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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

Putin as a midwife of the Ukrainian nation

Article by: Winfried Schneider-Deters

The “hybrid war” Russia is waging against Ukraine and her aggressive propaganda against this country are direct consequences of the victory of the Maidan movement in Kyiv. By reversing the course of Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation, President Yanukovych had effectively put himself and his country in Moscow’s hands. In some sense, the Ukrainian President had demoted himself to the rank of a provincial Russian governor. Yet, as a result of Yanukovych’s flight, Ukraine eventually slipped from the Russian President’s hands. With it went Putin’s dream of a new empire. Without Ukraine, Putin’s geopolitical ambition of creating a Eurasian Union capable of providing a counterweight to the European Union cannot be fulfilled.

For most Ukrainians, the idea of war with Russia was unimaginable until 2014. In the eyes of many Ukrainians, Russia maintained its status as cultural lodestar even after Ukraine became independent. Now Russia has become an enemy nation. On March 1, 2014, the Federation Council of the Russian Federation authorized President Putin to deploy Russian troops in Ukraine – according to the amended Article 10 of the Federal Law on Defence of 1996 (Zakon “Ob oborone”).[4] This decision came as a shock to many Ukrainians: “The Russian part of me died…” – MacFarquhar quotes, in The New York Times, young economist Aleksey Ryabchyn who has become a member of the parliamentary bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party.[5]
Russia’s undeclared war has forced Ukrainians to take up arms and defend their country’s independence militarily – something which had not been necessary during the relatively peaceful transition in 1990-1991. Russia’s military aggression reinforces Ukraine’s nation-building process. It strengthens the formation of a national Ukrainian identity – and also makes the process irreversible. Russia’s President Putin has thus become the midwife of the Ukrainian nation. Writes Andrew Wilson of University College London:

“Now Putin appears to be making a new Ukrainian nation before our eyes.”[6]

As a Ukrainian scholar put it,

“Mr. Putin has fulfilled the dream of Ukrainian nationalists” by forging a strong sense of Ukrainian national identity, infused with a heavy dose of anti-Russian sentiment.[7]

“Brothers?” A billboard somewhere in Ukraine.

In an interview for the Russian state-controlled television channel NTV on October 19, 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We must not lose Ukraine […]. For us Ukraine is a brother nation (Russ.: bratskii narod, brotherly people) sharing historical, cultural and philosophical roots with us, not to mention language and literature.”[8] However, these ties were cut by President Putin’s fratricidal war. Members of the same family, friends on either side of the border, do not speak to each other anymore. If they do, they generally end up arguing and hurling abuse. It looks increasingly like both nations may be enemies for generations to come.


One state – two Ukraines: “Post-Soviet schizophrenia”?[9]

Ukraine. Physical geography. Source: wikipedia

Ukraine is perceived by many in the international community as a divided country. However, the perception of ‘one State, two countries’ does not imply that Ukraine can be divided along a clear geographical demarcation line, as the renowned Ukrainian author Mykola Riabchuk remarked.[10] The Dnieper River (Ukr.: Dnipro, Russ.: Dnepr’), that runs through the middle of the country and its capital Kyiv, serves more to unite than to divide Right Bank Ukraine (Pravoberezhna Ukraina, West) from Left Bank Ukraine (Livoberezhna Ukraina, East). Rather than serving as a dividing line, the Dnieper constitutes a symbolic backbone of Ukraine.

The divisions underpinning the ‘two Ukraines’ thesis are often said to be most evident in the two opposing ‘poles’ of the Ukrainian geopolitical spectrum – the cities of Lviv in the west (Eastern Galicia), and Donetsk (Donets Basin) in the east. These two cities are outwardly so disparate that they could conceivably belong to two entirely different civilizations.[11] The architecture of Lviv is Central European whereas Donetsk represents the typical proletarian style found in dozens of indistinguishable Soviet industrial towns.

Local attitudes vary as much as the architecture. These differences can also be found in the satellite towns and rural communities located in the hinterland of these two regional capitals. The population of West Ukraine is broadly ‘bourgeois’, with a strong sense of patriotism and European identity. The population in East Ukraine, particularly in the Donbas region, is more ‘proletarian’ in character, and tends to be ideologically oriented towards Russia – or rather, towards the extinct Soviet Union.

In between these two extremes, with their ambiguous boundaries and borders lies the vast expanses of Central Ukraine (Ukr.: Tsentral’na Ukraina) with the capital city Kyiv. The Ukrainian capital is representative of the country as a whole, thanks to the influx of people from every region – especially after Ukrainian independence in 1991. These ‘two Ukraines’ have always been evident in Kyiv. After 300 years of Russification and 70 years of Sovietization, they have penetrated each other and begun to merge together.

The vast landmass between Lviv and Donetsk is heterogeneous, with each region boasting its own combination of attitudes towards the issues of Ukrainian, Russian, European and Soviet identity. In Central Ukraine, these divisions often result in individual ambivalence. According to Riabchuk, this is the result not only of ‘regional, cultural and linguistic differences,’ but also of the ‘atomizing effects of Soviet totalitarianism upon Ukrainian society.’[12]

Until the events which began with the Maidan protests, the great majority of Ukrainians were internally divided. Once could say that they have – or rather, had until recently – in the words of Goethe’s Faust: ‘two souls in one breast.’ Many Ukrainian citizens had, to one degree or another, an indeterminate, ambiguous or fluctuating sense of national identity. The result was not ethnic anger, but rather national apathy. Ukrainians were said to constitute a ‘disinterested, indecisive, amorphous mass.’[13] Their confused sense of national identity made individual Ukrainians easy prey for propaganda and manipulation. 

Bilingualism in Ukraine

Distribution of languages in Ukraine. Image: Washington Post

The broad outlines of Ukraine’s electoral divisions were particularly consequential in the election of “pro-Russian” candidate Leonid Kuchma to President in July 1994. He and his designated successor Viktor Yanukovych, in the presidential elections of 2004 and 2010, specifically wooed Russian-speaking voters by denouncing Western Ukrainians – in line with Soviet tradition – as ‘nationalists’. In the days of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ were presented as enemies not only of the Soviet system and Communist Party, but also of the “socialist” Ukrainian people. The charge of ‘bourgeois nationalist’ carried a sentence of 5 to 10 years imprisonment. By first instrumentalizing the ‘language question,” President Kuchma promoted the disunity of the country through his pro-presidential and paradoxically titled party “For a United Ukraine” (‘Za Yedynu Ukrainu’).[14] Yanukoych’s Party of Regions fuelled existing regional resentment in the east and south of Ukraine even against Central Ukraine and Kyiv in particular.

As a result of the 2010 national elections, Viktor Yanukovych, a native of the Donets Basin (Donbas),[15] assumed power as President, bringing with him the Russophile and semi-criminal elite of the Donbas to Kyiv. During the four years of his rule, however, President Yanukovych did not fulfill the election pledge which he and his party made in every election campaign – namely to grant the Russian language the status of second official state language in Ukraine, but only pushed through a law that allows granting Russian the status of a second administrative language in certain regions of Ukraine.[16] Following the annexation of Crimea, Russian President Putin whipped up latent separatist tendencies in parts of the population of the Donbas region in order to provoke a war of secession.

The political configuration in Europe in 1670. Source:

The bilingualism of Ukraine results from three centuries of Russian language dominance in large parts of present-day Ukraine. Following the 17th century Treaty of Pereiaslav, Left Bank Ukraine largely belonged to the Russian Empire. Since the divisions of Poland in the 18th century, a large part of Right Bank Ukraine also fell under Russian imperial rule. In present-day Ukraine, it is not only the Russian language which requires protection – the Ukrainian language is arguably even more in need of safeguarding. If its status as sole state language had not been anchored in the constitution of the new post-Soviet state, the Ukrainian language would have experienced a fate similar to that of the Belarusian language: it would have disappeared from public life.

Also on Euromaidan Press: Switch to Ukrainian for protection against Russian occupation, Ukrainians urge compatriots

After gaining independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, the ‘language question’ became important to all of the Newly Independent States (NISs). The former Soviet republics opted to make the titular language (i.e. the tongue of the dominant nationality of the republic) the official state language. In its language law of October 1989, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukr.: Ukrains’ka Radians’ka Sotsialistychna Respublika; Russ.: Ukrainskaia Sovetskaia Sotsialisticheskaia Respublika) made the Ukrainian language the sole state language (Ukr.: derzhavna mova) of independent Ukraine. The Supreme Soviet of the (then still existing) Soviet Union reacted to this challenge in April 1990 by declaring the Russian language de jure the official language of the entire Soviet Union (i.e. including the Ukrainian Republic) – which it had been de facto all along.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Even if Ukraine succeeds in overcoming the political identity crisis, the country’s cultural identity transformation will continue. Many educated Ukrainians regard the classical Russian literature a core element of their own cultural universe. They find themselves currently caught in an internal conflict. Neil MacFarquhar draws a pertinent literary parallel.[17] Mikhail Bulgakov, a Ukrainian novelist of worldwide acclaim, who wrote in Russian, is lauded in his native city Kyiv. However, Bulgakov himself despised the Ukrainian language and belittled the idea of an independent Ukraine. A recent Russian film based on one of Bulgakov’s greatest works, The White Guard, depicts the aversion of the urban, Russian-speaking Kyiv elite following the capture of the city by rural, Ukrainian-speaking armies after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Ukrainian State Film Agency banned the film, arguing that it constitutes not a work of art, but (anti-Ukrainian) propaganda. Ludmila Gubiauri, director of the Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv, dodged the question of Bulgakov’s national sympathies. For her, Bulgakov is simply ‘a great citizen of Kyiv’.[18]

[quote style=”boxed” float=”right”]Ukrainian people are now deciding who they are as people[/quote] For most Ukrainians, independence came ‘almost overnight’. Up until 2014, Ukrainians have not had to choose between their Ukrainian or Russian identities. Today, they are increasingly finding that they must choose, according to sociologist Irina Bekeshkina, director of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation: ‘Ukrainian people are now deciding who they are as people’.[19] Paradoxically, Putin has managed to destroy the part of the complex Ukrainian identity which he sought to defend: many Ukrainians’ inner attachment to Russian culture expressed in Ukrainian bilingualism in everyday life.

[hr][4] On December 2009, the Federation Council empowered the President of the Russian Federation „to take decisions on the operational deployment of the Russian Federation Armed Forces beyond the territorial boundaries of the Russian Federation […] in order to fulfill the following tasks: […] 3) to protect Russian Federation citizens beyond the territorial boundaries of the Russian Federation from armed attack… (Russ.: sootechestvenniki za rubezhom, compatriots, fellow countrymen, fellow Russians).” The authorization of the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine was repealed in order to uphold the official position of the Russian government, that Russia is not a party to the Ukraine conflict. See: European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission): Opinion on the Federal Law on the Amendments to the Federal Law on Defence of the Russian Federation, adopted by the Venice Commission at its 85th Plenary Session (Venice, 17-18 December 2010). German sympathisers with Russian pretensions (Putin-Versteher) compare the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, with “out-of-area” operations of NATO.

[5] Neil MacFarquhar, “Conflict Uncovers a Ukrainian Identity Crisis over Deep Russian Roots,” The New York Times, 18 October 2014 <>.

[6] Andrew Wilson, “Five things the West can learn from the Ukraine Crisis,” Quartz, 8 October 2014 <>. See also: Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2014.

[7] As quoted by Steven Pifer [US Ambassador to Ukraine in 1998-2000], Trip Report: Mid-September Impressions from Kyiv. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2014


[8] “Lavrov: dlia Rossii Ukraina – ėto bratskii narod…,” TASS, 19 October 2014 <>.

[9] „The two Ukraines“ (Ukr.: dvi Ukrainy; Russ.: dve Ukrainy), a term coined by Mykola Riabchuk already in 1992: Mykola Riabchuk, “Two Ukraines?” East European Reporter, vol. 5, no. 4 (1992). “PostSoviet schizophrenia” was the headline of an article in The Economist, 4 February 1995, p. 27.

[10] Mykola Riabchuk, “Ukraine: One State, Two Countries?” Kyiv Post, 12 December 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] In his electoral campaign in 1994 then presidential candidate Kuchma warned, that the Russian speaking part of Ukraine would be forcefully ukrainianized, should Western Ukrainians come to power.

[15] His birthpace is Yenakieve (Russ.: Enakievo) in the Donetsk Oblast.

[16] The new language law passed on July 3, 2012, initiated by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions allowed the recognition of Russian and minority tongues (Russian cannot be considered a “minority language”) as official regional languages, that is to say, allowed their use for official purposes in respective regions.

[17] MacFarquhar, “Conflict Uncovers a Ukrainian Identity Crisis over Deep Russian Roots.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

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