Russia's agression ended Ukrainian ambivalence

Putin did not create the Ukrainian nation. It has a long history. What Russia's agression did achieve, however, is end the people's ambivalence between East and West. Ukrainians don't distinguish anymore between the 'bad leadership' and the 'good people'. For them there is no way back, argues political analyst Mykola Riabchuk for RaamopRusland.

marioepol weggegooide oekr boeken foto p. andryushchenkoUkrainian books destroyed by the Russians in Mariupol (picture P. Andryushchenko)

by Mykola Riabchuk

Ukraine’s resilience in the first months of Russian aggression seems to impress so many so much that some observers avidly annunciated the birth of a ‘new nation’ and even credited, quite bizarrely, the Russian president as its major facilitator. Mental shortcuts tend to rather obscure the essence than clarify it. Nations are social constructs, indeed, – 'imagined communities', as Benedict Anderson famously put it, – but nobody can construct a nation instantly out of an anatomized and divided population unless those people have some common denominator to build upon and some meaningful symbols and references that are perceived as  shared by everybody.

Putin’s brutal invasion has certainly consolidated Ukrainians as a political nation. It forced most of them to put aside their minor quarrels and disagreements, not only of a political but also of a personal nature: the number of officially registered divorces, e.g., has remarkably plummeted three-fold within a year. But for all of this to happen, there had to be some level of local patriotism, some ingrained attachment to land, country and native community that lifts the proverbial regional, ethnic, linguistic and other sectarian divides.

So many words were wasted on the description of Ukraine’s various gaps, on the alleged opposition between the 'nationalistic West' and the 'pro-Russian East', that Ukraine’s sudden unity and civic mobilization came as a great surprise not only for mr. Putin who learned nothing from the failure of his 'Russian Spring' in 2014, but also for many impartial observers who still cannot grasp why the 'pro-Russian' easterners did not embrace their Russian brethren with tears and flowers but grasped for arms and joined the 'nationalistic' Westerners in nation-wide resistance.

Myths about division

Something was apparently wrong with the popular view of Ukraine as a 'split country': either its internal divides and contradictions (hardly unique for most nations) were highly exaggerated or, more likely, some unifying and centripetal forces were ignored. Ukraine, as a matter of fact, has undergone quite a long process of nation-building – from the early modern period (17th century) when the Cossack elite imagined themselves as the local gentry equal in status with Polish szlachta (nobility), and definitely from the 19th century on when Ukrainian Romantics extended the elitist notion of the 'Cossack nation' to the broad peasant masses of ethnic Ukrainians.

Since then, the Ukrainian project of nation-building ('peasants into Ukrainians') clashed dramatically with the alternative (and state-sponsored) project of the Russian empire-building – 'Orthodox Slavs into Russians' and eventually 'into Soviets'. It acquired a militant phase after the 1917 Russian revolution in 1918-1920, during Ukrainians’ failed attempt to establish an independent state, and in 1944-48 during an ardent guerilla resistance against Soviet rule in Western Ukraine [Polish territory before Word War II - ed.]. There was a short but important period of cultural revival under the 'national communist' leadership in the 1920s, followed with much longer and destructive periods of oppression, persecution and Russification throughout the next decades.


By the late Soviet years, most Ukrainians were educated in Russian, most publications and virtually all mass culture ran in Russian, almost all urban centers and state institutions were Russian-speaking. The high level of Russification (and Sovietization) obscured the persistence of local, Ukrainian identity within the majority of the population. Russian-speaking Ukrainians, for the most part, did not become Russians – exactly like English-speaking Scots (or Irish) did not become English, though many may feel British.

The overarching supra-ethnic identity was quite acceptable for many Ukrainians in either Soviet or, earlier on, 'Ruski' (Orthodox-East Slavonic) form as long as it provided some room for their 'Ukrainianness'.

A wide quantitative gap between self-declared 'patriots of Ukraine' (over 80% in recurrent opinion surveys) and self-declared supporters of Ukrainian independence (around 60% until 2014) illustrates that ambiguity: at least 20% of Ukrainians did not see any contradiction between their stated patriotism and indifference towards national independence – either on normative (moral) or practical (political) ground.

This gap disappeared in 2014, after the Russian aggression in Crimea and Donbas, that gave a new meaning to the notions of both 'independence' and 'patriotism'. But throughout the 90s and early 2000s, ambiguity reigned supreme and caused much confusion.

Ambiguity and ambivalence

On the one hand, it was difficult to comprehend why a people so heavily Russified and Sovietized all over Ukraine so overwhelmingly voted for independence (over 90% in the 1991 referendum). On the other hand, it was also unclear why a people who so unanimously supported the break with Russia and the Soviet Union in 1991, appeared to be so reluctant to break with the old cultural and political practices.

Ambiguity and ambivalence was characteristic of independent Ukraine and largely determined its convoluted, often chaotic development in the 1990s – early 2000s. The major debate (and divide) in Ukraine was not about being 'Ukrainian' or 'Russian', since virtually nobody questioned the Ukrainian nature of the country. It was about the different ways of being 'Ukrainian' – either in a 'Central European' (or 'Baltic') way that stipulated a radical break with the Soviet past and a thorough decommunizaton/ decolonization, or in a milder 'post-Soviet' ('Eurasian') way that stood for continuity and hybridity. This meant free market but with state-regulated prices, revival of national cultures and languages but with unchallenged domination of Russian, European integration but with continuation of close (and highly corrupt) ties with Moscow.

Fear of freedom

Perhaps the best indicator of Ukraine’s ambivalence of the time was the almost equal support for the country’s hypothetical membership of the EU or the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. The bitter irony was not so much that the number of supporters of each option was equal but that in both cases it made up two thirds of respondents from the same surveyed groups.

Psychologists may discern here 'fear of freedom' or perhaps an infantile desire to have the best of both worlds – notwithstanding their apparent incompatibility at both normative and practical levels. Still, when pressed hard and forced to choose 'either – or', a majority opted for ties with Russia, i.e., for the post-Soviet world – it wasn't great but at least it was familiar. Apparently an egg today was better than a hen tomorrow.

Gradual westernization

That calculus changed by 2012 (two years ahead of Maidan). It reflected not only a gradual, year by year, Westernization of Ukrainian society but also the invisible effect of 'banal nationalism', as described by Michael Billig. Any state, the British scholar argued, nationalizes its citizens by the very fact of its existence. People, in our case, hold Ukrainian passports, take part in Ukrainian elections, and follow the news in Ukraine, including the weather forecasts, routinely referred as 'in our country'. They know by default what the word 'our' means in all these cases: they cheer 'our' athletes, celebrate 'our' holidays, castigate 'our' government, and take pride (or shame) in 'our' history.

Billig calls this 'a continual "flagging", or reminding, of nationhood'. The political leaders should not be ardent nationalists, he says, – and Ukrainian leaders, in most cases, were not, – but they usually benefit from the very existence of nationhood which 'provides a continual background for their political discourses, for cultural products, and even for the structuring of newspapers'.

In his book Banal Nationalism (1995) Billig says: 'In so many little ways, the citizenry are daily reminded of their national place in a world of nations. However, this reminding is so familiar, so continual, that it is not consciously registered as reminding. The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building'.

Authoritarian backsliding in Russia may also have influenced Ukrainians’ attitude toward that country: Putin’s tricky return to presidency in 2012, brutal suppression of the Bolotnaya protests in Moscow, and further restrictions on freedom of speech and civic liberties reverberated in Ukraine quite negatively. In two years, Moscow made a decisive blow to the Ukrainian ambivalence by invading Donbas and occupying Crimea. Even the most Russia-friendly citizens had to recognize a dramatic impossibility of sitting simultaneously on two chairs, eating the cake and still have it, being in Europe and still befriend Putin.

All these transformations, however, could happen only because a substantial part of the Ukrainian population was rather ambivalent than unequivocally 'pro-Russian'. No local Serbs took the Bosnian or Kosovar side during the Serbian invasion, proving graphically what a really divided society means. Ukraine has never been divided in this sense and therefore did not split.

The 'pro-Russian' East did not embrace Putin’s liberators because it was not 'pro-Russian'. Rather, it was vague, confused and insecure. Ambivalence can potentially work both ways. In the case of Ukraine, local patriotism prevailed over a nostalgic feeling of imperial belonging. A poorer but liberal Ukrainian state appeared to be more attractive than a wealthier but dictatorial Russian. Freedom of speech in Ukraine was more important than the seemingly free but heavily censored use of Russian in Russia.

Ukrainian Russians and Russian-speakers had many reasons to identify themselves with Ukraine as a political nation. And the very fact that the Russian military in the occupied regions [Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizje - ed.] fail to recruit a sufficient number of collaborators and are forced to fill the local vacancies with personnel imported from Russia indicates how shallow the notion of the 'pro-Russian East' was.

Cured from ambivalence

Putin neither created the Ukrainian nation nor strengthened its civic identity in any positive way. He only cured a substantial part of Ukrainian society from ambivalence – from infantile hopes to belong to both worlds, to embrace European future ánd to praise the Soviet past, to combine incompatible values and geopolitical orientations. In 2014, after Crimea, Putin’s ratings in Ukraine plummeted to single digits but the general attitude towards Russia and the Russian people remained neutral or even positive. The year 2022 brought an end to that dichotomy. Ukrainians do'nt believe any more in the sedative story about a 'bad government but nice people'. Their positive feelings towards all Russians plummeted to close to nil.

For the record: until 2014, more than 90% of Ukrainians had either neutral or positive attitudes towards Russia and Russians. Less than 20% of them supported accession to NATO. By 2015, this figure rose to 50%, and in 2022 it exceeded 80%, including 56% in the 'pro-Russian' East. Interregional and other intergroup differences are still discernable but they are rather quantitative than qualitative. They do not lead to deep social fissures, as a clear majority of each group is on the same side. This may be a sign of eventual normalization of Ukrainian politics when political struggle becomes a fair competition between the good and the best rather than a millenarian fight between absolute good and absolute evil.

Ukrainians are faced with an absolute evil from the outside. This forced them to reconsider their internal relations, to put aside their particular grudges and to seek for national unity and solidarity in extraordinary circumstances. The Ukrainians’ plight looks grim: their independence is threatened, their identity is denied, and their moral feelings of justice, dignity and sovereignty are badly injured. But they rally around the flag that for them symbolizes those values. They are definitely not unique in their patriotic mobilization. And they will certainly not be unique in their eventual demobilization. But the flag will remain – as a symbol, a meeting point, a point of reference. Plus an amount of social capital that will facilitate the nation’s future development.



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