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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Mainstream Ukrainian nationalism: A liberationist and pro-European patriotism

Article by: Winfried Schneider-Deters

By the 19th century, a Ukrainian national consciousness had developed under Central European influence in what is today’s western Ukraine – which was annexed by the Soviet Union as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939. The national sentiment of Ukrainians living in what was then eastern Poland was radicalized by inter-war resistance to repression by Poland, which had re-emerged as an independent state after World War I (Treaty of Versailles). Stalin justified the invasion of eastern Poland by the Red Army on September 17, 1939 – just 17 days after the beginning of Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 – as a campaign to ‘liberate’ Ukrainian (and Belarusian) brothers ‘from the Polish yoke’.[60] As a result of Soviet annexation of eastern Poland, all Ukrainians[61] were united for the first time in history into a single –although only pseudo-autonomous – State, the ‘Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.’ ‘Stalin realized the dream of Ukrainian nationalists’, as Jörg Baberowski has stated markedly.[62]

The radical nationalism in present-day western Ukraine has its roots in the mid-20th century era, namely:

A partisan brigade of the UPA

  •  in the period between the two world wars, when the indisputably fascistoid Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (Orhanizatsiya Ukrains’kykh Natsionalistiv / OUN) fought for independence from Poland;
  • in the hidden confrontation between the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains’ka Povstans’ka Armiia / UPA) and the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) during World War II;
  • in the resistance of the UPA against the German Wehrmacht and SS during World War II, after the OUN’s initial collaboration with the Nazis in the mistaken belief that German troops had come as liberators;
  • in the UPA’s struggle against the Red Army and NKVD[63] troops during World War II;
  • in the resistance of the UPA against the NKVD for a further ten years, after the end of World War II.

Ukrainian nationalism was born in times of repression. It has mostly remained defensive and not aggressive in character, unlike imperial Russian nationalism. Today, mainstream Ukrainian nationalism should be see as an emancipatory movement rooted in notions of ‘liberation,’[64] and as reminiscent of the German National Movement before March 1848 (Vormärz). Much of it is therefore compatible with liberal democracy. Yet, in Brussels and Berlin, it is not always appreciated that the nationalism of a ‘young nation’ with an unstable national identity – particularly in times of aggression from within and from outside – cannot be equated with the anachronistic, xenophobic nationalism in the countries of Old Europe.

Owing to the growing weight of votes cast for Euro-skeptic parties in EU member states, European politicians are becoming highly sensitive to any symptoms of nationalism. This makes them receptive to Russian propaganda, according to which ‘fascist’, xenophobic and anti-Semitic forces exert political influence in Kyiv. In reality, ‘Ukrainian Fascism’ is a Russian bogey, as the results of the presidential elections on 25 May, 2014, and the parliamentary elections on 28 October, 2014, demonstrated. The presidential candidates of the two radically nationalist parties, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Right Sektor’, Oleh Tiahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh respectively, obtained together less than 2% of the vote. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the Freedom Party, which had gained over 10% of the vote in Ukraine’s previous parliamentary elections in October 2012, failed to clear the 5% hurdle. Meanwhile, the hyped ‘Right Sector’ obtained less than 2 % of the vote.

It is true that, on the Maidan, historical symbols from the era of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army were revived. These symbols, which appear hopelessly out-of-date to West European audiences, were readily accepted by many protesters who had previously not been susceptible to nationalistic slogans. The chant ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ (‘Slava Ukraini!’), answered with the refrain, ‘Glory to the Heroes!’ (‘Heroiam slava!’), became commonplace among patriotic Ukrainians during the Maidan protests.[65] When people shouted this slogan on Maidan in the winter of 2013-2014, it was not yet suspected that shootings in Kyiv, and a war in the east of the country would soon be producing a new generation of present-day heroes (see video, where over 200 000 people on Maidan chant “Glory to Ukraine”):

The Ukrainian patriotism sparked by the Maidan protests mobilized the willingness to defend the peacefully gained independence of the country by force of arms. Former ‘Defenders of Maidan’ spontaneously organized themselves into volunteer military battalions. Many have since been deployed to the fighting on the ‘eastern front’, where they risk their lives on a daily basis. Equipment is often donated by relatives and friends. Although nobody preaches openly that it is ‘noble and honourable to die for the Fatherland’,[66] a certain glorification of the fight against Russian mercenaries is tangible among politicians.

On the other hand, there is evidence of massive draft evasion. As in the year 1939, when the French asked the classical rhetoric question: ‘Mourir pour Dantzig?’,[67] there is no universal inclination, even in particularly patriotic regions of western Ukraine, to ‘die for the Donbas’.[68] Russia’s President Putin has personally extended his protecting hand towards Ukrainian draft dodgers.[69] In order to bolster fighting spirit, the Ukrainian government has felt compelled to raise soldiers’ pay and to offer rewards for the destruction of enemy armament.[70] Ukraine’s patriotic civil society continues to demonstrate an extraordinary willingness to ‘support the troops’. A great number of volunteer organizations throughout the country collect donations for the soldiers serving on the front lines.

Ukraine is now in the process of writing itself its own history. In the new schoolbooks, the term ‘Great Patriotic War’ (Russ.: Velikaia Otechestvennaia Voina), which was reintroduced by the Ukrainophobic Minister of Education Dymtro Tabachnyk during Yanukovych’s reign, will be replaced by the term ‘Second World War’. During his term in office, Tabachnyk pursued the re-Sovietization of Ukrainian history – including the publication of a joint Russian-Ukrainian history textbook.

Read also: The “Great Patriotic War” as a weapon in the war against Ukraine

The date 14 October has been declared Defenders of Ukraine Day (Den’ Zakhysnyka Ukrainu) by presidential decree. Defenders of the (Soviet) Fatherland Day (Russ.: Den Zashchitnika Otechestva), which was previously marked annually on 23 February, has duly been cancelled. The choice of the date 14 October has particular historical significance as:

  • it is Ukrainian Cossack Day (Den’ Ukrains’koho Kozatstva), a holiday introduced by President Leonid Kuchma in a bid to acknowledge the historical role of the Zaporozhian Cossacks in the development of Ukrainian statehood;
  • it is a traditional Orthodox Christian holiday: The Day of the Protection of the Most Holy Mother of God (on this day the Cossacks would traditionally elect their Ataman);
  • it is the anniversary of the foundation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

Read also: New October 14 ‘Day of Defender of Ukraine’ holiday marks break with Soviet past

Another day has been set aside to mark the country’s modern pro-democracy breakthroughs. 22 November is now Ukraine’s Dignity and Freedom Day (Den’ Hidnosti ta Svobody), marking the anniversaries of the 2013 Euromaidan protests and 2004’s Orange Revolution. Meanwhile, 22 January will continue to be celebrated as National Unity Day (Den’ Sobornosti Ukrainy) in remembrance of the proclamation of the unification of the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic which took place on 22 January, 1919.

Unlike nationalism in the member states of the European Union, Ukrainian nationalism is not anti- but pro-European. For the vast majority of the population in today’s Ukraine, national self-assertion does not conflict with pro-European sentiment. This feeling of belonging to Europe was articulated impressively during the Euromaidan movement. As a future member of the European Union, a union sui generis of nations (motto: ‘In Varietate Concordia’, ‘Unity in Diversity’) Ukraine could hope to preserve and develop its cultural identity, particularly, concerning the Ukrainian language. As a member in Putin’s Eurasian Union, Ukraine would not escape a renewed wave of Russification. Ukraine can only hold its own as a nation from within the European Union. With the help of the European Union, Ukraine will emerge from the war with Russia – possibly territorially amputated – as a ‘European nation’ with a consolidated national identity and a functioning democracy.

* The English translation was language-wise edited by Peter Dickinson. Andreas Umland helped preparing the final version published here.


[60] On 22 October 1939 Moscow staged „elections“ to a „People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine“. According to official statements the candidates of the „Block of Workers, Peasants and Intellectuals” obtained 90 % of the vote. On 27 October 1939 the “People’s Assembly of Western Ukraine” proclaimed the “Accession of Western Ukraine to the USSR”. The annexation of Eastern Poland by the Soviet Union – and the expulsion of the Polish population – was accepted by the presidents of the Western victorious powers Harry S. Truman / USA and Winston Churchill / Clement Atlee / GB) at the Potsdam conference on 17 July – 2 August 1945.

[61] With the exception of the Ukrainians living in the Kuban region in Southern Russia.

[62] Jörg Baberowski, “Zwischen den Imperien.“

[63] NKVD – People’ Commissariate for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del), predecessor of the KGB (Komitet gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti).

[64] Konrad Schuller, “Die ukrainische Opposition: Ohne Wolfsangel (The Ukrainian Opposition. Without the Wolf’s Hook),” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10 February 2014 <>.

[65] From among more radical protestors could also be heard the such clearly nationalist slogans as: „Glory to the Nation – Death to the Enemies!” („Slava natsii – smert’ voroham!“) and „Ukraine above all!” („Ukraina – ponad use!“)

[66] „Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, Horaz, Carmina 3,2,13.

[67] Title of a controversial article by Marcel Déat in the French newspaper L’Œuvre in Mai 1939.

[68] “Biriukov vozmutilsia pervymi resul’tatami vypolneniia plana mobilizatsii (B. upset by the first results of the implementation of the mobilization plan),” Ukrainskaia pravda, 27 January 2015; <>. Yuri Biriukoy is advisor to the president.

[69] “Vstrecha so studentami Gornogo universiteta (Meeting with the students of Mining University),” Prezident Rossii, 26.01.2015 <>.

[70] Website of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, 28 January 2015; <–/>.

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