What is a nation? A nation is a group of people who want to be ruled by an independent government, and who don’t want to be ruled by members of some other group.
Claims to nationhood are often based on common ancestry, common language, common culture or common history, and all these things are important, but not essential. Often they are invented after the fact.
The Irish and the Poles are nations with long and strong histories of struggling for independence. The Italians and the Germans had common languages and cultures for centuries before they united under a common government.
On the other hand there are peoples who before nations overnight. Up until the early 1770s, the English-speaking colonists on the eastern seaboard of North America were loyal subjects of the British king. A quarter-century later, they were patriotic citizens of the USA.
What are the roots of Ukrainian nationhood? And how strong are those roots? It is virtually impossible to find Ukraine on a map prior the 20th century, although there was an independent Cossack nation for a brief period in the 17th century in the territory that is now Ukraine. The Cossacks were a people on the borders of the Russian Empire who fought the Poles and Turks, and later became the defenders of the Russian frontier.
The Cossacks had a strong sense of national identity, although they never again became a separate nation. Some years back I read Leo Tolstoy’s novel, The Cossacks, set in the early 1800s, about the Cossacks and Russia’s war against the Chechens. Nearly 200 years later, the Russians are still trying to subdue the Chechens.
I am not a historian, nor an authority on Ukrainian history, but I have read a certain amount of European and Russian history, and I don’t recall reading about Ukrainians prior to the 20th century. The territory that is now Ukraine was Kievan Russ, whose people were converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity at the dawn of the European Middle Ages. Kievan Russ laid the foundations of Russian and Ukrainian culture, but vanished from the map of history after the Mongol invasions. After that the Ukrainian area was ruled by Tatars, Ottoman Turks and Poles, until it was slowly conquered by Russia the eastern part first and then the western part.
The Czarist Russian Empire had a policy of trying to Russify its conquered Slavic peoples, forcing them to speak Russian and suppressing their own languages. There was some resistance to this. I read about a 19th century Ukrainian composer who refused to allow the lyrics of his music to be translated into Russian, and thereby gave up the chance of having his works performed in Moscow.
The Ukrainian language is similar to, but different from, Russian. A British writer, in an article not available on-line, said that if you walked from Moscow to Kiev, every village you walked through would understand the language spoken in all the neighboring villages, and yet, by the time you got to Kiev, the language of the Muscovites would be unintelligible.
During World War One, the German armies created a Ukrainian puppet state under a “Hetman,” a Cossack title. This state existed for only a few months before being conquered by the Bolsheviks.
Oppression is a great force for creating national consciousness (ask the Palestinian Arabs!) and the Ukrainians suffered greatly under Stalin’s rule. Millions of Ukrainian farmers died of starvation as the Soviet government confiscated their food and tried to force them into collective farms. One could argue that this was not aimed at Ukrainians as a people because the same policies were carried out in southern Russia. I think the descendents of Stalin’s Ukrainian victims would regard that as a distinction without a difference.
The Germans had a good record as occupiers during World War One, and, according to my Ukrainian college roommate Lubaslaw, many Ukrainians welcomed them. But the German policy was to confiscate Ukrainian grain, let Ukrainians starve and reduce the survivors to slavery and serfdom.
A fascistic Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera, born in Polish Galacia, proclaimed an independent Ukraine and sought to kill and drive out Russians, Poles and Jews. Later he turned against the Germans when he realized what they had in mind for Ukraine. Not all Ukrainians supported him. Many fought in the Red Army to drive the Nazis out of Ukraine. And, I suspect, many others just tried to survive as best they could, as most people would do in such circumstances.
After World War Two, Ukraine along with Belorussia were given representation in the United Nations, though still under control of the Soviet Union. After 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and loosened the grip of the Soviet state, many peoples in the various Soviet republics, including Ukraine, agitated for independence. A referendum was held in Ukraine in 1990, and 90 percent voted for independence.
Actual independence, however, did not come about as the result of a freedom struggle. It was the result of a deal by Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation, with the presidents of Ukraine and Belorussia, to secede from the Soviet Union and thereby leave Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev without a nation to rule.
The presidents of newly-independent Ukraine were not patriots. Their corrupt government left Ukraine as the poorest and least dynamic of the former Soviet republics. Ukrainians both east and east, and both Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking want a more honest and efficient government than they have had.
The Russian Empire conquered eastern Ukraine first and western Ukraine later. The result of this is that the Russian language is stronger in the eastern part of Ukraine than the western part. This doesn’t mean that eastern Ukrainians necessarily want to be a part of Russia. English Canadians speak the same language as us Americans and have a superficially similar culture, but few if any want to be part of the USA.
Similarly there is a sharp political divide between eastern and western Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean Ukraine is on the verge of splitting into two separate nations. Here in the USA, there is a deep political divide between the so-called Red States and Blue States, but all of us think of ourselves as Americans.
Ukrainians in religion include Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholics, who are a separate communion with their own hierarchy that reports directly to the Pope. A Ukrainian-American friend of mine told me jokingly that Ukrainians would never be Roman Catholics because Roman Catholics are Polish.
So how united a nation is Ukraine? I don’t live in Ukraine, I don’t know anybody who lives in Ukraine, I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, and I don’t claim that reading a few books and articles makes me an authority on the subject. Yet, because my government is meddling in Ukraine, I try to understand as best I can.
I see no evidence that the majority of Ukrainians hate each other. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but I don’t see evidence that they do. The YouTube videos and photos of militant groups circulating on the Internet are evidence of the existence of murderous extremists in Ukraine, but not evidence of what the Ukrainian public thinks. The uniformed Ukrainian military has so far been reluctant to fire on their fellow citizens, and I take that as evidence that ordinary Ukrainians don’t want a civil war.
My guess is that Ukrainians feel some attraction to the liberal values symbolized by the European Union, but that they don’t want to be part of NATO, they don’t want to be subject to austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund and they don’t want to be rescued by Russia — not even residents of eastern Ukraine who are taking part in a referendum today about their status in Ukraine. And my guess also is that the more foreign governments meddle in the affairs of Ukraine, the more united a nation they will be.
What do you think?
[Added 5/12/14] For the record, more than 90 percent of the voters in a referendum in the Luhansk and Donetsk areas supported independence, which could mean greater independence within the Ukrainian nation, an independent nation or annexation by Russia.