Euromaidan, rebirth of the Ukrainian nation, and the German debate on Ukraine’s national identity

Red and black flags of the Organization of Ukrainian nationalists during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv (2013). Image: wikipedia 

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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.[40] 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’.[41] According to the thesis put forward by Jens Jessens, also printed by Die Zeit: ‘Kyiv and the East have always been Russian.’ [42] Such claims reveal insufficient knowledge of the topic commented.

Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevskyi, author of “History of Ukraine-Rus”

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[43] 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[44] 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.

The first General Secretariat of the Central Council, 1917

On January 22, 1918, the Central Council proclaimed the independence (‘IV. Universal’) of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (Ukrains’ka Narodna Respublika / UNR),[45] which on February 9, 1918, concluded a separate peace[46] with the Central Powers (Mittelmächte) at Brest-Litovsk.[47] Berlin historian Jörg Baberowski’s statement that Kyiv and Kharkiv are ‘not sites of national self-assertion’ for the Ukrainian nation[48] ‘absolutely fails to comply with the current state of academic research’, concluded Anna Veronika Wendland of the Herder Institute in Marburg (Germany).[49]

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.[50]

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

In her open letter, Wendland accuses Baberowski of claiming that the character of the Ukrainian nation is a (social) construct, that this nation is an ‘invention of the West,’ and that it therefore does not exist. For these reasons, the state into which this nation organized itself since 1991 could justifiably be dismantled piece by piece and incorporated into the territory of the ‘likewise constructed Russian imperial nation’.[51] Backed by her personal research experience in Ukraine, Wendland also criticizes Baberowski’s misjudgment of the personal attitudes of Russian-speaking Ukrainians towards the Ukrainian state. ‘A new historical phenomenon’ can presently be observed in Ukraine which is occurring in real time. This is ‘the genesis of a political, multilingual Ukrainian nation’, a process occurring ‘under external pressure’. In the current ‘revolutionary discussion’, which is conducted at least fifty percent in Russian, ‘it is not the concept of a nation in the 19th century sense that plays a role’ (as Baberowski argues), but rather ‘the expression of the will of a new generation of Ukrainians – Ukrainian- as well as Russian-speaking – and the will to create a pluralistic and democratic society’. It is ‘wonderful that in Ukraine right now a political nation is arising.’[52]

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.’[53] After this statement, the renowned narrator of Stalin’s Rule of Violence[54] 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?’[55] 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.[56] 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.[57] The conflictive principles of the promotion of nationalities[58] (korenizatsiia) on the one hand, and their assimilation on the other, were applied depending on political requirements – from cultural promotion (language, history[59]), 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.

[40] During and after WW I in Poland a Ukrainian nation was considered a „German invention“. See: Hans-Ulrich Stoldt / Klaus Wiegrefe, “Befreiungstruppen basteln (Creating liberation troops). Interview with the Historian Frank Golczewski about German attempts, to support Ukraine against the Tsar,” Der Spiegel, No. 50, 2007, 10.12.2007 <>.

[41] Matthias Nass, “‚Putins Vorgehen ist verständlich‘. Helmut Schmidt über Russlands Recht auf die Krim (‚Putin’s way of acting is understandable‘. Helmut Schmidt on Putin’s right to Crimea…),“ Die Zeit, No. 14, 27.03.2014 <>.

[42] Jens Jessen, “Teufelspakt für die Ukraine (Pact with the Devil for Ukraine),” Die Zeit, No. 14, 28.03.2014. <>.

[43] The Fevral’skaya revolutsiya started on February 23 (Julian calendar) / March 8 (Gregorian calendar).

[44] At the initiative of the Fellowship of Ukrainian Progressivists (Tovarystvo Ukrayinskykh Postupovtsiv)

[45] In its „I. Universal“, dated 23 June 1917, the Central Council demanded the autonomy of Ukraine within a federalized Russia. By its “II. Universal”, dated 16 Juli 1917, the General Secretariate renounced a unilateral declaration of independence.

[46] Peace treaty signed March 3, 1918, called Brotfrieden in German (“peace for bread”).

[47] The German occupation authorities dissolved the Central Council and on 29 April 1918 founded the Ukrainian State (Ukr.: Ukrayins’ka Derzhava), also called The Hetmanate (Ukr.: Het’manat), and appointed General Pavlo Skoropadsky as Hetman (in power until December 2018).

[48] Jörg Baberowski, “Zwischen den Imperien (Between Empires),” Die Zeit, No. 12, 13 March 2014; <>.

[49] Anna Veronika Wendland, “Offener Brief an Prof. Jörg Baberowski, HU Berlin, zu seinem Artikel ‘Zwischen den Imperien‘ in der ZEIT Nr. 12/2014 vom 13.03.2014, S. 52,“ Euromaidan Berlin, 25 March 2014 <>. Baberowski argues, that in the cities of Eastern and Southern Ukraine’s the national idea had limited appeal, because they were predominantly inhabited by Russians and Jews. The Ukrainian peasants, who moved into the cities, he argues, did not feel their linguistic assimilation to be tragic.

[50] Franziska Davies, “Die Ukraine – eine künstliche Nation? (Ukraine – an artificial nation?),“ Der Freitag, 1 April 2014 <>.

[51] Anna Veronika Wendland, “Offener Brief an Prof. Jörg Baberowski.“

[52] Ibid. See also: Idem, “Für ein neues Land,” Der Freitag, No. 15, 10 April 2014 <>.

[53] Baberowski, “Zwischen den Imperien.“

[54] Idem, Verbrannte Erde. Stalins Herrschaft der Gewalt. München (C. H. Beck Verlag) 2012.

[55] Idem, “Zwischen den Imperien.“

[56] Gunnar Wälzholz, Nationalismus in der Sowjetunion. Entstehungsbedingungen und Bedeutung nationaler Eliten. Osteuropa-Institut der Freien Universität Berlin, Arbeitspapiere des Bereichs Politik und Gesellschaft, Heft 8 / 1997.

[57] The two-track nationalities policy was ideologically justified with Lenin’s dialectic doctrine, according to which the “promotion of the free development of the nationalities leads in the end to their natural amalgamation”. The “Declaration of the Rights of the Peoples of Russia” ( Russ.: Deklaratsiia prav narodov Rossii) was promulgated on November 15 (Gregorian calendar) / November 2 (Julian calendar) 1917 by the Bolshevik government and signed by Vladimir Ul’yanov / Lenin, chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars) and Iosif Dzhugashvili / Stalin (People’s Commissar of nationalities). See: “Deklaratsiia prav narodov Rossii, 2(15) noiabria 1917 g.,” in: Sbornik dokumentov “Obrazovanie SSSR”, Moskva, 1949, pp. 19-20 <>.

[58] The „nationality“ (Russ.: natsional’nost’) of Soviet citizens was documented in identification cards, and passed on from parents to children. Thus “nationality” was a “biological category” (Gunnar Wälzholz) which promoted ethnical segregation.

[59]„The Bolsheviks organized the multinational empire according to ethnic principles, founded republics […] designed (national) languages and national histories”, states Baberowski. Wälzholz clarifies the purpose of this order: “The territorialization of ethnicity was an instrument of control”. And Wälzholz does not ignore the perfidious manner, how Stalin drew the boundaries. As a consequence of the deliberate “incongruence of ethnos and territory,” national minorities with competing territorial claims were systematically created, in order to control these nationalities.

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