On Diverse Nations: The Case of Ukraine

In the ‘Introduction’ to her Between East and West (1994), Anne Applebaum reflects on the preconditions for sustainable democracy in post-Soviet European countries. In this early-nineties era of immediate release from tyranny, Applebaum considered, for stable democracy to be achievable ‘people had to identify with their governments, they had to believe that their country’s well-being would bring about their own well-being’. Democracy was contingent upon a sense of collective identity. Applebaum returns to this point in the ‘Introduction’ to the 2015 edition of her text, this time identifying a sense of communal culture with nationalism. Citing the example of Ukraine, Applebaum points out how ‘with no sense of allegiance, no public spirit, and no national feeling, it was difficult to make democracy work’. In addition nationalism can enable cultural liberation, Applebaum saw. ‘Nationalism in the era following the Soviet collapse also included cultural revival: freedom to speak native languages, to read native literature, to discover the truth about national history.’[i]    

Applebaum’s insight into the positive outcomes of nationalism in the Eastern European borderlands does not lead her to an uncritical endorsement of nationalism per se, however. Interestingly, though Applebaum decries the historical erasure of nations under Soviet rule, she also notices Soviet manipulation of what we could call staged nationalisms. She adopts the term ‘cultural genocide’ (to replace ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘a phrase coined later in another context’), to describe the way ‘Stalin planned for the borderlands to disappear into Soviet Russia’. The process ensured that ‘whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border’. A Ukrainian linguist whom Applebaum interviews comments on how ‘“We are all Soviet people now, Homo sovieticus. They concreted us together […] and told us to speak Russian.”’[ii] These remarks are echoed by the memories of a poet Applebaum met in Minsk. But he adds that, whilst the Soviet authorities were ‘“destroying the real [Belarusian] peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party”’, they also released a flood of folksy ‘“kitsch”’. ‘“They gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons.”’ These badges of fake collective identity are mirrored in turn by the way in which, as the Soviet system collapsed (a Polish priest recalled), ‘Russian operatives, trained in Moscow’ staged nationalisms by parachuting into parts of the Soviet Union and ‘attempting to form ethnic organizations’, so as to be able to better manipulate local bids for national independence. Moscow, Applebaum comments, ‘was not trying to halt the various national revivals, but the Russians did prefer to know what was going on, to have their man as local leader, to use the new ethnic groups to the Soviet Union’s own advantage’.[iii]  

The Soviet imposition and manipulation of regional nationalisms influenced attempts to generate a self-governing, autonomous Ukraine. As the Ukrainian linguist remarked to Applebaum, ‘“They [the Russians] teach us to be Ukrainian in a Soviet way.”’ The effect of this, he feared, would be that the ‘“new Ukrainian nationalism”’ sustaining Ukrainian independence would be orientated by the sort of monolithism previously enforced by a totalitarian state. Any worthwhile process of Ukrainian independence, the linguist suggests, is to be guided by an idea of Ukrainian nationalism which instead is informed by the region’s cultural – for example, religious – diversity:

‘“I am afraid that this nationalism will be unifying in a bad way. […] the Ukrainians, they know only one model, the Soviet model, and that model said that strength lay in unity. But strength is in the differences. Variety, that is the beauty of Ukraine. Variety, that is its treasure.”’[iv]

As the historian Serhii Plokhy records, in fact the course of independence has seen Russian aggression attempting to divide Ukrainians along ‘linguistic, regional, and ethnic lines’. Yet most Ukrainians have nonetheless ‘united around the idea of a multilingual and multicultural nation joined in administrative and political terms’. Indeed, ‘one of the main reasons for Ukraine’s success as a democracy was its regional diversity’, which ‘translated into political, economic, and cultural differences articulated in parliament and settled by negotiation in the political arena’.[v]    

Plokhy enables us to trace the relation between the principles of Ukrainian diversity and Russian monolithism, back to the status of the eighteenth century Cossack nation within the model of enlightened despotism propounded by Catherine II. Plokhy shows how in the eighteenth century principles of particularism and universalism were already in tension. ‘Catherine’s Age of Reason, entailing imperial unification and the standardization of administrative and legal practices’, necessarily involved ‘the application of universal norms to all parts of the empire and all its subjects’, Plokhy writes. Yet Ukraine’s Cossack state – the Hetmanate – represented ‘an autonomous enclave whose very existence rested on the idea of special status within the empire’. Its singularity could only undermine Russia’s centralizing mission, and Catherine ‘had no intention of presiding over a confederation of polities that claimed special rights and privileges’. Plokhy notes that ‘the abolition of internal borders and the full incorporation of the Cossack state into the empire became one of the empress’s first priorities in the region’. As Catherine wrote in 1764:

‘Little Russia, Livonia, and Finland are provinces governed by confirmed privileges, […] These provinces […] should be Russified in the easiest way possible so that they cease looking like wolves to the forest. […] When the hetmans are gone from Little Russia, every effort should be made to eradicate from memory the period and the hetmans, let alone promote anyone to that office.’[vi]      

That Catherine’s attack on regional diversity should have taken the form of an opposition to internal borders, can remind us of the importance of borderland spaces for sustaining national identities. Certainly Plokhy points to the ‘prominence or even dominance of Hetmanate elites in the early stages of Ukrainian nation building’; this was because the former Hetmanate was the only part of nineteenth century Ukraine where the local culture was shared by the elites. But the land of the former Cossack state was in fact not the first borderland space to be of significance in shaping Ukrainian identity. In the thirteenth century the Galician-Volhynian principality ‘gathered within its boundaries most of the Ukrainian lands settled at that time’: ‘its rise to prominence’, Plokhy continues, ‘was due to political, economic, and cultural processes that weakened the power of Kyiv and favoured the emergence of borderland principalities’. For instance, the early-thirteenth century ruler, Prince Danylo, forged alliances with Western neighbours against the Mongols – which resulted in Pope Innocent IV making him the Christian King Daniel, rex ruthenorum (‘king of the Rus’’).[vii]  By the nineteenth century Galicia was under Austrian rule and, as Applebaum underlines, ‘the Habsburgs encouraged Ukrainian national ambitions; attempting to weaken Polish influence in the region, they encouraged Ukrainian political parties, Ukrainian parliamentary deputies, Ukrainian newspapers’. This meant that the borderland Western Ukrainians, under this ‘milder Austrian rule’ and then ‘under Polish rule in the twentieth century, developed a more advanced civil society and a more acute national consciousness’ than Eastern Ukrainians under Russian rule. In the contemporary period ‘politicians from western Ukraine were always the most fervent advocates of independence’; with late 1980s glasnost ‘it was western Ukraine that elected former dissidents as parliamentary deputies and nationalist local governments’. Post-Soviet Ukrainian nationalism, Applebaum confirms, ‘had not been born in Kiev, […] but in the West’.[viii]

‘Ukraina’: given that the very word, as Applebaum notes, means ‘borderland’ in most Slavic languages, it seems appropriate that Ukraine’s own Western borderland should have supplied arguably its most potent means for defining a national identity.[ix] It is worth recalling how, in the late eighteenth century, intellectuals across Europe were – as Plokhy puts it – ‘imagining the nation not only as a polity with sovereignty invested in its people but also as a cultural entity, a sleeping beauty to be awakened by a national renaissance’. In Ukraine, just as in the thought of J. G. Herder, ‘language, folklore, literature, and, last but not least, history became building blocks of a modern national identity’. The thinkers along these lines tended to be romantics, with their fascination with ‘folklore and tradition and its emphasis on emotion rather than the rationalism of the Enlightenment’, and the birthplace of Ukrainian romanticism, Plokhy records, was in fact Kharkiv – the centre of Cossack-settled Sloboda Ukraine. Popularized by the Kharkiv romantics, the Cossack-authored The History of the Rus’ became ‘by far the most influential Ukrainian historical text of the period’ in the 1830s and 1840s. The book ‘made an all-important step toward the creation of a modern Ukrainian nation’, Plokhy observes, ‘turning a history of the Cossack social order into an account of a rising national community’. Yet by the second half of the nineteenth century the cultural input of the former Hetmanate – and of Eastern Ukraine in general – into Ukrainian nation-building had diminished radically. In 1863 the Russian imperial government, as Plokhy writes, ‘forbade the publication of religious and educational texts in the “Little Russian dialect”’. During this period university chairs in Ukrainian were outlawed too. Moreover, ‘unlike the Habsburg Ukrainians, the Ukrainian peasants of the Romanov realm received neither the right to participate in electoral politics nor institutions of their own’.[x]

It seems significant that when Plokhy focusses on how ‘the two imperial governments followed very different policies toward their Ukrainian minorities’, he addresses a single specific form of cultural life: as if to emphasize that it is precisely cultural particularity – or diversity – which defines the essence of Ukrainian national identity and its cultural formation. Plokhy notes how ‘unlike the Russian authorities’, the Austrian authorities did not persecute the Uniate Church or try to reunify its adherents with the dominant (Catholic) ‘mother church’, and instead accorded the Uniates a new official name: Greek (i.e. Byzantine-rite) Catholics. The Habsburg government, he adds, created a seminary to educate the Greek Catholic clergy, which moved from Vienna to Lviv in Galicia. Because the Uniate Church had freed itself from its remaining Russian bishoprics by elevating its Lviv bishopric to metropolitanate status in the early nineteenth century, and because most of Galician Ukraine’s secular elite favoured Polish (Catholic) culture, Plokhy sees, in the later course of the nineteenth century ‘the Greek Catholic clergy were the only leaders of Ruthenian [Galician Ukrainian] society, and in time they formed the backbone of the modern Ukrainian national movement’.[xi]   

It should be recognized however, that whilst the process of modern Ukrainian nation-building is grounded in Ukraine’s regional diversity and its regions’ cultural particularity, regionalism has also impeded the development of Ukrainian nationalism. Regionalism in fact contributed to what Plokhy describes as ‘the immaturity of the Ukrainian national movement and the late arrival of the idea of independent statehood in both Habsburg- and Romanov-ruled Ukraine’. Regional diversity explains the situation following the 1921 Riga peace treaty, when Ukraine found itself not just divided between Polish and Russian rule, but now also with its Bukovyna ceded to Romania and its Transcarpathia handed from Hungary to Czechoslovakia. As Plokhy summarizes, already pre-war in Austrian Ukraine ‘the dynamics of nation building differed significantly between Galicia, Bukovyna, and Transcarpathia’, whilst in Dnieper Ukraine ‘the idea of Ukrainian statehood gained much greater support in the former Hetmanate and the formerly Polish-ruled Right Bank than in the steppe regions of the east and south’. In addition, Plokhy points out, because the Ukrainian national project relied almost exclusively on peasant support, cities, ‘especially big cities populated by non-Ukrainians’, stayed ‘beyond the scope of the Ukrainian drive for independence’.[xii]

The way Applebaum’s travel narrative pays attention to issues of collective identity and culture, chimes with the way Plokhy’s history-writing in The Gates of Europe draws on what he calls ‘the recent cultural turn in historical studies and research on the history of identities’. But the two accounts are most obviously united by their focus on place. Plokhy felt that though politics provided a ‘convenient storyline’ for his history, ‘in writing this book, I found geography, ecology, and culture most lasting and thus most influential in the long run’. The focus on place can show how entire discrete nations which have emerged from the Eastern European borderlands are grounded in their respective geographical identities. Plokhy sees the Kyivan princes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries gradually reducing their ‘political loyalties’ from the realm of Kyivan Rus’ ‘to a number of principalities defined by the term “Rus’ Land” and eventually to peripheral principalities that grew strong enough to rival Kyiv’, so as to stress how ‘historians look to those principality-based identities for the origins of the modern East Slavic nations’. The Vladimir-Suzdal principality ‘served as a forerunner’ of early modern Muscovy and thus of modern Russia itself. Belarusian historians look back to the Polatsk principality. Ukrainian scholars ‘study the principality of Galicia-Volhynia to uncover the foundations of Ukrainian nation-building projects’.[xiii] However, I would argue, a study of the intense diversity and particularity of the geographical regions of Ukraine more interestingly shows the formation of local identities that are less bonded, stable or monolithic than distinct nations.

Applebaum adopts the phrase ‘Island Cities’ to describe such Ukrainian borderland cities as Chernivtsi and Kamianets-Podilskyi (as well as Chişinãu in Moldova). She is fascinated by how the shifting national identities of their regional contexts turned these places in on themselves, so that they have always been as if frozen in transition: impeded by displacement. Applebaum writes of how Chernivtsi, capital of Bukovyna, ‘changed hands several times more’ following its occupancy by the Ottoman Turks, yet ‘never lost its slow, peculiar, out-of-the-way character’. Chernivtsi now ‘seemed caught in a vacuum, reluctant to move – and perhaps it had always been that way’. At an island city place is intensely defined: ‘changing regimes had never altered the basic character of Chernivtsi – the city had merely ignored its rulers’. In a sense, place is all. ‘Czernowitz, people told themselves, would always be able to absorb its conquerors.’ But with their history of ignoring rulers, the citizens of an island city can be lawless to the point of asociality. Czernowitz, notes Applebaum, ‘attracted criminals and hucksters, people who couldn’t fit in anywhere else’. Hence whilst it is intensely defined, the island city is also unbonded, unstable. Chernivtsi ‘never fully belonged to anyone’. It was not the possession of any single ethnic or national grouping: ‘the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence – [Gregor] Von [sic] Rezzori calls it “demonic” – seemed capable of outliving any empire’. This, Applebaum emphasizes, represented ‘a place where different nations could survive alongside one another no matter which one was in charge’. Interestingly, the concept of ‘transition zones’ which Plokhy found to describe contemporary Ukraine – ‘nowadays one sees a patchwork of linguistic, cultural, economic, and political transition zones that link different regions to one another and keep the country together’ – similarly points to a type of (Ukrainian) place where there are identities at work which are at once in transition or unstable, and unifying, defining.[xiv] The huckster borderland emerges as in some way a valid model of contemporary civil society.       



[i] Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe ([London(?)]: Penguin Books, 2015; first publ. [n.p.]: Pantheon Books, 1994), pp. xxiv, xii, xxiii.

[ii] Applebaum, pp. xx, 192.

[iii] Applebaum, pp. 165, 184.

[iv] Applebaum, p. 192.

[v] Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine ([London(?)]: Penguin Books, 2016; first publ. [n.p.]: Allen Lane, 2015), pp. 345, 327.

[vi] Plokhy, pp. 148, 134, 136, 134-35 (quoting Catherine II).

[vii] Plokhy, pp. 151, 54, 55.

[viii] Applebaum, pp. 195, 153-54, 199.

[ix] Applebaum, p. 152.

[x] Plokhy, pp. 149, 150, 151, 166.

[xi] Plokhy, p. 162.

[xii] Plokhy, pp. 226, 227.

[xiii] Plokhy, pp. xxi, xxii, 48.

[xiv] Applebaum, pp. 245, 244, 264, 246, 245, 246; Plokhy, p. 352.


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