Ukraine is like Borscht, as the saying goes: “There are as many variants as chefs.” There are a lot of them. A variety of population groups has always lived in Ukraine: in addition to the Ukrainian ethnicity, there are Crimean Tatars, Poles, Jews, Russians, Hungarians, Armenians, Greeks, Germans and many others. Nationality never played a big role because people intermarried. Being “Ukrainian”, whatever that means, wasn’t a big deal. Similar to borscht.
That changed in 2014 when Russia occupied Crimea and went to war in eastern Ukraine. In his speech in early 2021/22, President Volodymyr Zelensky openly addressed “all citizens of Ukraine.”
Zelensky: “We” are big
They are brave and responsible. Exceptional and indifferent. Loving freedom and hard work. They are in the millions and together they make up one big “we”. Ukraine has finally recognized itself. I would like to personally thank all of you, every single one of you! New Year is a holiday in which the whole family sits at one table. Today the whole country sits at one table! “
Olga Altonina also discovered her identity as a Ukrainian in 2014. The businessman comes from Slavyansk, a city of 100,000 people in eastern Ukraine. When Russian tanks suddenly overrun her town eight years ago, Altonina fled to a neighboring town. The Ukrainian army managed to recapture the city and Olga Altonina returned to Slavyansk. She was shocked.
In 2014, my entire city supported the occupiers. The whole city. And the few who spoke out against the occupiers were later found dead in the river, defiled, with their stomachs slashed and their hands or feet cut off, shot, or executed. There were very few people like that: ten at most in a city of 120,000 people.”
Change for the occupiers
In 2014, the population had absolutely no ties to the Ukrainian state, says Olga Altonina. Older people, in particular, still cling to the Soviet Union. But she did not want to return to the Soviet Union or live under Russian rule.
Since then, she has been engaged in local politics to fight for her region – as part of Ukraine. And she is glad that in 2022 thousands of people confronted the Russian occupiers in southern Ukraine with Ukrainian flags: in Cherson, in Melitopol, in Zaporizhia.
Quite different than it was eight years ago in Slavgansk. Altonina is sure: “A Ukrainian nation will be born here.”
National feeling for a long time without their state
In fact, Ukraine has only had what looks like an independent country with reasonably stable territories for 30 years. Historian Andreas Kappeler dealt extensively with the history of Ukraine. Since the 17th century, Ukrainians began to develop patriotic feelings, but without having their own state.
The easiest thing is to take what Ukrainian historians usually do, if you take the settlement areas of people who have felt or feel Ukrainian or who speak Ukrainian. Then it’s transnational.”
The lands on which this Ukrainian identity developed sometimes belonged to the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, and sometimes to Austria-Hungary. The development of Ukrainian nation-building, which was based on a cultural foundation, in western and central modern Ukraine.
Multi-ethnic from the start
“A feature of the area of settlement of Ukrainians and Ukraine in general is that it was multi-ethnic from the beginning, inhabited by groups of different religions, different languages and cultures. Poles, Jews and partly Armenians then in the actual regions of Ukraine the majority of the population speaks Ukrainian.”
Historian Andreas Kappeler explains that it was farmers and clergy who spoke Ukrainian at that time. Ukrainian is a Slavic language, close to Polish and Belarusian, but also to Russian. Ukrainians gained their nation-state for the first time in 1918, for only a few years. Parts of the young Ukrainian republic soon became Soviet, while other parts fell into Poland.
“A truly permanent nation-state emerged only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
This state, Ukraine on the border of 1991, was much larger than the first republic of 1918. In the east and south, the parts that for a long time were under the control of Moscow were added – first in the Russian Tsarist Empire, and then in the Soviet Union. Many peoples also lived in this eastern and southern part of independent Ukraine.
Ukraine as a cultural country
For example, in order to industrialize Donbass, Soviet power settled there many workers from Russia. Many of these people still speak Russian to this day, particularly in the cities of eastern Ukraine, and Russian is still the lingua franca. Kappeler distinguishes between the civil nation and the linguistic or cultural nation.
“All opinion polls until 2014 always showed that the vast majority of Russian speakers are also loyal to the Ukrainian state. This means: the Ukrainian nation as an ethnic nation, as a cultural nation, if you will, divided, as a political state that has not really been divided, and today it is united by this external aggression ” .
This is especially evident in the case of the Crimean Tatars. Stalin deported them to Central Asia. Thousands died. When Ukraine became independent, they returned. Since 2014, they have been expelled and persecuted again. Publicly declaring support for Ukraine has been a dangerous affair in Crimea since 2014.
However, in 2018, a student of the Crimean Tatars said: “I love the Ukrainian language very much. I love everything related to Ukraine. The Ukrainian language is lighter than Russian. I also still watch Ukrainian TV.
“Nations are born of war”
The Ukrainians drew strength from having to impose themselves against the larger nations, on which they were largely dependent, Kappeler explains. A look at Ukrainian literature confirms this. A few years ago, the new Russian rulers reduced the chair of Ukrainian literature at Simferopol University, the capital of occupied Crimea, to a few classrooms.
Viktor Gumenyuk, head of the department, showed pictures of famous Ukrainian writers from Crimea.
“This is the towering Ahatanhel Yuchymovych Krymskyj. He wrote many works in Turkish and Arabic literature and translated the Qur’an. Krymsky once said: I don’t have a drop of Ukrainian blood inside me, but I am Ukrainian. Because I choose what is weaker. He also wrote in Ukrainian.”