I am strongly convinced of the great potential that maps have to explain political and social processes, and of the need to make a more throughout use of maps in analyses and syntheses. However, maps are not objective: there is always a degree of arbitrariness in the choice of the subject, in its representation, in the meaning conveyed by a map. Maps are extremely powerful tools for understanding reality, but because of their power they should be handled in a delicate and critical way.
In the last few weeks, as the crisis in Ukraine was escalating, a number of maps have begun to circulate on social networks and media, highlighting the differences between North- and Western Ukraine on the one hand and South- and Eastern Ukraine on the other hand. Differences concern electoral behavior, attitude towards Yanukovich’s government, ethnic composition, duration of membership to the Ukrainian state. These maps as well as the cleavages that they highlight are helpful to understand important aspects of what is going on in the country.
However, there is one major problem with the maps highlighting the division of Ukraine into two different parts. The problem precisely lies in the highlighting of the division: to assign a different color to the different Ukrainian regions does not merely show existing differences, but in fact it emphasizes them by hiding nuances and details. There is little doubt that the Southern and Eastern parts of the country have stronger ties with Russia and are inhabited by a stronger share of Russian-speaking population. However, to show this fact should not lead to hide the fact that Ukraine is not a country wherein all the people in the North and in the West are Ukrainian-speaking pro-European citizens, and all the people in the South and in the East are Russian-speaking pro-Russian citizens. There is a high degree of mixture and complexity which maps like these ones ignore and hide.
If there is a single thing that the 20th century history of Central and Eastern Europe should have tought us, it is to pay due attention to ethnic complexity. For instance, recurrent attempts were made to map former Yugoslavia by assigning a color to each region according to the ethnic group enjoying relative predominance within it. However, it was sufficient to go on the ground in order to discover that substantial minorities existed, and that lines of division between groups were much less sharp than they were in the maps. Lines did not run at the level of regions, but they run at the level of valleys, villages, neighborhoods, streets, and often even within a single building. The problem with maps in the Yugoslavian case, was that they legitimized projects of massive population displacements. In some cases they legitimized violent ethnic cleansing policies, in other ones they lead to negotiate and encourage population displacements, as it happened with the Dayton agreement. It was reality that had to be turned into something similar to the tidy order represented in maps, not the other way round.
The problem with Ukraine is the very same one: if we continue to circulate maps highlighting the division of the country, we could end up favouring and building such a very division of the country. State borders are contingent historical constructions, it is obvious that they can be modified. However, it is definitely time to stop thinking that a good way to address the complexities of reality is to create tidy ethnically homogenous entities. To split Ukraine into two parts may appear as a simple, appealing, tidy solution. What history tells us is that, even in the best-case scenario of actors’ agreement about it, it would be an extremely costly and complex operation, likely to lead to a great deal of sorrow and resentment. What history tells us – and what maps should help us to see as well -, is that to reduce cleavages is much preferable to highlighting and exacerbating them.