Olga Oleinikova is Director of the Ukraine Democracy Initiative at the University of Technology Sydney.
What does it mean to be Ukrainian today? In a conflict based at least in part on Vladimir Putin’s denial of Ukrainian statehood, this issue is of growing importance. And it has an answer that the Russian president probably doesn’t appreciate.
Modern Ukrainian identity today transcends mere history, ethnicity, or language. It increasingly revolves around a set of shared pro-Western values - values that grow stronger with every shot of Russian artillery.
Ukraine, of course, has a long history of self-identity, dating back at least to the Middle Ages. But in modern times, the country only got the chance to shape its own foreign and domestic policy in 1991 – after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in the years since, a series of developments have turned their direction away from Moscow and westward.
Until the mid-2000s, Ukraine pursued a “multi-vector” foreign policy, seeking partnerships with both Western countries and the Russian Federation, while remaining a neutral, non-bloc state. But then came Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the election of Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-leaning politician, as president in 2005.
During Yushchenko’s five-year presidency, Ukraine turned to Europe as the country sought partnerships such as the European Union and NATO. Although these efforts did not garner much popular support at the time — particularly in the country’s eastern and southern regions, where support for Russia remained strong — Ukraine nonetheless began to develop genuine democratic traditions during his tenure, and to distance itself from the authoritarian ones political culture of the post-Soviet space.
As one of the first “pro-Ukrainian” leaders in the country’s post-independence history, Yushchenko believed that building Ukraine’s ties to its ethnic roots, language, tradition, and history would popularize pro-national attitudes across the country and spread further away from Russia and towards the west. And so his government launched a wide range of scientific, educational and cultural work aimed at restoring the country’s national memory and identity as distinctly Ukrainian.
Among the reforms and laws introduced during this period was the Law “On the Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine”. Adopted in 2006, it officially recognized the man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine as the genocide of the Ukrainian people, signaling a departure from the mainstream version of events propagated by Russia for years and undermining a one-sided view of history.
Under Yushchenko, so were Ukraine’s nationalist veterans accepted As having the same rights and government benefits as WWII veterans, that had a pressing issue triggered protests and conflicts drawn a line between the pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian camps for many years. And although the Ukrainian Orthodox Church did not receive independent recognition until 2018, it was Yushchenko who first pushed and nearly achieved this idea in 2008.
Although his ideas have since gained traction, Yushchenko was extremely unpopular as leader and was succeeded as president in 2010 by Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian figure. Under Yanukovych, the question of Ukrainian identity receded into the background. The space for a pro-Western identity was shrinking, caught between Soviet-era nostalgia and narrow-minded ethnic nationalism.
It was only after Yanukovych was ousted during the 2013 Euromaidan protests that the country resumed its path towards a pro-Western national identity – an effort that received renewed impetus after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasions of Donbass and Luhansk.
In 2015 the Ukrainian Parliament passed laws Prohibition of promotion of communist symbols and all symbols and propaganda of Nazism. The ban applied to monuments as well as place and street names, sparking a race to rename public spaces.
Around this time, many families also privately decided to stop using Russian and switch to Ukrainian as the main language both at home and in public. I remember that many of my friends got rid of their Russian computer keyboards and started writing and speaking only in Ukrainian, which they still do to this day.
The government too passed a number of laws Promoting the Ukrainian language, making Ukrainian officially the only language accepted in public services in 2019. This new law required all registered bookstores to offer 50 percent of their books in Ukrainian and obliged publishers to ensure that the language accounts for at least half of their output. All announcements, posters, tickets, brochures and informational materials, all audiovisual information in museums and exhibitions must now be in Ukrainian.
The Ministry of Culture and Information Policy even started several flash mobs to popularize the language. Look at public polls, in 2019 61 percent of respondents were in favor of such state support for the language. But in the more Russian-speaking regions of the south and east, this still outweighed concerns about the status of the Russian language.
At the same time, attitudes towards EU and NATO membership and the general pro-Western stance increased. survey data from 2021 shows that in a possible referendum on NATO membership, 59 percent would vote in favor, up from 30 percent in 2014, just after the annexation of Crimea. Only 28 percent were against membership in the western alliance.
And now Russia has invaded Ukraine. There can be no doubt about the impact of the war on public opinion. The attack and the brutality that followed further cemented the image of Ukraine as something distinct from Russia – and as a nation with a pro-Western destiny.
The war is doing what the country’s political parties were never able to do, providing a clear vision of what it means to be Ukrainian – uniting the country towards the goal of a free and prosperous Ukraine as part of Western civilization. Across the country, more and more people are identifying as Ukrainians, even in the traditionally Russian-speaking areas that have been hit hardest. Nowadays, being Ukrainian is more than just belonging to a certain ethnic group, speaking a certain language or belonging to a nation. It has spread to all those who share the values of liberty, peace, equality and democracy, who want to protect their country and culture and, if necessary, give their lives for those they love.
https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-make-ukraine-ukrainian/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication Vladimir Putin makes Ukrainians more Ukrainian – POLITICO