Twice within the span of a decade, Ukraine has riveted the world’s attention with dramatic mass demonstrations in support of political and economic transparency, freedom, and the rule of law. And at these critical junctures in the country’s history, scores of foreign journalists and analysts have appended a proviso to the scenes of throngs of Ukrainian citizens donning the yellow-and-blue and demanding more of the political leaders who routinely fail them. The proviso is this: Ukraine has a ‘weak’ or ‘fragile’ national identity. Days ago, in a performance of impressive chutzpah, a well-known British commentator even took it upon himself to counsel Ukrainian demonstrators on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and its environs ‘to recognize [their] identity’s inherent fragility.’ The original title attached to essay, swiftly amended after an outcry online, was ‘There Is No Ukraine’.
What is going on here? How are we to reconcile Ukraine’s repeated and sustained displays of patriotic people power with such Putinesque ontological dismissals? (In 2008 Vladimir Putin quipped to George W. Bush that Ukraine is ‘not even a country.’) How are we to reconcile the barricades hewn from ice in the centre of today’s Kyiv, where hours in the day are marked with the singing of the national anthem, with the Western journalistic refrain of a country devoid of a strong sense of itself, hopelessly divided between ‘a pro-EU west’ and a ‘pro-Russia east’? How are we to explain the commitment of the many hundreds of thousands in Kyiv who have pitched tents on the streets and braved the elements for hours, days and weeks; risked arrest, imprisonment and state-sanctioned violence; raised money and organised volunteer battalions; occupied part of the centre of the city and formed an ad-hoc government; and framed these activities in a language celebrating a defence of the national interest against rampant corruption and cynicism?
One way is to argue that Ukraine’s ‘EuroRevolution’ is a disproportionate manifestation of a particular segment of Ukrainian society, i.e. not national at all. According to this line of thinking, the demonstrators on what has become known as Kyiv’s ‘EuroMaidan’ are predominantly ‘nationalist’ Ukrainians from ‘pro-EU’ western regions of the country. During the working day, when the assembled are mostly male and the party flags largely those of the ultranationalist Svoboda party, this hypothesis seems persuasive. But in the evening, when the numbers swell into the tens of thousands in the space of an hour, the EuroMaidan becomes something else: a birthday party for Ukraine’s future, led by pop star Ruslana Lyzhychko and populated by young, diverse celebrants from all parts of the country.
Another way is to imply that these powerful expressions of national identity are a flash in the pan, a deviation from some historical norm. That Ukrainians are simply fooling themselves. That they are dreaming. Ukrainians, our British commentator remarked, ‘would do well to remember that their European dream is just that – a dream.’ An army of EU bureaucrats and diplomats left holding the bag in Vilnius would beg to differ. Such patronizing commentary is a new exercise in a long-standing practice of casting Ukrainians as objects rather than subjects of history and their country as an artificial life form concocted in the laboratory of great power politics. ‘The country we now call Ukraine was a creation of World War I,’ we are told, ‘but its people were not called Ukrainians until independence had been won.’ Such statements are not far off from what Daniel Dennett calls ‘deepities’ – in one sense, true and trivial, and in another sense, fascinating and false. Half the states of Europe may be considered creations of World War I, and any cursory glance at Ukrainian-language literature reveals that the ethnonym ‘Ukrainian’ circulated with alacrity over the course of the nineteenth century. But historical precision is not the primary point here.
Another way to reconcile the thesis of Ukraine’s ‘weak’ national identity with what we are seeing today is to discard the thesis entirely. In fact, it may be high time for us to reassess and reconceptualize the way we study national identity in diverse countries like Ukraine in the first place. Ukrainians from Lviv in the west and Donetsk in the east may differ in view on the character and direction of their country, but so do Americans from Massachusetts and Mississippi. They still profess a belonging – and a desire to belong – to their country. Heterogeneity and contestation are not necessarily a sign of weakness, nor are homogeneity and consensus always a sign of strength. As a practical matter, the thesis of Ukraine’s ‘weak’ national identity is not only conceptually vague but analytically useless. It anticipates nothing but more weakness itself. It cannot explain with any real sophistication Ukraine’s historical emergence, not to mention its continued existence and political vibrancy. And it has routinely failed to foresee pivotal moments of grassroots change and upheaval, from the student-led ‘Granite Revolution’ of 1990 to the ‘Orange Revolution’ of 2004 and the ‘EuroRevolution’ now unfolding before our eyes.
To be sure, ‘national identity’ is a highly fraught concept. It is fluid and situational, actualized differently within and outside a country’s borders. Formulating a helpful definition has been likened to searching for the Holy Ghost: what is an ‘identity’ in the first place? How can we apprehend it? In what ways can we consider it ‘national’? No matter the context, none of these questions has a straightforward or stable answer. In the case of Ukraine, the state of play is especially convoluted given the country’s past as a cultural colony of its neighbours. Its sense of self has been political football for centuries. But if we take a step back and conceive of ‘national identity’ thinly as a physics of belonging that coheres a country beyond any one language, or any one ethnicity, or any one faith, or even any one historical experience, then Ukraine’s national identity may be one of the most influential and underestimated sociocultural phenomena of its kind in modern European history. Defying geopolitical gravity, it has helped produce out of peripheries of empires a multiethnic, multilingual, and multiconfessional state that is today the largest within the European continent.
Let me illustrate the peculiar force of Ukraine’s national identity with a colourful but little-known historical example. In 1918, Ukrainian peasants sought to create a Ukrainian polity near the Sea of Japan. This may sound like the punchline to a Soviet-era anecdote, but it is no joke. In the revolutionary period, Ukrainian emigres established a Ukrainian Secretariat of the Far East, which sought to govern what was often called ‘Dalekoskhidna Ukraina’ – ‘Far East Ukraine’. The Secretariat drafted a constitution; attempted to exercise administrative control of the region; mobilized Ukrainian troops on its territory; and sought to engage in diplomatic relations with Japan and China.
The Secretariat emerged in the ‘Zelenyi klyn’ or ‘Green Wedge’, a vast expanse of one million square kilometers incorporating the Amurskaia oblast, the Prymorskii krai and much of Khabarovskii krai of today’s Russian Federation. In the second half of the nineteenth century, this territory was settled by Ukrainian farmers compelled (and encouraged) to emigrate because of agrarian overpopulation in the southwestern provinces of the Russian Empire. In 1917, the population of the Zelenyi klyn was over 880,000, with ethnic Ukrainians amounting to approximately sixty to seventy percent of the total. Where did they come from? The central and eastern oblasts of Chernihiv, Kyiv, Poltava, and Kharkiv. These origins became reflected in village names and other toponyms: Chernivska, Kyivska, Kharkivska, even Khreshchatyk.
This part of the Russian Empire was the world’s most challenging place for Ukrainian national culture to flourish. But flourish it did, overcoming practical disincentives and legal restrictions, including the infamous Ems Ukase, which forbade the use of the Ukrainian language in the public life of the Russian Empire. In time, so-called prosvita (enlightenment) cultural organizations emerged in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Kharbin. They emerged in such number that a series of All-Ukrainian Congresses of the Far East were convened after the fall of the Provisional Government in Petrograd in June 1917 to consolidate organisational activity; establish Ukrainian-language schools and newspapers; form military regiments; and represent their interests to their ‘brethren’ in the Ukrainian People’s Republic, who were ten thousand kilometres away. In April 1918, the Third All-Ukrainian Congress of the Far East asked their compatriots in Kyiv for the right to align with new Ukrainian state on the basis of self-determination. It even appointed a premier.
Histories of even failed political adventures like the Ukrainian Secretariat of the Far East expose some of the weaknesses of the thesis of Ukraine’s ‘weak’ national identity. ‘Inherently fragile’ identities do not travel well, much less provoke peasant-led nation-building projects against great odds a half a world away. They also teach us that Ukraine is less an ‘unexpected nation’ than an expect-the-unexpected nation: unpredictable, yes; undeveloped, no. Its national identity, its sense of ‘groupness’, is diverse and contested but also active and effective. Lenin, whose monument now lies abandoned and decapitated down the street from ‘EuroMaidan’, sensed this long ago. ‘To ignore the importance of the national question in Ukraine,’ he wrote, ‘means committing a profound and dangerous error.’