Crisis throws up four historical parallels between Ireland and Ukraine

Similarities help explain the spontaneous Irish response to Ukrainian suffering

“What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return.”

Vladimir Lenin made this remark in October 1914. It remains a significant comparison because before the invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin explicitly blamed Lenin and his Bolshevik party for its separation from Russia after the 1917 revolution.

Lenin repeatedly polemicised against “great Russian chauvinism”, comparing it to dismissive British imperial attitudes towards Ireland.

Drawing on Marx and Engels’s support for Irish independence as a condition for British working class emancipation, Lenin insisted on the right of Ukraine to independence, in the hope that afterwards it would associate voluntarily with the Soviet Union.

This is one of four historical parallels between Ireland and Ukraine thrown up by this crisis. They help explain the spontaneous Irish response to Ukrainian suffering and illuminate several political realities currently in play after president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s address to the Oireachtas.

He referenced colonising empires claiming a right to subdue neighbouring people and destroy their identity; occupation tactics; the use of hunger as a weapon; and neutrality and solidarity on EU enlargement.

Imperial-colonial relationships are not limited to those between European empires and colonies elsewhere in the world but occurred extensively within Europe itself. Irish and Ukrainian historians explore these intra-European examples in a forthcoming book which argues that understanding this better undermines the usual normative distinction between good western European civic and bad eastern European ethnic nationalisms. Post-colonial and othering relationships apply in Europe too.

In a policy draft on national and colonial questions in 1920, Lenin listed these examples first: “Austrian experience. Polish-Jewish and Ukrainian experience. Alsace-Lorraine and Belgium. Ireland…”. The Bolsheviks won the civil war in Ukraine and after that it was agreed that Ukraine would become part of the Soviet Union.

Before he died in 1924 Lenin wrote: “A distinction must necessarily be made between the nationalism of an oppressor nation and that of an oppressed nation; the nationalism of a big nation and that of a small nation. In respect of the second kind of nationalism, we, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence; furthermore, we commit violence and insult an infinite number of times without noticing it.”

Ukrainian famine

It was a warning to the party that his successor Joseph Stalin, a Russified Georgian, was especially prone to imperial chauvinism, along with others who despised Ukrainian nationhood. That proved tragically the case in the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s when four million died during the Stalinist collectivisation of its agriculture. This common Irish and Ukrainian experience of politically motivated famine under imperial rule is a second major parallel between the two states.

A third has been explored by the political scientist and historian Taras Kuzio in his study of empire loyalism and political identities in north-eastern Ireland and Donbas. Both regions were heavily industrialised in the 19th century, geared to their respective imperial markets and influenced by migration of Protestant or Russian-Orthodox skilled workers. The common experience of industrial decline in the 1950s/1990s reinforced nostalgia for an empire that used to shore up prosperity and cultural superiority in a wider regional setting of colonial subalterneity and smaller state nationalism.

As Kuzio puts it: “Ukrainians and Irish were therefore both alien and kindred, wild and mild, dangerous and idyllic, subversive troublemakers and empire loyalists. Ukrainians and Russians and Irish and British were considered to be very similar peoples, and therefore Ukrainians and Irish could be assimilated into Russian speakers and English-speaking British with the hope of transforming them into empire loyalists.”

Common inspirations

National, religious and political identities combined to undermine that hope, but its common inspiration and structure justifies the comparison. That is so despite the great differences in scale between Ireland and Ukraine. Russia’s invasion to “liberate” Donbas and the fierce resistance to it invite further comparisons about powersharing and referendums in any potential peace process there.

The fourth parallel concerns neutrality and the European Union. The common thread here is how a smaller state should behave strategically towards its former imperial ruler. Zelenskiy echoes De Valera’s policy of a prudent post-independence neutrality aware of the larger state’s interests in his recent rhetoric. That geopolitical reality justifies the Irish comparison. So does Ukraine’s desire for EU membership to validate its independence.

Ireland’s experience of neutrality and European integration is enriched, and its current debates on them should be made more informed and confident, by these commonalities.

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