Ukraine is a young state that has lived with a neighbor who denies its existence since gaining independence 30 years ago. This neighbor, Russia, has wanted to militarily subjugate the former Soviet republic since 2014. Ukrainian national sentiment has grown exponentially since Vladimir Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and encouraged the separatist insurgency in Donbass (east) that year. The invasion, which began last February, has further strengthened the population’s affinity for a Ukrainian identity, both in the western provinces and those in the east that are closest to Russian culture.
Andrew Wilson, Professor of Ukrainian Studies at University College London, wrote in the latest edition of his acclaimed The Ukrainians, unexpected nation (2015, Yale University Press) found that Ukrainian national identity is still in the making, after centuries of subservience to external powers – Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. “Nations are formed by circumstances and opportunity,” wrote Wilson. “Ukrainians like to talk about a ‘national idea’. Terms like “nation” belong in the realm of political and cultural imagination,” reflected the scientist. According to his thesis, Putin was the decisive factor in establishing the new Ukrainian citizen.
In 2014, according to Wilson in his book, The Sense of Belonging to the World Russia (Russki Mir) in Ukraine it made up 12% of the population, while in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk – in pro-Russian Donbass – it made up 24% and 33%, respectively. Eight years later, and as the invasion swept the country, one of Ukraine’s leading pollsters, Rating, reported this spring that the percentage of Ukrainians who still essentially considered themselves Russian had dropped from 12% to 8%. It was still 23% in the eastern regions, but the most striking thing about the rating study is that the number of people who consider themselves the supreme citizens of Ukraine has increased from 75% to 98% in just six months .
“Ukraine has never been viewed as a highly cohesive society,” says a study by Oleksandra Deineko and Aadna Asland, researchers in regional diversity at Oslo Metropolitan University, published last April. Ruth Ferrero, a professor in the Faculty of Political Science and Sociology at the Complutense University in Madrid, put it this way in the book Ukraine, from the Maidan Revolution to the Donbass War: “The development of the Ukrainian nation preceded the establishment of the Ukrainian state, which prevents the proper development of a civil national membership.” The data collected in the Deinko and Asland study during the first months of the invasion confirmed that there had been a 180-degree turnaround: 80% of citizens reported taking part in tasks to defend the country; Before the invasion and in the face of open conflict in Donbass and Crimea, only 20% said they had volunteered to help Ukraine survive.
Liubomir Marchenko is a 29-year-old businessman from Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth largest city (970,000 inhabitants). In Dnipro, the axis between the eastern and western provinces, the majority of the population speaks Russian as their main language, Marchenko recalls: “In 2014 there was no significant change in dealing with Russian culture because it was seen as something positive; the stars of television and music or literature were Russians”. The current offensive has forced a mutation in this businessman and his friends: “In 2014, passion for Russia began to fade, but now Russian affiliation has been almost completely lost. Now we are fully aware that we are Ukrainians.” Marchenko emphasizes that this mutation is not so much due to the violence caused by Russia as to the country’s reaction: “In 2014 we have it in Crimea, in Donetsk and Lugansk screwed up, but this time the unity of society and institutions did it incredible. That makes us proud.”
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Ukraine’s independence included the so-called “de-Russification” of the new state, a process accelerated by the pro-European revolution that toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. The commitment to promoting Ukrainian, a language suppressed for centuries, and reappraising national history was also met with suspicion by parts of the East and in the major cities of the East and South – with a population mostly drawn from migratory waves from the Soviet Union -. The invasion has caused many Ukrainians to abandon the Russian language.
Controversy with the Ultra Bandera
Maxim Kultishev is from northern Kiev and admits that in 2014 he still had no national feelings. The war in Donbass and the annexation of Crimea were far away, he explains, in provinces that are culturally closer to Russia. “But my life changed in March when my house was bombed,” said this 31-year-old man last Saturday. The Russian army unsuccessfully besieged Kyiv, leaving a trail of death and destruction in the capital’s suburbs. Kultishev sees himself as a patriot for the first time.
The man attended a concert by the most famous poet and musician of contemporary Ukrainian patriotism, Serhiy Zhadan, last Saturday. Zhadan’s performance was a tribute to his friend Taras Bobanich, commander of the paramilitary battalion Pravi Sector – on orders from the Ministry of Defense – who died in combat last April. Pravi Sector is an ultra-nationalist group that reached its greatest influence in the Maidan revolution. Kremlin propaganda describing Ukraine as a Nazi state focuses on cases like this group or the better-known Azov Battalion. But the truth is that the extreme right has not achieved any representation in parliament against the absolute majority held by the servant of the people, President Volodimir Zelenski’s party.
For Pravi Sector, but also for liberal patriots like Zhadan, Zelenskyy was little more than an undesirable politician before the invasion. In his opinion, too close and conciliatory with Russia. Zhadan himself composed a song in 2019 in which he asked Zelenskyj to flee to Rostock (Russia) like Yanukovych. When the war began in February, the poet removed the song from his repertoire. Beyond his literary merit, Zhadan undoubtedly has international recognition. Last June he received the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thinking from the Heinrich Böll Foundation from the German Greens. In 2022 it was again awarded the renowned Peace Prize of the German Bookseller.
This does not prevent the poet and musician from saying during the concert that he will always support Pravi Sector. First, people like Zhadan appreciate that they are fighting on the front lines, facing the Yanukovych government police on the Maidan. The concert audience was a mixture of strongly national-conscious middle-class youth and radical elements of Pravi Sekyor. EL PAÍS saw groups giving the Hitler salute, numerous members of the battalion with far-right paraphernalia, even with identifying elements of the Nazi SS. A stand was set up to sell portraits and books dedicated to historical leader Stepán Bandera and other speakers from his organization, the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), the symbol of Ukrainian ultranationalism. While in the rest of Europe Bandera is seen as an ultra and an ally of Nazism in World War II, in Ukraine he is widely regarded as one of the first fighters for Ukraine’s independence – the German invader deported him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp to claim it.
Bandera has set up its own streets in Kyiv and Lviv. Former Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andriy Melnik provoked controversy this July by defending that Bandera did not commit mass murders of Jews and Poles. Selenskyj has removed him from his post. However, statements by the Ukrainian authorities disapproving of Bandera’s legacy are unlikely: for many, he is above all a national hero in the face of the Russian enemy.
Zhadan has not responded to EL PAÍS requests for a meeting. In a 2019 interview, he stated that he is not a nationalist, although he has friends who are “because Ukraine is much more complex”. Considered a referent of post-Soviet urban culture of the 1990s, Zhadan added that under the current circumstances, “in Ukraine, it makes no sense to be left or right. Dividing people in Ukraine today into left or right is not constructive.”
Not far from the concert, Anastasia Lazarova, a 40-year-old bank teller, sat on the terrace of a bar. She admitted she was uncomfortable with what Pravi Sector stands for. “The Russian invasion increased rejection of Russian culture and language and even denigrated Soviet victory in World War II,” said this daughter of Russians who emigrated to Ukraine during the Soviet Union. “But the radicals here are a minority, not like in Russia,” he added. “The problem isn’t them, the problem is Putin.”
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