Red and black flags of the Organization of Ukrainian nationalists during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv (2013). Image: wikipedia
Ukraine: An ‘artificial nation’? A recent German debate
Article by: Winfried Schneider-Deters
In Russia the very existence of a Ukrainian nation is often questioned and even negated. This is not only the case in Russia. In Germany, too, attempts to ‘understand’ Putin’s conduct are often justified by the assertion that Ukraine is an ‘artificial nation’. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt stated in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit that Ukraine is ‘not a nation’, indicating that it is still a controversial question among historians, ‘whether a Ukrainian nation exists at all’. According to the thesis put forward by Jens Jessens, also printed by Die Zeit: ‘Kyiv and the East have always been Russian.’  Such claims reveal insufficient knowledge of the topic commented.
The origins of the Ukrainian national movement lie in the 19th century, at the time of the ‘awakening of nations’ in other parts of Europe. In the early 19th century, Kharkiv University was an important center of the emerging Ukrainian national movement. The first volume of the monumental History of Ukraine-Rus, written in Ukrainian by Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, appeared in Kyiv in 1913. Hrushevskyi would later become the head of the Central Rada of the ‘Ukrainian People’s Republic’ (1917-1918). Hrushevskyi countered the official imperial narrative of the common history of all East Slavs with descriptions of the separate development of the ‘Russian People’ and the ‘Ukrainian People’.
For the intellectual representatives of the Ukrainian nation, the February Revolution of 1917 opened up historic opportunities to realize the dream of independence. On March 17, 1917, after the abolition of Tsarist authority, a Central Council (Tsentral’na Rada) gathered in Kyiv in order to form a provisional Ukrainian government. This body elected Hrushevskyi as Chairman (March 20). On June 28, 1917, all legislative and executive powers were passed over to a nine-member General Secretariat chaired by Volodymyr Vynnychenko. The Provisional Government in Petrograd recognized the General Secretariat in Kyiv as the supreme governing body of Ukraine, and vice versa.
On January 22, 1918, the Central Council proclaimed the independence (‘IV. Universal’) of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (Ukrains’ka Narodna Respublika / UNR), which on February 9, 1918, concluded a separate peace with the Central Powers (Mittelmächte) at Brest-Litovsk. Berlin historian Jörg Baberowski’s statement that Kyiv and Kharkiv are ‘not sites of national self-assertion’ for the Ukrainian nation ‘absolutely fails to comply with the current state of academic research’, concluded Anna Veronika Wendland of the Herder Institute in Marburg (Germany).
In Germany, questions over the existence of a Ukrainian nation go hand in hand with an ‘unreflecting acceptance of Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet concepts of identity.’ Franziska Davies (University of Munich) too opposes the ‘imperial rhetoric’ of Putin’s apologists in Germany. Even if a nation is a social construct – the idea of a nation alone generates a historical effect and thus becomes reality. It is not helpful, Davies argues, to disqualify nation-constructs as ‘artificial’ entities.
It is not the concept of a nation in the 19th century sense that plays a role, but the expression of the will of a new generation of Ukrainians to create a pluralistic and democratic society
Nations ‘need enemies’ in order to become ‘what nationalists have invented’. Ukraine is being presented as a ‘nation of victims, suppressed for centuries’, according to Baberowski. ‘Historians refute myths. They are the worst enemies of nationalists.’ After this statement, the renowned narrator of Stalin’s Rule of Violence raises a rhetorical question before answering it implicitly in the affirmative: ‘Was the post-Stalinist Soviet Union really a ‘prison of nations’? Was it not a successful model of management of inter-ethnic conflicts?’ As the independence movements within the Soviet Union republics at the end of the 1980s (Baltic states, South Caucasus, Ukraine) and in some of the ‘autonomous republics’ of the Russian Federation (North Caucasus) prove, the post-Stalinist Soviet Union was indeed a ‘prison of nations’.
Ukraine is the child of Soviet ‘nationalities policies’, Baberowski states. Meanwhile, Jens Jessens deems the origins of Ukraine ‘artificial’. He considers Ukraine’s existence as an independent state the product of ‘a misunderstanding within the former Soviet nationalities policy’. As a matter of fact, Soviet nationalities policy played a prominent role ‘in view of the extremely heterogeneous national composition of the Soviet Union […] as well as of the immense development gaps between regions,’ as Gunnar Wälzholz confirms. The often contradictory Soviet nationalities policy had two long-term, interlinked aims, Wälzholz points out. On the one hand, the aim was to prevent the disintegration of the formerly Tsarist empire through concessions to the nationalities as well as suppression of separatist tendencies. On the other hand, the societal modernization of the culturally diverse nationalities of the empire was seen as a precondition for the merging of the different cultures. The end goal was the cultural integration of the various nationalities into a ‘Soviet Nation’ (Russ.: Sovetskaia natsiia). The Bolsheviks interpreted nationalism as a manifestation of the class struggle within nations. Through the victory of socialism, classes were supposed to disappear and the peoples of the Soviet Union would merge with one another. The conflictive principles of the promotion of nationalities (korenizatsiia) on the one hand, and their assimilation on the other, were applied depending on political requirements – from cultural promotion (language, history), deportation of whole nations (Crimean Tatars, Chechens) to the liquidation of national elites on charges of ‘bourgeois nationalism’ (Ukraine).
Ukraine is not one of those ‘artificial nations’ created by the Soviet nationalities policies of the 1920s. But Ukraine may – arguably – be defined as a nation ‘in the making’. It is a community in the process of being born. This process of ‘nation building’ has been accelerated via the Maidan movement and as a result of Russian aggression.