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Wind of change – transformation of Ukrainian National identity after the Euromaidan

Dachi Lepsveridze | Critique | Jul 6, 2022

1. Introduction

1.1 Topic of the paper

After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine alongside other 14 post-Soviet states declared its sovereignty, marking the beginning of democratization processes and transition towards free-market economy. Nevertheless, Ukraine still maintained close Economic, Social, and Political ties with Russian Federation, Ukrainian society started to form its national identity, which was a practically unknown concept for Soviet-time Ukrainians, not to mention those, who have lived under the Russian Empire Yoke (Khrestin, 2002). This was the cultural and social revolution which, for the first time ever on a larger scale, brought forward the idea that Ukrainians are not Russians, nor their little brothers, but completely different people with their own customs, values, etc. (ibid).

The logical continuation of this narrative was the 2004 “Orange Revolution” and the realization that Ukraine will be better off with the European Union and the NATO rather than with Russian Federation. If this sudden revelation was a symphony to the ears of Ukrainians, it sounded more like an alarm bell within the walls of the Kremlin. From this point on Russia gradually applied pressure on Ukraine, including forcing newly elected pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to appoint ex-prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, famous for his pro-Russian sentiments, as a prime minister once again, so that Russia would have his own asset in the decision-making process on the highest level. Ironically enough, in 2014 same Yanukovych, after turning down the “European Union Association Agreement”, became the reason for the huge anti-Russian demonstrations in Ukraine, known as “Euromaidan”, which eventually lead to the armed conflict between the two states.

As most of the experts (Birg & Vanik, 2015; Batashvili, 2019; Pifer, 2020) agree, Euromaidan has not happened only out of the sake of Ukraine’s European Integration, but mainly due to the Ukrainian people’s aspiration to live in an independent state, free of Russia’s atrocities. Therefore, in the following essay, I give these aspirations a central role in the discussion and argue how much of a role Russia’s military intervention has played in the formation of Ukrainian identity and what this means to Ukraine as a state and as a nation.

1.2 Why is it necessary, and what would happen if not addressed?

This question can easily be the central topic of bigger social scientific research, though, I will try to briefly outline the possible outcomes if it is not tackled on time.

Halford Mackinder’s theory of “Pivot Area” might seem a little bit outdated in today’s modern International Relations, especially when there are so many new and appealing theories, that can explain the social, political, or economic incentives of certain acts. However, I argue that as much as the conceptualization of the issue might change (e.g., wars are no more fought by lining in front of each other but by using drones, cyber-attacks, and troll factories), the nature of it remains pretty much the same (wars are still fought for the same intention, it was fought centuries ago). When Mackinder came up with a “Heartland Theory” he didn’t explicitly underline the importance of a certain country but the entire Eastern Europe region, to cite “Whoever controls Eastern Europe, controls the Heartland. Whoever controls the Heartland, controls the World Island” (Mackinder, 1904). The World Island, which refers to Northern African and Eurasian territories are still very important actors in the modern International System. Northern African states, especially Algeria is vital energy-resources provider for the EU (EU-Algeria Relations, n/d) and China’s ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative, which aims to restore the old Silk-Road trade route (BRI, n/d) is immensely increasing the role of the Black Sea basin for accessibility to European Markets. In both cases Eastern Europe has a huge role – Algerian oil is streamed through the Eastern European pipelines and Chinese goods are reaching Western Europe through Eastern European railways. However, in today’s geopolitical realities, when most of Eastern Europe is a NATO member, Russia is operating in a system of limited opportunities and Ukraine’s price for Russia’s geopolitical aspiration is higher than ever. On the one hand, controlling this flow of services and goods will grant Russia yet another leverage over the EU but mainly, Putin, who has frequently expressed his remorse that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century” (NBC, 2005) has egomaniacal surge to restore the USSR and Ukraine is the first focal point in this discussion. Russia understands perfectly that the dream about illiberal Russian Imperialism is way too unrealistic until Ukraine, which has an important strategic role (including in terms of energy-security, defense, and security), is not part of Russian dominated system (Batashvili, 2019). In other words, Ukraine is the new Heartland and Russia won’t allow to lose it… at least without a fight.

Taking all these into consideration, it is critically important that big players in the West, especially Germany and France understand how far Russia is ready to go. Ukraine is just the beginning and if it is not addressed, as the 2008 Russian Invasion in Georgia was not addressed properly, Russia will only demand more. It is more of a test, how far Europe will let them go. European policymaking has already been there in the 1940s and all it brought to Europe was devastating human loss and destruction.

1.3 Identity Problems in Ukraine

The problem of National Identity in Ukraine has been ignored for a long time and one dimension of this ignorance was the historical realities, which Ukraine has encountered in the span of its history. Due to its specific location within the Europe, modern Ukrainian territories have mostly played buffer role in-between big European Empires, such as Prussia, Austria-Hungary, or Russian Empire (Khrestin, 2002). The same European Empires have been the usual suspects in dividing and dominating the Ukrainian territories, waiving all the possibilities of identity-formation through repressions, oppressive education reforms or simply historical denialism (ibid).

Another, and I would say more problematic, dimension of this Ukrainian identity crisis was its particularly close historical, cultural, and social ties with Russia. Due to the same founding myth of “Kievan Rus” (which, in fact, is claimed by Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians) and wrongly assumed connotation of “Rus” as “Russian” has created the narrative that Ukrainians were not a stand-alone nation but the “little brothers” of Russians (Khrestin, 2002; Bates, 2014). This fallacious belief that has been created during the Russian Empire has been further cemented by Soviet Historiography for decades (Bates, 2014). The same historiography mentioned no word of state-initiated genocide of the Ukrainian nation in 1932-33, known as “Holodomor” (ibid).

The identity crisis continued even after the demise of the USSR, resulting in the independence of the Ukrainian state. As several authors (Motyl, 1993; Korostelina, 2013) suggest, the collapse of the Soviet Union has left the local communist governments with a great number of tasks to address, which they were not ready for. Thus, Ukraine’s newly gained independence was not based on a clearly-defined notion of “Ukrainian identity” and “statehood” – it can’t be since no one really took care of it (Motyl, 1993), neither was it the result of socially-led “bottom-up” civil processes. Instead, it was the default declaration of independence – in other words, there was no other option and the political elite thought that the transformation of the economy to a free-market type of economy, would change people’s mentality, but they didn’t realize the fact that to change people’s mentality, first, you must change people’s perceptions (Korostelina, 2013).

As already mentioned in the previous chapter, the 2004 “Orange Revolution” was the first sign of Ukrainian Revelation, which gradually turned into the urge for Euro-Atlantic Integration. How things unfolded after is a very well-known Russian scenario – in 2013 Yanukovych turned down the ratification of the EU Association Agreement, resulting in Euromaidan, resulting in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, resulting in the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, and the self-declaration of two de-facto states, Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, in Eastern Ukraine.

2. Identity Change (Language, Culture, and Religion)

To argue how the Ukrainian identity has been formed since the Euromaidan, I give the central role to three main determinants: Language; Culture, and Religion. As James D. Fearon defines identity is a “modern formulation of dignity, pride, or honor that implicitly links to social categories” (Fearon, 1999). In his own words, these social categories can be religion, culture, history, or language, i.e., abstractive notions that are based on the social construct and shared myths of a particular nation (ibid).

2.1 Language role in the identity

The linguistic aspect is probably the best example to show how predominated the Ukrainian society has been by Russian influence for decades. Ukrainian as a distinct language has existed long before their independence, in fact, it was around the corner during the Russian Empire and the USSR, which tirelessly tried to belittle the role of the Ukrainian language at the expense of promoting Russian for official and everyday usage (Bates, 2014). First, it was the Russian Empire that banned the usage of the Ukrainian language at schools with the intention to “crush surging Ukrainian nationalism in the 1840s” (ibid). The same approach has been adopted by the Soviet Leadership, who has actively started the oppression of the Ukrainian language in the 1930s, and by 1974 only 23% of schools in Ukraine were using Ukrainian as the main teaching language (Krawchenko, 1985). The result of this language policies was clear – even after the independence, the share of the people who were using Ukrainian as their first language was only 43% among Ukrainian Society, thus, making them the minority group compared to those who were using Russian as their first language (Wilson, 1998).

Language “can be defined as the human capacity for communication, and self-expression for acquiring and using the system of communication”, meaning that language is the first focal point in a certain nation’s consolidation (Kulyk, 2013). The fact that the oppressed group is sharing the same linguistic characteristics, which can be used not only to establish communication but to spread the ideas, creates the basis for trust and empathy towards one another (ibid).

However, Euromaidan and the war with Russia caused changes in the attitudes toward the Ukrainian Language (Kulyk, 2014). If before most of the people didn’t realize the reason to switch languages from Russian to Ukrainian, nowadays this tendency has already changed. According to the survey, conducted in 2014, the number of people who wanted Ukrainian as the one and only language in Ukraine has soared by 30% compared to those surveys conducted the year before (ibid). Kulyk (2016) denotes that for the first time, a lot of Ukrainians self-identified themselves as “Ukrainians” – which can be seen as the “reborn of the country”. Meanwhile, in 2014, approximately ¾ of the respondents pointed out that language had a vital role and importance in the consolidation of the nation (ibid).

It is not only the uprising of the Ukrainian language, that has helped the nation to form its identity, but it was simultaneous changes of attitude toward Russia’s public image and language. Between 2013 and 2015 the number of people who were rooting for the Russian Language’s Official Status plummeted by 8% (from 27% to 19%) (Pisareva, 2016). Moreover, on the question “what makes you feel like Ukrainian” most of the respondents indicated the language and State Symbolic, such as Flag, Coat of Arms, and the Anthem (Ibid).

2.2 Culture and Government policy’s role in the identity

Important changes have occurred in every aspect of cultural life. Since 2014 the pressure on TV or radio channels orientated at Russian products, let it be music, movies or TV-series has increased, both from the government and the society (Naboka, 2014). The various petitions circulating around the internet insisting on banning Russian Channels, Newspapers, Radio Stations, etc. to decrease the effects of Russian Soft Power have found the realization both on policy and practical level: Due to the lack of demand Ukrainian broadcasters purchased less and less Russian content, which was followed by state policy to ban all types of contents (music; videos; movies) aimed at the admiration of Russian/Soviet Army or Police Forces (ibid). Besides, after a week after the Crimean Annexation, Ukraine’s Supreme Court banned four Russian State-controlled media to avoid misinformation and reduce the effects of information warfare (Kulyk, 2016), followed by the policies which were demanding Ukrainian broadcasters to have at least 90% of the content in Ukrainian language (Roth, 2019) and that at least 50% of songs at Ukrainian Radio Stations should be in Ukrainian language (Naboka, 2014).

However, it is fair to say that imposing artificial bans on channels, websites or online content seems to be rather ineffective. Anyone with a computer and VPN can easily avoid all these restrictions and have access to whatever they like. To impose, let’s say, language policies at the state level is one thing, but to try to regulate it on an individual level is another and very tricky. Therefore, the more interesting part of the cultural discussion is not what the government is doing, but what the society is doing.

In that sense, pop-culture shows how the public image towards Russia has changed recently. It might sound a bit far-fetched to discuss the change of identity-based on pop-culture, but in the case of Ukraine, it literally reflects the public attitudes towards Russia. In 2014 fan-group of Football Club Kharkiv Metalist sang, for the first time, a song – “Putin Khuylo”, which later on became the catchphrase for Ukrainian resistance. Besides, Toilet paper with Putin’s face on it has become one of the most widespread souvenir materials in Ukrainian gift shops

2.3 Religion's role in the identity

In 988 Kievan’ Rus adopted Orthodox Christianity from Constantinople and since then this territory has been the part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 1686, after the approval of Dionysius IV of Constantinople, the Ukrainian Orthodox church has been transferred under the Russian Orthodox church. Even though this fact just meant that the Patriarchate of Moscow had to only ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv (Magocsi, 1996), Russian Church took over every aspect of the Ukrainian Church, practically incorporating it into its jurisdiction, which was against the 1686 act - This agreement has never meant secession of Ukrainian Church under Russian Church entirely, as it still required “Every Metropolitan of Kyiv to commemorate the Patriarch of Constantinople “Among the First” (Ecumenican Patriarchate, 2018).

During the Soviet Era, Ukrainian Church was controlled by the Russian Church (კომახია, 2018). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian Church was granted the status of “Self-Governing” Church, but it was a mere formality – the Russian Church remained superior and soon became a rather effective political tool in waging hybrid warfare in Ukraine (ibid).

After 2014, the Russian Orthodox Church declined its neutrality and openly supported the Kremlin Politics, which caused the dissatisfaction of the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians perceived that the Russian church was becoming an ally of the Kremlin. As a matter of fact, important changes have started inside the Ukrainian church itself (Fautre, 2019).

On 15 December 2018, it was officially declared the establishment of the Ukraine Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate with the Canonical territory of Ukraine. On January 5, 2019, the Tomos, granting the UOC – Kyiv Patriarchate autocephaly, was signed by Bartholomew I. As a result, a lot of people have transferred themselves from Ukraine Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate to UOC – Kyiv Patriarchate. According to the, so far, newest KIIS Survey (KIIS, 2021), 58.3% of Ukrainians who consider themselves Orthodox Christians are the members of UOC – Kyiv Patriarchate; 25.4% of respondents are the members of UOC – Moscow Patriarchate; 12 % considered themselves as just Orthodox Christians without any affiliation and 4.3% said that it was difficult to say.

As of today, the autocephaly of the Ukraine Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate has been declared by two (Constantinople and Alexandria) ancient Patriarchates. I think the declaration and approval by Jerusalem and Antioch patriarchates are just a matter of time. The righteous autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church can be considered as one of the biggest victories for the country, first, due to its significance for identity-building, and second, taking out Russia’s one of the most effective soft-power weapons. Considering the fact, how important role, in general, the church and religion have played throughout history, I suppose that a robust, independent, and Russian-influence free Ukrainian Church can strengthen the concept of identity and reach the goal, which wasn’t reached throughout the entire 20th century.

3. Analysis - What changed in Ukraine after the 2022 Russian Invasion?

On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine and at the time of writing this paper war has been going on for more than a month-and-a-half already. In the meanwhile, while Russia is waging the war in Ukraine, which they cynically call the “Special Military Operation” Russian Imperialism has a new symbol “Z” or “ZwaZtika” as Social Media users tend to call it these days.

At the beginning of the war, Russia had two goals regarding Ukraine – First, Russia intended to demilitarize Ukraine and force them into neutrality, and second, Russia wanted to “denazify” Ukraine.

Russia has failed in reaching these goals. First, by invading Ukraine, instead of demilitarization, Ukraine has been broadly supported by western allies, providing lethal and non-lethal weaponry to encounter Russian aggression. What this means is that, when the war is over instead of a demilitarized and neutral Ukraine, Russia will get very well equipped, more than even a strong Ukraine with an army that would have loads of war-fight experience. Besides, European Geopolitics, which has been the new normality since the Second World War is changing and it provides better possibilities for countries like Ukraine to secure their future safety. Due to its highly bureaucratic characteristic NATO has not been particularly effective as the bloc in this conflict, which is understandable. Engaging in the war would mean a complete disaster and a possible World War between two nuclear belligerents. What I mean is that there is a chance that NATO wouldn’t be an exclusive boys club anymore and reaching the safety guarantees would be possible without being an actual member of the alliance. Why am I saying this is connected to my deep concerns that NATO as a bloc did not show enough political will to fulfill their goal which they promulgated right after the demise of the Soviet Union – To expand towards the East and cover the territories of post-Communist/Soviet states (Daalder, 1999); Even today some of the most notorious ex-leaders of European countries, who were in charge of decision-making process during the Bucharest summit, don’t admit that they made a mistake by not granting the MAP to Georgia and Ukraine back in 2008 and still call it right decision (RFI, 2022). I don’t know what their excuse is but Georgia since 2008 and Ukraine since 2014 till today paying by blood, war and destruction doesn’t seem to be the result of the “Right Decision”, no matter how hard Angela Merkel tries to defend her rather spineless decision.

However, smaller, and bureaucratically more agile alliances, that would be adjusted to the specificity of the European subregions can be the answer. For example, the new military alliance concept between the United Kingdom, Poland, and Ukraine (Krzysztosz, 2022) can have a potential for further development. Military alliances like this can be a good start for the countries that are not NATO members but understand the price of Russian threats – this will make it possible for smaller non-NATO member nations like Ukraine, Georgia, Finland, or Sweden to team up, while still being backed up by the NATO as the umbrella alliance or let’s say security guarantor based on the bilateral agreement between these alliances. This could be a win-win deal for both the NATO, which wouldn’t have to go through entire bureaucratic procedures to discuss whether it is the right time to admit new members or not and it will bring security to those countries that are the most vulnerable towards Russian aggression today.

Besides, in the beginning, I mentioned that Russia has failed to achieve its second goal to “denazify” Ukraine, and I will explain why. Now, anyone that understands how Russia has been operated over the centuries under different names (Call it Grand Duchy of Moscow or Russian Empire or the Soviet Union or Russian Federation) would know that all this “denazification” nonsense is something to be exploited for propaganda purposes for internal consumption. The real intention behind this “denazification” thing was not to eliminate Nazi sentiments in Ukraine (How can one eliminate something when it doesn’t exist in the first place? And how can one blame Ukraine and Ukrainian Nation for being Nazis just because they have been defending their own statehood against Russian aggression? (Which operates based on the “illiberal democracy” concept formulated by Ivan Ilyin who, himself, was quite close to the actual Nazi German Elite)). The real intention was to crush the Ukrainian nation and its national identity. What happened instead is not the typical “deus-ex-machina” scenario, it is a perfectly logical turnaround of the events – Putin, who was afraid of the emerging Ukrainian identity and did all he could do to crush it, got the exact opposite result – His war has united Ukraine as a nation when people put all the differences aside and rallied around the same goal to defend their country from Russian aggression. Seeing President Zelenskyy and his team working with international partners, while his biggest political rival and ex-president Petro Poroshenko patrolling in Kyiv with a rifle in his hand and offering his help to the president’s administration (source) is a clear illustration of this unity. Putin has just speeded up something that was inevitable in anyways – with this invasion he brought the missing part to the Ukrainian history the impact to neglect the polarization and create a completely distinctive Ukrainian identity, which not only wouldn’t be Russian anymore but will be anything but Russian. Ukraine will never be the “little brother” of Russia as Soviet and Russian historiography tried to portray. Ukraine will be an independent, strong, and proud homeland of the Ukrainian Nation who earned their statehood and nationhood through blood and future generations wouldn’t be stuck between two opinions about whether Russian Federation is a friend or foe. The answer would be clearer than ever.



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