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Under Russian bombardment, Ukrainians are redefining nationalism

Many Ukrainians have made a conscious effort to embrace their multi-ethnic present.

By Emily Tamkin

Vladimir Putin, some have said, will be the father of Ukrainian nationalism.

This is not, strictly speaking, true. Ukrainian nationalism, despite what the Russian president may say, is not a new invention. Perhaps it is more apt to say that, in trying to keep Ukraine for himself, and indeed in trying to deny what makes it unique and distinct, Putin has, despite himself, helped usher into being a new, civic, multi-ethnic Ukrainian nationalism.

There has been much talk of the Azov battalion and the Ukrainian far right. Both of those are real. But so, too, is this phenomenon of the last almost-decade: many Ukrainians have consciously tried to forge a national identity that transcends ethnicity. 

“I think it’s really important to recognise that Ukraine is a country that’s evolving very rapidly,” said Amelia Glaser, an associate professor of Russian, Yiddish and Ukrainian literature at the University of California, San Diego. In the immediate post-Soviet period, Ukrainian nationalism was indeed more of an ethnic nationalism focused around things like the Ukrainian language and the right to speak about Ukrainian national trauma. “What I’ve seen happening in Ukraine, especially in the past eight years, are conscious efforts on the part of a lot of Ukrainians,” Glaser said, to speak about Ukraine’s history, and to embrace its multi-ethnic present.

This is in large part in response to Russian propaganda following the 2014 Maidan uprising against the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, in which Russia tried to paint Ukraine as full of Nazis (as it is once again doing today). “In order to first go against that and try to create a broad-based movement, people realised they needed to put forward civic nationalism,” said Kathryn David, assistant professor of Russian and East European Studies at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

That’s happening, David said, at a grassroots level, and is particularly true in the cultural sphere. The Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov, who writes in Russian, has drawn a distinction between Russian culture and Ukrainian culture produced in the Russian language. The Ukrainian poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan is from the largely Russian-speaking city of Luhansk, but writes in Ukrainian. He insists that he is not a Ukrainian nationalist, but rather a Ukrainian patriot. (It is perhaps worth noting that, in the political sphere, too, the period since 2014 has seen the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jewish Russian-speaker, to the presidency.)

In part, a sense of a multi-ethnic Ukrainian identity has been forged by Russia’s menacing actions. Most Russian speakers in Ukraine identify not as Russian, but Ukrainian. That trend is likely to be exacerbated, not reversed, given that Ukrainian Russian-speakers’ cities and homes are under siege by the Russian army.

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None of this is to say that there isn’t a far right in Ukraine today — there is — or to wipe or wash away Ukraine’s history. “I think when people say Ukrainians and Jews have had a difficult history — it’s important to acknowledge that that’s correct,” said Glaser.

For example, when, in appealing to the Israeli parliament over the weekend, Zelensky said that Ukrainians saved Jews during the Second World War, he was only telling part of the story. Some Ukrainians did indeed help to save Jews; others collaborated with the Nazis or killed their Jewish neighbours themselves.

And some of the heroes and slogans of Ukrainian pride can be traced back to moments in that difficult history. For example, the chant “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to the heroes” was used by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which collaborated with the Nazis. “I have read their archival materials — horrible reports about killing innocent people — that end with that call,” David said. On the other hand, she now sees the phrase used by Jewish and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, too, presenting the possibility that the meanings of slogans can change over time.

There are historical figures, too, whose whole truths shouldn’t be covered up or overlooked. Stepan Bandera, for example, is considered by many a national hero who fought against Soviet rule. Yet as the head of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (the military wing of which was the Ukrainian Insurgent Army), he, too, collaborated with Nazis.

David said she was concerned that some might say, “It’s wartime, it’s not the time to talk about who Bandera is.” She feels, however, that wartime is exactly the time to have these historical discussion.

“My hope is that there will be new heroes that will emerge from this war,” said David. Such as Zelensky, she suggested. Or like Zhadan. Patriots, not nationalists, who take an inclusive view of Ukrainian identity. “Those will be heroes who embrace this vision of Ukraine.”

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