Surveys show: Ukrainians still rally around the flag

Ukrainians are determined to withstand Russian terror and unwilling to make concessions. This is one of the outcomes of the annual opinion polls that are traditionally presented on the occasion of Ukrainian Independence Day, on the 24th of August. Whereas official celebrations had to be cancelled for the second year in a row, four reputable polling organizations show that pride in Ukrainian citizenship is at an unprecedented high. Ukrainian political analyst and writer Mykola Riabchuk interprets the results, concluding that amid daily alarms, destructions and bloodshed, Ukrainians rally around the flag. 

Exhibition of destroyed and captured Russian military equipment in Kyiv on Ukrainian Independence Day, 24 August 2023 (Picture: АрміяInform) 

by Mykola Riabchuk

This year’s Independence Day in Ukraine did not differ much from the previous one. Back then, the day fell shortly after the Russian troops were repelled at Kyiv and pushed away from Ukraine’s north-east. Daily life came back to ‘nearly normal’ - with curfew loosened and antitank blocks removed, cafes opened and public transport running, though interrupted occasionally by air alarms and retreats to the shelters. This year, the official celebrations were once again cancelled for security reasons. The traditional military parade was substituted with a gargantuan exhibition of destroyed Russian tanks and other military equipment - a clear mockery of Putin’s dream to hold his own parade in Kyiv.

For sociologists, the national holiday is a recurrent opportunity to put the same (or similar) set of questions in nationwide surveys. They monitor year-by-year changes of public attitudes toward various domestic and international issues, related primarily to civic and ethnic identity, state-nation building policies and geopolitical orientations. Even though the questionnaires and methodology of four reputable polling companies (Rating Sociological Group, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, Razumkov Center and Democratic Initiative Foundation) differ, their results are strikingly similar: they reflect the same tendencies and only vary in details. 

Becoming more 'Ukrainian'

The main conclusions from their polling boil down to three major points: (a) Ukrainian society becomes more civic and more ‘Ukrainian’; (b) Ukrainians rally around the flag and are still determined to withstand Russian terror for as long as it takes, without any concessions to the aggressor; and (c) Ukrainians got rid of their protracted ambivalence, of their naïve desire to be on good terms with both the West and Russia, to belong to both worlds despite their increasingly incompatible values.

The first tendency is perfectly illustrated by the highest ever support for national independence at a hypothetical referendum (96%), pride in Ukrainian citizenship (89%) and the expression of Ukrainian patriotism. When answering this last question, respondents could pick three activities from a list: making donations and volunteering was selected by 46%, fighting at the front by 33%, staying in Ukraine despite everything by 33%, working or carrying out business in Ukraine by 31% and pursuing civic activities by 14%. Only 6% listed attending the Ukrainian church as an important feature, and 3% chose the option of wearing patriotic symbols.

Ukrainians are strongly committed to liberal democratic values and oppose authoritarianism

Additionally, almost half of the respondents (45%) mentioned 'speaking Ukrainian' as an important feature of patriotism. However, this reflects popular solidarity with the marginalized and stigmatized language, still belittled by Russian nationalists, rather than a claim to ethnic exclusiveness. Responses to another question confirm this assumption: when asked to list three main factors that can unite Ukrainians, victory of the armed forces is by far the most popular choice (65%), followed by economic growth (30%) and the Ukrainian language (25%).

Interpreting survey results in a partially occupied country

The polling companies referred to in this article aim to select their respondents proportionally to the population of Ukrainian’s 25 administrative regions.

Since all of them surveyed only non-occupied territories, the share of Ukraine's South and East shrank substantially in 2014 and then even more in 2022. Crimea and the Luhansk oblast were completely excluded from the surveys, while Donetsk, Kherson and Mykolaiv are included only partially (the percentage of respondents is adjusted to the population of non-occupied parts of these regions as of January 2022). Only the Rating Group included internally displaced persons and refugees from the respective regions into their survey, proportionally to the regions' population.

The presented results are aggregated for four macro-regions: West, Center, South and East, that reflect some historical divides. The West was the least russified and Sovietized part of Ukraine, largely Central European in its political culture and behavior. The South and East were 'no-man lands of settler colonization since the 18th century, with rather high imperial presence and loyalty (kind of Ulster). The Center was also incorporated into the Russian empire in the 18th century but retained the distinct political culture, memory and identity from the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. Although the difference between the West and East used to be high, it declined substantially in 2014 and even more in 2022.

The fact that the survey results show that Ukraine became more ‘Ukrainian’ (in civic terms) and more pro-Western can be partly explained by the above mentioned loss of the most Russified/Sovietized territories and population. However, the non-occupied parts of the South and East also became more ‘Ukrainian’ and ‘pro-Western’. This can hardly be explained by the loss of territories insofar as they represent the same territories and populations.

 Despite the war, Ukrainians are strongly committed to liberal democratic values and oppose authoritarianism: while 28% of respondents believe Ukraine needs a strong hand, 64% want more democracy; while 15% wish more censorship, 75% support freedom of speech; while 31% want more government control over the economy, 58% support a genuine free market; and while 36% oppose the employment of migrants in future Ukraine, 50% approve it. Even when it comes to gender issues, Ukrainian society is changing: while Ukrainians were initially nearly as homophobic as the Russians, 37% of them now express support for gay marriages (42% still oppose it).

Pride in statehood

The second tendency of civic mobilization (‘rallying around the flag’) is closely connected to, and actually intertwined with, the first one. The same Ukrainian state that used to be seen as corrupt and dysfunctional, is now recognized as valuable and important. Next to the highest ever support for national independence and the unprecedented pride in Ukrainian citizenship mentioned earlier, the questionnaires reveal a revaluation of national symbolism (including the language) and history.

Whereas Independence Day lagged behind many other national holidays in the past, this day now comes third in popularity after Easter and Christmas (63% listed it among their five favorite holidays, vs. 12% in 2013). Before the war (in August 2021), only 18% of respondents believed that the history of independent Ukraine featured more positive than negative things. This view increased dramatically to 40% today. The group of those who held a ‘negative’ view of the past declined from 29% to merely 12%, and the share of people who think that the past contains equally good and bad things stayed more or less the same.

Compromises with terrorist state Russia are considered politically unreliable and morally unjustifiable

Perhaps the most indicative of Ukrainians’ resilience and civic determination is their overwhelming rejection of any negotiations with, and concessions to, the aggressor state that committed heinous war crimes in the Ukrainian land and continues to wage a genocidal war against the whole nation. Less than 5% of respondents agree that some territories can be conceded to Russia as a part of a possible peace deal; 17-18% consider some other concessions like a halt on Ukraine’s NATO membership or on policies of decommunization/decolonization/Ukrainization. These attitudes slightly fluctuate across different regions, being the most radical in the West and a bit softer in the South East. Still, everywhere a clear majority rejects compromises with the terrorist state as politically unreliable and morally unjustifiable.

The third tendency, proved or rather reaffirmed by the latest opinion surveys, indicates the end of social ambivalence that prevailed in Ukraine throughout the 1990s. This ambivalence declined slowly but steadily in the 2000s, accelerated after Euromaidan and the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, and collapsed irreversibly in 2022, as Russian missiles destroyed the last remaining illusions of some Ukrainians about ‘Slavonic brotherhood’ and peaceful ‘multi-vector’ development. None of the domestic or international issues today evoke the opposite reaction among Ukrainians along clear ethnic, linguistic, or regional lines.

Attitudes differ a bit in the West and the East, among Russophones and Ukrainophones, but they have a quantitative rather than a qualitative character; they slightly predicate a bit on these factors but barely more than on factors of the respondents’ age, education, gender, or income.

Ukraine’s success story

The fact that 8% of ‘Easterners’ are ready to give up some territories to Putin for the sake of peace, while only 1% of ‘Westerners’ are willing to do so, does not split the country or create some fault-line between the West and the East. The exact same holds for different support for Ukraine’s NATO membership (91% in the West vs. 80% in the East), which does not indicate any significant interregional discord. The high level of national (interregional, interethnic) unity that Ukraine achieved during the war was largely a product of the past decades – of a slow, incoherent and certainly not well-premeditated process of state-nation building.

Ukraine’s success story is very instructive, even though it occurred largely by default. In the 1990s, neither Ukrainian ‘national democrats’ were strong enough to push for the nationalizing policy of the Latvian, or Estonian (or Croatian) style, nor did the ruling, heavily Russified postcommunists have enough power to pursue the Lukashenko-style policy of further Russification/Sovietization. The rivals had to negotiate, compromise and craft the policy that looked highly opportunistic but appeared effective in two regards. First, it made the notion of ethnicity that was not very salient in Ukraine even in Soviet times, even more insignificant: today it is not even included in opinion surveys. And secondly, it facilitated the tacit acceptance of Ukrainian language as a symbolical value (though not necessarily as a practical daily instrument) by a vast majority of the Ukrainian population. 

Dominance of citizenship

As Volodymyr Kulyk concluded upon his own elaborated research, 'in Ukraine, despite the Soviet legacy of rather strong institutionalization and discursive presentation of nationality, the post-Soviet state discontinued or downplayed most of the institutional mechanisms of the reproduction of ethnic distinctiveness and virtually abandoned the use of ethnic categories in official discourse. While several smaller minorities retained some discursive presence, the once very large group of ethnic Russians ceased to be publicly presented and popularly perceived as clearly distinct from the bulk of Ukrainians.' The label 'Russian' therefore lost its significance as an ethnic marker within Ukraine, and is now exclusively reserved for the population of Russia.

The label 'Russian' is now exclusively reserved for the population of Russia, instead of being an ethnic marker

The same mechanisms that facilitated assimilation of Ukrainians into Russians in Soviet times (cultural and linguistic proximity, low salience, vagueness and hybridity of ethnic categories, extensive intermarriages and other kinds of social interactions) seem to now facilitate assimilation of ethnic Russians into Ukrainians that not necessarily entail abandonment of the traditional (typically Russian) language practices but draws primarily on subsuming the vague notion of ethnicity under the unambiguous notion of nationality defined legally as citizenship.

A nation of the will

Andreas Kappeler, a famous historian and major specialist on the region, defines Ukrainians as a 'nation of the will' (Willensnation) – 'a large group of people [who] decide that they want to be a nation'. In this regard, a nation of the will differs from more typical ethnic nations who refer to their common cultural heritage and language. 'Ethnic definition has long dominated Ukraine', he argues, 'but over the past 20 years the nation of will has grown stronger. The Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14 were very important for this. As a result, we can now see that the vast majority of Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine are also opposing the Kremlin army'.

He might exaggerate Ukraine’s civicness a bit and underestimate Ukrainians’ attachment to their 'common cultural heritage and language'. But he aptly catches the general tendency that is reflected by both opinion surveys and independent observers. It is this tendency that largely accounts for Ukraine’s resilience and optimist outlook, so unusual under the daily alarms, destructions, and bloodshed.


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