Like all official state celebrations, Ukraine’s Independence Day has its good portion of pageant, fanfare and sentimental language. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s regained independence in 1991. Contemporary Ukraine may be only 30 years old, but like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his speech for the occasion, it is a young country with a thousand-year-old history, that reclaims the inheritance of the ancient Rus. The paradox of Ukraine is that while it stubbornly insists on the conception of being an entity entirely independent from and unrelated the suspiciously too “Eastern”, “Asian” Russia, Ukraine aspires to be almost the sole true heir of the ancient Rus, which in later historiography came to be known as Kievan Rus.
These may seem like superfluous excursions into forgotten history, but this is not the case. History has become a very sensitive topic in Ukraine, the outraged reactions provoked by the Russia President’s recent article that described Russians and Ukrainians as “one people” being a testimony to that. It is certainly a surprise that even after 30 years of independence and seven years of what has been framed in Ukraine exclusively as a “Russo-Ukrainian” war, 41% of Ukrainians still consider Ukrainians and Russians one people. Under normal circumstances calling two nations “one people” would be seen as a benign gesture of affection and closeness and would not provoke anger and outburst of hatred. However, the circumstances of the past eight years are far from normal. Post-revolutionary Ukraine has tried to convince the world that it is at war not with a bunch of separatists made up mainly by former Ukrainian citizens and helped by Russia (the “pro-Russian separatists”) but with Russia itself.
It has become part of the common discourse that Ukraine had been a Russian colony for three centuries. That is since the Cossack Hetmanate around the region of Zaporozhye rebelled against Polish rule and accepted the protectorate of the Russian Tsardom or, as the more vitriolic anti-Russian Ukrainians would call it, Muscovy, in 1654. But according to the more recent Ukrainian interpretations of history, “Ukrainians” came to regret this fateful choice soon and independence has been the dream of many generations of Ukrainians for centuries, we are been told today.
The world of 1654 Eastern Europe was, however, a pre-nationalist world. It is a willful distortion of historical facts to want to see this matter otherwise and force contemporary identities on people who lived centuries ago. Most people, in Ukraine, like in Russia and Poland, or even France and Italy, did not identify with a larger abstract sacred nation in the 17th century. Peasants, who made up the large part of the population, simply did not care too much about the romantic notion of nation. In Ukraine and Russia most people were inhabiting lands that formed a dialect continuum and for this reason would be difficult to divide into neatly defined separate ethnic groups. Most serious historians know these very basic things. Sometimes, however, they choose to ignore them. For all its claims of being an objective, aseptic and austere science dealing exclusively with incontrovertible objective truths and facts, history too is very much about telling compelling stories and creating great overarching narratives.
The process of the formation of a distinct “Ukrainian” identity began only in the 19th century, like in much of the rest of Europe. Increased literacy could lead to a romantic rebirth of nations and the crystallization of mythological primordial ancient national identities. It is probably not by chance that much of the romantic literature en vogue in that period is epic poems, a genre apparently at odds with the general very rational and forward-looking spirit of the 19th century. It is worth noting here too that up until the beginning of the 20th century, it was common to refer to the people who were to become “Ukrainians” as “Rusyny”, generally rendered in English and other languages as “Ruthenians”. Their language was called “rus’ky” (with one “s”).
With the dissolution of the Russian empire in the last stages of World War, a series of short-lived abortive proto-Ukrainian states emerged in Kiev, but neither the Central Rada, nor the Ukrainian People’s Republic, nor the Second Hetmanate, installed by the German military, nor the Directorate had much control over the lands that were going to made up Ukraine in the chaos of the civil war. For all the regrets and the nostalgic feelings expressed today by those who purport to see in this first experiment with Ukrainian independence a missed opportunity, in 1920 Ukraine’s identity had still not grown up to the point where it could aspire to statehood. This is testified for example by many Western politicians that expressed views on the Ukrainian question in 1919 at the Versailles peace conference, to which Ukraine sent an informal delegation. “It is necessary to have a certain level of education to become mature for autonomy”, said the US foreign secretary Robert Lansing. The British Foreign Minister Balfour also did not deem the Rusyns fit for statehood: “The Rusyn majority is backward, illiterate and utterly unfit to be independent”.
It may come as a surprise today, but the first large, organized effort to make Ukraine more uniformly Ukrainian and give Ukraine a clear Ukrainian national identity was undertaken by the new Communist government of Ukraine after the Bolshevik takeover in 1920. Ukrainian national identity arguably emerged in Austrian Galicia after 1848, but even then Ukrainians felt divided between the populists, who saw Ukrainians as an entirely separate ethnos, and the Moscophiles, who dreamt of a reunion with the Russian Empire, the protector of Orthodox Christianity.
Lenin had been one of the main supporters of Ukrainian independence since his days in Cracow, right after the beginning of World War I. The Bolsheviks were not just a band of murderous fanatics, a sort of Russian Taliban of the day, but as Communists they subscribed to the latest achievements in terms of social progress and education. The peasants, who seduced by the Bolshevik promise of land, had contributed so much to the Bolshevik victory, were now to be transformed into a conscious working-class national group through education. For the first time, education was offered in Ukrainian throughout the Ukrainian speaking lands of the former Russian Empire and a plethora of publication, newspapers and books, began to appear in Ukrainian. This policy is known as korenizatsya or “going to the roots”. The Bolsheviks, often cosmopolitan intellectuals, were not just another reincarnation of Russian imperialism, like they are often portrayed today, but were deeply averse to the Russian Empire, which they had helped to bring down after all, and to any form of Russian nationalism. A bit like today’s champions of social justice, the Bolsheviks had a thing for quotas and affirmative action. The policy of korenizatsya was however reversed by Stalin ten years later.
World War II saw another German occupation in Soviet Ukraine and the rise of Ukrainian nationalism within the Soviet Union as well. The Ukrainian insurgent movement, however, did not have its roots in the Soviet Union but was born in Polish Eastern Galicia, from where all most prominent Ukrainian nationalist leaders, the likes of Stepan Bandera, Andriy Melnyk, Roman Shukevich came from. However, with its reputation tarnished as it was by the legacy of terrorist activity in Interwar Poland, ethnic cleansing, and collaboration with Nazi Germany during the war, the Ukrainian liberation fight that had raged during World War II faded when the war ended.
During the post-war Soviet years, it looked indeed as Ukraine and Russia could be one nation. In 1954, the Soviet Union celebrated the tercentenary of the reunification of Russia and Ukraine, 300 years after Bogdan Khmelnitsky’s (whose portrait is still on Ukraine’s 1 hryvna banknote) rebellion against Poland. Indeed until 1991, the Ukrainian independent movement, rather than being the dream of many generations of Ukrainians, was a minority faith, except for Galicia. According to one count, there were around 1000 thousand Ukrainian independentists, in a country whose population went from 40 to 50 million people in the postwar years.
Rather than the result of centuries of aspirations of an entire people, as stated by today’s rhetoric, the Ukrainian parliament’s independence vote on 24 August 1991 was a decision dictated by unprecedented and unpredictable circumstances, after the famous August coup aimed at removing Gorbachev from power failed. Within 4 months, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Ukrainian voters confirmed independence in a referendum on 1 December and one week later the Russian president Yeltsin, the chairman of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) Leonid Kravchuk and their Belarusian counterpart Stanislav Shushkevich signed the Belovezha Accords, dissolving the Soviet Union, without telling Gorbachev (Yeltsin called US President George Bush before).
Like all round anniversaries, 30 years is a number that inspires a general evaluation. How has Ukraine changed in the past 30 years? Some say independence from Russia (and to make this point extremely clear, the independence Ukraine is so proud of today is independence from Russia) is the most important thing and are ready to put up with the rest. Some others point out that Ukraine is the only country in the post-Soviet space whose GDP is lower than in 1991. Kravchuk said that once independent, Ukraine would become the second richest country in Europe, a second France, and only Germany would be richer than Ukraine in Europe.
Before the 1991 referendum, Ukrainians were told that an independent Ukraine would start cooperating with her neighbours, in particular with the “closest to us” Russia. People living in Ukraine were told that Ukraine was going to be a home to all of them, regardless of what their native language was. Instead, the history of the independent Ukraine in the past 30 years has been the history of the alienation and the demonization of the Russian element in Ukraine, and this process started well before the Maidan Revolution and the ensuing war. Clearly in the eyes of many a Ukraine entirely independent from Russia had to be a Ukraine whose identity had to be founded on hatred for Russia. How long can a country founded on hatred survive? It is an old wisdom that hatred for a common enemy consolidates a nation, but it’s a strategy that can have tragic consequences when the “enemy” constitutes a large part of one’s own nation.