On the night of Ukraine’s presidential election last weekend, Vladimir Putin did not pick up his phone to congratulate the winner. Nor has he since. Putin is in waiting mode. Perhaps that’s because what Ukraine has achieved – a free and fair, genuinely pluralistic election, and the prospect of a democratic transfer of power – is something the Russian president has trouble getting to grips with in his own country.
But surely nothing will have struck Putin more than the words Ukraine’s new president-elect, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, uttered on the night of his victory: “To all countries of the post-Soviet Union: look at us. Anything is possible!” That particular call for change, and for an overhaul of old power structures, even beyond Ukraine, will not have gone down well in the Kremlin.
So there was the 41-year-old, Ukrainian Volodymyr, challenging the 66-year-old, Russian Vladimir. Zelenskiy, a former comedian and TV producer, has no experience whatsoever of public office. Putin, a former KGB operative, will have ruled for an uninterrupted 25 years, as president or prime minister, when he steps down at the end of his current term in 2024 (that is, if he respects the Russian constitution). Putin has no obvious plan for that transition. Ukraine’s current democratic process, by contrast, is going rather smoothly. Since the demise of the Soviet Union 28 years ago Ukraine has had six presidents, Russia only three.
After Zelenskiy’s election, activists in Russia were asking: could Ukraine hold lessons for us? Why can’t Russians also experience a wave of out-with-the old, in-with-the-new? When Algeria’s long-term president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was ousted this month, and when Kazakhstan’s leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, also stepped down, speculation swirled: Russia’s regime may seem a solid, homogeneous bloc, and Ukraine may look like a political maverick, but perhaps things aren’t so clear cut.
If anything, Ukraine’s vote will have brought yet more proof of how far apart the country has grown from its once-sister republic since communism’s collapse. The war in eastern Ukraine, brought on by Russian military aggression in 2014, is of course part of the explanation. But it’s important too to look at each country’s reading of history. It’s hard to minimise the contrasting ways in which Putin’s Russia and today’s Ukraine approach the Soviet past. That common totalitarian legacy, and how it’s dealt with, is the reason why comparing Ukrainian politics with, say, western brands of populism, is misplaced.
Photograph: Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto/REX
In a nutshell: Russia under Putin has turned to a form of Sovietism without communism: a narrative of victimisation by the west, a rehabilitation of Stalin’s legacy, and a depiction of the USSR as an overall positive chapter within Russia’s 1,000 years of glory. Meanwhile, post-Soviet Ukraine, especially since the 2014 Maidan revolution, has consolidated an entirely different narrative: turning to Europe and denouncing the mass crimes of the Soviet era, yet all the while recognising the Soviet sacrifices that led to the defeat of Nazism.
In a way, Ukraine is the Russia-that-never-was. To see this helps to explain why Putin preferred to unleash war in the Donbass to letting the Maidan revolution thrive, leading to the death of 13,000 people and displacement of 3 million more. And why Ukraine’s pro-European, democratic choice – which Zelenskiy’s election confirms – is anathema to Putin.
Ukraine never was an empire. Post-Soviet Russia has arguably never ceased to be an empire both in its mindset and in its reality (think of its neocolonial wars in Chechnya and Georgia). I remember travelling to eastern Ukraine in the mid-1990s and hearing Russian-speaking inhabitants say how relieved they were to live in a country separate from Russia: “At least our sons aren’t sent to the war in the Caucasus.” Sure, Ukraine is a complex country with numerous problems. But in this century its citizens have been spared the brainwashing that Russian citizens are subjected to daily, with calls to create a “new generation of victors” (to quote Putin).
In her book The Immortal Regiment, the Paris-based historian Galia Ackerman writes about the mental trap Putin has created. His rewriting of 20th-century history has produced a delirious vision of Russia refighting “fascism” in Ukraine – as if constantly reliving the 1941-45 “great patriotic war” was the only way to rally his countrymen.
Photograph: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
I called Ackerman after the Ukrainian election, and she told me: “There is a civilisational rupture between Russia and Ukraine, and it is not really about being anti- or pro-west. It goes much deeper, and points to the lie that Putin has built around the Soviet past – a lie which almost all Ukrainians reject.” Petro Poroshenko, the outgoing president, did not lose because of ideological reasons: “He lost because people were fed up living in poverty.”
Ukraine’s fate matters immensely to Europe’s future, just as it has in the past. Ukraine may seem like an outlier, but it stands at the heart of the continent’s many challenges. Peace and stability are not guaranteed, nor is European unity – in particular on the strategic issue of gas pipelines, where Germany’s position is regrettably ambiguous.
There are, of course, many unknowns attached to Zelenskiy, a complete outsider whose meteoric rise has been accompanied by almost zero policy proposals. (On the question of the Donbass, he has said he wants to unleash an “information war”.) But Ukraine’s democratic set-up is not in doubt, nor its choice of drawing closer to Europe – and make no mistake, that’s what bothers Putin.
This week the Russian analyst Gleb Pavlovsky – a former Kremlin insider – predicted that the Kremlin would have “no gifts” for Zelenskiy. “Putin sees him as a weak president, and Putin is known to have quoted Stalin, saying, ‘the weak get beaten’.” That was closely followed by a Kremlin announcement that Russian passports would be distributed in the Donbass – a clear warning to Zelenskiy. When you read the headlines about Ukraine, think about history.
• Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist