safe Democratic or Republican holds, with the notable exceptions of the states with only one representative (Vermont, Montana, and so on). Second, gerrymandering! Taken together, these observations give credence to the idea that the potential spatial concentration of safe districts, say the safe and sound Republican Congressional districts of North Carolina, or Texas, deserve closer scrutiny.

“The Lewis Model”: Yes, it is your grandfather’s orientalism

Every now and then an article crosses my desktop that brings my palm to my face, my head to my desk, and a labored sigh from my lips.

Business Insider posted an article earlier this September on a model that purportedly “explains every culture in the world.” You see my apprehension.

First, no model can explain everything. If it did, it wouldn’t be a model. Models are representations of reality. You can model reality, i.e. create something similar to or based on reality. Since we’re fallible humans we can’t reconstruct reality, we leave something out, some critical explanatory variable.

In the Lewis model, “every culture” is broken down along a continuum between three different poles. I applaud the use of a continuum and three poles – certainly better than a either/or and a binomial model. As far as I’m concerned that’s where the attributes cease.

First the model, or at least the graphics, seem to conflate states and nations. The former, any student of political geography will tell you, are geographic units with more or less sovereignty over a space of the Earth. They are an institution and a system, in other words, not a homogeneous group of people. The “state” that is France is comprised of the courts, the Presidency, the legislative body, the police, the military, and so on and so forth. Of course, each of these components have a “cultural” aspect to it, but I don’t think this model is referring to that.

So what is it referring to? Let’s start with culture. What is that? Culture, to offer a simple definition, is the milieu of practices, customs, and beliefs learned by individuals over a long period of time. Important elements here are 1) practices, customs, beliefs – for example, don’t stand on the left on the D.C. Metrorail escalator, 2) learned – you are not born with this knowledge, you learn it through observation, practice, and being guided (most typically by parents), 3) individuals – adults and children learn this, for example I learned in my teens not to stand on the left on D.C. Metrorail escalators, 4) a period of time – most of this stuff isn’t learned immediately or after one-go, serious things take years to learn.

States, as political entities, don’t really have a culture. Organizations comprising the state, such as the military, may have their own “culture” but much of this is also generated by the individuals (mostly adults) who bring in their own culture as transplants. That leaves us with “nations”. The great imagined community. The legacy of 15th century Europe (or whenever the Treaty of Westphalia was signed). One immediate problem in the model is we say the U.S.A. is “linear-active”. Does that mean all-Americans? White Americans? Black Americans? Half-Brazilian/half-Arab Americans? Where would they fit in this framework? This model completely disregards multi-culturalism while buying into the lie that is the “nation-state”, the idea that each state is inhabited by a homogeneous “nation”.

Even worse is the variety of generalizations. First there’s the geographic generalizations – “Sub-Saharan Africa” is a category. No joke. An entire continent. Yet, Singapore a small-city state nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia is on a completely different tack than its neighbors. We can differentiate a city-state from neighbors but not differentiate within an entire continent? What about intra-country differences? I would argue that in this framework Southern Americans are more similar to “multi-active” places than Northeastern Americans, who fit the general mold of “linear-active”.

And then there’s the behavioral generalizations. Having lived and learned much of America’s so-called “culture”, I can safely say plenty of Americans (if not every single one I’ve met) violated this model. You know Americans can talk at length, particularly about themselves. You know Americans are emotional (football) and almost never stick to facts (WMD in Iraq!). My point is that these behaviors are so general that exceptions are easily found, and in sufficient quantity to make the results meaningless.

Beyond the complete lack of utility in this project, there is a more troubling aspect. The peddling of Orientalism, that bogeyman that I had (at one time) hoped had been left behind in a storm of progress and reason. Surely we can’t continue to think this way? Evidently, we can – and we will. We will continue to generalized hundreds of millions of people into quaint little categories and boxes. Even better, while we do so, we’ll make ourselves look better than them.

Do you think its any coincidence that the author (a British citizen) has this to say about the Linear-Active category of which the U.S. and U.K. are close to the poles (my commentary in parentheses):

  • Talks half of the time (at least we don’t talk all the time!)
  • Does one thing at a time (methodological!)
  • Plans ahead (rational!)
  • Polite but direct (yea!)
  • Confronts with logic (Enlightenment and the Age of Reason started here!)
  • Job-oriented (yea?)
  • Sticks to facts (Scientific method wo0t!)
  • Result-oriented (quality over quantity!)
  • Sticks to agenda (no diversions, one-track, down to business!)
  • Written word important (contracts! law suits!)
  • Restrained body language (until I flip you off.)

Even the names are borderline derogatory. Linear-active sounds boring, to be honest. Multi-active sounds hyper and unfocused (which it is based on the description). While reactive is just that. I bet if we read the paper we would be able to find veiled references to the influence of climate on these “cultures”. The Mediterranean is beautiful, thus nations there are more relaxed and unfocused.

That these papers continue to crop up in 2013 is truly terrifying. Someone believes this, others reviewed it and believed, and someone will pick this up read it over and say – now that makes sense to me. And it will probably be a German, Swiss, or Luxembourgian – since they’re (apparently) the most fact-oriented.