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Poaching, simmering, and boiling: The declining relevance of identity discourse in Ukraine

EuroMaidan changed political discourse in Ukraine from identity to values and virtues.
Poaching, simmering, and boiling: The declining relevance of identity discourse in Ukraine
Article by: Oksana Forostyna
Edited by: Paula Chertok
This article is part of the Essay collection “What does Ukraine think?” published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), reproduced with permission. Original article and more essays on Ukraine can be found here.
The Euromaidan protests changed political discourse in Ukraine from identity to values and virtues. The Facebook post that signalled the start of the Euromaidan in 2013 was written by Afghanistan-born journalist Mustafa Nayyem. The first person killed in the Euromaidan, in January 2014, was an Armenian, Serhiy Nigoyan, the son of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. The song “Voiny sveta” (“The Warriors of Light”), the battle hymn of the Maidan and the later war, is in Russian and was written by a Belarusian rock band. The author of the Maidan slogan, “I’m a drop in the ocean,” is a Russian expat who lives in Kyiv. Ukrainian society has accepted and even values its diversity at this most critical of moments.

One night in mid-December 2013, my parents, in Lviv, Western Ukraine, woke up as dozens of cars honked their horns. It was the sound of alarm: the drivers were heading to Kyiv’s Maidan, the main square of the Ukrainian capital, which was under attack by riot police. The journey took at least five hours, as the police did everything to prevent people from coming to Kyiv from other cities. But people went to help the Kyiv protesters and to save their capital, to save something they considered belonged to them.

Things had not always been like that.

Just 12 years earlier, in 2001, during a previous round of protests, Kyiv police rounded up students from Lviv as they arrived at metro and railway stations. The authorities believed a real Kyivite would not cause trouble for the regime of Leonid Kuchma, then president of Ukraine. This was at least a half-truth: a considerable proportion of members of the protests on the Maidan in 1990 were students from Western Ukraine.

But in 2004, Kyiv joined the first really large-scale demonstrations in modern Ukrainian history: almost a month of protest on the Maidan, also known as the Orange Revolution. Protesters spoke both Ukrainian and Russian – beginning a trend whereby language has ceased to be a marker of political preferences, for the first time in centuries.

After the territories around Kyiv were joined to Russia in the seventeenth century, the use of the Ukrainian language was severely restricted. The period of so-called Ukrainianisation in the early Soviet period was fruitful but short, and after it came the total, systematic, and extremely brutal extermination of Ukrainian writers and intellectuals. Ukrainian became either the marginalised language of “low” culture and peasants, or else was demonised as the language of the enemy. After Ukraine gained its independence, real power rested with members of the ex-Soviet industrial establishment, all of whom were Russian-speakers; even in Lviv, the language of commerce was generally Russian, as former apparatchiks chose business as their next career step. During the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s, language was part of political identity. If you spoke Ukrainian, you were most probably against the Kuchma regime.

The Orange Revolution spoke both Russian and Ukrainian, but it took another nine years to launch the birth of a new nation, the Ukrainian political nation, in which the use of Russian no longer betrays a pro-Moscow inclination. The most important thing in making the shift was establishing mutual trust between Western Ukraine and Kyiv, a process that began before 2004, but continued after the revolution. Labour migration from Lviv to Kyiv began in the 1990s. Political actors were the first, then came journalists, artists, scholars, and business owners. During Viktor Yushchenko’s rule (2005–2010), the Ukrainian language, holidays, and culture became part of establishment culture, for better or for worse. Speaking Ukrainian and going to Western Ukraine for Christmas was no longer something odd and iconoclastic. However, the more important shift was in Kyiv, which became more tolerant and more able to absorb people from different regions and even different countries.

Outsiders’ misconceptions

Meanwhile, “Ukraine fatigue” grew outside Ukraine, although it was really “discourse fatigue,” that is, a sense of frustration with the lack of cognitive ability and vocabulary to explain Ukraine. None of the known frameworks fitted: Ukraine was too modern to be described as a backward society, too secular to draw a religious boundary, too complicated and contradictory in its national and cultural identities to be explained without boring an audience to tears with numerous details and digressions, too Soviet and corrupt to go West, and too Western and too ambitious to simply stay post-Soviet. A new mapping of this part of the world was needed.

The same absence of a framework made it easy to mythologise Ukraine when it made the headlines in late November 2013. The main misconception was that the turmoil in Ukraine was a clash of identities. Two mind traps and the meta-narrative behind these traps caused this delusion.

The first trap was generalisation: looking for and relying on similarities to previous conflicts. This approach is shallow, but comforting: identity conflicts can be transferred to the domain of irrationality, which means we do not need to treat these tribes somewhere beyond the EU borders as comprehensible or driven by rational narratives. Describing a complex phenomenon takes time and energy, while focusing on similarities to other events is easy. Hence all the headlines about Ukrainian Nazis – a phenomenon similar to something the audience already knows.

This also made it easy to miss the “anti-Maidan”, the infernal mix of Soviet myths and xenophobia that drove the Ukrainian riot police, encouraged by the authorities, to terrorise the protesters. This was not an ethnic nationalist discourse, but something new and homegrown, which had been cultivated since the late 1990s but which found its way into mainstream ideology at the beginning of the Putin era. The discourse is not simply Soviet nostalgia or resentment, or a contradictory mix of Orthodoxy in its Russian version and martial atheism. The identity can only describe itself negatively, as “anti-”. First and foremost, its self-image is “antifascist”, with a broad interpretation of who the fascists actually are. “Fascists” (the traditional Soviet name for German Nazis during the Second World War) were the enemies of the Soviet Union, so all enemies of the Soviet Union are fascists. Therefore, “anti-fascist” means, in fact, anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-European. It is also anti-Ukrainian and anti-Semitic, as long as Ukrainians and Jews are considered to be allies of the West.

The second trap is the assumption that things in Ukraine have remained the same since the last time the rest of the world paid attention. Indeed, Ukraine under the rule of Yanukovych and his clan stagnated, according to formal indicators. But, for locals, things were changing. Violence and police terror did not start on the night of 30 November 2013. A survey in 2012 showed that 60.7 percent of Ukrainians believed that no one was immune from violence at police stations, and only 1.5 percent believed that nobody was at risk of mistreatment.[1]  The estimated number of victims of violence at the hands of police officers between 2004 and 2012 was more than one million. The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union registered 159 complaints of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in 2012.[2]  But before 30 November this kind of terror was dispersed throughout the country; it had to become concentrated to be noticed by the outside world.

British historian and public intellectual Tony Judt described the meta-narrative behind these traps in his political testament, Ill Fares the Land:

The politics of the ’60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. “Identity” began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity. From here it was but a short step to the fragmentation of radical politics, its metamorphosis into multiculturalism. Curiously, the new Left remained exquisitely sensitive to the collective attributes of humans in distant lands, where they could be gathered up into anonymous social categories like “peasant”, “post-colonial”, “subaltern” and the like. But back home, the individual reigned supreme.[3]

That approach has determined the perception of Ukraine abroad: both because the mapping of Ukraine’s numerous identities has been simplistic, and because their importance has been overestimated.

A new Ukrainian identity

From the late 1990s on, identity politics in Ukraine was a cheap way to make voters take sides in a virtual clash without actually debating, say, economic matters. Anyone can talk about identities, and identity is always about “me”. A catchphrase of the discourse of Soviet resentment, “Dedy voevali” (“Grandfathers fought”), refers to Soviet soldiers in the Second World War. It is supposed to mean that the Second World War is still important, but its real meaning is, “My grandfather fought, my grandfather was a hero, and most likely a better person than yours”. Or: “It’s important that my mother tongue has a special status. It’s important to make my life as comfortable as possible, and comfortable means that my beliefs cannot be judged or even updated.”

On the eve of the Euromaidan, Ukrainian opinion-leaders seemed exhausted by this modus operandi, and by internal contradictions and the lack of mutual trust. As the protests began, activists, mostly from a media background, were preoccupied with organisational issues. The Left was disappointed to see the Right there, and vice versa; the Kyiv bourgeoisie was not yet involved on a large scale.

The night of the first mass police beatings (29–30 November 2013) changed things profoundly: an active minority’s protest turned into a true mass movement. For many, 30 November and 1 December, the days when protesters occupied the city centre, represented the beginning of a personal transformation. People who had never been politically active made a huge jump from their private, normal worlds into something new, strange, and intense.

A group of Kyiv designers developed a series of visuals and a slogan for these demonstrations: “I’m a drop in the ocean.” The slogan immediately caught on: it explained the nature of the compromise and the reason that traditional identities had lost their significance. After the mass beatings, Ukrainians faced an enemy so ugly that previous frameworks were pulled down. “I’m a drop in the ocean” also meant “I can compromise on my personal story and my personal preferences for the common good.” The myth of a “Ukraine divided by nationalists” had been defeated.

This approach is also the opposite of “the subjectivism of private – and privately-measured – interest and desire” – the shared sense of purpose for which Tony Judt mourned.[4]  You can call a protest an angry mob, and a shared sense of purpose can be labelled nationalism. But the key driver of the protests was solidarity, not mob fever, and after 1 December it was values and virtues, not identities. Had it been otherwise, the Maidan simply could not have functioned, let alone won.

The Facebook post that signalled the start of the Euromaidan in 2013 was written by Afghanistan-born journalist Mustafa Nayyem. The first person killed in the Euromaidan, in January 2014, was an Armenian, Serhiy Nigoyan, the son of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh. The song “Voiny sveta” (“The Warriors of Light”), the battle hymn of the Maidan and the later war, is in Russian and was written by a Belarusian rock band. The author of the Maidan slogan, “I’m a drop in the ocean”, is a Russian expat who lives in Kyiv. Ukrainian society has accepted and even values its diversity at this most critical of moments.

Many observers focused on the nationalistic rhetoric on the Maidan, which was present, of course. But few noticed the language of compromise and of pop culture. The day after Lenin’s monument was toppled in Kyiv, a collage of Yoda5 on Lenin’s pedestal appeared on the web. The wider public and even the media adopted the metaphors invented by younger protesters. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mordor” became the common name for the Yanukovych regime, and soon for Putin’s Russia too. Berkut police and titushki (paid thugs brought to Kyiv) were “Orcs.”

The general vision was the ultimate struggle between Good and Evil – which is why fantasy and well-known fictional characters were cited so often. In one Facebook post, on 31 January, after the bloody clashes on Hrushevsky Street, with the regime organising beatings and kidnappings, Ukrainian journalist Yevhen Kuzmenko compared this shocking new reality to Harry Potter:

Slytherin with its cult of dark force; torturers in forests and dugouts, propaganda, wizards-activists are disappearing, and Muggles sympathise; a set of curses (and particularly “Cruciatus” for Bulatov),[6]  the term “mudblood” as an analogue for [the] nickname “Maidown”,[7]  dementors aka Berkut – and Voldemort as a collective image for Putin, Kluyev, and Medvedchuk.

This black-and-white approach now seemed the best description of reality, and displaced previous identities. The protesters had no military gear, so they used cycling, snowboarding, and other extreme sports gear, as well as costumes for historical and fantasy re-enactment. In other words, they contributed their previous identities to the common mission. After days of fighting, the gear they used to wear for skiing in their previous carefree lives was worn away, and so was their past.

But sadly, it was exactly this black-and-white picture that outside observers could not grasp, even in times of war.  As Ukrainian writer Yuriy Andrukhovych put it when receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought in 2014:

To doubt is quite a virtue of a genuine European. And my acquaintances – as they are genuine Europeans – also doubt. They ask me how is it even possible that Good was only on one side, and Evil on the other. Isn’t the truth somewhere in the middle, or at least in between?

I understand: they wish to give a chance of not being an ultimate Evil not only to [the] Kremlin, but also its puppet “separatists”. Postmodern consciousness presumes reconciliation and excludes a black-and-white approach. “Court-martials”, death penalty,[8]  and tortures are not enough for my acquaintances. They are looking for villains on both sides of the conflict.

It was not only the communists who lost their symbols in Ukraine in 2014. In fact, both communists and nationalists were bankrupted. Nationalist party leaders in parliament lost the initiative to the new anonymous radicals when the serious clashes began in mid-January (though party members and voters were involved). Nationalist icons have been adopted and reinvented by people who are far from being Ukrainian nationalists. People who never in their lives spoke Ukrainian suddenly called themselves banderivtsi, as only nationalists did before. The Maidan has filled words with new meanings that nationalists cannot control – that nobody can control.

This new liquid identity is difficult to grasp from the outside – it is not an easy job to understand it from the inside. Few people in Ukraine could imagine just a few years ago that the core of newborn Ukrainian nationalism would be Dnipropetrovsk, the city of Russian-speakers, proud of its glorious Soviet past. But the war with Russia pushes Ukrainians to reappraise their conventions on a daily basis.

Old symbols, previously considered outdated or even trivial, have now been radically redefined. The old salutation “Glory to Ukraine! – Glory to the heroes!” was rejected at the beginning of the Maidan as a relic of nationalist tradition. Now it has been normalised on a mass scale, because a new narrative was born behind it, and Ukrainian Russian-speakers, politically indifferent before, knew who the new “heroes” were, many of them personally. “Heroes” from history books may have meant little to them, but they respected the people standing next to them. They became their own story. That was history in the making, and we were drops in the ocean.

Oskana Forostyna is a journalist, writer and activist. She is an executive editor for Krytyka Journal, Kyiv, Ukraine.

Other articles from this series:
Serhiy Leshchenko: Sunset and/or sunrise of the Ukrainian oligarchs after the Euromaidan revolution?
Volodymyr Yermolenko: Russia, zoopolitics, and information bombs
Anton Shekhovtsov: Spectre of Ukrainian “fascism”: Information wars, political manipulation and reality
Olena Tregub: Do Ukrainians want reform?

[1] Zhanna Zalkina, “Protection From Torture And Other Ill-Treatment” in Arkadiy Bushchenko and Yevhen Zakharov (eds), Human Rights in Ukraine (Kyiv: Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, 2012), available at (hereafter, “Human Rights in Ukraine”).

[2] “Human Rights in Ukraine”

[3] Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (London: Allen Lane, 2010) (hereafter, Judt, Ill Fares the Land), p.88.

[4] Judt, Ill Fares the Land, p.89.

[5] A character in the Star Wars movie franchise.

[6] An allusion to the kidnapping of Automaidan activist Dmitry Bulatov. He was tortured by his kidnappers and crucified.

[7] A pejorative term for Maidan activists.

[8] Both on the territory controlled by Russia-backed terrorists.

Edited by: Paula Chertok
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