Over the last few years, the Western public, who arguably until 2013 had a very vague idea of that country in Eastern Europe called Ukraine, has been gradually and systematically educated into thinking that the phrase “Ukrainian nationalism” must unmistakable be the mark of Russian propaganda. “There are no nationalists in Ukraine” after all, as the Western public has been told after the revolution of dignity of 2013-14. The threats to the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine were just the imagined opera of Kremlin dezinformacja, this most terrible of Russian weapons. Later developments have shown otherwise.
It is hard to describe contemporary Ukraine as anything else than a nationalist state. One can argue that most contemporary European states probably went through such a nationalist phase in the past, at the early stages of their formation, when consolidation and centralization were a priority. France rooted out Occitan and Breton regionalisms starting from the 18th century at least. Spain assimilated Catalonia, not to mention the UK, with its constituent four nations. These consolidations have often implicated violent repressions, rebellions and heated disputes for decades.
Never in its history Ukraine had been a homogeneous monoethnical country. Until well into the 20th century “ethnic Ukrainians” mostly lived in the countryside. Cities of what we today call Ukraine mostly had Polish, Russian and Jewish imprints. In fact the first mass Ukrainization of Ukraine happened in the yearly years of the Soviet Union after 1922. The Bolsheviks reconquered Ukraine, when an independent Ukrainian government emerged from the corpse of the Russian Empire, destroyed by the World War I and the October Revolution in 1917.
Within the Soviet Union Lenin offered Ukraine independence. Indeed, Ukrainian independence had always been one of Lenin‘s key goals, at least since his days in Cracow, just before World War I broke out in August 1914. Intent on breaking up the Russian Empire and animated by personal hatred towards the Romanov family that had killed his older brother, Lenin promised independence to every nation of the empire, even to those, like Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine, that had never been independent before. In the early years of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks, true to their radical proletarian populism, for the first time introduced mass education in Ukrainian, a language that until that time did not have a very long written tradition. It used to be the languages of poems and folk songs. Suddenly Ukrainian became the language of administration, journalism, science and encyclopaedias.
This policy was drastically reversed by Stalin in the 1930s. Fearing that an increased sense of Ukrainian autonomy could incite separatism in Ukraine, Stalin tried to eradicate the Ukrainian peasant element. The resulting catastrophe, a famine that killed millions, is known in Ukraine as holodomor and it evokes tragic memories to this day. However, it killed not only Ukrainians but millions of other peasants in the Volga region and in Kazakhstan. Attempts to exploit the famine of 1932-33 and exploit the holodomor exclusively as a genocide against ethnic Ukrainians should be regarded at least as controversial.
Westerners, used to the conception of one state, one people, one language, project their concepts on Ukraine and imagine that the right Ukraine must be a Ukrainian that is completely Ukrainized, with one official language and Russian regarded as an entirely external foreign element. When Westerners are baffled at Ukrainian mixed ethnic and cultural mosaic and see the Russian element as a lamentable heritage of the Russian Empire and Soviet dictatorship, they are indulging in oversimplication.
Even today most countries in the world are in fact multicultural entities where a variety of languages are spoken. Different people somehow manage to live together and they have done so for centuries. This was the case until recently for Ukrainians and Russians too. The idea that the right kind of Ukraine must be a monoethnic Ukraine for Ukrainians only is hence in every respect a historical abomination. Ukrainian and Russian identities in Ukraine have always been fluid.
The idea that Ukrainians, that is the people living in what we today are used to call Ukraine, have always identified with the Ukrainian nation and exclusively with it is a historical falsehood. One could be born Ukrainian and become Polish or Russian by assimilating into the Polish or Russian speaking cultures of the cities. One could be born in a city and rediscover one‘s roots by learning the language of the countryside and promoting its folklore.
A government that in the process of consolidation infringes the rights of and disenfranchises millions of its citizens who are guilty of belonging to a slightly different group cannot be regarded as nothing else that a nationalist government. It is surprising that contemporary Europeans and Americans, who generally are overeager to demonstrate enthusiasm for ideas like multiculturalism and all kinds of fluid identities, seem unwilling to concede that it would be absolutely normal for a place like Ukraine to be Ukrainian and Russian at the same time.